The summer of 2012 will be an even tougher prospect than usual for county cricket, with the European football championship and then the London Olympics dominating the sporting landscape.
Moreover, what with last week’s Morgan Report recommendations on the domestic structure (perhaps, actually, they should be called ‘discussion points’) oozing compromise and fudge, and today’s publication of next summer’s county fixtures merely adding to the on-going confusion surrounding match scheduling, it is difficult to be optimistic about the domestic game’s immediate commercial future.
County Championship cricket, in particular, continues to be scattered haphazardly across the calendar: Sunday is the only day of the week on which Championship games do not start next year. Compromise, of course, is already apparent in the 2012 fixture list, which sees a reduction of Friends Life t20 group matches from 16 to 10 per county.
From 2014, if David Morgan’s proposals are implemented, each county will play 14 Twenty20 group games, 14 County Championship matches instead of the current and established 16, and ten 50-over games in the other one-day competition.
There would also be quarter-final and semi-final stages of both one-day competitions, meaning that if a county reached both the 20-over and 50-over finals it would be required to play 86 days of cricket in the new Morgan era. In 2012, such a county would play 91 days – hardly much difference, is there?
In short, then, and probably largely at the request of the England team directorship, it seems as if two four-day Championship rounds are being lined up as the sacrificial lamb so that roughly the same amount of domestic one-day cricket can be played (either 20, 50 or indeed 40-over, if the counties reject the call to upgrade the present Clydesdale Bank 40 model). This is, frankly, ridiculous.
The current County Championship of two divisions playing eight matches home and away should not be tampered with, unless it is to move to some sort of conference system that would result in all 18 counties having the chance to become county champions each summer.
And how do you get 14 Twenty20 group games? The only obvious way is to have three groups of eight teams, playing each other home and away – but, of course, that would require 24 teams in the competition. Does this mean that six Minor Counties – two in each group – are going to be added? Or Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland, Unicorns, plus Minor Counties and Combined Universities XIs? Perhaps we will soon be told (although don’t bank on it).
Ten group games at 50-over level will clearly entail a straight move to three groups of six counties playing each other home and away, meanwhile, which – in terms of the Morgan recommendations – makes the most sense of all.
For next summer, however, counties will have only five home Twenty20 and six home CB40 matches with which to attract their most significant attendances, unless they are one of the lucky few – such as Kent, Sussex, Gloucestershire and Yorkshire – who have established county festival weeks where sizeable crowds also turn up to watch Championship cricket.
No doubt traditional festival venues like Scarborough, Cheltenham, Tunbridge Wells, Colchester, Guildford and Horsham would continue even with a reduction to a 14-match Championship, but the long-term existence of other less-established cricket weeks would not be helped by the staging of fewer four-day matches.
Of more immediate concern, though, is the reduction of Friends Life t20 group games, which are the perfect vehicle to take county cricket into the wider community.
Gloucestershire have already had, unwillingly, to put their King’s School, Gloucester, venue on ice pending a future Twenty20 Cup return to at least seven home group games, and in the 2012 fixture list there are currently only four venues outside the main county grounds scheduled to stage Twenty20 matches: Tunbridge Wells, Scarborough, Richmond and Uxbridge. That is disgracefully few.
There is, for example, no Twenty20 cricket next year at Arundel, where 7,000-plus crowds have turned out in the recent past, or at Whitgift School in Croydon which is an ideal short-form venue with its massive and atmospheric banking on one side of the ground and which has proved extremely popular with new audiences during the last few years.
Kent may yet confirm that their Twenty20 derby game against Surrey will take place, as is traditional, at Beckenham, and both Glamorgan and Derbyshire have yet to finalise venues for three of their games, but for now it is the seemingly condemned CB40 competition which will carry the biggest torch for the much-loved outground.
At least 15 of those matches are sure to be played at Cheltenham (3), Chesterfield (2), Uxbridge (2), Colwyn Bay, Tunbridge Wells, Horsham, Guildford, Arundel, Swansea, Colchester and Scarborough, with the venues of four more games as yet unscheduled, including a possible Somerset fixture at Bath. For widespread county supporters that is some consolation but, overall in the ever-changing world of our domestic fixtures, it is but a shaft of sunlight in an otherwise darkening sky.
*To view the 2012 county fixture list please go to: http://stats.thecricketer.com/Seasons/2012.html