Tom Harrison (right) and Andrew Strauss may feel the proposals could have been worse © PA Photos
England’s 18-team county system will survive in a revamped 20-over competition if recommendations from an ECB working party are accepted next month – but only if promotion and relegation is be the price the counties are asked to pay.
The proposed rejection of franchise cricket comes with a recognition that the counties must accept the rigours of two divisions based on merit – rather than the regional system currently adopted – if they are to trust they have a future at the centre of the English T20 game.
The proposals have the pragmatic support of Andrew Strauss, the England team director, who believes they will not only improve the standard of England’s T20 cricket in the build up to the 2019 World Cup but will also prevent England’s domestic T20 competition disappearing into obscurity.
They reject the notion, strongly advanced by some of the bigger counties, that those city-based grounds with the biggest capacities should automatically be given First Division status.
Meritocracy – based on the ability to win cricket matches – has for now at least won the day. It has perhaps been a blessing for the smaller counties that football, against the odds, has set an example, as Leicester City’s advance to the top of the Premier League has delighted neutral supporters throughout the country.
Modest adjustment the proposals might be – some might suggest the compromise is so predictable it could have been agreed in five minutes, and several years ago.
But the ECB hierarchy – led by the chief executive Tom Harrison and chairman Colin Graves – is desperate for even this small mercy to succeed on the grounds that lucrative global TV rights deal can more easily be secured when viewers can identify with a slowly-changing elite of counties.
The IPL’s example, where new franchises appear annually for a variety of reasons, sometimes linked to financial irregularities, suggests that a debate over one-up or two-up among established clubs is one that should not cause too much distress.
It is a proposed compromise that has long been signalled. In a PCA survey last year, a http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/content/story/913999.html comfortable majority of professionals – around 65 per cent – believed a tournament with global appeal could simply be achieved within the current county structure by introducing a two-division structure with promotion and relegation.
The challenge from the players, however – 85% support for a change which has yet to be resolved – was to play that tournament in a block and involve England players as much as possible.
A report in the Telegraph has now confirmed that the long-awaited consultation paper has now been circulated to the counties. County chief executives will be asked to support what is essentially a proposal of minimal disruption to England’s professional game before the decision goes before the Board on March 7.
Franchise cricket has long been opposed by the counties on the grounds that it would put the entire professional system in England in jeopardy by relegating the 18 counties as second-class citizens, making their gradual demise inevitable.
Such an outcome would have a negative effect on the development of players on w3hich all forms of the game depend as well as rendering the investment in many county grounds largely wasted.
To reject the recommendations from the working party, chaired by Andy Nash, the Somerset chairman – would leave England’s professional circuit facing an uncertain future that could make it increasingly irrelevant and bring about its eventual downfall.
Most counties have already assembled their overseas players for the NatWest Blast in 2016 – a challenging task for a tournament that stretches over a large portion of the season – with a recognition that the eight teams reaching this year’s NatWest T20 Blast quarter-final are likely to gain automatic qualification for Division One, with a potential play-off between the fifth-placed teams for the final spot.
The loss of local derbies has long been advanced by counties as an argument against two divisions based on merit but this has been rejected by the working party as an essentially defeatist attitude by England’s professional clubs at a time when the rest of the world is revelling in the opportunities offered by the burgeoning interest in T20 cricket.
Chelsea do not fret about not playing Fulham. Newcastle and Sunderland, the Manchesters United and City, Aston Villa and Birmingham and many others have long learned to cope at times without each other’s company. If the derby match in cricket is so important perhaps the questions should be addressed to the weak appeal of the other matches.
Grumbles that under a new arrangement some counties will concentrate on success in T20 rather than produce Test players for England are arguably an inevitable consequence of changing times.
But Twenty20 is an irresistible force even for those who wish to resist it. If a two-divisional structure in T20 attracts more lucrative TV deals than such an imbalance can easily be corrected by offering sizeable increases in prize money for Championship and – should it be desired – 50-over cricket as well.
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo