The 2017 cricketing summer was always set to be a busy and significant one, with England and Wales staging the ICC Champions Trophy in June, followed by the ICC Women’s World Cup. Now we know that it will also herald a new look for county cricket, after Monday’s confirmation of changes to the structure, format and timing of all three domestic competitions next year.
The theme is one of evolution not revolution, which will undoubtedly frustrate those who have been demanding more rapid and radical change. But the changes are still significant, and will give the summer a very different feel and flow – which would seem to be a better fit for players, supporters and the game as a whole.
And crucially, as the ECB Board have made clear, this isn’t the end of the journey, with work to continue on exploring further change to the domestic T20 tournament in the future. It should instead be seen as a necessary and sensible first step.
As the ECB Chairman Colin Graves said: “There is an appetite for change and cricket is moving fast – we should not be left behind.”
In case you haven’t seen the details, here’s a brief summary of how they will affect each competition – and of the rationale behind them.
Royal London One-Day Cup
The 18 first-class counties will be split into two leagues of nine along regional lines, as now, and each team will play eight qualifying matches – four at home, and four away. But whereas in recent years the One-Day Cup has been played late in the season, with its traditional Lord’s final nudging deeper into September, it will now become an early-season competition, with the group stages played in a dedicated block from late April to mid-May. There will be play-offs and semi finals in June, with the final at Lord’s on the first Saturday of July.
For fans of a certain age, this might bring back some nostalgic memories of the old 55-over competition in the days of tobacco sponsorship. More importantly, it works well for the England team, providing a dedicated block of 50-over cricket ahead of the Champions Trophy.
In his role as Director of England Cricket, Andrew Strauss has identified a need to revive the stature of 50-over cricket, to capitalise on the huge opportunities offered by staging both the Champions Trophy next summer and the ICC World Cup in 2019. This move is a key part of that agenda.
NatWest T20 Blast
Bringing the 50-over tournament to the early months of the season also clears a space in the peak summer holiday months of July and August for T20 cricket – which, however much some traditionalists may try to fight it, has become the most popular form of the game.
So although the structure of the Blast will remain unchanged – two regional leagues of nine teams – there will be two significant reforms. It will be played much later in the season, when children and their parents are on holiday. And, arguably more important, it will be played in a concentrated block – roughly from early July to mid-August.
Crucially, that addresses the concerns of the players, who have been asked to switch so regularly from the long game of four-day cricket with a red ball to the hectic intensity of T20. ECB research confirmed they had to make more than 20 such switches in the summer of 2015. This season will already see some improvement, with short blocks of white-ball cricket in June, July and August. In 2017 the structure should be considerably cleaner, and clearer.
It may also make shopping for high-profile overseas stars slightly less complicated for counties, moving the Blast well away from the Indian Premier League in May and June.
But some of the most popular features of the Blast will stay: local derbies in the regional groups; and Finals Day, which will now form the climax to the domestic white-ball season.
Specsavers County Championship
To create the necessary space in the schedule for those blocks of 50-over and T20 cricket, the Specsavers County Championship will be restructured, with a reduction to eight teams in the First Division, and an increase to 10 in the Second. Each county will play 14 four-day matches rather than the current 16 – seven at home and seven away.
It means that only one team will be promoted from Division Two this season, with two teams relegated from Division One. But in 2017, there will again be two promotion places for the 10 Division Two teams to play for, with two teams being relegated from Division One.
The eight teams in Division One will play each other home and away to make up their 14-match programme. Things don’t work out as neatly as that in Division Two – each county will play the other nine once, with a random draw determining which five counties they play twice.
Here, as in many other areas, the counties and the ECB Board have had to balance the perfect with the practical.
Another specific example of that came in the speculation surrounding more radical reforms to T20 cricket in 2017. That would have carried the real threat of distorting priorities in the forthcoming 2016 campaign, and perhaps undermining the integrity of the Championship.
Now, all the counties know the state of play in each of the three competitions, and the focus can switch to on-field matters – Yorkshire’s bid for a third consecutive Championship, the battle for places in the eight-team First Division, the road to Lord’s and the annual T20 scramble to reach Finals Day at Edgbaston.
The first-class season, in case you were wondering, starts with Yorkshire facing the MCC in Abu Dhabi in only 12 days!