Cricket: Year of endless summer

Stephen Brenkley finds why next season will be busier than ever
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The Independent Online
WITH THE sort of guile, bravery and cunning needed to negotiate a four-pronged pace attack, an astonishing, if beleaguered triumph will be announced at Lord's this week. The domestic cricket fixtures for 2000 have been completed at last. They will be unveiled amid deep suspicion and possible rancour on Tuesday.

The list, which runs from the second week in April to the third week in September, is a victory for pragmatism over purity. This means that not everybody will be happy. For the third season, Championship cricket on a Saturday is likely to be in short supply and any guarantee of it has probably gone forever.

However, the finals of both one-day knockout competitions will revert to Saturday after contentiously being played on Sunday last summer, and there will be a semi-final weekend for both with one on a Saturday, one on a Sunday. This will also enforce, for the first time, the rescheduling of Championship matches for those counties through to the last four.

But the wonder, in glancing at a schedule which includes seven Test matches, 10 limited overs internationals, a Championship of two divisions for the first time, two limited overs cup competitions and a one-day league featuring a series of evening matches which must be staged using the only two sets of mobile floodlights available, is not that the cricket contained therein is played well but that it is played at all.

"There are certain logistical difficulties in trying not only to find dates for the matches but also to meet the individual requests of counties for floodlit and festival matches," said John Carr, the England and Wales Cricket Board's director of operations, with a degree of understatement.

The campaign is to start (except for the earlier, sadly insignificant matches involving Oxford and Cambridge Universities which will again inaugurate the so-called first-class season) with the Benson & Hedges Cup. This competition, itself re-introduced without any hint of universal approval, will dominate the opening of the season as never before.

For the first time it will be contested only by the 18 first-class counties. They will be divided into three groups of six. The top two in each group will qualify for the knockout quarter-finals followed by the best two third-placed teams, which will be decided by points or net run-rate.

All 45 group matches will be played in a frenetic period from 15 to 24 April, the aim being to give the start of the season an exciting, uninterrupted focal point. The B & H will all be over by 10 June, when the final will be played at Lord's, a month earlier than in its previous incarnation which ended in 1998. There will be no overlapping, for the 18 senior counties, of the B & H and the NatWest Trophy. It was decided that now both are 50-over competitions they should be contested entirely separately. The NatWest, these days billed as the FA Cup of the game, will conclude at Lord's on 26 August.

If the dwindling bunch of admirable diehards known as county members will be upset about anything it will be the scheduling of Championship matches. Carr, painfully aware of their gripe, had no alternative. Most games will begin on Wednesday, thus leaving the fourth day as Saturday. Fourth days have not been frequent in Championship cricket.

"We are aware of the problem," Carr said. "But Test matches have to be between Thursday and Monday. That is by far the optimum time and as they generate so much income that has to count. That is not to say you slavishly follow what makes money but this is a vital commercial consideration.

"That leaves Wednesday to Saturday as the only option for the Championship. Now we're aware there hasn't been enough Championship cricket on Saturday but we will make every effort to ensure matches get a fourth day. This will be by constantly encouraging the preparation of better pitches and a more credible system of penalties if that doesn't happen, the carrot and stick approach."

There may also be a brouhaha with the rescheduling of Championship games for the one-day semi-finalists and finalists. What if the rearranged dates are affected by rain with divisional status at stake? All grist to Carr's maelstrom.

There will be 30 floodlit matches in all, more than ever before, 25 of them in the CGU National League, three in the triangular tournament and two warm-up matches for the latter in which Zimbabwe and West Indies will both play the summer's other tourists, New Zealand A. The detail will be officially revealed on Wednesday but it seems pretty obvious that from April to September county cricket is to be played morning, noon and night, except on Saturdays.