Pitch fines big part of new county system

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County cricket faces a radical change in regulations and playing conditions when the first summer of the new millennium gets under way with traditional matches against the universities today.

The two openers - Lancashire face Cambridge University at Fenner's while Oxford University travel to Taunton to play Somerset - are one of the few conventions to remain as attempts are made to bring a more competitive edge to the domestic structure.

The championship, which begins on 26 April, will have two divisions of nine counties for the first time, with three-up and three-down promotion and relegation.

But perhaps the most stringent change is the appointment of seven pitch liaison officers with the power to impose immediate penalties for sub-standard surfaces, ranging from eight points for a "poor" pitch, a further 12 points for another poor pitch within 12 months and 20 points for any surface deemed "unfit".

Tim Lamb, the ECB's chief executive, said: "The great thing about the new regulations is that there are now instant points penalties available and it will make counties think twice before producing pitches which go beyond the bounds of acceptability."