It rarely makes waves when it comes around each year. But for those who care, the announcement of the County fixture list is an exciting time.
Time off is booked, trains and accommodation reserved for away matches and perhaps even plotting that day out at Edgbaston for Finals Day. Cricket-watching communities, on and offline, make plans around convenient fixtures to break kettle chips and sup questionable Oranjeboom.
Favourite grounds are picked out to tick off, and there are more of those in 2020’s programme which was announced at the start of the week. Not just the high-profile venues, but the boutique havens of Colwyn Bay, Arundel, Cheltenham or the Isle of Wight that add to the county cricket’s colour, allowing it to permeate beyond its centralised areas.
The County Championship used to exist snuggly in this blissful pocket of the English conscience, seemingly impervious to outside forces. Of course, that was never true, as the financial plight of the majority of counties suggests. But the four-day game remains a way for everyone to escape the real world. Whether as a regular or for a one-off visit for a couple of hours after tea on day two, it remains a quaint speakeasy where everyone knows the password but very few choose to find.
Parts of that have changed with the 2020 schedule. The County Championship still begins early (April 12) and finishes late (September 25), though the peak months of June, July and August house just one round each. And, for some reason, not all Division 1 sides play each other twice.
But there are more days of play over weekends and more cricket on Bank Holidays, which is an improvement. What is different this time around is the sense the Championship has never had a tougher fight to remain relevant. Outside the bubble of its diehards, its credibility is under threat.
The threat in part does come from the Hundred, the ECB’s new format which will occupy the domestic fixture list and conscience from July 17 to August 15, starting with the Oval Invincibles against Southern Brave. As a result, the other two competitions are pitted against the four-day game.
The Royal London 50-over competition will run alongside the Hundred, albeit with a back-up cast resentful of what’s going on elsewhere. Then there’s the T20 Blast, moved to an earlier slot of May 28.
As a competition the counties want to cling onto to, especially the 10 grounds who will not be hosting a men’s hundred match, whatever marketing efforts a county possesses will be pointed towards the Blast to get their individual fills of gate receipts and beer money. As one county marketing executive put it: “The same old people who go to Championship games know when it’s on.” Getting more bums on seats for a T20 game, especially those paying as close to full rates, matters so much more.
That both county white ball competitions take place in blocks will make them easier to follow, even if their knock-out stages are months after the Round Robins have been sorted. Further common sense has been shown by starting the Blast after the Indian Premier League has concluded to allow any home talent to play for the whole competition. And by bringing in two 50-over fixtures for counties against sides outside the first-class structure, the domestic game is more in touch with its roots.
Perhaps the most worrying thing regarding the future of the Championship will be the invariable decline in quality because of the demands on players.
County players have spoken openly about how difficult they find it to switch from one format to another without adequate preparation time, and how this stunts the development of them and the product. With three rounds of the Championship amid the intense block of T20 cricket, this will issue will continue.
Over the last few seasons, a number of batsmen have had to make do with techniques that just about cover both red and white ball batting. For example, there is a rise in right-handers who play in-to-out: their swing being an arc reminiscent of how a right-handed golfer might get around the inside of a ball to fade a shot to the right.
This is mightily effective in T20 as it makes it easier to hit the ball in the air on the off-side where there are generally fewer players on the boundary but more to clear within 30 yards.
However, the bat does not come down straight and thus a player’s alignment and ability to defend off-stump is impaired. Against a red ball, in a format where time at the crease is the key commodity, it is a glaring deficiency.
“You just hope you’re seeing the ball well enough to keep it out,” one established batsman told The Independent. “If you’re not going to be a Test cricketer, does it really matter?” Probably not.
Bowlers with heavier workloads will need to save themselves, especially those playing for counties who do not have the resources to provide them with adequate rest. Indeed, this schedule may be another step towards more domestic specialisation from players who won’t necessarily have eyes on being a global T20 gun-for-hire but could do with cutting down on the amount they play to prolong their careers.
It’s not just the bowlers who will be thinking about self-preservation, and this is where we get into a difficult area. Because there is a moral toll this schedule will put on players and it is one which has no right or wrong answer.
The money on offer in the Hundred is unheard of in English cricket, and with so many players starting the season with deals sown up, they will be wary of missing out through injury. For those not drafted, the opportunity is there to excel in the Blast to pick up one of the eight available Wildcard spots and bag £30,000.
With the prospect of these vast sums in such a short space of time, why wouldn’t a player think twice about diving to claw back a boundary in a Championship match in front of empty seats at Bristol? How great, now, is the risk of breaking a digit in the cordon on a bitterly cold April morning at Chester-le-Street?
That is not to doubt the professionalism of cricketers in this country. But when players talk about the county grind, these are the aspects of it that will be exacerbated in 2020.
Without wishing to go over old ground, there is no doubt English cricket needed something to reinvent itself like the Hundred, though perhaps not quite the Hundred. But the reason it exists is because county cricket, in its previous guise, was not sustainable.
If it did, counties would not have been so quick to accept the £1.3million put on the table by the ECB for their cooperation towards the new competition. A sum of money many county chairmen and executives described as “a lifesaver”.
If county cricket was able to continue on its own two feet then, for instance, Lancashire would be starting their T20 campaign against Northants Steelbacks at Old Trafford next summer. Instead, they will play at Liverpool Cricket Club because The Killers are using the ground instead.
Given the value of Test cricket in this country, the domestic four-day game will never die. And perhaps down the line the ECB will address the folly of having two short formats in The Hundred and the Blast. But as the most unfashionable of four competitions next summer, the County Championship has never been less important.
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