The winds of change are blowing through English cricket yet again. In the latest attempt to ensure the survival of the domestic game and the 18 professional clubs who play in it, many of them almost flat broke, the structure of the season will be altered next year.
After months of careful nurturing of the counties, many of them reluctant if not downright recalcitrant, it has been agreed that the season will have distinct parts.
The chief beneficiary of this will be the Twenty20 competition, the NatWest Blast, which will be played in two blocks largely during the school summer holidays. But a price for this has been paid by a revamping of the County Championship, in which fewer games will be played than at any time since its early days, when there were far fewer teams.
It can be seen as a victory for Colin Graves and Tom Harrison, respectively the chairman and chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, who have spent much of the past year trying to sweet-talk clubs who are notorious, though perhaps understandably, in putting their own interests ahead of those of the game at large.
Graves said: “The changes for 2017 will be good for fans, players and our international teams. The season is easier to follow, the blocks help players focus on specific skills and there’s a better balance across all three formats.
“There is a clear consensus that county cricket has to be sustainable and must support the whole game. There is an appetite for change and cricket is moving fast – we must not be left behind.”
From next summer, the 50-over Royal London One-Day Cup will have its group stages in April and May, leading to a final at Lord’s in July. As if to show that nothing is really new, this is reminiscent of the old Benson & Hedges Cup, whose pool matches were played at the start of the season.
Twenty20 will be the centrepiece at the height of the summer, with group stages leading to a finals day, which has been popular since it was launched in 2003.
The Championship will be played throughout the summer between April and September, except during the limited-overs blocks. The First Division will be reduced to eight teams, with 10 in the Second Division. But all teams will play a total of 14 matches, seven home and seven away.
If there was an inevitability about the reforms, the diminution of the Championship, still seen as the truest test of a cricketer’s skill, will be mourned by many. But it makes eminent sense to give Twenty20, so obviously the future of the game, its head. Only by doing that will all other formats, including Tests, endure.
Andrew Strauss, the ECB’s England director, who was on the structure steering group, said: “Last year a county player could change between formats as many as 24 times over the summer.
“Next year that could be down to as few as six. This will help develop skill levels and create a better narrative to the summer.”
New structure for 2017
* The Specsavers Championship to be played throughout the summer, with breaks for blocks of limited-overs cricket.
* Championship changed to a First Division of eight teams and a Second Division of 10, with both playing 14 matches.
* Two counties will be relegated this season but only one will be promoted.
* Royal London One-Day Cup 50-over group matches played in April and May.
* One-Day Cup group winners go straight to semi-finals, second- and third-placed teams to quarter-finals, with the final at Lord’s in July.
* NatWest T20 Blast played in regional groups during school holidays, leading to Finals Day.
Colin Graves, the ECB chairman, has been the driving force behind the restructuring of the county game.
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