How English cricket could make the county championship formidable again

One division rather than two, incentives and counties running separate one-day and first-class teams teams would be positive reforms

Harvey Hosein of Derbyshire bats with George Lavelle(wk) of Lancashire looking on during day 4 of the Bob Willis Trophy
The Bob Willis trophy has proven a success during a summer of crisis Credit: Getty Images

The new chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Ian Watmore, is about to confirm plans for next year’s first-class county competition, an extended form of this year’s Bob Willis Trophy conference system.

As with the old championship, each side will play 14 matches – members of each conference playing the others home and away, and then four more matches arranged between new divisions, arranged not geographically but according to placings in the regional tables; and then there would be a five-day final. It would mean no first-class county cricket in July and for most of August, which is absurd.

The ECB faces a Covid-inflicted loss of £100-£180  million, with no guarantee that packed houses will be allowed next summer. Indeed, if the more pessimistic scientists are right, and the peak of a second wave is next spring, next season could be another of watching on television, or on computers, matches played in empty grounds. Still, Watmore knows about tricky situations. He ran the English Football League, though left it under a cloud after accusations of trying to organise a breakaway competition. He also has experience as a senior civil servant, in which he managed to make serious cost reductions in Whitehall: that will come in useful. He lacks the blunt, and somewhat obtuse, manner of his predecessor, Colin Graves, who was disliked by many county officials and whose approach could be gauged by his remark about the 38-3 vote to launch the Hundred that “that, to me, is unanimous”.

Watmore took his bucket and shovel out rapidly after starting work last week to clear up one of Graves’s messes – his assertion that some county sides at “the bottom end of our red-ball game” should give up first-class cricket. Watmore stressed that he wanted all 18 counties playing the first-class game, with none specialising in limited-overs competitions only. Graves saw the Hundred – the postponement of which is a silver lining in the considerable cloud of Covid-19 – as “one of the keys to the long-term future of the ECB”. He gave the impression that he could hardly care less about the first-class game. It was a pity his board – which contains several people of talent and valuable business experience, even if their cricket credentials are sometimes flimsy – did not restrain him more in this matter. Even if Covid-19 affects next season, the preposterous gimmick of the Hundred may be inflicted upon us via television, to provide an alternative diversion for those who have run out of slasher movies to watch. We shall see whether it lays the golden eggs Graves expects, and saves the whole game of cricket. Watmore’s faith in the first-class game is commendable; but he should think carefully about its future beyond next season.

Covid-19 will not always be an issue. Graves and those who think like him about the failings of the County Championship would perhaps have liked to close it down, but had an almighty problem. People continue to pay quite exorbitant amounts of money to watch Test cricket in England, filling most grounds on most days that it is played. England are also, currently, quite good at it. Kill the county game and you kill Test cricket, because what would then be an unvaried supply of one-day sloggers would not be much good at it. But how to make the county game viable when the game has just taken so grave a financial hit as it has this season is not an easy question to answer.

The Hundred was postponed due to the coronavirus epidemic  Credit: Getty Images

The Bob Willis Trophy has been a remarkably useful contribution to the salvation of cricket. County cricketers have had a chance to play meaningful first-class games in a truncated season and keep their hands, and eyes, in. Equally important, public interest has been sustained. But I hope the conference system does not last more than another year, because I think a better option is available both for the counties and for the benefit of the national side. But the chance to depart from the old system should be seized: the two-division system was, I have always believed, a huge mistake, since those consigned to the lower division often ended up playing a lower standard of cricket, and fewer of the players from the second division ended up in the Test side. For the post-Covid-19 era, a one-division championship in which every side played each other once would be fair, logical and has obvious attractions.

To make it competitive even to sides at the bottom, the ECB should apportion financial support according to a formula based on where a side finishes – so, right up until the last round of matches there would be an incentive to come 17th rather than 18th (a similar incentive is, apparently, going to be applied in the conference system next year). The games should start on Fridays and run until Mondays, though at some point the four-day format should be reviewed: games would be faster paced and more attractive to spectators if only three days’ long, as used to be the case, and present a necessity of tackling the insidious and unnecessary over-rate problem. But an even greater reform should be considered: which is that, ideally, each county should run a one-day and a first-class team, as England now more or less do. Separating the game into two codes would help improve the first-class and, thus, the Test game; players would have to register at the start of each season which code they proposed to play, according to their wishes and those of their counties.

One-day matches could be played midweek, notably in the evenings, maximising the use of grounds. Also, given that most touring teams need to come here to remain solvent, they should be required to play more games against the counties; and the decision to remove first-class status from the university teams, which was absurdly short-sighted, should be reviewed. The live streaming of matches, so valuable this season when one could not visit a ground, should continue, perhaps on a subscription basis, or free of charge and paid for by advertising.

When I switched on the Essex v Middlesex stream after tea on Monday afternoon, 1,600 people were viewing, considerably more than would probably have been at Chelmsford on a chilly September day. As is said of the Hundred, live streaming is a way to bring people into the game. This year they are watching on their computers; next year, if allowed, they might be at the ground. It is all part of something largely unknown in first-class cricket in the past 30 or 40 years, which is the idea of actually marketing it. The Graves philosophy seemed to be that interest in the traditional game was so low as to be beyond resurrection; but many of us never believed that. The real problem has been the refusal of the ECB and the counties to promote it properly. Once this abnormal situation has passed there can be a fresh start, and new ambitions. If Watmore means what he says, he and his board will find ways – perhaps including some of the above – to make the County Championship formidable again.