With the hullabaloo surrounding the ECB’s recently unveiled plans for ‘The 100’ (or whatever it actually ends up being called), and with the continuing success of the Natwest T20 Blast, it would be easy to forget the ongoing debate about that staple of the County game, the much maligned County Championship.
The first-class counties and the ECB are now seemingly set on seriously considering changes to the established two divisional structure, and a complicated ‘Conference’ system has been proposed in some quarters.. However this writer would encourage the powers that be to think the unthinkable, and expand the reach of the competition, rather than retreat just to the big cities, as ‘The 100’ competition proposes. Indeed expanding the County Championship was mentioned in passing back in 2015, and both Ireland and Scotland were keen , as were Devon and Cornwall, who talked of merging to form a shared First-Class side. 3 years on such expansion of the County Championship seems unlikely, but it would have several benefits.
By adding 3 new first-class county sides, the County Championship could be split into 3 divisions of 7, with a ‘one-up, one down’ promotion and relegation system, and with each county playing a balanced schedule of 12 matches (6 home and 6 away, versus each other side in their division). This would slightly reduce the existing number of CC fixtures from 14 to 12, but would give each match greater context, reduce the number of ‘dead rubbers’ at the end of the season, would maintain the integrity of the competition, and end the current fudge whereby Division 2 is made up of 10 teams playing 14 matches each, in an unbalanced fixture list.
From the ECB’s point of view most of the traditional county powerhouses could soon be expected to find their way into a 7 team Division 1, from which they would continue to produce most of England’s test players, whilst a 3 divisional structure could also maintain the existence of the smaller, less competitive counties in the two divisions below, playing on more of a level playing field. As it is the likes of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northants, with their small ground capacities, low memberships, and modest gates, are nearly always going to struggle to match the likes of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Notts, Surrey and Middlesex, so why not acknowledge that reality by making the top division more streamlined and more competitive, whilst also broadening the base of the game and bringing new sides into a new Division 3?
So if we agree that expansion is a good thing, which counties should get the nod?
It is clear from a historical perspective and from simple demographics that two of the three to be added should be Staffordshire and Devon, historically the most successful and third most successful respectively of the existing Minor Counties, that are also both home to over a million people, placing them amongst the top 20 most Populous English Counties (and in Staffordshire’s case such a list excludes places such as Wolverhampton, Walsall and West Bromwich, which all fall under the ‘West Midlands’). Both counties have a successful cricketing culture and illustrious history, befitting of promotion to the County Cricketing elite, and with it the necessary population to provide support both monetarily and in terms of young players for the future.
The third county to be added could be a matter of significant debate, but looking at the spread of the 18 existing first-class counties, East Anglia is an obvious area that is ripe for cricketing expansion. Indeed with Glamorgan acting as a de-facto county side for the whole of Wales, why not combine Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk into a side representing the whole of ‘East Anglia’, and play two of such a side’s home fixtures each year in each of the three counties?
With 3 new full-time county staffs to fill, there would be roughly 60 more places for professional cricketers, meaning that fewer young English talents would miss out on their chance to make their mark on the professional game. Of course there would need to be a system in place to ensure that these 60 places were not taken up mainly by ‘Kolpak’ signings or cast offs from the existing 18 counties, but a rule whereby each county had to play a certain number of ‘home grown’ players in each starting XI (starting say with 3, so as to maintain standards, and then increasing that number incrementally over time) would put a stop to that. From a playing and spectating point of view, 3 new county sides would expand the reaches of the professional game, bringing in new players, coaches, support staff and most importantly of all, new supporters and new interest in previously untapped markets.
As noted earlier this is all rather unlikely in the current climate at the ECB, where retraction rather than expansion of the county game sadly seems far more likely. However one should ask why, if England (and Wales) can sustain 92 professional football clubs (not including the many non-league sides that are now full time), and 24 English professional rugby union clubs, then why couldn’t 21 professional county cricket clubs be sustainable? After all, only last year the ECB signed a £1.1 billion broadcasting deal to cover English cricket from 2020-2024. Surely some of this money could be used to broaden the reach of the English county game?