26th May: Chennai S. Kings v Mumbai I, 14:30 GMT
24th-28th May: 2nd Test, Headingley
The ECB have this evening confirmed the structure for the 2014-2017 domestic seasons.
The new structure is a result of the significant customer research that the ECB carried out at the end of last season, with the main changes being a switch back to 50-over cricket, the retention of the successful two-division 16-game County Championship formula with more consistent and Sunday start days, and the introduction of a season-long Twenty20 competition, played predominantly on Friday nights, rather that the current block format.
The grandly named County Research Study was conducted by political polling company Populus at the end of last season after the findings of the Morgan Review earlier in the year had been widely derided by fans, players and clubs alike, mainly due to the proposal to cut the number of County Championship matches from 16 to 14. The CRS, which was circulated widely by all 18 county cricket clubs, was criticised by some for being unnecessarily complicated but was nevertheless filled in by more than 25,000 people.
An ECB press release outlined the main findings from this survey as follows: "The ECB Board noted the strong desire from counties and spectators to create an ‘appointment to view’ for T20 cricket spread over a longer period of the season. There was no compelling preference from spectators for 40-over cricket rather than 50-over cricket and therefore the format from 2014 will replicate the 50-over format played by the national team. Consistent with feedback from the players there was a strong desire to retain the LV= County Championship in two Divisions of nine teams."
The merits of the so-called "appointment to view" Twenty20 competition have been a subject of debate among county fixture planners for some time, with the main benefit being that it is easier for counties to sell an average of one T20 game a fortnight to a recession-hit public than it is to sell as many as three in one week as happened at times last season. The obvious drawback is that players will have to switch between the three different formats with much more regularity, and that specialist T20 overseas players are unlikely to participlate in a season-long event, but those factors are now deemed prices worth paying.
The debate between 40-over and 50-over cricket is one that very much pitted the 18 counties against the England team management - who were also the driving force behind the proposed reduction in County Championship games in an effort to reduce the volume of county cricket.
The counties preferred the 40-over game on the grounds that it was easier to sell to the public as it could start after lunch, while 'Team England' wanted the competition to mirror international cricket as closely as possible. The latter appear to have got their way in return for allowing the continuation of the 16-game County Championship. The now Clydesdale Bank50 will have eight group games per county as opposed to the 2013 number of 12, and the 18 counties will be split into two groups of nine with no room for the Netherlands, Scotland or the Unicorns.
The main positive for county fans in the new structure, besides the retention of the existing County Championship format, will be the more predictable nature of the fixture list. A report in the Daily Telegraph earlier this week had speculated that County Championship cricket would be barred from the weekends for much of the season - something that met with howls of protest from diehard county fans - but this appears not be the case, with the announcement that the first 14 rounds will commence on a Sunday following the new Friday night T20 league and possibly a CB50 match on the Saturday or in the middle of the week.
The ECB are often criticised for the repeated and, at times ill-judged, changes that they make to the county structure, but it is worth remembering that they have to balance the interests of several different parties: England, the counties, the fans, both traditional and modern in their tastes, and Sky. Hopefully this time they have delivered a coherent and sensible fixture list that pleases most of those without displeasing too many in doing so.
© Cricket World 2012
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