ECB has stum­bled upon great for­mat for county game

Jour­neys to Edg­bas­ton, Worces­ter, Taun­ton and fi­nally Bris­tol show this is the way to re­solve the fix­ture co­nun­drum

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport | Cricket - Bob Wil­lis Tro­phy By Scyld Berry CHIEF CRICKET WRITER

It has been one of the Eng­land and Wales Cricket Board’s finer in­ven­tions. As the first of five rounds of the Bob Wil­lis Tro­phy came to a close, with Worces­ter­shire knock­ing off their tar­get of 110 off 35 overs with eight wick­ets and 8.5 overs to spare against Glouces­ter­shire, the im­pres­sion was grow­ing that herein lies cham­pi­onship cricket’s fu­ture.

Out of crises come changes hitherto un­pre­dicted. The BWT, in which the 18 first-class coun­ties are split into three ge­o­graph­i­cal groups and teams play the other five once, has an at­trac­tion which the cur­rent for­mat of the County Cham­pi­onship will never have as its Sec­ond Di­vi­sion is cricket’s equiv­a­lent of a grave­yard. At the out­set of this new mini-com­pe­ti­tion any county can win it, so every crick­eter can hope and as­pire.

Worces­ter­shire fin­ished sec­ond bot­tom of the Sec­ond Di­vi­sion last sea­son, but won their open­ing game with ac­cu­rate pace bowl­ing. With War­wick­shire hav­ing failed to fin­ish off Northamp­ton­shire af­ter they omit­ted Henry Brookes and lacked ex­tra pace when Olly Stone broke down, Worces­ter­shire need only to have a bit of a roll to be vy­ing with Som­er­set to fin­ish top of the Cen­tral group.

“It would be ben­e­fi­cial to the game if every county were to have a chance of win­ning the cham­pi­onship at the start of a sea­son,” said Paul Al­lott, Lan­cashire’s di­rec­tor of cricket, as his county – with three debu­tants – were beaten in an even closer run chase by Le­ices­ter­shire at the neu­tral venue of New Road, Worces­ter, with eight balls to spare. Le­ices­ter­shire fin­ished bot­tom of last sea­son’s cham­pi­onship; this sea­son they can hope to top the North group and even win the fi­nal in early Oc­to­ber, prob­a­bly at Lord’s, be­tween the two coun­ties who top their group with the most points.

A sec­ond sell­ing point of the BWT for­mat, were it to be ex­panded so that all coun­ties played the other five in their group home and away, is that it would al­low every other com­pe­ti­tion in the ECB’s crowded cal­en­dar to breathe – by re­duc­ing the num­ber of cham­pi­onship games from 14 to 10 per county, plus the fi­nal.

The fu­ture ver­sion of the cham­pi­onship, if based on three ge­o­graph­i­cal groups, could even be in­creased from 10 to 12 games by play-offs – ie the county in sec­ond place in the North would play the sec­ond-placed county in the Cen­tral and South groups, to de­cide

fourth, fifth and sixth places. Every county would fin­ish in one of 18 po­si­tions with prize-money to match. “I’d be up for some­thing like that,” said Glouces­ter­shire’s chief ex­ec­u­tive Will Brown.

The sys­tem of or­gan­is­ing the County Cham­pi­onship, which sat­is­fies ev­ery­one, has yet to be de­vised in 150 years of ex­per­i­ment. It is al­ways a bal­ance be­tween the com­pe­ti­tion in it­self and the sort of nurs­ery it should be for the Eng­land team who sub­sidise it.

Af­ter Lord MacLau­rin be­came the ECB chair­man in the 1990s, he pro­posed three con­fer­ences cho­sen by lot each sea­son, so that Durham and Kent might be in the same group. These times are more eco­con­scious. A cham­pi­onship of three re­gional groups would in­volve less trav­el­ling and less ex­pen­di­ture on ho­tels, and more der­bies. There might come to be a same­ness about the fix­tures but if there were play­offs, coun­ties would face one or two new op­po­nents out­side their group every sea­son. By shav­ing a fort­night or so off the cham­pi­onship, the whole sea­son could breathe, given the new ele­phant in the room, which is the Hun­dred. It may not be cricket as we know it, as it abol­ishes the build­ing block which is the sixball over, but the Hun­dred is a fait ac­com­pli, as the ECB’s at­tempt to put cricket back on ter­res­trial tele­vi­sion, hav­ing hastily re­moved it.

But there would have been inad­e­quate room for it this sea­son, had it gone ahead as planned: it would have over­lapped with the do­mes­tic 50-over com­pe­ti­tion and re­moved all the bet­ter play­ers from it, leav­ing Eng­land, the World Cup win­ners, with­out a proper nurs­ery to pro­duce the play­ers who might re­tain it.

The sec­ond half of April and May could in fu­ture be devoted to the first six rounds of the re­vised cham­pi­onship. The stan­dard might drop but, at one game per week, with three days break in be­tween, pace bowlers should be able to in­crease their in­ten­sity or speed. Then the 50-over com­pe­ti­tion in June, with all but the Eng­land play­ers avail­able, so that Eng­land might win the World Cup again; the Hun­dred in July in school hol­i­days; the T20 com­pe­ti­tion in Au­gust; and the last four rounds of the cham­pi­onship in Septem­ber, to­gether with any fi­nal or play-offs.

It has an al­lure that the cur­rent set-up will never have as the Sec­ond Di­vi­sion is a grave­yard

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