The English county cricket season can often be a derided soul. Many will point to empty seats for First Class matches suggesting the public isn’t interested, yet ignore the packed crowds during Twenty20 matches. Traditionally the season runs from mid-April to early September, although in recent years we have seen it start earlier and finish later. Of course this brings its own complications in terms of dealing with the weather.
I know of no other sport where the weather can play such an important part in the result of a match or even a season. This is because the pitch plays an important part and so do the conditions. In most sports you play the game at the same time, in other words you both get the opportunity to attack and defend at the same time, the opportunity to serve and receive during the same period etc. With cricket it’s possible one team bats in damp and overcast conditions yet when the other team gets to bat several hours later, the weather has cleared up. This is why the game is evened out if played over several days.
England has the largest first-class competition in the world, 18 counties, and this has proved difficult when trying to accommodate three different formats. If a one-day match is called off because of the weather, the game is considered a ‘no result’ rather than postponed as it would be in football. The packed schedule just does not allow for replays.
When English cricket invented a new format, played over a 20 overs-a-side and completed within three hours, they had no idea of the effect this would have on the game worldwide. Twenty20 has changed everything and authorities around the world are still coming to terms with how they tame this beast to make sure it doesn’t eat itself.
Cricket is an odd game as there are three main formats for the same game, all of different durations and requiring different skills. Imagine a football season where you have eleven-a-side matches lasting ninety minutes and in between these a full season of five-a-side games along with a load of futsal games too. You can see how supporters and players alike would get a little confused with what’s on offer.
Twenty20 has changed everything in cricket. Originally an invention here in England it has quickly taken hold around the world as many of the game’s authorities seeing it as a golden goose to fund the rest of the sport. There is little doubt in its ability to pull in the punters, but cricket is reluctant to go the whole hog and produce a sport more akin to Baseball than something which has graced village greens for over a hundred years. Few are calling for scrapping the longer format but it’s the age-old problem of fitting so many different competitions into one season.
The County Championship began with eight counties in 1890, expanding to fourteen by 1895. When Glamorgan joined in 1921 they were up to seventeen and it remained so until Durham joined in 1992. Traditionally the competition was one league with variations on the total amount of games each team played, from twenty-eight to twenty-four down to seventeen during the 1990’s. In 2000 the ECB decided to split the counties into two divisions to create more competitive matches throughout the season. Prior to 1988 these games were played over three days, but then it was decided to extend this to four days, again in an effort to prepare players for test match cricket.
In 1999 after the 50-over tournament had been a single league format, they split this into two divisions. Up until 1963 the season consisted on just the County Championship but then the Gillette Cup was launched. This was a knockout format played over 65 overs –a-side. Then in 1969 another competition was added to the calendar, to be played on a Sunday, in an attempt to attract a larger television audience. This came to be known as ‘The Sunday League’ and was played over 40 overs-a-side and included reduced run-ups for the bowlers and a restriction in the number of overs they could bowl (eight), all aimed at trying to ensure the game completed in the requisite time for television.
In 1972 a second limited overs knock-out competition was introduced. The Benson and Hedges Cup was played over 55-overs and included some non-first-class teams. This was played midweek and earlier in the season than the Gillette Cup. These two competitions eventually evolved into the B&H Cup being similar to the Football League Cup and the Gillette Cup reminiscent of the FA Cup as the competition which contained first class and minor counties.
During the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the format was fairly simple. First Class matches were played over three days on a Friday, Saturday and Monday. The Sunday was reserved for the Sunday League. When the First Class format adjusted to four days then the matches began on a Thursday. This left Tuesdays and Wednesdays free for the knockout competition. For the outside observer this created the odd situation of the First Class matches breaking off before they’ve concluded, for another format and then resuming again. When there was just one division for both First Class and Sunday League formats this was perfectly possible as the Sunday match would be between the two sides who’d been competing in the four day game. But with the introduction of two divisions then you simply couldn’t have Hampshire, for example, playing a 4-day game at home on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday, then have them travel up to Durham for a Sunday game, before returning down South to complete the 4-day match. Their opponents in the 4-day game may well have been given an unfair advantage if their Sunday match was only in Sussex.
There were a number of calls to revamp the fixture schedule at the end of the 90’s and these calls became louder as the national side slipped to bottom of the test rankings. It was clear something had to be done and so two divisions was the preferred solution. It was undeniable there were too many County Championship matches being played with little at stake as many sides were out of contention for the title by July. There is little doubt this decision has been a success. Many players talk of the more competitive nature of the competition now with every game being important. For the supporters and county members this resulted in fewer 4-day games to watch with the total reducing to sixteen. Now we had a one-day league which included teams in different divisions than the four-day format, which meant you could no longer split up a four-day game by playing a one-day game as too often the teams involved would be in different divisions in the different formats. This is where cricket began to concede the weekend audience. Four-day matches could often be finished before the weekend and then the counties had to squeeze in the one-day league matches (still known colloquially as The Sunday League) in between. So often some counties would be playing a four-day game when others were playing one-day format. It became quite difficult to follow.
Then came the biggest shake-up in cricket since Kerry Packer, when the one-day format received a makeover with coloured clothing, a white ball and a vast improvement in visual quality for the television viewer . Twenty 20. It was an inspired idea, although this commentator was critical of it to begin with but you could just not ignore the crowds as the competition began in 2003 in England. The rest of the world sided with me in believing this was just a hit-and-a-giggle competition doomed to failure, but they too had to admit the public’s imagination had been caught. Soon South Africa launched a format, New Zealand and Australia reluctantly followed and all that was left was India who continued to keep their own toys. That is until they won they won the T20 World Cup and suddenly they were more interested.
T20 cricket is now a permanent fixture throughout the game with a World Cup every two years and various stellar tournaments around the world. Counties have now found they earn more from their T20 matches than nearly the rest of the season put together. This just cannot be ignored. So how do we shoehorn all the different formats so as to get the best out of all of them?
Although holding the Twenty20 competition in a block in the middle of the summer was a success, it was thought that didn’t help the whole schedule. Counties who found they had three fixtures in a week discovered they had the same number of spectators through the gates, but spread over more matches than an increase for each match as the public decided they only had the appetite, or the money, for maybe one or two matches. The players, on the other hand, liked a block of one format as it allowed them to concentrate on the particular skills required for Twenty20, which are different than for any other format.
One of the casualties of a Twenty20 block format is the County Championship, which requires at least 64 days playing time. Inevitably the ECB decided to start the season earlier so more four-day matches could be played before Twenty20 time came around, and then the competition would conclude later in the season. As I said earlier, cricket is an odd sport. With its ability to include different formats of the same game, it also suffers from inflexibility to deal with different weather conditions. One of the problems with cricket is the action has to take place on a specific part of the playing area, the pitch, and unlike other sports if that particular part of the ground is wet then you can’t just move it to another part of the ground, as it changes the dynamic of the game and creates a situation where one team benefits and another is penalised. Cricket is affected by atmospheric conditions unlike almost every other sport. Playing cricket in England in April and May creates conditions where the ball can move around (off a straight line) making batting difficult. What this also creates is an opportunity for bowlers to pick up wickets as conditions are in their favour, but of course masks the fact the bowler may struggle to pick up wickets when the ball is not moving around later in the season. Another consequence of these conditions is spin bowlers are unlikely to do well early in the season as they need harder, drier pitches.
The difficulty is combining the interests of players, counties and supporters. Players want blocks of the same format to allow them to concentrate on the requisite skills. Counties want the most popular formats during times when they can attract the most punters through the gates. Supporters, though, want different things. There are still those traditionalists who tend to be older and still refuse to accept the success of Twenty20. Now again this is where cricket is different to many other sports. Other sports have tended to ignore the older consumer, believing their focus should be on families and younger supporters. But cricket, whilst keen to attract the same demographic, cannot ignore its ‘core support base’ as many older supporters continue to provide the attendance for four-day matches. The other aspect to the older supporter is their propensity for loyalty to a particular sport and/or format. If cricket, and particularly Twenty20, loses its attraction for the latest fan base then who will be left to support the game? The older supporter.
So what is the solution for the fixture schedule? So far the one format which seems to be suffering is the four-day game. Few cricketers make a success of their career simply on one-day cricket alone. They lose form, struggle to gain rhythm to their game and the lack of time and patience offered them by the shorter format, can provide a barrier to them truly developing themselves. Players who are able to make a career mainly through the shorter format have learned their craft on the longer format first. Twenty20 is clearly the cash cow which could well keep county cricket in good health. Like any business you want to sell your most popular product at a time when consumers want to buy it, so it would seem sensible to have T20 during the summer holidays. Personally I like the idea of T20 on Friday nights. It suits the plans for the week, finishes things off nicely ready for the weekend. It also becomes a great start to the weekend as people can begin their drinking and socialising at the cricket before heading off to clubs and bars once it’s over. Cricket does need to be careful about the drink consumed during T20 matches, but that’s a matter for another article.
So when should four-day cricket take place?
Over these last few seasons the four-day game has been pushed to both ends of the season timeline, which means it suffers from fewer sunny periods, cooler mornings and where the sun sets earlier in the evening. What then happens to the traditional cricket fan base as they find there’s little cricket of interest for them during the summer? But then, from a business point of view, can cricket survive purely on its traditional fan base?
Before last season these matches ended on a Saturday, which in theory is fine but some games were already concluded by then so cricket lost an important spectator resource to other sports with a lack of action on Saturdays. Of course this fan base may have been lost forever already as rugby and football scoop it up. Whether cricket can get this back remains to be seen. This is where T20 could be useful. It has only been tried on a couple of occasions but the short duration of the format makes double-headers an ideal event. Three teams at the same ground playing two T20 matches with the home side playing in both, gives spectators a fantastic days entertainment on one ticket. This also feeds off the Finals Day concept which has rapidly become the focal point of the season. Clearly this would take some arranging, but as the group stage of the competition is based geographically this would mean supporters aren’t travelling huge distances. Using floodlights as well allows the match to attract spectators who may have been busy with other things earlier in the day.
I would also like to see an FA Cup style competition for T20. Just seems to me the whole concept is made for it. Again there is the issue of when you schedule this for, but if we’re going to have a block of T20 matches then it would seem feasible to fit it in then. If we continue with Friday night T20, then perhaps these could be played on a Saturday?
Looking at this season’s fixture list, if you want to watch cricket on a Saturday, there are only four dates when you have more than three venues to choose from. There are only six dates when the choice you have is more than three. Has cricket given up on the Saturday spectator? Has it decided there’s no way it can compete with football and rugby? How about a T20 knockout competition on a Saturday and perhaps have two matches in a day? That would provide great entertainment.
The problem within all this appears to be the third competition, the 50-over format. Whilst there is still international cricket, with a major tournament, played over this duration then it is essential county cricket includes a competition on this basis. However, last season the 50-over format started once the group stages of the T20 competition had ended. We then had a concentration of wall-to-wall 50-over matches to get all the fixtures in. It would seem more sensible to have this competition spread over the season, which means you cannot escape the problem of constant changes in formats resulting in players and spectators not sure which type comes next. Because of the tightness of the schedule, the 50-over format was split into two groups with each county only playing others in their group, once. Mind you, the format for T20 was split into two groups but with counties playing 14 games. This resulted in some counties meeting six counties twice, and the other two in their group, once. I prefer more groups giving more teams a chance of progressing to a knockout stage. If there is to be only one 50-over competition then this puts paid to the option of a complete knockout tournament as for a side who go out in the first round will have only played one 50-over match all season. Hardly ideal.
Nobody really wants to explore this, but the one part which can only truly lessen the load is to reduce the number of counties. Few counties are prepared to consider it as reducing Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire to just Nottinghamshire, for example, may not necessarily mean the Derby and Leicester fans automatically go to Nottingham to see their county. They may be lost to the sport forever. Of course, one solution would be to play games in at Leicester and Derby but that means Nottingham spectators see less cricket at Trent Bridge. Given test grounds are being forced to invest in order to continue hosting test matches, it would seem difficult to justify if the ground then hosts less cricket during the season.
One of the other difficulties with the present fixture schedule is any block of one particular format does not take any account of international fixtures being played at the same time. Rarely do we get a chance to watch England players in our domestic T20 competition, whether it be in a block or spread throughout the season. The only time we might see them is at Finals Day, assuming their respective counties have made it that far. This isn’t a problem reserved solely for England. Australia too has struggled to find a compromise for both, providing a problem of how can the domestic game assist a player out of form in the five-day format when all they have to offer during a Test Series is a the 20-over version. For a bowler in need of overs this is hardly ideal as he can only take part in a format where he bowls a maximum of four overs.
Some have suggested a franchise format for T20, just as the IPL (India) and Big Bash (Australia) operates. There are numerous reasons why this is not the magic bullet in England. It’s all very well Australia and India having eight teams, particularly when Australia only seems interested in six cities. Due to the size of the country, if you’re a supporter in Perth it’s probably only realistic for you to be able to afford to watch four games a season. Can’t see too many supporters in England agreeing to that. The other problem with the franchise format is they only have one game a day. Is the average supporter in England prepared to put up with that?
Last season I went to Cheltenham to see Surrey play Gloucestershire in the T20 competition. It was sold out as Kevin Pietersen was in the Surrey team. The game was played in the afternoon (no lights at Cheltenham) and if I had the time, money or inclination, I could then have driven to Cardiff in time to watch Glamorgan in the evening. What a fantastic opportunity for live entertainment for the cricket fan. This is where some sensible scheduling can really prove a winner with the supporters.
For the moment it looks like the present format will remain, although a further dip in England’s test fortunes may see louder calls for the four-day format to receive greater prominence. If we continue to play County Championship games on pitches designed to last four days then we may soon find we are unable to produce test quality bowlers. If we continue to play four-day cricket during the wettest parts of the summer then we may find few players get meaningful cricket before the test matches begin anyway. Then there is the problem of spin bowlers only being able to play four-day cricket at times of the year when the pitches are not suited to their style of bowling. Some have called for fewer four-day matches but county members can rightly protest they never get to see test stars in this format as it is, so why should they be deprived of further days on which to watch, just to satisfy test requirements?
If we went down the IPL route then county sides would be full of international players selected to draw in the crowds. But what would that do for the young county player trying to make his way in the game? IPL hasn’t been created to improve the local game, just to bring in revenue for BCCI. The game in England is far too developed and established with years of history just to be tossed away on the scrapheap. I also don’t think it is popular enough in this country to survive a complete revamp of the domestic structure.
It is a constant problem and one I’m not sure the authorities have addressed to any success. What does seem to be a constant though, is no two seasons seem to have the same structure.