On Friday, the ECB released their new format for next season’s county championship. The new design feels very much a blend of the 2019 running and the 2020 Bob Willis Trophy. The Bob Willis Trophy itself is repurposed as a single match at the end of the season.
For 2020, the teams are divided into three groups of six with the draw seeded based on their finishing position in 2020. Each team will play their opponents in their group twice, home and away. A total of 10 games. Simple so far.
The finishing positions from the group stage then determine the draw for the division stage. The top two in each group go into Division 1, 3rd and 4th into Division 2 and the last two into Division 3. Team will then play their opponents in their division they haven’t played in the group stage, 4 games in total, 2 home and 2 away. Presumably, points from the group stage will carry forward though it’s not currently clear in what capacity.
The winner of Division 1 is the County Champion, and a prize money distribution is proposed to keep all teams playing for positions until the end. The top two teams in Division 1 will then contest the Bob Willis Trophy, a one off, 5-day game.
The ECB stressed in their announcement that the new format was intended for 2021 only, and that returning to the old 2 divisions for 2022 was the ‘default’ position, subject to a review. Given reasons for this are that the 2021 format is flexible: in the event major COVID-19 disruptions the tournament can be easily shortened. The group stage can be cut to 5 games if required and the division stage can be eliminated entirely, reverting to the 2020 format if necessary.
Beyond that, the structure is clearly a balance of compromises, and something of an experiment. The Bob Willis Trophy, with it’s 3 short groups stages and winner-takes-all final was well received, and elements of that are mixed with the two-division system. There is something of an experimental vibe to it, especially in having two trophies up for grabs (and so five across all formats in the English summer).
I’ve heard the new structure described as complicated, but I really don’t think it is. There are in effect 3 stages to the red-ball summer under this proposal, but none of it is particularly complex.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say this is the breath-of-fresh-air County Cricket needs. The two-division system has almost entrenched a split between counties. Those that are richer and can afford to invest in players and facilities are regulars in Division 1. Those with fewer resources have been stuck in Division 2 for a long time. This has driven small counties to priorities white-ball competitions and not focusing on their first-class campaigns. This sees players move from Division 2 counties to Division 1 teams in the hopes of improving their England selection chances.
Since every team now has the same opportunity to win in any given season, these imbalances may be reduced. Case in point, Derbyshire led the North Group for most of the tournament, despite being a former Div 2 county.
Breaking the tournament into two stages may also work favourably. Since T20 takes up most of August, the group stage will be played early in the summer and the division phase is likely to be played in its entirety in September. A neat break could allow for new interest in division 1 come September (if it isn’t drowned out by football).
That’s not to say I think the new format is perfect, there are certain things that bother me. First is the Bob Willis Trophy itself. Whilst it’s a nice touch to keep it on, including the fitting tribute to the late Bob Willis, I have serious reservations about ‘knockout’ first-class cricket. I may be in the minority here; the final was well received last month. However, I feel that the win-by-first-innings rule that sees the title decided in a draw encourages negative play by the leading team in the 2nd innings. This was exemplified by Essex batting for a draw this summer. Further, examples exist in the Ranchi Trophy in India of teams taking time out of the game in the 3rd or 4th innings to confirm their advantage, by batting slowly or setting impossible 4th innings chases. I worry that a few dud finals may damage the reputation and see the Bob Willis Trophy become an equivalent to football’s Community Shield.
I’d like to see some silverware awards for the Division 2 and 3 winners too, as motivation to keep pushing in the final stages. There is already a financial incentive, but a County Shield and County Plate trophy might emphasise that.
I hope the ECB keeps the format on beyond 2021. It gives all counties a more even footing and encourages investment in the red-ball squads in the long term. It’s a very 21st century solution to the tournament, and whilst it is a move away from traditionalism, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.