In early September the English Cricket Board (ECB) and all 18 County teams voted by a margin of 16-3 to further plans for a new 8 team City-based T20 tournament. The tournament, which could now start as early as 2018, is intended to run concurrently with the existing T20 Blast competition. The approval of this new tournament has not, however, been without controversy, as once again it has thrown the spotlight onto one of the most toxic and divisive subjects in the English game – the introduction of a franchise-like competition. This is a subject that has dogged the county system since it first devised a 20 over tournament back in 2003.
It’s hard not to appreciate the ECB’s desperation to introduce such a format: the two most prominent city-based tournaments that already exist in India (the IPL) and Australia (The Big Bash) have proven to be huge hits, not only domestically but internationally. Large crowds populate virtually every game (the most recent Big Bash League had an average crowd per game of just under 30,000, numbers unheard of in the English domestic scene). These crowds are drawn in by the abundance of star players as well as a quality standard of overall cricket, ensuring handsome revenues for the teams participating as well as the Country’s governing Cricket bodies. In contrast, despite having the cricketing potential to emulate the setups in India and Australia, the current English T20 competition contains all 18 counties, far more than in any other domestic T20 competition, ensuring that the talent on show is far more spread out and the overall quality is thus diluted. The ECB’s sense of urgency on this issue has also been heightened by the arrival of the Caribbean Premier League (CPL), a six team T20 tournament that takes place at the same time as the T20 Blast. Whereas before the English domestic tournament enjoyed a complete monopoly over the midsummer slot, ensuring there was still a degree of interest internationally, the ECB now fear the existing T20 tournament in its current guise could be completely eclipsed by the CPL unless they adapt to a format more in line with the other domestic T20 tournaments across the globe.
But just because this system works in places like Australia, that is no guarantee that it can succeed in England, which has a far different domestic setup to the rest of the world. Take Australia for example: They only have 6 sides in their first class setup as opposed to the 18 counties which constitute the English first class setup. For them, when drawing up plans for the Big Bash, it was actually a matter of adding sides as opposed to the inevitable cull that will have to take place to make way for this new English tournament.
The influence of the English county sides cannot be forgotten too; the county system has been in place for almost 150 years, and many are therefore unwilling to surrender their status and identity. Yorkshire for example, the most successful and famous county have been very outspoken about their unwillingness for a new city-based side playing in their stadium under a different name to theirs. However it’s the smaller counties that will surely suffer the most as the introduction of an 8 team tournament would ensure great swathes of the country that are left out of hosting teams. Counties such as Kent, Sussex and Somerset are just 3 examples of places with great cricketing tradition who consistently sell out their home T20 games yet would almost certainly miss out on getting one of the new teams anywhere near them (Sussex have actually appealed the decision, with the verdict still pending). On the other hand, these counties have been appeased by the ECB promising to give £1.5 million to all the county teams who aren’t hosting one of the new city-based sides as a means of covering for the revenue from hosting T20 games that they would have stood to lose. The ECB has also promised to continue running the T20 Blast alongside the city-based competition, although, shorn of its best players and undoubtedly being eclipsed by the new tournament, its doubtful the tournament will attract anything like the attention it currently enjoys.
The other key factor here is the issue of weather. In comparison to Australia and India, the English summer climate is far poorer, with a higher probability of matches being abandoned or truncated. The current plan for this new tournament is that it will involve each team playing 8 games over a 2-3 week period. All it would take is a week or so of seriously bad weather (not exactly a novelty in an English summer!) for the tournament to be seriously damaged. One of the main advantages of the current T20 Blast system, which involves each team playing 14 games over 3 months, is that it greatly reduces the effect of abandoned or rain-affected games.
The current 14 game system is not without flaws though; many argue that it’s too long and that because it lasts for 3 months most of the big-name overseas stars cannot stay for the whole duration, making it tough for many fans to gain an affinity for these players. Dale Steyn, arguably the finest bowler in world cricket, was signed by Glamorgan to much fanfare at the start of this summer, yet could only play less than half of their games before being dragged away to other commitments. Holding it over a period of a few weeks would ensure these players remain throughout and continue to thrill the crowds. Having 3 overseas players per team, which is what is currently being suggested for the tournament, as well as concentrating the best English talent, would also greatly drive up quality. Although it’s also true that the current T20 Blast has been great for developing young English talent, and has undoubtedly been a factor behind the current success of the English national T20 side, who came agonisingly close to winning the most recent World Cup back in April. Under the new tournament, there is a big question mark over whether these young up-and-coming players would be afforded the same opportunities they are currently in the T20 Blast.
The current plan for this new tournament is that it will involve each team playing 8 games over a 2-3 week period.
Another big factor that could ensure the new tournament is a hit is if it is, at least in part, broadcast on terrestrial TV. This would greatly increase its potential audience while boosting its national profile. Current broadcasters Sky have been great in terms of coverage and revenue generation for grassroots cricket. However, its no coincidence that the last time Cricket really caught the attention of the whole nation, the 2005 Ashes Series, was the last time it was broadcast on free-to-air TV.
Ultimately, I do believe that the introduction of a new city-based T20 competition will be good for English Cricket, as it would increase revenues while also heightening the profile of the sport in a Country in which Football enjoys an almost unfair monopoly. In the words of esteemed cricket journalist Simon Hughes, the counties have “seen the future” in voting in favour of this new tournament. However, it is also a risky decision to alter the County system, a system that has functioned perfectly well now for many years. Only time will tell if this decision was a masterstroke or a moment of madness.