It is here. The first week of April. We have begun our 26-week journey through the English domestic fixture list. And what a list it is! So much has been written – and still more said – about the lack of structure or coherence in the list, that I found myself tempted to see how the rest of the world handled its domestic affairs. The County Championship comes in for a lot of flak: a common criticism is that it’s marginalised, shoved to the far reaches of the season and thrown to the mercy of the spring and autumn weather; another is that it’s the only professional cricket league in which some teams play each other twice and some only meet once. But is it any better elsewhere? As you will see, the answer to this question is: yes.
The simple leagues
There are six teams in Australia’s Sheffield Shield, New Zealand’s Plunket Shield, South Africa’s Sunfoil Series, Afghanistan’s Ahmad Shah Abdali Trophy, and the brilliantly-named West Indies Cricket Board Professional Cricket League Regional Four Day Tournament. Zimbabwe’s Logan Cup has five teams. Such manageable numbers afford these nations the luxury of being able to run a double round robin: every team plays every other team home and away. In two of these leagues – Australia and Afghanistan – the top two teams break to a final.
Bangladesh’s competition – the National Cricket League – operates two divisions of four teams, playing in double round robins. They evidently consider eight teams rather excessive for a league. Either that, or they’re dead keen on stimulating competitive elitism. Whichever is the reason, the one-up / one-down system of promotion and relegation certainly keeps the teams on their toes.
The Ranji Trophy in India has gone through numerous reorganisations, but the format currently in use is the simplest and most egalitarian ever – indeed, it could be argued that this is the first time the Ranji has ever been simple or fair. 28 first class teams are divided into four non-geographical groups of seven (spare a thought for the teams in Group B, which include the provinces of Kerala and Jammu & Kashmir, over two thousand miles apart). Each group is a single round robin (teams only play each other once) and the top two teams in each group break to a knockout stage (quarters, semis and a final). The new format delivered a surprise winner: Vidarbha, which had never previously got beyond the first knockout game. To prove it was no fluke, Vidarbha then won the Irani Cup, the annual exhibition game between the Ranji champions and the Rest of India.
A season of two halves
Sri Lanka has 14 first class teams – too many for one league, so the Premier League Tournament Tier A has two groups of seven. The competition is divided into two stages. Stage one is a single round robin, so all the teams play six matches. Stage two involves a split, straight out of the world cup playbook: the top four teams in each group go into a league called the super eights; the bottom three go into a six-team league called the plate. The super eights and the plate both have a single round robin (teams which have previously played each other do so again). Sri Lanka derives two benefits from this format: every team starts the season with a chance of becoming the champions, and a two-tier format pits the best against the best after the split takes place.
Did I say that Sri Lanka has 14 first class teams? Okay, I lied. It has 23. The other nine play a single round robin in a separate, inferior competition called Premier League Tournament Tier B. Success in this league by no means guarantees elevation to the main event the following year, since Tier B operates in something of a cricketing underworld. In 2016/17, the champions were Panadura, but the runners-up were promoted into Tier A this year, after the entire Panadura team was banned for match fixing (read about it here).
The other country which splits the teams halfway through the season is Pakistan. Its Quaid-e-Azam Trophy has 16 first class teams split into two pools (A and B) each with eight teams. Stage one is a single round robin, so all the teams play seven matches. Stage two involves a split – again called the super eights, and again creaming off the top four teams in each group. Now then, pay attention: four of the stage one teams (A1, B2, A3 and B4) go into group one; the other four (B1, A2, B3, A4) go into group two. These two groups have a single round robin (teams which have previously played each other do so again). The teams topping each group then contest the final.
Combining first class teams
Four test-playing nations augment their seasons by combining their traditional teams into stronger composite units for the purposes of international player development. England is a relative newcomer to this approach, its pre-season North v South series comprising only List A one-day matches which offer no more than a transient notion of players’ promise. The other countries take a first-class approach: Bangladesh pairs off its eight teams into four geographical zones for the Bangladesh Cricket League; India starts its season with the Duleep Trophy, a single round robin between India Red, India Blue and India Green, followed by a final; Sri Lanka sends its top players are sent to one of four teams, each based at a test match ground (Colombo, Galle, Kandy or Dambulla) for the Super 4 Provincial Tournament.
South Africa remains the only country to have gone the whole hog with reorganisation, when in 2004/05 it combined its 11 provincial bodies into six new first-class teams. The original 11 teams (plus three newer teams, one of which is Namibia) still have their own first-class competition but it is very much a lower standard of cricket – on a par with Tier B in Sri Lanka or the Second Eleven Championship in England. Matches are played over three days; some opponents meet once and some meet twice; most of the players are amateurs. It is perhaps fortunate that the Sunfoil Cup has retained first class status at all.
What the season looks like
Every national board has to think about deployment: when should each competition take place? With its big-money contracts for overseas players and best-weather windows for maximum ground attendances, the T20 competitions are unsurprisingly scheduled in single blocks at the height of the season. Marquee signings can be contracted throughout the entire tournament, with the longest competition (the IPL) taking eight weeks. None of the test-playing countries interrupt their T20 competition for any other matches.
A similar approach is taken with regard to List A (50 over) competitions – only New Zealand splits its tournament up, its two halves sitting astride the Super Smash. The smallest leagues are done and dusted in little more than a month.
The first class tournaments are arranged in one or two blocks. Five national boards – Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, India and Zimbabwe – schedule their whole first class season in one uninterrupted sequence; indeed, these are the five countries which don’t have any overlap between any of their competitions. Five national boards – New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, Australia and Bangladesh – split their first class tournaments neatly in two at a point when all the teams have played the same number of games. Bangladesh has a rather unusual approach, in that the league pauses when all the teams have played five of their six games. After a break of ten weeks, during which the entire BPL T20 is played, the first class teams regroup for the final round of matches, which decide promotion and relegation.
Everyone but England
England has a completely different approach from everybody else. Here’s a simple summary of how the various test-playing nations split up their three main competitions (first class, List A and T20). The numbers are highly revealing:
• Three blocks – Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, India and Zimbabwe
• Four blocks (one competition has a break) – South Africa, Pakistan, Australia and Bangladesh
• Five blocks (two competitions have a break) – New Zealand
• Fourteen blocks (all competitions have multiple breaks) – England
England’s T20 Blast involves only about seven weeks of play, but these are spread over 12 weeks of the season. Five rounds of the County Championship sit among the Blast games. One of the primary reasons for this is to create time for counties to sell tickets once they reach the knockout stages of the competition – it would appear that about a month is deemed necessary to sell out finals’ day. In Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and India – yes, even in the IPL –the final takes places within a week of the league stage. In England, there are 15 days between the quarter finals and finals day.
A few countries split their first class competition into two halves. England fragments it into seven pieces. The table I’ve created shows how the 2017/218 domestic seasons were organised in each of the test-playing nations. I’ve shown the 2018 English domestic season alongside, to illustrate just what an unholy mess it is. While everybody else has arranged their drama into (more or less) three contrasting acts, the English season plays out like an experimental postmodern avant-garde improvisation piece, with characters, scenes and themes drifting in and out of the audience’s consciousness seemingly at random. English cricket often looks to its neighbours for examples of best practice. When it comes to the fixture list, England might benefit from keeping up with the Joneses – not to mention the Singhs, the Smiths and the Naidoos.