19 May 2018

A VISION FOR 2020

At the time of writing, an ECB working group, chaired by Wasim Khan of Leicestershire, is considering how best to put together the domestic fixture list from 2020 onwards. We know and accept that the Hundred is ‘set in stone’ – though we pray for the 10-ball over to be scrapped, for reasons I’ll come to – and we have been told that the introduction of the new and exciting format will provide an opportunity for the rationalisation of the fixture list. I have written on this subject before, and now it’s time to admit that I have worked for sixteen years as a scheduler in fields as various as sport, education and transport. I might not have been invited to join the working group, but I didn’t see that as being a barrier to my attempting to solve its problems. And I have. Like Harry Beck with his underground map, I’ve taken stock of all the weaknesses, gone through the ECB’s ‘wish list’ and ironed out all the creases and irregularities in the domestic cricket structure. Alan Fordham eat your heart out.

Criticisms of the Championship

The cricket-watching public perceives three main flaws in the County Championship as it is currently played. It is not the purpose of this article to discuss the accuracy of this perception, but it seems reasonable that the perceived flaws should be given some credence.

1.         Too many matches are played at the very beginning or the very end of the season.

This is said to have a detrimental effect on the development of batsmen’s skills, specifically their ability to build a long innings. Seaming pitches in April and May, and spinning pitches in September, affect a batsman’s way of thinking: ‘sooner or later a ball’s going to have your name on it, so you may as well score what runs you can.’ They bat in a cavalier fashion and thus play balls they had better to leave.

It has recently been said that the Championship season would be better off with three main ‘acts’: first, seaming pitches on which the fast bowlers prosper; second, flat and hard tracks on which the batsmen can score runs; third, worn and dusty conditions which are conducive to spin. It would be also preferable if each act were of approximately the same length.

2.         The second division is uneven and thus unfair.

Both parts of this assertion are beyond doubt. Certainly it is true that in the second division, some teams meet twice whereas some meet once. As things stand, it is perfectly possible for a team narrowly to win the division having played the second, third and fourth-placed sides only once and to have lost to all of them, but to have played the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth-placed sides twice and to have thrashed them on both occasions. This is palpably not a level playing field and it has no place in a professional sporting league, second-tier or otherwise. All teams must play each other once, or twice, in the same division.

3.         Only eight of the eighteen counties can win the title.

There is a growing view that, as the season begins, every county should have an opportunity to win the Championship – not just the eight teams in the first division. The England test team is currently weaker than it has been for some years, and ‘what good do two divisions bring us?’ is the refrain we often hear. When England started winning the Ashes at home, beginning with the 2005 series, the two-tier Championship was frequently credited with making a critical difference to the strength of first class cricket in England and Wales. But it seems memories are short. A sound compromise would be structure which begins with every team having the same chance, but which ends teams divided into elite tiers – the ‘best of both worlds’.

Why Moxon’s conferences are flawed

The press have been increasingly interested in a system of three ‘conferences’ advocated by Martyn Moxon. This system has various merits which are set out in this article and which do not need to be repeated here. The plan is thus: eighteen counties are divided into three conferences of six, in which each team plays the others twice, home and away (a total of ten games per county). When this is done, the top two counties in each conference will go into division one, the middle two counties into division two and the bottom two counties into division three. In each division, each team plays the others once (a total of five games per county).

There are two significant problems with this system. The first is that each county would play fifteen games, whereas at the moment they play fourteen. The reason they play fourteen is because three years ago the ECB decided that playing sixteen matches was too many. The introduction of the Hundred is going to increase the amount of cricket being played. To add another match to the Championship is – it follows logically – a backward step.

The second problem arises when the counties break from conferences into divisions. Suppose Surrey and Yorkshire are the top two teams in their conference. They will have played each other twice. Now they will both go into division one, and they will play each other a third time. There are eighteen first class counties, and yet every county will play one other county three times in fifteen games. A county will play a fifth of its first class cricket against one other team.

A better system of conferences

The smartest way to retain all the benefits of Moxon’s conferences system, without any of its flaws, is to have two conferences of nine. In each conference, the teams all play each other once (a total of eight games per county) before the split into divisions (a total of five games per county). This provides the following benefits:

1.       There is a reduction from 14 games to 13, which reduces the strain on players, and is consistent with the ECB’s direction of travel.
2.       The conferences could be ‘north’ and ‘south’ if desired, reducing player travelling time and making it much easier and attractive for spectators to attend away matches.
3.       We can at last have the ‘three act season’ we have been talking about: the first four conference matches on seaming pitches in April; the last four conference matches on batting tracks in July and August; the divisional matches on spinning pitches in September.

Scheduling the Hundred

The ECB is introducing the Hundred because its research has shown that T20 cricket has not addressed the three common complaints of those who don’t like cricket: it’s boring, it’s complicated and it takes too long. It is quite understandable that the ECB has chosen to introduce a new, even shorter format of 100 balls per team. It would have gone down a lot better, I believe, if the ECB had decided to simplify the format with the expedient of 20 five-ball overs; the 10-ball over is a brand new complexity, created solely for an audience who are put off cricket because it is complex. That’s illogical.

In due course, the ECB will realise that deliberately complicating the game is not the best way to make it easier to follow, but one thing’s for sure – the Hundred is happening. Various elements of the structure have already been set out, so we already have a good deal of information for our 2020 season. There will be eight teams, who will play each other once, except their local rival, which they will play twice (a total of eight games per team). There will then be three playoff matches, IPL style, between the top four teams, leading to a final.

Based on what is already known, I would recommend the following schedule for the Hundred:

1.         The games to take place during the school summer holidays, in July and August.
2.         The games be mainly during the evenings on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
3.         The games to take place alongside the ‘second act’ of the Championship season, i.e. the last four conference matches on batting tracks in July and August.

Scheduling the Hundred alongside the Cup (50 overs) or the Blast (20 overs) would be hugely counterproductive in terms of developing England’s national ODI and T20I teams. It makes sense to run the Hundred alongside the Championship, but before the break to the elite divisions that will conclude the first class competition. That way, nine of the Championship rounds – and the whole of the Cup and the Blast – can take place without being affected by the Hundred.

The Cup and the Blast

The Cup, the 50 over competition that has so successfully prepared England’s players to be the best ODI team in the world, is working well. It’s not too big or unwieldy; it’s not too small. It can quite easily be fitted into a month.

The Cup suffers, though, from requiring its teams to reconvene some weeks after the tournament proper for a standalone final some three weeks later. The transient and nomadic nature of overseas players means that a county may have lost the services of its star performers by the time the final comes along. This blog has already shown that the other main cricket playing countries manage to sell out their 50 over final even when it is in the same ‘block’ of fixtures as the rest of the tournament, and there is no reason why the ECB could not do the same. The Cup can certainly begin in May and finish in May as well – final and all. If the competition begins during the early May bank holiday, the final can take place during the late May half term holiday, thus giving the Cup every opportunity to appeal to children and families, and to attract as many spectators as possible.

Something has to give for us to allow the Hundred in, and that should be the most similar competition, the Blast. It’s still important that the Blast should take place in its own separate window, though, and since the ECB has made it clear that the Hundred will now occupy the summer holidays, the Blast must necessarily be moved forward to June and early July. As with the Cup, it’s vastly preferable that the finals should take place in the same fixture ‘block’ with the same overseas players available. More fixtures could be squeezed in, but in this model the structure closely follows that of the Cup: ‘north and ‘south’ conferences of nine teams each, with each team playing the others once. It’s still an attractive and appealing proposition, and there will still be a good deal of T20 cricket for the public to see.

Overseas players

The rationalisation of the fixture list makes it much easier for counties to recruit and retain players for specific competitions. There are essentially five blocks:

1.         Championship I. The first four conference matches (April).
2.         Cup. The 50 over tournament, beginning on the first day of the early May bank holiday, with the final on the last day of half term (1 to 31 May).
3.         Blast. The 20 over tournament, in the afternoon after the school day has finished, with finals day on a Saturday as in previous years (5 June to 11 July).
4.         Championship II and the Hundred. The last four conference matches in the Championship on Mondays to Thursdays, and the Hundred on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings (13 July to 23 August).
5.         Championship III. The five ‘divisional’ matches in the Championship (27 August to 27 September).

England and the tourists

We know now that the Test Championship will be underway by 2020, and we also know how many international fixtures there will be of each format. We even know which grounds will be staging them. The only thing we don’t know is which international teams will be visiting us, but the two teams who will have been absent from England for the longest are New Zealand and Sri Lanka, so it seems reasonable to imagine they will be the visitors.

With a little imagination and planning, it might be possible and even desirable to give the tourists more meaningful warm-up matches (as this blog has previously discussed). The counties winning the Blast, the Cup and the Championship could be rewarded with matches against the tourists, on the understanding that they would field their best available side. And why not have a fixture against an MCC team, made up of players from Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and Ireland – the teams not playing in the Test Championship?

The following fixture list would be entirely possible:

New Zealand

30 Apr – Cup winners of 2019 (50 overs)
3 May – 1st ODI (Bristol)
7 May – 2nd ODI (Chester-le-Street)
10 May – 3rd ODI (Lord’s)
12 May – Championship winners of 2019 (3 days)
17 May – England Lions (3 days)
23 May – 1st test (Lord’s)
4 Jun – 2nd test (Leeds)
13 Jun – 3rd test (Nottingham)
20 Jun – 1st T20I (Manchester)
24 Jun – 2nd T20I (Leeds)
27 Jun – 3rd T20I (Southampton)

Sri Lanka

6 July – England Lions (3 days)
12 July – MCC (3 days)
18 July – 1st test (Lord’s)
1 Aug – 2nd test (Manchester)
12 Aug – 3rd test (the Oval)
23 Aug – Blast winners of 2020 (20 overs)
26 Aug – 1st T20I (Southampton)
29 Aug – 2nd T20I (Cardiff)
31 Aug – 3rd T20I (Leeds)
4 Sep – 1st ODI (Notttingham)
6 Sep – 2nd ODI (Birmingham)
9 Sep – 3rd ODI (the Oval)

A vision for 2020

To show how this would all fit together, I’ve created a 2020 fixture wallchart showing how it would all work. There’s also a full fixture list for every county. In all of the competitions, each county alternates playing home and away and the travelling distance for each team is also minimised. What I haven’t done is create a broadcast schedule for Sky, enabling them to televise one Cup, Blast and Hundred fixture each day and to give each county equal coverage though this can, of course, be done. In producing the model here, my aim has been to demonstrate that a good deal more coherence – even attractiveness – can be given to the domestic and international fixture list in future. I just hope that Wasim Khan reads this, and I’ll just wait here by the phone.

Download the 2020 season wallchart [PDF, 211 Kb]
Download the 2020 fixtures for northern counties [PDF, 43 Kb]
Download the 2020 fixtures for southern counties [PDF, 43 Kb]

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting read.
    Im not sure about Championship Act 2 mixed in with The Hundred.
    50 over cup in a May block is a meritorious idea.
    Championship in 3 conferences of 6 can be done in 14 matches. First stage: 3 groups of 6 (change them each year to keep fresh) Play home and away = 10 games. Then top 2 into a new group of 6. Carry through points of the team you have played already that is in your group. Then 4 games (2 home 2 away) against the other teams in your group.

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  2. The domestic schedule seems fine but the international schedule is not plausible. Firstly, international teams wouldn't want to tour at the start of May due to the IPL. They wouldn't want the players to miss out on the opportunity to earn money. There have been reports that all the countries have abstained from scheduling international matches during those months.
    Secondly, why is there such a big gap between the international matches from 27th June to 18th July? There is no need for such a gap and the May tour could start later if we reduce this gap. Ideal fixture list:

    1st Test: 28th May-1st June
    2nd Test: 5th June-9th June
    3rd Test: 18th-22nd June

    1st ODI: 28th June
    2nd ODI: 1st July
    3rd ODI: 4th July

    1st T20I: 7th July
    2nd T20I: 10th July
    3rd T20I: 12th July

    Second tour:

    1st Test: 23rd-27th July
    2nd Test: 31st July-4th August
    3rd Test: 13th-17th August

    1st ODI: 23rd August
    2nd ODI: 26th August
    3rd ODI: 29th August

    1st T20I: 1st Sep
    2nd T20I: 4th Sep
    3rd T20I: 6th Sep

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