OPINION: Have counties bowled themselves a googly with T20 city upheaval
It might be a new beginning for cricket '” but it could be the beginning of the end for the sport as we know it in this country.
That might sound dramatic , but the likelihood of an eight-team city-based T20 tournament from 2018 has moved a massive step forward — leaving smaller counties in the cold.
When the chairmen of the 18 counties voted in favour of the radical proposal a couple of weeks ago, by a remarkable 16-3 majority (the MCC also has a vote), it meant that the ball started rolling towards a major upheaval in the sport.
The tournament, which will mimic the successful Big Blast competition in Australia with its franchise city-based teams, can still be stopped, but that now seems highly unlikely.
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Sussex, one of the dissenters along with Surrey and Kent, have already voiced their dissent to the plan as loudly as possible — as have many county members up and down the country, who feel let down by their own counties’ votes.
To be fair some counties have said they will consult with their members further and the vote is not binding, but the door has been pushed very much ajar for major change.
No one disputes that the counties need a more secure income if they are to survive as poor crowds are now normal at most four-day matches. But is excluding the 18 counties and creating city teams really the way forward?
And will two T20 tournaments simply mean an overload of that format, confusing the spectators and leaving the better players taking part in too many matches?
Surely all the counties who voted for this new competition should have listened to their members — their paying customers — first?
And if the city format is successful will that mean more competitions featuring them to the detriment of the counties? Would four-day city cricket eventually spell the end of county cricket?
The new T20 tournament will probably be shown on Sky — in others words, cricket has again turned its back on free-to-air TV and the chance to attract new followers, despite viewing figures for the subscription channel’s cricket coverage remaining low apart from for an Ashes series.
One of the main thrusts for the tournament apparently is a desire to attract young followers — be it on TV or at matches. How is that going to happen if the only TV coverage is on a subscription channel?
For all its over-the-top marketing and bombardment of advertising, Sky’s coverage of Premier League football is only a success because of the free-to-air highlights on Match Of The Day.
Those backing the new cricket tournament would point to the money Sky can offer, which would go some way to appease dissenting counties who would all be given a financial share, and the fact that in the future their product could be sold to terrestrial TV channels.
But where will it leave our current, now very successful NatWest Blast T20 tournament? To begin with, surely the better international cricketing mercenaries would target the new competition, depriving supporters at the smaller counties of the chance to watch the best players in the world in their own backyard.
This year’s winners of the Blast were Northamptonshire. Will they get to stage any of the city-based contest’s matches? That is highly unlikely.
It is thought the eight cities could be Southampton, London, Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Leeds and Birmingham.
So what do Derbyshire cricket supporters do?
Rather than franchise cricket, this is going to disenfranchise many of them.
It is thought that the NatWest Blast will take place in June and July with the new competition in August.
Where will the County Championship fit into all of this? Next summer the number of fixtures will be reduced to 14 per side instead of 16, but adding an extra tournament means there will be further calls to reduce that 14 even further. Presumably the Championship will continue in August, meaning counties would be missing some of their key players who would, no doubt, be playing for the better-paying city-based teams.
And the T20 overkill I mentioned earlier could lead to a successful county cricketer who is not an England international playing in something like 30 T20 matches a season.
This year the counties played 14 matches in the Blast ahead of a potential three more knockout matches. City teams would presumably have to have a minimum of 14 matches .
Surely our domestic cricket could not sustain two similar T20 tournaments? So is this the beginning of the end for the counties’ own T20 tournament, the Blast?