County cricket
Hopes of a Premier League-style T20 franchise pose a grave risk to the future of county cricket. Getty


  • Three teams have reached a nail-biting finale to the county championship season.
  • But the ECB is more interested in a franchise future.

Going into the final round of the 2016 County Championship almost everyone in Division One has something to play for.

Three teams can win the title. Middlesex, unbeaten and the purveyor of enterprising cricket. Yorkshire, who are chasing an historic third straight championship (no-one has done it since the introduction of two divisions, and nobody since the White Rose in the 1960s). And Somerset, who have never won it, spearheaded by one of English cricket's most beloved players, the 40-year-old Marcus Trescothick, a star for England before succumbing to stress, baring his issues and his soul, and finding redemption in county cricket.

At the bottom of the table, Nottinghamshire are down, but Hampshire, Warwickshire or Lancashire could join them.

An exciting final day of the penultimate round of games this week saw Durham's all-round England dynamo Ben Stokes snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against Surrey and guarantee them first division cricket next year.

This is exactly what was envisioned when two divisions were introduced: better, more competitive cricket; a higher quality among fewer teams in the top flight thus producing a better national team. The better England team of this century is the proof in that pudding.

And yet, when we should all be enthralled in this excellence and excitement, the England and Wales Cricket Board has been hosting a meeting that could lead to the destruction of county cricket.

The ECB wants a new eight-team city T20 competition to run in July. County cricket would likely continue at the same time, minus its best players, while the new competition would feature a slew of overseas stars brought in for their glamour and sixes.

The ECB has been seduced by the supposed glamour and riches of the Indian Premier League and the mega crowds of Australia's Big Bash.

But the success of those ventures is relatively easy to understand and does not necessarily translate to English cricket.

Cricket is the number one sport in India. The IPL does not have to directly compete for pre-eminence with the Lord God Football in the form of the English Premier League.

Big Bash
ECB hoping T20 reform can replicate the glamour and the crowds of the Big Bash. Getty

Cricket is one of the biggest sports in Australia (if not quite as dominant as it is in the sub-continent). Additionally, the huge distances in Australia mean that opportunities to watch the very best players in person are few and far between.

Also, both India and Australia have climates more conducive to watching cricket on summer evenings than England.

The ECB would say that a July placement would mean the new competition would not have to compete directly with the Premier League. And maybe they could add that global warming is making the evenings much more conducive in England.

But English cricket risks destroying the glue that holds it together in search of the gold at the end of the rainbow.

Australian-sized crowds will not descend upon England's cricket grounds – at least not outside London, which is certainly capable of finding enough fans of foreign teams and corporate types to help fill Lord's and The Oval for meaningless games between teams with fancy names such as The London Lords and the London Overpaids.

Of course the final aim is more money: more sponsorship, gate receipts and all the riches TV can bring. Sky would surely be keen – they love glamour and they certainly need it when the Premier League is taking its all-too-short summer break. A TV bidding war could be even more lucrative should, for instance, BT Sport show an interest in a new cricket tournament.

Sky pulled the same trick with rugby league in the 90s. The sport got the necessary upgrade in nomenclature and became the Super League. The season switched to the summer months to satisfy the pay-TV schedules. Teams were also given name upgrades, with Bradford Northern becoming the Bulls for instance. Bradford thrived with overseas stars like the Kiwi brothers, Robbie and Henry Paul. And where are the Bulls now? A couple of spells in administration later they languish in a lower league, playing in front of pitiful crowds. Rugby league is just about back to where it started off: very popular among a small hardcore of northern fans.

Middlesex in a three-way battle for country championship glory with Yorkshire and Somerset. Getty

Maybe cricket will be different. But at least rugby league's hardcore fans were won over by the summer switch. Cricket's hardcore are furious about the proposed changes to the structure of the game. They want 18 counties, not eight cities.

The ECB believes that the hardcore are the past: a bunch of pensioners bringing diminishing attendances every year for the traditional form of the game.

But is it any wonder that it is mostly OAPs who attend when the biggest four-day games are played on weekdays in September. The kids are back at school and the parents are back at work. Anyone who has been to the Scarborough festival week in August knows just how big a county cricket crowd can still be.

It cannot be denied that T20 cricket has brought bigger crowds and new fans, and old-fashioned county members do not begrudge this. But it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: T20 games are given the best fixture slots: midsummer weekend evenings. Of course that is going to bring bigger crowds. Maybe the last round of the county championship season would bring big crowds if it was played at a weekend.

While Lord's, Taunton, Edgbaston and the Rose Bowl will feature some of the most enthralling sport possible next week, the majority of the sport's fans will be gripped via Cricinfo's ball-by-ball feed, even if they are not there in person. Not everyone can spare the time to travel the length of the country and miss work. But those who are there will be the most committed (in every sense of the word) who truly believe in county cricket. Like my 72-year-old mum with a broken leg encased in an Ilizarov apparatus, who is insisting she will be travelling down for the decider. She will do that for Yorkshire. Would anyone do it for the Leeds Leopards? (Answer: most Yorkshire fans wouldn't even travel from Bradford to watch a team called Leeds).