There is a perceived problem with the County Championship and the creation of high-quality Test cricketers. I’m going to take a look at this and explore an idea of an alternative format. The format hasn’t changed too much over time, but there is increasing pressure for it to do so from people who do not see it as fit for purpose. On the whole, I don’t think there really is a big problem with it – attendance is low, lower than it has been, but this isn’t something that I think can be fixed with the way modern life and people’s schedules are. Now, this is going to be a rather long-winded post and I’m not sure if others are as fascinated by tournament and league structures as I am, but here goes.
One of the cited reasons for the struggle with creating Test-quality crickets is the games being played too much at the fringes of the season. This certainly makes bowlers who end up performing rather averagely on the international stage appear much more impressive. It isn’t helped that many journalists immediately begin writing articles about how such-and-such has taken 16 wickets in two matches and are they the next Anderson. No – they are an 80-mile-an-hour bowler in April on juicy pitches. If they played in July they would probably take 2 for 200. But the County Championship isn’t played then, and we can only judge on what we see, so what do we do?
To solve this you must either play games in the height of summer or work out a much better way of judging bowlers potential – almost certainly requiring scouts at many of the games. This is beside the point, this isn’t something a format can fix, only scheduling or scouting. If games continue to be scheduled for April and May then average bowlers will take hoards and it will be impossible to tell anything by pure numbers.
Another perceived problem is too many matches. One of the reasons this is a problem was well put by Steve Finn. It sucks the pace out of you. Seeing as this is an area England have frequently struggled where other countries have not, he may have a point, but it applies in general too. It is hard to play at your maximum for such a high number of games. Currently, each team plays 14 matches in a season, with teams in the first division playing everyone else home and away, and the second division seeming a bit more arbitrary. In the Australian First-Class tournament, the Sheffield Shield, the West Indian Regional Four Day Competition, and the South African, the Sunfoil Series, each of the six teams play each other home and away for a total of ten games. The Australian competition adds a final between the top two. In the Indian Ranji Trophy in the last iteration there were 28 teams, divided into four groups of seven. In each group, each team plays the others once for a total of six games before proceeding to an eight-team knockout-stage, so up to three more games for a total of nine.
My proposal is actually quite similar to the Ranji Trophy. I wasn’t very familiar with the structure of other countries’ First-Class competitions so I didn’t know this at the time I thought of it, and only discovered it when I began researching for writing this article. One of those nice coincidences of life.
I propose splitting each of the current divisions into two at the conclusion of a season, to form four groups, two of four and two of five. Each of these groups would play a double round-robin, all teams playing each other home and away. After this, the top two teams from each group would go through to eight team knock-out stage. The bottom team in each group would play a knock-out match against each other to eliminate two of them. Then the remaining eight teams, those who placed third in all four groups, those who placed fourth in the five-team group, and those two who won their last place play-off, would all be joined together to form another eight-team knock-out stage. The two knock-out contests are played out concurrently, and the eventual winner of each plays against each other for a Grand Final to crown the county champion.
I’ve chosen this method due to the problem of the larger number of teams in the English competition. Three groups of six wouldn’t work because if you ranked them by skill you make it much more difficult for any team in the top group to qualify for a final, and it’s difficult to arrange who plays in a final with three groups of six. Two groups of nine would have been possible if they were to only play each other once. Otherwise, it doesn’t cut down on the number of games at all, and as in fact exactly how the previous version of the Championship operated. I don’t like the idea of playing a team once due to the home advantage. I’ve taken it as a necessary evil for the knock-out stage. So four awkwardly uneven groups it is. Thanks a lot, number 18.
So with this system the maximum number of games a team can play is now 13, if they start in one of the five team groups, finish last, and then win their way into the grand final. It would be 12 matches for any other team from the group of five, and 11 for one of the teams from the group of four (12 if they finished last and won their way back to the grand final).
This system has a number of strengths and weaknesses, some of which I will try to address. Knock-out style cricket for a format with a high-propensity to draw or be rained off is a risky thing. I propose that the points system from the current County Championship is retained, but at any given stage only taking account of a team’s last six results in order to prevent the teams from the five-team groups having an advantage from playing more matches. I’m unsure of this last six games thing as it would favour a team who won their later group games more than their earlier ones. However, I can’t currently think of a better way to reconcile the number of games played. In the knock-out stages of the competition a win advances that team automatically. In the event of a draw or an abandoned match the advancing team is determined by points, first by points gained in that match, then total points. In case of these both being equal further tie-breakers can be devised.
A second problem is home advantage. In the Ranji trophy, knock-out games are played at neutral venues. This isn’t something I think would work in England – I don’t see too many people turning up to watch a Hampshire v Somerset county match at Old Trafford. Instead, I propose that the team with the better record gets the home fixture, taking into account first wins, then points, then further tie-breakers. This also gives a problem to the counties. Hypothetically a team in one of the four-team groups could play only three home matches all season if they always drew to face teams with better records in the knock-out. Conversely, a team in the five-team group could play as many as seven home games. Quite an imbalance! I think this is still the best solution, as determining who gets a home fixture by any other means would be adding in randomness and playing neutral venues would be undesirable.
A third problem is that this doesn’t reduce the number of matches played by enough, not to as few as are played in the other domestic competitions I have looked at. I think this is acceptable in order to achieve some other goals which this sets out to do. First, it does not result in further dividing into divisions where certain teams are practically worthless and unable to win anything beyond promotion. Any team can win the County Championship from the start of the season. However, there are still ten teams which are slightly disadvantaged from the start: those in the five-team groups. They will have to play at least two more games than a team in the four-team group, and they’ll have to get past at least one of them in the knock-out stage. This disadvantage is essentially their division two handicap – they are required to prove they are that much better in order to take home the trophy. This is akin to the home advantage conferred on the team with the better record at the knock-out stage.
A difficulty, though not necessarily a problem is how the groups are determined for the following year. My idea is for the teams eliminated earlier to play an additional match against each other. So each team eliminated in the quarter-final will play against another, each team eliminated in a semi-final plays the other, and each final loser plays the other. This means a team from the four-team group eliminated in the quarter-final will have played eight games, or nine if they also played the last-place play-off. A team from the five-team group eliminated in the final will have played 12 games, eight group-stage, three knock-out games, and then their decider. This means that the further you advance the more games you will play. Then at the conclusion of all these games the two grand-finalists plus the six other teams with the most wins are placed into the two four-team groups for the next year, with the remaining ten for the two five-team groups. This gives a small advantage to the teams coming from the five-team group who will have played at least one more match than a team from the four-team group eliminated at the same stage. This is their promotion opportunity. This also incentivises wins above all else. This aspect of it adds a lot of fiddly detail and I’ve already gone on about it far too much.
You may have noticed this is all quite complicated. It is in working out all the permutations, in working out which teams will be in the four-team groups and which the five- next year. It isn’t in determining a winner. Win group-games to get a good draw, win the knock-out games and win the Championship. It increases competitiveness by the value of every win and the pressure of the knock-out nature. You may think it preferable to be one of the teams in the five-team group as you would theoretically be placing yourself into an easier group. However, if you came in the top two of your group you would now play one of the four-team group teams in the first round of the knockout, as opposed to playing against one of the five-team group teams.
The more I write this the more I’m convinced it’s too bloody complicated. But I do think it would result in some high quality, high-intensity cricket. The format would also result in increased interest as the stakes are raised. This is also better than one of the recently floated ideas, of three conferences (not divisions) of six. Whatever basis those conferences were divided on it couldn’t be on skill, so I think this produces the higher quality cricket by keeping the eight best teams together to play against each other before the competition opens up where it becomes survival of the fittest.
I believe this would be a good approach to a format to reduce the number of games while increasing the competitiveness and the interest. However, as far as producing Test quality players goes the best thing that could probably be done to ensure that would be to play the County Championship throughout the summer. I think this format being implemented and that happening are probably about as likely as each other.