Oval and out? Surrey are happy with the current t20 set-up (Photo: Getty Images)
By Derek Pringle
The new city-based T20 competition which the ECB are planning for 2020, is an attempt to raise the profile and spectator levels of cricket in England and Wales by attracting a new audience to the game.
If that sounds familiar, well, that is because the current T20 Blast claimed the same thing when it came kicking and screaming into the world of county cricket 14 years ago.
With a new T20 competition planned did that first incarnation of T20 fail in its aims? Well, yes and no. For many counties a new audience, beer-swilling and aggressive, has made Friday night T20 a fixture in their social calendars. But where are the extra women and children promised by the original competition?
It is them that the ECB are hoping this latest Big Bash-style incarnation of T20 will deliver. That, and a whopping TV deal with which to keep counties, most of them struggling financially, sweet.
It has been reported that 15 of the 18 counties are for the new competition, yet to be catchily named, with three against.
This is not true with quite a few not prepared to give their blessing until more detail has been painted, something the ECB are planning to do before March when they hope to have enough accord to sign it off and include negotiations for a new TV deal. If that all seems a bit rushed, it is because the ECB feel the need to get the TV deal done before any football deals are struck, in case they leave the cupboard bare for other sports.
Chief among the potential problems is when the new competition, thought to involve eight teams, might be played. Originally, it was stated to take place alongside the County Championship but given that the new T20 would take 100 of the best players away from county duty, that would mean almost 70 per cent of the Championship being contested by a second string, something unacceptable to many clubs with strong memberships.
Sensing disquiet, the ECB’s latest proposal is for it to take place during the domestic 50-over programme, though the same problems of weakening the competition exist. It certainly makes no sense for the best 100 domestic players to miss out on rigorous 50-over cricket while there is still a 50-over World Cup to be played, so there are staging problems for the new T20 from the off.
There are also worries that a new, all-singing and all-dancing T20 will, eventually, downgrade the current T20 Blast, a competition that has proved the lifeblood of counties like Somerset and Essex, and a goldmine for some richer counties like Surrey, who clear £3m every time they play T20 at the Kia Oval.
For that reason, Surrey are the biggest critics of ECB’s plans for a new T20, which they see as tampering with a model they have working well and which has enriched them beyond their wildest dreams. Then there are the issues of where it might be played with the six main Test grounds and others big grounds, like the Ageas Bowl, Emirates Riverside and Cardiff, the obvious venues.
Except that Surrey are thought not to be that keen (they would have to share the spoils of playing at the Kia Oval), which would place a lot of pressure on Lord’s. There are limits to how much cricket can be played at Lord’s which, unless Middlesex could be persuaded to play more games away from HQ, could leave the ECB with the conundrum as to where a London team might play?
Although that would be a major setback there are solutions at hand. Kent were one of those who came out against the ECB’s original proposals, but are thought to be softening after offers to help them develop the ground at Beckenham, one of the venues at which the county currently plays. That, along with places like the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, could then provide alternative venues for a London-based team.
There is a fear that by concentrating more matches in major cities that some rural counties without large metropolitan areas like Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Derbyshire, will eventually become obsolete.
Some counties are also uneasy about the prospect, if it does follow Big Bash lines, of the ECB owning all the new city teams.
That means the ECB will then be in competition with the counties it purports to represent over the promotion of each T20 competition. No prizes for guessing which one the ECB will throw their weight behind.
Then there is the detail of who picks the teams, which counties will join forces to form which city sides, where the coaches and support staff will come from, how many overseas players per team, and whether or not there will be a player auction? All of it as yet unresolved, at least as far as the counties are concerned.
For those county players involved in the city-based sides there will be a new, enhanced salary stream. But with that will come shifting allegiances to the point where some players might want to preserve their fitness and peak performances for the highest payer – which will mean counties, and their memberships, being further short-changed.
These are just some of the issues and details that most counties, at least those who worship cricket over money, want answered before they agree to a second T20 competition. Most of the 18 counties face financial challenges, more some than others. Indeed, their problems vary so much that 18 different models would probably be required to run the system efficiently.
The common denominator to most of their problems, though, is a lack of money which is why, with the promise of an extra £1.3m per county, most will say “yes” to the ECB’s proposals and hang the consequences – which in four years’ time could be considerable unless that new audience has been enticed and TV are happy with their latest acquisition.