The New Normal?

For 2021 the plan is to replace the two division format of the County Championship with a three group / three division structure.

It will have come as a surprise to no one that the structure of the County Championship has been overhauled for 2021. Gone, for now, are Divisions 1 and 2, replaced by a three-conference structure along the lines of the 2020 Bob Willis Trophy.

For those of you who read Michael Atherton’s writing in The Times around the end of the season the format of the competition is almost exactly what he was proposing. And I’ll admit I like it a lot. 

The initial phase of the competition will comprise three groups, allegedly equally seeded but allowing for local derbies, a nice touch but as we will see one which massively distorts the relative strength of the groups. The top two from each group will proceed into a new group (the first division) of 6 teams who will then play each other either home or away but with the results between the teams from the same group being carried forward. Third and fourth place teams in the groups go into division two and the bottom two teams into division three.

Therein lies the first anomaly which I’ve been unable to find further details. Based on what I have seen the outcome of the three divisions will be skewed as there will be only one game against four of the teams but the two brought forward from the team in the same group.

The top team in division one will be crowned county champions. They will also contest the Bob Willis Trophy which will be, as in 2020, at the very end of the season at Lords over five days. Whether the first innings lead draw-breaker which cost Somerset this season’s title will be employed again has not been disclosed.

The ECB announcement sets out very clearly that this is a one-year deal at present. That seems to me to be far more likely to future uncertainties over COVID than a possible move back to the two division structure. Should the effects of the pandemic curtail the 2021 red-ball season, it is possible that this format can be made to work in a reduced format probably by only playing five rather than ten games in the group phase but retaining the three division format.

It seems likely to me that we have seen, for the foreseeable future, the end of the two division structure. A move which preserves Somerset’s proud record of having been in the top division for the longest period but poses the question of the 12-point deduction hanging over us. On a purely mathematical basis, the fact that the group phase will be only ten games rather than the 14 if the old division one had been retained should see the points a reduction in the deduction. My maths tells me that the equivalent penalty is 8.57 points!

As I said earlier, I like this structure a lot. It gives every side in the county championship a shot at winning the title at the start of every season. There will be a chance for us to play against counties that we haven’t seen at Taunton for many years and there will be the local rivalries across the country. Also, notably, the lop-sided scheduling of the proposed the ten division one is dispensed with. No competition should be decided on a league basis where everyone doesn’t play everyone the same number of times. 

You (almost) have to feel for poor Gloucestershire. Deprived of a place in division one they now have the prospect of facing Somerset twice in red-ball cricket in 2021. Given the thrashing they received in late August at Taunton I suspect that that is not a prospect they will be looking forward to!

If there is a flaw in the new competition it is that during the divisional phase of the championship those teams in divisions two and three will have little to play for apart from pride and seedings for next season.

The ECB has been encouraged by the success of this year’s Bob Willis Trophy but potentially are overlooking one of the main reasons for its success. This season’s red-ball cricket was, gloriously, staged in August where the weather and pitches were more conducive to top quality four-day cricket. While the scheduling is yet to be announced, it seems likely that the group phase will take place in April, May and possibly June and the division phase in late August and September.

The ECB has also yet to announce if the T20 will follow a similar format to this year or revert to the north/south divisions of 2019. That decision will directly impact on the number of group games in the shortest form which in turn decide how much space is left for the county championship given that the ECB seem determined to force The Hundred through in the peak summer weeks.

While the ECB says that the seeding of the groups provides three of equal strength based on the results of the 2019 and 2020, this is patently not the case because of the anomalous outcomes of the five-game BWT season. This is most evident in Group 1 where the outstanding performances of Worcestershire and Derbyshire, the bottom two of division two in 2019 make up by far the weakest group which Essex find themselves in. Neither the two counties mentioned or Durham, Nottinghamshire or Warwickshire are likely to pose a threat to the reigning champions.

Group 1 contains only two teams that would have contested the 2020 division one while groups two and three both have four. For me, group 3 is the next weakest with it looking like Yorkshire and one from Kent or Lancashire as the top two. Sussex, Glamorgan and Northants look like real also-rans.

Which brings us to Somerset’s group, Group 2. As well as local rivals Gloucestershire we have the two London counties Hampshire and Lancashire. With the impact of the points deduction factored in this seems almost certain to be the most competitive of the groups. Not only do we have the prospect of two games against Jamie Overton’s Surrey – presumably one of which will be a trip to Guilford but also a trip to the unhappy hunting ground that is the Rose Bowl. At least Anthony Gibson will be happy that he has a trip to Leicester to look forward to!

One final thought. None of us knows at present whether overseas players will play a part in the 2021 season. The ECB from their purely Hundred-centric world will be doubly keen for international travel to be considerably easier in 2021. Still, for those counties who will be deprived of their Kolpaks in 2021, the absence of any overseas players would significantly hamper counties such as Northants and, more relevantly from Somerset’s group, Hampshire.

Well done the ECB. Now just scrap The Hundred!