T20 Blast Needs Change, But Not to Extent ECB Propose
Proposed changes to the English Twenty20 tournament came in to sharp focus over the weekend, as Sky submitted a £40 million bid to secure the broadcast rights.
The proposal not only sees more of the media giant’s money dangled in front of the ECB, but also a radical change from the tournament’s current format and the knock on effect it could have on the rest of the domestic game.
But is such a massive overhaul really needed?
Slated to begin in 2017, the new format would see eight ‘cities’ compete, rather than the present eighteen Counties, with games taking place during a three or four week block – most likely in August.
There is little doubt the T20 Blast needs some TLC. The ECB’s handling of the tournament has been questionable given the formats popularity and the benefits it brings to the sport, both as a financial tool and a marketing one. But the new proposal has been met with trepidation by Counties, despite the financial carrot Sky’s bid would allow the ECB to dangle, as the much needed shot in the arm for the T20 Blast would come at the expense of the County Championship.
Considered to be the domestic game’s cornerstone by many, the number of Championship games would fall from 16 to 12 under the proposal; a shift large numbers, including the Counties themselves, are heavily opposed to.Embed from Getty Images
The proposed new format is undoubtedly bold, more than halving the number of clubs competing whilst simultaneously attempting to create a more defined identity between local populations and clubs via a city specific identity.
The argument that people form stronger associations with their city than their county has an air of truth to it. While there are exceptions, most of those living in the North West’s biggest city will have an affinity for Manchester rather Lancashire, likewise Southampton is a more prominent seller than Hampshire when it comes to building the kind of tribalism the ECB seems to be seeking. ‘Connections’ to counties seem much more limited these days, and a case for moving way from one of cricket’s more antiquated notions can certainly be made.
But we’ve seen the idea ‘road tested’, in a sense, already. England’s second city saw Warwickshire re-branded as Birmingham Bears, with the effect of that change up for debate. Does the name affect attendances? Or is it a case of better marketing and a better product on the field pulling the punters in? ‘What’s in a name’ exactly?
Cutting the tournament to eight teams will also reduce the geographical spread, and thus the tournament’s potential catchment area, which seems like a major gamble when some members of the public are already more than an hour away from their nearest ground.
It seems safe to assume Manchester would host one team, Birmingham another, London at least one (possibly/probably two) and Test grounds in Nottingham, Cardiff and Leeds are ‘ready made’ for stadium cricket. If these six major population centres garner seven of the proposed eight clubs, who misses out? The Rose Bowl? Chester-Le-Street? Perhaps too far out to truly seen as a Newcastle team, it may struggle to keep in line with the ‘city’ ethos being promoted here; but the omission of the most Northerly county would curtail the tournaments influence North of Leeds – at least in terms of actually getting people to games. Surely a backward step?
EDIT: The Argus subsequently named London (two), Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Durham, Cardiff and Birmingham as potential host venues/cities. (Source)
If you want people to attend games, support the competition and really get behind the sport, increasing the distance between them and their nearest club seems counterintuitive. As Freddie Wilde wrote on Cricinfo in January, cricket has an image problem in the UK, and making the game even less accessible will do nothing to change that.
No solution is perfect, but the proposal can seem unnecessarily radical in certain lights – especially with so many questions unanswered at this time. Does a Cardiff ‘English Premier League’ (as many have dubbed it) team help Glamorgan? The Welsh County may own and operate a Cardiff EPL side, but equally the ECB may run it and simply pay Glamorgan for use of Sophia Gardens during the tournament. Does that payment sufficiently boost the Counties’ fortunes? Or perhaps more importantly, does the payment represent a greater sum than Glamorgan would make under the current T20 Blast format?
There are suggestions the eight team EPL and a County T20 tournament could run side-by-side, so perhaps the answer is ‘both’. The fee doesn’t help Glamorgan on its own, but it does top up their own T20 takings, leading to a better financial position overall. But even with the ‘financial case’, how do you schedule two T20 tournaments within the confines of the already busy County season? An overlap seems unavoidable in this scenario and one competition or the other will suffer. Again, this seems like a backward step.
Equally, does the suggested increased income from the revamped tournament help boost the chances of brining the world’s T20 stars to the UK? It feels a little bit of a moot point given Chris Gayle, Brendan McCullum and Darren Sammy’s participation this year (and others in the past). The problem was not getting them here, it was clashes with other tournaments; namely the IPL and CPL.
The T20 Blast, or its replacement, will not trump either tournament straight away; which is one of the main motivations for moving the English competition to late July/August. The IPL is finished by mid-May and the CPL final took place yesterday, freeing up the Gayles and Pollards of the world, and it should be noted that the Counties wanted to move this year’s competition to late July and August, to capitalise on both the weather and the school holidays, but the ECB rejected the idea at the time.Embed from Getty Images
Regardless of when the T20 Blast (or its replacement) actually begins; it doesn’t subtracts from the fact England’s best players are on international duty for most of the year, or that a number of other potential overseas stars may be touring at the time the ‘EPL’ takes place.
The sheer volume of international cricket, and the IPL’s seeming ability to find the/create the only gap in the schedule to allow the world’s biggest stars to play, will always curtail the ECB’s hopes of truly bringing the best of the best together.
There is also something to be said for the ‘Cinderella stories’ the T20 Blast (in any of its guises) have led to. Leicestershire and Northants seem a million miles from County Championship glory; but both have tasted Twenty20 success, while Gloucestershire have also made the Final since the tournament’s inaugural campaign in 2003.
Much like seeing a League 1 side topple a Premiership club in the FA Cup, seeing smaller counties not only succeed, but have a legitimate chance at winning the competition is part of the beauty of the current set up. Something that would be lost should a new tournament limit the number of sides taking part, as well as robbing those clubs of the boost such success delivers.
Again, this is not to say changes aren’t needed. The bones are there, but the flesh is somewhat loose. The English game is more of a middle aged village seamer than athletic international opener.
But any threat against the County Championship is, understandably, met with scorn. Ultimately the ‘Champo’ is about producing the best possible players for the national side, something it has done relatively well in recent years and in most people’s eyes is not broken (though there may be a debate to be had there depending on England’s fortunes…).
But it also ensures competitive cricket in, arguably, its truest form is available to as many people as often as possible. It helps drive club memberships, and, some would say, is the closest thing to the pressure cooker of Test cricket in terms of competition – is cutting the number of overs a potential England bowler may get to bowl wise? Or the number of balls a young batsmen could face on their path to the national side?
An argument can be made that there is too much cricket and if England can field a competitive XI, then twelve Championship games are just as good, as sixteen as its purpose is being served. But this seems a little churlish and disrespectful to the competition, and those who represent and support the eighteen Counties.
So how do you preserve and respect the traditions of old without allowing them to stop progress? Because the game cannot forever anchor itself to tradition, it must evolve if it is to survive.
Various suggestions and proposals to improve the English Twenty 20 tournament exist, with a mix of personal interests influencing each idea. For my part, here’s one idea that might help to revitalise the tournament without quite so radically changing the cricketing landscape:
A twenty team tournament (more on this later), split in to two Conferences of ten – North and South – with two Divisions of five teams in each Conference (which I’ve named South East, South West, Midlands and Northern for examples sake).
Each team plays the other four teams in its’ Division home and away (eight games) and the other five teams in opposite Division once (alternating between home and away each year – so Team A plays Team B at home in 2016, then away in 2017, then home in 2018 and so on).
This provides a 13 game ‘league’ schedule, one game fewer than we see now, and cuts out the need for teams like Worcestershire to travel to Durham as the Divisions and Conferences are split geographically, making it easier for away fans to follow their team and cutting clubs overheads (albeit only slightly).
The top four in each Conference then qualify for play-offs, so conceivably all four teams could come from one Division, with the aim to ensure teams have something to play for throughout and the best net run rates (the classic tie breaker) are sought – driving teams to perform with bat and ball.
The play-off quarter finals would remain Conference based, with the top seeded team playing fourth and second playing third, with the higher seed gaining home advantage, before Finals Day arrives (which would remain ‘as is’, with the semi finals and final on same day at a pre-arranged venue that changes each year).
The format would require a maximum of eight home dates for clubs to find, depending on their progress (up to seven league games and maybe a quarter final).
Perhaps the hardest part of all is finding an appropriate window which allows the T20 tournament to hold momentum without clashing with the County Championship or 50 Over competition, jeopardising any/all of the formats ability to shine.
Whilst a three to four week block would be optimal, an alternative might be to run in a similar vein to the current schedule; just tightened up slightly.
Using the 2015 calendar for example purposes; the tournament could have begun on Friday July 3rd, allowing thirteen dates over a seven week period in which to fit the thirteen league games (one every Friday and Saturday) with the final round of league matches taking place on Friday August 14th. The quarter final match ups could then take place on Saturday 15th August.
This then tees up the traditional Finals day on Saturday 22nd August. Perfect.
A schedule along these lines would avoid clashes with the IPL (preventing another ridiculous situation where Alex Hales went to sit on Mumbai’s bench just as the T20 Blast began…) and allow CPL players to join later in the competition.
Again, a block would undoubtedly be preferable for all concerned. It gives a defined period around which the County Championship and 50 over tournament can be scheduled (rather than shoe horned), but alternatives are available which allow all three competitions to fit within the season.
How The Groups Stack Up
Dividing eighteen teams in to a manageable format is not easy; but rather than contract, why not expand?
The inclusion of an Association team would aid their progress; and in the case of Scotland, expand the T20 Blast’s reach beyond Hadrian’s Wall.
The Scots have taken part in English domestic competitions before, with an opening for a second Association (the Netherlands perhaps?) or an alternative also available (again, we’ve seen this before in the form of the Unicorns).
The Divisional alignment would then sit along these lines:
South East Division
South West Division
If the ECB is seeking to cement the kind of feverish support seen in other sports, local rivalries would certainly do their bit to create a competitive environment both on and off the field. This isn’t football, but some of cricket’s most humorous and enjoyable moments come from the stands and some friendly sparring between Yorkshire and Lancashire fans never goes amiss.
It seems that the ECB is finally looking to maximise the potential Twenty20 cricket offers, both in terms of the bottom line but also in terms of entertaining existing fans whilst attracting new ones, tied to the belief cricket is a stuffy affair that plods along and fails to excite, when the reality is so much different.
Too often, the game has failed to get the message across, to show what a brilliant sport cricket is.
The ECB doesn’t need to tear up any trees to do it though. It just needs to apply a little more thought to the process, celebrate what makes the sport great and ensure it is pitched right to grab the public’s imagination.
That may be easier said than done, but the foundations are there to build something great.