County cricket is no stranger to rumours of its imminent reorganisation. There lives in every top honcho a desire to tinker with the settings, like a 1970s teenager idly flicking from turgid western to Songs of Praise on a Sunday afternoon.
Sometimes these changes are genuinely huge – the switch to two divisions in 2000, the expansion from nine counties to 14 in 1895, the admission of Durham in 1998, the switch to four-day cricket in 1993; sometimes less so, like the move to 10 teams in the first division, eight in the second, which comes into place on Thursday with the start of the season.
And to accompany that – travelling in the well-marked footsteps of Bob Willis, Michael Parkinson and Michael Atherton’s Cricket reform group, and ECB’s own 2007 Schofield report, among others – comes yet another review. This one is commissioned by the interim ECB director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, whose attitude to the 18-team championship falls somewhere between fond frustration and amused antipathy.
Strauss, who hopes the review, authorised after England’s disastrous Ashes tour, will be “bold and ambitious” has stressed that it is a high-performance system review, not a domestic structure review, but it is hard to see how you can do one without the other. The report aims to conclude by the end of September this year, with any changes in place for the start of the 2023 season.
“Bold” is a word to cause prickling anxiety among many four-day cricket supporters who are only just being handed back their two-divisional Championship, after the Covid years of the regional Bob Willis Trophy.
The Hundred has already introduced eight city-based teams – two in London, and one each in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Southampton, Cardiff and Nottingham – to perch on top of the county structure, and there are fears that something similar will be introduced in the county game.
There have been reports that a 12-team premier league playing each other once is being considered, with a six-team second division playing each other twice. Both would retain first-class status, but those counties kicking about at the bottom would have justifiable fears for their financial survival.
Other potential reforms include moving the championship to a more central period of the season, this has happened to some extent for 2022, and finding ways to produce better pitches and develop more spin bowlers (Sophie Ecclestone surely the go-to person here). One thing those in charge must remember is that the championship is being judged on the players it has nurtured over the past two extraordinary years.
The truncated 2020 season, held entirely behind closed doors, was played for the Bob Willis Trophy, and won by Essex in a humdinger of a match at Lord’s against Somerset. The championship was revived in 2021 but in a complicated conference system, with Warwickshire crowned champions, in a race that went down to the last day. They also went on to beat Lancashire in a colder, more one-sided, “Bob” going into October.
The 2022 season starts with teams divided into divisions as decided at the end of the 2019 season – which is bad luck for Nottinghamshire, who last summer finally played up to their billing, finishing third in the championship after a drought of nearly three years without a red-ball win.
The spotlight, however, will be on Yorkshire, who spent the winter being rocked by succeeding tumultuous waves following Azeem Rafiq’s moving account, in front of the Parliamentary DCMS select committee, of the racism he encountered in the club.
A mass cull of the coaching and medical staff – some of whom were not even there when Rafiq was at the club – has left a feeling of residual bitterness among some at Headingley – and the club is facing a number of employment tribunals. However, the EGM held on Thursday, which ratified the structural changes required before the ECB lifted the ban on the club holding international cricket, seems to have drawn a line in the sand. The new chairman, Kamlesh Patel, managing director of cricket Darren Gough and head coach Ottis Gibson, are determined to push the club forward into a new era.
“It’s sad what’s happened, we can never take it back, we can’t forget what’s happened, it’s about learning from it, moving forward and make sure that situation doesn’t happen again,” said Gough at a cold Headingley on Friday morning. “We want to be on the front and back pages for the right reasons.”
Yorkshire avoid the first round – due to the relaying of the Headingley outfield over the winter – and are still waiting to hear if they will be docked points by the ongoing ECB independent investigation panel.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of players with something to prove. Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson may have a trick or two up their sleeve, as well as a barbed word, while there will be plenty of opportunity for England’s recent batting rejects, Haseeb Hameed, Rory Burns, Dawid Malan, and those who didn’t cover themselves in glory in the Caribbean – the Dukes ball in April notwithstanding.
Lancashire fans will be looking forward to another of perennial England drinks carrier Matt Parkinson’s balls of the century – though sadly Shane Warne is no longer here to appreciate and retweet it – and Glamorgan, the return of the world’s best batsman, Marnus Labuschagne.
In fact there is a thrilling hand of overseas players to watch including Simon Harmer, at last returned to South Africa’s international embrace, Kyle Abbott, Mohammad Abbas, Jackson Bird, Hassan Ali, Peter Siddle, Hashim Amla, Kemar Roach and Haris Rauf with Mohammad Rizwan coming up against Shaheen Shah Afridi when Sussex play Middlesex in early May at Hove.
Not forgetting the greatest Championship stalwart of them all, Darren Stevens, he of Australian WhatsApp group “Stevo’s gonna get ya” fame. Stevens, soon to be 46, signed a new one-year contract at the end of last season. Who would dare bet against him signing another.