Yes we can have a T20 competition with 18 counties!
In 2003, England added a new format of cricket to its domestic structure, T20 cricket. Fans loved it. The competition's aim was to encourage children to come along to games and get 'introduced' to cricket. Players didn't take it seriously and everyone just had fun. 12 years on T20 has changed cricket. It's now a serious business. For several years I hated everything about it. Cricketers were becoming like footballers, it was all about money and the pay check they could receive by putting themselves forward for the Indian Premier League. Players were choosing to miss Test matches. This wasn't the game we loved.
In recent years however, my stance has changed. I still have concerns, I'm not happy players now fly in for Test tours, days before an opening Test, but I am now 'just about' in the 'T20 has been good for Test cricket' camp. Anyone who has watched New Zealand's approach to Tests, cannot not be impressed. Run rates throughout the world are increasing and England are trying to follow suit with a new 'brand' of cricket and the cricketing public are enjoying it. Yes, we will get bowled out cheaply on occasions, yes players will get out to a 'why the f&ck' did he play that shot, but we have a new dimension to the 'nutritional' cricket we have played successfully in the past. We can now adapt our 'brand' depending on the pitches we're playing. But, to build on this we must start taking T20 cricket seriously in this country and that doesn't have to be to the detriment of the first class game.
All three formats can sit alongside each other. Honestly they can. But, our domestic T20 structure needs to change. Although the 2015 Natwest Blast ticket sales hit a record high, and the league attracted players such as Gayle, McCullum, Sangakkara, Dilshan, Afridi, Finch and Maxwell, let's be honest, the competition feels very much unloved, particularly in comparison to the IPL, Australia's Big Bash and the Caribbean T20 - we've gone from being the creators to the followers.
And it's all to do with the structure. 18 counties in the current format is too many.
A lot of talk has been about the need to introduce city based franchises and follow the model of the IPL and Big Bash. That won't work here. The counties will never vote it in, and they shouldn't. Our counties rely on T20 income and it's not right to take that away from the smaller counties, who rely on T20 income. But most importantly, fans, like with football, nail their colours to a mast. So how do we make T20 cricket better, more attractive and more competitive, but at the same time keep 18 counties and their members happy?
If we're honest there will never be a solution that keeps everyone happy, but here are eight of my suggestions that could keep a smile on the faces of the majority!
Introduce a T20 window
Not only do we want the world's best players playing, we also want our best England players playing, this won't work if the current Friday night structure is maintained. Chris Gayle was great for this year's competition but he was only available for a handful of games, international players need to commit for the duration and that will only be possible if there's a T20 window of 4-6 weeks in the middle of summer.
Create a two divisional structure
Forget two 'groups' of nine with the top four qualifying for the quarter finals etc, bring in a league system with two 'divisions' of nine with promotion and relegation. If the top four in division 1 go into the semi finals/finals day, but the bottom three get relegated, each game played is important. Right through to the last game, there will be no nothing games. You can have teams going into the last round of games with a semi final place or relegation at stake. Imagine the scenario, the final game with one ball left to be bowled, two runs to win, and whichever team wins goes to finals day, whichever loses gets relegated, that brings pressure. Pressure situations our players need to learn how to deal with. By inviting three up from division 2 that league will always be ultra competitive. Yes, this will mean teams in division 2 cannot 'win' the competition that year, but sport should be brutal, they will know what they need to do to get promoted and three up gives them the opportunity. Division one can be as competitive as the Championship in football.
Increase the quota of international players to three per side
Overseas players is what attracts sponsors, but it's also what brings the fans through the turnstiles and the quality to the competition. Yes, it means less of our own players playing, but it still means 8 England qualified players playing per game. The best young players will play. Our players will develop, playing alongside the very best, and this will only improve our national team.
Two under 21s per side
Of the 8 England qualified players, two must be under the age of 21. While I am usually against quota systems this will force counties to have a emphasis on developing young talent.
Overseas players can only sign one season deals
With my proposed structure, inevitably the best overseas players will want to play division 1 T20 cricket, but by allowing players to only sign one year deals, the promoted three counties will have the same opportunity of all other counties to sign players for the following season. Similarly if a county gets relegated they are not stuck with expensive overseas players on their wage bill.
No IPL style auctions
The best players in the world will come to England without having to do an IPL style auction and putting county finances at risk.
Allow England internationals to play
All England internationals must be allowed to play and if that means losing a few ODI's or one of the seven home Test matches so be it. England players playing will not only make the league more attractive, it will increase the quality of the second division as internationals will play for their counties despite the division they are in.
Play multiple games at weekends
With a short window to fit games in, there should be games every night with three games a day on Saturday and Sunday. It's possible.
So there you go just a few ideas, which I believe can make T20 thrive in this country, while maintaining 18 counties. What does this mean for the country championship and domestic one day cricket? A good question, but maybe a theme for another blog. I have views and believe all three can fit together, without being to the detriment of the first class game and reducing the number of games.
With the IPL experiencing problems - India's Supreme Court this year suspended two of its franchises (Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals) for two years over a corruption scandal - now is the time the ECB can make our domestic competition one of the best in the world. But, that opportunity won't be around for ever.
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