The English domestic cricket calendar is a mess. Squeezing four tournaments into one six month season is not sustainable and it feels inevitable that at least one of them will give. This is the one thing that there is some consensus on. However, there are so many different stakeholders and vested interests within the game that it feels impossible to find a solution that will keep everyone happy moving forward. Here at The Bouncer though, we feel we may just have found one.
To begin with, let’s look at the situation as it is. Each of the four current tournaments has its loyal supporters. The County Championship has already been cut back to the margins of the summer, played in the wet and cold of April, May and September where batsmen struggle to hone techniques on green, seaming pitches and home grown spinners are denied opportunity. Having 10 teams in the first division and 8 in the second, both playing 14 games each, leads to an uneven structure, where some top tier teams are not playing each other home and away and others are. This makes it confusing for new fans to follow. Imagine a Premier League football competition where Manchester United played Arsenal twice but Manchester City only once. It clearly would not work and the same is true of the unwieldy structure of the County Championship.
County cricket fans would surely fight tooth and nail against any further reduction in the red ball schedule, as they did when Sir Andrew Strauss’ High Performance Review proposed another cut in Championship fixtures. The four day game is the lifeblood of English cricket and the breeding ground for future Test players. It must be preserved.
The T20 Blast is essential to the financial survival of our 18 Counties, providing the only sizeable, guaranteed income of the summer. If it was cut back or scrapped completely, many counties may go bust.
Many of the game’s long term fans would certainly be glad to see the back of The Hundred and indeed, I myself have been no great fan. However, no matter how hard this is for traditional supporters to hear, the Hundred has undoubtably gained new fans to the game. I have seen this with my own eyes. Work colleagues who had previously shown no interest in cricket have been sharing Hundred clips in the office and signing up for Oval Invincibles season tickets. Many children and young people have also become loyal supporters of Hundred teams too, attending games wearing replica shirts and caps. How confusing would it be if the teams that these young people supported suddenly disappeared and they were told that instead they should support unfamiliar, to them, entities such as Surrey and Lancashire that played on the same ground, but with different colours and different crests? If we were to completely ditch the Hundred now, some of these new fans would be lost to the game for good. It may be hard to admit this but the concept of pride or loyalty to a county is a very difficult one to sell to young people. Someone from Manchester does not necessarily identify with Lancashire and a young resident of South London may not feel an affinity to Surrey, especially given the distance between the geographical county and its’ ground. It is much easier to engage young people with cricket through the identity of their town or city, as football and rugby do, rather than their county.
The Championship must be preserved, as must the income from T20 cricket for the counties, while at the same time keeping the new fans engaged by the Hundred. So, the question must be, how can this be achieved?
I believe that there is a solution that, far from reducing the Championship, actually increases the number of red ball games, whilst at the same time protecting the counties white ball income and keeping Hundred fans loyal.
The ECB should ditch the T20 Blast and The Hundred, replacing both with a new competition called the Premier Cricket League. This competition would consist of 18 teams, each playing at the home of a First Class County. Tickets for their home matches would be included in the higher levels of county memberships, as Blast games are now. The counties would run each team for a profit, as they do their Blast teams, thereby increasing their financial security.
However, unlike the Blast, each team would be named after an easily recognisable city or town, making it easier to engage new fans from the area. The 8 counties currently hosting Hundred teams would be encouraged to keep the names and colours of the current sides, thereby not risking alienating new fans introduced to the game through this competition. In some cases, such as Manchester Originals and Birmingham Pheonix, no changes would be needed. In others, cosmetic tweaks would be required. Supporting Southampton Brave rather than Southern Brave, for instance, would not create too much confusion for fans. Neither would transitioning the competition from a 100 ball format to the universally accepted and easy to follow T20.
Unlike the Hundred, the profits from these teams would flow straight to the counties, protecting their futures.
There are two options for the format of this competition. It could copy the football model, with straight promotion and relegation between two divisions of 9 teams each, each playing each other home and away throughout the competition. The other option would be to emulate the Blast model, with two groups of 9 playing home and away before Quarters, Semis and a Final.
A genuinely meritocratic tournament, with teams possessing culture and history, would also give the ECB a genuine point of difference from all the manufactured, identikit T20 leagues springing up around the world when negotiating TV deals. There is no point in aiming for an imitation of the IPL. We need a tournament that is unique and stands out from the crowd.
The recent rumours about IPL owners looking to buy county sides, the owner of Delhi Capitals is rumoured to be interested in Hampshire for instance, makes it all the more urgent that an alternative plan is developed soon, one that can secure the financial future of the game without selling our summer to people who have no interest in the long term wellbeing of cricket.
This is how the teams in Premier Cricket League could look
Derby Dynamos (Derbyshire)
Newcastle CC (Durham)
Chelmsford Eagles (Essex)
Gloucester Gladiators (Gloucestershire)
Southampton Brave (Hampshire)
Manchester Originals (Lancashire)
Leicester Foxes (Leicestershire)
Nottingham Rockets (Nottinghamshire)
Northampton Steelbacks (Northamptonshire)
Brighton Seagulls (Sussex)
Kennington Invincibles (Surrey)
London Spirit (Middlesex)
Cardiff Fire (Glamorgan)
Taunton Tigers (Somerset)
Birmingham Pheonix (Warwickshire)
Canterbury Spitfires (Kent)
Worcester Warriors (Worcestershire)
Leeds Superchargers (Yorkshire)
All of these teams would be easily identifiable and relatable to non-cricket fans living in these areas in a way that traditional counties are not. Some county fans might complain about the loss of their name from the new teams’ identity. However, this new competition would allow the counties to take back control of the summer. Instead of the most lucrative competition containing teams controlled by the ECB or, worse still, private investment from IPL owners, it would consist of sides controlled and owned by the 18 first class counties, creating a revenue stream that could secure the counties’ future for generations to come. The increase in Championship cricket would also surely act as a fillip to any county members who are sceptical about the new teams. After all, for most county fans the Championship is the priority and the traditional identity of the county clubs would be preserved in this, their most important competition. It is worth mentioning that Warwickshire have already gone down this route. Their T20 Blast team has been playing under the name of Birmingham Bears for some years now. The fact that there are two separate cricket teams named Birmingham, both containing many of the same players, but playing in different competitions in different colours and branding, shows the unwieldiness of the current system.
The new league could be a significant way to draw football fans into the game too. Cricket must never seek to copy football or to become a poor imitation of it for it is a great and unique game in its’ own right. However, some crossover would not be a bad thing. Picture for instance, a team called Newcastle CC, kitted out in black and white, playing at Chester-Le-Street, only 20 minutes form Newcastle city centre. It is hard to imagine the interest of local people not being piqued by this.
There could even be the chance for co-operation between the local football and cricket teams. There are precedents for this. Real Madrid and Barcelona both run successful basketball teams with large fanbases. In fact, multi-club co-operation is an accepted business model across Spain.
Sussex’s home ground at Hove is a mere 17 minutes from Brighton and Hove Albion’s Amex stadium. Brighton have been known to have a progressive outlook and open to new ideas. The two clubs would seem prime candidates to become involved with each other. These partnership could extend to getting community cricket coaches into schools under the joint club umbrella. Premier League football clubs do sterling work through their Community Foundations, sending coaches into local schools and running community football, employability and outreach projects in their local area. It is a win – win for the clubs and the community, as local people benefit greatly from the projects, while the increased visibility of the club through coaches in club branded gear creates new fans and increased identification with the club, particularly among younger people in schools and youth centres. This is an area where cricket is sadly lacking, despite commendable efforts of some counties. We want the game to become more representative of our communities and less elitist. There can be no better way to do that than by Premier League cricket teams going out into the community and providing easy, free access to the sport, especially in lower income areas.
Another objection raised in the past to city based T20 teams is that they would be alienating to supporters from outside this city. The example of other sports suggests this problem may be overstated. After all, despite recent struggles, Newcastle Falcons rugby team has thrived over the years despite having a clear city based identity. They do not seem to have suffered from a lack of supporters from Sunderland or Middlesborough for instance. At one stage, they were even linked to Newcastle United football club, thereby strengthening their identity.
None of this rebranding would be to the detriment of the first class counties and the County Championship. Quite the opposite. Combining two competitors into one would also have the much needed effect of freeing up space in a ridiculously overcrowded calendar. This newfound space could be used for an extended and better structured County Championship competition. Each side would play each other home and away in two 9 team divisions. There would be an increase to 16 matches for each team. This would mean a guaranteed 8 home four-day games each season for counties sell to their members. It would also mean more red ball cricket in the warmer months when pitches would provide a more even contest where batsmen could build an innings without the inevitability of a ball arriving with their name on it and bowlers would have to develop new skills to earn their wickets. It could even be a breeding ground for young homegrown spinners to learn their craft.
August would still be earmarked for white ball cricket as, whether we like it or not, the income counties receive from T20 matches in the school holidays is critical to their financial survival. The Championship would still increase its’ presence in the summer months, however. Under the 2025 schedule which I have designed there would be 24 days of Championship cricket in June and July, as opposed to a maximum of 15 days in June, July and August in the 2024 fixture list.
The County Championship would go from strength to strength, its’ place in the English season and its’ identity established once again.
Now, the one event we haven’t mentioned so far is the One-Day Cup. Under these new proposals that would still continue but would be greatly reduced. There will be those who are unhappy with this but we have to be realistic about the way the world of cricket is going. T20 is increasingly ruling the roost, with red ball cricket considered the highest level of the game, its’ preservation crucial. 50 over cricket is increasingly becoming a rare event, saved for marquee tournaments such as World Cups.
We cannot preserve everything and, in trying to, we could risk losing more than we save.
My proposal would see the One-Day Cup transformed into cricket’s version of the FA Cup, with all 18 First Class Counties plus 14 of the National Counties competing in a 32 team knockout cup. There could perhaps be a qualifying competition to decide which national counties took part. This would preserve some level of 50 over cricket in the domestic game, while making sure that each match felt like an event, something which is certainly not the case now. There would be the occasional headline producing giant killings, imagine Buckinghamshire defeating Lancashire on a green top at High Wycombe for instance. There would also be a properly promoted, marquee Cup Final, similar to the glory days of the old NatWest Trophy.
It is often said that the major casualty of abolishing the Hundred would be the growth of women’s cricket. However, under this model that would be protected along with the identity of the Hundred teams. The existing 8 Hundred host counties, under their modified branding, would continue to run a Premier Women’s League with the same teams and colours as the 18 team men’s competition. This matches would still be played as double headers before men’s Premier Cricket League games where the same two teams were playing each other. However, where that was not the case, the women’s game would be given the chance to stand on its own. The women’s game has grown so much in this country in the last three years, thanks to the visibility of the Hundred and last year’s Ashes and, most of all, some excellent, gripping cricket. The argument that it could not stand on its own as a commercial enterprise now no longer holds water. The women’s Big Bash in Australia is a stand-alone event. The WPL in India saw crowds of up to 30,000 in Mumbai despite some teams having different names and no visible connection to the men’s IPL.
Fans would still want to go and see Sophie Ecclestone and Tammy Beaumont display their skills without needing the carrot of Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow to follow. Women’s cricket deserves us putting some faith in it.
The talent pool may not quite be deep enough yet to allow for an 18 team event, hence the original 8 must be preserved with for now but with a written commitment to adding two new teams, affiliated to counties, every season as the game grows in strength and depth until eventually the Premier Women’s League is an 18 team competition too.
All of this could be achieved with almost no increase in the number of days of cricket currently played by professional players in this country. Under this proposal, the maximum number of days cricket a player could be required to play in the season is 85. (This rises to 88 if the Premier Cricket League adopts a quarter final, semi and final format). Under the current system a player who plays for a county and a Hundred franchise could play 84 days if their teams reached both domestic finals and 85 days for one who competes in the One-Day Cup.
2025 is the first year where these plans could come into effect. This is how that season could look
R1 April 4-7
R2 April 11-14
R3 April 18-21
R4 April 25-28
R5 May 1-4
ECB Cup Round of 32 May 7th
R6 May 9-12
R7 May 16-19
R8 May 23-26
Premier Cricket League
R1 May 28
R2 May 31
R3 June 4
R4 June 7
ECB Cup Round of 16 June 11th
R9 June 13-16
R10 June 20-23
R11 June 27-30
Quater finals July 2
R12 July 5-8
R13 July 11-18
R14 July 18-22
Premier League Cricket
July 25 – August 31 R4-16 (Possible semi-finals and final?)
ECB Cup Semi-finals September 6-7
R15 September 12-15
ECB Cup Final September 20th
R16 September 26-29
This proposal is something The Bouncer firmly believes in. It would secure the future of the County Championship and red ball cricket in this country through Premier League teams owned and operated by the 18 first class counties. It would also provide a thriving T20 competition that stands out from all the others in the world while providing easily identifiable teams to draw new fans into the game and to keep those gained by The Hundred.
This is our chance to be bold and do something completely different and unique. In 2003, the ECB invented T20 cricket by thinking differently. Now is the time to think differently again.