Division bell rings as county cricket looks to make up for lost time

Figcaption Division Bell Rings As County Cricket Looks To Make Up For Lost Time
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

T he last time we saw the County Championship, in 2019, Nottinghamshire had been relegated from Division One with a paltry 67 points, while Lancashire, Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire had been promoted from Division Two.

“I’m now looking forward to the challenge and I know the players are excited about that,” trilled Gloucestershire’s head coach, Richard Dawson. “It’s been a humbling championship campaign and all of us are really hurting,” grumbled Peter Moores, whose Notts side were coming to terms with demotion. Now, after a fallow year in 2020, it’s back – and it turns out that none of that really mattered.

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Instead the competition that begins on Thursday looks more like last year’s Bob Willis Trophy, with counties drawn into three divisions, this time seeded according to performances over the last two summers rather than grouped geographically. Results in this early group stage, most of which will be played during April and May, will split the teams for a second stage scheduled for September, from which the champions will eventually emerge.

This means that teams destined to miss out on the top two spots in their first groups don’t have much to play for from then on, but also that for the first time since 1999, when the championship was split into two, every county goes into the season with a chance of winning the title.

“I think divisional cricket has its positives and negatives,” says Paul Downton, director of cricket at Kent. “The idea of best versus best is great, but it leaves half the sides almost in a twilight zone. I think the fact that all 18 counties do start the year with the potential of winning the championship is exciting.

Somerset battle for the wicket of Essex’s Ryan Ten Doeschate during the Bob Willis Trophy final at Lord’s last September. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images

“I think we should give this a real go. One year would be too short. I’d be in favour at this stage of continuing this format for two or three years and seeing how it works out. A lot of cricketers got ignored in the old Second Division and this should even things out.”

Others are far less enthusiastic. “I’m not a big fan if I’m honest,” says Anthony McGrath, head coach at Essex. “I think we’re better with two divisions. I think the best teams should play the best teams. I think that’s how you get the best competition and the best development.”

Jason Kerr, Somerset’s head coach, agrees. “I know how hard we had to work to get out of Division Two. We had to develop skills and develop players, and I think all 18 counties should have that mindset,” he says. “You need to earn the right to win the County Championship. If you look at football, the guys outside the Premier League haven’t got the opportunity to win the Premier League. They’ve got to earn the right to be there.”

The England and Wales Cricket Board will assess the format’s initial impact before deciding whether it should be retained, amended or discarded.

If you’re having to work harder for your wins, I think that instils good qualities in players Vikram Solanki

There are other changes for this season, including the return of the coin toss and the reward for a draw boosted from five points to eight. The latter was among the ideas suggested by Joe Root in the aftermath of England’s Test series defeat in India, as a means of stretching games into four days, encouraging batsmen to build long innings and bringing spinners into the game.

The impact of those extra three points remains to be seen, but Downton worries that “it could lead to some quite defensive cricket”. Vikram Solanki, head coach at Surrey, is more welcoming: “I think it’s a good thing, because if you’re having to work harder for your wins, or if you are able to salvage a situation where you might be behind in a game, I think that instils good qualities in players, both for our county and for those guys who are lucky enough to go on and play for England.”

Quick Guide

Men's domestic cricket schedule 2021

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County Championship (four days)

The 18 first-class counties are split into three seeded groups of six. The opening nine rounds of the group stage will be played in consecutive weeks, starting on Thursday. After a break for Vitality Blast and Royal London Cup matches, the group stage will conclude in July, and the top two counties in each group progress to Division One with a chance of winning the title.

8 April: Group stage begins
3 June: Final group round matches begin before break for T20s and ODIs
4 July: Group stage resumes
30 August: Divisional stage begins
27 September-1 October: Final, Lord's (five days)

Vitality Blast (Twenty20)

The traditional short-form game starts on 9 June, with the counties divided into nine-team North and South Groups.

24, 25, 26, 27 August: Quarter-finals
18 September: Semi-finals and final, Edgbaston

The Hundred (100 balls per side)

The controversial new format begins on 21 July, with teams based in cities rather than counties: Birmingham Phoenix, London Spirit (Lord's), Manchester Originals, Super Northern Chargers (Headingley), Oval Invincibles, Southern Brave (Rose Bowl), Trent Rockets and Welsh Fire.

20 August: Eliminator (The Oval)
21 August: Finals day (Lord's)

Royal London Cup (50 overs)

The county one-day competition, without players appearing in the Hundred, begins on 22 July.

Quarter-finals: 14 August
Semi-finals: 17 August
Final: 19 August, Trent Bridge

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Covid-19’s continued impact on the game is more certain, not least in the absence of fans for most of the first group stage, while players will have to get used to regular lateral flow tests and restrictions on how they travel to grounds and behave once in them. But not all of the pandemic’s implications are entirely negative, given that issues with international travel have led to many players spending their winters training rather than sunbathing.

“I’m sure it was a frustration for a lot of them that they weren’t getting the sun on their back in the winter,” says Kerr, “but for me it was a fantastic opportunity to really develop players and I certainly hope we’ll see that come to fruition.”

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After finishing second in four of the last five years (including last year’s Bob Willis Trophy), Kerr’s Somerset will be looking to take the final step to silverware this summer, though Surrey and Hampshire will both hope to complicate their progress from Group Two.

Essex, winners in three of the last four years (again including last year), should come safely through Group One and Yorkshire are favourites to win Group Three, but as every follower of the county game knows, long-range forecasts are wildly unreliable.

In this of all years it is hard to be sure on whom the sun will be shining in September.

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