County Cricket slowly returning to a new normal

As England’s home Test series with West Indies draws to a close it is time for the 18 First-Class counties to return to action for what will be the shortest English domestic season since the 1870s. A summer is not an English summer without county cricket.

The impact of the pandemic on the county game

In a year where, at one stage, any cricket being played seemed a pipedream, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has worked miracles. A financial black hole of circa £380 million had been touted as the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic if no play had been possible this summer. In that scenario, it had been suggested that as many as half of the counties could have gone out of business.

But the ECB, an organisation of cricket administrators, has worked tirelessly and immersed themselves in biosphere science to ensure the teams are able to take the field in 2020. Some important income streams have been preserved and the English summer saved. That doesn’t mean there is no financial hardship at county level, but the effects have been mitigated.

All counties apart from Lancashire and Surrey furloughed their playing squads under the government’s job retention scheme. In early July media reports suggested that four counties remained opposed to participating in a shortened red ball season for financial reasons. But numerous zoom conference calls smoothed a way forward.

As in all areas of life, cricket faced an uncertain future and it can only be good for the long term future of the sport that all counties have come together to find a way forward.

The return of the red ball game

County lovers that excitedly jotted their side’s fixtures on their calendars last autumn and planned their travels it has been a frustrating summer of cancelling travel arrangements and looking out of their windows at wonderful lockdown weather.

The 2020 County Championship has been cancelled and the counties will instead play for the Bob Willis Trophy named after the Warwickshire and England fast bowler who died last December aged 70.

The one-off competition, which will have the first-class status, commences on Saturday 1 August. The 18 counties are split into three regionalised groups of six with each side playing five group-stage matches, one against each of the other county sides in their group.

Bob Willis Trophy Groups (1st division County Championship sides denoted)

SOUTH

NORTH

CENTRAL

Essex (1st)

Yorkshire (1st)

Somerset (1st)

Kent (1st)

Lancashire

Glamorgan

Surrey (1st)

Durham

Gloucestershire (1st)

Sussex

Nottinghamshire (1st)

Warwickshire (1st)

Middlesex

Derbyshire

Worcestershire

Hampshire (1st)

Leicestershire

Northamptonshire (1st)

The two group winners that achieve the most points will then progress to a Test-match style five-day Lord’s final.

The first round of fixtures sees a London derby between Surrey and Middlesex, while the Roses match between Yorkshire and Lancashire comes in round four.

Derbyshire’s ground is currently being used by England Women and Leicestershire’s home ground is currently in a coronavirus lockdown are so it remains to be seen whether these two sides will play from neutral venues.

There are a number of rule changes for the Bob Willis Trophy to look after player wellbeing after such a long break. These included a reduction to 90 overs per day, the first innings to last no longer than 120 overs, the follow-on mark extended to 200 runs and the new ball being available after 90 overs.

TIP: With Yorkshire one of only two division one sides in the North Group they will fancy their chances of making the final at the Home of Cricket.

T20 action

A condensed Vitality T20 Blast will get underway on 27 August. The fixtures will be announced next month.

Women’s Cricket

A 50-over women’s competition will be played between the eight new teams created for now delayed The Hundred. The sides will split into two groups in a regional basis with the fixture schedule to be announced in early August.

What has been lost?

Other than dosh and four months of cricket we also seen the ECB’s delay the launch of their controversial new competition The Hundred. The flagship 100-ball competition has been delayed a year and the 50-over One-Day Cup has also been postponed until 2021.

County cricket Jim, but not as spectators know it

The Covid landscape has changed rapidly and there seems hope that spectators might be allowed into county grounds. The behind closed doors nature of the returning sporting events so far have been a feature of the new normal. But government guidelines look set to be relaxed after the ECB and the Government’s Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) are trialling warm-up games as a pilot programme for fans to return to games. A maximum of 1,000 members are being permitted into some games to assess whether spectators at matches will be safe and viable.

Ultimately being able to get spectators safely into matches this summer will make a difference to clubs’ ailing finances and could also enable counties to offer more player contracts for 2021. There will be cloth cut accordingly post the pandemic and every little helps.

Supporters not able to attend in person can follow the action on television, BBC radio and county streaming services.

It has been small steps in all walls of life over the last few months, but English cricket is getting there.

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