The Playfair Annual 2016

The ECB's recently announced reform of the county season for 2017 and beyond left some complaining that the changes were too far-reaching, while others viewed them as a missed opportunity for a radical shake-up. In the circumstances, then, perhaps the ECB ought to be congratulated for negotiating a delicate balancing act. Andrew Strauss made the most valid point of all, noting that the new arrangements will mean that players have to change formats about six times per season, rather than up to 24 times as is currently the case. The mindsets for first-class, 50-over and 20-over cricket are all very different, so the players should benefit. With slightly less cricket to be played – just 14 first-class matches rather than 16 – players should also have more time to recover and to practise. Overall, then, the quality of cricket on display should be higher. I hope the new calendar is given time to bed in, so everyone can become familiar with the season's rhythm.


Those who were wanting more radical change believe that the tinkering with the size of the divisions in the County Championship is an opportunity wasted. (And we welcome Specsavers as the new sponsor – readers who struggle with the typesize of the Annual, which hasn't actually changed in at least 30 years, may feel that Playfair could link up with them, too!) In particular, there were many who felt the NatWest t20 Blast would benefit from being split into First and Second Divisions, as per the Championship. It is hard to see a strong argument against this: promotion and relegation make for more competitive cricket, and ensure that more games have something at stake. I can understand why franchise cricket, based around the larger Test venues, was not adopted. Size shouldn't be the only factor – as Leicester City and Bournemouth have proved in this season's Premier League.


Any change to the system should be designed with three key elements in mind: to provide the most attractive and appealing sport for the fans, to ensure that the quality on offer keeps on improving, and finally to help provide a thorough testing ground for potential international cricketers. Ideally there would be a fourth factor: to give people an opportunity to see their England heroes in action in the county game – but that seems unlikely. However, England's cricketers can certainly look back on a much better year. When the last Annual went to press, England were reeling from a disastrous World Cup. Another one gets under way as I write this, and while few would describe England as being anything like the favourites, reaching the semi-finals would be a big step forward.


In the interim, England have won the Ashes and gone to South Africa and triumphed there – two highly impressive achievements. Stuart Broad's devastating spell at Trent Bridge will never be forgotten, while Joe Root seems to get better all the time. Alastair Cook, who faced a barrage of criticism over his captaincy, has emerged stronger for the experience, and is leading his side in a positive way. No one personifies that attitude more than this year's inevitable cover star, Ben Stokes. His 258 in Cape Town was truly special: he reached his double century in just 163 balls, breaking the old record held by that notorious slow-coach Ian Botham by 57 balls.


What many have enjoyed about this England side is that they seem to be enjoying themselves – it may be a serious business winning cricket matches, but you can have fun, too. It may have been a coincidence, but coming up against Brendon McCullum's joyous New Zealand side seemed to rub off on them. McCullum staged his own spectacular farewell to Test cricket with a record-breaking 54-ball century – perhaps that will give Stokes something to aim at in the future.


As ever, during the season I will try to keep people up to date on the latest records and personal landmarks via Twitter, so do follow me on @IanPlayfair. The website will provide weekly match reports, as well as updates to the players' register if anyone new arrives on the county scene. With Sri Lanka and Pakistan the visitors this summer, there is a huge amount of excellent cricket to look forward to – and it is always best enjoyed at the ground, so do try to get along to support your local or your national team if you can.


Eastbourne, 10 March 2016


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