The Playfair Annual 2017

The domestic 2016 season was a superb one. New County Championship sponsors Specsavers were granted a campaign in which each game in the last round of fixtures in the First Division had a bearing on who would be champions and who would be relegated. As it was, the decisive action at the top came with only minutes of the season to go. Toby Roland-Jones took a hat-trick, dismissing Azeem Rafiq, Andy Hodd and Ryan Sidebottom to secure a nail-biting win for Middlesex over Yorkshire, ensuring that Somerset missed out on their first title. For the Lord’s outfit, this was a deserved reward. In the NatWest t20 Blast, unfavoured Northamptonshire managed to triumph against all the odds, despite the county’s small squad and financial difficulties.


You might have thought that would satisfy the ECB. But a winter of change, debate and a great deal of dissatisfaction followed. Despite such a dramatic climax, it had been decided to revamp the Championship. So the First Division was cut to eight teams and the Second Division expanded to ten, but in 2017 all counties will play 14 Championship games. While trying to do something to improve the quality of what is on offer is to be welcomed, it is fair to say that the reduction in the amount of cricket that members will get to see has not been greeted with unbridled joy from that community.


Then, heavily indebted Durham were bailed out by the ECB, but their punishment was relegation from Division One, and they will start the 2017 season with a 48-point deduction, almost guaranteeing they will remain in Division Two for two years. Furthermore, the Emirates Riverside was stripped of its Test match status. Not least because Durham have done great work in producing their own talent (none more so than Ben Stokes, now the most valuable overseas IPL recruit of all time, and last year’s cover star), many believed that this was too harsh, especially when the ECB is itself sitting on a large pile of cash, some of which comes from revenue generated from the grounds that host Test matches.


But perhaps the biggest debate centred on the idea that we should try to mimic the format of the IPL and the Big Bash, with a city-based T20 competition. Early plans for this tournament suggested it might run alongside the 50-over series, if and when it is finally launched in 2020. The idea is, once more, that the quality of the cricket will draw in a new audience – and one suspects new TV rights income and sponsorship. England players may struggle to appear if they have international commitments, but they can still be selected to 'promote’ a team. When the Blast already attracts global stars of the calibre of Chris Gayle, Brendon McCullum and Kevin Pietersen, what really will improve? Just five players from the best side in the country in 2016 would have a chance to compete in it. Despite the support of some players and a few in the media, it was notable how little enthusiasm the whole idea generated from the cricket-watching public. And without that it is hard to see how the ECB will generate the anticipated £1.3 million each county will earn per year from it.


For the national team, it was a mixed year. Alastair Cook stepped down as Test captain after a record-breaking 59 matches in charge. His replacement – Joe Root (2015’s cover star) – was the obvious man for the job, and he will start his new role with series against South Africa and West Indies this summer, before going Down Under to try to retain the Ashes. One of the key players in the team, Jonny Bairstow, is the deserving cover star this year. In 2016, he scored 1470 Test runs (a record for a wicket-keeper in a calendar year) and he racked up a world record 70 dismissals in the year.


During the season I will do my best 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. This year – I suspect for the first time – the season runs for more than six months, from 28 March to 29 September, so there is no excuse not to go to watch some cricket, especially with the Champions Trophy and the Women’s World Cup to enjoy. From a personal perspective I am delighted to see that Eastbourne CC’s Saffrons ground will be hosting a Royal London Cup game on 14 May – I can’t wait.


Eastbourne, 9 March 2017


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