With Nick Hoult reporting in the Daily Telegraph that the ECB is contemplating abandoning almost all of the cricket season due to the Coronavirus, barring international fixtures and the Vitality Blast, on the basis that there will be no competitive cricket until 1 July at the earliest, the question remains: is there an alternative?
Working on the assumption that cricket can resume on 1 July – obviously not a given – I believe there is a way forward. Although the Championship may not be the most glamorous part of the county season, I feel it is the most important – especially if we are to retain hopes of playing a Test series against Pakistan and want to give our players some vital time in the middle beforehand. So, to have a full programme, I would propose reverting to three-day games once more, and dividing the Championship into three regional divisions of six each, as follows:
North Midlands & West South and East
Derbyshire (2) Glamorgan (2) Essex (1)
Durham (2) Gloucestershire (1) Hampshire (1)
Lancashire (1) Northamptonshire (1) Kent (1)
Leicestershire (2) Somerset (1) Middlesex (2)
Nottinghamshire (2) Warwickshire (1) Surrey (1)
Yorkshire (1) Worcestershire (2) Sussex (2)
The season would begin on Wednesday 1 July, starting with five rounds of the Championship, playing a match, then a day’s rest, then another match, and so on. This section of the season would conclude on Sunday 19 July. The advantage of starting with Championship cricket is that if there were still any lingering social distancing rules in place, it would be an easier format to limit attendances, say to 500 or 1000 people in the ground.
The Vitality Blast would then take over, with all 14 scheduled rounds to be played. However, matches would be played simultaneously: all North Group matches on one day, then all South Group matches the following day. Starting on Wednesday 22 July, the regular league season would be completed by Tuesday 18 August.
The Championship would resume on Thursday 20 August, with four more rounds played, taking us up to 3 September. Then, as scheduled, the Blast finals day would take place on Saturday 5 September, meaning that only the quarter-final stage was lost from that competition. The final round of the regular season of the Championship would follow on 7-9 September, after which the Championship would go into a play-off mode to decide the overall champion team, starting on Sunday 13 September, and reverting to four-day cricket.
Match 1 Winners of M & W v 3rd in S & E
Match 2 Winners of S & E v 3rd in M & W
Match 3 Winners of N v 2nd in M & W
Match 4 2nd in S & E v 2nd in N
Priority, in terms of the number of teams qualifying, is given to the regions with most First Division clubs, while the South & East secured the fourth home tie because they supply the champion county. If any match ended in a draw, the winners would be the side who secured most first-innings points, as per the usual Championship points system; if both sides finished on the same points as well, then the team who finished highest in their regional league would progress, except in Match 4 where it would be based on the number of points the teams had acquired during the regular season.
The semi-finals would start on Thursday 17 September, with the winners of Match 2 playing at home against the winners of Match 4, and the winners of Match 1 playing at home against the winners of Match 3. The final would then take place at Lord’s on Thursday 24 September, bringing the season to a close on Sunday 27 September, two days after it was originally planned to finish.
Meanwhile, as regards the international season, Australia were due to start their limited-overs series against England on 3 July. Both sides may well be very rusty, but as a spectacle to launch the return of competitive cricket, who better to attract a crowd and a TV audience? The series against Pakistan would run scheduled.
If the start of the season had to be delayed by slightly longer, one could set up the Blast to run in three regional leagues, reducing the number of fixtures in the regular season from 14 to 10, thus giving at least a week more room for manoeuvre. It would only be if the season could not start before mid-July, which might also mean losing the quarter-final stage of the Championship, that there would be real problems in accommodating two tournaments this summer.
I recognise that all of the above may be wishful thinking. The most important thing for players and fans alike is to ensure as many people as possible stay well and avoid catching this dreadful virus, and nothing done by the ECB should compromise that imperative. Because, in the end, there is always 2021 to look forward to after this season has ended.