The County Championship might have to be sacrificed this summer so that domestic cricket can come out of the coronavirus pandemic in the strongest possible position, according to Middlesex’s managing director of cricket Angus Fraser.
The start of the cricket season has been pushed back from 12 April to 28 May at the earliest by the England and Wales Cricket Board, who are now working on models to determine how much action can be accommodated this summer.
Possible start dates are being studied for June, July and August, with the ECB likely to prioritise international cricket, the T20 Blast and The Hundred in order to maximise revenue. That may, however, mean no space for the County Championship.
“Everybody who understands and is aware of the situation that we’re in at the moment will realise that decisions are being made with the best interests of the game at heart,” Fraser told City A.M.
“It might not keep everybody happy, but these are unprecedented times and for one summer people might have to accept that they might not see as much of the format that they love.
“Things will return and seasons will follow a similar sort of direction as they have in the past, but this summer is going to be completely different.”
Having just entered a five-year deal with Sky and the BBC worth £1.1bn, the ECB is focusing on the formats which suit the broadcasters, as well as those which provide the highest match-day income for counties.
That means England’s Test series against the West Indies, which is scheduled to start at The Oval on 4 June, the T20 Blast on 28 May and England Women’s series against India on 25 June are the first considerations.
If the coronavirus pandemic stretches on into the summer, then it is likely the County Championship, which takes up a lot of time and doesn’t attract many spectators, and the One-Day Cup, which faced being sidelined by The Hundred anyway, could fall by the wayside.
“I think everyone has got to be realistic about this and the fact that this is a unique situation,” Fraser added.
“As to what the season will look like, it’s pretty difficult to predict because we don’t know how much cricket is going to be played.
“But you [have to] understand the priorities, that the finances of the game are extremely important. The biggest sum of money comes in from television. So to fulfil our contractual obligations with television and to ensure that money comes in, that’s what has got to be done.”
Avoiding a divide
If the season cannot start until August then the ECB is likely to postpone the inaugural season of The Hundred until 2021.
The governing body has committed to spend £180m over the first five years of its new 100-ball format and Durham chief executive Tim Bostock revealed this week that ECB chief executive Tom Harrison was prepared to take a “pragmatic view” and delay the launch for less uncertain times.
That eventuality is not ideal, but it would at least avoid creating a divide between players that have contracts to play in The Hundred and those that don’t.
Fewer than 120 of the approximately 400 professional cricketers in England and Wales were selected to play for the eight new franchises, earning between £125,000 and £30,000 for their services.
If The Hundred goes ahead that payday would of course be a welcome one for players in uncertain times, but it would also create an awkward environment inside counties across the country, with team-mates potentially facing a blank schedule.
There is no perfect solution for the ECB, but with the margins so thin and some counties living a hand-to-mouth existence the financial situation will take priority.