Speaking on the Wisden Cricket Weekly podcast, Mark Butcher claimed the resurgence of the England Test team under Ben Stokes has “made a mockery” of the proposals set-out in the High Performance Review to reduce the amount of domestic first-class cricket played.
Following England’s series clinching victory in Multan on Monday, they have now won eight out of their nine Test matches since Stokes and Brendon McCullum took over leadership of the side. The results are a far cry from where England were before their home summer, which they entered with a record of having won just one out of their previous 17 matches.
After their thumping 4-0 Ashes defeat in Australia, the ECB commissioned the High Performance Review which aimed to lay the groundwork to make England the No.1 team in the world across all formats within five years. However, the review was met with resistance from counties, particularly over its suggestion of reducing the number of first-class and T20 Blast games played across the summer. The review said a reduction in first-class cricket was “critical to protecting the standard and intensity of the competition”.
Given England’s rapid turnaround in fortunes and a successful winter which has seen them secure their first series victory in Pakistan for 22 years, doubling their number of individual Test wins in the country, and seen the white-ball side crowned T20 World Cup Champions, Butcher questioned the continued relevance of the review.
“The Stokes era has made a mockery of all of the hand wringing around county cricket,” said Butcher. “Particularly the idea of reducing first-class cricket and all the other things that have sort of been mooted. I don’t think the review itself would have had any effect whatsoever on the Test team anyhow.
“I think it was almost entirely from the point of view of trying to improve the production line but even that has been made slightly redundant by the fact that lots of guys making their way in the Test arena or guys that have come back into it, like Duckett, new players like Brook, Will Jacks, perhaps even to a slightly lesser extent, Ollie Robinson, have almost come fresh from that and have been successful without anything else behind them.”
Among the suggestions put forward by the High Performance Review were changes to the structure of the County Championship, which has come under particular criticism for not preparing players for the challenges of Test cricket. The review proposed that the competition would be played across two tiers but split into three different groups, with each team playing a minimum of 10 matches. However, with the success of Duckett on his re-call to the Test side after scoring over a thousand runs in the 2022 County Championship, and Brook following his call-up after his performances for Yorkshire in the first half of the summer, Butcher argued the review focussed on the wrong areas to improve the Test side’s results.
“You know, after an Ashes defeat, nearly always there’s a knee jerk reaction,” he said. “Although you could argue that the multiple sackings and change in personnel at the top of the England team has been the thing that’s the most productive, because the players themselves haven’t changed a great deal.
“I guess, you know, the elephant in the room with it always is that The Hundred has made the schedule impossible. The schedule was always bad anyway but now it is appalling. Whatever needs to be done to address that, if The Hundred is here to stay then it needs to be perhaps less [T20] Blast.”
The Hundred currently takes place in August and runs concurrently with the One-Day Cup. Both the County Championship and the T20 Blast do not have any games scheduled to clash with the franchise competition; the Blast finishes in mid-July and the Championship takes a break in competition to allow some of the players to compete in the Hundred. Each county plays 14 first-class fixtures in the County Championship per season under the current scheduling, and Stokes himself has previously come out against the ECB’s plan to reduce the number of games.
“When I first started there was a mixture of three-day and four-day games and I made my debut season playing 22 to 23 first class games, ridiculous,” said Butcher. “Then of course you went to all four-day cricket, so you’d play 17, still too many. Then with two divisions it would go down to 16 and you’re kind of getting somewhere near, and I think the way it is at the moment with 14 is about right.”
Key in Butcher’s argument against reducing the amount of scheduled County Championship fixtures is the number of days lost to rain each summer in the UK.
“We’re living in a country where the weather plays an indecent part in cricket and how much of it you’re allowed to play, and I think any time you get slightly less than that, even down to 12 games, you run the risk of losing a lot of cricket to inclement weather conditions, and therefore players don’t get to play enough of that long format.
“It is supposed to be the thing that we are most precious about in this country. You would imagine that having as little as perhaps 10 games of first-class cricket would not be giving those players enough when you consider that out of 10 games the amount of days that could potentially be lost just if you have an average summer.”