On the latest episode of the Wisden Cricket Weekly Podcast, our writers discussed the recently announced restructuring of the UK first-class county season for 2021.
Instead of two divisions, the County Championship will first be split into three seeded groups of six. In the group stage, each county will play 10 matches, five home and five away.
The top two teams in each group will then proceed to Division One, while other sides will move to Division Two and Division Three. In the divisions, each team will play four matches.
Whoever tops Division One will be crowned winners of the County Championship.
The Bob Willis Trophy, which was contested in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, will remain in existence, but solely through a one-off match. The top two teams in Division One will play in the Bob Willis Trophy final at Lord’s.
On the podcast, Wisden.com managing editor Ben Gardner and the Wisden Cricket Monthly trio of editor-in-chief Phil Walker, magazine editor Jo Harman and staff writer James Wallace gave their takes on the restructuring for the 2021 red-ball season.
James Wallace: “I don’t understand it – it might be because I’m not grasping it. It seems overly complicated. The Bob Willis – I think because it was quite successful this year they could have had it as its own standalone thing. Whereas now it’s coming after the rest of it, it feels a bit like a tack on. It feels a bit like a run out at the end of the season.
“But I have to be honest, it [the restructure] makes as much sense to me as the World Test Championship.”
Phil Walker: “I echo Jim’s garbled point that he made up on the spot regarding the sense that it will be after the Lord Mayor’s Show somewhat – but then I don’t think that’s especially bad. It’s a showpiece. It would be great for any county to win the double. It would be a joy to move into that Lord’s final having already taken the Championship. Equally, it gives a county who’ve overachieved somewhat another bite at the cherry – so Somerset can fail twice, rather than just once. The nature of that Lord’s final was quite persuasive. It was certainly a sign of things to come, so they want to have that celebration game at the end of the summer.
“It [the 2021 season] will be slightly diluted, slightly confusing to work out who’s actually won what. But then it has the dual effect of sanctifying the Championship… it returns that to the agenda, but it also maintains this nice showpiece thing at the end. I can understand why they’ve done it.
“It’s very important to point out this is a one-off thing. Just on that, though, before Jo comes in: I’ve spoken to one or two CEOs and the three-divisional, six teams per division is pretty much rubber-stamped from 2022 onwards. The issue is around the regionality or otherwise of it, whether it is Division One, Two and Three and a reflection of where teams have fallen in the last year or two, or whether it is a regional or conference thing. Then if there’s possibly going to be semi-finals or a final with the top two teams in the division. That’s still up for grabs, but the reduction in the number of games and the move to three tiers of six is looking very, very likely from 2022.
Jo Harman: “Yeah, too complicated [on the 2021 structure]. I wouldn’t have done it like this. Keep it nice and simple. I could understand the need to potentially stick with a regional [system], so I wouldn’t have been against doing what we had this year: everyone plays each other twice and then you have your grand final. And then the year after that, when hopefully the world has returned to something like normal, you have effectively a Premier League, Championship, League One, based on how they’ve done over the last year. And I still would have a grand final at the end of that and that would be the winner of the whole competition. Not a kind of double winner, which I think is going to confuse fans, and no-one’s going to be quite sure what they want to win and what the big thing is.
“It felt like one of those things where too many people have spoken at a meeting and you’ve got too many ideas… and actually everyone’s wanted their bit in there and you’ve ended up with something more confusing than it needed to be.
Ben Gardner: “I don’t mind a few aspects of the structure. I kind of like the race to Lord’s aspect of splitting into three divisions and having that top six be a very concentrated thing.
“Two things I worry about: those Divisions Two and Three, basically playing four dead-rubbers for each team, which is a bit silly for me. And then also I would like that Lord’s final – they haven’t confirmed the playing conditions for it yet – to be shared if the game is drawn. If it’s a shop-window game, I think that is the way you’ll end up with more exciting finishes. Whereas if you have a team that gets out on a first-innings lead – not dragging Essex here; they did what they needed to do to win the title this year – but if they can get up front and just hold the other team at arm’s length, it might not make for particularly engrossing cricket. Whereas if you got a situation where a team sets up a declaration on the last day, end up chasing 220 off 60 overs, that’ll be a really good advert for first-class cricket in England if this is going to be perhaps a game that is on Sky or is made a big fuss out of.
“I don’t mind the two titles kind of thing. I think the County Championship will end up being the one people want to win, and the Bob Willis Trophy an added extra that is a nice end-of-season festival kind of thing. But I like that.”