Twenty20 debate overshadows start to county campaign

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Only in England, perhaps, could a competition that’s still at least three years away provoke so much passionate debate.

Yet that is the situation the English game finds itself in on the eve of the 2017 County Championship, its domestic first-class tournament, that starts on Friday.

Rather than talking about whether Middlesex can retain the title they won in dramatic fashion last season, when a hat-trick from paceman Toby Roland-Jones completed a victory over defending champions Yorkshire at Lord’s on the final day, English cricket has been consumed by talk of a new eight-team Twenty20 tournament.

This is due to start in 2020 — not a marketing trick but rather the year after the England and Wales Cricket Board’s existing broadcast agreements expire.

The ECB, having seen the success of the Indian Premier League and especially Australia’s city-based Big Bash Twenty20 tournaments, believe they need something similar to encourage more families and, above all, children to become cricket fans.

But the plan has proved hugely controversial as, if enacted, it will mean that for the first time there is a major domestic tournament in England that does not feature all 18 first-class counties.

As with the ongoing debate in Britain over Brexit, the fact that the new Twenty20 competition is yet to come into being hasn’t stopped those in favour proclaiming it to be the salvation of county cricket and those against insisting it will sound its death knell.

– ‘Not a gamble’ –

England one-day captain Eoin Morgan, who has played in both the IPL and BBL, has backed an English equivalent.

“It’s not a gamble,” Morgan said last week. “It’s proven in other countries that it is possible to have it all.

“The purpose of this tournament will be to grow the game. The age groups and young families the Big Bash engages with, the numbers are through the roof.”

However, former England captain Alec Stewart is far from convinced.

Stewart is now the director of cricket at Surrey, a club that regularly draw crowds of 23,000 — impressive by county standards — to their Oval headquarters in southeast London for matches in the existing 18-team Twenty20 Blast.

“I still don’t think the ECB know exactly how (the new competition) is going to work,” Stewart told the ESPNCricinfo website.

“The CEO used the term leap of faith, and that’s always pretty dangerous.”

But an increasingly common view is that it would help the new tournament to attract younger fans if its matches were on free-to-air television, where no live cricket has been shown in Britain since 2005.

“One of the biggest turning points for my generation was the 2005 Ashes,” said Morgan.

“That people who aren’t involved in cricket were talking about cricket was awesome and to get that back it will need as big a change as taking cricket free to air.”

Meanwhile the ECB, which used to ban England players from the IPL — one of many sources of tension with ex-England batsman Kevin Pietersen — because it clashed with the start of their season, has now allowed star all-rounder Ben Stokes to take up a £1.7 million ($2.1 million) contract with the Rising Pune Supergiants, a record for an overseas player.

If worrying about the structure of the game is something that has long been a part of the English game, so too is the idea that cricket is an especially noble pursuit — hence the phrase “it’s not cricket” that is used to describe underhand behaviour.

Yet there were many who felt the ECB failed to live up to those lofty ideals by not making it clear well before last season ended that Durham were going to be relegated from the First Division of the County Championship and hit with a 48-point penalty for 2017 as conditions of a £3.8 million bailout from the governing body.

“It would have been better to come clean about Durham’s fate at the time,” wrote Wisden editor Lawrence Booth in this year’s edition of the Almanack, ‘cricket’s bible’.

“Instead, with games taking place which some officials appeared to know would be meaningless, the County Championship was brought into disrepute.”

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