This is the third part of our manifesto to save English red-ball cricket. Michael Vaughan launched the manifesto on Wednesday with his piece calling for five-day County Championship matches and an expanded top tier while Chief Cricket Correspondent Nick Hoult called for an overhaul of central contracts on Thursday.
A new competition, and a broader form of first-class cricket based on modern realities, not the old Victorian structure, would combine tradition and innovation in a pyramid that would improve England’s red and white-ball teams.
This new competition, every April, would be a sort of 50-over FA Cup, bringing cricketers in the whole country together and encouraging the belief that we are all pulling in the same direction: 32 teams consisting of the 18 first-class counties and the 14 strongest National, formerly minor, counties.
Eight regional groups of four teams – for example, Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire and Somerset in the south-west – would play three games each, the top two teams going through to the knock-out stage of the last 16, and all games except the final to be completed before May. (There is no evidence that injuries would increase in April in a 50-over competition.)
Talent identification would form a big part of this competition. England’s greatest batsman and greatest bowler, Sir Jack Hobbs and Syd Barnes, came from “minor counties”; so do two of the biggest talents today, Ben Stokes and Liam Livingstone. Almost everyone, if sufficiently promising, would have access to this big stage.
The first-class competition would consist of two divisions, designed to raise the red-ball standard in England. It would recognize the reality that some of the existing 18 counties will never have the resources to be able to consistently compete with those that own Test grounds.
A Premier division of 12 counties, producing almost all the England players, would play 11 four-day games before the second week of September. The cricket should be intense and skilled enough for batsmen sometimes to face two specialist spinners, or bouncer wars, scenarios which never happen in the championship now.
A second division would consist of the other six counties and 10 national counties, split into three regions, and playing each other twice each – ie 10 three-day games of 110 overs per day. Spinners will therefore bowl at least half the day, and grow.
The amount of coaching would vary between the two divisions. The time when every youngster who joined a county was told exactly how to bat and bowl by former pros, imitating the regimental sergeant-majors of their National Service days, has gone. Modern youth will not be told what to do, even when batting on off-stump.
There might be 12 really good batting, bowling and fielding coaches to go round the Premier League: coaches who are sounding-boards for the best players in the country, who want to work the game out for themselves.
But learning how to bat today, and keeping it completely distinct from power-hitting, has become an almost impossible task. Tom Lammonby was the leading first-class run-scorer in the covid-restricted 2020 season, with three centuries in his six games for Somerset. Think of a fluid Sir Alastair Cook. Since then Lammonby has been learning how to hit any ball to or over the boundary for Hobart Hurricane and Karachi Kings as well as Somerset, not to mention Manchester Originals in the Hundred – and has made one first-class century.