The first formal opposition to the ECB’s plans for a new T20 tournament was voiced on Thursday as Middlesex became the first county to vote against the ECB’s motion to change its constitution – a move that would clear the way for the proposed new competition slated to begin in 2020.
By removing the constitutional clause that guarantees the participation of all 18 first-class counties in ECB competitions, the governing body will be free to pursue its goal of creating an eight-team franchise competition. To do so, however, it needs the approval of at least 31 of its constituent members and it seems they do not all share the ECB’s vision for the future of county cricket. The plans do not appear to be in any serious jeopardy at this stage, but the proposals – and the manner in which they have been administered – are proving divisive.
The ECB’s plans are certainly bold and – at least superficially – seem to prioritise the resuscitation of county cricket’s image, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the they are predicated on faith rather than fact. Of course, there is a chance that the tournament will energise new markets and create cricket’s next generation of fans, but the ECB is yet to present any compelling evidence in support of those claims.
As the organisation arranges what it zealously believes to be a magic bullet for English cricket’s woes, many questions remain unanswered. Who exactly are they targeting? Can terrestrial TV really be convinced to broadcast it? Why will the new tournament be any more appealing to non-cricket fans than the T20 Blast? Is a simple re-brand and geographical shake-up really enough to pique the interest of thousands of people and supplant football as their primary sporting interest? There remain an alarming number of unknowns for an idea that is being so forcefully pushed towards realisation.
In contending the proposals, Middlesex are the first county to express unease at being asked to stake the structural and financial future of the domestic game on what amounts to a roll of a dice. It is an important stance and one the club should be applauded for taking.
Middlesex have their own specific reasons for opposing the ECB’s plans. As the club outlined in a pitch-perfect statement on Thursday, it is greatly concerned that “counties that are not host venues for the new tournament, may, in the future, be downgraded both in status and in revenue terms.” Even though Lord’s – Middlesex’s home ground – will almost certainly be one of the tournament’s venues, the county is merely a tenant of the MCC and doesn’t receive revenue for playing there. As such, there is no guarantee that Middlesex will stand to benefit from the tournament in the long-run.
Middlesex are currently alone in their stand against the ECB. Surrey are rumoured to be considering a vote against the proposals, but Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Somerset, Sussex and Yorkshire have all this week come out on the side of the governing body.
Given the parlous financial state of the majority of counties, it is perhaps no surprise that many are voting with the ECB. The extra £1.3m per year promised to counties as compensation for inevitable restructuring will deliver a short-term boost to their bank balances, but the plans for city-based franchises means the poorest and most parochial counties may just be covering the costs of their own funerals a decade or so down the line.
County cricket undoubtedly requires some level of change in order to remain relevant, but is this tournament really the way forward? Franchise T20 competitions have proved incredibly popular in India and Australia, but the unique market conditions in those countries are not shared by the English game. It feels as if the ECB has looked enviously at those other tournaments and is now ham-fistedly attempting to fit county cricket into a pre-existing template.
The new T20 tournament will likely get the 31 votes it needs to pass (a certain amount of coercion has been employed to make sure of that), but the ECB’s aggressive pace of change appears to be gambling with the future of the county game. Middlesex currently stand alone in their opposition to the proposals, but let’s hope their response is the catalyst for important discussions around the ECB’s approach. The new tournament is an inevitability, but the adoption of a more inclusive, considered and sustainable process would be a welcome result from the current situation.