Exclusive: Half of counties fear they will not be playing first-class cricket in 10 years

Fears for the future of English first-class cricket have been laid bare after a Telegraph Sport survey revealed half of the 18 counties do not believe they will be playing the red-ball game in 10 years’ time.

The confidential survey – which was completed by every county chief executive ahead of the start of the new Championship season on Thursday – also exposed the deep divisions within the game over the new Hundred competition, which launches in July. Responses revealed that:

  • Only nine counties believe the Hundred will have a positive impact on domestic cricket
  • The overwhelming majority are critical of the process by which the ECB launched their new flagship competition
  • The majority believe that the current domestic schedule marginalises the Championship

The survey comes on the eve of a summer which will be pivotal for the domestic game in England. County cricket is emerging from a pandemic with losses of more than £100 million across the 18 clubs, with final financial results expected to paint a gloomy picture of the game’s economic health when they are released at the end of this month. The 2020 season was played behind closed doors and the County Championship was cancelled for the first time outside war years

The Hundred will be launched on July 21, taking over the school holiday period when counties will lose their best players to the new tournament and be left competing in the Royal London Cup, the least important of the domestic trophies. While the majority of counties believe the Hundred will be in existence in 2031, there was heavy criticism over how the ECB communicated with them as they developed the competition.

The survey was 100 per cent confidential, allowing county chief executives to answer anonymously and honestly about the issues facing the game.  They describe a county circuit in shock after the pandemic but closer to its members, many of whom donated their subscriptions last year helping some clubs to survive. 

Unprecedented cash injections from the ECB sustained the game, but hundreds of jobs have been lost with many of the bigger clubs left with empty, unused conference facilities they were encouraged to build to diversify their businesses away from cricket.

Producing England players remains the top priority of a third of counties, with the Championship still the most important competition to win. Surprisingly, only two counties put the Blast Twenty20 competition as their main priority.

Essex won the County Championship in 2019


Essex won the County Championship in 2019


Credit: GETTY IMAGES

There is an overwhelming belief the County Championship adequately prepares players for Test cricket but divisions over its future structure. The championship will be played again using a three conference format this season with a decision over its future expected later this year. In total 44 per cent answered they prefer a conference format, 33 per cent promotion and relegation and 22 per cent were unsure.

There was unanimous support for the ECB’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the help the board has given the counties. All respondents ranked the ECB’s handling of the pandemic as good or very good.

But despite the handouts to the counties, a bleak picture is painted of how the pandemic has affected livelihoods and led to redundancies, mental health problems and put expansion plans on hold indefinitely.

One chief executive wrote the impact of the pandemic had produced “lots more work for the club psychologist across playing and non-playing staff”.

Another said it had been “a very difficult time for staff with pay cuts and a number of redundancies across the business due to the significant reduction in revenue and profit caused by the pandemic, which we are expecting to last through 2021. A number of projects to improve stadium facilities have unfortunately been shelved as we have looked to protect cash and there is uncertainty around when and if these projects can go ahead.”

Analysis

Telegraph Sport’s survey of all 18 county chief executives covered the four key issues facing the domestic game ahead of the new season. Here, we analyse the responses we received.

Covid-19 pandemic

There was widespread praise for the board’s handling of the Covid pandemic, in part because the entire England 2020 season was played. That ensured there was not a £300million loss in broadcast revenue, while the ECB also propped up county and grassroots cricket with £96.7million funding.

The board also paid the £1.3million Hundred dividend despite the tournament’s postponement. The handling of the Covid crisis restored some relationships fractured by the Hundred concept, a point underlined by the fact that every response to the question asking counties to rate the ECB’s performance were positive.

However, county chief executives painted a grim picture of job losses, mental health issues among staff members and fears for this summer if there is another spike in infection rates. The mood was summed up by one response which read: “It has been an extraordinarily difficult period across the game and probably the most challenging in our history.”

Others offered a more detailed analysis of the toll taken by the pandemic. “Devastating,” wrote one executive. “£4m revenue losses, 20 per cent staff redundancies, no Members and supporters in the ground for more than 12 months but [there is] a determination to bounce back strongly.”

Another said the effects of the shutdown would be felt for years to come. “A near 20 per cent reduction to our headcount of permanent staff was the result of an immensely difficult but sadly necessary programme of redundancies, and this is something that will make us a different organisation as we rebuild and restructure,” they wrote.

The Hundred

A big majority of counties believe the Hundred is here to stay. The rights deal, and the ECB’s determination to make it a success by pumping more marketing money into the competition than any other in English cricket’s history has increased confidence.

Indian players would make a huge difference and talks are underway to make that happen. Do not rule out foreign investment in the Hundred franchises or, as Telegraph Sport revealed, IPL franchises taking a chunk of Hundred teams. The Hundred will look very different in the future.

There was criticism from counties over the ECB’s communications with them in the development of the competition. The ECB’s secrecy, forcing counties to sign NDAs, and changing the new tournament from Twenty20 to the Hundred caused widespread dismay at the time.

Only six thought the ECB’s handling of the process was either “good” or “very good”. Introducing a new competition was always going to be divisive and ugly but a lack of openness at the time did not help.

When asked what the impact of the Hundred will be on county cricket, there was a mixed response. Only nine counties believe it will be positive, while seven thought it would be negative – presumably because it would sideline the Blast on which most counties rely for income – and two did not offer a response.

Counties will lose their best players to the Hundred and the smaller counties fear the competition will increase the divide between Test grounds and the rest.

Counties believe the Hundred is here to stay


Counties believe the Hundred is here to stay


Credit: PA

The County Championship

The Championship and producing England players are the most important goals for counties. When asked to rank their priorities at the start of the season, only two put the Blast as their main priority and not one county ticked winning the Royal London Cup as a priority – further proof that the 50-over format, in which England are world champions, has been usurped at domestic level by Twenty20.

There is overwhelming pride in the standard of the Championship. In total 83.3 percent (15 out of 18) believe it prepares players adequately for Test cricket, which is in contrast to some who work at international level.

Joe Root last year told Telegraph Sport he would prefer to see flatter pitches so batsmen learn to build an innings and bowlers how to perform on surfaces more akin to those at international level but counties believe they are doing a good job in producing players ready for Test cricket.

While winning the title remains a priority for many, in total 11 of 18 agreed they adhere to a schedule that marginalises the tournament.

There will be nine rounds of the championship this summer before the first week of June, two in July and the rest once white ball cricket has finished at the end of August. There is no question the schedule hinders first-class cricket but the counties are just as much to blame because they want to squeeze as much Twenty20 cricket into the calendar as possible. The poor old championship pays the price.

There were also divisions around what format is best for the Championship. This year there will be a conference system with counties split into three seeded groups of six. Each county will play the other counties in their group both home and away – a total of 10 matches.

At the end of the group stage, the top two counties in each group will progress to Division One. The other 12 will move into Divisions Two and Three. The Championship title will be decided by the team that finishes top of Division One. The top two teams in Division One will play for the Bob Willis Trophy in a five-day final at Lord’s.

Simple? No. Some counties want to retain the promotion-relegation two division structure that has been in place for 20 years. Others are unsure. A lot will depend on how the championship goes this summer.

The future

When asked by Telegraph Sport in 2019 whether all 18 counties would be playing first-class cricket in a decade, there was a more positive response, with a 10-7 majority saying all the counties would be (one county declined to take part).

A combination of the Hundred and the pandemic has left the game divided, with a 50-50 response this time. 

It is still hard to see how a county can survive while not playing Championship cricket, or stay relevant, but the ECB will not be the lender of last resort for much longer and a game that carried huge debt before the pandemic is facing tougher times now. 

Our readers’ views

By Nick Hoult

Only one in four county cricket fans surveyed by the Telegraph want to attend the Hundred this season and an overwhelming majority believe it will damage the domestic game.

A survey of almost 800 Telegraph Sport readers has revealed dissatisfaction over how the traditional forms of the game have been damaged by the advent of new formats. The growth of franchise tournaments such as the IPL and Big Bash have left only 13 per cent believing that the game’s leading players see Test cricket as their priority.

This follows a winter when England players missed Test matches in India but will play a full IPL season, even potentially missing a series at home against New Zealand.

The survey was formed of 18 questions about the state of the game from international level down to grassroots. When asked whether they agreed with the notion that England have Test cricket as their priority this year, with the Ashes looming this winter, 584 respondents, 74 per cent, either “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed”.

But there is also exasperation with the big three of England, Australia and India dominating the game financially, with 309 readers believing a better distribution of the game’s wealth would preserve the future of Test cricket.

The Test World Championship has not caught on despite the final taking place in England between India and New Zealand in June, with only 11.4 per cent believing that committing to the competition would help protect Test cricket’s future. 

With that in mind, 515 said they fear for the future of Test cricket with many (401) believing tickets are too expensive, although the majority rated the experience of attending a match as good or very good.

It is the Hundred that is viewed with the greatest scepticism. The ECB has launched the tournament to reach a new audience, rather than existing cricket fans, and with 10 matches shown by the BBC it will arguably be given a higher profile than England’s international summer. 

But only 183 respondents said they intend to attend a Hundred fixture in its first year and the majority do not believe the ECB have introduced it to reach a new audience. Instead, 67 per cent believe it has been devised to make money for the ECB, although the board will argue that is a positive because they reinvest back into the game. 

The Championship remains the main goal of readers (41 per cent said they are county members) with 665 putting it down as the tournament they want to see their team win. However a majority (403) believe county cricket has not improved over the past decade.

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