Wasim Khan, Leicestershire’s chief executive, has provided the clearest hint yet that the days of promotion and relegation in the County Championship could be coming to an end.
While Wasim, chairman of the working party looking into the future shape of domestic cricket, was at pains to say no decisions had yet been made, he makes no secret of his fear that two divisions “promotes short-termism” and feels the county season starts too early to encourage good quality cricket.
Wasim, who also feels counties should be better rewarded for producing England-qualified players and that it should be made “very difficult” for counties to include non-qualified players in their teams, hopes to make his recommendations to the ECB’s cricket committee in October.
Any changes will, if approved, be introduced for the 2020 season. If promotion and relegation is abandoned, it is likely to lead to the introduction of a conference system.
As Wasim also sits on the ECB’s cricket committee and is involved on the working party that is drawing up the new County Partnership Agreements (which replace the old Memorandums of Understanding), his views are likely to prove highly influential.
“Does promotion and relegation promote the right behaviours? Does it promote short-termism? Yes it does. That’s the unintended consequence,” Wasim said.
“We’ve seen examples of that in terms of players being brought in to support promotion and relegation. We’re a prime example: at Leicestershire we’ve lost players in the past as they felt they had to go and play Division One cricket.
“If our fundamental aim is to bring those two mountains together – county cricket and successful England teams – then we’ve got to take a bit more of a long-term view.
“How can we encourage all of us to make more long-term decisions as counties? And is the current two-divisional structure helping us do that? If it is, then great. But the evidence would suggest we have to look at it and perhaps in some areas that it doesn’t.”
Wasim’s working party – a group that includes England cricket director Andrew Strauss, Glamorgan chief executive Hugh Morris, Yorkshire director of cricket Martyn Moxon and Ashley Giles, director of sport at Warwickshire – met for the first time last week. It would have been premature to “jump into solution mode”, according to Wasim, so instead they discussed the process by which they will come to their decisions and “evaluation criteria for each of the four areas” they were asked to review.
Those four areas are: the two-divisional structure; what gets played during the six-week window earmarked for The Hundred; the volume of T20 Blast games to be played during the county season; and the role of the minor counties. Over the next few weeks, the working party will split into two sub-groups to devise pros and cons for all possibilities and meet again, as a whole, on June 28.
While it is clearly too early to predict their final decisions, Wasim makes no secret of his own desire to reintroduce the minor counties to the main List A competition as a method of spreading the reach of the game.
“We’ve 39 cricketing counties in this country, not 18, and we know the numbers around participation have begun to dwindle in some areas,” he said. “There’s a lot we need to do to keep competing with other sports.
“So, if you have Surrey turning up to play at Wiltshire, it is a game that is going to attract 3000 or 4000 people. Or Leicestershire playing at Dorset. Those games can then be used as a catalyst to get more young people enthused about the game. It’s about spreading the game far and wide. So the initial thinking involving the minor counties is certainty something we’re really want to do in some way, shape or form.”
He is also open-minded about the possibility of counties starting the season abroad – playing either first-class or List A cricket.
“If you asked most people, April is still too early to play county cricket,” he said. “So it’s about trying to find the optimal time to play it. Where you give an opportunity to bat for a long time on good wickets.
“Can we play two games [abroad], for example. There’s been talk mooted in the past of playing white-ball cricket abroad. A lot of teams go on pre-season overseas tours and there’s a lot of expense. All these things will need to be looked at.”
One thing that appears almost certain to remain the same is the number of T20 Blast matches played by each county. Certainly Wasim is very keen that there is no reduction to the current number of seven games hosted by each county, nor the Friday night (or weekend) scheduling.
“We’re all massively pushing for it to stay in place because it’s so important for us,” Wasim said. “The Blast is critical. We don’t want to reduce the short format to just the eight venues, we want to excite kids to come to watch cricket here. We want to say to schools: here are some free tickets, come and watch your heroes locally. The Blast plays a critical role, not just in terms of sustaining the counties but for the player pipeline point of view as well.
“We’ve been very clear from the outset: seven home games is critical for what we’re trying to do here.”
Wasim also suggested counties may need to be better incentivised to pick England-qualified players and that, over the coming weeks, spectators will be asked for their views over the domestic structure.
“One thing that has come out loud and clear is about incentivising the counties more around playing and promoting more English-qualified players,” Wasim said. “Ideally to support England and the future of English cricket we clearly need a strong county game with more county players exposed to playing county cricket who are qualified to play for England.
“The strong consensus across the counties was we should make it beyond doubt that it should be a very difficult thing for us not to play English qualified players.
“And yes, we’re definitely looking at canvasing the views of spectators. We’re looking at setting up an email address. We’ll encourage people to send their views in. A lot of good people watch cricket and have for a long time. Let’s get their views on what they think would work.”