More than 100 Members joined Mark McCafferty (Chair), Mark Robinson (Head Coach) and Stuart Cain (Chief Executive) to discuss the ECB’s Men’s High Performance Review recommendations at a second Members' Forum last week.
Conversation focused on the domestic schedule and competition formats and the opinions expressed will help inform the Club’s views when discussing proposals further with other Counties and with the ECB.
The meeting followed an earlier forum held during the LV= Insurance County Championship game against Somerset when approximately 300 people attended.
Following the forum Mark McCafferty, said: “Both sessions were tremendously helpful with a range of views expressed, demonstrating how difficult it is to reach a consensus which satisfies the Counties, the Members, our players and coaches, and those who created the proposals through their high-performance lens.
“That said, there are emerging themes which we will take to the ECB. Firstly, we are supportive of the need to create a winning England team and believe Counties should do what they can to develop players for the global stage.
“So, we support the principle of ‘best v best’, and the need to create matchday atmospheres and conditions that regularly come closest to replicating the challenges of the international arena in both red ball and white ball formats. Speaking to our players, we also agree that a minority do play too much cricket if they’re involved in England teams, overseas franchises, the Hundred and a full domestic season. For the majority though, it’s not volume that’s the issue. It’s the intensity of matches, particularly if there are multiple transition points involving different formats at the same time.
“With this in mind, the view supported by the Forum was that we believe the County Championship should stay at fourteen games for now, with a two-division structure. Eight Counties in the First Division would provide more ‘best v best’ opportunities, with ten Counties in the Second Division. This would allow each team in the First Division to play home and away. The Championship should be played through as much of the summer as possible, and we should work with the other Counties and the ECB to try and find the best way of scheduling this.
“On the Blast, we understand why some Counties want to retain a fourteen-game group stage, but we would support a slight reduction in games.
“This would give more time to the County Championship, allow for more Blast games on a Friday/Saturday, and allow more time for rest, recovery and practice among players, coaches and support staff. It would also allow the tournament to be played more effectively in a block from May to July. We would support a merit-based league structure, with the best playing the best, as long as there is retention of key local rivalries, but acknowledge the difficulty in combining these two things.
“Taking on board the views of Members, we would consider the One-Day Cup moving to April/May as a showcase for the new season, allowing more of the best players to compete against each other, and those on the fringes of T20 selection to stake their claim for a place in the Vitality Blast. However, we recognise that this would potentially mean Championship matches in the same timeframe as the Hundred, raising integrity issues.
“We don’t see a need for festival red-ball cricket in August and whilst we support the Hundred because of the many benefits it brings to the game and to the Club, the ECB should look at whether it can be truncated slightly to give the Blast and County Championship more space.”
The key points taken from the second Members’ Forum were:
General discussion on 2023, decision making and the wider commercial context of the review
- The 2023 season will follow the same format as 2022. This gives the Counties and the ECB time to discuss proposals, but any changes for 2024 will need to be agreed before the start of the 2023 season so that Counties and their players know what’s at stake for the future.
- Stuart Cain explained the process moving forward. A group of six Chairs, including Mark McCafferty are collating the views of all eighteen Counties and these will then be fed back to the ECB to establish areas of common ground and potential ideas on moving forward.
- When talking about improving the quality of coaching to develop future England players, Mark Robinson explained that all Bears’ coaches were a minimum Level 3 qualified and had to complete Level 4 badges after joining. This is the highest standard available. He felt that a bigger issue was a lack of overseas coaching opportunities for English coaches and the overuse of international coaches in the Hundred.
- Due to concerns raised about Counties losing money if the volume of games was reduced, Stuart Cain explained how they were trying to diversify and raise money through other areas such as concerts and events. Edgbaston was developing the flats, retail and potentially a hotel, but other Counties were restricted by physical space, financial resources, and breadth of thinking. He explained the pressure on ECB central funds and the future threats from inflation and energy costs which would reduce money to be distributed across the professional, recreational, and elite Game.
- When addressing the high performance review’s observation that players played too much cricket, both Mark Robinson and Stuart Cain said that density of fixtures was the issue, particularly when trying to play County Championship and Vitality Blast games only days apart. It doesn’t give the players time to switch disciplines and the coaches time to prepare. It also increases injuries.
- Stuart Cain addressed the issue of fixture congestion on those venues hosting the Hundred, international games, women’s cricket, and a full domestic season. Bigger venues are playing too much cricket at times, with smaller venues not enough. This created operational issues, but also meant that smaller venues without the Hundred or international cricket could have periods in the height of summer when there was little cricket played.
- A number of people raised the need to play more cricket at the weekend. Mark McCafferty agreed completely with the sentiment and the Club was one of the most vocal on this point, but the issue is that there are only roughly 17 weekends from May to August. If you take out the Hundred, that leaves 12. So, it’s impossible to play fourteen County Championship, fourteen Blast and approximately five One-Day Cup games, all involving weekends. He felt that the ECB should try to maximise weekend games, but it was impossible to do this in totality.
- There was concern around the One-Day Cup being ‘dumbed down’ as a competition, but the majority felt there was merit in playing it at the start of the season if it gave the best players a chance to compete and received more support in the media. Mark Robinson explained how it would also give those fringe T20 players an opportunity to stake their claim in the Bears squad. The current lack of opportunity creates friction with players across all Counties as they now see the Blast as a stepping stone in to the Hundred and lucrative franchise circuit.
Vitality Blast and The Hundred
- On the Blast, Stuart Cain explained that it would allow the season to be more spread out if there was a reduction in group games. It would also mean that you could have the ‘best v best’ playing on a Friday or Saturday to boost crowds and create great atmospheres if you had less games and changed from the current conference system to a two-division merit league. In an ideal world you would retain the option for ‘wildcard’ derbies such as the Roses and Bears v Pears, however this might not be possible of you lost the conference structure. There was broad support form Members for two divisions based on merit, rather than the current conference system.
- Mark McCafferty felt that a potential reduction to twelve games should be considered for the above reasons.
- There was a lot of conversation around the Hundred, and whilst there is understandable resistance to the format and also the impact it has on other cricket at the height of summer, Stuart Cain and Mark McCafferty explained the benefits it does bring to the Game and the Club commercially as well as developing exponentially the Women’s Game and introducing new fans to cricket. There were a number of views about the same being possible with T20 cricket if the ECB invested heavily in the format and got it back onto free-to-air television.
- Stuart Cain explained how the Hundred had been created to try and differentiate from T20 at the request of Counties that felt it could harm their Blast teams if a new T20 competition was formed around cities. So, whilst some people may not like it, the Hundred will be needed in coming years, so it should be about how to potentially truncate and link with the Blast.
- There was a wider question around how the ECB was marketing other formats of cricket to the new audience attracted to the Hundred. Stuart Cain explained that this was an ongoing discussion with the ECB and should be a key part of their strategy moving forward.
- A number of Members supported the view that the Hundred brings new people into the game and these are the Members of the future. So, this marketing was crucial. Stuart Cain agreed and felt that you could look at a ‘cricket lifecycle.’ Young fans being attracted to the Hundred would hopefully go on to watch the Blast and then mature into the One-Day Cup and County Championship as their love of the game progressed and the time they had available to watch the game changed.
- Mark McCafferty felt that there should be more thought on how the Blast linked to the Hundred, and its impact on Women’s Cricket should be highlighted. It had catapulted the Women’s Game into the limelight and done more for diversifying the game than anything else in recent years.
- Linked to the need to promote the Blast to families, there was a discussion about ticket pricing and Stuart Cain re-iterated that U16s come for free and there were a range of season pass and family offers in place. However, more needs to be done to attract new audiences and he addressed questions from the floor about the ‘boozy’ atmosphere at some T20 games, particularly those at the weekend, by running through the measures taken by the club in 2022 to try and ensure that Edgbaston was a safe and welcoming environment for all.
- Some Members questioned whether Hundred women’s games could be played at smaller venues. Stuart Cain felt this would be a backward step as it would lead to smaller crowds. He said this was the original intention, but COVID led to all games being played at the same venues and those impacted were compensated by the ECB so commercially they weren’t disadvantaged.
LV= Insurance County Championship
- Stuart Cain confirmed the consensus view that the season should still consist of fourteen games, but to fit this in meant that there needed to be compromise elsewhere, such as the Blast and length of the Hundred.
- Mark McCafferty explained that any decision on the format for 2024 needed to be made before the season started in 2023 so that players and Counties must understand the implications of where they finish and what it would mean moving forward.
- There was resistance to a top division of six teams, with a number of people raising concerns about the Counties in other divisions and whether they would seriously compete if they couldn’t win anything meaningful. A series of alternative divisional structures were discussed, and Mark McCafferty supported the potential for the traditional two divisional structure to continue, but for us to consider eight teams in the First Division which was a step towards the high performance review principle of more ‘best v best.’
- Symmetry was important to Members and players – so a division of eight teams would allow each to play home and away.
- The idea of ‘pitch points’ was discussed and there is merit in the idea, but it needs thinking through properly.
- Whilst there wasn’t an intention to reduce the volume of games, if it did ever change then Membership pricing would be reviewed, along with the impact on those that had bought three-year Memberships.
- The league structure, if it is to change, will need to be decided soon so that people know what they are playing for in 2023 and if they will be able to move through leagues.
- Some present did support a ten game County Championship, referencing that it was the biggest red ball league in the world – but if it was reduced then it must have a dedicated window.
- There was a pragmatism around the appeal of red ball cricket and the lack of crowds, but could this be addressed to some degree by better marketing and scheduling of games? Its role in developing players for the England Test team was also important.
- The point about cricket finances was made a number of times. It was Sky’s money – which focused on the Hundred and international cricket – along with ticket revenue from the Blast and Hundred that effectively funded red ball cricket, so there had to be a balance when trying to prioritise the different forms of cricket.
- Mark Robinson did feel that the game was changing and Members needed to accept that. Franchise cricket provided the chance for players to make previously unheard-of amounts of money, so why wouldn’t they want to play it? By trying to play too many formats at the same time, it increased injuries – in reality, most cricketers play two-thirds of their cricket in three months of the year. So, trying to balance the traditions of the game and particularly Test cricket, with the unstoppable forces of the future was very important in this debate.
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