New ECB chair Richard Thompson has described the current County schedule as “the worst game of Jenga ever”, and has promised to ensure the County Championship holds its own in the jostle with three other formats in the English season.
Speaking at the Kia Oval on the opening day of the third Test between England and South Africa, Thompson insisted that first-class cricket needs to be the best product it can possibly be. For that, he says, it needs consistency. Any new schedule will only be in place for 2024, with next summer set to follow the same pattern of 2022.
“I do not want to diminish the red-ball competition,” Thompson said. “For me, it’s the gold standard. It’s where you make history, where you define your career. But I think we kind of get fixated on volume and not schedule.
“If you knew every championship match is going to start on the Thursday, there will be a rhythm, but our season never has a rhythm. Every other sport has a rhythm and a pattern to it. And so whatever comes out of this there has to be a schedule and a rhythm to the season that I have not experienced in 12 years.”
That Thompson occupies the position he does now has comforted many county traditionalists. During his chairmanship at Surrey, which began in 2011, he consistently took principled stances against the ECB, notably in 2018 when he was the only county chair to vote against the Hundred. To many, he is an ally, though he admits his new role requires greater diplomacy.
He admits to having softened his stance on the Hundred, regarding himself as something as a convert to aspects of the competition that have come to light in the past two seasons. And it was instructive that, when drawn on the prospect of third-party ownership of the eight city-based teams, he did not dismiss the idea.
“It’s a good question but I don’t want to get too drawn on that, because there’s a lot playing out at the moment on that one. We all know at the moment there is a gold rush for TV rights. What are there now – Fourteen T20 franchises in the world? There’s so much interest in the Hundred for lots of reasons. Let’s just pull it back, we’re only in year two.
“I have a preference for maximising value. Whatever decision we take, if the Hundred can generate significant value to the game then that’s got to be a good thing. You’ve got to make a decision on when’s the right time”
He also ceded the Hundred is a stumbling block in the schedule given it will block off the whole of August going forward, meaning the Championship, T20 Blast and Royal London Cup – the 50-over competition – will have to scrap for space in the remaining months.
“I’m a convert to the audience that it’s clearly reached,” Thompson said. “And I think from a broadcast perspective, as much as it didn’t quite hit the big numbers, it hit some great numbers. It hits audiences in terms of profile that other sports, let alone cricket, aren’t reaching. So you see the reaction from the BBC and Sky and they’re all over it. I mean, they can see the value of it.
“But what I don’t want to do is have a Hundred that diminishes the Blast. The Hundred can work and will work. The Hundred was pre-sold in that pocket that goes through between the Premier League seasons. And we’ve got we’ve got to make it work.
“I’ve got to find a balance, I’ve got to keep everybody happy here. I think the point is, when I’ve been up against the ECB as chairman of Surrey, I’m representing 18 counties and rabid red-ball fans and I will fight tooth and nail. Now I can see the different context and I’ve got to look at the broader sense of keeping 41 stakeholders happy.
“If there are trade-offs to be had, they’ve got to be trade-offs of a brilliant schedule, with the best players always available and other ways to introduce more red-ball cricket.”
Amid all the talk of finances, with the enrichment on T20 leagues and teams set to continue, Thompson is keen to future-proof English cricket to ensure it is not part of the collateral. As the landscape changes at pace, not just with the SAT20 and ILT20 on the horizon, but the growing appetite for IPL teams to retain their players on year-long contracts, the sentiment within the ECB is they need to help protect the counties from potentially losing players that they have reared into the professional game.
“We don’t want a situation where we have the pathway from Under-9s to academy and then, at that point, that player we have nurtured and developed for the last 11 years, we lose to the game. If that were to happen, cricketers effectively become like golfers and follow the sun and just go on tours. That seems to be where this could play out, so our ability to manage and control our talent is crucial to this. And that’s not just about money.
“So in five years’ time, if we’ve lost our best talent to multiple global tournaments, then that’s a tragedy. I recognise at the moment, if you take my previous life as chairman of Surrey, I want the Currans [Sam and Tom] to think that this is their home. I know Sam plays for another four sides, Surrey’s No.5, so it’s a very different world now and I accept it’s changing even faster because the appetite for cricket is growing so dramatically.”
Thompson seems broadly in favour of a six-team top division in the County Championship – one of the proposals that will be toughest to get agreement among 12 of the 18 County chairs – and bringing some of the top national counties into a FA Cup style 50-over knockout competition. Not only does he believe the current 18-county system can be high-quality and financially viable, but he wants to engage “with 39”, too.
“Take Berkshire for instance – they’ve got Reading and Slough, absolute hotbeds for diversity. We’re fortunate that we have a game that is played in all part of the country.”
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo