Yesterday the 2021 County Championship kicked off in England. The competition was first contested in 1864, when Surrey was crowned champions. Officially known as the Championship since 1980, the competition has seen many formats over its storied history.
In 2000, the England & Wales County Board (ECB) adopted a two-divisional format for the eighteen counties contesting the Championship. There were a few tweaks made to the structure in 2016, but it basically stayed the same until last season. An important feature was the automatic promotion / relegation – the two bottom teams in Division One went down, and the two top teams in Division Two up.
2021 sees the first major restructuring of the Championship format since 2000. Because of the Covid pandemic, the Championship proper was not staged in 2020. Instead, the counties played in a revised three-group structure for the Bob Willis Trophy.
Earlier this year the eighteen counties voted to retain the three-group structure for the 2021 Championship. But whereas last year the groups were regional to avoid heavy travel during the pandemic, this season the sides have been separated into three seeded pools of six. The seedings were compiled from results in the 2019 County Championship and 2020 Bob Willis Trophy. Derby matches have been accommodated where possible, with the ECB saying that is to “ensure that county members and supporters can look forward to some of county cricket’s oldest rivalries”.
From this weekend until 14 July, each side will play the others in its pool home and away in a total of ten matches. The top two sides from each group will then advance to Division One, with the third and fourth-placed teams moving into Division Two and the fifth and sixth-placed teams going into Division Three. Starting on 30 August, each county will then play a further four matches. They will not play the side they have already faced twice in the pool stage for a third time. Instead, the points accrued from those matches will be carried over. The side who tops Division One will be crowned County Champions. They will then play the side who finishes second in a five-day final in the last week of September, with the winners of that game claiming the Bob Willis Trophy.
The revised Championship was created in part to make space in the calendar for the new kid on the block, The Hundred. Over the past two decades the counties played sixteen first-class games per season; now it will be fourteen. Is this another sign of the erosion of cricket’s traditional powerbase, giving in to the demands of commercialisation?
It is too early to say whether the new Championship structure is here to stay. The counties agreed to it partly also to help best deal with the lingering impact of the Covid pandemic. It is set to be reviewed ahead of the 2022 season after consultation between the counties, the ECB, sponsors and other stakeholders.
The ECB has been mum on promotion / relegation. This concept was one of the big drivers of keeping first-class cricket relevant until the last match. The counties had something to play for. With no prospect of promotion or some higher honours, it is difficult to see what will keep teams in Divisions Two and Three motivated during the division stages of the Championship.
The Championship is the world’s premier first-class competition. Tweaks for the Covid pandemic are understandable, but let us hope it is not being sacrificed for more white-ball cricket.