Essex CCC chairman Nigel Hilliard suggested last week that the County Championship should revert back to a format whereby any of the 18 first-class counties have a chance of winning title in any given year. It was a suggestion that came largely out of the blue, as it is widely believed that the current two-division format, since it was introduced in 2000, has helped raise the standard of county cricket.
Nonetheless, it is a suggestion worth considering, especially as Hillaird came up with an alternative explanation for the rise in standard. He said, “The argument put forward for two-division cricket is that it has improved the standard and has made more competition but, in my view, what has improved the standard is in fact four-day cricket (introduced universally in 1993).”
He went on to back up this argument by outlining how the number of players from the first division that have gone on to represent England is of a roughly similar amount to those from the second division. Indeed all three of England’s current captains learnt their cricket at clubs that played second division cricket in 2011.
However, where his argument begins to fall down is when it comes to the matter of how to implement a system that gives all 18 counties a shot at the title. A change back to the old one-division format is out of the question – Hilliard admitted so himself – as it produces too many meaningless games towards the end of the season. He did add, however, “I have … put my suggestions forward (to the ECB domestic cricket review) as a discussion point as to how this could be achieved but whether there will be any change, I don’t know.”
Now, what these suggested changes entail is open to debate, but they are likely to include something along the lines of the 2008 proposal that wanted three regional groups of six teams with an end-of-season knockout phase. Alternatively, a less dramatic change could see the bottom team in division one exchanging places with the top team in division two at the half way stage in the season. This way the two-tier format, with all of the excitement that it generates, could be maintained, while at the same time any of the 18 counties would have a shot at the title at the start of any given season.
Both of these proposals have their obvious disadvantages. In the former, a team could end up winning the title without ever having had to play certain teams and it could hardly be called a nationwide Championship; while the latter seems somehow contrived and it is difficult to see how the team that was promoted mid-season could carry their points haul forward into the first division, which would mean that the messy system of average points or adjusted totals would have to be used.
All of which means that, mercifully, we are likely to stay with the same system that has served us so well for the past two seasons and produced such exciting finishes. After all, the inherent virtue of the present two-division format is that practically every team has something to play for all the way through the season. Why change something that so obviously works?