The last time we saw the County Championship, in 2019, Nottinghamshire had been relegated from Division One with a paltry 67 points, while Lancashire, Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire had been promoted from Division Two.
“I’m now looking forward to the challenge and I know the players are excited about that,” trilled Gloucestershire’s head coach, Richard Dawson. “It’s been a humbling championship campaign and all of us are really hurting,” grumbled Peter Moores, whose Notts side were coming to terms with demotion. Now, after a fallow year in 2020, it’s back – and it turns out that none of that really mattered.
Instead the competition that begins on Thursday looks more like last year’s Bob Willis Trophy, with counties drawn into three divisions, this time seeded according to performances over the last two summers rather than grouped geographically. Results in this early group stage, most of which will be played during April and May, will split the teams for a second stage scheduled for September, from which the champions will eventually emerge.
This means that teams destined to miss out on the top two spots in their first groups don’t have much to play for from then on, but also that for the first time since 1999, when the championship was split into two, every county goes into the season with a chance of winning the title.
“I think divisional cricket has its positives and negatives,” says Paul Downton, director of cricket at Kent. “The idea of best versus best is great, but it leaves half the sides almost in a twilight zone. I think the fact that all 18 counties do start the year with the potential of winning the championship is exciting.
“I think we should give this a real go. One year would be too short. I’d be in favour at this stage of continuing this format for two or three years and seeing how it works out. A lot of cricketers got ignored in the old Second Division and this should even things out.”
Others are far less enthusiastic. “I’m not a big fan if I’m honest,” says Anthony McGrath, head coach at Essex. “I think we’re better with two divisions. I think the best teams should play the best teams. I think that’s how you get the best competition and the best development.”
Jason Kerr, Somerset’s head coach, agrees. “I know how hard we had to work to get out of Division Two. We had to develop skills and develop players, and I think all 18 counties should have that mindset,” he says. “You need to earn the right to win the County Championship. If you look at football, the guys outside the Premier League haven’t got the opportunity to win the Premier League. They’ve got to earn the right to be there.”
The England and Wales Cricket Board will assess the format’s initial impact before deciding whether it should be retained, amended or discarded.
There are other changes for this season, including the return of the coin toss and the reward for a draw boosted from five points to eight. The latter was among the ideas suggested by Joe Root in the aftermath of England’s Test series defeat in India, as a means of stretching games into four days, encouraging batsmen to build long innings and bringing spinners into the game.
The impact of those extra three points remains to be seen, but Downton worries that “it could lead to some quite defensive cricket”. Vikram Solanki, head coach at Surrey, is more welcoming: “I think it’s a good thing, because if you’re having to work harder for your wins, or if you are able to salvage a situation where you might be behind in a game, I think that instils good qualities in players, both for our county and for those guys who are lucky enough to go on and play for England.”
Covid-19’s continued impact on the game is more certain, not least in the absence of fans for most of the first group stage, while players will have to get used to regular lateral flow tests and restrictions on how they travel to grounds and behave once in them. But not all of the pandemic’s implications are entirely negative, given that issues with international travel have led to many players spending their winters training rather than sunbathing.
“I’m sure it was a frustration for a lot of them that they weren’t getting the sun on their back in the winter,” says Kerr, “but for me it was a fantastic opportunity to really develop players and I certainly hope we’ll see that come to fruition.”
After finishing second in four of the last five years (including last year’s Bob Willis Trophy), Kerr’s Somerset will be looking to take the final step to silverware this summer, though Surrey and Hampshire will both hope to complicate their progress from Group Two.
Essex, winners in three of the last four years (again including last year), should come safely through Group One and Yorkshire are favourites to win Group Three, but as every follower of the county game knows, long-range forecasts are wildly unreliable.
In this of all years it is hard to be sure on whom the sun will be shining in September.