By Richard Clark
Good news arrived late last week with the announcement* of the ECB County T20 Cup fixtures for 2021, as devoted fans of the weekly CRICKETher Vodcast will doubtless have noted.
(* It should not go un-noted that describing it as an “announcement” is over-egging things hugely. The fixtures appeared on Play Cricket, much like Mr Benn’s shopkeeper, ‘as if by magic’, and it is hard to escape the feeling that enthusiasm at ECB Towers for women’s county cricket and the promotion thereof is thin on the ground. Be that as it may, however…)
Having been granted a stay of execution for 2020 and 2021, last summer’s competition was mothballed initially – and ultimately cancelled – as a result of the Covid pandemic, and there had been some concern that impetus for one last fling might be lacking after a two-year gap, so it’s pleasing to see those fears allayed. The virus still holds us in its grip, of course, but let’s be optimistic and assume for now that county cricket will be played – and watched – in 2021!
The schedule looks a little different from the last T20 Cup in 2019 (and the abandoned 2020 campaign), when the format mirrored the 50-over competition in being based on three Divisions, with the lowest level organised into three regions. This time around the structure is wholly regional, based around six Groups of six teams (five in one case), and with no suggestion of a play-off system or similar to decide an overall champion.
The reasons for this are not explicit, but it is probably safe to assume that minimising costs such as travelling and overnight stops is a major factor, whether by edict from the ECB or at the request of the counties themselves. Either way there is some sense behind the change, even if it is not quite ideal in other ways.
Matches will take place over four consecutive weekends – Sunday 25th April, Monday 3rd May, Sunday 9th May, and Sunday 16th May. Once again the format is based almost exclusively around the tried and tested ‘triangular’ fixtures with three counties meeting at a single venue – the home team playing first and last – although one fixture in the North Group each week will be a straight back-to-back double-header with that Group consisting of only five teams.
Whilst the set-up works in allowing as many matches to be played as possible, it does have flaws in being limited to the four-week window.
Not everyone will play everyone else twice. In fact, some counties will not meet others at all. In the South East Group for instance, Surrey play Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Sussex twice each… but won’t cross swords with Hampshire at all. One wonders whether an extra round of fixtures could have been a simple solution to that…?
There are also some geographical anomalies. As Syd noted on the Vodcast, his beloved Berkshire have relocated to the West Midlands. So have Somerset. And Wales. To make the journey from Berkshire to Wales along the M4 one travels south of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, yet those counties are in the South West Group. And Somerset will hike through Gloucestershire to reach parts of the West Midlands. Meanwhile, Shropshire is now in the East Midlands, despite being further West than four of the West Midlands counties.
Again the reasons for this can only be guessed at, but the suspicion must be that it’s an attempt to “level up” the competition. Somerset, for instance, might have proved too strong for a South West Division containing five counties which plied their trade in Division Three last time cricket was played. If you read this and feel tempted to shoot the messenger, by the way, (a) it IS only a guess, and (b) I didn’t compile the Groups!
Some Groups will be stronger than others – if this was a World Cup we would no doubt be talking the South East up as the proverbial “Group of Death”, whereas the East Group comprises traditional Division Three counties only. My advice would be not to let that fool you, however – if it turns out to be anything like 2020’s inaugural East of England Championship then some treats will be in store from those less heralded teams. The 50-over competition there took in six matches, and four of them were settled by one run, one wicket, two wickets and on a super over respectively!
One wonders about the North Group – Yorkshire and Lancashire up against North East Warriors (Durham and Northumberland combined), Cumbria and Scotland ‘A’. At the risk of encouraging more messenger-shooting that doesn’t necessarily look like the most level playing field for one or two teams, particularly if England players are available to the Roses pair.
And that brings us on to another unknown – will England players be involved? The timing of the competition is such that it would seem to provide an ideal warm-up opportunity ahead of the international summer, but the England hierarchy may feel there is more to be gained in ‘intensive’ training camps. We shall see.
On top of this, of course, we should see ‘unofficial’ 50-over competitions later in the season too. Surrey’s website confirmed the return of the London Championship for a second season at the same time as revealing their T20 fixtures, and the East of England Championship will also be back, with Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire joining Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire & Norfolk from last season in a ringing endorsement of its success.
Hopefully many other counties will look to play friendly matches, or maybe even follow the lead set by others and form their own regional competitions.
And finally – Women’s County Cricket Day will be back! No date set yet, but we can confirm that it will be one of those four ECB T20 days. Look out for further announcements in the New Year!
Full Fixture List here (select required Division from the drop-down menu):
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