Two and a half years ago, in the wake of the 2018 season, key figures at the ECB sat down and pondered the future of women’s domestic cricket. Clare Connor’s plan for a 50-over version of the Kia Super League had fallen by the wayside ahead of the 2017 World Cup. Australia’s domestic competitions, the WNCL and WBBL, were now both fully professional, and the ECB desperately needed to find a way to catch up. They looked on enviously at the state system, which gave Cricket Australia 7 obvious team units to focus on – a much easier (and cheaper) ask than attempting to professionalise the 38 counties of England. And they hatched a plan to abolish the county system as we knew it.
We first reported the ECB’s plans in January 2019, when they came to light publicly. Back then, we were led to believe that the plan was for a radical restructuring of county cricket whereby the Women’s County Championship would continue, but with a top tier of 8 professional counties, with no relegation or promotion. The other counties would sit beneath this, as “feeders” for the professional counties.
But the plan, as it turned out, was even more radical than we had envisaged. As the 2019 season progressed and more details of the plans came to light, it gradually became clear that the ECB’s plan was for an “eight-team semi-professional competition structure” which mirrored that of the The Hundred – with team identities separate to county identities. Surrey would not be permitted to continue to host the Surrey Stars, and Lancashire would have to become North West Thunder.
The ECB wanted women’s domestic cricket to move away from the county model altogether. Women’s county cricket would become defunct; it would disappear. And because the new structure would be semi-professional and would involve a huge amount more investment than the Women’s County Championship ever received, nobody would really mind.
By the end of the (truncated) 2020 season, the first without the Women’s County Championship, it was already clear that this was a colossal misjudgement on behalf of the ECB. But, slowly but surely, something else has also become apparent: the ECB’s plan to abolish women’s county cricket has failed.
It has failed literally. This season (Covid-permitting), the T20 County Cup will be played across four weekends in April and May, as a kickstarter to the 2021 women’s season. The ECB had granted the T20 Cup a two-season stay of execution back in 2019, but given that the 2020 version had to be canned due to the pandemic, it would have been easy enough to axe it in 2021. But it is very much still with us.
There is also the small matter of the two “rebel” 50-over County Championships which will be played in 2021, outside the auspices of the ECB: the London Championship, and the East of England County Championship. After a nervous start in 2020, these competitions look to be here to stay. Importantly, Clare Connor’s alma mater Sussex have recently announced their intention to join the London Championship. The addition of another former “powerhouse” of the County Championship can only give the competition more kudos. It could well signal the beginning of other counties also following suit and choosing to continue with 50-over cricket.
As this suggests, the ECB’s plan to abolish county cricket has also failed philosophically. It turns out that telling players who currently represent their counties that they should simply “go off and play club cricket” doesn’t actually work – county cricket is the zenith, and club cricket (especially in some areas of the country) is too weak to offer a decent substitute. When South East Stars captain Tash Farrant is telling us in an England press conference that she is counting down the days until she can don her Kent shirt again, you realise the significance of county cricket to the players who participate in it. Regional cricket cannot hope to replace deeply-held county loyalties for the foreseeable future, if it ever does.
And the ECB’s plan has also failed structurally. Yes, we have a brilliant new regional system in place, with 41 domestic contracts, and full-time Directors of Cricket, coaching teams, and support staff now being paid to support those players (huge credit to the ECB for all this). But many of the Directors of Cricket view the county game as a significant part of the new regional structure. South East Stars is one example. “Those county games will be where [Director of Cricket] Richard Bedbrook and [Head Coach] Johann Myburgh will be looking to see which girls perform, leading into the regional stuff and picking our XI from that,” Tash Farrant said recently. We are aware of a number of other Directors who feel similarly.
As this season progresses, and the county game acts explicitly as a feeder into these new regional teams, it’s going to become harder and harder for the ECB to argue that county cricket doesn’t have a place in the regional era. Also, the ECB explicitly discussed the role of county cricket in their post-Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy review. The fact that the T20 Cup is still going ahead, and that the Regional Directors are apparently not being discouraged from shouting about the importance of the county game, suggests to me that the ECB are fully aware that their plan to decouple women’s domestic cricket from the county structure has not succeeded, and have quietly taken it on the chin and backed down.
There is really nothing to be ashamed of in this U-turn. The ECB got it wrong; they have realised this, and are no longer ploughing ahead regardless. But it is an important reminder that county cricket remains valuable, to the system and the players. Even as we praise the new regional structures, let’s remember they were built on the solid foundations of county cricket: the format that refuses to say die.
If the ECB now recognise county cricket has its place then they need to come out and say so and confirm it will be in the calendar for X years at least and will be centrally funded. Otherwise we have a very undesirable situation where the official county competitions keep being given a one-year stay of execution, and that’s horrendous for any county that wants to do long-term development planning.
Just wonder if the current situation is what Syd and Raf, or any of the readers of this page, would do were they to be given a blank sheet and asked to re-design domestic women’s cricket from scratch. Is it really what we want/need to have The Hundred AND 50 over regional cricket AND 20 over regional cricket AND and official T20 county competition AND additional 50 over county cricket (official or unofficial)? Doesn’t this all seem a bit quart into a pint pot?
The county cricket that’s scheduled to be played this year could suffer though from a number of mis-matches, with the T20 format being entirely regional, and it’s far from inconceivable that this issue could also affect the East of England Championship as well. The grapevine has told me that at least one leading county is unsure as to whether to field a full strength team in the county T20, given this issue, and may instead use it for a development team – does anyone have any insight on this?
As I understand it, Government guidance will be to ‘stay local’ until May 17, which covers the period of the County T20. This competition will, I imagine, be classed as recreational sport and will not benefit from elite sport exemptions. Even with a fully regionalised format, journeys of 100 miles or so will still be required for many of the matches, so this leads me to be less than 100% certain that this competition will take place this year. Again, does anyone have an inside track on the ECB’s thinking here? If it doesn’t happen, then that will be two successive years without formal county cricket and that might call into question its long term future and whether it will really be resurrected having had a two-year break?
A u-turn would be for them to admit they got it wrong and relaunch it properly. They haven’t done this. Just keeping quiet and giving a Covid stay of execution is not a u-turn.
They’re barely funding the T20 let alone 50 over.
Great article though but doubt the ECB will agree and will carry on trying to kill of the women’s county game
I think this fiasco is just another manifestation of a very longstanding problem.
There’s always been significant demand for top flight women’s cricket, not only from players but also from fans. That’s why the very first ever women’s Test tour, in the 1930s, attracted big crowds and plenty of media attention. The problem is that up until about 10 years ago, cricketing authorities, sponsors and broadcasters never really understood, or sought properly to cater for, that demand. In that respect, women’s cricket was very similar to men’s cricket before Kerry Packer set up World Series Cricket in 1977.
The organisers of tennis tournaments have long understood and catered properly for the demand for women’s sport. For decades now, women’s tennis has been just as well organised, and just as prominent from a player and fan perspective, as men’s tennis, and the fans really appreciate that prominence.
Even today, however, except perhaps in Australia, there is still not really any proper understanding of the demand for women’s cricket. So whereas the WBBL, the WNCL and the Australian national women’s team are going from strength to strength, the other competitions and teams, including in England, still don’t really cater properly for either the players or the fans.
The problem is most acute in relation to Test matches. When an Indian official made an announcement earlier this month that India would play a Test against England, the Indian players were not the only ones to say that they were very excited. The South African players did, too. They then went on to beat the Indians 4-1 in a WODI competition. But even now, the ECB is still yet to confirm that England will play a Test even against India, let alone South Africa, and there’s similarly not been any suggestion, from any official, that an India – South Africa Test could be played soon.
They just don’t get it, do they?