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.