Setback over potential first-class restart may expose county fault-lines

The prospect of a domestic first-class competition in 2020 would appear to have diminished due to logistical concerns over hotels, as well as doubts among some clubs over the financial viability of a restart.

While a regionally split first-class competition remains the favoured option of the Professional Game Group (PGG), an on-line meeting of the chief executives of the first-class counties on Thursday aired some continuing unease over the prospect of a return to action in August.

In particular, the counties are keen not to subject their players to any danger if hotels are being used – as some are at present – by those isolating after arriving from abroad. There are also concerns over the medical resources that may be required to stage games, and a determination that the game should not divert those resources away from the wider community.

Most of all, though, there are concerns over money. A small minority of counties appear reluctant to incur the costs inherent in taking their players off furlough when there is little prospect of any ticket revenue to offset the expenditure. Those who want to play point out that clubs have, at this stage, received the money that would normally have been expected from the ECB at this stage of the season and that they should, therefore, play if practically responsible.

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As a result, it remains possible that 50-over cricket – playable without the need for overnight stays – could return instead of the first-class game. It also remains possible that those counties with close local rivals – such as Middlesex and Surrey – could stage first-class friendlies against each other as a contingency.

The regional first-class competition remains the first-choice option for most of the counties, however, and is at the centre of the proposals to be discussed by the ECB’s cricket committee on Friday. With hotels likely to open for business on July 4 and no firm decision needing to be made until mid-July, there is still optimism that the regional competition could take place.

At least two more counties are planning to take their players off furlough at around the same time England’s Test series against West Indies begins in the second week of July, with others expected to follow. One or two others are reluctant to do so, however, for fear of incurring costs they might struggle to afford. As a consequence, there is a concern their players would not have time to regain match fitness ahead of a potential restart in August.

There is, perhaps, a more far reaching relevance here. The pandemic would appear to have exposed divides in the domestic game, with the more affluent 14 or so counties starting to lose patience with those struggling to keep their heads above water. If there is a decision to proceed with a first-class competition without a small number of counties – a scenario which would require a vote – it could set a precedent. Should the ECB executive decide that this was the time to attempt to trim the number of first-class counties, they might find less resistance than at any time in many, many years.

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