County championship scheduling risks leaving England short of options

In the wake of England’s recent batting woes in India, discussions and innovations in the county championship have revolved around better preparing English cricketers for alien conditions, especially those that benefit spin bowling.

Despite receiving a warm reception, such attempts to reinvigorate the domestic game have ignored the wider issues surrounding scheduling. Not only does this mean more games on damp, green pitches, but also something that has been to the great detriment to the national side, as shown by the 2019 Ashes series – the inability to draft in county players if need be.

In August 2009, England headed into the fifth and final Ashes Test at the Oval knowing that only a win would regain the urn from Australia. The pre-match build-up was dominated by who would come into the England side to replace Ravi Bopara, who averaged just 15 in seven innings with a top score of 30. Despite rumours that Somerset’s Marcus Trescothick (who averaged 75.70 that season) or Surrey’s Mark Ramprakash (averaging 90 in division two) might be recalled, a Test debut was handed to Warwickshire’s Jonathan Trott (averaging 80.46 in the top division).

Trott would famously score 119 in his second innings to the delight of the Barmy Army and indeed, the nation, as England win back the urn.

A concurrent run of county championship fixtures while the 2009 Ashes was ongoing meant that when England were in dire straits and needed to call someone up to the Test side, the only headache surrounded who they would pick. If the championship had not been going on while the Ashes was taking place, then the urn might well have stayed in Australian hands.

In contrast, during the whole of the 2019 Ashes series just one full round of county championship fixtures took place. This (as well as questionable selection decisions, one might argue) goes a long way to explaining why England persisted with the same failing batting line-up throughout the series.

Despite the heroics of Ben Stokes, it was clear that England’s batting needed an overhaul. The miracle on day 4 overshadowed the fact that in the first innings of that famous Test in Leeds England were bowled out for just 67.

By organising just one full round of county championship fixtures between July 17 and September 9, England had shot themselves in the foot and left themselves with no form book from which they could call up players. Instead, the out-of-form Jonny Bairstow and the out-of-place Jason Roy remained in the side.

In the current world of biosecure bubbles this may not be possible, but this was a problem long before Covid, and threatens to remain one for a long time afterwards.

More indirectly, the neglect of county cricket has severely hindered England’s ability to produce top-class batsmen against spin, and spin bowlers themselves. Successful spin bowling in the county championship is centred on being able to bowl on damp wickets in April, May and September, which does not come close to replicating Test match conditions.

Innovations such as more points for a draw will achieve very little if the current scheduling is not altered in the coming years. Not only will the quality of the domestic game suffer, but it will also harm the national side, just as it did in 2019.

The ECB must learn from those mistakes and give themselves a helping hand in future series by granting county cricket the respect it deserves, and giving themselves a “Plan B.”

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