County cricket may return in August with small socially distanced crowds

Ali Martin
Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Hopes for an English county season being staged this summer are on the rise despite the announcement on Thursday that no domestic professional cricket will take place before 1 August because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While the England and Wales Cricket Board looks set to confirm an international men’s schedule for 2020, starting with the visit of West Indies for three Tests in July under biosecure conditions, the prospects for a county season had appeared bleak. But despite pushing the potential start date back for the third time this year, the ECB has now confirmed that plans are being formulated by its Professional Game Group for a reduced domestic season that could run into October with both first-class cricket and the T20 Blast played in three regional groups.

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For first-class cricket, counties would likely play each other just once in their six-team pool, with a report on ESPNCricinfo stating that the two sides with the most points across the three pools would then meet for a possible end-of-season final at Lord’s.

It remains to be seen whether this mini-competition constitutes an official County Championship. But ethe results are not expected to have any bearing on next year as regards promotion and relegation.

In the T20 Blast, which would be the only cricket played under the more pessimistic option two, counties will play 10 group games – five home, five away – with the three table-toppers and the next best side meeting for a Finals Day. The Royal London Cup, meanwhile, is not expected to take place and the inaugural season of the Hundred has already been pushed back to 2021.

Though England matches are expected to be played behind closed doors this summer – initially at least – the ECB has confirmed that county cricket could yet have small crowds, provided clubs adhere to government guidance on physical distancing. Matches not covered by the rights-holder Sky will also be streamed over the internet.

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At present only Surrey and Lancashire – both of whom announced in the past week record profits for 2019 – have not furloughed their playing staff; in the event of a 1 August start, the other 16 counties would likely need to take their squads off the government scheme next month in order to begin their preparations.

The plans have some way to go before being finalised – Lancashire and Hampshire, for example, may be forced to play at out-grounds given Old Trafford and the Ageas Bowl are England’s two biosecure venues – and much will hinge on how the national landscape looks as regards Covid-19.

The recreational game remains suspended until further notice – bar the use of outdoor nets for exercise under the current guidelines – but the ECB has stated it will continue talks with Whitehall over a start date this summer, as well as possible earlier return for junior cricket.