New name for Minor Counties cricket part of biggest recreational game shake-up for 35 years

Exmouth
Exmouth's Maer Ground - scene of Devon's 2004 win over Leicestershire in the old C&G Trophy

A proposed new look to Minor Counties cricket – including a change of name – is likely to be rubber stamped by the ECB at the end of this month.

Discussions between the Minor Counties Cricket Association and England and Wales Cricket Board have been taking place for more than a year about the future structure and funding of Minor Counties cricket. The last major re-think of Minor Counties competitions was back in 1983.

A review group comprising representatives from both camps has been working on a new format for three-day cricket, currently branded the Unicorns Championship, and revisions to the one-day Unicorns Trophy.

The review group has proposed that the Eastern and Western Division structure of the Minor Counties Championship should be retained but that each region should be divided into first and second divisions.

Each division in the new Associate Counties Championship would comprise five counties with the winners of Division One East and Division One West contesting the play-off final. The fifth county in each regional first division would be relegated and replaced by the winners of the respective second divisions.

Each of the 20 Minor Counties would play four three-day Championship matches in the normal season, a reduction from the current six matches per county.

Bob Dawson - Devon's skipper and man of the match when they defeated Leicestershire in the old C&G TrophyCounties would lose three home days of cricket by the reduction in games, but would get two of them back in the 50-over competition.

If the changes are agree the Unicorns Trophy will revert to a four-match group qualifying format, leading to a knockout stage then a final.

The Minor Counties T20, which was successfully re-introduced in 2018, would be retained with four groups of five with the group winners progressing straight to finals day.

It is intended the three Minor Counties competitions will be played in blocks throughout the season to enable players and coaches to focus on each of the different formats. The Trophy is likely to launch the season, followed by T20 cricket in the middle period with three-day cricket taking priority in the latter weeks, which administrators hope will improve player availability.

Neil Gamble, the Devon chairman and a member of the MCCA executive but not the review group, said support for the proposal was almost universal among counties in the existing Western Division.

 “There is a consensus in the Western Division that this is a good idea,” said Gamble. “Devon are certainly well disposed to it.”

Gamble said at a time when money from ECB for the recreational game is tight, the cost of three-day cricket made a review inevitable.

“The MCCA treasurer produced a report that said 73 per cent of the £830,000 grant from ECB for Minor Counties Cricket goes on six three-day games per county,” said Gamble.

Godfrey Furse, Cornwall’s team manager and former skipper, welcomed the changes with one reservation.

“This is something I proposed 20-odd years ago when I was captain and I think a proper league format with promotion and relegation is an excellent idea,” said Furse.

“Fewer games should make it easier for players to get time off work and for counties to get their strongest teams out.

“The only thing that worries me is a proposal to make counties select at least eight players aged below 25. 

“That would prevent us picking players aged 26, 27, 28 and so on – and we don’t wish to do that.

“Cornwall does not have the cricketing population of somewhere like Berkshire and we are selecting from fewer players as it is. The under-25 average age proposal needs a rethink.”

Currently counties need to have nine players with an average age of 26 or under in their side. They can balance excess over-age players with teenagers provided the average across the nine is within bounds.

Sean Walbridge, Dorset’s chairman, is another qualified supporter of the facelift.

“We aren’t against the proposed changes to Championship cricket,” said Walbridge.

“We feel two divisions and promotion and relegation is a positive move.

‘Only playing four games is not ideal but there isn’t any other possible option. 

“A return to group stages in the 50 over competition means we don’t lose too much cricket, however, we feel the groups for the 50-over and twenty-20 must contain different teams.”

The review group has assured Walbridge their intention is to mix-up the qualifying groups.

The next stage in the decision-making process will take place in late November when the bid to fund the Minor Counties programme is presented to the ECB Board.

Associate Counties are likely to be invited to return to the 50-over Royal London Cup for the 2020 season.

During the review of recreational cricket undertaken by the Minor Counties Cricket Association, it emerged counties were keen to be readmitted to the national one-day competition.

Twelve Minor Counties were selected to take part in the competition every year between 1964 and 2005, when the practice was stopped.

Minor Counties seldom defeated First Class opposition – Devon’s 2004 win over Leicestershire was a rare exception – but the exposure generated by the games was good for the profile of cricket outside the professional game.

Exact details have not been finalised, however it is known 18 of the 20 Minor Counties will be admitted to the Royal London Cup.

Minor Counties were given favourable home draws in the past, which they would like to see restored. Exmouth was the preferred venue in the past for 50-over games between Devon and First Class counties. Club and county are both interested in resuming the arrangement.