English cricket is braced for a delayed start to the season and a possible crunching down of competitions as the sport tries to salvage its televised offering in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The England and Wales Cricket Board held conference calls with first-class counties and stakeholders on Tuesday morning in a bid to get a full understanding of the challenges facing the sport this year, with further talks due on Thursday.
Decisions are expected to be announced soon, once fully formulated by the Professional Game Group that runs the sport domestically and signed off by the ECB board, but will still be at the mercy of what is an ever-changing global landscape.
A delayed start to the County Championship, due to get underway on 12 April, looks inevitable but the biggest priority is being able to stage the men’s international schedule and The Hundred that make up the bulk of the new five-year £1.1bn broadcast deal with Sky and the BBC.
There are six Test matches and 12 limited-overs internationals, starting with the first Test against West Indies on 4 June, with Australia, Pakistan and Ireland also due to visit. Some of this programme faces possible postponement although simply pushing fixtures back may become unworkable in an already packed schedule.
Rod Bransgrove, the Hampshire chairman, told BBC Solent: “It’s likely to get a lot worse before it will get better and I think our conclusion is we need to have plans for various different contingencies. They include no cricket at all during the season, but hopefully that won’t be the one that prevails.”
The counties understandably want to protect the T20 Blast that starts on 28 May – it is their biggest revenue-generator outside of central payments from the ECB – meaning first-class cricket and the Royal London Cup are the formats seemingly most under threat from either a scaling back of fixtures or even a full cancellation.
The ECB has seen its cash reserves drop from £73m to £11m, due to county grants and set-up costs for The Hundred, and in its most recent accounts had identified the loss of matches due to “events outside cricket’s control” as a major risk.
The question now is whether the board’s new 100-ball tournament can be launched during such tumultuous times or is best pushed back a year given the threat of small crowds and possible withdrawals by overseas stars.