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ECB unveils new County Championship structure and South Africa tour update

  • Three divisions of six counties for summer of 2021
  • November South Africa tour set to get green light

Essex with the Bob Willis Trophy after the final at Lord’s in September. A final between the top two counties is planned again for 2021.
Photograph: Steven Paston/PA

Some clarity is emerging during what are uncertain times for cricket with news of a restructured County Championship for 2021 and the expectation that England’s tour of South Africa next month will go ahead.

With the sport still battling challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic a decision has been made to play next year’s County Championship in a conference system but also stage a separate Bob Willis Trophy final at the end of the season.

The new system for the championship will see teams split into three groups of six – seeded by way of results in 2019 and 2020, albeit with local derbies accommodated – and then play 10 matches initially.

From there the top two sides from each conference will progress to Division One, where they will each play a further four matches. The team that finishes top will be crowned the official county champions.

The other teams will also play out their final four matches in Divisions Two and Three, while the season will end with a showpiece five-day final between the champions and the runners-up for what is officially a second piece of silverware.

While this additional incentive should see Division One remain competitive to the end – a ‘Race to Lord’s’ narrative is the intention – it raises the prospect of the champions seeing their campaign slightly diminished by losing the one-off match.

But the England and Wales Cricket Board has stressed this is currently a structure for only next year, with a decision on whether to revert back to two divisions from 2022 still to be made.

As well as next summer taking shape, England’s white-ball men’s team appear set to travel to South Africa on 17 November despite an ongoing battle between the host board and its government.

The six-match visit for three ODIs and three T20s appeared in peril when sports minister Nathi Mthethwa set Cricket South Africa a 27 October deadline to address longstanding governance issues.

But while that internal struggle continues, it is understood the South African government does not intend to stand in the way of a tour that is worth an estimated £3.2m to the financially-stricken hosts.

Confirmation is now expected to follow early next week, while Eoin Morgan’s side are also currently contemplating the prospect of a proposed three-match Twenty20 series in Pakistan in January and what would be England’s first visit to the country since 2005.

Quick guide

2021 County Championship Groups

Group 1
Essex, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Worcestershire, Durham

Group 2
Somerset, Hampshire, Surrey, Gloucestershire, Middlesex, Leicestershire

Group 3
Kent, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northamptonshire, Glamorgan, Sussex

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The trip, a payback of sorts for Pakistan touring the UK during the recent pandemic-afflicted summer, will likely clash with England’s Test team playing in Sri Lanka and remains subject to both security plans and the proposed bubble being signed off.

Wasim Khan, chief executive of the Pakistan Cricket Board, said: “We are quietly confident at the moment. We’ll support the ECB in all their assessments to try and make sure we get that series on. There is a huge will from the ECB to come and do this. They know the importance of this for the global game and also cricket in Pakistan.”

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