It has been reported that Abu Dhabi cricket has offered the England ECB use of facilities between October and January, amidst the delay of the English cricket season until at least 1 July. This is a hugely interesting offer and one which could see a very new look to county cricket.
The timing of this challenge is far from ideal for the ECB on the back of a huge year of cricket in 2019. It would have hoped to capitalise on the new fans introduced to the game through the cricket world cup and the ashes, but these fans may quickly lose enthusiasm if there is not more cricket soon.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated a growing problem in English domestic cricket regarding fixture congestion. Whilst cricket is not alone in this issue, the range of formats; four-day, 50 over and T20, offer a unique challenge. With the planned launch of a fourth format in the hundred competition in the summer of 2020 the situation only appears to be getting worse.
There have been calls for the hundred to be delayed until 2021, most notably from Michael Vaughan. This appears to be the only option given this being the much-vaunted inaugural season. There is already enough resistance to the competition within the cricket community without attempting to play in front of empty stands. Despite being able to broadcast the competition it is surely essential for a viewing experience to have fans in the ground. Launching a competition under these circumstances appears to be a doomed task.
Another issue that has long been a challenge to the administrators is attendances, especially for county championship matches. The reputation of one man and his dog attending most fixtures is a little exaggerated but there are certainly difficulties in drawing the crowds in. Maybe a season or part of a season abroad could make fans appreciate what they are missing and rekindle some passion for county cricket.
Initially county cricket in Abu Dhabi may appear to be a very unlikely scenario, however there is some history that would suggest this could work. The ground has been used previously for county cricket, most notably the traditional annual curtain raiser fixture between the previous season’s county champions and the MCC from 2010-2017, as well as being a regular destination for county pre-season tours.
Abu Dhabi offers a unique environment for cricket given the facilities available, with two support ovals in addition to the main ground. There is also the opportunity to broadcast games played on the main ground, a major draw given the broadcasting commitments in place. Having the opportunity to watch county cricket on TV in the winter would certainly appeal to many fans.
The ECB has been open to innovation in the past in attempts to modernise the structure of county cricket, especially in recent years with changes such as experimenting with day-night four-day games and removing the toss in attempt to even up the contest between bat and ball. These experiments ultimately did not become a permanent part of the county set up, but they did display intent and a willingness from the ECB to try new concepts to improve the game.
There are significant logistical challenges to this proposal, flying out 18 full squads in addition to support staff will place significant financial demands from counties in a sport that isn’t flushed with cash in the domestic game. However there appear to be advantages, and the cost of not playing cricket for a season or failing to complete a season could be greater for some counties.
Having the competition staged in the winter months could offer the opportunity for regular England internationals to feature for their counties, depending on the status of the winter tours to India and South Africa, which could offer renewed interest to or introduce new supporters.
Furthermore, offering county players the opportunity to experience foreign conditions could provide advantages to the national side in the future. If players are already familiar with the conditions and can adapt their games to playing abroad when touring countries such as Pakistan and India, then this could aid performances. From a financial and commercial standpoint playing the game abroad could even attract fans from abroad.
Alternatives to allow the completion of the county season have been few and far between as things stand, but there appears to be a general acceptance that play in front of crowds is unlikely given the probable need to maintain social distancing measures for the remainder of 2020. It has been mentioned that grounds such as Old Trafford and Southampton could be possible venues to stage multiple matches over a prolonged period due to their onsite hotel facilities, requiring minimal travel.
One group of people that must be consulted on this is the players, who are often overlooked in favour of corporate motivations. Asking players and staff to leave their families to potentially be cooped up in Abu Dhabi for months is not something to be underestimated. An international cricketer may be used to long winter tours away from home but there is a difference between that and a county player.
I personally do not see this becoming a long-term part of the county cricket season structure but given the circumstances this could provide a strong statement regarding the importance placed on county cricket in England. There are still many unknowns regarding the situation, and much depends on whether the opportunity to play cricket in this country arises, however this is certainly an option worth seriously considering.
This article has been written exclusively for golear.co.uk