ECB defends ‘Super September’ as 2024 County fixtures put season climax in spotlight

The ECB has defended the concept of “Super September” after unveiling the men’s and women’s domestic fixtures calendar for 2024, with five domestic competitions set to be decided in the final month of the season, alongside a possible 15 days of men’s international cricket.

Neil Snowball, managing director of Competitions and Major Events, conceded that the ECB had “had our hand forced” in avoiding high-profile scheduling clashes in 2024, given the ICC’s staging of the Men’s T20 World Cup in the Caribbean and the USA between June 4-30, and the knock-on effect on England’s major-match schedule for their home season – with a pair of three-Test series against West Indies and Sri Lanka, plus eight white-ball fixtures against Australia, all taking place in the final 11 weeks of the season, from July 11 to September 29.

On the domestic front, however, Snowball believes that the prospect of the Vitality Blast and Metrobank One-Day Cup finals taking place on consecutive weekends in mid-September, alongside the Charlotte Edwards Cup final, the revamped Disability Premier League final, and the likely climax of the County Championship title race, offers a “natural culmination of the season”.

“With three men’s county domestic competitions, one of the women’s and the DPL, in terms of a mix of conclusions of titles, I think that’s quite exciting,” Snowball said. “At the same time, we’ll have the back end of the Sri Lanka Test series and the Australia men’s white-ball series. There’s a lot to love about that. Yes, it’s a lot of cricket. But I think that is a lot to look forward to.”

Championship returns to August, Blast to late week

Other significant changes to the fixture list include a return of Championship cricket to the prime month of August, with the new season of the Hundred (the fixtures for which have yet to be announced) moved back a week into July. Meanwhile, the vast majority of next year’s Vitality Blast fixtures – 122 of 126 group-stages matches – will be played on Thursday nights, Friday nights and at weekends, including 22 double headers alongside the Charlotte Edwards Cup.

To mitigate against the prospect of autumnal weather at the season’s climax, the ECB has allocated a reserve day for each of the knock-out matches across the men’s and women’s competitions – and if there’s still no prospect of a result in the final, then the title will be shared, instead of being decided on a bowl-out, as would have been the case in recent seasons.

Not everyone on the county circuit will be convinced by the schedule’s merits, however. Speaking after Surrey’s successful defence of their Championship title this season, director of cricket Alec Stewart derided Super September as “anything but”, and urged the ECB to be “more respectful to the county game”.

Snowball acknowledged Stewart’s criticism. “Surrey may end up in the quarter-finals and finals of the Blast, and in the final of the One-Day Cup and be pushing for the title, that’s going to be a very busy September,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it unlucky, but the consequence of being really good is you could be in all three, then that is a hell of a schedule. I agree. But I would have thought adrenaline would take them through that.”

Kookaburra trial extended to four matches

After two rounds of University fixtures in March, the County Championship will launch the season proper on April 5, with Surrey opening their title defence against Lancashire at Old Trafford, while Durham mark their return to the top flight for the first time in eight years by hosting Hampshire at Chester-le-Street. Worcestershire, the other promoted team, will face Midlands rivals Warwickshire at Edgbaston.

That opening round of games could yet be contested using the Kookaburra ball, with the ECB confirming that the two-match trial period utilised during the 2023 season would be extended to four matches in 2024, in two blocks of two towards the beginning and end of the season, but avoiding the season’s climax as well as the middle rounds of games in late April and May when each county is guaranteed a week off.

The use of the Kookaburra – the favoured ball for most overseas Test cricket – was recommended by Andrew Strauss’s High Performance Review for 2023, in the wake of England’s disastrous Ashes campaign. Though it was dismissed by Surrey’s head coach Gareth Batty as a “knee-jerk reaction”, it led to a 10% increase in the amount of overs bowled by spinners, according to Mo Bobat, the ECB’s outgoing performance director.

“Most coaches would say that it helped to develop skills for bowlers, as the ball probably does less than a Dukes ball,” Alan Fordham, the ECB’s operations manager, added. “Dukes gives us a competitive advantage in our home internationals, so this isn’t a takeover by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a chance to give players an opportunity to use the Kookaburra in matches in this country, rather than if they are selected for international duty for the first time.”

Hybrid pitches permitted for Championship

Hybrid pitches will also be permitted for the first time in Championship cricket, on a one-year trial basis (having previously been permitted for white-ball matches only), in a bid to assist county groundsmen in pitch preparation and maintenance.

“In multiday cricket, you want pitches to deteriorate and that’s exactly what hybrid pitches are setting out not to do,” Fordham added. “But this is an opportunity to embrace technology, and respond to some of the pressures that the game is under, by playing more fixtures at these grounds during the season.”

There would be no limits imposed on how many hybrid pitches any given club would be permitted to prepare per season, Fordham added.

“If a county and their head grounds-manager deem that is something that they want to do, we think it will relieve some of the pressure on squares and perhaps on groundstaff themselves during the season.

“But it is a one-year trial. And we are being very clear about that, because what we don’t want to encourage is the widespread stitching of pitches, because it is very difficult to de-hybrid them, but we do need to increase the carrying capacity of surfaces if we can.”

Draw points revert to eight from five

The points available for a draw in the Championship will revert to eight next season, alongside 16 for a win, after a reduction to five and 16 for 2023, but the threshold for batting points will remain at 250 and 450 runs (up from 200 and 400 in 2022), with Fordham conceding that the tweaks – aimed at encouraging more attacking, “Bazball”-style cricket – had “worked against one another a little bit”.

“Batting and bowling points are a necessary evil,” Fordham added. “They fulfil two main functions. They can help to promote or incentivise good pitch preparation, but they also provide a reward when matches get washed out, so that you haven’t been playing two innings for nothing. The recommendation was that we should be rewarding the draw that little bit more, yet encouraging good batting surfaces in the County Championship.”

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket

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