After a year like no other, the 2021 cricket season begins with a sense of optimism for the return of things old and the advent of things new.
Significant structural changes to the domestic game bring both anticipation and intrigue, with the goal of producing more entertaining cricket something all fans can get behind.
Speaking of fans, the roadmap for bringing people back into cricket grounds is not only a welcome sight for all after extremely difficult times, but a lifeline for the game itself with the promise of returning revenues.
Here are six things to look out for as the first lacquered cork ball cracks off the swish of willow…
A full Hampshire Bowl – cricket clubs will welcome the return of crowds this season from May
1. New Championship format
Championship cricket will be played in a conference style in 2021, with three groups of six playing 10 matches apiece before splitting into divisions — dependent on finishing position — for a further four rounds. Points will be carried forward and the Division One team accruing the most by the end of the season will be crowned champions. They will also get the chance to claim the Bob Willis Trophy in a showpiece match against the runners-up at Lord’s.
2. More for draw
The changes to the structure — primarily made to retain flexibility should a Covid development interrupt the season — remove promotion and relegation from the equation. Without such pressures, captains tend to become more creative in pursuit of wins. But that will be countered by a significant increase in points awarded for a draw to eight. It is hoped that placing greater value on saving matches will encourage better pitches, crease occupation and the volume of spin bowled.
3. Oldie but goldie
Darren Stevens will become the Championship’s oldest player for more than a quarter of a century when he makes his first appearance for Kent. Stevens turns 45 at the end of this month, and will surpass John Emburey, who was 44 years and nine months when he bowed out in 1997. Another former England off-spinner in Eddie Hemmings was the last 45-year-old to play regular County Championship cricket, finally calling it quits with Sussex at 46.
At 45, Darren Stevens will become the Championship’s oldest player for more than 25 years
4. Crowds are back
Last summer, matches were played behind closed doors barring a select few Government ‘pilot events’, so the return of fans is welcome, not least for the game’s revenue. The lack of them in 2020 contributed to combined county losses of more than £100million. The ECB’s roadmap out of the pandemic’s restrictions will see 25 per cent capacity attendances permitted from May 17, rising to 50 per cent from June 21.
5. A Nottinghamshire win
It is now approaching three years since Nottinghamshire last tasted victory in a competitive first-class match, the sequence of 26 winless fixtures following the 301-run crushing of Essex in June 2018. That period has seen the club make the knockout stages of each of the five white-ball tournaments held — including a Twenty20 Blast win last year amongst two trips to finals day at Edgbaston. However, a club with such enviable resources and former England coach Peter Moores should be doing better.
6. The Hundred
It is the tournament the ECB has mortgaged its future on. Eight new city-based teams, boasting three overseas players apiece, will do battle at the height of summer in a competition designed to attract a new audience to the sport. The inaugural 100-ball-a-side season runs for a month from July 21. Traditionals have baulked at the prospect, not least because it has completely marginalised the 50-over tournament, the final of which will be played on a Thursday at Trent Bridge.
The ECB’s highly controversial Hundred tournament will finally get underway this season