"Lessons have been learnt" from England's poor Test showing in 2021, according to Neil Snowball, the ECB's managing director of county cricket, following the announcement of a 2022 domestic schedule which will provide prospective Test players more opportunity for red-ball cricket in the lead-up to their encounters with New Zealand, South Africa and India this summer.
In the wake of a disastrous showing in the Ashes, and following a home Test campaign last summer in which England lost 1-0 to New Zealand and were trailing 2-1 to India before the postponement of the decisive fifth Test, the ECB's tentative pledge to "reset" their red-ball fortunes has been backed up with a block of five County Championship matches in June and July, ahead of the South Africa series in August.
Two "County Select XI" fixtures against New Zealand and South Africa, distinct from the England Lions set-up, have been added to the schedule as well, to provide Test candidates with further opportunities to pit themselves against the tourists. This comes after complaints in 2021 that England were undercooked going into their main campaign of the summer, against India in August and September, following just two Championship rounds in early July prior to the launch of the first season of the Hundred.
"It's obviously well documented and acknowledged that recent results were extremely disappointing which again has called for a look at our approach to red-ball cricket," Snowball said. "Clearly, the men's domestic game has got a significant role to play in that, in terms of making sure that we can develop the best possible Test players who can then go on to aspire to be the best team in the world. We don't think that county cricket has all the answers, but it certainly has some of the answers, and it certainly has an important role to play going forward, along with the first-class counties and the PCA and other stakeholders."
Yorkshire have been included in the schedule as a Division One team, in spite of the ongoing investigation into the racism scandal that rocked the club in 2021 and may yet lead to further sanctions from the Cricket Discipline Committee (CDC), while both the Bob Willis Trophy final and the traditional Champion County versus MCC fixture, which has been held in the UAE and Barbados in recent seasons, have been shelved.
The Bob Willis Trophy, hastily arranged for the delayed 2020 season, was a success in providing context to a condensed first-class programme and culminated in a showpiece final at Lord's. However, last season's final was an anti-climax - comfortably won by Warwickshire, for whom it was a distant second to their County Championship triumph.
"The Bob Willis Trophy served us very well in 2020 to rescue the season, and of course we played for it last year as well," Snowball said. "We're very keen to continue to celebrate Bob's legacy with a Bob Willis Trophy in some format but we're not quite sure what that's going to be yet. We're in discussions with his family on that."
The format of the season falls along the lines that ESPNcricinfo revealed in November, and includes a tweak for the Vitality Blast, in what is set to be its 20th season. This year, the whole competition will be played in a seven-week block from May 25 through to Finals Day at Edgbaston on July 16, an amendment that should allow more of the counties' overseas stars to be involved in the knock-out rounds. Luke Wright, Sussex's captain, was a prominent critic of the previous schedule, which had involved a five-week hiatus after the group stages.
In a bid to maximise the counties' preference for Blast fixtures towards the back end of the working week, 99 of the 126 fixtures have been scheduled for Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. And, in an echo of the successful staging of the Hundred, in which the majority of women's fixtures were played as double-headers alongside the men, ten Charlotte Edwards Cup matches will also feature on the same bill as the Blast, and at their respective county HQs.
Alan Fordham, the ECB's head of cricket operations, said that the counties' desire to put the women's game on an equal footing to the men had been a factor in the double-header decision - as had the double bank holiday at the beginning of June, which encompasses half term and will provide an opportunity for more families to attend the matches. At this stage, one of the double-headers is due to be televised on Sky Sports.
A further boost for the women's game will come with the final of the 50-over Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, which is due to be held at Lord's for the first time, on Sunday, September 25. The men's Royal London Cup final will once again be held at Trent Bridge, but has been moved back to a Saturday (September 17), having been held on a Thursday last season.
"The women's game is just going to have a phenomenal year," Snowball added. "We've got the Ashes starting in Adelaide. We've got the Women's World Cup and then the Commonwealth Games In Birmingham as well as the second edition of the Hundred. So it's a huge year for women's domestic cricket and international cricket. We look forward to seeing how that unfolds."