Cricket preview: Clydesdale Bank 40

This Sunday sees the start of county cricket’s latest competition, the controversial Clydesdale Bank 40. Its structure takes a little from past competitions – the multi-league basis leading to a knockout stage mimics the defunct Benson and Hedges Cup; the September final at Lord’s is from the old Gillette Cup/NatWest Trophy; and in being a 40-over competition played mainly on Sundays it is the 1970s and ‘80s John Player League in new clothing.

All these were loved in their day, so why all the fuss now?

The problem is that the Clydesdale Bank 40 will be English county cricket’s only limited-over competition. International limited-overs cricket is played over 50 overs. The CB40 will be over 40, so preventing familiarisation in the international form of the game for England’s one-day players, present and future.

It is an old battle concerning money and the purpose of the county game.

County cricket was never supposed to have this competition. Last year was to be the death of the 40-over game. Instead, 2010 was to see only one limited-overs trophy, over 50 games, and two Twenty20 ones.

This excess of Twenty20, surely killing the golden goose, was money driven. The England & Wales Cricket Board wanted to set up an English Premier League, drooling at the income stream apparently on offer from the over-hyped Indian Premier League Twenty20. The best players in the world would be invited to play in the EPL, most crucially the Indian stars as the Indian television market was where the ECB hoped to make a great wodge of money. But the Indians would not play ball. Literally.

With this potential cash cow stillborn, the counties had second thoughts about losing the popular 40-over game. So instead the 50-over competition was junked, and a new expanded 40-over competition was devised – to howls of protest from those saying it would harm the English cricket team’s chances. But many county members and spectators were more favourable to the idea. Their interests won out.

The Clydesdale Bank 40 involves three leagues of seven teams, playing each other home and away. The first team in each league qualifies for the semi-final, along with the best-performing of the second-placed teams. The final will be at Lord’s on September 18, a week after the semi-finals.

The leagues have been drawn at random, and contain six counties and one other. The intention was to have three European national teams completing the picture, but Ireland declined to take part, preferring to concentrate on playing international cricket. So Scotland and Holland have been joined by the Unicorns.

The Unicorns have all the appearance of a makeweight. The team compromising “players without full county contracts” will be in Group A, possibly the strongest of the groups, alongside Lancashire, Somerset, Surrey, Sussex, Worcestershire and Glamorgan.

The vague excuse is that the creation of the Unicorns is that is part of the ECB’s commitment to developing talent. But when the squad contains former county cricketers such as captain Keith Parsons – 37 on May 2 – and 32-year-old opening bowler Carl Greenidge and batsman Mark Hardinges the development argument looks flimsy.

Somerset, under captain Marcus Trescothick, who has the talent to be the standout batsman of the tournament, are favourites to win Group A, and indeed the whole competition. Hampshire are favourites for Group C, which also contains Durham, Nottinghamshire, Kent, Leicestershire, Warwickshire and Scotland.

Essex look the strongest side in Group B, but group rivals Yorkshire, could be the dark horse. The White Rose county has plenty of youthful vigour and lots of batting depth. Much may depend on how often opening bowlers Tim Bresnan and Ajmal Shahzad are available for their county and how often England want them. Yorkshire started the season as favourites to be relegated from the first division of the County Championship, but after two games are top. Maybe they can confound expectations in the CB40 also?

Essex meet Yorkshire at Chelmsford this Sunday in what appears the pick of the first Sunday’s fixtures, although Surrey against Lancashire at Whitgift School is also highly attractive.