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Gareth Batty warns against ‘celebrity cricket’ as county restructuring looms over Surrey’s title triumph

On the day Surrey secured their 21st county championship, head coach Gareth Batty urged the ECB to ensure the proposed changes to the domestic structure were for the better and not simply to facilitate what he called “celebrity cricket”.

Thursday morning saw the publication of the men’s High-Performance Review, led by Andrew Strauss, which proposed a new-look red-ball structure with a top division of six teams, among 17 recommendations made. Around five hours later, Surrey had beaten Yorkshire by ten wickets to confirm themselves as winners of what could be the penultimate season of a 10-team Division One.

The restructuring of the Counties Championship and changes to the T20 Blast are the only two of the 17 proposals that can be voted on and will require a two-thirds majority in a vote of the 18 counties. Any changes will only come into effect from 2024 onwards.

Batty, in his first season as head coach, while appreciating the desire to look at the current set-up, is wary of changes in the domestic game that can be made to create more room for Hundred and franchise competitions. The proposed restructuring will reduce the number of first-class matches from 14 to 10, which he believes will cause English cricket to lose a unique distinction.

“I think it would lessen the emotion a little bit,” he said of the proposed cuts. “Because it has been built up for such a long time, and over that period there are lots of different emotions, and [they] end up being a big one when you get over the line, like today.

“I think we have to be very careful that we don’t lose too many games,” he added. “Our one positive is that we play a lot of cricket. Hopefully our English players don’t play that much so they are fresh to play for England, but at the end of the day county cricket is here to serve an England team. It does we don’t want to miss any players by playing less and less and less and getting it the wrong way. A lot of Australians, a lot of overseas players, want to come here and play cricket because they don’t get that much.

“I just hope we do it for the benefit of the game, not to keep celebrity cricket alive. I want it to be for the benefit of cricket.”

Batty’s sentiments were echoed by Surrey captain Rory Burns, fresh from orchestrating a second successful Championship campaign in five seasons.

“I personally think it would be too short. I don’t think there would be enough games to get the required result and integrity into a County Championship season,” Burns said. “All the scheduling stuff, and fixtures and that sort of thing, it’s a fine balance. County Cricket is basically to improve the England Test team and the England team, so yes, I agree it needs to be looked at . But 10 is too few.”

For now, however, Surrey can celebrate successfully maneuvering through a schedule that had none of its usual rhythm. Burns noted the oddity of having to devote his time to these final four games of the season after the July break when Hundred took over the program for August. But they have maintained consistency throughout and travel to Lancashire next week with an unbeaten record to secure.

In another season, the use of 22 players in the Championship would have a sense of disorder. But with the odd injury and England call-ups, opportunities have been split around the players, including youngsters like 19-year-old Tom Lawes, who fared well through the Yorkshire game with four first-innings wickets and a valuable 15.

With one match remaining in the season, 12 Surrey players currently boast a batting average of 40 or higher, while six are under 30 with the ball. Batty was particularly effusive about the collective buy-in, even from England players like Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes, who returned to play the final two games. Pope’s 136, which enabled Surrey to post 333 and ultimately force Yorkshire to follow on, set up this victory.

“The numbers tell a pretty good story,” Batty said. “That we have, I think, a wonderful team and squad for a couple of years.

“I think that’s been the key to the season,” added Burns, after taking his average for the season up to 40.15 after finishing unbeaten on 30 off 16 deliveries in Surrey’s chase of 55 runs. “Every time we’ve needed someone to step up, someone has reached out and produced a show for us. It’s a pretty special thing

“The way we’ve done it, using 22 guys, we highlighted that at the start of the year there would be options for people and it’s about taking them when we need them. It has we done. Keep going next year – hopefully it’ll be more of the same.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo

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