The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has announced the return of the County Championship for the 2021 season, in a revamped format designed to mitigate against the impact of potential issues caused by COVID-19.

The ECB was forced to heavily revise its domestic season this summer, with the campaign eventually getting underway four months late due to COVID-19. In July, all 18 first-class cricket counties agreed to participate in the same competitive red-ball and white-ball competitions during the shortened season.

This led to the introduction of the Bob Willis Trophy to replace the County Championship, but while the former event will remain in 2021, the latter competition will return to provide the bedrock to the summer.

The chairs of the first-class counties have today (Friday) agreed via a vote that next summer will offer a County Championship in a group-stage format. The men’s first-class season is then set to end with a showpiece five-day Lord’s final to win the Bob Willis Trophy.

Today’s announcement follows discussions between the ECB and the counties to help restart the County Championship, whilst mitigating against the impact of COVID-19 next summer. The agreed revised structure is for the 2021 season only.

The 18 counties are set to play 14 County Championship matches each across Group and Division Stages. Each county has initially been placed into one of three seeded groups of six and will be scheduled to play five home, and five away, matches during the Group Stage.

The top two counties in each group, at the end of the Group Stage, will progress to Division One, with the other counties moving into Divisions Two and Three, where they will each play a further four matches.

The winner of Division One will be crowned the 2021 County Championship winners. The top two teams in Division One will also earn the right to play in the Bob Willis Trophy final at Lord’s (pictured). Essex will seek to defend both titles after it won the 2019 County Championship and this summer’s Bob Willis Trophy final at the ‘Home of Cricket’.

ECB chair, Ian Watmore, said: “Since starting in my new role last month one of my key priorities, as a huge supporter of red-ball cricket, has been to collaborate with the first-class counties so that we could confirm a structure for next summer’s men’s domestic season.

“I am delighted that the counties have been able to reach this agreement less than three weeks after Essex won the Bob Willis Trophy final at Lord’s. The success of that competition provides reassurance that this structure can help safeguard against any impact the global pandemic may have on next season while also ensuring the integrity of the County Championship.

“It must be stressed that this structure has been agreed for next season only and during 2021 we will review and consult with the counties and other stakeholders to decide the appropriate next steps for the men’s domestic structure in 2022 and beyond.”

Images: MCC/ECB