County Championship 2021: What is the format? Who’s in which group? Who are the overseas players?

The County Championship is back!

All 18 first-class sides get their campaigns underway on Thursday, each with dreams of winning red-ball silverware in a tweaked structure for 2021.

The County Championship was not staged in 2020 with the truncated Bob Willis Trophy held in its place amid the coronavirus pandemic but the established tournament returns this summer.

So, how does the amended format work, who is playing who, and who are some of the overseas stars that could light up the Championship over the coming months? Read on for all you need to know…

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Has the three-group structure from the Bob Willis Trophy been retained?

It has – but with some tweaks. Last year’s Bob Willis Trophy groups were regional so as to avoid heavy travel during the coronavirus pandemic, whereas this season the sides have been separated into three initial seeded pools of six, with results from the 2019 County Championship and 2020 Bob Willis Trophy taken into account.

Derby matches have been accommodated where possible, with the ECB saying that is to “ensure that county members and supporters can look forward to some of county cricket’s oldest rivalries resuming home and away next summer”.

What are the groups then?

County Championship groups 2021

How does the season work?

Each side will play the others in their pool home and away in a total of 10 matches.

The top two sides from each group will then advance to Division One, with the third and fourth-placed teams moving into Division Two and the fifth and sixth-placed teams going into Division Three.

Each county will then play a further four matches. They will not play the side they have already faced twice in the pool stage for a third time. Instead, the points accrued from those matches will be carried over.

The side who tops Division One will be crowned County Champions. They will then play the side who finishes second in a five-day final in the last week of September, with the winners of that game claiming the Bob Willis Trophy.

Any other changes?

Teams will now earn eight points for a draw as opposed to the previous five.

That news should please England Test captain Joe Root who spoke candidly after his side’s series defeat in India about how he wanted more county matches to go the distance to help batsmen and bowlers – spinners in particular – develop a broader range of skills.

The second new ball will be taken after 80 overs – that was increased to 90 during last season’s Bob Willis Trophy – but the ban on applying saliva to the ball remains, while Covid-19 substitutes can still be used.

What are the dates of each stage?

April 8-July 14 – Group stage

August 30-September 24 – Division stage

September 27-October 1 – Bob Willis Trophy Final

What are the opening fixtures?

County Championship 2021 opening fixtures

Is this structure here to stay?

Too early to say. The first-class counties agreed to this revised structure for 2021 to help best deal with the impact of the Covid pandemic but there is set to be a review and consultation between the counties, the ECB and other stakeholders ahead of 2022.

Are counties allowed more overseas players in 2021?

Yes, they are. Kolpak deals – which give sportsmen from countries with associate trade agreements with the European Union the same rights as EU workers – have now been terminated following Brexit so the ECB has permitted counties to have two overseas players for the County Championship and One-Day Cup, up from the usual one, meaning those competitions now mirror the Vitality Blast.

The ECB’s Performance Cricket Committee (PCC) recommended the changes and the ECB approved them, with Performance Cricket Committee chair Sir Andrew Strauss saying: “There are clearly long-established benefits for our domestic players to compete against and learn from the best players from across the world, in addition to providing high-quality domestic cricket for county members and fans to enjoy.

“An increase in unqualified cricketers allows first-class counties to maintain that standard while also enabling them to plan and prepare for next summer.”

Who are some of the overseas stars to look out for?

West Indies Test captain and opening batsman Kraigg Brathwaite will play for Gloucestershire during the early part of the season, while his international team-mates, seamers Alzarri Joseph and Kemar Roach, will do likewise for Worcestershire and Surrey respectively. Roach will link up with former South Africa batsman Hashim Amla at the Kia Oval.

The Australian contingent includes No 3-ranked Test batsman Marnus Labuschagne at Glamorgan and Cameron Bancroft at Durham, plus towering paceman Billy Stanlake at Derbyshire and veteran seamers Peter Siddle and Jackson Bird at Essex and Lancashire respectively.

South African spinner Simon Harmer has turned his Kolpak deal at Essex into an overseas contract so will remain a nemesis for county batsmen. It’s the same story for Kyle Abbott at Hampshire, who should form a potent new-ball pairing with metronomic Pakistan seamer Mohammad Abbas.

  • County ins and outs 2021

You mentioned the One-Day Cup and Vitality Blast – when are they on?

The Vitality Blast group stage begins on June 9 with the quarter-finals scheduled for August 24, 25, 26 and 27 and Finals Day to take place on Saturday, September 18 at Edgbaston.

The teams in The Hundred will be watching the tournament closely with each of the eight sides for the new competition able to add to their squads with a wildcard pick from this season’s Blast.

The One-Day Cup will run at the same time as The Hundred across July and August, with the opening fixtures played on July 22 and the final to take place on Thursday, August 19 at Trent Bridge.

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