The 18 first-class counties will face growing pressure to merge into six regional sides to contest a world-class Twenty20 league as English cricket searches frantically for its own high-powered answer to the Indian Premier League.
Amalgamating the counties into regional power blocks, and pitting them against the best clubs from the IPL, is being actively floated by the Professional Cricketers' Association as a compromise solution that will provide England with a world-class Twenty20 tournament and appease the counties, who are determined to ensure their own survival.
The regional solution brings the enticing proposition of Surrey and Middlesex combining with Essex in a London team and Durham sitting alongside the old Roses rivals, Yorkshire and Lancashire, for the North. It would offer all counties an official involvement, and would avoid the inevitable bloodletting that would arise from any doomed campaign for city cricket. The plans are expected to be discussed at an England and Wales Cricket Board meeting on May 26.
The ECB is committed to introducing a Premier League no later than 2010 and is aware that its failure would risk the regular loss of England players to rival events and the knock-on effect of a fall in revenue that could put county cricket in jeopardy.
An ECB delegation, led by the chief executive David Collier and chairman Giles Clarke, has returned from India after exploratory discussions with Indian Premier League officials. Both vow to protect the interests of the 18 first-class counties, who have the power to block any scheme. But administrators are equally aware that England must develop a lucrative T20 league or surrender to overwhelming Indian dominance.
Sean Morris, chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, dared to debate publicly yesterday what many senior officials privately accept: that a tournament involving 18 first-class counties in their traditional form cannot attract the necessary TV and sponsorship interest, or fan base, to be a commercial proposition.
TV executives, potential sponsors and entrepreneurs such as the Texas-based Sir Allen Stanford are united in their advice to the ECB, that an 18-team league would spread talent too thin and would not attract the new audience that they crave.
Morris is in regular contact with the ECB as it agonises over a decision that will have ramifications for years to come. "This is the biggest opportunity we will ever get to restructure," he said. "I am very open minded about the future, but I don't automatically envisage the EPL being played by the 18 first-class counties. You can have all 18 counties, with a few overseas players involved, play-offs, all good stuff. But when you look at the broadcasting deal that will drive it and for sponsorship partners and for fans, does playing 18 teams really stack up?
"We need to have a product that is exportable back to India, because that is where the money is. To do that you need India's agreement. You are going to need some of their top players. There is no reason why their franchisees wouldn't mind playing a few more games in England. That seems an entirely plausible option."
The belief that regional cricket will work is evidenced by South Africa's experience in rugby union, where the traditional Currie Cup sides have successfully combined for the Super 14, a glitzy international tournament also involving clubs from Australia and New Zealand. "Rival supporter groups unite for the Super tournament then when it is Currie Cup time they are at each other's throats again," Morris said. "There are many ways to change the county structure - but you don't necessarily have to take an axe."