On the day that the Northern Cricket Union proposed a 12-team Premier League from next season, they have indicated that July 18 is the latest that a full programme of competitive cricket could commence this season.

As the province enters its fifth week in lockdown, the NCU’s Domestic Directorate is preparing for a worse-case scenario with all leagues, which were due to start this Saturday, to proceed on the basis of playing opponents only once, although the Challenge and Junior Cups would go ahead as normal.

In this event, there would be no league rearrangements, and any cup match postponed would have one 20-over rearrangement. The T20 Cup would proceed on its two-group basis but playing opponents only once.

The T20 Trophy and Shield competitions would be played as scheduled. The Women’s Challenge Cup will proceed, plus one round of fixtures in the Premier and Senior leagues. All league trophies will be awarded but there will be no promotion or relegation.

The chairman of the Domestic Directorate, Alan Waite (pictured below), yesterday circulated to all member clubs a proposal for the restructuring of the leagues in 2021.

Based on the output of a working group, following consultation with all Premier League and Section One captains, the proposal is for a 12-team Premier League, with the top four teams in Section One this year joining the existing eight Premier League teams next year. The teams would play each other once (11 games) and then split into two six-team divisions in the middle/end of July. The teams would play a further five games against the teams in their side of the split, giving a total of 16 league games.

The captains had originally proposed a 10-team league but the new proposal avoids the possibility of a team’s league season being reduced to 15 games and also being forced to have a free Saturday in the second half of the season. Teams who finish in positions 7-12 after the first half will compete for the Championship trophy and those who end the season in seventh and eighth place will complete the NCU’s entrants for the following season’s Irish Senior Cup.

Chairman Waite explained that the working group was set up as the captains had stressed an appetite for change while keeping the same number of competitions and allowing the development of players.

“Everyone accepts there is a big gap between the standard of the Premier League and Section One but the proposed structure ensures 10 ‘big games’ for the top six teams, and the promoted teams will still have two thirds of their games ‘at their own level’ and they can test themselves against the top six,” he said.

Under the new structure, all 12 teams in the Premier League and 12 teams in the revamped Section One — which would follow the same format as the top flight — would take part in the Challenge Cup with the top eight clubs from the previous season being seeded and receiving a bye into the second round.

The T20 Cup will continue to include only the top eight clubs and in its present format — two groups of four with the top two in each group going through to the semi-finals — but the bottom team in each group would be relegated and replaced by the finalists in the T20 Trophy in the following season, therefore basing T20 qualification on performance in that format.

Clubs have been asked to give their response to the restructuring plan by May 8 and, if necessary, the Directorate will adapt the proposals in preparation for a club meeting but that will only take place when they are able to meet on a face-to-face basis.

If cricket is not possible this year, it is likely that any restructuring will be deferred to 2022 but the intention is to bring proposals to the union’s AGM in October.