The 2020 county season will begin on 1 August, the England and Wales Cricket Board has confirmed.
Final approval for the formats to be played by men’s teams will be approved early in July at a meeting of the 18 first-class clubs.
Two competitions of four-day and Twenty20 cricket have been under discussion, based on regional groups.
“Planning for the return of the women’s domestic game remains ongoing,” said ECB chief executive Tom Harrison.
There has been no cricket on the UK mainland so far this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but England will begin a behind-closed-doors Test series against West Indies next month.
The County Championship should have begun on 12 April but instead all clubs, except Surrey and Lancashire, furloughed players and other staff under the government’s job retention scheme.
‘Safety the first priority’
Harrison said setting a date to begin the county season was a “significant step” and it is intended that a full fixtures schedule will be published following the counties’ meeting.
He added: “It follows extensive consultation between the 18 first-class counties, the Professional Cricketers’ Association and ECB and has only been achievable thanks to the significant hard work that continues to occur as we prepare for a domestic season unlike any the game has faced before.
“It must be stressed that the safety of our players, staff and officials has been the first priority through all discussions and government guidance will continue to shape our planning and preparation.”
‘There’s going to be a big old debate’
Earlier this month, Sussex chief executive Rob Andrew told the BBC that options being discussed included a “meaningful red-ball cricket” competition and a T20 Blast, based on three regionalised groups of six teams and each culminating in a final.
However, Andrew said that if the four-day/T20 Blast plan was not possible, then a 50-over competition could provide a third option.
Speaking after Monday’s announcement, Gloucestershire chief executive Will Brown said he expects a “big old debate among the counties” to finalise a schedule.
“There are a couple of options out there,” he told BBC Radio Gloucestershire. “There’s a reasonable chance we’ll see all three formats.
“Hopefully we’ll have time for a couple of friendlies against some of our neighbours as a warm-up.”
The possibility of allowing supporters into grounds at some stage during the shortened season would depend on a relaxation of government guidelines.
Some counties have offered live online streaming of games in previous seasons.
Brown added: “We invested at the start of the year in a lot of good high definition cameras.
“We now have a proper production in which you can see the ball going to the boundary, rather than just end-on shots.
“That, with a good bit of BBC radio commentary over the top, and we’re as good as anybody.”
‘I did have doubts’
Former England assistant coach Paul Farbrace, now sport director with Warwickshire, said it was vital for the sport that some cricket was played this summer.
“I did have doubts,” Farbrace told BBC Radio 5 Live. “There was a period when I thought we might not play at all this summer. But I kept saying ‘let’s be patient’. And, in a month, things have changed very quickly.
“This gives us an opportunity throughout July to get our players ready for 1 August. Whether the ball is red, white, yellow or green, the players just want to get out and play.
“The England cricket team coming back to fulfil their television contractual rights was crucial for the game from top to bottom.
“But, putting finances to one side, it was massively important that we all get back out there: Test, county, men’s, women’ and hopefully some recreational cricket too.”
Women’s elite structure being planned
The Women’s Super League competition was ended last summer, but Harrison insisted the board’s commitment for their domestic game – which is now based around eight regional hubs – was “unwavering”.
A group of 24 England players are in training ahead of a possible tri-series against India and South Africa in September, while others have been given regional retainers as part of a move towards greater professionalism.
Harrison continued: “Our strong preference is that the women’s new elite domestic structure starts this summer and we will work hard to ensure that happens.
“For this to be achieved, brand new infrastructure still needs to be rolled out, alongside imperatives we need in place when playing competitive cricket during a pandemic.
“In the event that proves impossible, we will explore other options for play to enable our women’s players to enjoy competitive domestic cricket in 2020.”