After 125 years, County Championship still endures
As millions prepare to tune in to the glamorous Indian Premier League, another major domestic cricket tournament will also start this weekend.
But, unlike the IPL the only fireworks to be seen at an English ground when the venerable County Championship starts on Sunday will come if hardy fans are denied a reviving cup of tea.
Meanwhile the sight of IPL dancing cheerleaders would likely spark a medical emergency among elderly spectators were it to be repeated in the rather more prosaic surroundings of Chester-le-Street or Northampton.
The County Championship, which last year celebrated its 125th anniversary, is about as traditional as cricket gets.
Both sides still play in white, the matches are scheduled for four days and the public address announcer is far more likely to announce a change of bowling from the Pavilion End than to urge spectators to “make some noise”.
There are those who regard the County Championship as merely a means to prepare players for five-day international Test matches, which still draws good crowds in cricket’s birthplace if not elsewhere.
The fundamental problem for the competition, as with all domestic first-class cricket, is that much of the game takes place during the working week.
As a result crowds tend to be modest at best and veer towards the elderly and the retired.
Officials at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) have tried to overcome that problem this season by starting most Championship matches on a Sunday in the hope of drawing a weekend crowd that could include amateur players who’ve taken part in Saturday club matches.
The fact this season’s event is sponsored by ‘Specsavers’, a high-street chain of opticians who’ve followed several insurance companies, is also indicative of the Championship’s target audience.
For all their commercial efforts and the increasing popularity of the domestic ‘Blast’ Twenty20 competition, many of England’s 18 first-class counties rely on a block grant from the ECB to stay afloat.
But woe betide you if you tell a loyal county member that represents a ‘handout’.
As far as they are concerned it’s their team’s ‘dividend’ for contributing to the health of English cricket.
Despite repeatedly dire predictions, no county has yet gone bust and in the words of Stephen Chalke, author of Summer’s Crown, a history of the competition published last year, the County Championship “rather like the British constitution emerged in its own haphazard way, and it survived and adapted to the consequences”.
– World’s best -Crowds in the immediate years after the end of the Second World War, for what were then three-day matches, remained healthy but started to decline sharply as leisure options increased.
As a result, the 1960s saw the counties pioneer domestic one-day cricket, thereby setting in train a sequence of events that would lead to the creation of Twenty20.
The 1970s and 1980s were boom years as the world’s best players flocked to the county game.
They literally had nowhere else to go as there was no major professional cricket anywhere else in the world from April-September — unless their country was touring England.
A match between Hampshire (Gordon Greenidge and Malcolm Marshall) and Somerset (Vivian Richards and Joel Garner) could feature four West Indies greats as well as England players in the likes of Ian Botham and Robin Smith.
But the advent of the lucrative IPL and an increased international programme mean the game’s leading players are far less able to commit to a full county season than in years past, with England central contracts, largely beneficial to the Test side, restricting homegrown stars appearances.
Yet the Championship still matters, with a large online following attesting to its enduring appeal.
This season will see Yorkshire, the most traditionalist and successful of all English counties, bidding for a third straight Championship title under Australian coach Jason Gillespie.
The last time they achieved that, Yorkshire and England great Geoffrey Boycott was approaching his prime as an opening batsman.
“County Championship cricket is our breeding ground,” Boycott said. “It breeds character and, it breeds courage, all the things which you cannot get out of one-day cricket. One-day cricket is fun cricket.”
And as far as Boycott, and many others, are concerned there’s a lot more to cricket than mere “fun”.