September 26, 2016

The discreet charm of the County Championship

The competition retains a certain purity precisely because it is unfashionable and anachronistic, and is not loaded down by the requirements of television and sponsors

Plenty came to Lord's to watch the title match of this year's County Championship (though you couldn't tell from this picture) and hundreds of thousands more were there in spirit © Getty Images

Increasingly, cricket seems to have just one subject, the subject of time. Cricket fights time, struggles with its changes, but in other ways embraces time, puts time at the heart of its drama. As the autumnal sun, soft and fragile, fell down on Lord's at the end of this year's County Championship, time in all of these aspects was refracted.

The match had finished in the way it might in a kid's back-garden imagination: three teams in the fight, two engaged in the battle at cricket's HQ, the other watching anxiously on television 170 miles away (and lucky that Sky decided at the last minute to show the game, otherwise they'd have been clustered around a radio…). Within two hours the game moved from the farce of lob-up bowling to a desperate race against the clock and the light, settled at the death by a nerve-rattling hat-trick from an unsung hero. It was particularly, peculiarly English: nostalgic, anachronistic, dreamy, and almost impossible to explain properly to outsiders.

The drama had built not just on the last afternoon or during the final round of matches, but across a season that began under iron skies on April 10. Behind that lay history, of Yorkshire, the defending champions; of Middlesex, who had not won the title since 1993, when their current director of cricket was still chuntering in, through wind and rain, from the Nursery End; and of Somerset, who have not held the gold trophy at all since the County Championship was constituted at Lord's on December 10, 1889, when the Marquis of Salisbury was prime minister and the Wisden Almanack named six bowlers as its first Cricketers of the Year, among them George Lohmann and Bobby Peel.

To compete in the County Championship is to join this great history, this vast story, to feel the weight of Yorkshire's 32 titles, Phil Mead's 46,268 runs, Tich Freeman's 3151 wickets, to stand alongside the deeds of Grace and Hutton and Ramprakash, of King Viv and Big Bird and Dasher Denning, of Clive Radley, Mike Gatting, Vince Van der Bijl; of Imran and Sarfraz and Malcolm Marshall and the thousands of other cricketers who have played across the summers. It's a rich and rare place, and it's not too fanciful to suggest that all of those summers played into this one, and offered it meaning and power.

Time is sometimes an enemy. The Championship does not fit with modern life. If cricket were being conceived now, it would be in its three-hour form of boozy Friday night crowds and heightened, manic action. The Championship began in the era of steam and has survived until steam punk. It has endured through global schisms and wars from which its players did not return. It is cast as cricket's crazy old uncle who insists on turning up at the party each year, even though accommodating him and his 18 mates is becoming increasingly inconvenient.

The Championship began in the era of steam and has survived until steam punk. It has endured through global schisms and wars from which its players did not return

This is the story anyway, the one we all know, about county cricket's great irrelevance. But as time accelerates and attention spans shorten to mouse-clicks, the internet age has offered something strange and new. A visit to the Championship may be impossible physically, but it is now happening virtually, and it is happening a lot. On digital radio, the BBC broadcast 3889 hours of coverage. Live blogs, including the popular one right here on this site, were read frantically in workplaces and on mobiles. Twitter offers a constant presence. And Lord's announced on Sunday that 21,595 people managed to escape their lives and watch the four days of Middlesex versus Yorkshire, making it the biggest crowd for a single Championship game there since May 1966, a time before England won the football World Cup.

It is a modern riddle, a metaphor for where we're going: the Championship now exists for those who can't watch it but would like to. It retains a purity of competition precisely because it is unfashionable, takes its own sweet time and is not loaded down by the requirements of television and sponsors. Most of its players labour knowing that they have reached the heights that they are going to reach, and that one day they will have to rejoin the real world, for which their current lives cannot prepare them. It's real and human and touching, a quotidian kind of sporting heroism.

As each season folds into autumn, some of them ride into the sunset, and they only need look at Twitter or the live blogs to see what they have meant and what they leave behind. Each goes out with a story, be they beloved old warhorses like David Masters and Graham Napier at Essex, or young men who have been granted fleeting careers, like Sussex's remarkable Lewis Hatchett. Others sweat on contract renewals and hunt for gigs in club cricket somewhere in the southern-hemisphere sun to kill another winter.

This bittersweetness underpins cricket in England. The County Championship understands time and its challenges, and it has weathered them all. Once you've seen enough summers pass, you come to realise how transient they are and how quickly they come and go. What once seemed endless is over too soon.

Jon Hotten blogs here. @theoldbatsman

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • paul on September 28, 2016, 20:01 GMT

    What a pity that the thought of letting youngsters go in for free into CC games didn't come before some counties willingness to let in youngsters in for free at T20 games. Now they are hooked on T20 and cannot get their heads around what is after all, the best and purist form of the game, First class cricket which one way or another sorts out the best players. No player who only ever plays just T20 cricket could ever be called great. The CC shows us who the future England players will be but no one seems to be able to promote it this way.

  • Paul on September 28, 2016, 19:45 GMT

    Give me the County Chamionship anyday

  • CHRIS on September 28, 2016, 9:41 GMT

    Given the amount of interest there is in the CC versus the number of spectators can I suggest a few things to encourage membership and live support.. 1. give members of any county (say Essex for example) the right to use the membership facilities at all grounds in the country. Say for a £5 daily entrance fee. 2. solve the issue of over rates and bad light by encouraging play by fining teams for runs for every over not bowled and ensure that we play more at the margins of light. Dangerous conditions should mean dangerous not just poor light. 3. encourage children to play / come and see real cricket - bring schools - bring clubs - get kids into the grounds - 4. publicise more the work the BBC does - its an amazing service - get it around the country and world. 5. On an issue just to keep interest in expats in cricket. Free up radio coverage for all matches worldwide - I want to be able to listen to TMS anywhere in the world.

  • Niraj on September 28, 2016, 5:52 GMT

    It builds foundation for cricket. Without first class cricket, you will see poor cricket played in One day and T20 competitions. Eventually cricket is about scoring big runs and taking wickets.First class grind a must for any budding international cricketer. Otherwise you will have lots of T20 specialists who will get swishy swoshy 20s and odd wicket but soon die away.

  • ian on September 27, 2016, 18:17 GMT

    The end of another county cricket season and the writing of Jon Hotten seem made for one another. There is something slightly poetic and strongly elegiac in this essay. The longer we live the more important the County Championship becomes... not just for the seasonal shuffle of those long loved and hallowed shires that have become part of our collective cricket conscience - but for the days and seasons and grand cricketers that have delighted us from the careless days in short trousers, to these days of the carefully-smeared sun-block on skin exposed once again to six hours' of fleeting or insistent sunshine. Marriages come and go; children appear, grow and disappear; friends depart and yet county cricket still rolls on, with its endless fascination. I saw Micky Stewart score delightful centuries for Surrey, then Alec appeared. Now he too sits in the pavilion, his distinguished playing career long gone. The fabric of the English sporting summer, our CC - unique, and frankly priceless!

  • Will on September 27, 2016, 15:54 GMT

    County cricket is as discreet (syn. careful, circumspect, cautious, wary) as it is discrete (syn. separate, distinct, individual, detached, disconnected - for example, what other sport has contrived finishes). Take the definitions as you will, I am sure we can all find suitable adjectives from that list?

  • Martin on September 27, 2016, 11:53 GMT

    First-class cricket is a beautiful, fascinating, revealing thing. It doesn't matter what year it is or what age we live in. It's a beautiful thing in itself. Its history just adds to the meaning of the county championship each season. Can't bear the ignorant people who just trot out the 'no one's interested in county cricket' line while knowing nothing of what they speak. I've been amazed by how many people at work this week have come up to me to talk about the finale of the Championship season (knowing I'm a Somerset supporter). Let's just hope the ECB don't get their way and end up destroying the county championship and domestic first-class cricket as they seem intent on doing. First-class cricket is the perfect antidote to the 3 minute culture (maybe that's been reduced to 3 second culture now). Interestingly the players themselves still regard first-class cricket as the true test of a cricketer. For me it's the most wonderful aspect of life in England.

  • moodev9710558 on September 27, 2016, 11:00 GMT

    You had me at "hundreds of thousands were there in spirit"

  • Peter on September 27, 2016, 9:58 GMT

    Those of us who watch cricket understand something that the administrators appear not to - that the County Championship is a fantastic competition. Long may it continue (preferably without the money men tinkering with it every season).

  • Gallifrey on September 27, 2016, 8:43 GMT

    Honestly, the county championship is just a good streaming service away from relevance again. If all the first division counties had the service Notts and Glamorgan have got online (maybe improve it a touch so it isn't just a single still camera), then those from all over the world will follow it closer. I know personally there are big gulfs in the test calendar where those of us who don't like hit n giggle would like something to watch, and the county game would be perfect for that.