The future of first-class cricket July 22, 2004

Time for aesthetes to have their say

It's time to take first-class cricket back to the shires, says Andrew Miller

Arundel - the perfect setting for the aesthete's version of the game © Getty Images

"Change and decay in all around I see," as Uncle Theodore was prone to lament in Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop. His ilk have much to ponder this week, as the cricket season draws a line under all that Twenty20 razzamatazz, and reverts to the staid old virtues of line and length, deckchairs and doziness. Some weep with joy at the restoration of sanity (their ears still ringing from those bursts of Bananarama), but many others weep at the futility of it all. How on earth can the first-class game expect to keep pace with this young, brash interloper?

A cracking Test series between England and West Indies would help no end, of course, and by this evening we will be digesting the opening exchanges of the first Test at Lord's. And yet, even the prospect of a calypso summer has been hijacked by the doom-mongers. Once upon a time it was the most joyous event in the sporting calendar, but since the turn of the decade West Indian cricket has been a byword for terminal decline. Anything other than a 2-2 draw will have both sets of supporters drowning their sorrows in an ocean of rum.

But there's really no need to be so unrepentantly gloomy about the game. If just one thing has been learned this week, it is that English cricket still has a heart, and a beating one at that. If 26,500 city slickers can invade Lord's for an inconsequential county match, then only the sky is the limit if the foundations can be properly laid. The next challenge for the administrators who so gamely took the plunge is to find out exactly how to marry the virtues of the four-day game with the vices of this 20-over variety.

"Vice" may be a dirty word, but the world would be a duller place without it. After the shock of last week's showdown between Middlesex and Surrey, even The Times's rabid old polemicist, Michael Henderson, was forced to accept that Twenty20 cricket "may well have its place". Naturally, he was doing his best to be churlish, but somehow the churl got stuck in his throat - consequently, if there has been a more ringing endorsement of the format, I have yet to hear it.

Hendo was quite right, of course. Twenty20 cricket does have its place. It puts bums on seats, draws the office workers from their tower blocks and the kids from their classrooms, gives them a quick three-hour fix and sends them on their way again. In short, it is the ideal format for the urban rat-race, where time is money and three-and-a-half hours (or two football matches, to speak in the vernacular) is quite long enough to be sat doing not a lot.

But, like the cities for which it is designed, Twenty20 cricket is a selfish form of the game, driven purely by the cash registers. It is not interested in nurturing and cherishing from the cradle to the grave, and inspiring devotion through wind and rain, thick and extremely thin. First-class cricket is a beautiful struggle that no limited-overs match of any duration can ever hope to emulate. As a result, like the nation's art galleries, no-one will ever be in the four-day game for the money.

The solution for first-class cricket, therefore, is to appeal to the aesthete that lurks within most fans. There can be few more depressing sights than a Championship match being played out in front of a smattering of spectators at Headingley or The Oval. So why put everyone through that misery? Send the teams out into the shires to spread the word - to Cheltenham, to Arundel, to Stratford-upon-Avon, which hosted its very first Championship match earlier this season - and watch and learn as the game reaps the benefits.

Now that the counties have got their Twenty20 cash cow, it makes sound economic sense as well. The average attendance for a Championship day at The Oval is a mere 1000 hardy souls. Why risk alienating the faithful few with the wail of sirens down Harleyford Road and that hulking great gasometer when, with a little bit of forethought, they and other curious types could be exploring the scenery of the Home Counties, and in the process, exploding the myth that Surrey has slowly been turned into one giant car-park.

Last year, the reverse was true - it was Twenty20 that was played at the out-grounds, such as Surrey's Metropolitan Police ground at Imber Court, because the prospect of yet more empty white seats was more than the marketing men could stomach. This year, however, Surrey achieved three sellouts out of three (albeit with a reduced capacity), and by charging £10 per ticket as opposed to £5 for the Championship, they made the proverbial killing.

The days when England's virtues could be encapsulated in terms of "cricket on the village green", and "the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil" have long since vanished. And yet, as a nation, many still hanker after that image, and even to the non-aficionados, cricket remains a central tenet of the idyll. Now that the game has a vehicle to drive itself forward, maybe it is time to take that step back and reclaim some of that lost heritage.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. His English View will appear here every Thursday.