April 7, 2010

Where's the love for county cricket?

Does the Championship really take place if no one's watching?

So a sad farewell to Sir Alec Bedser, one of England's greatest post-war fast bowlers. He spent much of his life in Woking, Surrey, where I grew up, and in a quiet sort of way he and his brother Eric were very involved in the life of the town. They supported local charities, had an award named after them at the high school, and Alec donated a ball from the 1953 Ashes series to the Lightbox, the town's new gallery.

Woking is an unprepossessing place, famous for its train line, its crematorium, and as the setting for War of the Worlds. Sir Alec, who told the local paper how as a boy he would just sweep the stones from the common and get on and play, was also without frills or side.

With his big hands and his baggy trousers and his industriousness and his devotion to the game, he was a product of his era, a member of the RAF in wartime, who came home and led England's attack. But he was also devoted to Surrey and regarded the County Championship, which Surrey won eight times in the 1950s, as something to be treasured.

But when the championship starts this Friday, who else will regard it with the same love? As it creaks into action, earlier than ever before, when the trees are barely full of blossom and the ground is still waterlogged, will anyone care? Where is the fanfare? In this age of austerity newspapers have cut back on their domestic cricket coverage (though football lives on). How many will cover the first round of matches? And will anyone know to look?

In my bones, I do love the County Championship, every gentle, eccentric, minute of it. Each vignette, each battle, each petty crime and freak accident that just happens as the match meanders over four days, gently whitewashing the hundreds that have gone previously. The three summers I spent covering matches regularly, from the fresh green days in April to the darkening evenings in September, were a thrilling surprise. Perhaps I wouldn't want to watch it every day, but I'm happy that it happens, that the summer has a backbone.

My dad remembers going to see Middlesex and Surrey on a Whit Monday with his father and sitting in the grandstand at Lord's. My husband, scorecard clutched tightly in his little hand, and his dad would have a day either at the Cheltenham festival, Chesterfield or Old Trafford. My brothers and I used to troop off to Guildford to watch Surrey play a festival match. We sat on benches on the grass, watched Monte Lynch or Sylvester Clarke clobber the ball into the road that ran alongside the ground, ate our prescribed healthy sandwiches, then bought choc-ices from the Mr Whippy van, played cricket in the lunch interval on the grass, and hung around at the end with autograph books in a way that might, looking back, have seemed menacing.

We ate our prescribed healthy sandwiches, then bought choc-ices from the Mr Whippy van, played cricket in the lunch interval on the grass, and hung around at the end with autograph books in a way that might, looking back, have seemed menacing

The next day the papers would print full scorecards and reports that we would cut out (we weren't the coolest kids on the block). At the end of each round of matches, the bowling and batting averages and the county table would be published. Your averagely interested fan might know who was in with a chance of making 1000 runs in May, how the England hopefuls were doing. Now if you don't look online, you probably won't have a clue

In late March this year, the MCC played the championship county in Dubai in front of a crowd that seemed to contain not one human being. It did look lovely and warm out there, but who is going to be interested in watching a pre-season English county game, apart from the supporters of the counties, who tend not to regularly winter in the Arab states. Unless, of course, perish the thought, the cricket was not being played for the benefit of the loyal paying spectator but for commercial opportunity.

In the Observer Vic Marks worked out that in this crazy season of Twenty20 inserts, the counties will have played half their championship games before the end of May - that's before summer has even started. Pity the poor spinners trying to prove their worth.

Can a competition still provide a soundtrack to the summer if no one is watching? And if it is without rhythm? As the IPL recruits the best players, pays the big bucks and waves its jazz hands at the rest of the world, is the County Championship just completely irrelevant to those who are not playing? We need to value our domestic game, to be brave in the face of what is going on hugely successfully in India and say the English season has value in being different. We mustn't ignore innovation. Twenty20 is great in moderation, but if we wipe out natural rhythms and traditions in favour of financial profit, we will lose much more than we gain.

Tanya Aldred lives in Manchester. She writes occasionally for the Guardian