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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark on April 9, 2010, 22:27 GMT

    A crowd of more than 1000 in early April for a CC2 clash between two sides that struggled last season. Doesn't quite match the title, does it? That was Worcestershire v Middlesex today. And you could hear the crowd on the effects mike.

  • Michael on April 9, 2010, 12:12 GMT

    The 2010 fixture list reminds me of the early pages of HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy, where there is a sudden announcement that the Earth has to be destroyed to make way for a new InterGalacticHighway-cursory, total and extreme. Likewise cricket in 2010, owing to the will of certain decision makers in the ECB-and, doubtless, state of bank accounts too. Instead a variant on baseball will be played, and everyone WILL be happy. The fixture list leaps up at one like a bad dream. Can this fiendish plot be possible? Like every dark side coup, it is arrogantly paraded without shame. If Philiip K. Dick had constructed a story about the sport which disapperared it would read like this- and developed into an ersatz(Imitation) game played by ersatz cricketers, overseen by fiendish robots, bankrolled by psychotic billionaires who have a pathological loathing for the game and all it means. In fiction the dark side usually loses. How much more important that it does in this case too and pronto.

  • John on April 9, 2010, 2:51 GMT

    Nice article, Tanya. I left England in 1982 and one of the things I miss most, even after all these years, is county cricket. I was a member of Middlesex CCC and I used to go to Lords with my bag lunch and watch the games. Even then, the county game was not well supported and I could always find a parking place in the ground, behind the Nursery. Unfortunately, people these days want to see a whole game and every player doing his thing in as short a time as possible. I hope the championship will survive in some form, but as others have suggested, it might be necessary to reduce the number of counties so the quality will be higher and the revenues not so thinly spread. It will be a sad day- the county game, for those who love its leisurely pace and gradually unfolding strategy, is a haven of peace and tranquility in an overheated world.

  • Alex on April 8, 2010, 23:11 GMT

    I've only regularly watched Championship cricket at Taunton, where there is often a decent crowd, and Northampton, where there rarely is. It's a great shame that the best part of the summer is now reserved for 20 over cricket - they could be playing that now in decent early April weather and it might actually be a decent introduction to the season despite the clash with the IPL. Why the need to clump the formats together in different parts of the summer? Cricket needs to be our summer game, not some moveable festival shunted here and there every year. Sort out a method that works, and stick with it for ten years.

  • David on April 8, 2010, 18:43 GMT

    I'm very excited about the new season. More than ready for it after a long, cold winter. I plan to attend as many days as possible work and childcare permitting. First match this season will be Yorkshire v Essex at Scarborough where there will be a good crowd of committed cricket fans.None of the cricket I attend will be Twenty20 as I have not the slightest interest in it. Long live the County Championship!

  • Thomas on April 8, 2010, 18:03 GMT

    Where's the love indeed - cricinfo didn't even create a fantasy game this season

  • Patrick on April 8, 2010, 15:06 GMT

    I have devotedly followed county cricket since 1970 but anticipate this will be the last county season I will be bothering to if any of the suggested restructurings of the county championship take place. I've already given up two of my memberships this year, despite seeing some great cricket last season but I've had enough of the contempt shown towards county members by too many players, administrators, ground staff, stewards etc. There's far too much double standards. If there's too much county cricket why has the unloved 40 over league been expanded? And if the players are too tired to prepare properly, why do they all want to desert in droves to the IPL? (Don't answer - its a rhetorical question).

  • Liam on April 8, 2010, 14:20 GMT

    jackiethepen - I don't think complaints about low attendances are the main issue here. More the concern over so much of the 4-day game being played so early in the summer. How is the system going to produce players who can thrive on England tours to SA, Aus, India etc when they don't have any chance to play the longer form of the game on mid-summer pitches? A massive load of July t20 games falls a fair bit short of the best available preparation for 5 days on a rock solid Chennai track. Certainly not going to help our chronic lack of ability to produce a decent leg-break bowler.

  • ILANKO on April 8, 2010, 13:44 GMT

    I grew up in Sri Lanka where we used to get modified scoresheets of most county games - for instance the innings scores with the highest scorers and wicket-takers in every inning. I used to follow the scores all the time and someday wanted to watch a county cricket match. I'm much older and live in Canada now, and am a little worried that if and when I do visit England at some point to watch county cricket - my imagination of what its all about - white attire, scenic grounds and old fashioned cricket - would have disappeared. I hope county cricket perseveres through all the drastic changes - I still joke with my wife that when I retire, I'd like to spend a year in England watching cricket ... sometime around 2045 - I sure hope county cricket thrives till then...

  • Michael on April 8, 2010, 2:33 GMT

    I just checked on the fixture list.Tanya's right. It just shows how far the fixtures reflect the current 'thinking' of the ECB. Yes the 20/20 pressure group are now controlling the county season, and will soon be abolishing cricket per se, or at least relegating it to the footnotes. What a load of rubbish! Cricket is no longer for real cricket lovers, but people with a longterm dislike of cricket, who wanted to come along and ruin it. Congratulations,ECB! So quickly too. Footbsll style hooliganism will be next......

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