Are we in a golden age of cricket writing?
That the opening day of the English leg of the British first-class season should coincide with the end of the tax year is incredibly unusual - true, it is about to do so for the second year running, but that only makes it the equal-earliest on record. It is also richly symbolic. Actually, as a means of drawing a line under the past, it should always begin on April 5, albeit not with a batch of warm-ups against students, all screaming second-class. That way we would have not merely continuity but a perennial reminder of the small economic miracle that is the planet's oldest professional sporting league, the County Championship.
Here, for the vast majority of its disciples, is a competition followed, of necessity, in absentia. Even its most fervent supporters need little encouragement to recite a litany of flaws. The complex intricacies of assembling a fixture list encompassing three different domestic leagues and 18 major clubs are such that there will always be complaints over scheduling; remembering when a round is due to commence or finish would tax the resources of even the most accomplished anal retentive.
Yet county cricket still lends a vestige of order to the British summer, a thread of uncertainty leading us from the fag end of winter, through the renewal and promise of spring and the fruition and serenity of summer, to the borders and regrets of autumn. Grey skies or bright, chilly mornings or sweaty afternoons, profit or loss, the show goes on.
All the more reason, then, to lament the decision by the Times to pare back even further its coverage of our daily fix, a financial decision born of apparent necessity but, in truth, a consequence of the lazy, thoughtless obsession with f***ball.
As a Guardian man for four decades, I switched to Uncle Rupert's mob a few years ago principally due to the discovery that they were covering county cricket more expansively. Being a somewhat old-fashioned boy, like Colonel Kilgore, I still love the scent of ink in the morning (it smells like… authenticity). That's why I refuse to do the paywall or iPad thing. Unfortunately I also have a habit of dry-heaving every time I contemplate buying the Daily Telegraph, which is even further to the political right than the Times. On Sunday I subscribed to a weekly, the Cricket Paper, but that can only fill a piffling section of the gaping hole. Laudable as it is, BBC Radio's renewed commitment to ball-by-ball coverage also offers only modest compensation. Nothing can fill the tactile void at breakfast, the daily unfolding of chapters.
Yet the temptation to stick with the Times is strong, partly because of the quality of its news and arts coverage, but mostly because its stable of thoroughbreds includes my two favourite contemporary British sportswriters - Mike Atherton and Simon Barnes. Increasingly in this Twittering Age, it is the writers that sell the publications, not the other way round. This need not necessarily signify a rise in quality, but since paying for the written word, and for the moving image and recorded music, is now officially old hat, it certainly shoves you into the vicinity of such a conclusion. Personally, having spent the past two years rummaging through three centuries' worth of newspapers, I have no doubt whatsoever.
That's why it was both surprising and dismaying to read the estimable Andrew Hughes' assertion on this site that, when it comes to county reporting, he would welcome "a little more Neville Cardus and a little less Dan Brown on a bad day". The first bit that jarred was the implication that these writers are opposites. The only thing I know about the latter is that he has sold untold millions of fictional books revolving around one of the most ancient of all tales, suggesting that, even on a bad day, he can tell a story pretty well, much as Cardus could.
More of the colour Cardus daubed on his canvas would indeed be welcome, but that would require more space, and the thinness of Tuesday morning's Times did nothing whatsoever to dispel the fear that this will not be forthcoming anytime soon, at least in terms of paper and ink. In any case, the notion of a new Cardus is every bit as laughable as that preposterous tendency in the early 1970s to label every half-decent new singer-songwriter a New Dylan. Neville was as much a one-off as Bob. He was also a man of his time, a time when we saw little and knew even less of the world beyond our own front door, a time when we were more willing to suspend disbelief. Isn't it about time even we eternally hopeful romantics stopped pretending that any 21st-century newspaper editor would ever encourage his modus operandi - or, rather, the fanciful, frilly, frothy bits?
So let's shrug off the whinges of a newsprint addict and celebrate what we have. In the 2000 Wisden, Stephen Moss threw down a seemingly daunting gauntlet. "The rosy-eyed romantics should declare and let the revisionists in to bat. Subvert the stereotypes of cricketing parsons and public schools, hymn the joys of global cricket, let writing play its part in re-energising the game for a new age, a generation less devoted to a dreamy past… we want our prose in black and white, not purple." Even then, though, the romantics had already been forced to retire extremely hurt and the revisionists were not only digging in but playing some rousingly irreverent shots. Moss just hadn't been searching in the right places.
One of the wonders of the web is the ease with which we can now read, instantly, all sorts of reporting and opining from all manner of corners. When I had my first "working lunch" in Fleet Street 30 years ago, when just about the only way you could regularly see what was being written in the Sydney Morning Herald without actually being Down Under was to work in a newspaper office and check the feed from the AAP wire service, how many Englishmen could name an Australian cricket correspondent, much less one from India or Pakistan? Now we are inundated, nay deluged, by the observations of anyone possessing the wherewithal to type in English, regardless of experience or knowledge. But amid all those relentlessly chattering monkeys there is quality aplenty, within the press box and without.
I'm saving Gideon Haigh's recent Shane Warne tome for the holidays, and have no reason to believe it will prove an exception to an encouraging trend. From Barmy Army memoirs and revisionist biographies of Harold Larwood and Fred Trueman to Alan Tyers' hilarious WG Grace Ate My Pedalo and Chris Ryan's majestic coffee-table cracker Australia: Story of a Cricket Country, the scores of cricket books I've read over the past five years have revived a waning appetite by dint of being extraordinarily varied in content, style and tone, with duffers at an absolute minimum (it helps, admittedly, when people rarely ask you to review any of those infernal ghosted autobiographies). Publishers may not pump out as many titles as they once did, let alone pay the advances, but that simply obliges writers to be all the more passionate about their subject to make the sweat worthwhile. For less read more.
Biased I may be, as a contributor, but the latest Wisden venture, the Nightwatchman, is another case in point. Drawn from more than half a dozen nations, not one of the 19 authors responsible for its first quarterly cornucopia of essays is a chief cricket correspondent of a major newspaper; hell, three of them, including the co-editor, Tanya Aldred, are not even in possession of an Adam's apple (granted, this is probably only a big deal in England, where the first female sports editor of a national newspaper was appointed only a fortnight ago). Some owed their commission to a blog, others to unbridled enthusiasm; quite a few have never set foot in a media centre. Yet readability and wisdom abound. The same can be said of those manning the Cordon on this very site. Blimey, we even get a better class of ex- and current player - less reliant on the first-person singular, more global of outlook.
One intriguing development in Pomland will be to do with the next generation of national paper correspondents. Most of those currently in situ have been there for a couple of decades; so long has *Mike Selvey occupied the hot seat at the Guardian, he can recall covering the John Player League. However, the preponderance of ex-England players performing sterling service for the broadsheets (Atherton, Selvey, Vic Marks, Derek Pringle, Steve James) seems most unlikely to continue, if only because Oxford's dreaming spires, like the optimistic libraries of Cambridge, now rarely accommodate those with cricketing ambitions.
No matter. Atherton, Selvey et al still have a few miles left on the clock. Besides, there are oodles of alternative and younger sources to help us cricket tragics buttress or challenge our own televisually informed perceptions - even some that actually speak to the players and administrators rather than pontificate at a safe, cosy, two-dimensional distance. Writers of insight, flair and fearlessness; writers keener to look forward than back, as focused on the far afield as the near to hand; writers who love wisely and well.
Andy Bull recently wondered in the Guardian whether we are slap-bang in the middle of a golden age for cricket writing. Impossible as it is to draw anything but odious comparisons when the past offers such skimpy evidence, I find it equally impossible not to nod vigorously. What we've lost on the county roundabout we've gained on the international swing.
11:34:58 GMT, April 3, 2013: This sentence originally said Colin Bateman is still cricket correspondent at the Daily Express; he isn't.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton