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The steady development of county cricket is the best thing in the modern practice of the game. We have had during the season an almost ideal competition among the eight leading counties, and several of the less important county teams have played through programmes of satisfactory length and character. It would be too much to expect that the younger and weaker elevens should yet be able to approach a point which the great counties have only reached in the season of 1888. But there is ample evidence of a desire to systematise the second-class programme. The points which I advocate and have advocated are, that there should be a clearly defined competition among those counties recognised as first-class; that there should be a similar competition among counties of less importance; and that matches between first-class and second-class counties should not be allowed to directly influence the position of either one or the other, but should be regarded as practice for the stronger and experience for the weaker sides. It has been charged against me that, in attempting to lay down this hard and fast rule, I am discouraging the younger elevens. But I would ask my critics to consider whether I am not doing far more to encourage them than if I were a party to counting against them their defeats at the hands of clubs against whom they have practically no chance.
Strong clubs of assured position will readily give dates to young and aspiring teams when they know that their own position among their equals will not be prejudiced by the results of the matches. The strong counties are thus able to give places to younger men, to let off players for representative matches, and to give sides that would otherwise have little experience against the best bowling of the day a chance of showing what they can do. The advantages to the weaker side are even more apparent. If they are beaten by their more powerful rivals they only do what is generally expected of them, and if they win or even make a creditable fight of it, they indirectly advance the position of their side in the estimation of their friends and the cricket public. Further, they gain experience, and see what the best men in the country can do - experience and knowledge which are of immense value to them when they in turn are matched against their equals. The objection, sentimental if you like, but no doubt a real one in its way, that the phrases minor counties and second-class counties implied a slur when the terms were applied indiscriminately to all county teams below the first rank, disappears, I imagine, when we only count as second-class those counties which play a regular and proper programme among themselves. In a year or two, I believe, such a programme will be played by the best among the cricketing counties, who, though not first class, deserve and receive a higher rank than Worcestershire,Wiltshire, Northumberland, Cumberland, and Durham.
Tentatively, and without, I hope, doing anything either presumptuous or unfair, I have regarded for 1888 ten counties as second class -Leicestershire, Somersetshire, Warwickshire, Essex, Staffordshire, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Derbyshireand Northamptonshire. In the cases of Essex, Hertfordshire, Somersetshire, Warwickshire and Hampshire a good programme has been played, while Leicestershire have engaged in five contests of the kind required-matches with counties of their own class. Unfortunately, Derbyshire have not played a programme, either with first-class counties or second-class counties, which is long enough to strictly entitle them to come into competition with either. They played seven matches with first-class counties and three with second-class counties. And even if their success had been great instead of small, we should not have been able to place them in comparison with elevens that went through a much more trying course of matches-a course that tested them against all their rivals. Derbyshire, as I said last year, would be wise to frankly accept the only position their ability entitles them to, and, with the exhibition of skill and the evident improvement in form shown by Leicestershire, Somersetshire, Essex, Warwickshire, and one or two others, I can assure the Derbyshire executive that they will have plenty of work to do to do hold their own, and that, too, with the assistance of their admirable young bowler, Hulme. Leicestershire have displayed remarkable ability on their own peculiar ground, and the other four counties just named have played all-round cricket of a really excellent character. I hope, judging from the programmes made the other day by most of their secretaries that it will be possible to make a close comparison between the doings of the second-class counties, and to give them their exact positions next year just as we now do with the great counties.
After saying this, I ought, perhaps, to repeat my conviction that county cricket is the very best sort of cricket, and that competition, whatever can be said against it by well-intentioned theorists, is an altogether admirable thing for the game. Competition means keen feeling on the part of all the players, and hearty interest on the part of the local public. This interest takes the practical shape of subscriptions and gate-money for the county club, and as cricket is a public game, with heavy expenses, gate-money is a first necessity of existence. It is assuredly better that the sixpences and shillings and guineas should go into the hands of a properly organised county club who are doing, and will do, all that they can to foster and encourage the game in their district, than that they should be wasted on mere exhibitions such as, in the early days of cricket popularity, were seen all over the country in matches against odds, or games with high-sounding titles and weak elevens, which were private speculations bearing, relatively speaking, little fruit. So far from discouraging second-class counties by adopting the line of policy I have here sketched out, I think I am doing my best to encourage the spread of cricket throughtout England; to foster the game where it is already healthy and popular, and to teach people to look fairly at existing facts and to recognise, with as little as possible of regret for the dear sleepy old days, the spirit of emulation which, granting a love for the game, is the leading motive among the players and supporters of the great counties, and which ought to spread, and will spread, to those counties which, with all submission, I venture to call second-class.
As I anticipated would be the ease, Lord Harris"s proposal that counties should contract themselves out of the provisions of the Local Government Act met with no opposition. It would have been at once lamentable and comical if we had had a Cricket Boundaries Commission upsetting all sorts of qualifications in different parts of Urban and Suburban England. I was pleased and by no means surprised to see the acceptance of the more moderate and reasonable of the two Sussex propositions on the residential question, and the prompt rejection of the other ideas. It would be rash to give an immediate qualification to anyone who might come to England, whether as a gentleman or a bale of wool; but there should be no lasting disability, and it would be a distinct gain if we could soon see in our great matches that magnificent bowler, Mr.Spofforth. The fixtures for 1889 show the full maintenance of the first-class programme, and a considerable development of the class of matches of which Essex v. Leicestershire is a fair example. Derbyshire seem to be trying to sit on the rail, playing three first-class counties and only two second-class teams. Nevertheless the present classification is for the most part frankly admitted, and there will be a grand county season, while the revival of the fixtures between North and South is a well-timed recognition of the fact that the strength of the hereditary rivals is more evenly matched today than for many a year.