At a time when, by force of circumstances, County cricket is in abeyance, a survey of the Championship Competition seemed opportune and, several questions having been put to me regarding the subject, I decided to make an attempt to do justice to such an important and far-reaching part of cricket in England. An essential retrospect takes one back sixty-nine years when, without an attempt at anything like a regulated tournament, the first Championship award was made. Fascinating and enlightening, the task stirs the imagination and makes one wonder why the competition was not given definite shape from the moment of its inception.
Histories of the County clubs throw interesting light on the casual way in which the fixtures were arranged and carried out in those days. The farce of men playing for more than one county in a season having been stopped, nine counties "considered" first class were named for the championship, fewest defeats to settle the question of supremacy, but there was no mention of the number of matches necessary to qualify, and for several years the methods of conducting the tournament look almost grotesque in the light of the care since taken in devising various plans for settling the conundrum of properly placing the counties at the end of each season. The rules, if any existed apart from the two mentioned, were so lax that fixtures could even be abandoned for personal reasons. Gloucestershire, entirely amateur, and Nottinghamshire, all professionals, were the strongest counties in 1872, but the arrangement of their matches in 1873 meant that their first meeting would have come too close to the visit of Gloucestershire to Bramall Lane, Sheffield, to permit of W. G. Grace playing in both games. The Yorkshire match was for the benefit of Joseph Rowbotham, the only Yorkshiremen credited with two centuries in 1869 Rowbotham journeyed to London specially to remind W. G. Grace of a promise to play in it. W.G. who, when snatching time from his medical work, was the great attraction on any cricket ground, said "Joe, I have promised to play for you and I will do so." The Gloucestershire amateurs beat the Yorkshire eleven of professionals by six wickets. On the three days 23,000 people paid to see the cricket, the crowd of 12,000 on the first day being described as "enormous." The consequence of the Champion not being available for the Nottinghamshire match was that both engagements between these powerful sides were cancelled and were not resumed until 1875.
Yet they were bracketed as first champions. Nottinghamshire won five games and drew their other first-class County match, while Gloucestershire won four and drew two competition games.
In 1874 Derbyshire, the only unbeaten side, provided a more glaring instance of the unsatisfactory way of conducting the tournament. They won three and drew three of their six eleven-a-side County engagements with first-class opponents, and so became champions, although sixteen of them played Nottinghamshire. As it happened, Flint, a slow right-hand bowler, and William Mycroft, fast left-hand, dismissed Nottinghamshire, who were not at full strength, for 65 and 125; Derbyshire won by 14 wickets.
Other counties, Middlesex among them, played no more than six matches and the general uncertainty prevailing came to a head in 1883, when Nottinghamshire received the title because they lost only one of twelve County matches, although because they won no more than four and drew seven, whereas Yorkshire won nine of sixteen engagements, losing two and drawing five. Yorkshire claimed the championship and their history by the Rev. R. S. Holmes states, "That year Yorkshire was champion County," while F. S. Ashley-Cooper, in Nottinghamshire Cricket wrote "Notts were awarded first place but the distinction could clearly be claimed by Yorkshire." Wisden supported this view: "All first-class engagements reckoned, the Yorkshiremen have an undeniable claim to the championship." W. J. Ford, in his History of Middlesex Cricket, pointed out that Middlesex, another all-amateur side at that time, "lay third, but as a matter of fact no real championship existed, though the leading sporting papers, as representing public opinion, generally awarded first place to some county with the others in order of merit, but it was in 1894 that the classification became really systematic." Derbyshire could not maintain their early claim to eminence and, as the outcome of losing all their six games with first-class Counties in 1887, dropped out of the contest through lack of fixtures.
Criticism gradually brought about a sounder state of affairs. Yet satisfaction was far from unanimous. As the result of an abortive attempt to classify the Counties into three groups, the County Cricket Council became defunct after a lively meeting and, beyond any doubt, cricket journalists were to be thanked for keeping County cricket in something like trim shape. After the 1888 season, in which the two great bowlers, Turner and Ferris, failed to bring chief honours to the Australian team captained by Percy McDonnell, Charles F. Pardon wrote in Wisden: "The steady development of County cricket is the best thing for the modern practice of the game. We have had an almost ideal competition among the leading Counties." The influence and criticism brought to bear, mainly by the Press, induced the M.C.C. to take direct action in conjunction with the Counties. Then in the autumn of 1894 came the decision that "There was no limit to the number of first-class counties, the M.C.C. having power to bring Counties into the list or remove existing ones." The extension upset the balance of the tournament because the counties no longer played the same number of matches as they had done for a few years, when all met each other twice. Somerset, promoted in 1891, Derbyshire, Essex, Hampshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire brought the first-class counties to fourteen and the tournament lumbered along.
The method of awarding points underwent frequent changes without lasting improvement, and even the conclusions arrived at, after prolonged meetings by the Findlay Commission in 1937, no more than recommended ways of removing grievances that had arisen chiefly because of finance, and failed to lay the bogey that always showed itself because of real or imaginary trouble spotted by some legislators; and the decimal points that came into vogue caused much irritation. Still, except for doubts as how best to reward the winners of each game, the competition proceeded smoothly. That little injustice has been done in the long run stands out clearly when we see which Counties have won the championship. Of the 17 competing in 1939 Worcestershire, Northamptonshire and Glamorgan having in turn been admitted, nine have gained the honour, and of these all but Warwickshire were enumerated in 1873. The championship came to the eight original first-class Counties in this order-- Gloucestershire and Nottinghamshire (joint holders), Derbyshire, Middlesex, Lancashire (tied with Nottinghamshire), Surrey, Yorkshire, and Kent. In 1911 Warwickshire occupied first place, after which the distinction reverted to seven of the former winners, the exception being Gloucestershire. Never has the distinction come to Sussex, who completed the first nine and are the oldest-formed County club.
The rise and decline of great players affected the strength of the sides to such an extent that Gloucestershire have not once finished first since 1877. That was the season when Midwinter, who was born at Cirencester and had come back from Australia, appeared as the first professional in the Gloucestershire ranks. He returned to Australia in the winter, played in the two matches against J. Lillywhite's England team and started the next summer with the Australians, captained by David Gregory. He took part in five matches, but he was induced to resume playing for Gloucestershire "in dramatic fashion," as Sydney Pardon used to describe. The Australians were at Lord's for the match with Middlesex; Gloucestershire, on arriving at The Oval for their game with Surrey, deciding that they must have Midwinter. In order to impress a man nearly 6 feet 3 inches in height and weighing about 15 stones, W. G. Grace, the Gloucestershire captain, himself a heavyweight, and E. M. Grace, the Coroner, took with them J. A. Bush, comparable to Midwinter as a giant. In a four-wheeled cab they drove to Lord's and brought back Midwinter. Weighty argument had the desired effect! Midwinter wet to and from Australia for several consecutive seasons. He considered himself an Australian and once said: "I made a mistake in deserting the first Australian eleven of 1878." He played for Alfred Shaw's team in the four matches against Australia in 1881 and 1882, and appeared for W. L. Murdoch's 1884 team against England at Manchester, Lord's and the Oval, so representing both these countries in matches against each other--a unique distinction.
Derbyshire, after temporarily losing their status, could not climb to the top again until 1936. Nottinghamshire, falling away after 1889--their tenth year in the lead--were unable to regain the championship until 1907, and Surrey, following a wonderful spell from 1887 to 1899, did not reach "double figures" as champion county until 1914. Yorkshire, on the other hand, despite their many fine professionals, were not moulded into an acknowledged championship side until 1893, when the perseverance of Lord Hawke, in his eleventh season as captain, earned the reward. From that time Yorkshire have proved themselves by far the most consistent County, having been champions 21 times in the course of 43 competitions. This is the Yorkshire total in the complete list of 63 tournaments that have taken place. Nottinghamshire come next in the number of championships with 12; then follow Lancashire 11; Surrey 10; Kent 4; Middlesex 4; Gloucestershire 3; Derbyshire 2; and Warwickshire 1. The Nottinghamshire figures includes four ties; that of Lancashire three ties; Gloucestershire and Surrey each shared first place in one indecisive result. As further evidence of how the ability of the sides fluctuated, we find that of these champion counties, Gloucestershire finished last in 1891, 1893 and 1894; Derbyshire took the "wooden spoon" in 1886, 1887 and 1924, and Kent in 1895.
Regarding a point raised by an ardent follower of the game, "Which are the Big Six?" I can recall a prominent Sussex official, I think Mr. W. Newham, saying years ago, "We don't mind if we are among the Big Six." Asking the question of Mr. H. D. G. Leveson Gower at Lord's last summer, I received a prompt reply which confirmed my memory that the term referred to Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire, Surrey, Middlesex and Kent. These were the strongest counties in the old days and most sought after as opponents when the secretaries compiled their own fixture lists at the Annual Meeting at Lord's. Now these six stand out as having most championship triumphs to their names; also as match winners throughout the period 1873 to 1939 they rank supreme in this order: Yorkshire 763 victories, Lancashire 628, Surrey 591, Kent 565, Nottinghamshire 468 and Middlesex 427.
The percentage of wins as given in the appended table shows some variation in this order namely: Yorkshire 52.15, Lancashire 45.28, Kent 44.38, Surrey 42.30, Middlesex 38.85 Nottinghamshire 38.77; but under this closer scrutiny, the six chief counties retain the clear proof of ascendancy.
Suggestions in recent years for a knockout competition from advocates of what they are pleased to call "brighter cricket" take one back again to the start of the competition. In 1873 the Marylebone club offered a Champion County Cup for competition, all matches to be played at Lord's. The proposed tournament came to nothing because some acceptances of the invitation to play were withdrawn, but Kent and Sussex carried out their tie as arranged. Kent won by 52 runs in the only first-class county Cricket Cup-Tie. What became of the Cup seems an unsolved mystery.
Could that project of the M.C.C. have become an annual event, one may imagine the excitement over everything that happened in the final tie, with a climax in the presentation of the Cup to the captain of the victorious eleven. But would the tension have exceeded that at Lord's on the last day of August, 1920, when Middlesex beat Surrey in a match which decided a desperately close fight for the first place? Early in the day Lancashire beat Worcestershire by nine wickets at Manchester and went to the head of the table. The position of the game in London warranted some celebration at Old Trafford of an apparently certain championship; but Lancashire's joy was short-lived. Middlesex turned the fortune of their game and fought so well for the victory necessary to give them first honours that they pulled off the forlorn hope. A wonderful catch by Hendren in front of the sight screen started a collapse that prevented success for Surrey in a valiant race against the clock. Middlesex won by 55 runs within ten minutes of time. Surrey finished third--a true index to form, though the Counties did not play an equal number of matches, an almost invariable misfortune in the tournament. The Middlesex programme consisted of 20 fixtures whereas Lancashire engaged in 28 and Surrey 24 games. Yorkshire, Kent, Sussex and Nottinghamshire followed in this order. So, Sussex were among the "Big Six."
Besides the presence in the team of great players who were regular choices for representative matches, strength in leadership influenced the winning powers of the Counties. Nottinghamshire, during their spell of sustained superiority, when the competition was in its infancy and so few matches qualified for entry, were all professionals, led in turn by Richard Daft, W. Oscroft, Alfred Shaw and M. Sherwin. Their chief opponents were Gloucestershire, captained by W. G. Grace; Middlesex, by I. D. Walker, and Lancashire, by A. N. Hornby. These counties gave way to Surrey, guided by John Shutter who, in his sixth year of captaincy at the age of 32, enjoyed the satisfaction of taking his side to the top, and this position was maintained six times in eight seasons, while in 1889, Surrey tied with Lancashire and Nottinghamshire. Shuter retired after 1893 when the Surrey sequence was broken by Yorkshire, Lord Hawke, after being in command since 1883, becoming in his 33rd year the conquering captain. K. J. Key then led Surrey to first place three times in six seasons.
Yorkshire took the honours eight times under their first amateur leader and Lord Hawke altogether captained them for 28 seasons. In the last part of his regime, Middlesex captained by Gregor MacGregor, gained their second success and Kent stood out with their first championship in 1906, C. H. B. Marsham being captain. Following a decade under J. A. Dixon the invigorating personality of A. O. Jones brought Nottinghamshire to the fore again in 1907 and then Kent, with E. W. Dillon in charge, finished first three times in five years. A. N. Hornby still captained Lancashire when champions in 1897 and A. C. MacLaren led them to the honour in 1904. After this 22 years elapsed before Lancashire, in their most dominating period, assisted in the supremacy of the North, unbroken since 1921.
When Warwickshire in 1911 checked the long continuity of success by one or other of the "Big Six," they could thank very largely the superb cricket shown by their captain, Frank R. Foster, who, at the age of 22, earned the description "the best all-rounder of the year," with the further commendation as a young leader that he bore comparison with W. G. Grace.
The loss of four seasons during the Great War caused little difference to the strength of the best counties. Yorkshire, led by three different captains, won five championships, Middlesex; with P. F. Warner and F. T. Mann at the helm, two; Lancashire four in five seasons, the first two under Colonel Lawrence Green, when given command at the age of 36 after small practice in first-class cricket. Nottinghamshire, steered by A. W. Carr, and Lancashire, by P. T. Eckersley, again proved worthy winners before another new star arose. A. B. Sellers, when only 25, found himself left in charge of Yorkshire. Despite want of experience in big matches, Sellers accepted the responsibility with such zest that his side did not lose a match under him that season, the two defeats in 1932 occurring when F. E. Green Wood filled his elected role of captain, and, apart from 1934 and 1936, the Yorkshiremen carried off the Championship until war stopped first-class cricket again. Six triumphs in eight years of the most exacting period in cricket history is the account of his stewardship that Brian Sellers can give. In both years when Yorkshire fell away the calls of Test matches depleted the Yorkshire forces; the same thing happened in 1938, but then ample talent of the necessary standard occupied the vacancies. During these seasons Yorkshire contested 224 county championship matches when led by Brian Sellers, winning 135, drawing 68, and losing 21--one defeat in every ten matches.
These figures compare very favourably with those of Surrey nearly fifty years before, when the competitors never exceeded nine, and the strain of captaincy was much less trying. Taking their last eight seasons when captained by John Shutter from 1886, the year before their first championship, Surrey played 122 matches against first-class counties. Of these they won 87, drew 11, and lost 24. Their defeats averaging one in every five engagements. Yet, Surrey were absolute champions five times and were bracketed with Lancashire and Nottinghamshire in 1889. When Shuter left off, Lord Hawke began his long stretch of prominence. Of the last 21 tournaments Yorkshire have won twelve and Brian Sellers, unless the war denies him the opportunity, can carry on once more with the prospect of adding to his county's and his own laurels.
The various changes in the method of reckoning points in the Championship matches have been as follows:--
|1873 to 1886.||The smallest number of lost matches decided the order of merit.|
|1887 to 1889.||A win counted one point, a draw half-a-point.|
|1890 to 1894.||Losses were deducted from wins, drawn games being ignored.|
|1895 to 1909.||One point counted for each win; one deducted for each loss; unfinished games ignored. Championship decided by the greatest proportionate number of points obtained in finished games.|
|1910.||Result determined by percentage of wins to matches played.|
|1911 to 1914.||A win counted five points. In drawn games the side leading on the first innings scored three points, and the side behind on the first innings one point. The order decided by the greatest proportionate number of points obtained to points possible.|
|1919.||In this season, when each match was restricted to two days of longer playing hours than hitherto, the order was decided by the greatest percentage of wins to matches played.|
|1920-23.||Percentage of points gained to maximum points possible. A win counted 5 points and a lead on the first innings 2. Games in which "no result" was obtained on the first innings were ignored.|
|1924-26.||The method followed in 1923 unchanged except that the county leading on the first innings scored three points and the county behind one point.|
|1927-28.||Percentage of points gained to maximum points possible. A win counted 8 points, and a lead on the first innings 5 points, the remaining 3 being given to the side behind. In the event of a tie, or if "no result" on the first innings was obtained, 4 points to each side, provided that in the second case not less than six hours of actual play had taken place. Matches in which six hours had not actually been played did not count, provided no result of any kind had been obtained.|
|1929-30.||The method agreed upon was:--Each county to play 28 Competition matches, 8 points being awarded for a win; 4 to each side in a tie game, or when the first innings scores were level in a drawn match, or when there was no first innings result, or no play at all; and, in a drawn game, 5 points to the side leading on the first innings and 3 to its opponents. The county obtaining most points to be the winner of the Competition.|
|1931-32.||Each county to play 28 Competition matches, 15 points being awarded for a win, and in drawn games 5 for the side leading on the first innings and 3 for their opponents. In the case of a match being finished and the scores equal, each side to count 7½ points, and in a game not being finished or the totals of the first innings level each to have 4. A match not being concluded and there being no result on the first innings, or no play, each side to receive 4 points. The county which obtained the greatest number of points to be winner of the Competition.|
|1933-37.||Each county to play 24 matches to qualify for the Championship Competition. Counties allowed to arrange more matches, but all must be reckoned in the Competition. No county to play another county more than twice in a season. The system of points for 1931 and 1932 remained unchanged, but the county obtaining the greatest proportionate number of points on a percentage basis entitled to be the winner of the Competition. The unit of 100 per cent. in all matches was equivalent of 15 points.|
|1938.-||Each county to play a minimum of 24 matches to qualify for the Championship. 12 points being awarded for a win, and 4 points for the first innings lead in all matches. A side obtaining the first innings lead and then winning the match receives 12 points; if it loses the match it retains the 4 points for the first innings lead. In deciding the Championship the points gained are divided by the number of matches played, the County with the highest average being the Champion County. "Matches Played" are exclusive of matches in which there is no play, or matches in which there is no result on the first innings.|