And the classification of counties

1888 county cricket: the forthcoming season

I am happy in the knowledge that this year we have been able to make room in the pages of the Annual for a very full and exhaustive summary of the county cricket season of 1887. Not only has every match played by the leading clubs been commented upon and the full score and bowling analysis given but the best engagements of the minor counties are recorded, and the results, if not the full scores, are published. County cricket is now so important, and the spirit of the rivalry so keen, that, interesting as the Australian visit will doubtless be, the competition among the great clubs will lose none of its excitement. In other portions of this Almanack will be found the fixtures for 1888, as they were made at the meeting at Lord's on the 6th December, and full and special reports of the two meetings that have, up to the time of writing, been held by the Cricket Council - the meeting in July at which the Council was formed, and the subsequent gathering in December at which the bye-laws were adopted, the Chairman chosen, and the very valuable discussion held on bringing into more equal competition the bowler and the batsman. I have watched for many years with interest, and generally with cordial sympathy, the efforts of Lord Harris to improve the conditions under which the great game is played. His crusade against throwing was fully justified, and there is today very much less unfair bowling than was the case a few years ago. I have not, nor can I have, any personal feeling in this matter; my only desire is that the game should be played fairly and honourably, and that cricketers, as lovers of a splendid game, should be above suspicion. Attention is elsewhere drawn to the necessity which, in the opinion of many good judges, exists for Mr F. A. Bishop, the amateur fast bowler of Essex, to watch and probably modify his method of delivery; and several good and unbiased players say that Mold the fast bowler, who is now bowling for Northamptonshire, must also take care. Prominent umpires have over and over again told me that in their opinion men upon whose style of bowling adverse criticisms have been written, were unfair, but they were not sufficiently sure of support to take the initiative in no-balling them. Now the County Cricket Council is fairly under way and transgressions should quickly be brought before the Executive, and, with Lord Harris as Chairman, there need be no hesitation in doing this.

The meeting in December very properly took the tone of objecting to the practically unfair advantage which batsmen have taken of the existing law, and soon after the publication of this book a meeting will be held at which no doubt a recommendation will be made to the Marylebone Club to amend the law in the sense of restricting the almost unlimited freedom which batsmen enjoy in the matter of guarding the wickets with their legs. A reform is undoubtedly needed in this direction, and the Cricket Council will, I have no doubt, take steps for the protection of bowlers and to prevent their best efforts being thrown away. Let us, by all means, have earlier starts on the second and third days of matches, greater economy of time throughout the day, and a restriction of the pad-playing of 1886 and the past season.

Further, I am glad that the Cricket Council have given their attention to a matter of the practical carrying out of the game, and have not involved themselves in one of statistical comparison. They may, perhaps, at the February meeting, go a little further, and consider the advisability of recommending the increase in the number of balls per over from four to five, of empowering the captain of any county team to declare the innings of his side over whenever he thinks fit, and of, as some people think, deciding all county matches by the first innings unless they are played out. I do not here advocate these measures, but they are worthy of discussion. A question that during the autumn has aroused some attention has been the division, for purposes of what I have just called statistical comparison, of counties into first-class and second-class. It is not desired that in matters of legislation, or where the common interests of county clubs are involved, there should be any line of demarcation established between, say, Surrey and Hampshire. When, however, the point under discussion is not legislative, but refers to tables of results and averages, it is clear that some distinction must be made between the leading teams and those of less ability.

In the programme for 1888, incomplete as it is at the present time, and without considering the Durham and Cumberland teams, who only, so far as I am aware, intend to play home-and-home matches together, there are 19 counties, whose match lists extend from the 25 games of Surrey and Yorkshire to the 4 arranged by Norfolk. To embrace all of these counties in one competition would be impracticable; no summer would be long enough to play through the necessary games, and the younger clubs would be altogether unequal to the financial strain. Let us continue to have the meeting of first-class with second-class counties, but let them be understood to mean practice for the stronger and experience for the weaker clubs. Let us retain, as now, the competition among the leading counties; and let us, if we can, encourage the weaker shires to systematise their programmes of matches among themselves. Say that there are 19 counties now regularly playing cricket. Most of them regard the game pretty seriously, and realise the fact that success depends not only upon skill, but upon proper business management and organisation.

The first place among the great counties - the premiership, or championship, as it is called, however much those terms may be objected to - is, and during all my experience of cricket has been, a prize eagerly sought after; and what I want to see done, and what I believe would be an admirable thing for cricket, would be the frank acceptance of the position of second-class by the counties who play a regular series of matches among themselves, and who, by the common consent of all those who have to compile cricket statistics, are yet below the first rank. We will briefly review the county programme as it was made in December. Surrey, in addition, to the games with the Australians and the Universities, play the great counties and some of the smaller ones. Yorkshire and Lancashire do pretty well the same; Nottinghamshire meet their seven most important rivals and play two matches with the Australians; and this is exactly the programme arranged with Gloucestershire. Except that there is only one match with the colonial team, Kent do the same thing, Sussex have a full season, and Middlesex have extended their programme by the renewal of the old contests with Lancashire, and by generously giving Derbyshire a match on the latter's ground. Now all this is as it should be, and a very little addition to what must be called the second-class programme will make that as satisfactory in its way. Not regarding the matches with the greater clubs, Derbyshire have 4 matches arranged, Essex 10, Leicestershire 6, Warwickshire 6, Somersetshire 8, Hampshire 6, and Cheshire 2. It may be that Norfolk and Cheshire will be unable, through circumstances it is not necessary for me to discuss, to extend their programmes, but if for the coming season we fix the minimum of 6 second-class county matches, this would only necessitate Derbyshire making home-and-home matches with one other county, besides their present arrangements with Essex and Leicestershire, for a competition of nine counties to start in May. It would of course be better if a minimum of 8 matches were to be insisted upon, but that would involve other counties increasing their programmes also. If this could be done, it would be much more satisfactory, but perhaps we must wait for a season in which there are no Australians in England for the full development of a plan which must necessarily be expensive in carrying out, and which perhaps would overburden a year already crowded with matches of great public importance.

If we were to be able, in 1888, to look upon the competition among Essex, Staffordshire, Hampshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Somersetshire, Northamptonshire, and Hertfordshire as a definite and compact thing, the other young counties would soon begin to see that it was desirable to strive for admission into the second-class, just as today several county clubs, with regular teams and grounds of their own, are anxious to qualify themselves as first-class. It was easy to understand the feeling of dislike with which the term second-class was regarded when that was meant to include all the teams that were not considered first-class, but as soon as it is a creditable thing for a young cricket county to be reckoned the equal of other aspiring teams that are undoubtedly good, the reproach, if it ever really existed, will pass away, and people will see that while every one cannot be first-class, the division into first and second-class, and the systematising of the less important county matches, will bring credit and indeed profit to the teams which are behind the leading rank. Derbyshire should not, in their own interest, fly at such high game; and if they cannot arrange two extra matches, it would be better that the games set now set down for Yorkshire - against whom the Midland team made no show last year - were changed for matches against, say, Northamptonshire. The latter team are not engaged on the dates now set down for Derbyshire to play Yorkshire, and if such a change were made, there would be a chance of Derbyshire coming out so well at the end of the season as to be at the head of the minor counties. Under some scheme for the regulation of promotion which the Cricket Council or the statisticians could easily devise, they might thus regain the place from which they were only removed with regret. There would then doubtless be one or two counties - say Cheshire or Norfolk, or both - eager to come into the contest on equal terms with Somersetshire, Staffordshire, Essex, and the rest, who have cheerfully accepted the position created by the enormous modern development of county cricket.

I must here make an apology to one or two of the younger counties, because, owing to the great length to which this book has run, I have not been able to do full all-round justice. Staffordshire had a fairly good season, Norfolk a very unfortunate one, and Hertfordshire still laboured under the disadvantage of not having a regular ground. It was intended to print some record of the doings of these three counties with the others, but at the last moment this was found to be impracticable. Several matches they played will, however, be found under other headings. Readers must please forgive the references on pages 176 and 202 to information for which it has been found impossible to make room.

© John Wisden & Co