Here comes the sun (hopefully) - County Championship's return is a reason to celebrate
There are challenges ahead but the prospect of a full county season is something to unite us in anticipation
At the end of the Second World War, England (and pretty much everywhere else) was in ruins. The debts were huge, the damage was vast and most families were mourning in one way or another.
But it didn't stop the street parties. Because there was a sense that, whatever the demands of the future, they had come through the worst.
So it is with the start of the new county season. Yes, the game faces challenges. Yes, there may well be trouble ahead. But, after one of the more difficult years in living memory, the prospect of being able to gather together once more to watch our great game is within sight. Here comes the sun, as George Harrison, put it. It really does feel like years since it's been here.
There will be scars. The shop that stood on the high street may well have gone. The pub that stood on the corner, too. And yes, given the demographic of spectators at county cricket, there will be some empty seats where familiar faces once sat. They will be missed.
But every spring - and every new cricket season it contains - offers a fresh start and this one more than most. Whatever our differences, whatever our struggles, we have the hope of better days ahead. And while we might disagree about the merits of Joe Denly or Moeen Ali or even the 18-county system, it will be a joy to disagree, once more, while watching our game.
Who will prevail this year? No idea. And does it really matter, anyway? Probably not. The most important aspect of this season is that it is taking place at all and that spectators will, soon, be in attendance. There will be a lot of people relishing their return to live sport with greater appreciation than ever. It really does seem reasonable to hope that the summer of 2021 will be, like those post-war summers, something of a celebration.
There is no avoiding the fact that the county season has a different look. And there is no avoiding that, for many of us, the Hundred remains a flash newcomer we mistrust. It's still driving a car it can't afford. It's still talking a game it hasn't delivered. It's still spending more than it earns. And it's taken the best seat in the house.
More importantly, it is still threatening the existing formats. It still seems incredible that, having spent five years building the game around the 50-over format, the ECB should relegate their own domestic competition - played at the same time as the Hundred this year and therefore lacking most of the best limited-overs players - to the brink of irrelevance. News that the competition's final is going to be played on a Thursday, following semi-finals on Tuesday, tells you everything you need to know about its current standing in the eyes of administrators.
This may change. There is another 50-over World Cup in 2023 and, ahead of that, there is every chance the domestic 50-over competition will be prioritised once more. Instead, the County Championship is likely to be played at the same time as The Hundred.
Some have welcomed that prospect. They point out, quite rightly, that such a competition will provide opportunities for young players and the prospect of more games at outgrounds. But such a format already exists. It's called 2nd XI cricket. And while it plays a valuable role in developing players, it won't provide the preparation required for Test cricket. Whatever the benefits of the Hundred, there seems every chance the costs will be greater.
Maybe if England struggle in Australia the penny will drop that marginalising the Championship season does not support the best chance of competing in Test cricket
But that does not mean it is entirely without merit. The return to free-to-air television is welcome and vital. As is the push for a more diverse audience. If the price for that is playing a reduced length game - and it seems that was a key factor for broadcasters and the potential new audience - it may be a price worth paying. Maybe, in retrospect, the T20 Blast could have become the T16 and played in two divisions with promotion and relegation. Either way, if The Hundred can bring new spectators to the game (just as T20 would have done had it been shown free-to-air), it will have served a purpose. Whether it's worth the cost - financial and otherwise - is another issue.
The introduction of the Hundred is not the only change. Partially as a mechanism to reduce the number of matches while maintaining the integrity of the competition, the Championship format has also altered for the 2021 season. It will start in seeded conferences, before moving on to divisions and play-offs.
Again, there may be some positives to this move. For one thing, it is argued that, by removing the issue of promotion and relegation, coaches will be free to take longer-term decisions about player development. So a youngster might win selection ahead of an overseas player, for example.
It is also argued that giving every county a chance of winning the competition at the start of the season might provide an incentive to those who had all but given up on the format. This could revitalise those counties who have found themselves at the bottom of Division Two rather too often.
Maybe. But the thought persists that, if any county really has been accepting their millions from the ECB but going into the season feigning interest in the Championship, it probably requires a change in management rather than a change in the competition's playing conditions.
That is one of the primary concerns about the conference system. Without the peril of relegation and the motivation of promotion, there is a danger head coaches will have a place to hide without the immediate judgement of tangible success and failure. The role of a head coach has always been to balance the needs of the present with planning for the future. We cannot make the Championship environment remotely cosy if we are serious about preparing players for the brutal realities of touring Australia or India.
We have, at least, a season to evaluate the worth of such a system. No decision on the shape of the 2022 season will be made until autumn, at the earliest. Maybe, if England struggle in Australia, the penny will drop that marginalising the Championship season does not give England the best chance of competing in Test cricket. Maybe, then, it will be accepted that a window for limited-overs cricket in the prime weeks of summer is damaging England's Test ambitions. England, it might be remembered, have won just one of their last 23 away Tests against other sides in the top four of the rankings (New Zealand, Australia and India) dating back to November 2013. They have lost 18 of them.
Covid has not been the only challenge over the last year. The killing of George Floyd in the USA sparked a conversation about inclusion that, you suspect, has a long way to run. But even before reviews are completed and commissions have reported, the focus on the subject has brought progress. Not only have the last few weeks brought a noticeable increase in the number of non-white coaches working at high levels within the professional game, but it has brought a roll out of an anti-racism education programme, a commitment to appoint more non-white match officials and the introduction of bursaries for non-white coaches. More than anything, we are more aware we have an inclusion problem than we were a year ago. That's the first step towards solutions.
If we really want our game to be more inclusive, though, there are steps we can take immediately. For one thing, we need to end the practice of charging youngsters identified as worthy of inclusion in county age-group squads for their kit and coaching. It contributes to the disproportionate amount of privately educated players in the game and has turned what should have been a talent development programme into a grubby little money spinner. It could change tomorrow if the will was there to do it.
But at least we can have these conversations now. And at least we can have them - or will soon be able to have them - sitting in the sun at the cricket. Yes, there's lots about which we may disagree. Yes, there are real concerns for the future. But there is more that unites us than divides. Cricket is back and that, at least, we can agree to celebrate.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo