The point of the County Championship

“Even if the county game’s role is playing second fiddle to international cricket, it’s still a lovely way to spend a day.” Wisden 2001

What is the point of the County Championship?

Don’t read that in the wrong way. The question was not preceded with a tut and a roll of the eyes, it is a genuine question – what is the point of it?

Is it, for instance, the premier showcase of English first class cricket, served up to sate a public appetite for quality, competitive sport? Or is it a nursery of English cricketing talent, charged with providing a route for young men to hone their skills so the national selectors may have a pool from which to replenish the Test team? Or is it a tradition, beloved by the aficionado, sustained because the thought of it not being there is unthinkable when, in reality, for the wider sporting public, it provides little more than a stop-gap between the seat-filling limited-overs competitions? Or, some combination of all three? Or, something else entirely?

I ask because, over the last twenty-five years or so at least, I’m not sure the ECB has really known and if – in purely financial terms – this loss-making institution is going to thrive, the answer to that question has to be clear. What is the point?

Let’s deal with each of those options in turn.

Is it the premier showcase of English first class cricket, served up to sate a public appetite for quality, competitive sport?

To ask the same of, say, the football Premier League, would be absurd. Of course, it is. The Premier League is a highly successful business which attracts hundreds of thousands of people in person and millions on television week-in-week out. It exists because the demand is there.

With the best will in the world, the same cannot be claimed for the County Cricket. According to the ECB, in 2015 (the figures for last season do not seem to be available yet) 513,000 people attended County Championship matches. One assumes the figure is rounded. Given that there were 144 matches, spread over 576 days (minus those lost to bad weather and early-finishes), that works out at an average attendance for a day’s Championship cricket of under one thousand – and that average is boosted by the better attended counties and higher-profile matches; for many counties the average is way below that figure. For comparison, Leyton Orient – the team that finished bottom of football’s fourth tier this season – averaged over four and a half thousand spectators per game.

And it is not as if live attendance is paltry because viewers lap-up the action from the comfort of their arm-chairs. With the odd exception of a Roses match or Championship finale, the tournament is noticeable by its absence from our television screens. If there is a public appetite for the competition, it appears that it is being sustained by radio commentary, scorecards and match-reports.

The reasons for this are not hard to fathom as are the reasons why the comparison with football attendances is an unfair one. A supporter of Leyton Orient can arrive at the pub for a swift pint at half two, get to the ground, watch the match and be on their way home by five o’clock. The Northants fan wanting to catch a day’s action needs to spend seven hours at Wantage Road. The Orient’s games will be held mostly on a Saturday, with the occasional Sunday or mid-week evening; cricket’s championship games will mostly be on working week days, often infuriatingly failing to spread themselves across the weekend.

It is true that, this season, more County Championships games will take in both Saturday and Sunday but the whole set-up just doesn’t feel like a tournament geared towards wanting mass appeal.

Is it a nursery of English cricketing talent, charged with providing a route for young men to hone their skills so the national selectors may have a pool from which to replenish the Test team?

Over the past 25 years or so, this has felt nearer the truth: that the Championship has been a subsidised exercise sustained to feed the national team; the place where the ECB’s heart and bankbook truly reside. Indeed, the most dramatic changes to the County Championship structure – the move to two divisions, which had been mooted in various corners since the First World War – finally came about in 2000 mostly due to concerns over the performance of the national team and the quality of cricketers therein. With the introduction of central contracts for the cream of the crop and the willingness of the ECB to regularly withhold players from County fixtures even when, like Johnny Bairstow recently, they actually want to play showed exactly how the pecking order shapes up and it does not reflect kindly on the importance of the County Championship as a contest in its own right.

Nine years before the change was made, Wisden advocated for the switch to two divisions, presciently saying that “A lot will depend on how English cricket views its role on the small stage of international cricket: a star performer or a player of supporting parts…. It will be said that this reflects undue concern with Test cricket; that the County Championship serves a purpose other than being a nursery for Test cricketers. Perhaps, and then again perhaps not. Without the income that international cricket produces, and the interest it arouses, the subsidy to first-class cricket would be cut drastically and the diet one-day cricket would be increased.”

And there perhaps lies the rub, the county game will inevitably be treated as an adjunct to the national game when it is so reliant on the health of the England team for finance and interest. To continue the football comparison: the Premier League rolls along merrily whatever the fate of the England team; when the England cricket team is in the doldrums, there is genuine concern for the health of the English game as a whole.

Or is it a tradition, beloved by the aficionado, sustained because the thought of it not being there is unthinkable when, in reality, for the wider sporting public, it provides little more than a stop-gap between the seat-filling limited-overs competitions?

If in the early part of this century it seemed that the County Championship was shaped and moulded to the needs of the England team. These days it seems more that it must bend to the whims of the more audience-friendly limited over games and, especially, the increasingly ubiquitous T20. Let’s acknowledge the city-franchise idea and move on as that will be a subject for a future post (spoiler: in favour but…). Of more immediate concern is the way the early championship games of 2017 were squeezed into March and April to clear the decks for the various festivals of one day variations.

There were many good reasons for stopping the chopping and changing between four and one day games but the point is that it was the Championship which gave way when the demands of the formats clashed. For instance, last year the toss rules in the County Championship were changed to, apparently, encourage pitches than would lead to the development of English spinners. This year all the early matches were so early that spinners got kept in moth balls waiting for the drier decks of the later summer. Moving the championship out of the way for the one-day cup took precedence. Once more, one understands why, but the message about the merits of the competitions is still clear to see.

So what then?

The point I am trying to make is that if we can’t make out what the role of the Championship is in English cricket then it is impossible to formulate and sustainable plan for it. So here’s my solution:

Let’s decide to make the County Championship a success for its own sake. Sure, the best English players will still go off onto central contracts and you’ll never get T20 type crowds, that’s a given, but let’s try. So, ECB….

  1. Sell it – you know, like you do with the short stuff. Give it a real push.
  2. Pink balls. Use all available Saturdays and Sundays where you can, but where you can’t, let’s go D/N
  3. Get it up on TV. Even if it is on an ECB web site. Let people have access to the action. They’re not going to get into what they can’t see. And let’s have a proper highlights show in the evening.
  4. Overseas players. Embrace them, however they arrive. Don’t tut that Kyle Abbott is now playing in the County Championship rather than for his country – shout it from the rooftops.
  5. Make families welcome. This is not just about sitting in the cold for seven hours, this is a DAY OUT. From this it can learn from its shorter cousins.
  6. Finally, play-offs. Don’t just promote. One up – four teams play for the last place. I know there will be logistical problems but it builds tension and sport interests people when there is tension.

This isn’t a proposal to make the Championship the pinnacle of English cricket but try treating it like it has real value and the public might just start to have a look. Treat it like it an inconvenience and they won’t. You’ll still get the players coming through to the national team and the short game will continue to grow but the longer form might surprise you and hold its own.

 

 

 

 

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