Another overseas Men’s Ashes debacle, more soul searching and – probably – another post-tour enquiry. This time, a consensus seems to be forming before the tour is out: England have to stop pushing the County Championship to the darkest batter-unfriendly corners of the season.
The perception of the County Championship as the least favourite relative at the ECB’s Christmas feast, slotted into the seating plan on the basis of where they are likely to cause the least disruption to the festivities, seems not far off the mark. This, however, is a fairly recent phenomenon. In 2001, the most popular month for Championship matches to start was August, with June and May tying for second place, July in forth, April and September bringing up the rear. By 2021 the calendar had been flipped on its head; April now led the way with May and September taking the silver and bronze, respectively. The sea-change appears to have come in 2010 when matches starting in April and May outstripped those in July and August, a position of superiority that has yet to be relinquished. [In the following tables, statistics from 2020 have been omitted due to the truncated season].
The almost universal view is that this shift in timings has been to the detriment of the ability of the County game to produce Test-quality top order batsmen. Facing Dukes balls nibbling about in the damp conditions of the British spring or striding to the middle in late September to take your guard on a pitch prepared to force a result at the business end of the season are not conducive environments to developing players with the technique or mentality for the long-haul needed for a successful international Test career.
At first glance, the numbers do not appear to back up this orthodoxy. Looking solely at openers in the County Championship – on the basis that if this hypothesis is true, that is where it should be evident – there is very little difference in the combined averages when separated out by the month in which the match started. September was the most prolific month over this twenty year period with openers averaging 35.5. However, the worst performing month in the same period was May, which clocked in at 33.93. Hardly a dramatic difference.
A breakdown by year is also of little help for those searching for patterns. In 2021, the highest averaging month for Championship openers was April and the worst August (though the latter’s sample size was very small). In 2019 the best and worst were June and May. In 2018, June and April, and for 2017, July and August.
What seems to be more certain is that there has been a decline in opening partnership sizes over the years. Since 2001, there were 17 months where openers combined averages failed to reach 30; 15 of those occurred in 2012 or later, ten since 2018. In the same period, monthly averages over 40 were similarly produced 17 times and, of those, 15 occurred before 2010, and none since 2016. This decline, though, is consistent across months: of the 15 sub-30 averages post 2012, April, June and July accounted for three apiece; two each for May, August and September.
What is noticeable from the raw numbers is that the month of April brings with it the largest variations in openers’ averages, followed by September; May and August the smallest. Here may lie the detail that belies the apparent similarity of month-by-month averages – that the difficulties of opening in the extremes of the season is the inconsistency the conditions can bring (and before you ask, there is no apparent correlation with monthly rainfall totals).
How to read all this is the million pound question. Is the fact that the slump in opening partnership sizes coincided with the decline in July and August as the prime months for four-day cricket evidence of the impact of the scheduling, or that there is no consistent pattern across the year a sign the problem lies elsewhere?
I have written elsewhere about the danger of viewing England’s inability to find a reliable opening pair simply as a symptom of the modern game, however the Test batting malaise now appears much deeper and sustained. The contrast with the success of the shorter form teams reflecting the focus of the ECB’s priorities of the past decade and the franchise-crazy world game where the path for a lucrative career for any young player with promise is clear. In this way the shift of the County Championship to the early and later months of the season is as much effect as cause.
Perhaps the most challenging impact of the current structure is not so much the difficulties of April wickets but rather that Test batsmen are being asked to face up to the world’s best bowlers at the height of the English summer with their only chance of preparation outside of the nets being whacking the white ball to all parts in the very shortest of formats. The problem compounded during the winter with the near disappearance of competitive warm-up matches on overseas tours.
With August dominated by The Hundred, The Blast a vital cash flow for the Counties, and a World Cup hurtling our way in 2023 that will surely force the reinstatement of the domestic 50-over competition to its own spot in the calendar, it is difficult to see where the solution lies. There may be a review and talk of pathways but change that would be effective may be the victim of the bloated domestic schedule and the urgency for a fundamental shift tempered by the knowledge that, however low the scores, next year’s home Tests will still sell out.