It was only last week, at Yorkshire’s pre-season media day, that David Willey, the 28-year-old left-arm seamer and sometime slayer of a cricket ball, was chirpily saying how much he was looking forward to the new County Championship season, which starts this Friday, and how he was hoping to help his adopted club to win the title.
At that stage, Willey, who freely admits that he originally moved to Yorkshire in 2016 to improve his chances of playing Test cricket (even if that’s now a receding ambition), was due to be available for 12 of Yorkshire’s 14 Championship matches this season. As, indeed, was 33-year-old fellow paceman Liam Plunkett, his county colleague, whose cricket career appeared to be in terminal decline before it was resuscitated by a move to Yorkshire before the 2013 season.
And now? Yorkshire’s early-season plans have been thrown into turmoil after both players accepted late, but highly lucrative, offers to play in the Indian Premier League following injuries to other players (and thereby bringing the number of Englishmen in this season’s IPL to 12). At the shortest of short notice, both Willey and Plunkett will miss five of Yorkshire’s Championship games, which amounts to more than a third of the season’s four-day campaign. Surrey, for their part, have lost Tom Curran to the IPL in identical circumstances, although their predicament has been assuaged somewhat by the signing of Morne Morkel, the South African fast bowler who recently retired from international cricket, on a two-year Kolpak deal. (Kolpaks? Don’t get me started.)
I feel enormous sympathy for the counties (and especially Yorkshire in this instance), who suddenly find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Legally, of course, the counties don’t have to release players to the IPL, but who wants sulking players moping around the dressing room for a month and more?
Martyn Moxon, Yorkshire’s director of cricket, has unsurprisingly expressed his frustration and unhappiness at the late call-ups for Willey and Plunkett. And his suggestion of introducing a cut-off date, after which no England-qualified player would be permitted to join the IPL, is an eminently sound idea that will hopefully be supported by the ECB.
The greatest loser in all of this, of course, is the County Championship, which is being devalued at an alarming rate by both the exponential rise of Twenty20 and the utterly ridiculous scheduling that means the vast majority of its matches are played in April, May and September.
Twenty20, for better or worse, is here to stay. But the recent events surrounding Willey, Plunkett and Curran should serve as merely the latest warning that first-class cricket is in severe danger of being sacrificed on the altar of naked commercialism.
But does the Championship really have to start in mid-April? Why not schedule the domestic 50-over competition at the beginning of the season, when the IPL is in full, gaudy swing, and then have four-day cricket start towards the end of May?
It may just suit the majority of parties.