Today marks the beginning of the latest renewal of the world’s greatest domestic cricket competition. Yes, the County Championship, which is much loved (and much followed) by a legion of fans the length and breadth of the country, but which is having to fight for its very existence as the commercialism of white-ball cricket in its differing guises threatens to gradually strangle the life out of it. Give it 10 years, say the harbingers of doom, and the Championship won’t even exist. They may turn out to be correct, but I hope to crikey they’re not.
The Championship has been largely and unceremoniously pushed to the bookends of the season in recent years by a governing body that is seemingly more concerned by money than the protection of the very fabric of the sport, but there is some respite this summer because of the World Cup, with four-day cricket taking a month-long break from mid-April before continuing non-stop between mid-May and mid-July. Glory be, even spinners could well be given greater opportunities to shine than in recent seasons while out-grounds will also be employed more frequently than previously.
The ECB, whose wretched 100-ball competition will make its bow in the high summer of 2020, giveth and taketh away in the same breath, however. There may be more Championship cricket in June and July this summer – for one season only – but some ill thought-out scheduling means there will be scant opportunity for long-suffering supporters to watch Championship cricket on a weekend, much to their collective chagrin.
Championship cricket is often derided for being watched by a couple of people and their dogs – which is, frankly, a load of utter cobblers. Certainly, a smattering of, say, 1,500-2,000 spectators dotted around a Test ground makes a venue look somewhat empty, but what about the thousands who base holidays and breaks around Championship matches at wonderful venues like North Marine Road in Scarborough? Or maybe Arundel, Cheltenham, Guildford or Colwyn Bay? There are also hundreds of thousands more who follow four-day cricket online.
Cricket, clearly, is at a crossroads. With the exponential growth of Twenty20, the future of Test cricket (and therefore, by logical extension, domestic first-class cricket) has become increasingly threatened. And the creation of money-driven circuses like The Hundred, which will indubitably alienate many existing fans in an attempt to garner new supporters who don’t currently even like cricket (yes, seriously), may increase that threat. The obvious irony of the proliferation of white-ball competitions is that Test cricket is currently enjoying a golden period. And hats off, always and forever, to the likes of Virat Kohli when they champion Test cricket as the pinnacle of the sport.
It’s impossible to know what will transpire in years to come, but all I say is: long live Test cricket. And long live Championship cricket, too. I don’t care a jot what money-obsessed modernists think – English summers without the County Championship and we might as well kiss goodbye to the greatest sport of all.