Wednesday, September 09, 2009

3000 people, no dogs - and precious little sense either!

As a previous winner of “The Wisden Cricketer” (TWC) letter of the month award (note to friends – the Cockspur Rum was excellent and there is none left) I naturally always look at the prize-winning letter each month with particular interest. Now John Stern, TWC’s estimable editor is a sensible sort of chap (I flatter him not because I want a review of my John Shepherd biography in his organ, although that would be nice, but because he is genuinely on the side of the good guys on cricket). Given his commonsensical approach I can only assume that behind his stern (sorry!) and rational facade there is a cove with an impious sense of humour. Why else would he publish Jack Endacott’s hilarious “defence” of the County Championship – I think that on this occasion the editor’s tongue has been not unadjacent to his cheek!

But given the letter’s prominence I had better gently demolish the arguments in it and, whilst I have no wish to be unkind to Mr Endacott, in the search for truth I am afraid that I have to show why he is, on this matter anyway, deluded. Let’s start with the assertion that a “crowd” of 3,000 is in some way something worth boasting about. True it is way up at the top end of the spectator count for County Championship matches – most of this years hundreds of days of Championship cricket will be watched by a ‘“crowd” nearer to the “one man and his dog” than they will be to Taunton’s three thousand. The County Championship is England’s premier domestic cricket competition but compare it with the premier competition in other major sports such as Football, Rugby Union and Rugby League and it is nowhere. Indeed to get crowds as low as this in Football you would have to go down to the lower reaches of Division 2 of the Football League – the fourth tier of the professional game! And comparable matches in the two Rugby codes get proper crowds of at least three or four times the Taunton masses. Limited overs county cricket fixtures do, of course, sometimes attract much larger attendances – but it is the County Championship that Mr Endacott is writing about and which he claims is the “bedrock of the game”.

I have mentioned before veteran sports writer Frank Keating’s mournful assessment of the modern County Championship but it is worth quoting again:

“…another summer of what has tragically become a drawn-out primeval charade, the English County Championship. For decade upon decade it was a cherished adornment of the summer sub-culture, certainly for my generation when heroes were giants and giants were locals. About a quarter of a century ago the championship began fraying and then in no time unravelling. It is now a pointless exercise, unwatched, unwanted, serviced by mostly blinkered, greedy chairman-bullied committees and played by mostly unknown foreign and second-rate mercenaries.”

Keating is right on all counts. Somerset’s eleven for the two matches that Mr Endacott enjoyed contained no fewer than six players who are foreigners and not qualified for England plus a couple of old internationals who won’t play again (Trescothick and Caddick). So the home team had just three players in it that might, if good enough, one day play for England! Yes it is true that “No England player would have made it without starting in [the Championship].” But they had little choice did they – it’s the only game in town! But is it the best that English cricket can do to prepare players for Test cricket – of course not.

The County Championship is the bedrock of only one thing – and that is the County system itself. Without it the structure of domestic cricket in England would unravel, and not before time. The model for the future is indisputably one that has far fewer teams, higher standards of competitiveness, a minimum number of overseas players and which is largely self-financing without the need for huge handouts from the ECB. A six or eight team domestic cricket structure with proper competition in both the four day and the limited overs games with matches played in proper grounds offering spectators decent facilities is what is needed. Our national fondness for nostalgia and sentiment and our often dogged determination not to see the bleeding obvious even when it is staring us in the face has kept the County Championship, a Victorian invention, just about extant even into the third millennium. And the vested interests at the ECB and the eighteen counties are such that the replacement of the “charade” will not be easy – but if England is to be properly competitive, and consistently so, as a cricketing nation the time is ripe to try.

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