Dom Sibley bats for Surrey v Somerset at Taunton in 2023 Photo courtesy of Matthew Cleeve @matthewcleeve on X

Imagine for a second that you wanted to destroy a sporting competition. How would you go about achieving this? First you might choose to play it an inhospitable time of year that would discourage people from attending. Then, you could choose equipment and conditions that took away almost any likelihood of exciting matches and positive results, rendering games boring and at times meaningless. Finally, you would ensure that the competition received no promotion or advertising, to the point where many people would be unaware that live coverage on the internet of every game even existed. 

All of this is exactly what the ECB has done to the County Championship. Until this year, they had even ensured that almost all matches were played while the majority of fans were at work or school, preferring Saturdays to lie completely empty of cricket rather than allowing Championship games to be played on them.

Thankfully, the schedule now allows for more weekend cricket but that is where the good news ends. The ECB’s decision to use the Kookaburra ball, with its’ less pronounced seam, for the first two rounds of games has led to many matches becoming run fests to an absurd level. At Lords, Northamptonshire made 552-6, Middlesex replied with 553-2. Bore draws abounded.
England men’s Director Rob Key announced that the use of the Kookaburra had been a huge success, that he had seen “some bloody good cricket” and that he would consider its use for the entire duration of the Championship in future. It is difficult to understand which games Key might have been watching. Of the opening 18 Championship fixtures across both divisions 17 ended in draws. In the second round of games every single match ended in a draw for the first time in Championship history. Some of this was admittedly due to the weather but more of that later.

It is hard to imagine any new fans being drawn to the game when results are almost impossible but that is evidently something the ECB does not care about. They have long since given up on using county cricket to attract new supporters. Indeed, the live streams each county broadcasts of their games on You Tube are not publicised by the governing body at all, despite many having excellent production values. Compare this to the Premier League where a quick look at the official competition website will see the games that are on Sky or TNT Sports clearly advertised. The ECB is only interested in promoting its shiny new product, the Hundred, regardless of how many casual observers and even young people might actually be enchanted by a day at Taunton or Wantage Road.  The Hundred has its uses and can be used as a vehicle to promote the game but not to the total obliteration of everything else.

The decision to play the early rounds of the Championship in the first weeks of April has been heavily criticised and rightly so, with many intriguingly balanced games denied a final day conclusion due to the weather. However, it is worth remembering that April is sometimes one of the warmest, driest times of the year. In 2023 many cricket matches were rained off in July and August too. What this does say, though, is that the ECB sees the Championship as an inconvenience to get out of the way where they can, something its loyal supporters have known for years.

For County cricket to find it’s place again one central question needs to be answered. What is the point of it? This may seem a slightly blunt query but it is one that no one seems to have settled on an answer to. Does the competition exist purely to develop players for the England set up or as a standalone competition in its own right, with loyal supporters and clubs rich in tradition and history?
If you speak to Rob Key, or indeed anyone in the governing body, the answer would seem clear. It is merely a vehicle to assist the glorious march of the national team, hence Key’s comments regarding the Kookaburra ball. It doesn’t matter if the games are bore draws as long as skills are being developed that can be used at international level. Key also spoke of wanting England to “dominate” the game for the next 10 years. To that, I would ask is this actually what we really want? If you speak to many cricket fans, I would suspect they would prefer a well balanced game that catered to the tastes and needs of fans of all ages, with well supported county clubs providing the sanctuary of the Championship and the excitement of the T20 Blast, rather than the relentless march of the national team to the destruction of everything else.

The Premier League does not exist merely to supply Gareth Southgate with players, nor the rugby Premiership purely to serve the needs of Steve Borthwick.

In this modern era of pop up franchise teams, the 18 counties, with their 100 year plus history actually provide an authenticity that is sadly lacking in much of the rest of the game. They must be preserved, for we will be much poorer for their loss. If this disrupts the advancement of Bazball then that is a price worth paying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

en_USEnglish