Photo courtesy of Matthew Cleeve @matthewcleeve on X

It is that time of year again. Having sustained ourselves through the winter months on the usual diet of England’s failures in foreign climbs, the cricket season is upon us again.

In this uncertain world that is constantly in flux, we crave certainties and tradition. To many of us there is nothing more comforting and reassuring than the return of county cricket.

It is the most timeless thing in sport, an institution that, aside from names and numbers and larger sponsors logos on shirts, has barely changed since the end of World War 2. In those days cricket sustained us too. Players may have to have taken cover from doodlebugs on the field at Lords but they kept the game alive because on some level we knew we needed it. We still do.

A colleague on X, the owner of the superb WG RumblePants account, described the Championship as “cricket that gives you time to breathe”. What a beautiful depiction of the county game. What else in this frenetic, confusing and, let’s be honest, at times scary, modern world gives you time to breathe? Human beings need to take times of quiet, of routine, to absorb the simple rhythms of life. Much of the stress that people feel these days comes from the fact that we have forgotten the ability to do so. County cricket provides this for so many of us. The gentle ebbs and flows of the day’s play, the sound of a perfectly timed drive cracked off the bat, a spinner weaving his web, a veteran seamer rolling back the years on a cloudy April day. All of these contain their own joy as we sit and absorb our surroundings in places that, in the main, are still grounds and not stadiums. We will all have our favourite venue for enjoying this feast. For some it will be Trent Bridge, with a swift pint in the Trent Bridge Inn after a long day’s play. For others it might be the delights of Chelmsford or good old Sussex by the Sea. Taunton always guarantees a healthy crowd, the people of Somerset love their cricket. For others it might be the out grounds of the Cheltenham Festival or Scarborough. Sadly, Sussex will not be visiting the picturesque setting of Arundel castle this season.

For me, it will be Wantage Road, home of Northamptonshire CCC. I can’t wait to get back to this beautiful, little ground and escape the noise and business of modern life.  I look forward to checking out the charming little cricket bookshop run by the Northamptonshire Supporters Trust. I wonder what new delights they will have received over the winter.

Wantage Road for Northants v Kent 2023

On the pitch, it is hard to see past a third successive title for Surrey. The Oval club have strengthened over the winter with the signing of England batsman Dan Lawrence from Essex and will be extremely hard to beat.

Each county will start the season with a clean slate, however, and ambitions of glory. Hope springs eternal for Somerset to finally achieve that elusive first Championship title. Mark Alleyne will hope to recapture old glories at Gloucestershire in his return as Head Coach.

Yorkshire will hope the off field turmoil of the last few years is behind them and they can return to focusing on playing cricket after a disastrous 2023 campaign where the club finished second bottom of the second division, the worst season in the club’s history. Middlesex will also be hoping to put off field drama behind them and focus on events on the pitch.

Leicestershire will be hopeful of building on the success of winning the One-Day cup and a 4th place finish in Division 2 last season. A first promotion since 2002 must be a realistic target for the Running Foxes. The progress of 6ft 7in left arm seamer Josh Hull will be particularly interesting to watch, especially given Rob Key’s recent comments singling him out as a bowler to watch for England.
Derbyshire will be hoping that Mickey Arthur’s influence finally pays off with a promotion push while Durham will feel confident on their return to Division 1. Early season games will give Matthew Potts a chance to press his England claims. Worcestershire will hoping the loss of England seamer Josh Tounge to Nottinghamshire does not affect their chances of staying in Division 1 following last season’s surprise promotion.

Hampshire and Lancashire will both harbour genuine title ambitions while Kent will be looking to rebuild after last year’s flirt with relegation. In Daniel Bell-Drumond and Tawanda Muyeye they have two fine batsmen. Muyeye may yet gain England recognition. It is a mystery why Bell-Drummond never has. I was privileged to see the two of them in full flow at Wantage Road last season where Bell-Drummond achieved his first career triple century and Muyeye struck a free-flowing 179.

Essex will be hoping Dean Elgar fills the Alistair Cook shaped hole at the top of their order. Sussex will be hoping that Ollie Robinson’s desire to prove himself to the England selectors translates to early season wickets at Hove as they seek promotion from Division 2 after last year’s near miss. Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire endured middling 2023 campaigns but both will feel capable of challenging Surrey for the Championship trophy.

Those of us who love county cricket have endured the usual pre-season attacks from administrators who want to commercialise the game to the point where it becomes unrecognisable to us. The Durham CEO Tim Bostock referred to county members as “luddites” in a recent interview. This is after a leading source in the game called us “fleas on the tail of the dog” last season. It is hard to think of another sport that attacks its own fans so viciously. Football may price out its most loyal supporters, but it doesn’t go out of its way to personally insult them. It does not seem to have occurred to these money men what will happen if the mythical new fanbase they keep chasing does not materialise and they have already driven away their existing supporters.

Thankfully, the spectre of IPL investment and hyper-commercialisation has not materialised yet and we can still enjoy the Championship as it is for now at least. Let’s drink it in for we do not know how much longer it will last.

I have written before how, as an autistic person, cricket is a refuge from the noise and business of the modern world for me. The Māori word for autism translates as “in their own time and space”. Perhaps that is why I feel so at home in county cricket. The game has been in its own time and space for many generations. Long may it continue.

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