All quiet on the square leg boundary

English traditions don't come much odder than cricket's county championship: an all-but-meaningless contest, played out at inordinate length before a pitiful audience. Yet for Mark Steel (our man with a dog-eared scorecard), it's a glory of summer
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I love the County Championship. To most people, it must seem like the Shipping Forecast or the Dow Jones Index – a series of numbers you stumble across that have no meaning, twittering along harmlessly in the background. Few would notice if a radio sports reporter announced "and at Grace Road, Leicester were all out for minus nine before play was abandoned due to an escaped leopard". To most people, attending the actual live event must seem as peculiar an activity as travelling to Rockall to see it go south veering south-west, six occasionally seven.

I love the County Championship. To most people, it must seem like the Shipping Forecast or the Dow Jones Index – a series of numbers you stumble across that have no meaning, twittering along harmlessly in the background. Few would notice if a radio sports reporter announced "and at Grace Road, Leicester were all out for minus nine before play was abandoned due to an escaped leopard". To most people, attending the actual live event must seem as peculiar an activity as travelling to Rockall to see it go south veering south-west, six occasionally seven.

At first glance a visit to county cricket seems to confirm every stereotype. Sometimes I wonder whether the main pleasure I get is that it's the only place I can go and still be 40 years younger than the average age. During the furore last year about pitch invasions, I wondered whether at Canterbury such a thing would be physically possible, as it would be 10.30pm before most of them made it to the middle, and then the only chant would be "What did we come out here for?" In some stands almost everyone seems to have a stick, a frame or a wheelchair, and it seems they should have a special "abled access" area to cater for the minority who can make it to the ice-cream van without a mechanical aid.

Then there's the weather, a certain type of weather that only happens at county cricket. It's a fine drizzle you'd barely notice if you weren't sitting by the Frank Woolley Stand waiting for play to begin. Eventually it stops, and 20 minutes later the two umpires emerge to inspect the pitch. They walk to the middle at the slowest possible pace a human being can walk without stopping and lying down, then they gaze at the sky, as if they couldn't have done that on the way. They amble back, and shortly afterwards an announcement is made that play will commence at 12.40 providing there is no further rain. Then the sun comes out, until 12.38 when it pisses down. At some point play does begin but after half an hour they come off for tea. Then it drizzles again, but always in such a way that it appears to be about to stop, so you wait, clutching your polystyrene cup of tea for warmth, until 6.05pm, when there's a thunderstorm and play is finally abandoned for the day.

On Friday – the opening day of the season – we were lucky, losing only 90 minutes of play, during which a tannoy announcement was repeated every few minutes that "spectators are reminded they can visit the library, in which the reference section is now open". And, in part, there lies the beauty of the event. I bet there's never been any crowd trouble at any sporting occasion at which an announcement has been made about the library's newly opened reference section. It certainly would have been useful on the day that the old boy manning the scoreboard leaned out and said, "Right – there are six current county cricketers who have played once and once only for England – can you name them?" For the next hour, everyone within 100 yards of the scoreboard formed a new community, eagerly yelling suggestions to each other, until all the names had been gathered; during which time 35 runs had been added for no wickets.

Gradually, as a day's county cricket unfolds, incidents like this reveal its glory. The trick is to understand everything that's seen as a drawback as a virtue. It's "pointless", say its detractors. Of course it is, that's the whole point. It revels in pointlessness. Unlike other sports it doesn't even pretend to be vital, crucial or historic. Besides, what sort of sport has a point to it? Premier League shopping perhaps, then even if you lose you've got all your vegetables for the week. It's an attitude clearly adopted by a cheery crowd of pensioners I spent some time with, who called themselves The Harrietsham and Lenham Formation Drinking Team. "I come down here nearly every day," said Mike, one of the founder members. "I see all my mates, I know the beer's good and cheap, then I go home and if someone asks me the score I look it up on Teletext."

This doesn't mean they don't watch the game, just that they enjoy the conversation, the camaraderie and stress-free atmosphere whatever the outcome, then end up so drunk they can't even see the game. Ray told me he'd taken out life membership. "It works out cheaper as long as you live eight years after taking it out. So it's a gamble but I've got three to go, then I'm in profit," he said.

Similarly, within a few moments of talking to almost any of the pensioners around the ground, you'll hear exactly how much their season ticket costs (£187 for member plus friend plus car parking for one year), and how this is good value compared to a variety of other forms of entertainment. "You get all day for that, mind, so it's not bad, when you consider the price of a cinema ticket. I mean, how long does a film last?" And it's obvious that however aristocratic the image of county cricket, that doesn't apply to many of the spectators. "I always leave at half past five," one told me, "as my wife has a bath about then and if I leave it any later I can't use her water."

There is a smattering of youth in the crowd, represented most colourfully at Canterbury by Toby, a member of England's Barmy Army. A farmer who can organise his work to fit in with the cricket schedules, he shatters the genteel poetry-society style applause that greets each boundary by leaping to his feet and twizzling a 1960s football rattle. "Come on you Keeeeeeeent," he yells. And everyone else sniggers: "Well, he's quite a character", the way you might about a bloke who runs up and down a night bus dressed in a nappy.

But the most common of all the slurs that are thrown at cricket, and especially at county cricket, is that it's "so slow". Exactly. This is its greatest virtue of all. Some recreational activities serve the purpose of providing thrills, but some are a release from the increasing pressure to get piles of things done before any given time. At a county cricket match it isn't possible to rush, even if you try. After a couple of hours you adapt to a slower pace, and find yourself dawdling to the bar, the tea van or the library to get out of the rain. You start to wonder whether time is actually going more slowly inside the ground than outside, in some sort of reversal of Einstein's theory of relativity. And moving about, however slowly, is part of the day. No one sits and watches the whole game. You watch a bit, meander to the bar, chat to someone who tries to sell you insurance, potter round the shop, buy a bag of crisps, then when someone takes a magnificent catch you shout "Oh no, I missed it", as if this was terrible luck when in fact you haven't watched a single ball for 40 minutes. If you go with someone, you can chat in a freeform style that strolls aimlessly through 30 unrelated subjects in the seven hours available, in a fashion that no other environment could allow.

And maybe for some it fulfils some sort of psychoanalytical need to connect with the past. I first went to Canterbury in 1970, taken by my dad when he could skive off work, and we'd watch the great Kent side of Colin Cowdrey, Alan Knott and my hero, Derek Underwood. During the lunch interval he would bowl to me on the outfield, until I was old enough for him to buy me a beer.

When I was 20 I was unemployed, and I'd sneak through a hedge, enviously watching the spectators who could afford a sausage roll, thinking "It's all right for you rich bastards". One day I wandered into a marquee and started piling food on to a plate. An official with a bright red face and a blazer covered in brass buttons approached and I prepared myself for being slung out. But he squeezed my hand and boomed, "Malcolm", sounding exactly like the old drunk bloke by the fire in The Fast Show, and added: "Still opening the batting for the youth team, I see. That's the spirit". Then he wandered off and I ate about 40 vol-au-vents.

As the Kent team declined I still went every year, sometimes getting drunk with strangers, and chatting to one bloke for maybe 40 hours spread over a 10-year period without ever finding out his name. And now I take my son, bowling to him on the outfield during the lunch interval. Last year he had a tantrum during a period of play I did want to watch, so the man in front turned round to calm him down, and when I looked up I realised this man was Derek Underwood.

Part of the charm of English cricket is this sense of continuity. But it's also a large part of its downfall. Because however endearing the eccentricity of the county game, unless it reverses the trend in falling and ageing audiences, it's in serious danger of withering away altogether.

Local cricket became a mass spectator sport in the 19th century when, reflecting the changes in the nation, it ceased to be a game for the aristocracy and was reinvented on a commercial basis. A travelling team was put together by a bricklayer called Thomas Clarke, touring the country for a fee, playing to regular crowds of 10,000 or more. Throughout the Victorian era, cricket played a vital role in the process of Britain becoming a nation of unified rules and institutions for the first time. WG Grace became the first national celebrity, attracting massive crowds. (He even wrote a modern celebrity-style book of sporting tips, which included the advice to batsmen: "Do not smoke a pipe while batting.")

Through most of the 20th century, county cricket still attracted huge crowds, but over the past 20 years its audience appears to be literally dying. Precise figures are – perhaps understandably – hard to come by. But some counties report that attendance at championship matches has almost halved over the past decade or so: Lancashire's audience, for instance, dropped from a total of 46,000 in 1988 to 27,000 in 2001. (That's for the entire season.)

This year, a desperate search for a new sponsor has resulted in the "Frizzell County Championship". No one at Canterbury on Friday seemed to know what Frizzell do, but if they think they'll boost their sales by promoting county cricket, the chances are they make stairlifts.

It can't help that the image of English cricket is still of upholding the values of Empire. The Reverend Pyecroft once wrote, "The game of cricket is a standing panegyric on the English character. None but an orderly and sensible race of people would so amuse themselves."

Now, not only is the England of Empire gone; for anyone under 50, it's ancient history. Yet English cricket is still ruled by people who fought vociferously to retain the exclusion of women from the Lord's pavilion, and who gave the job of radically modernising the county game to a millionaire lord in his sixties. The image with which English cricket has saddled itself appears so antiquated that any teenager attending a county game risks being thought of as one up from a train-spotter.

Cricket faces a big enough problem of fitting into a society that moves at a pace unsuited to games that last four days. Even to stand a chance it needs to reach out to every school, and not just to the public ones. It needs to involve the Asian and Caribbean communities in the running of the clubs, and it needs resignations from the committees of anyone whose blazer has too many brass buttons. Then, just maybe, county cricket may be able to sell itself for what it is, a gloriously delightful way to waste a day completely.

At close of play Kent were three hundred and something for one.