Cricket: County set have had their day

The County Championship has been a way of life for generations of English cricketers, but Graeme Wright believes that the competition encourages only mediocrity among today's players
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So Surrey close the 20th century exactly as they ended the 19th, lording it over the land as cricket's champion county. There were major differences, naturally enough given the time lag, but some things never change. Just as Adam Hollioake's team could not prevent being compared, with a touch of condescension, to the great Surrey sides of the 1950s, so Kingsmill Key's champions had to stand comparison with the sides that finished top every year but one from 1887 to 1895.

There were other similarities, too. Just as now, the game's administrators were demanding changes at the turn of the last century, and The Times wanted to see more amateurs playing county cricket. What concerned the administrators in 1899 was the perfection of the pitches. Artificially prepared, as opposed to being naturally grown thrillers, they were proving a paradise for professional batsmen satiating their appetite for runs by occupying the crease over long periods. Drawn games were on an unacceptable increase.

A hundred years down the track and it is the other side of the coin. County pitches are a boon for bowlers and a nightmare for batsmen. The administrators, however, are looking elsewhere for a palliative for cricket's current malaise. In order to provide the competitive edge that English cricketers are rightly perceived to lack, the Championship has been divided into two divisions, with relegation and promotion, for the 21st century. Surrey, therefore, are not only the last champions of two centuries but also the last winners of a Championship format that dates back to 1890.

Prior to that, affairs were somewhat haphazard, with the champion county being decided by the sporting press after an analysis of the season's results. If they could not always agree, it was hardly surprising. Not all the counties played each other, and, until qualification rules were adopted in 1873, a player could turn out for more than one county. The England slow round-armer, James Southerton, once managed appearances for Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex in one season.

Of today's first-class counties, only Kent, Nottinghamshire, Surrey and Sussex existed in some form or other before 1860. By the end of the next decade Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Lancashire, Middlesex, Northamptonshire, Worcestershire and Yorkshire, not forgetting Cambridgeshire, had joined them to provide the ingredients for regular inter-county cricket. In many instances, however, parochialism within the counties held back their development. In Yorkshire, for example, the Ridings jealously guarded their independent identities and the county club as we know it today was not fully representative until 1891.

As Ric Sissons pointed out in his study of the professional cricketer, The Players, the establishment of the county clubs "parallels the growth of the industrial towns and cities and, most significantly, the notion of civic pride." To maintain a secure financial base, the game had to be based in the urban centres, and that meant overcoming rivalries between town and countryside, between cities and towns within the county, and between the county aristocracy and the new urban middle class. In 1837, the year of Queen Victoria's accession, only six cities and towns in England and Wales could boast a population of more than 100,000; by the time Gloucestershire, Kent, Lancashire, Middlesex, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Sussex and Yorkshire contested the first official Championship in 1890, 23 urban conurbations had populations in excess of 100,000.

Unlike today, when scarcely 2,000 turned up to watch Surrey win their latest title, cricket could draw big crowds. Various factors contributed, among them the weekly magazine Cricket, which was founded in 1882 by the Surrey secretary, Charles Alcock, the moving spirit behind the first Test match in England and the FA Cup. (Alcock was also secretary of the Football Association.) Cricket reported all first-class games in England, covered overseas tours, and, in weekly profiles, promoted the image of the cricketer as a national hero. Interest in the game was further stimulated by the rise of national newspapers, subsidised by advertisements, at the expense of the previously strong provincial press.

The shorter working week, releasing Saturday afternoon for leisure, and the creation of four Bank Holidays in the 1870s, also worked in cricket's favour. Not that the game's popularity was ever in doubt. In 1857 the first fixture between All-England and the United England XI had attracted 20,000 spectators over three days at Lord's. Now the two summer Bank Holidays - Whit Monday and the first Monday in August - brought large crowds flocking to the major grounds. When Surrey lost to unbeaten Nottinghamshire in 1892, for example, 30,760 paid to enter The Oval on the August Bank Holiday, which doesn't take into account the free admission Surrey allowed soldiers, sailors, telegraphists, railway workers, policemen and firemen if they were in uniform. Next day the attendance was 29,370.

More than half a century later Middlesex, helped by post-war euphoria, sunshine, Compton and Edrich, attracted almost 17,000 on the Saturday and around 30,000 on the Monday of the traditional Whitsun Bank Holiday fixture against Sussex. But those were the glory days. Last year (not for the first time) there was no county cricket on the Spring Bank Holiday and only two games were played on August Bank Holiday. This year both days had a full programme of CGU National League one-day games. Which just about puts the County Championship, England's premier competition, in its place.

Whatever that place is, the man in the street has little part in it any more. It could, maybe should, be argued that all the Championship does is keep some mediocre cricketers off the street, but the argument goes that it is there to bring on England's Test cricketers. It no longer justifies its existence as entertainment for the public. True, other leisure activities have eclipsed it; there have been social and demographic shifts. But county cricketers themselves have sold the game short by the way they play it.

Its success or otherwise in bringing on England cricketers demonstrates that. When Surrey dominated the 1950s, winning the Championship outright seven times and sharing one title with Lancashire, England won 48 per cent of its 81 Test matches and lost 24 per cent. Come the egalitarian eighties, when Middlesex and Essex won it three times each and Nottinghamshire and Worcestershire twice each, England's record from 104 Tests was 19 per cent won and 37 per cent lost. Elitism may carry a bad odour these days, but when Lord Hawke took over what he jokingly called "10 drunks and a chapel parson" he set in train a tradition that still leaves Yorkshire head and shoulders above all comers (29 outright titles to Surrey's 16 and Middlesex's 10), as well as providing England with a solid core of professionals - just as Surrey did in the 50s.

Come the 21st century, then, is there still a role for a County Championship, even in two divisions? I doubt it. I suspect the ECB doubts it as well, looking to age-group development programmes and contracts for Test cricketers as the means of building a strong England team again. International cricket, after all, is where the public interest lies and it is international cricket, through attendances, television and sponsorship, that sustains the county system. The question isn't really what the future holds for the County Championship. The real question is whether it has a future at all.