Cricket: Cricket's forlorn rite of spring

Stephen Brenkley sees danger ahead for the traditional opening games of the season
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The Independent Online
AS the publication last Friday of the 135th edition of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack served contentiously to remind us, the domestic cricket season is nigh. The controversy stirred up by the yellow book surrounded its call in "Notes By The Editor" for the International Cricket Council to launch an investigation into alleged match-rigging.

This may or may not take place in myriad limited overs internationals, which is why Wisden urges the inquiry. But it is safe to assume that it definitely does not affect the start to the first-class season. Who in their right minds would care enough to fix Oxford University v Sussex and Cambridge University v Northamptonshire? The only sure thing is that if the universities won inside two days, you could probably prove immediately that jiggery pokery had taken place.

It has become one of the game's traditions that the first-class programme begins with the universities. This is one of those rites of spring about which it is customary to become misty eyed, except as the summers have gone on and the students keep getting rolled over and the counties keep notching cheap wickets and runs, these are now tears of anger and frustration.

Custom and heritage apart (and we should not deride their importance), there seems no logical reason for pursuing these one-sided, uncompetitive matches. Last summer, for instance, Oxford won their first three-day game against a county since 1993, but in beating Glamorgan they took only four wickets in the match, two in each innings before the county declared. The tradition may be on borrowed time.

One of the less-publicised elements of change outlined in Raising The Standard, the blueprint for cricket's future published last summer (and also mentioned in Wisden), was the intended establishment of six elite cricketing universities. In the same document, Oxford and Cambridge were both told they would have to improve if their first-class status was not to be placed in jeopardy.

"We hope to have the changes in place and centres of excellence set up within four years," said Alan Fordham, the former Northamptonshire batsman who was recently appointed as First-Class Cricket Operations Manager at the England and Wales Cricket Board and probably does not recognise that 104 years is the normal time for ECB change. "They will, we hope, be divided geographically and Oxford and Cambridge aren't guaranteed to be part of that, though it would probably be unlikely that they wouldn't be. They won't necessarily be playing matches decreed as first-class then, though I'm not sure that matters as much as getting better cricketers who also want to get a degree."

The right to the universities' first-class status was roundly supported by this year's Oxford captain, James Fulton. And not only on the grounds of tradition and history, either. "We know we have to be more aggressive in our cricket and simply better in confronting the counties. We took note of what last year's report said and we have been training since last October. We intend to be much more positive this year, batting first instead of letting the counties do so.

"I am convinced that these games ought to continue to be played and be first-class. They can only help the students to become better cricketers." Fulton's case was forceful but does not alter the statistics.

Fordham was not too concerned about changing the start of the season. It had, as he said, to start somewhere and the Championship matches followed quickly on the two friendlies at the Parks and Fenners. As he pointed out there is also the obverse side of the big, form- forming early season centuries and bags of wickets for the county professionals.

Back in 1990, Northamptonshire went to Cambridge on 14 April and batted first. One Simon Johnson, making his debut, took his maiden wicket early on the first day. Thus the first first-class wicket to fall that season was that of Alan Fordham.