County cricket eclipsed by long shadow of football

There are plenty of people like me who would rekindle the romance given the slightest come-on
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The Independent Online

Now, be honest, are you aware that the cricket season started in earnest on Friday, and with pretty much a full day's play to boot, rather than the usual mid-April interruptions for sleet and hail?

And if you are aware, then do you know the detail of what unfolded between, say, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire? Can you in fact name any of the three men at the top of the Gloucestershire batting order? Do the names Spearman, Hancock and Taylor say Gloucestershire CCC to you, or might they just as volubly say architectural practice, barn conversions a speciality, in a small country town?

Just to press the point, only one of the following two sentences is true. S D Stubbings, of Derbyshire, scored one of the first centuries of the season, a mighty 128 against Glamorgan. S D Stubbings, of Derbyshire, is a tractor maintenance company based just outside Matlock. The true statement happens to be the former, but, admit it, you were not sure.

Now, imagine if it were the Monday after the start of the football season.

If you did not know which Premiership striker had scored an opening-day hat-trick, or which Nationwide First Division club had conceded four goals at home, then you could rightly be considered a football ignoramus. And yet, if you know the equivalent details about goings-on in county cricket, you can rightly be proclaimed a cricket anorak.

Which is a curious state of affairs altogether, and one that Frizzell, the new sponsors of the County Championship, has doubtless taken on board. It must irk Frizzell tremendously that at a time of year when the daffodils are wilting and the bluebells appearing, a time of year when we should be at least moderately excited by a forthcoming season of four-day cricket, we are instead repeatedly sidetracked by football talk (by the way, whatever happened to Jimmy Frizzell, the former manager of Oldham Athletic?).

Of course, it has long been cricket's lot every two years, when there is either a World Cup or a European Championship, to live in football's shadow well beyond Midsummer's Day. And this year, with the prospect of Test series against Sri Lanka and India not greatly quickening the pulse, that shadow seems longer than ever. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that, between now and the beginning of June, David Beckham's vexatious metatarsal alone will receive more media coverage than the Frizzell County Championship.

It was cruel, too, that cricket's opening weekend coincided with some 24-carat gossip about a pair of Swedes (Sven Goran Eriksson's alleged intimacy with Ulrika Jonsson astounding those who never expected the England coach to follow the ups and downs of Stan Collymore in any meaningful way).

But that's the way it is for county cricket these days, with even the England and Wales Cricket Board appearing to regard it as of no inherent value, rather a nursery for potential international players.

Meanwhile, as valiantly as some folk in the domestic game try to draw positive analogies with football, they always sound at best unconvincing, at worst deluded. When the Lancashire coach, Mike Watkinson, suggested that the arrival of Stuart Law and David Byas amounted to signing "two Ruud van Nistelrooys," he surely expected some titters.

As for the Frizzell sponsorship deal itself – £1m over four years, compared with the £48m over three years that Barclaycard shells out to sponsor the Premier League – it rather underlines the truth that cricket can no longer claim to be even a poor relation of football. They inhabit different planets.

It was not ever thus. There was a time, remarkable as it seems now, when Denis Compton gave up playing football for Arsenal because it was interfering with his cricketing career. And even 20 or so years later, before I was permitted to go to Goodison Park to watch one set of heroes, my idea of a good time was a day watching another set of heroes – among them Clive Lloyd, Barry Wood and Farokh Engineer – with a mate, some cheese sarnies, my lovingly linseeded Gunn & Moore bat and a tennis ball.

Maybe it's just me. Maybe county cricket loses its appeal when you're too old, or not old enough, to have the time to sit through it. Whatever, I suspect that there are plenty of people like me who would rekindle the romance given the slightest come-on.

And the come-on might not be so far off. There are some dynamic chairmen in county cricket, with Hampshire the game's first plc. There is also a new 20-over competition on the cards for next summer, with two semi-finals and a final to be played on the same day at Lord's. The purists will grumble, but then the sound of grumbling purists is as fundamental to cricket as the sound of leather on willow.

Ah, leather on willow. At least where the English language is concerned, cricket still beats football hands down.