A few weeks ago in this space I asserted that most cricket fans these days no longer give two hoots about the outcome of the County Championship, only one hoot at the most. I set a small quiz for those who consider themselves cricket enthusiasts. Are Essex in the First or Second Division? Nottinghamshire? Kent? Warwickshire? Northamptonshire? If in each case you know the answer, I wrote, then you qualify for a quilted anorak.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of sharing a platform with my esteemed colleague Angus Fraser, my brief to ask him questions for the delectation, or otherwise, of a paying audience. I ventured in the course of a highly enjoyable evening that county cricket is in a miserable state, unwatched, unloved, and crippled by the central contract system which keeps England players away from the counties that nurtured them.
Angus, who I concede knows a good deal more than I do about these things, begged to differ. If you go to watch Lancashire, he said, you get to see Muralitharan. Watch Hampshire, and you get Warne. Nor is he worried by the paucity of crowds. His view, broadly speaking, was that the County Championship might unfold in front of one pensioner with a flask of vegetable soup (of course I exaggerate, the soup might be oxtail) but it is subsidised by Test cricket and Twenty20, and besides, there is something rather wholesome about scatterings of devotees in otherwise largely empty stands.
I could see his point. A limited number of spectators, several of them snoozing, and one catching up with her crochet, is part and parcel of county cricket's unique charm. Moreover, it would no longer be true for me to say that I do not care about the outcome of the County Championship, because Lancashire, whose fortunes I have followed since I was eight years old, are at The Oval seemingly in the process of blowing their first outright title since 1934 (which, in one of those historic bursts of symmetry in which sport so specialises, was clinched against Surrey at The Oval).
Suddenly, I find that I care very much indeed, and might even tentatively compare myself with the late, great Neville Cardus, who wrote early in that 1934 season that, "None of us cares twopence about the Championship, certainly not this year, when it is obvious Lancashire cannot possibly win it!" A couple of months later, by which time Peter Eckersley's team had strung together a series of wins, Cardus, like your own less distinguished columnist, had changed his tune.
Anyway, whether Lancashire do end their 73-year barren spell, or whether they don't, it occurs to me that sport is full of supporters waiting and growing old. When my father-in-law was an apprentice electrician at a south Yorkshire colliery 60-odd years ago, he was told on his first day to go to the supplies depot and ask for something called a long weight. An unsmiling man behind the counter told him to sit down, and after 45 minutes said, "Reet, tha's 'ad tha long weight, tha can bugger off now." Here are my top five sporting examples – excluding Lancashire because it's too painful to write about – of what might be called "long weights".
1. I kick off with Chelsea only because they are so damned topical. I referred earlier to the symmetry that seems to hang over long waits in sport, and one of the best examples is the satisfyingly precise 50-year gap between Chelsea winning their first top-flight title in 1954-55 and their second in 2004-05. This was swiftly followed by a third, which on Wednesday was followed by the sacking of the manager who led the club out of the wilderness, begging the obvious question: how long until a fourth? Could it be another 50 years?
2. The most gruesome wait in British sport is surely that for a men's singles champion at Wimbledon. It is sobering to think that in 1936 tennis fans must have wondered when the title was next going to go to someone who wasn't British, following Fred Perry's three successive wins.
3. The Boston Red Sox won baseball's World Series in 1918 and waited a mere 86 years to do it again, finally claiming the championship in 2004. This ended the so-called "Curse of the Bambino", said to have begun when the Red Sox sold their star slugger Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees after the 1919 season.
4. In terms of time this hardly compares, but between Paul Lawrie winning the 1999 Open at Carnoustie and Padraig Harrington winning the 2007 Open at Carnoustie (another example of weird sporting symmetry), no European golfer bagged a major championship. It was beginning to get a trifle galling.
5. When New Zealand won rugby union's inaugural World Cup in 1987, the Kiwi nation rejoiced, but at the same time considered it their birthright. Not even the wisest Maori soothsayer could have predicted that they would not repeat the feat for 20 years, or might it be longer? Not if sporting symmetry prevails, as it so often does.
Who I Like This Week...
The Cardiff City manager, Dave Jones, not for anything he has done or said this week, but because of something he told me when I interviewed him in 2001. He talked eloquently and movingly of the hell he had been through during the groundless allegations that, as a care worker in Liverpool in the 1980s, he had sexually abused children. The case was thrown out by the judge as soon as it came to court, and his accusers were revealed as vindictive fantasists hoping for a pay-off. Yet suspicion had hung over him like a cloud. "I will never again use the phrase, 'There's no smoke without fire'," he told me, and I think of that sentence when I read about Kate and Gerry McCann, whose torment makes me sympathise with Jones all over again.
And Who I Don't
John McCririck, which will please him, because I wrote after meeting him once that I discerned a kind heart under all the misogynistic bluster, and he was most indignant. He was back on horrible form on Thursday, getting thrown off a TV chat show for saying to Ingrid Tarrant, "You must be terrible in bed for Chris to leave you."Reuse content