County Championship: look beneath the surface

As the new cricket season gets underway this week there will be the usual platitudes about how the game remains an intrinsic part of Englishness

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Cricket's County Championship is to sport what Edward Thomas' 'Adlestrop' is to poetry: a comfort blanket for conservative middle England; a supposed summation of what this rural isle once was and of a longed-for pastoralism; and, fundamentally, a prime example of how nostalgia can cloud a proper judgement of greatness.

That isn't to say there is no place for the County Championship in a romanticised England. Marcus Trescothick by name and by deed can conjure a willowy continuum of past, present and future with one clonking drive through extra cover. Edward Thomas, as a great lover of rural England, its traditions, people and pathways would probably approve.

Yet as sufferers of depression, both Trescothick and Thomas would perhaps understand well enough the need to look beneath the surface.

Thomas' poetry, while sometimes romantic in both senses of the word, was frequently layered with alternate - and often very different - meanings. His popularity was, and is, partly the result of a misconceived notion that his writings were a straightforward paean to an English ideal. But it is only against the backdrop of his severe depression and the horrors of the First World War that much of his output can be properly assessed.

As the new cricket season gets underway this week there will be the usual platitudes about how the game remains an intrinsic part of Englishness, to go with warm beer and the village green. There will also be too little genuine appreciation for its hard realities and for the quality of its practitioners. On the contrary, there is more likely to be grumbling about nonsensical schedules, the non-appearance of England's stars and standards not being what they were in 1968.

In fact, there are many reasons to love county cricket for what it is in 2013, not just what it represents about a wished for (and mythical) past.

The over-riding feature of the Championship - as of course it should be - is the sheer quality of the sport on offer. The introduction of the divisional structure, ever-improving methods of pitch preparation and - in particular - the system of central contracts and the subsequent success of the national side have all led to an improvement in performance and competitiveness at first-class level. Sides work hard as units; fielding has never been better; there are far fewer dead games. And the introduction of 20:20 has carried innovation into the four-day game.

The most recent winners of the championship, Warwickshire and Lancashire both achieved success on the back of remarkable team unity and a knack of raising their game at key moments. Under often unseen but intense physical and psychological pressure top players exhibit remarkable skill of a level most of us couldn't dream of approaching.

However, the game is nothing without supporters - especially those who appreciate the game in the here and now, and who are prepared actually to attend a day's play from time to time.

So, over the next couple of weeks, grab a heavy jumper, get down to the Oval or Wantage Road, Chelmsford or Chester-le-Street and settle in for three solid sessions of hard-fought and high-class cricket. And don't forget a good book for the lunch interval - Edward Thomas' 'The South Country' might be a good start. Just don't judge it by its cover.

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