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Westbury column: County Championship will survive but may have to adapt

County Championship

April’s arrival, whose name stems from the Latin word “aperit” meaning “to open”, has for decades signalled the opening of the county cricket season.

Pads dusted down, whites unfolded and backs aching from persistent ducking to the young quick’s overstepped bouncers, these were the familiar signs that spring in England had arrived.

Only those signals have gradually subsided. Partly this is because the distinction between the off and on–seasons has blurred; whether it’s creaming club cricketers in the Southern Hemisphere or the cushion of the now customary pre-season training camp to Abu Dhabi, winters no longer mean a cold, dark hibernation for the modern professional.

It is also, however, because April means the Indian Premier League. Once the young upstart which England’s stars were banned from courting, the IPL has become a fully-fledged, strapping young adult. England’s best can avert their eyes no more.

Coverage has followed suit; what was an obscure, over-glamourised supplement, this season saw broadcasters – both radio and television – scrabbling for the rights to the most lucrative cricket league in the world.

This year’s version hosts 11 England cricketers, all of whom will as a result delay their return to their respective counties. The sport that many of Britain’s former colonies once refused to play, on account of its imperialist origins, is now the vehicle through which great power is held over subservient English descendants. “We invent it, they beat us at it,” sings the refrain, applicable not only to cricket. This is the new status quo.

IPL supersedes county cricket and even, to an extent, the international game, England having carved out an international-free window for its players to earn their millions. Derek Pringle, in his account of cricket in the Eighties, spoke of the pain of missing an Essex match as the county hotly pursued that year’s Championship crown, and he the personal milestone of 100 first-class wickets, to bowl in a drawn Test for England instead.

His captain Graham Gooch once even hopped across the Thames from an early finish at a Lord’s Test once to take to the field for the last two sessions of a Championship match at The Oval.

All in a day’s work.

The stature and status of the County Championship is no longer what it once was. It’s monetary returns remain similar however: similarly poor. The romance was always stronger than county cricket’s financial returns and its monetary struggles are well documented through the years.

This season’s opening headline is that Leicestershire are reportedly struggling to manage their cashflow, dependent on hefty handouts from the ECB. Consecutive years of financial losses exceeding £30m suggest difficulties at HQ as well. And yet. It was ever thus. Some struggle, others don’t; hospitality-fuelled T20 bouts on a Friday night combined with the insatiable corporate appetite for increasingly anodyne conferences have transformed those with more fortunate locations.

County Championship at New Road
God’s Country: Yorkshire are well located and financially safeguarded to offer lucrative Kolpak deals. Photo: Harry Trump/Getty Images

Such is the idiosyncrasy of each county’s finances that to play for Yorkshire, Surrey and a handful of others is more lucrative even than those contracts offered by an entire country, the flood of South African Kolpak players hinting as much.

It is, however, a muddle. For some, this is the allure of the county game. Not for the ECB, it would seem. Cricket’s governing body have opted to gamble: the big bucks are too tempting and The Hundred was born. Appropriate for a sport built upon the pursuit of a neat wager. As we debate whether the “spirit of cricket” ever really existed above other sports, one thing that the records do show is that money, and a flutter on the outcome, was ever present. In that at least the sport remains true to its origins.

The ECB has gambled before, of course. It was the first to introduce professional domestic T20. A proven economic performer now, then a bold leap into the unknown. Only then it didn’t follow through. The traditions, the history of the very game it was trying to revive became the anchor hauling it back as others capitalised instead – India, Australia, the West Indies all pipping mother England to the birth of franchise cricket.

Perhaps this, with the state of the game as it is, is the last big throw of the dice – the route back in. Just as Julian Dunkerton, the ousted founder of clothing brand Superdry launches his campaign for reinstatement to its executive board, the ECB have launched theirs.

The opening signs were unpromising.    A botched announcement, internal miscommunication and poor planning augmented by the unconvincing insistence that due diligence and consultation had indeed been performed. Yet, just as Harry Kane might utter in a post-match Press conference, or more recently Iain Duncan Smith in referring to the state of the nation, the ECB might claim: “We are where we are,” and march forward.

Next year will be different. The birth of men’s franchise cricket, overdue or otherwise, will change the shape of the domestic game irrevocably. You only need ask England all-rounder Sophia Dunkley, born and raised through the Middlesex system, and who remains contracted to – and a linchpin of – that county side, is now routinely referred to as “Surrey’s Sophia Dunkley” in Press coverage of her England exploits. Surrey Stars, of course, being the Kia Super League franchise to which she signed just two years ago.

County Championship cricket, stubbornly resilient as it may be, will never be the same again. While we might see the demise of the traditional county structure, however, the first-class game I have no doubt will remain. It is a format that retains its lustre, its allure and increasingly is reviving its role as a feeder into the national side.

Birmingham Bears might soon be playing the Manchester Magicians in their crisp creams rather than Warwickshire versus Lancashire, but the format will persevere. Hopefully better, stronger.

For now, however, as the season opens in Aphrodite’s month, sit back, enjoy and admire all that the goddess of beauty and the mother of love has to offer: a game built on traditions, perseverance and old fashioned grit.

I’ll see you there.

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