Today would be the second day of the second round of county championship matches of the 2023 season, except that there is so much rain around the country that no matches are currently playing as I type this, hence I am listening to commentary on today’s IPL game. In this post I look back at the many challenges that the county championship has overcome.
A TURBULENT PRE-BIRTH
Although matches between teams bearing the names of counties have been happening for over three centuries (teams dubbed ‘Kent’ and ‘Surrey’ did battle in 1708), it wasn’t until the mid 1860s that anyone had the idea of ranking county sides, and not until 1891 that a properly organized county championship took place (so many sometimes conflicting authorities assessed counties between 1864 and 1890 that there are no fewer than seven different listings of ‘Champion Counties’ from that period. In 1845 The All England XI played it’s first match, and was to continue to exist as a travelling XI playhing matches against the odds (opposition sides of more than 11 players – 15, 18 and 22 were common numbers) for some 30 years. A split led to the formation of the United All England XI, and subsequent to that the United North of England and United South of England XIs were established. At one point it seemed that English cricket might suffer a rugby type split, with the professionals playing games against the odds in their travelling XIs and the amateurs playing 11 v 11 matches, but such was averted – the key figure of WG Grace threw his lot in the with the MCC, though he also continued to turn out for the United South of England XI – his price for supporting the establishment and thereby ensuring that English cricket would continue to be run from Lord’s and would not split was that he be allowed to make a mockery of the principles of amateurism. In the end the travelling XIs withered on the vine, and by the early 1880s the last of them had ceased to exist. Matches against odds lasted longer – England tours of Australia featured such matches for many years to come.
PROFESSIONAL LIMITED OVERS CRICKET
From 1891-1962, although the there were many changes in how the championship was calculated and who played in it (just eight counties played the first few, six more were promoted to first class status in 1895, Worcestershire in 1899, Northamptonshire in 1905 and Glamorgan in 1921), the championship stood alone. Between the 1962 and 1963 seasons two major decisions were made: the distinction between amateur and professional was abolished (there were precious few amateurs left, and even fewer whose amateur credentials would have stood up to any sort of scrutiny) and henceforth all first class cricketers would be professionals, and the first professional limited overs competition, the Gillette Cup was launched, starting in 1963. In 1969 the John Player League, matches of 40 overs per side, to be played on Sundays (the shorter allocation of overs meant the games could start in the afternoon) was introduced, and the county championship programme was reduced to 20 matches per season (28 had been standard). It was increased back to 22 and then 24. Then, four day championship cricket was introduced, Durham were given first class status, and a for a few years 17 four day matches (each of the 18 counties playing the other 17 once) became the standard. England continued to struggle, and after much controversy and debate, two more big changes happened in the year 2000, in the wake of England sinking to the bottom of the world test rankings: The County Championship was split into two divisions with promotion and relegation, and ECB central contracts were introduced, giving England control over the top players. England’s fortunes rose rapidly. Overall, although Duncan Fletcher’s policy of effectively using a central contract to bar holders of such from playing county cricket took things too far both these moves have been successful.
EVEN SHORTER FORM CRICKET
In 2003 the ECB introduced yet another competition, with innings of just 20 overs per side. Players took a while to get to grips with the approach required by this format, but it proved extremely popular.
15 years later, the ECB decided that yet another competition was needed, and opted for a quirky new format of innings comprising 100 balls each bowled in sets of five, with players allowed to bowl two sets back to back, but no more. This competition was called The Hundred, and one of its effects was to push the County Championship, now a mere 14 matches per season, further towards the margins of the season as it now ‘owns’ August, with a One Day Cup of much reduced stature taking place alongside it. The Hundred has brought much greater prominence to women’s cricket, but I do regret the ever increasing concentration of County Championship matches at the beginning and end of each season, with few games happening in high summer. However I have no worries about the future of the County Championship – it was born facing challenges, and has faced challenges at many points of its life so far, and it is still here.
I have a bumper gallery for you today: