So the Powers That Be – incidentally, what a phrase that is! – have withdrawn the snippers from County Cricket. There will be no change next season to the playing schedule. If it wasn’t patronising in the extreme, I’d echo that there was ‘rejoicing in the shires’ as the news came in. Members from Barry to Barnstaple chinking their glasses to a victory for the common, retriever-owning man. All that. The Daily Telegraph wafted excitedly towards the wife as she brings tea-on-a-tray.
Blow me, we’ve beaten the buggers back, Tess!
Okay, mischief. And surely unhelpful to satirise either side, even when hoping to raise a smile? Better get into this, together, as seriously as we want to – this fabulous tangle of earnest case-making, floppy hats, vitriol and crosswords.
I should maybe start by saying I think the decision to make no change (or wait on change?) is right; politically astute in the sense that (for all my mischief) a genuine clamour has been raised; wise-in-the-round because we all know there will be substantial discussions to come, during the off-season. Discussions which most of us imagine will bring change of some sort next year.
My job ensures I stand on the edge of talks about cricket; I coach for Cricket Wales but often find myself either actively involved in seeking out ‘ways forward’, or ear-wigging our senior blokes as they grapple with either Bigger Pictures or with difficult questions around the detail of national cricket. I have some sympathy now with the difficulties in juggling Irate of Ffestiniog with Serenely Influential of Cowbridge. I totally get that given the wondrous breadth of opinion on (even) the structure of the game, this week’s stay of execution will feel like a minor triumph to some… and something of an insult – #ridiculous, in fact – to others.
On the one hand we have those who may in fact not necessarily be conservative but who want to keep the number of ‘proper’ cricket matches at the current level and on the other we have those who (like @MichaelVaughan and @BumbleCricket) make arguments for change now.
Vaughan, who relishes the role of dynamic tweeter and maker of strong opinion, used that r-word to describe the failure to allow new men in the hierarchy to do their jobs – i.e. make tough decisions/effect change for the better. He has a point, but it strikes me that these fellas, having floated the ideas, have opted for time and the ‘opportunity’ to flesh out their arguments before implementing changes next year. Perhaps(?) I note in passing that the former England skipper may have been less likely to use the argument that the management should be left to manage had he disagreed with what was proposed.
Elsewhere, there are more or less strident concerns about players being under-prepared for championship games because of the allegedly relentless nature of the schedule – fears of burnout as well as erosion of excellence.@AlisonMitchell has thrown in the fear of over-tired players driving long distances after matches. My own, additional fear is for players who’ve de-stressed with a beer or two before heading out to the motorway.
The schedules in Australia and South Africa – where 10 matches are contested – are much referred to, alongside the notion that this has led to higher quality and certainly the current Test standings do nothing to undermine that view.
But though these are all important considerations, they may be less pivotal than the extraordinary feeling which exists around County Cricket.
Who knows, really, if lovers of County Cricket – and here I mean effectively the longer format game – are a particular breed? Perhaps they are. You’d expect a narrow demographic but that may be less relevant than the fact of their love and understanding (remember that?) for the game.
Certainly they have notable virtues, including the precious capacity to recognise sport (or anything else) as a narrative over time. Sure they love the moments of show-stopping drama but their show – the trickle that is four day cricket – is an experience where their own loyalty, persistence, patience count. It’s sport and time dancing together, often slowly, unobtrusively – demurely, even – as if in a silent, undeclared ecstasy. This is unique.
I have seen this. Seen the magnificently un-dynamic truth that is fans who relax better at a County Cricket match than anywhere else in their lives. They lounge; they watch; they snooze; they appreciate when their attention needs to be utterly committed… and when they can drift. They barely register these joys but joys they are. They may, in their beautiful, gritty, eccentric way be either ‘watching the cricket’ or making a profound statement against the death of the attention span. You choose. Either way they have been heard, these last few days.
But maybe about now Bumble and Vaughany would be saying
Get real, dude!
Quite possible to argue that the pitiful crowds for many fixtures condemn this thing as an anachronism. Do the math. Nobody goes – or not enough people go for it to be remotely sustainable. It is only sustainable because of TV money and because people will come to watch the T20blast. Therefore the quality of lurv shown by these few ‘die-hard’ fans is notable but insufficiently compelling in the argument. It blocks stuff. And anyway they will still be able to do their thing… just maybe ten times instead of fourteen!
That’s a brutalist view but I can see how it may hold sway. Throw in the need to protect players and simultaneously (maybe) improve standards in the longer format (and thereby bolster the Test team?) and you have a decent case. Reduce County Cricket. Reduce County Cricket despite the furore. It would be tough.
I think changes will come and they may not even be the changes we currently imagine. World Cricket is such a lurid carousel these days that anything could come trampolining in. Blasts or Bashes are clearly, undeniably The Force in the game but there is a consensus around the need to protect and/or develop Test Cricket. Which means County Cricket/Shield Cricket etc. etc. have to sustain at a certain qualitative level. In short, cricket is charged with not just the accommodation but the development of two (or three?) spectacularly different formats and I’m struggling to think of a sport with an equivalent challenge.
So anyway, I’m hearing the arguments and my brain hurts. For me there is nothing in the world so special and so precious as that escape into sport – and therefore those County Cricket people are my soul-brothers. I’m neither resistant to change, particularly, nor convinced by the need (necessarily) to ‘grow the game’ via some spookily PR-driven, crassly commercial ‘dynamic development’ that sends me into a fury over The Americanisation of Everything! And yet the world demands of us that we are agile and forward-thinking. It’s tough.
I’ve settled on the idea that no change for now is right. This is less to do with the ten/fourteen/however many County Cricket fixtures than the #T20blast – which may be telling in itself. Blast surely needs – arguably has earned? – another year on that Friday night slot. That may be important – not just in financing half the County Clubs but in pre-empting the 8 city franchises we keep hearing about.
There is a sense that the whole notion of the Counties themselves may depend upon increasing exposure and quality and entertainment in the Blast. I hope it continues to thrive – pretty much as it is. Frankly I’d rather Glamorgan had Glamorgan playing at the SSE Swalec than Cardiff Klonkers. Perhaps this, in itself, is a reason to take a further look at things this winter.