Good stories and players abound as county cricket seizes rare spotlight

Forewarned about the cruelty of April, I was entirely unprepared for the viciousness of May. At times these past few weeks have felt like an elaborate skit, a running bait-and-switch in which we were repeatedly lured outdoors by the promise of sunshine and then hit by a hailstorm when we’d made it halfway around the corner. I’ve spent most of it waiting, for the clouds to go, for the rain to stop, for the summer to come, for lockdown to lift, for this sense of listlessness to shift. In the meantime the County Championship has been a welcome distraction, one consolation of a rather damp and miserable spring.

The championship often feels like something that goes on in the background of summer. When the Test matches are on, it’s a distant birdsong. But it has come into its own these past few weeks. This seems to have happened almost by accident. In his history of the competition, Summer’s Crown, Stephen Chalke compared it to the British constitution. “It emerged in its own haphazard way, and it survived and adapted to the consequences.” The format has “never seemed satisfactory for long, and it has seldom stood on its own feet financially”, Chalke writes. It has lasted 131 years, and has had almost as many iterations.

This year a structure that was designed with the pandemic in mind seems, by happy accident, to have worked so well you wonder whether it might be repeated once it is over. The 18 teams have been split into three divisions, and will split again, the other side of the summer, into three more based on their results from the first stage of the competition. By the time they actually get around to settling the thing we might all think very differently about the wisdom of this. The final game (the five-day-long Bob Willis Trophy match) is due to finish on 2 October, which feels like a very optimistic take on the weather you might expect in a typical English autumn.

But it has meant that for these past two months the championship has benefited from an uninterrupted run on everyone’s attention, partly because the stretch has coincided with a rare quiet spell in the international calendar, and the postponement of the Indian Premier League. It may be off-Broadway, out in the damp green margins of the season, but still, for the last few weeks at least it’s been the only show in town.

It has helped, too, that the England and Wales Cricket Board gave it a sensible, regular schedule, with rounds of matches starting (in the large part) on the same day each week rather than being scattered haphazardly across the summer, or slotted into the odd empty spots between showers of one-day and Twenty20 cricket.

The competition has been allowed to develop the rhythm of a serial, its story unfolding in regular instalments, week by week. And the counties have put themselves in a position to take advantage by investing in their own streaming services. It wasn’t so long ago that the only way to follow some of the games was by watching the scorecards tick over, or refreshing one of the live blogs, then waiting for the match report to come in later in the evening.

In 2012 the Wisden Almanack described the championship as “analogue cricket in a digital age”. Between the live streams and the BBC’s local radio coverage, the competition has finally caught up with the 21st century. It’s become a lot more fan-friendly.All this has revealed what the people who love it knew to be true all along: the championship is full of good stories.

Stories about the last days of Alastair Cook’s career, and the first days of James Bracey’s, about Jofra Archer’s struggle to find his fitness, and Dom Bess’s to fight his way back into the Test team, about Chris Rushworth taking Durham’s club record for the most first-class wickets, and Darren Stevens making the highest first-class score by a man aged over 45 since the second world war, about the competition between Ollie Pope and Dan Lawrence to prove themselves the best young middle-order batsman in England, about Jimmy Anderson squaring up to Marnus Labuschagne, about Haseeb Hameed showing he can still do it, and Tim Murtagh showing that he still has it. There are as many good stories as there are players.

Next week, of course, the waters will close over it when the Test summer begins, and soon after the competition will stop so the Hundred can start up, while the counties go away to play some desultory-sounding one-day competition.

The Hundred is just starting to loom into view now (a lot of the players involved have been working at a makeshift studio in Twickenham this week, filming adverts and inter-title sequences for the TV coverage). The start has been delayed so long now that it was almost possible to pretend it wasn’t happening. Long enough, anyway, to forget what a radical change it is going to be. For 150 years, English cricket has been organised around counties; now, for the first time, they’ll take second place to eight new city teams.

Best enjoy this last week, then. And hope, too, that the ECB has learned a little from these past few weeks of championship cricket, which have felt like a taste of what the competition can be, when it’s handled with a little love and care and attention.