County cricket in England can be an anachronistic thing, a once-beautiful, now mad old aunt who should be visited dutifully each April, cared for but not really listened to, ancient and ever present as the world speeds by outside the window.
Yet it has been the engine for change in the international game. On 2 May 1962, Leicestershire played Derbyshire and Northamptonshire met Nottinghamshire in the Midlands Knock Out Cup, sixty-five overs per side. They were the first professional one-day fixtures: at 130 overs it was a long day, admittedly, but a day nonetheless. The following season, the Gillette Cup began (and the first fixture took two days to complete because of the weather). Forty one years later, on 13 June 2003, English counties played the initial round of games in the Twenty20 Cup. That idea kind of caught on, too.
This week, the ECB announced another revamp to the county fixture list, one that has been surveyed and workshopped and heralded with a press release that went out a couple of hours after the one that announced Kevin Pietersen's return. Guess which story made the papers...
The thinking was interesting: T20 games to move to a Friday night, the bulk of Championship games to begin on a Sunday, the 40-over game to be dropped and replaced by a 50-over competition. They were reactionary measures, though. Perhaps it is time for the old girl to lead once more, to do something really revolutionary, to set an agenda.
The first limited overs game I saw live was one of the most famous, the Prudential World Cup Final 1979 at Lord's, ODI number 74, England versus West Indies. King Viv 138 not out, Joel Garner 5-38 and, as anyone who was there will tell you, Collis King's matchwinning 86 from 66 deliveries when the West Indies were rocking a bit. West Indies made 286-9 from their 60 overs. To little kid sitting in the top of the Compton Stand, that total seemed vast, unassailable, futuristic, and so it proved.
It's hard to describe how different the one-day game was then. The teams played in whites. They selected pretty much their Test XIs. England, for example, opened with Brearley and Boycott, and no-one found that odd or thought that they should change. Richards' century felt like a hurricane, but he faced 157 balls in all. The fielding had no relay throws, no boundary riders, no dives, yet England had Gower and Randall, the Windies Lloyd and Richards, the best of their era. Joel Garner's yorkers were considered not just unhittable but unplayable.
Since that day, there have been another 2,929 ODIs, and we are all played out. There is nothing about them that we do not know, technically, statistically, emotionally. The format is exhausted, and there is nothing left to discover. Had they ended with MS Dhoni's on drive screaming into the Mumbai night to make India World Champions, it would have been the perfect fin de siecle moment; there really was nothing more to say, nothing more to see, nothing more to be done.
The point is, all things change. For all of the tweaks and twiddles with Powerplays and fielding regulations, it's evident that the great and predictable hole in the middle of every innings cannot be filled. Not even the rippling power of transferred T20 skills has moved that period on - or even, curiously, overall scores, which still seem to have 300 as a benchmark. The players, as several have admitted, are bored by its formula and its ubiquity. No-one sells himself as a 50 over specialist.
The only truly compelling reasons for its continued existence are commercial. As a format for filling TV hours and selling adverts it is hard to beat, yet it will be beaten, and probably soon, by a combination of franchise leagues and shifting calendars and changing priorities. T20, as a vehicle for raising money, is a more urgent proposition for investors: nothing exceeds like excess, and newness.
Imagine for a moment then, a county season that didn't bother with 50 over cricket, that made a bold gamble on how the game will pan out, that said the future is Test and T20 cricket and we want to dominate both. At a stroke, the calendar would open out, the treadmill would ease up, time for training and preparation would increase, and perhaps a little scarcity might get some more people through the gate. It's hard to imagine that the skills of the players in both forms would not improve, and the English game needs that.
There might be short term financial pain, but there are lots of ways that counties might benefit. The T20 format allows two games to fit easily into a day, and weekend double-headers could fill grounds and screens. The women's international game has benefited from being played alongside the men's. Why not put a county T20 game on before an T20i too?
About the only thing that everyone can agree on is that something has to give. Players are being burned out by travel, boredom, ennui. There will, ultimately be an IPL window; the international calendar will shift. It's genuinely difficult to think twenty years ahead and imagine 50 over cricket being played.
The county game in England has been an odd force for change, but it has been intrinsic in shaping cricket. Maybe it should make another bold move before the world leaves it behind once more.
On Talking and Writing about Cricket
2 months ago