Unease resounds across cricket without the comforting hum of county game | Jonathan Liew | Sport

The ice cream stand at Worcester. The grass bank at Canterbury. The tree-lined riverside approach to Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, one of those grounds that always seems to be wet, even when it’s dry. The way the sunlight dapples off the new pavilion at Headingley as Steve Patterson lopes in for his eighth over. The second-hand bookshop at Derby where you could spend an entire afternoon browsing the modest selection of tea-stained hardbacks with alluring titles such as An Illustrated History of Ilkeston CC 1910-1985 and Keeper’s End! Horace Baggs: A Life In Cricket.

It’s funny what you miss when you’re indoors. Of all the privations we are enduring as a people, the loss of county cricket should probably sit some way down the list. But there were times during the listless, gloriously sunny weekend when it was perhaps only natural to wonder, idly and hypothetically, how the opening day of the 2020 County Championship season was going.

Sunday it was, or at least should have been. Sibley v Philander at Taunton. Pujara v Maharaj at Headingley. Some 20-year-old seamer you’d never heard of taking six for spit. England’s top-order batting candidates falling over each other in a deluge of single-figure scores. Bumper bank holiday crowds. But perhaps what we missed above all was the promise and the hope, the sense of renewal and rebirth, the first chilly pint of the summer, the conviction that finally, this would be the year you made it to Wantage Road.

Instead: nothing. A whispering void. The first seven rounds of the championship have already been called off. It’s probably safe to say they won’t be rescheduled. The talk is that with the shutdown poised to endure well into the summer, this year’s competition will be scrapped entirely in order to ensure the “most financially important forms of the game” – essentially, England and the Twenty20 Blast – can be prioritised.

Fans watch Yorkshire play Surrey from their folding chairs at Scarborough last summer.

Fans watch Yorkshire play Surrey from their folding chairs at Scarborough last summer. Photograph: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com/Shutterstock

At which point: what? The simplest answer is that, like most of the other events that have fallen to Covid‑19, you simply skip a year and start afresh in 2021. But this would be to overlook the many aspects in which the championship is not like other events.

In a way, it’s unique. It’s a competition that does not generate significant revenue, indeed it haemorrhages it in vast sums to the point where there are a number of counties who are quietly relieved not to be playing it. Unless you’re watching extremely closely, it creates neither buzz nor water-cooler moments. It does not fill acres of broadcasting time. Sky are not banging down the doors of the ECB demanding it be played at all costs. It is not part of the national conversation and will not be part of our collective healing process.

The entire point of the County Championship, insofar as there is one, is to exist. It provides an ambient background hum to a busy season, quietly develops the next generation of international players, offers immeasurable comfort to the millions who will never set foot inside a ground and the thousands who do. In other words, it serves no wider purpose than simply to happen. And so when it doesn’t happen, the effect is more seismic and disturbing than simply scratching off one Boat Race, one Wimbledon, one Tour de France. The temptation, rather, is to wonder whether it will ever recover.

This is after all a competition that has been tinkered to death – formats adulterated, schedules scrambled, rules tweaked, teams assembled and dissolved mid-season, whether through international availability or white‑ball blocks – only for that death to never materialise. This has generated an impression of timelessness and permanence, of an institution that can withstand pretty much anything you throw at it.

But pandemic and penury have served up a starker, harsher reality. The talk coming from Lord’s now is of “keeping the lights on”, of redoubled priorities and focusing on what really matters. Where does a competition that stretches from April to September, takes up 14 weeks in the calendar, attracts tiny crowds and no broadcast income, fit into this new landscape? For decades the sport’s administrators have treated four-day cricket like the unloved jar of piccalilli in the back of the fridge: ignored, untended, shoved to the forgotten peripheries. Now catastrophe may just embolden them to finish what they started.

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And really, this is about far more than one competition, one format, even one sport. It’s about what happens when the doors are finally flung open and society clanks back into gear. What we choose to value. What it feels acceptable to fight for. Is it possible to aspire to more than simply keeping the lights on? Is it horrendously privileged to lionise the 18-county system and a proper first-class competition and sunny afternoons at Bristol and Hove when an entire sport is in crisis? Or are we doomed to a grim fight for survival, public bodies desperately trying to claw back lost income in increasingly undignified ways?

“We must face the fact,” said the secretary of Warwickshire at their annual end-of-season dinner, “that we are providing a spectacle the public does not want.” That was in 1967. Then as now the championship offered the best, richest, most varied domestic red-ball cricket available anywhere on Earth. And yet decline – or at least the sensation of it – had long since taken root. Perhaps, in hindsight, the reckoning was coming all along. Perhaps one man’s moment of chaos is another man’s moment of clarity. Perhaps I should really have got to Wantage Road while I still had the chance.

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