What I’m doing this week
I’ve challenged myself to go to a session of each of the eight County Championship matches this week. My only rules are: you need to see a full session, you need to have a pint at each ground, and it can’t be expensive.
Why I’m doing it
There are lots of reasons why I decided on this rather random undertaking – I had a free week; the fixtures seemed to fall in to place for it to be feasible, but completing it would still need both luck and judgement; and I’ve promised myself that I’d explore the county grounds previously. But none of the other reasons would matter if I didn’t think the Championship was worth watching.
It’s well documented that these are nervous times for those who value the longer form of cricket. Test matches are poorly attended, other than in England and Australia, and the ICC’s response of seemingly holding an Ashes series once a fortnight risks over-cooking the golden goose that remains in their possession. India, where the game’s centre of gravity lies, seem blasé about five-day matches. This seems largely to be the product of the IPL becoming the game’s money-spinner, a trend which risks dividing players’ loyalties and which has embedded itself around the world through a variety of spin-off T20 leagues. In this environment, one might think that a four-day domestic league risks becoming obsolete. Yet a strong four-day competition not only retains an appeal, but is essential for cricket to remain the game that we know and love.
The finest skills are still honed in the Championship. Exciting as it is to see switch-hits, ramp shots and batsmen being caught in the deep on a T20 night, it’s the subtler skills that really make a cricket match – an opener’s ability to decide which deliveries to play or leave when the new ball is nipping around; a stroke maker’s ability to accelerate while not giving their wicket away; a spinner’s ability to tie an end down. So our County Championship allows spectators to gain a fuller appreciation for players’ true abilities than a limited overs competition ever could. For someone who grew up on the finer details of cricket, it’s most satisfying to watch the gradually unfolding duel between bat and ball that the Championship provides. This is not to mention the vital role that county games play in developing players ready for the international game – although there are a range of reasons for the relative strength of the talent available to England in the last 15 years, the Championship’s improvement has contributed.
A day out at the Championship cricket is great, too. The atmosphere is relaxed, the people are friendly, people have the odd drink without going over the top, and it doesn’t break the bank. It might be a simple reason, but it’s still the most important one for what I’m doing.
Anyway, these thoughts combined added up to “if I can do it, why not do it?”
In the first two days I’ve visited Hove, Chelmsford, Edgbaston and Worcester, in that order. It’s logistically impossible to cram in more than two grounds per day, and there are combinations which work and combinations which don’t (I won’t bore you with all the details, but feel free to look them up if you’re as geeky as me, or if you want to tell me what you’d have done in my place).
I’ve seen a great deal – BBC Sussex Sport asked me to speak to them about what I was doing, which was nerve-wracking but fun. At Edgbaston today, the club got in touch, showed me around the press area and let me sit in the members’ area, where the view was fantastic. I’d never been to Chelmsford or Worcester before, so it was great to see two proper county grounds. I’ve been impressed with the crowds, which seem to be encouraging for the future of Championship cricket, and of course I’ve enjoyed seeing which ales the different clubs have decided to serve up.
Out in the middle, there have been some highlights – Ed Joyce’s catch to take Lancashire’s third wicket at Hove, Sam Northeast hitting a six to bring up his 100 just after I’d arrived at Chelmsford, Jesse Ryder putting the second-to-last ball of yesterday in to the river, Jason Roy and Gary Wilson putting on a partnership of over 100 for Surrey, and Jack Shantry taking two Surrey wickets in two balls. It’s the bits in between the highlights, though, that make Championship cricket what it is.
So far the weather has not been a factor, and none of the games were going to finish in two days, but there lies the potential for failure over the next two days. I need to keep games in reserve which are still going to be happening when I get there, and the nature of cricket makes it impossible to take the gamble out of this calculation. The four grounds I have left Bristol, Cardiff, Lord’s and Trent Bridge.
The initial plan was to do them in that order, but Bristol is now looking like the most likely draw of the lot. The game at Cardiff is advancing. At Lord’s the game is about where you would expect a game to be at its half-way stage, with all results still possible. Unfortunately Yorkshire have the bit between their teeth up against Nottinghamshire, with the title theirs for the taking; they still need 16 wickets, but it seems to be a question of when they will take them, not if. So really I’d like to do Cardiff and Trent Bridge tomorrow, and Lord’s and Bristol on Friday – but the only combination that now works is to do Bristol and Cardiff on one day and Lord’s and Trent Bridge on the other. So, I thought to myself as I studied the board of trains at Worcester station this evening, should I keep the bed I’d booked in Bristol, dash back to London and then go to Trent Bridge tomorrow afternoon, or go straight to Nottingham or Cardiff?
The conclusion I came to was that the game at Cardiff is the one most likely to finish tomorrow. Glamorgan are about 200 ahead with five second innings wickets remaining, and my guess is that they will set Derbyshire a target of somewhere under 300 early tomorrow. So, perversely, I am going to the game that is least advanced – the one in Bristol – first, because it allows me to go to Cardiff tomorrow. I’ll be nervously checking the scores from Trent Bridge and Lord’s, and hoping that there are no major fireworks at either in my absence.
Tomorrow night could be interesting. I would love to get the bus back to London, fall in to bed and fall out of it for Lord’s the following morning, before making my way up to Trent Bridge to see the final session of the Championship decider. The idea of going from Cardiff to Nottingham after what I’ve already done – and then having to find somewhere to stay overnight – isn’t massively appealing. Yorkshire, I know you’re chasing the title, but just hold off until the evening session on Friday, please.