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July 03, 2006

In Praise of the County Championship: Lincoln Allison celebrates a repository of English tradition, eccentricity, aspiration, contradiction and failure

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Leading academic expert on sport Lincoln Allison celebrates cricket's county championship. Lincoln Allison's recent retirement has given him more time to enjoy this repository of English tradition, eccentricity, aspiration, contradiction and failure.

You are one of the large class of "comfortably off" 60 somethings who do not need to work. Where do you spend your time? Dabbling with a vineyard on the banks of the Dordogne or the Aveyron? Golf and ex-pat dinners on one of the more tasteful costas? There is an alternative: behind the bowler's arm at Edgbaston, Birmingham and Old Trafford, Manchester.

I'm not talking generally about cricket in this context. I am not including "test" cricket with its packed stadia, batteries of TV cameras, celeb-spotting and 60 tickets. Nor any form of one-day, limited-over cricket: coloured clothes, white balls, floodlights, endless whacking of the ball and so on.

I am talking about something much older and quieter, the County Championship, played out in white to crowds of a few hundred who either pay a tenner or an annual membership. To describe the crowd one has to use Mediterranean words: they are the aficionados, those who "affix" their lives to a practice; they are the cognoscenti, those with special knowledge of an activity. They come armed with umbrellas, sun lotion, elaborate picnics and at least one cricket reference book so that the question of whether we might be witnessing a record seventh wicket stand for games between Lancashire and Hampshire can be checked as it arises.

The competition itself is one of those half forgotten English institutions like the Anglican church and the TUC. Its heyday was long ago, but it soldiers on nevertheless. The idea of a "champion county" appears to have emerged as early as the 1820s, but it was in 1890, two years after the Football League was formed, that eight counties formed a modern league to produce an undisputed champion. Thus there are some ambiguities about championship facts. For instance, Gloucestershire, the county of W. G. Grace and his brothers, have never won the "modern" county championship, but there are claims that they were the champion county in at least four years before 1890.

The high period of the championship was 1890-1914 when it was the best known and most economically important of English sporting competitions, well ahead of the FA Cup in terms of public interest. Unlike codes of football it was not divisive, but inclusive, incorporating both gentleman amateurs and working class professionals, while maintaining the distinctions between them.

Now, when television offers unending access to international cricket and a single test match on a major ground will attract more people than all the county championship games added together it lives out a kind of half-life whose purpose is highly contested. To the aficionados who pay county membership fees it is the premier domestic competition, but to the commercial and political powers in sport it is an anachronism whose only real purpose is to train players for the real economic world of test matches.

The hard fact about the relationship between county and test cricket is the existence of "central contracts" which mean that the England cricket coach (who is from Zimbabwe) can decide who plays for Lancashire against Yorkshire. This is a situation which would be unthinkable in football and has been bitterly and successfully resisted in Rugby Union. But it is clear that any essay in praise of the competition must also write in its defence because those who are concerned with the "serious" commercial side of cricket would like to reform it out of existence and create a training ground smaller and more "rational" than the current competition based on 18 historic counties playing 4-day games in two divisions.

In several important respects the atmosphere of the championship resembles that of provincial theatre. For example, after a meeting in Eastbourne last winter I slipped into the matinee of Romeo and Juliet at the Devonshire Park Theatre. With about ten minutes to go there were 37 of us in the audience and I, at 59, might well have been the youngest. Then the two hundred schoolchildren turned up. The actors were mostly straight out of drama school, but there were two real old-stagers: Gerald Harper, the former eponymous lead on television of Adam Adamant and Hadleigh and Su Pollard of Hi Di Hi et al.

The similarities were legion. There was the question of age range: it is said that during half term at the one of the smaller venues on the South Coast recently, a county championship game was full before it started (about 3000 people), but that apart from the players there wasn't a person present between 18 and 60.

Then there was the instinctive friendliness in contradiction to the English stereotype. When there were just the oldies in the theatre we all engaged in conversation, swapping theatre stories and opinions, which is exactly what people do at county championship matches.

But, also, there was the particular English handling of fame. Gerald Harper, for heaven's sake, was twice voted British TV personality of the year and here he was treading the boards in an Eastbourne matinee. Dominic Cork was similarly on the front pages in 1995 when he took a hat-trick in a test match against the West Indies. In 2006 I have watched him running in to bowl for Lancashire, as determined as ever, encouraged by a few desultory cries of "Come on, Corky!" It's the same acceptance that fame is transitory and you go back to the day-job, glad of the work.

The dramatis personae of the championship fall into several distinct types. There are the Has-Beens, like Corky. There are the County Stalwarts, happy to play the game at this level and hanging in for as many years as they can manage; these are increasingly few because there are so many opportunities in international cricket and the rewards are so much greater that nearly everybody aspires to that level and there are on average 70 or so players in the championship who have played for England.

The Foreign Mercenaries, with Aussies naturally leading the way, are important, though increasingly short-term and it is quite common to find a Sri Lankan flying in mid-season to replace a South African who has other commitments. There are, of course, the Young Hopefuls and one of the thrills for the audience lies in realising that a bloke you have never heard of but you have watched survive for an hour before getting on top of the bowling and who is now heading towards 50 is, when you consult your book, only 20 years old.

Finally and most dramatically there are the Re-Hab Cases. By these I mean players still in their twenties who have played international cricket but who have lost form or favour and are now struggling to be noticed again. In the last fortnight I have watched Jim Troughton, Owais Shah and Ed Smith all in this condition. Within the past two years each of them has had a certain amount of glory and a good deal of attention, but is now back in the pack. It's like Gerald Harper's career, but all happening at nightmare speed.

Unless you deliberately seek out one of the vast open spaces in a cricket ground you are likely to be engaged in conversation about cricket or at least you will hear some interesting conversation. You will be reminded that "fan" is short for "fanatic". My new chum at Lord's informed me that he watched cricket 78 days a year.

At Edgbaston I sat in front of the Supreme Mad Old Git. Regularly, at five minute intervals, he would erupt into an enormous fart, which was sometimes remarked by those around him, but usually ignored. In any case, it did not interrupt his monologue which concerned his need to watch cricket every day, travelling "as far as Knowle" if necessary. County junior games were very helpful in this project as were the clergy's games we were treated to a full description of the recent epic encounter between the Birmingham Clergy and the Gloucester Clergy. A bad day was when he was only able to catch a 20-over game in the evening. What on earth were you supposed to do all day? (As a true cricket fanatic I don't think he'd even noticed that the football World Cup was on.)

In other words the County Championship is a repository of English tradition and eccentricity. Also of English aspiration, contradiction and failure. And on that last count I have my own bitter angle. I support Lancashire, arguably the biggest of county clubs in terms of finance and following. In my time as a supporter the county have won numerous one-day competitions, sponsored by Gillette, John Player, NatWest, Benson and Hedges, Cheltenham and Gloucester, etc.

But "we" have not won the championship outright since 1934, though we shared it in 1950. This could be the year. If it is you will not see the kind of wild celebrations which accompanied the Ashes win or Lancashire's cup wins, let alone what goes on in other team sports. But there would be a good deal of deep satisfaction and a certain amount of champagne would be drunk.

Lincoln Allison is Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. He is the author of Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence (Frank Cass, 2001).

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