2022 started with Australia finishing off an Ashes whitewash, but some high performances since by England in a year of much cricket: 15 Tests, 12 ODIs and 28 T20 fixtures; a schedule with 115 playing days, Ben Stokes playing on more days than anyone.
It’s a tricky period for the high performance thinking in the Strauss Review and the idea that less will lead to better: in 2022 the number of playing days, the different formats on England’s (nine-month) schedule were pretty much pro rata with the domestic season. 48 players overall, a few too many to put on one graphic, but still an idea below about who did what, and the split between red and white-ball players: most mainly, if not wholly, one or the other.
Scheduled days, source Cricket Archive.
All good then or simply too much? The non-crowd at ODI batch number CA20ECB12 was one pointer this year. But there are 45 Test matches coming up over the next four years and county members putting their hands up for a 14-game Championship have quite reasonably been giving those in charge a fair reminder.
A trawl through Cricket Archive five years ago gave a count of 126 county players qualified for England who had been educated privately, about 40% of the total. Last summer this number had risen to well over 50%; no great surprise given the general background, and if well over 50% was well over 60 five years from now that wouldn’t be a great surprise either.
Is there a ceiling to this and is it less than, say, 90%? The ages of those playing last summer is shown in the graphic, the 46 year-old Darren Stevens at one end, Hamza Shaikh at the other, who at the age of 16 played in four ODC matches for Warwickshire. He is the first county cricketer born the year after the ending of the game FTA.
Overall a lot of cricket is played by those who will have come to the sport in the early 2000s, the dependence on public schools for players now largely set by a declining playing base years ago. Cue then the criticisms of the ECB as being about concentration at the top, exclusiveness. Pragmatically, as long as Eastbourne College and Millfield School among others are producing enough talented players days at the Test will still be around, but the fact remains a lot of playing potential will have been missed.
Do county cricketers play too much? Jos Buttler played for Lancashire in one game last summer, Steven Croft played in them all; a count of 41 with the county’s progress in white-ball cricket, 83 scheduled days. Across the the game well over 500 players appeared for the 18 counties at some point and an idea of the amount they played is shown in the graphic.
Statistically, the median (half playing less, half more) was 23 days, more than 260 played less including those involved in a relatively small number of Championship games, newcomers in the One-Day Cup and some playing in most of The Blast; overall, disproportionately white-ball cricketers.
Those playing more the other way of course and for what it’s worth the mean average was 30, averaging as it does across red and white ball players, those who are both. But most of the names on the game’s team sheets play on a lot more days than this: the 100 who played the most had schedules of 56 days+, among whose number was Alastair Cook who played in 14 County Championship fixtures.
Too much? The numbers north of 60 days are largely a reflection of the number of players who play in most Championship games, nearly a 100 played in 12 or more in 2022. Yet there is a justification for this, given what funds the sport is not primarily The 100 (a little over 10% of the £) or even The Blast (counties about 25% all in) but ‘England’, ECB tv deals, which, still, is largely about Test cricket in a country that plays it more than others.
Playing data sourced from Cricket Archive.
The Oval, Horsham, Folkestone and Hove
The One-Day Cup was in situ as a Sunday League fixture last month and it was just like some old times for spectators, the power of the outfield as remarked on twitter. Good job the Surrey ground staff and management.
Sussex Martlets v The Forty Club at Cricket Field Road, Horsham. A county List A game was last scheduled for 2020, so perhaps Sussex will return in the not too distant future. Very pleasant.
Cheriton Road, Folkestone, Kent 2nd XI v Hants 2nd XI and 37 years to the day since one previous visit. A half bowl and still a fine view from where the old pavilion was (now no more), 30 minutes there good for the equilibrium.
Hove, season’s end at a ground that makes me want to return.
Good campaigning by Lancashire supporters among others has helped keep 14 Championship matches next summer. A positive, coming as it does against a backdrop of falling membership numbers. Details on the data tab, but if county cricket wants to keep its followers the obvious message is give them something to follow.
So cue and queue familiar criticisms of the domestic schedule: that its competitions are under-valued, that not enough red-ball cricket is played in high summer, not enough white-ball is played at the weekend. To which yes obviously on the first, and on the extent of the second and third
County games in 2022.
And the players’ side of the things, the needs of England? The ECB’s review starts reasonably that England should aim for the top three in the game’s formats and be the best in one of them. It suggests there should be less cricket: that the players play too much, need more preparation and that there is too big a gap between the standard of county and international cricket.
But the play less perform better logic disappears when it comes to amount of Test cricket England plays: by some margin more than Australia and India, an extra three Test series a year over the horizon covered by the data in the review. So fewer Tests, more preparation time on the domestic circuit is what’s needed?
In another, better, world English cricket would not have been oversold to Sky. But given what funds the game, playing more domestic red-ball cricket than other countries, cricketers in England playing on more days, has its logic: keep the playing base as wide as can be, particularly maybe given the tendency to schedule tinker and how difficult it is to gauge the effects of past changes made to it.
In the golden summer of 2005 there were as now four domestic formats: the CC, the ODC, ‘a legacy Sunday League’ and a then relatively new T20 Cup in its third year, played in June and July during a break in the SL. If cricket did compromises playing The 100 in the middle of a Blast break might be one way of doing it, but whatever is or isn’t done the schedule needs a rhythm which it has had in the past and doesn’t have now.
Tunbridge Wells, Luton and Worthing
From some angles the Nevill Ground could almost be Dean Park, known for Kapil Dev’s big innings in the 1983 World Cup (‘carnage among the rhododendrons’), Shane Warne was playing for Hants on my one previous visit. Kent have a long history of playing here and, hopefully, a future as well to go with it.
Wardown Park (‘Luton’s Jewel’), the upper ground in particular, home to Luton Town and Indians CC. The pavilion has a modest-looking exterior, but otherwise much greenery and a feel to it that is not so very different to Tunbridge Wells, which was a bit surprising. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Northamptonshire played a Gillette Cup tie here in 1967, Bedfordshire a game as recently as 2019 but in truth it is an urban area the professional game has left behind.
Art Deco in Worthing; Sussex first played here in 1935 and cricket weeks were staged post WWII until 1964. A large enough playing area for two games, although it is really the pavilion that makes the Manor Sports Ground, with its lines and symmetries: as to the cricket in front of it this month a leg-slip and mid-on would have completed the picture.
When Sky commentators picked an overseas XI from 50 years of county cricket, Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge were a given, differences of opinion over some of the other places but not the two openers. Those of us who took to cricket sitting behind on the Dean Park benches plainly got rather lucky, to the extent that half a century later three List A/limited overs innings there by the South African maestro stand out to this day.
Versus Kent, September 1970, in the days of local reports and the Beeb’s tv coverage on Sundays. A completely dominant innings against an opposition with ten internationals; Alan Stickland’s piece in the Bournemouth Echo hints at an outlook for South African cricketers that was not at that point settled, still the possibility of a future in Test cricket. Two months later came his innings of 356 in Australia in a career heading towards its peak.
Richards versus Lancashire was the local headline for his innings of 129 in a Gillette Cup QF two years later. Happily there is a YouTube clip of this one and a spread in the 1972 winter edition of The Cricketer gave two pages to it, reflecting on its brilliance and his status in the game.
Versus Leicestershire, August 1975, a long way above all again, electrifying those present. Alan Stickland’s report conveys the excitement, although tactfully misses the impact on the pavilion tiles very evident from the scorebox. The legend of Darley Dale was made the following week.
Andy Murtagh has observed that for someone with his talent Barry Richards has not been lucky, as a player, or as commentator. Two trophies when Hants were the buzz team in the 1970s and the what might have been in a different political climate. Alan Butcher (Mark’s father) who once got both Hants openers out in the same spell, commented on social media that, of the two, he thought Barry got bored more easily; although for those who saw him bat when he wasn’t, doubts about the Sky XI opening pair there are none.
Chichester, Bath and Kew.
Priory Park, Chichester and the pleasure of visiting somewhere new. With the Park Tavern nearby, it is as atmospheric as it is photogenic; if some grounds are usually photographed from one angle, this one looks good all the way round it.
Bath: the rec., a venue for first-class cricket from the visit of the Gentlemen of Philadelphia in 1897 to Somerset’s departure in 2006. In 2022 the Grade II listed pavilion remains, as do memories of sitting in front it, but alas there was no sign of a pitch the day the photo was taken.
Bath CC: North Parade, on the other side of the road. In recent times Gloucestershire 2nd XI have played here, surprisingly maybe given the historical association of the area with their rivals. Perhaps county first XI’s will return at some point.
Kew Green, which has a rather intimate feel to it, despite the main road over the bridge to the left and the royal entrance to the gardens to the right. Personally as familiar as any, it makes a picture, particularly in high summer.
The Church of England, the Conservative party and county cricket: personally only one of them has been of more than just passing relevance, but if the workings of god and power have been centralised, why would play be different?
Certainly the numbers of county members since 2005 show more downs than ups: a particularly large one at Old Trafford but also at Canterbury, Hove and Worcester, the traditional heartlands of the county game. As for the smaller ones in the East Midlands, member numbers last year had fallen below 1,000 at Derby and Leicester.
But this pattern is not true everywhere: some have been steadier, even the other way, and Surrey, the biggest, is a big exception. The chair, Richard Thompson evidently appreciates the existence of a membership body, elections to the club’s general committee are contested. Taken together with the MCC and Middlesex, members of cricket clubs in London now number 40,000, if not more. Nationally though the total for the 15 county clubs (Durham, Hants and Northants are organised differently) fell to 65,000 or so before Covid.
No great surprise there given a problematic fixture schedule. So wither, sooner or later adieu to many, if not all, of the 18, the future is franchises? The 100 teams to be sure are in large part managed by county CEOs ‘centralising’, all that is needed then is enough of the 18 chairs to follow ? Maybe, but not necessarily, and after the shift from Giles Clarke (Somerset) to the years of Colin Graves (Yorkshire) as ECB chair, the direction may change again.
When this subject comes round it doesn’t often start with whether there are too many Test match grounds, obvious enough question that it is. Did anybody ever think nine was the right number? Maybe they did, or at least were in favour of competition to upgrade facilities, although of the 150+ home Test matches since 2000, England have played just 15 of them at Cardiff, Chester-le-Street and Southampton.
This is a very different pattern to the expansion of Test cricket that took place after WWII when as more Tests were played, more were played at Edgbaston, Trent Bridge and Headingley. In the years 1970-99 England played 150+ Tests and all six grounds staged more than of 20 of them, albeit that as five Test summers became six more often in the 80s and 90s, Lord’s staged two matches.
One ground then usually missed out and with Lord’s and the Oval something of a given, it left three from four. In the 21st century with the three newcomers and seven Test summers, a problem; too many and not only in hindsight.
The consequences of this financially were wholly unsurprisingly sizeable losses at some of the TMG counties, followed by debt write-offs (a great big ‘profit’ for Glamorgan in 2015) and other financial restorations. Taken together on this horizon the smaller counties have essentially broken even, although whether they are more sustainable now with The 100 is moot.
So too many smaller (non-TMG) counties ? Or the opposite and that they are not ‘county enough’, too much like smaller versions of the Test match counties when they should be staging more festivals in more places. As cricket finds out whether there is enough interest to sustain both The 100 and The Blast, a big expense, it doesn’t need the bonkerdom of shrinking the cricket map as well.