Extinction awaits a monotonous County Championship in desperate need of spicing up
Neil Trainis THE notion that the advent of a snazzier, more exciting version of cricket will condemn the County Championship to dust has lost none of its pertinence even as the 119-year-old competition descends upon us once more. Cricket has for so long been deeply em
THE notion that the advent of a snazzier, more exciting version of cricket will condemn the County Championship to dust has lost none of its pertinence even as the 119-year-old competition descends upon us once more.
Cricket has for so long been deeply embedded into the traditions of Englishness but it has clattered uncomfortably into a tidal wave of change, acquiring a continental flavour and expanding into a sport in tune with the tastes of modernity.
Nowadays the masses want excitement. They want to be weaned on a diet of intrigue and anticipation. County cricket was created to afford its members, in the days when horse carriages habitually provided public transport, bragging rights as the most prosperous and accomplished in the land.
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It had, and continued to have for decades, an appeal to appreciators of the game but, like everything else, has withered with the sands of time.
In its current guise there has been little to suggest, in the six years since the appearance of Twenty20 cricket, that the County Championship can rejuvenate itself into a tournament that can maintain present interest and catch the attention of a younger audience.
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Counties have spent heavily on improving facilities and, as the England and Wales Cricket Board announced in January, 1.5m people watched county games during the 2008 season, an increase of 23%. The County Championship saw a 30% increase. Yet those statistics, as impressive as they sound, papers over the cracks.
The Twenty20 cup, during the same campaign, was the most watched event, and the fascination it generates was reflected in the 593,317 people who paid their money through the turnstiles to watch it, an increase of 36%.
As the World Twenty20 in England looms, the IPL bandwagon trundles on, albeit in South Africa, and the prospect of an English Premier League, rebranded P2O and set to start in June 2010, closes in, it is difficult to envisage the County Championship, archaic by comparison, sustaining itself in years to come.
The fight for the affections and appetites of the cricketing masses between the plethora of competitions as well as the one-day and longer forms of the game, represents the survival of the fittest.
Those with stern allegiances to the County Championship, whose audience is nominally white and middle-to-old-aged, would decry any thoughts of altering the construction of the tournament to make it more enthralling, much less any sanction its destruction.
They may suggest that there is no better preparation for England players facing a Test match than honing their discipline in the long, drawn-out spectacle of a County Championship fixture.
Those views appear more romantic than realistic as time progresses. Test cricket, dragged along by its contemporary equivalents like a piece of meat tied to the back of a truck travelling at speed, has had to evolve to cater for the demands of a public keen to be captivated.
The pinnacle of the game has got faster and runs are scored at exorbitant rates, encapsulated by England's high-scoring Test series defeat to West Indies and other monumental scores accumulated by international teams recently. All of which renders obsolete the argument that the County Championship is best equipped to prepare players for Test matches.
Test cricket cannot be described as exclusively frenetic in nature but it would not be unreasonable to suggest that Twenty20 cricket, even with all its glitz and glamour, has become just as valuable a yardstick of the Test arena as the County Championship.
The cricket purists may detest the idea but the sport, not just in England but around the globe, is gradually morphing into a shorter, more digestible, attractive and commercially viable product.
Snooker has pondered a re-jig to a game involving six red balls instead of 15 in an attempt to jazz the sport up. The County Championship, spread over days, may have relocate to just one, where counties play an innings each.
Sounds familiar? It should. The future of County cricket lies in its Twenty20 counterpart.
That is the only way a proud, intrinsically English competition will resuscitate interest and shake off a monotony which has threatened to bring about its decay and ultimate extinction.