2015 was supposed to be the final year we would witness an unbastardized county cricket campaign. A franchise T20 competition beckoned. The first-class season was to be slashed. County cricket, as those who loved the competition recognized it, was to be put to death.
And yet, despite the grim future these developments heralded—after county cricket’s obituary had been penned—the unbelievable happened: nothing.
The momentum within English cricket to fundamentally alter the county season seemed to have finally reached the point of no return. For years, there have been various instances of both rumored and aborted structural changes, yet—blissfully unaware—the 16 match first-class season has managed to survive scare after scare. This year, however, the County Championship was to finally meet its maker in the form of a limited-over reaper—specifically, an eight-team 20-over competition modeled after the IPL, BBL, and CPL.
Merits of franchise-based cricket aside—and, inarguably, they exist—seeing a competition with the history of the County Championship cudgeled by marketing, cheerleaders, and vague promises of profit would have been a great shame. Many would call this stance reactionary—and to a degree, it is. Attendance is poor, county pitches are lackluster, and the financial—and as a result, competitive—gulf between certain sides is vast. However, society does not deem those who mourn the destruction of historic architecture as luddites. The same logic applies to county cricket: the attraction lies in its continuity and imperfections. In many cases, relics of the past posses a base attraction compared to the brutal constructs of modernity. To love the county game is to recognize its charmingly anachronistic nature.
However, for England’s cricketing purists, the County Championship’s reprieve should only be celebrated with reserve. In reality, change is perhaps only a season away; its sentence has merely been commuted. And, despite the allure of its outmoded nature, English domestic cricket is in need of change in some capacity. In a recent poll conducted by the Professional Cricketers’ Association, the respondents agreed that, as currently structured, the domestic format is unsustainable—an unassailable fact. Yet, was it the first-class season the players were clamoring to bin? Hardly: More than 85 percent believed the County Championship was the “most important” domestic competition, while more than 90 percent agreed that it provided worthwhile training for England’s Test side. And Jason Gillespie—while perhaps biased due to the fact Yorkshire were champions in 2015—claimed “the current format remains the best.”
Largely, whether you believe in county cricket comes down to whether you believe tradition, while far from perfect, possesses a modicum of intrinsic value. There are voices begging for cricket as a whole to be run more like a business. Considering the failures of and perceived collusion amongst many administrators, this plea is logical. Yet, one must wary not to conflate business acumen with either logic or goodwill. While cricket’s elite may only be concerned with their own selfish interests, fans of the game would be wise not to clamor for the well-oiled, focused-tested administrative schlock that permeates the leagues that regularly grab the back pages. Capitalism is not the solution to ineptitude. Beauty—even flawed beauty of the variety found in county cricket—should not be gutted for the promise of a few dollars more.
County cricket will survive unchanged for another year. After 2016, however, this is unlikely to remain the case. With a £40 million price tag hanging over its head, the guillotine of profit will surely fall on the county game eventually.