In the annuls of the County Championship’s near-130-year history, few competitors have been so unfortunate as the South-West’s. One of the eight founding members of English cricket’s summer bastion in 1890, Gloucestershire – the county of W. G. Grace in the 1870s – are yet to taste success, and neighbours Somerset, granted admission in 1891, have endured an equally barren spell in the red-ball format.
While their Bristol County Ground has again become an international 50-over and Twenty20 venue, for Gloucestershire, adrift in the County Championship’s Division Two for the past 14 seasons, long-forbidden glory seems as distant as ever at present. The West Country’s second cricketing city, Taunton, is meanwhile playing host to a side on the precipice of unprecedented attention, after witnessing four close misses on such an elusive title in the past decade.
When such a wait for honours in domestic four-day cricket finally ends, however, victory may be diminished by the format’s changing fortunes in England. The profitability of the prolonged, 90-over-per-day marathon version of the sport being stretched beyond breaking point outside of Test cricket, titles in the Championship are toasted only as the pinnacle of a bygone era. Limited overs tournaments, as the English Cricket Board is well aware, are what attract crowds and TV cameras, and the incipient ‘Hundred’ competition, to start in 2020, marks the pursuit of the urban, nine-to-five working man or woman in no uncertain terms as the source of any growth left in the sport today.
In this unsettled scene, a Somerset County Championship victory could certainly mark the hypocrisies of the game in 2019. As the English and Welsh summer hosts the Cricket World Cup and the Ashes, certifiably the sport’s two most obvious sources of prominence and revenue, marketing campaigns have had few issues tapping into the traditional audiences of the game. World Cup matches, attended in force by South Asian and Caribbean diasporas, and the not inconsiderable number of English fans, have ensured respectable engagement figures for tournament organisers, but the ambition of filling grounds with entirely new viewers have undoubtedly been hampered by the paywall behind which the International Cricket Council and ECB has placed the competition, with Sky Sports guarding the rights, and Channel 4’s decision to broadcast highlights around midnight winning few fans.
Whether cricket itself should become something new and separate from the County Championship’s iconic period, from the 1970s to the early 1990s, is clearly a conundrum that has been solved by the sustained progress of international competitions. Composed, however, of a largely privately-educated playing squad and a financial structure still dependent on the patronage of members, Somerset, as most other counties, operate in a reality which those above them refuse to accept. They will not be one of the hosts of the Hundred, and although with a proud recent record of hosting international matches, without regular Test cricket may rely on the ECB’s security payments to all counties inactive during their new competition, farcically, in order to stay afloat.
County chairmen (17 out of 18), sensing vindication from stretched finances but without the majority backing of members, voted in support of the ECB’s proposals in February and must live with the consequences. The draft system for players, an unprecedented move in British sport, may succeed or flop, and while all will hope the BBC’s share of live coverage – the first time cricket will return to the Beeb since 1999 – proves a turning point, access to bats, balls and creases for those outside of independent schools must also be made available. For this to happen, the culture that pervades county cricket must change.
Clearly, Somerset are not to blame for having some of the most successful private school sports departments in the UK on their doorstep, but their squad encapsulates the decline in players on the county circuit to attend comprehensive school since 2005, the final Ashes series available free-to-air on Channel 4. After batsman Marcus Trescothick, a rock of that English victory, retires at the age of 43 this autumn, the Somerset squad will be left with only half a dozen players educated outside of the private system. In the batting order, James Hildreth, George Bartlett (both Millfield), Tom Abell (Taunton), Tom Banton (King’s College, Taunton), and Tim Rouse (Kingswood, Bath), outnumber the ageing comprehensive-educated trio of Trescothick, Peter Trego and Steven Davies. The bowling attack, including Dom Bess (Blundell’s, Tiverton), Josh Davey (Culford, Bury St Edmunds), Max Waller (Millfield), twins Jamie and Craig Overton (West Buckland), Ben Green (Exeter), and Ollie Sale (Sherbourne), is dominated by the privately educated, although key wicket takers in 2019, Lewis Gregory, Jack Brooks and Jack Leach, are products of mainstream schooling. With players born abroad, the privately-educated trend is even more apparent in South African Tim Groenewald (Maritzburg College), Namibia-born Nathan Gilchrist (St Stithians College, Johannesburg), and Zimbabwean Eddie Byrom (St John’s College, Harare) – the pattern only bucked by bowler Roelof van der Merwe, who attended the highly-regarded public sporting college at Waterkloof, Pretoria.
This class debate is as old as cricket itself, and is no slight on the players themselves, who in cooperation with the club do all kinds of work to promote cricket in local schools, where facilities may not be so apparent. Nobody – not even Prime Ministers consolidating the Middle England vote through their association to the sport – wants cricket to be the preserve of the privately-educated. However, the probability that the Overton’s, Bess, middle-order prospect Bartlett and the long-overlooked Hildreth gain England recognition will not solve the issue of representation in the national team, where although eight of the 15-man World Cup squad are comprehensively-educated, only 13 of the 31 players to earn their first Test cap since 2014 have been of the same ilk.
Whether cricket can be both sexy and civil – cool enough for urban families to sport the ‘Leeds Superchargers’ and ‘London Spirit’ kits but sufficiently appreciative of at least the medium-term reality of its players’ education – is a riddle set to be broken by events looming on an ever-shortening horizon. Nothing will change overnight; no great galvanising motion will follow a swish of Jos Buttler’s bat, nor a 90mph Jofra Archer yorker, just because it is captured live by BBC cameras. However, clawing its way back into the public consciousness during gaps between Test series, cricket may place itself on political agendas. An end to austere state physical education offerings is required, and providing it is a pledge they can be held to, the fact that counties were keen to ensure the corporate benefits of backing innovation also meant further opportunities for participation is surely a good thing.
Speculation continues, but cannot be considered that for much longer. Somerset’s lead is narrow at the time of writing – 15 points over closest challengers Essex after eight games – creating a title fight between two of just three counties in Division One without Test grounds. The West Country outfit won the One-Day Cup in May, and if last season’s T20 Blast Final -between Worcestershire and Sussex – is anything further to go on, the traditional honours of county cricket have chosen a rather inappropriate time to deviate from more familiar recipients.
However suitable a victory for these uncertain times, it looks as if the West Country’s duck will finally be broken. When celebrations can be secured, as ever, tradition will be acknowledged, but for those not present, viewing through Twitter feeds and rolling terrestrial news, any impact will be negligible. It is not as simple as modernising or being left to stagnate – by its very fibres, county cricket may be suspended out of the linear concept of time, and may never catch up. Revolution, as such, should be treated with absolute caution.
Although these two entities may have only flirted together before, a league and victorious county, both with origins dating back to the 18th century, will each understand better than most how the enormity of such an achievement has diminished. Once the sport to which domestic football passed its baton to during the summer months, the place which English cricket now inhabits demands that there is no sharing of fortunes. By the time the County Championship is decided in late September, headlines will only last a few hours, and its annual hibernation will give way to a travelling format with far more profitability. Such is life today. Wish for more, and you may be tempting for the proverbial cliff edge.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!