- County preview
A county game to savour
Critics of county cricket ignore its importance to the England team and its relevance throughout the country - there is much to celebrate and admire
Like your parents, your health and a car that starts in cold weather, it is all too easy to take for granted the things we find most familiar.
So it often seems with county cricket. It has been with us since at least 1890. It has survived wars, recessions and the fluctuations in fashion and demand that have seen the decline of the British coal and car industries as well as various banks that were thought to be bullet proof.
While it is often portrayed as reactionary (or "archaic" as one critic put it recently), the county game was the birthplace of one-day cricket in 1963 and T20 cricket in 2003. It has, in recent years, helped to develop an England team that went to No. 1 in the world in all three formats and produced some of the most attractive, entertaining cricket in its history.
If anyone doubts the developmental powers of the county cricket, they should remember that the team that represented England in the final Test of the 2012 summer contained four men who had made centuries and one man who had taken a five-wicket haul on Test debut. All learned their trade in the county game.
Despite all that, it has survived some of its toughest challenges in recent times. This time last year, the board of the ECB had accepted in principle the findings of the Morgan Review that would have threatened the integrity of the County Championship and many who should have known better - including a former head of the Professional Cricketers' Association, a former Wisden editor and the man recently installed as the ECB's deputy chairman - in suggesting there may be too many first-class counties.
Yet its resilience is remarkable. In the last few years, it has survived a plethora of over-regulation, a fixture list so unpredictable that you wonder if it has been designed by someone trying to bring down the game from within (there were 19 different start times in the qualifying stages of the FLt20 in 2011) and some appallingly ignorant media coverage. Having been encouraged to pick teams without foreign players, without mature players and without players in the England system, the counties have then been castigated for failing to flourish commercially. It is like robbing a shop of its contents and then opening for business.
Most of all, county cricket has to contend with two persistent myths. The first is that talent is a finite commodity and the second that it exists only through subsidies.
The first theory suggests that, were there fewer counties, the talent pool would be concentrated and the standard would rise. It is an argument which, at first glance, might seem logical. But what it fails to acknowledge is the role of counties in inspiring, identifying and developing talent. It fails to acknowledge that, in an era of very little free to air cricket on television, the counties are entrusted with keeping the game alive across much of the country. It fails to acknowledge that several of England's leading players were developed from the very clubs that the doubters say should be amalgamated: World T20 winners Stuart Broad and Luke Wright from Leicestershire; the destroyers of India, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar from Northants.
Without the 18 counties, talent would not be concentrated, the game would simply contract. The occasionally touted city franchises would actually disenfranchise vast portions of the country.
"Just as the counties could not prosper without a successful England side, so the England side could not prosper without a performing county system"
The second myth suggests that counties are reliant on a "handout" from the ECB. This is a misunderstanding. While broadcast fees based around a successful national side account for around 75% of the ECB's income - expected to be around £140 million this year - that same national side draws upon talents developed in the county game. Just as the counties could not prosper without a successful England side, so the England side could not prosper without a performing county system. It is a symbiotic relationship.
Besides, ever more of the counties' finances are provided on a performance-related basis. They are rewarded for providing England players, selecting young players and the provision of facilities expected to attract more spectators. In 2013, the 18 counties are expected to receive somewhere around £40m between them from the ECB's distribution programme. That leaves £100m for grassroots projects and investment into the England teams. The game has never possessed such wealth, though how long it can be sustained remains to be seen.
It is vital, however, that every first-class county club redoubles its efforts to be relevant to the community it represents. That means, ideally, supplying players for England, or at least providing strong enough competition so that developing national players experience the toughest possible preparation for the international game. It means developing players from within to ensure there are local heroes to inspire the local community. It means reaching into schools and clubs to attract and develop the next generation of players and supporters. It means lower ticket prices, more appealing customer service and better facilities. It means every first-class county in every town pulling its weight and justifying its part in the system. If that means reminding people of the ground's existence through pop concerts, banqueting, hotels or comedy nights so be it. The cricket ground, like the pub or the post office or the church or the coffee house, has to become visible again.
T20 remains key to this. In recent years, the domestic T20 competition has suffered through poor scheduling, greed and muddled thinking. The format that could have provided the basis of a domestic resurgence has instead, like flat champagne or a deflated balloon, become a symbol of decay.
Its potential remains immense. With a sensible schedule - and a regular Friday night spot is eminently sensible - decent pitches, enthusiastic marketing and a long-term vision towards ticket prices, the domestic T20 competition can flourish. Sadly, we must wait until 2014 for the schedule to change.
In due course, the attraction of an FA Cup-style T20 knockout competition - a competition that would be relevant across the land as it would incorporate the minor counties and even clubs - broadcast on free-to-air TV will become obvious to the ECB. It could revolutionise the game in a single summer. Instead, a committee selected by the ECB to discuss the format are entirely wasting their time talking of formats involving 12 players a side and substitutions. It is almost as if those entrusted with running the domestic game are the ones who have most lost faith in it.
There remains so much to celebrate and admire. Last year, spectators at Surrey's Guildford outground were treated to an innings of rare genius by Kevin Pietersen; followers of the club that finished bottom of the second division of the Championship were treated to the sight of the man with 800 Test wickets representing them in T20. Elsewhere, spectators were treated to a man coming within an ace of scoring 1,000 runs before the end of May for the just the third time since 1938; the emergence of a fast-bowling attack at Warwickshire that would do several Test nations proud and, at Surrey and Essex respectively, the departure of the greatest run-scorer of his age and appearances by the man who will break every English Test batting record in existence.
The season that begins in earnest on Wednesday will bring as many surprises and delights. Despite reports to the contrary, it will still contain notable overseas players - including a record-breaking Test captain and one of the fastest bowlers in the history of the game - it will still be followed by millions (online if not in person) and it will still produce another generation of local heroes.
The county game, despite the obstacles and impediments, is producing as many talented cricketers as it ever has. It has played an enormous part in creating, after years of mediocrity, a golden age in English cricket. Those too cynical, too disappointed or too partisan to appreciate it may reflect that it is not county cricket they now find dull, but cricket itself.