Kumar Sangakkara’s comments a couple of days ago regarding county cricket and how the circuit, its teams, players and supporters have engendered a new found respect in the Sri Lankan great provoked a few thoughts. For the beleaguered county game these comments must have arrived akin to manna from heaven. Talk regularly abounds of the much vaunted city based T20 competition three years down the line and how this is the panacea for all evils in the domestic game along with financially securing English cricket. All the while England are in the process of playing out an eminently forgettable one-day series against the West Indies that receives plenty of hype; an occurrence that evermore leads one to conclude that it really is all about the money.
And yet, the county championship season has provided a bounty of entertainment, subplots, twists and turns along with drama right down to the last round of fixtures. Take a moment or two to indulge your imagination. Ponder this notion: a sports team is promoted to the highest division in its domestic competition. Many expect said team to struggle in the highest echelon with the likely result being relegation back from whence it had come. Said team defies all the predictions and expert opinions though and produces a stunning season, not only surviving the expected relegation but dominating the division and winning the title at a canter. Young, exciting players are to the fore whilst one of the most beguiling performers in the sport contributes and another steals a march with a stunning season long performance. There’s even something for the romantics as one of the sport’s more popular players , nearing the end of his career, enjoys his personal day in the sun.
For most sports such a scenario would be the aforementioned manna from heaven, an opportunity to promote and highlight the magnificence of the story and, ergo, the beauty of the game at large. Ultimately, the scenario would offer a platform upon which to capitalise. Indeed, the story almost matches the brilliant and memorable exploits of Leicester City Football Club during the 2015/16 Premier League Football season. The account of how the Midlands club morphed from relegation fodder to champions enraptured the sport for the whole campaign, culminating in stratospheric media coverage when Claudio Ranieri’s charges crossed the line. Despite being the most popular sport in the country, Football held nothing back when it came to promoting and highlighting this magnificent occurrence and the media at large responded in kind.
Thus, one would imagine that the scenario painted in the second paragraph of this article would receive comparable treatment, such was the nature of the achievement. Somewhat disappointingly, the tremendous story of Essex’s promotion from county cricket’s second division to become county champions twelve months later received low key, melancholy coverage outside of the dedicated cricket media. In some respects, such an occurrence is not surprising. English cricket’s county championship is arguably the most maligned tournament in the country’s sporting landscape; often receiving short shrift or negative coverage for a variety of cherry-picked reasons. Despite supposedly being the nation’s summer sport there is a sad, wallowy ambience to what should be cricket’s premier domestic competition. As the sport struggles to attract a new audience and, arguably more importantly, increased participation, cricket’s plight is not helped by this fug of pessimism and general downbeat coverage. Contrast this with Premier League football, which seems to enjoy an astonishing amount of hype to even the most mundane of contests. At times one could almost be mistaken into believing that the Premier League is the greatest invention since sliced bread. Stark realities such as dull matches, poor technique and humdrum play (inevitable occurrences in any sport) appear of little importance; generating interest by creating a hyper level of expectation is the order of the day and a mighty successful one at that. Keep telling people how great your sport is and (surprise, surprise) they will believe the hype.
One is not surprised that the general negativity surrounding county cricket provokes the opposite effect. The public at large continue to hear that the longer format of the game is dull, boring and old fashioned so they are likely inclined to believe such anti-hype. And yet, Essex’s rise to the summit has provided a fabulous storyline to the county championship. There’s is not the only plot of note though. Twelve months previous the final day of competition began with three different counties possessing a chance of overall victory and the destination of the trophy fluctuated throughout the day. Twelve months on and the same three counties entered the final month of the season looking at the opposite end of the table as the possibility of relegation loomed. Sports fans often bemoan the same teams dominating competitions yet the maligned county championship features as much variety as any of its equivalents with seven different winners in the last decade.
Essex are the latest champion, securing a first title in almost a quarter of a century since the county was Graham Gooch’s manor. The eastern county do not enjoy the financial benefits of hosting international matches and therefore have to be a little more shrewd with regard to their squad. Thus talents such as Tom Westley and Nick Browne have been alloyed with experienced performers such as England captain Alistair Cook, skipper Ryan ten Doeschate and former international Ravi Bopara. Overseas bowlers Neil Wagner and Mohammad Amir have added a dash of swash and buckle to the attack whilst Kolpak signing Simon Harmer has proved a revelation, beguiling many a batting order with his off-breaks.
Under such circumstances young players such as Jamie Porter and Dan Lawrence have thrived. And there has been that story for the romantics as thirty-seven year old James Foster, Essex wicket-keeper since the turn of the millennium and regarded in many quarters as the best gloveman in the English game, winning a championship medal in the twilight of his first-class career. Essex’s squad is an intriguing ensemble of players adeptly pieced together and coached with great affect by erstwhile Yorkshire seamer Chris Silverwood; promotion and the championship title during his first two campaigns at the helm illustrating that Silverwood has brought an effective influence to the mix.
Essex’s success hasn’t been the only story of note during the season though. As alluded to earlier, Middlesex, Somerset and Yorkshire entered the penultimate round of fixtures staring at the possibility of relegation despite contesting for the championship itself twelve months previous. Promotion from the second division has proved just as intriguing with four counties possessing the opportunity of elevation to the top flight as the final round of matches begins. Throw in the opportunity to watch world class overseas performers such as Mohammad Amir, Neil Wagner, Sangakkara himself, Cheteshwar Pujara and, briefly, Ravi Ashwin and the championship has enjoyed a stellar summer. Sangakkara may have played his last championship game but rumours abound that Virat Kohli may well enjoy a stint next summer.
None of which seems to draw much attention. Coverage of Essex’s success is predictably fulsome in cricket’s dedicated press and media outlets but their achievement hasn’t exactly provoked fanfare akin to that afforded the equivalent of Leicester City. On Twitter one tweet asked which team did it better, Essex or Leicester City? One is inclined to similarly ask which sport promoted the occurrence better too. As a spectacle, cricket cannot hope to emulate Football; the two sports offer differing styles of entertainment and provoke different senses and emotions but the two sports also enjoy (or endure) a very different level of coverage in the media at large. After such a fantastic campaign it is rather disappointing to see that Essex’s achievements have been largely unrecognised outside of the sport’s dedicated media outlets. It would be particularly foolish to expect a comparable fanfare to that enjoyed after Leicester City’s success but a little positivity and promotion of county cricket’s marvellous variety wouldn’t go amiss. Similarly, a little less focus on the shiny new toy that is the proposed city based T20 competition and a little more promotion of the existing competitions from those with governance and vested interests in the English game would go a long way to improving the championship’s difficult image.