The Forgotten Counties: Cricket sans Frontieres

Just what are the borders for county cricket? On the surface, it is the litany of administrative divisions that separate one county from the next but, in essence, these are little more than figurative lines in the soil. After all, first class cricket in England currently features a county that no longer exists and another that is an amalgamation of three others. Meanwhile, the link between county geography and player demographics becomes ever more tenuous as each summer passes. Whilst the eighteen first class counties nominally represent their traditional manors, they are no more parochial bastions than Manchester United are to their patch of suburban Salford. Players migrate between counties with great frequency akin to the counties existing as nothing more than a pithy employer. Players representing the county of their birth are something of a quaint antiquity in twenty first century county cricket.

Ergo, the concept and the boundaries, physical and metaphorical, are a far cry from those instigated at the genesis of first class cricket during the second half of the nineteenth century. Remaining within the confines of one’s cricketing constituency could now be considered a somewhat antiquated notion. With such geographic and demographic developments in mind, what realistically restricts a county to playing within its administrative boundaries? In many respects, there are no restrictions. Middlesex no longer exists as a county and therefore serves as the de facto representative of the capital populous that resides to the north of the Thames, whilst Glamorgan play at least one match per summer at Colwyn Bay, the coastal town located at the opposite pole of Wales. Furthermore, what restricts a county from hosting matches outside of its traditional borders? Such a notion is not as fanciful as perhaps expected. During the last two decades, Nottinghamshire have played matches in neighbouring Lincolnshire at Cleethorpes, Derbyshire have crossed their western border with Staffordshire and hosted list A matches at Checkley and Leek, Glamorgan have regularly ventured into Monmouthshire to Abergavenny and been known to saunter along the coast to Cresselly in Pembrokeshire, Middlesex have travelled north to both Radlett and Shenley in Hertfordshire whilst Northamptonshire have travelled in the opposite direction to Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.

Drop down a level to the minor counties and one would imagine that the status quo ante would very much still be in place with the inevitably more parochial nature of the standard still possessing great influence. Nevertheless, one county has recently taken to venturing beyond its traditional borders to host minor counties contests. Somewhat ironically, Dorset previously enjoyed almost the exact opposite, playing almost all of their matches at beautiful Dean Park as the Bournemouth venue became a de facto headquarters, a rarity in minor counties climes. Three years on from playing their final match at the charming ground Dorset are once again leading the anomalous stakes in minor counties cricket courtesy of a couple of venues used as replacements for Dean Park. At first glance, neither North Perrott Cricket Club nor Bashley Cricket Club appear particularly noteworthy until one discovers that the former resides in southern Somerset, the latter in west Hampshire. Both are within a short drive of the county border with Dorset but not actually within the county’s administrative boundaries. Thus, the Dorset minor counties team play a selection of their home fixtures beyond the county limits.

The current season’s first such occurrence is the T20 double header against Wiltshire, hosted by Bashley Cricket Club. In truth, the new competition provokes more questions that readily available answers. Three summers after a first incarnation was played the twenty Minor Counties would once again be participating in a T20 competition. The second attempt features a format that arguably possesses more than a hint at permanence. Mark One required four neighbouring counties (or close to neighbouring) to converge on one venue to play two regional semi-finals and a final, the winner of which would progress toward finals day. The revamp indulges in a nod to the Second XI equivalent; four regional groups of five counties playing regular fixtures during the first half of the season, match days featuring two contests between the respective counties all contributing to a round robin format. The 50 over knock-out cup had been returned to a straight knock-out to accommodate the extra fixtures. Here was a structure with aspirations of forging its own niche in the minor counties landscape. T20 is the format exuding the most chutzpah though.

There are two sides to the T20 coin and both provoked intriguing questions. From a playing point of view the format offers the most attacking modus operandi and would offer many a minor counties player the opportunity to play regular white ball cricket. Questions regarding the playing side of the coin are likely comparable to those proffered when Twenty20 cricket (as it was formerly known prior to an almost immediate rebrand from those who deemed ‘Twenny Twenny’ to be far too convoluted) first appeared on the horizon fifteen years previous. How will the counties approach the new format? Will they use the same players as those used in the championship or look to blood 20 over specialists? Would the competition be regarded on the same level as the championship and the fifty over cup or will it just be regarded as a bit of hit and giggle fun? None of which could be answered prior to the tournament itself. Equivalent competitions are not uncommon in the ECB Premier League structure so many a minor counties player is likely to possess experience in the 20 over format but playing at inter-county level would by and large be a brave new world. Prove successful in the new minor counties competition and players might discover that they are a more attractive proposition to the first-class counties.

The other side of the T20 coin is that of the spectator. Drawing a new audience to the sport is undoubtedly of paramount importance to the T20 format and, in some respects, one could argue that the minor counties equivalent would be no different. Attracting more people to watch the inter-county competition for the non-first class counties would surely prove a boon for a part of the domestic game that offers plenty of county cricket’s more appealing aspects without the distasteful equivalents. One could still enjoy the cut and thrust of a 20 over contest without the risk of being dowsed in cheap lager courtesy of a stumbling, drunk reveller on a night out.

All-focus
The view from the pavilion

The hosts win the toss prior to the first contest but invite the visitors to bat first. Wiltshire are soon behind the eight ball though as they lose two wickets inside the first three overs. Dorset skipper Jigar Naik rotates his bowlers adeptly in restricting the visitors, good bowling rewarded with the wicket of the dangerous Ed Young as Wiltshire end the powerplay at 40-3.

In contrast Neil Clark bats with aplomb but Naik introduces himself in the tenth over, trapping Ashur Morrison leg-before as Wiltshire stumble to 62-5 at the mid-point of their allocation. Naik, leading wicket-taker in the previous season’s Minor Counties Championship induces appreciable turn, eventually castling Clark albeit not before the Potterne club man reaches his half-century.

Spin is very much de rigueur during the median of the innings as Naik and Josh Digby restrict the visitors, Wiltshire only reaching three figures in the 17th over. Singles and the odd scampered two are the limit of Wiltshire’s achievements as the innings reaches its denouement, a deft display of death bowling from Mark Wolstenholme in the final over rendering the hosts target at a single less than a run a ball.

The low scoring nature of the Wiltshire innings leads one to ponder whether their modest total is because of good bowling from the hosts or a pitch that favours those with the ball in hand? The answer errs toward the former without being completely conclusive as the hosts reach 46-1 at the end of the powerplay courtesy of a handful of clean hits from Ed Ellis, Mark Wolstenholme and Luke Webb. Wiltshire’s spin bowlers exert a modicum of control soon after but Dorset comfortably remain ahead of the run rate, two consecutive clouts over cow corner by Wolstenholme, the latter soaring over the boundary and into the neighbouring garden centre, reduce the requirement to below fifty.

All-focus
Jigar Naik continues to bamboozle Minor Counties batsmen

Nevertheless, Wolstenholme perishes soon after and a succession of tight overs from Wiltshire’s spinners push the run rate above six an over and the visitors sense the possibility of an unlikely victory. The combination of the experienced Chris Park and the youthful Scott Currie proves crucial though, a lofted six over square leg from the latter in the 18th over effectively the coup de grace.

Venture a mile or so further south from Bashley and one will eventually cross the border between Hampshire and Dorset. The border itself is largely insignificant and, from a cricketing perspective, so is Dorset playing matches outside of their prescribed locale. At first-class level such a notion would likely be viewed as preposterous but for the minor counties that lead a largely nomadic existence without a permanent home it is a case of laying their collective hats wherever they can.

Perhaps one should focus on the new T20 competition and the success enjoyed over the first weekend of the revamped version. Across four groups there was a whole gamut of scenarios: high scoring bonanzas, low scoring thrillers, convincing victories and close finishes. To some extent the counties are finding their feet but tactics soon evolve and teams blaze a trail. In a sport where the divide between red ball cricket and the white ball equivalent seems to be ever widening perhaps this new competition might provide some players with a pathway to the first class counties and the T20 Blast. Or perhaps an impressive performance by the counties might highlight that inclusion in a tournament with the first-class counties could be more than just a whimsical pipe dream generated by sepia tinged views of English cricket’s past. If nothing else, the competition could provide the minor counties scene with some much deserved attention.

 

 

 

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