It may be a little early to be thinking about spring, but the publication of the first-class cricket fixtures hints that it is not too far away. They have been more eagerly awaited than usual this year because the implosion of the England men’s team in the Ashes suggested there was something rotten in the state of the domestic game. Publication was delayed while different interest groups argued over what structure the sport should have. Do we like our cricket in two-and-a-half-hour, made-for-TV dollops, or played out slowly over four or five days?
Naturally, that question was not resolved. The result, when the fixtures were finally announced this week, was the usual dog’s dinner. In deference to the new orthodoxy that long-form cricket has been marginalised, two four-day championship matches have shifted to June and July, but half the games will be played in April and May when conditions tend to favour the sort of county “trundler” who is unlikely to turn an Ashes match on its head on an easy-paced pitch in Melbourne. Neil Snowball, of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), said further rebalancing was possible in 2023 if all “stakeholders” could agree. No jokes please about the chances of Mr Snowball making that happen.
The ECB is trying to shoehorn four men’s competitions into a packed summer: the championship; a 50-over cup; the 20-over Blast; and its new invention, the Hundred, designed for fans who find 20-over cricket unduly labyrinthine. The Hundred will occupy most of August and means no championship cricket will be played in what used to be considered high summer. It is also played by franchises, with unlovely names such as Northern Superchargers and Trent Rockets, rather than the traditional counties, and the conundrum few seem willing to address is that counties and franchises just can’t coexist in the long term. In the wake of the Ashes debacle, BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew argued that franchises should call the shots, but imagined the counties carrying on in some lesser form, without saying who would finance this lower-grade cricket or bother to watch. Even the would-be revolutionaries balk at killing off the counties.
Will the men’s game in the end have to follow the women’s, now essentially franchise-based and committed to short-form cricket? While the Hundred has been largely destructive for men’s cricket, forcing eyes to be taken off the red ball, it has been beneficial for the women’s game, giving it previously undreamt of amounts of TV time. Let’s hope the women prove more competitive than the men in the current Ashes series. The ECB has to stop pretending that the championship and the Hundred, counties and franchises, traditional and modern can be reconciled. The brutal truth is that one of the models has to go for the men’s game to have any coherence. A new cricketing structure is struggling to be born, and Gramsci (admittedly not a noted cricket fan) was right that, in the gap between the death of the old and the birth of the new, “morbid symptoms” appear. You couldn’t, after all, get any more morbid than that England collapse on the third evening of the Hobart Test.