Martin Johnson column – Old game springs to life just as T20 moves in for kill

Scientists have made a couple of important discoveries in the past week, but exciting though it is to think that there might be life on Jupiter, it pretty much pales into insignificance compared to the possibility that there might be life in the County Championship.

Whilst not wishing to downplay the impact of Nasa finding that Jupiter’s moon is full of water plumes, which may or may not contain billions of micro organisms doing the breaststroke, the real story of the week has been Nasser (on Sky TV) sighting thousands of people between St John’s Wood tube station and Lord’s. All carrying rolled up umbrellas and sandwich tins, with neither a Test match nor a T20 game on the fixture list.

More than 25,000 attended the four days of what turned out to be the Championship decider between Middlesex and Yorkshire, the kind of attendance that hasn’t been seen since people used to throw their hats into the air, shout: “Three cheers for Compton!” (Denis, not Nick) and all arrive home with someone else’s trilby.

It was no surprise to learn, what with Arsenal playing Chelsea, that there would be a sporting celebration in north London at the weekend involving a player buried beneath a human pyramid of celebrating team-mates, but at Lord’s? In the County Championship?

Could it be, in years to come, that a quiz question asking: “Who was Toby Roland-Jones?” might result in the answer: “Middlesex cricketer,” rather than: “Er, wasn’t he that bloke who married Princess Margaret?”

There was, to no-one’s great surprise, a small chorus of dissenting voices as to how the denouement was achieved, albeit not from the side it most affected. Somerset freely admitted they, too, would have embraced a spot of declaration bowling in order to contrive a finish, which has been part of the Championship’s DNA since people were arriving at Lord’s in horse-drawn carriages.

I was reporting from Old Trafford on another final day of the Championship season in 1983, when the Leicestershire captain Roger Tolchard tried to tempt Lancashire’s captain, Clive Lloyd, into a declaration by employing a new ball attack that was not quite in Trueman and Statham or Lillee and Thomson school of heavy artillery. Namely, JJ Whitaker, our current national selector, and Sky TV’s cricketing anchor man, DI Gower.

In the event, there was no declaration, but neither did the Lancashire openers, Graeme Fowler and Steve O’Shaughnessy, deny themselves the opportunity to inflate their averages on a diet of half trackers (Whitaker 8-1-87-0) and flighted filth (Gower 9-0-102-0). Note the Whitaker maiden, which was the result of the batsmen initially trying to make it clear that Lancashire weren’t going to play ball, before the urge to tuck in eventually proved irresistible.

O’Shaughnessy was first to his hundred, completed on the stroke of tea, which equalled Percy Fender’s record of 35 minutes (they didn’t count the balls in those days) for the previous fastest century. Fender set it in 1920, and sent a telegram of congratulation upon hearing the news. There was only problem. The time was deliberately fixed.

Inside the Press box we clocked it at half an hour, 31 minutes top whack, and there was a long, inexplicable delay before the scorers came up with their official time of 35 minutes. The Leicestershire scorer happened to be my travelling passenger for that game, and after a Paxman-like interrogation on the M6, he finally confessed that the two scorers had added a few minutes on because they didn’t feel the circumstances were fair on Fender. Still, 35 minutes is what it says in Wisden, and if it’s in Wisden, it must be right.

Before 1988, when Championship games were played over three days rather than four, collusion was regularly employed in order to try to manufacture something other than a nailed-on, boring draw. This usually took the form of the two sets of players meeting up after play on day two in the sponsors’ tent, with the captains huddled in a corner arguing over the next day’s declaration. In those days, if you wanted to witness haggling at its best, you didn’t go to an Egyptian souk, you went to a County Championship match.

So who can really argue that the way the Middlesex-Yorkshire finish was arrived at was in some way morally wrong? Somerset’s players watched it all unfold in a bar on the ground at Taunton, and there was newspaper talk, for the Somerset players and supporters, of the “cider tasting sour”. Well, for a start, not everyone in Somerset drinks cider and wears a smock, any more than all Lancastrians wear flat caps and own a whippet, and there was no hint of sour cider, or indeed sour grapes. Not to mention, most importantly, producing a true cricketing collector’s item. A smile from Middlesex’s director of cricket Angus Fraser.

So, in the aftermath of a truly marvellous advertisement for the competition, can we now expect the ECB to recognise that the County Championship is, in cricketing terms, a Grade 1 listed building? And that any attempts to lower its importance should be strenuously resisted? Can we heck.

He might no longer be in charge, but the spirit of Giles Clarke lingers on. Things haven’t changed a fat lot since the ECB would hang around on street corners, flashing a pair of fishnet tights at a Texan kerb crawler with a ten gallon hat and a Basil Fawlty moustache. And now, T20 has become the new vehicle for recognising the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

We now have the brilliant idea for not one domestic T20 competition, but two. Which has not even occurred to either India or Australia. Hang the effect on cricket’s eco system, this is the cricketing equivalent of a vote to burn more fossil fuels, and get those ice caps melting a bit faster.

The NatWest Blast is clearly not enough. We need a Barclay’s Biff, or a Santander Slog to go along with it. Milking the cow down at cow corner so furiously that it won’t be long until the udders startsmoking.

Well, if it’s all about money, money, money, maybe it’s time we stopped piping Jerusalem through the public address, and replaced it with a catchy little number from Abba.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, September 30 2016

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