Chris Waters: Taking match from Scarborough would chip at very heart of the game

Cricket at Scarborough.
Cricket at Scarborough.
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AN old Yorkshire player who shall remain nameless said to me recently: “The game’s knackered.”

Granted, the gentleman played “before time began”, as he often puts it, but it has not prevented him from keeping tabs on the sport that he loves.

I have not spoken to him since the announcement last week by the England and Wales Cricket Board that the number of County Championship games is to be cut next year from 16 to 14.

However, I can well imagine his reaction to this latest change to the domestic structure.

My contact, shall we say, is of a certain vintage, just like the majority of the Yorkshire members.

When I last looked into it, the average age of the Yorkshire member was 69.

Although it is not quite the case that it takes longer at the club’s Spring annual meeting to read out the names of those who have popped their clogs in the winter than it does to negotiate the actual agenda, it is true that this hardcore base is steadily dying.

And, as confirmed by the latest changes to the domestic programme, the Championship itself is steadily dying, trampled beneath the T20 juggernaut, the format that brings in the cash and an altogether different sort of consumer.

This column gets all the arguments in favour of change –namely, that county cricket has to be sustainable, and that with T20 now played in a block in midsummer, and the Royal London Cup moved to the start of the season, there will be less chopping and changing between formats, which will help players and coaches.

It also accepts that T20 is where the cash is, and that there is a palpable appetite for the game’s shortest form.

It recognises, also, that England are keen to do well in the 2017 Champions Trophy and the 2019 World Cup, both of which take place in this country, as well as the general aim to improve England’s one-day fortunes.

But it worries me that the hardcore county members – the sort of people who sit at Headingley day-in, day-out in fair weather and foul – are taken for granted by the powers-that-be, who recognise that many of them will still turn up, come what may, because they love the Championship.

So, what can be done about such cuts to the Championship?

Nothing.

T20 has changed the game forever, and there is no going back.

With each county losing one Championship home game from next summer, it also seems likely that Scarborough could lose one of its two annual fixtures.

Taking a match from Scarborough is to chip at the very heart of the county game; the evocative North Marine Road venue captures the spirit of the Championship tournament.

Therefore, it was good to hear Andrew Gale, the Yorkshire captain, publicly state that he does not want Scarborough to lose a match, and also Martyn Moxon, the club’s director of cricket, admit that we don’t need 16 T20 games “from a cricket point of view”.

These are cricket people talking the language that true cricket lovers understand.

Their words should not be allowed to fall on deaf ears.

The Championship, alas, has been devalued now for many a moon. The number of games has steadily decreased.

The number of outgrounds, too, has gradually declined.

When Yorkshire last won a hat-trick of Championships in 1968, a feat they will be trying to emulate this year, they played at Harrogate, Bradford, Middlesbrough, Sheffield and Hull in addition to Scarborough.

The advent of central contracts has further undermined the Championship, with sightings of England players in Championship matches less frequent than sightings of Santa Claus in summer.

Of course, these latest changes are only a stop-gap.

When the new broadcasting deal comes in after 2019, get ready for city-based T20 along the lines of the Australian Big Bash – something that most players want, incidentally, albeit not at the Championship’s expense.

In addition to the cut in Championship matches from next year, there will also be eight teams in Division One and 10 in Division Two, instead of the current nine in each division.

As soon as you start making things asymmetrical, it further devalues the product.

It suggests that the Championship – the format that develops Test players, lest we forget – has become a necessary evil.