The phrase ‘county cricket is an anachronism’ is an anachronism. The domestic game may have seemed irrelevant and redundant in the Eighties and Nineties, but it has chanced across a niche for itself since then. Seemingly against the odds, it has a place in the modern world.
Short attention spans
Apparently no-one has time to do anything that takes longer than 30 seconds any more. That’s what they tell us. We’re supposed to oscillate between microwave and YouTube clip while simultaneously updating Facebook.
But it’s not like that. People may source information in a different way, but they can still cope with a long narrative. A story arc may comprise a greater number of smaller instalments than in the past, but it’s still that same sense of something unfolding which keeps us hooked.
The tale of the County Championship
The County Championship is a story that takes many months to tell. Do a head count in the grounds and you’d think no-one gave a toss about it, but you’d be looking in the wrong place. County cricket is something that is primarily followed, not watched.
Some people think that the long drawn-out nature of multi-day cricket is a flaw. Worryingly, many of these people are in positions of influence. They look at the success of football and other sports and try and learn from what they offer, not comprehending that this sentences the sport to being at best a pale imitation of something else. The modern world is rich with options. There’s no need for anyone to waste time on the second-best version of anything.
Cricket is the best example of a sport that can be followed without being watched. That is its unique selling point. You have to boast a unique selling point when you’re competing with every pastime imaginable thanks to the internet.
Who says we have to watch sport?
We’re pretty confident that everyone reading this has seen a cover drive. This means that a radio commentator or ball-by-ball reporter can say “X plays a cover drive” and we all know what’s happened. Similarly, we know that an innings is the sum of many different events. We don’t need to witness every single delivery to know how things are going. In fact, such detail often detracts from the bigger picture.
A cricket scorecard is a thing of functional beauty. You can read an entire story, plot twists and all, from what appears to be merely a list of names and numbers. It is not necessarily the specific events which are of interest, it is how they fit together to form a narrative.
Actively following cricket
This is how most of us follow cricket nowadays. We might watch passages of play in a Test match, but for the most part we start with the scorecards and seek out further information when something takes our interest. An unusual scorecard might lead us to a match report, which might lead us to try and learn more about a particular player, which might lead us to a YouTube clip.
There are many avenues to follow and while people still sometimes want to watch a particular match, that is a passive way of following cricket and most of us are now active followers.
A richer story
How can the County Championship compete with the higher profile story arcs of a Test series or the IPL? In short, it potentially offers a richer story.
This very much depends on how much time a person is willing to invest in following it, but the Championship features far more teams and therefore far more characters and complexity than a Test series, while the first-class format offers a wider variety of match situations than Twenty20 cricket.
It’s not for everyone, but if you’re the kind of person who is always searching for more information to fill your break times at work, the County Championship presents a near-bottomless pit to explore; a developing narrative thread for you to follow from April until September.
It can provide hundreds of hours of entertainment for a person over the course of a season without their ever once attending a match. This is hugely valuable, but it also gives rise to a problem which we’ll outline in the second part of this article about county cricket in the internet age – how can this interest be translated into much-needed income for the sport itself?