Durham started their County Championship season at Emirates Riverside this afternoon amid a backdrop of uncertainty about the future of the four-day game. Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson was watching to assess where Championship cricket should go from here

JIM CRAVEN has sat in the same seat for the opening day of Durham’s County Championship campaign at the Riverside for each of the last ten seasons. This year, however, he wasn’t sure he would be able to keep up the tradition.

“This time last week, I didn’t think there was any chance of it being on,” he explained, as he basked in the rays that were beating down on the members’ section. “And if it was, I thought I’d have to come by canoe.”

The weather tends to ruin the start of the cricket season, and true to form, Yorkshire’s opening Championship fixture at Headingley was abandoned last week without a ball being bowled. Today, however, the biggest problem was guarding against heat stroke. Mind you, if you’ve spent the last decade watching county cricket, you tend to be organised enough to remember to bring a hat.

Jim had his trilby close at hand, and surveying the sun-drenched scene as Durham’s batsmen toiled against some disciplined Kent bowling, it felt like he and his fellow enthusiasts were part of a quintessential snapshot of English county cricket. Picnic boxes were raided, the ice-cream vendor did a roaring trade, and crosswords were being assiduously tackled as Durham’s star summer signing, South African Aiden Markram, was disappearing for a duck. Leather on willow, life as it has always been.

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Yet if it was up to the ECB, the body that runs cricket in this country, you get that sense that Jim, a lifelong cricket watcher in his late 60s, would be regarded at best as an irritant, and at worst as someone to be actively avoided. 

These are tortured days for English cricket, a sport that seems wholly uncertain of where it wants to sit in the new world order. Increasingly, days like today, when a crowd of a thousand or so watched Durham trundle along at two runs an over for most of the morning session, will be completely anathema to where the ECB want to go. No glitz, no glamour, no gimmicks. In the eyes of some, that will also mean no future.

A few hours before Durham were getting their County Championship season underway, the ECB were releasing their plans for the new city-based tournament they hope will transform English cricket when it is introduced in 2020.

It couldn’t be much more different to what was on offer at Chester-le-Street yesterday. For a start, Durham won’t be involved. They’re ‘too parochial’ apparently, with the ECB wanting to promote eight city-based franchises that will apparently appeal to a young, brand-aware audience. The fact that the new teams will neatly slot into the existing Test venues is, of course, a mere bonus. Never mind that Durham have already been sold down the river on that score.

The format will also represent a marked departure from the tried-and-tested four-day game, indeed if the ECB get their way, it will even take another leap on from Twenty20. The plans unveiled yesterday are for an innings to consist of 15 traditional six-ball overs before a final over of ten balls. According to the ECB’s marketing spiel, the ‘100-ball countdown’ will “attract new audiences and be popular with broadcasters”.

Perhaps predictably, Jim wasn’t convinced. “I’ve never been a fan of Twenty20,” he said. “But I understand why it was brought in. And you can’t really argue with the popularity of the IPL.

“But this new competition already sounds like an absolute farce. It’s basically a completely different sport to what I grew up watching. And when it comes in, counties like Durham will be left behind. There’s already a lot of ill-feeling towards the ECB up here because of the relegation and points deduction. This will just make it worse.”

The ECB insist they do not want to do away with the long-form of the game, and there are compelling reasons why some form of County Championship will remain a vital part of England’s cricketing mix. When England’s Test side was thrashed in Australia and New Zealand this winter, the immediate reaction was that the players were playing far too much white-ball cricket. Why weren’t they learning their trade in a competitive four-day setting?

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The consensus is that the Championship will have to remain, but change is imminent, and probably required. The current format, with counties split into two divisions and matches concentrated at the beginning and end of the season, leaving the middle of the summer free for Twenty20 and 50-over games, is not really suiting anyone.

It doesn’t create a compelling narrative for casual observers to latch on to, it doesn’t encourage counties, terrified at the thought of relegation, to stick with home-grown youngsters ahead of expensive overseas additions, and it doesn’t enable England’s best players to hone skills that might transfer to the Test scene on pitches comparable to anything they will encounter outside of their home country.

There has been talk of splitting the 18 existing counties into three six-team conferences, with the removal of promotion and relegation, with Yorkshire director of cricket Martyn Moxon championing the cause.

“With two divisions it is becoming evident that not all 18 counties see red ball cricket as a priority,” said Moxon. “If that is the case, it reduces the number of players playing red ball cricket. There is also such a stigma being in the Second Division. It is survival at all costs.

“We have seen counties bringing in Kolpak cricketers in an effort to try and win the championship or stay in the division. There is a pressure of doing that as a short-term fix as opposed to developing your own players.”

At least Moxon’s plans envisage a future for all 18 existing county sides, something that cannot always be taken as a given in the face of the kind of financial pressures that brought Durham to their knees a couple of years ago.

The club’s most recent set of accounts painted a more positive picture, although Durham find themselves rooted in the Second Division of the Championship, playing in a Test venue that is barred from hosting Tests. At least, this season, they are not also saddled with a points deduction.

“It’s nice to be starting on a level playing field,” concluded Jim, although a lunchtime scoreboard showing that Durham had been dismissed in their first innings for just 91 painted a somewhat different picture. Durham’s first Championship innings of the summer lasted a grand total of 184 balls. Maybe they have decided that four days is too long for a cricket match after all.