Episode 53: The County Championship – past, present and future – by its great historian Stephen Chalke

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Author, publisher and supreme recorder of cricketers’ memories Stephen Chalke returns as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast. They celebrate a tremendous start to the English County Championship, before Stephen draws on his detailed and beautifully illustrated history Summer’s Crown, to analyse the competition’s past and its prospects.


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Stephen hails the excellence of the new streaming service that allows cricket-lovers to follow at home any part of any county match with the aid of expert commentators who are deeply involved in the county circuit. Streaming is some compensation for the recent shameful neglect of county cricket by major newspapers. Viewing and listening figures for the new services are highly encouraging, although they have yet to be monetized. 1 and 4-9 minutes

Stephen sees a return to old times in the competition, in that the current season provides two months of county cricket with no distractions from international visitors, and with all matches starting and finishing on the same days. He risks a prediction of the eventual winners. 2 minutes

In general he believes that counties with the strongest bowling attacks usually carry off the championship, although this has become less important since four-day matches and Warwickshire won in 2004 primarily by gathering batting points. He also believes that that this year’s increased reward for drawing games will increase the relative reward of strong batting – and revive the forgotten art of batting to save a match, as did Gloucestershire’s last pair, for 75 minutes, to thwart Hampshire. 3-4 minutes

Stephen traces the roots of the championship in the late nineteenth century, the formative era for almost every organized British sport. Cricket then might have followed the path of rugby (a professional version in the north of England, an amateur one in the south). Instead its development was shaped by the astonishing Charles Alcock who managed simultaneously to run Surrey CCC and the Football Association and be a prolific journalist. Surrey’s President, the future Lord Alverstone, rebuked him for winning the new championship too often, playing too many professionals – and worst – allowing them to fraternize with the amateurs. 9- 12 minutes Years later, a similar charge was raised against a great Surrey captain, Percy Fender, and Stephen analyses the sources of prejudice against him, which included  anti-semitism.    12-14 minutes

Stephen analyses the extraordinary survival of the distinction between amateurs and professionals until the 1960s, despite massive social change outside cricket and within the game, the enhanced image which Hobbs and Sutcliffe gave to professionals as a class. He picks out some of the far inferior amateurs who were preferred to professionals as county captains – including the wrong Major Bennett who was appointed by mistake to lead Surrey in 1946. 17-18 minutes Postwar  counties searched more and more desperately for talented players who could maintain the faҫade of amateur leadership and arranged sinecure or even fictitious jobs for them as “shamateurs”, earning more money for playing cricket than the professionals. 14-24 minutes

Stephen comments on the persistent weak finances of county cricket apart from its early heyday (when it had a bigger following than international matches) and two booms in attendance after the world wars. Its initial success led to the admittance of many more teams, playing different numbers of matches; this caused endless complex changes in determining the winners and reduced the financial base of the competition still further. The counties generated no income outside cricket until the 1950s, when Warwickshire led them in establishing a successful football pool. As late as 1965 Surrey stuffily refused commercial sponsorship to replace the Vauxhall end clock. 25-29 minutes

For years, the counties required extraordinary workloads from their players. He cites a season when Hampshire’s Derek Shackleton sent down over 1700 fast-medium overs.  Cricketers also endured long travel times (before motorways or fast trains), poor overnight accommodation, or none at all, and minimal medical support. The schedule was so packed that out-of-form players never had time in practice to analyse and correct faults. 33-38 minutes

Stephen analyses the succession of revolutionary changes in the 1960s and after in county cricket, which belied its stuffy conservative images. He picks out not only the ending of amateurism, but also the beginnings of sponsorship, new one-day competitions, Sunday play and, especially the influence of specially registered overseas players (led by Garry Sobers) in the late 1960s. Unlike today, the new stars were committed to their counties for the entire season. With England’s international cricketers also fully committed to their counties, the championship reached new heights in the 1970s – before the impact of Packer, international revenues from television, commercial sponsorship and other forces shifted power away from the counties to national administrations. County cricket in the 1970s was a superb finishing school (with a great variety of playing surfaces and conditions) for the great West Indian and Pakistani teams of the 1970s and 1980s, and more recently, prepared Chris Rogers for a brilliant entry into Test cricket for Australia. He believes that England’s present management team of Ashley Giles and Chris Silverwood, with strong roots in county cricket, will pay more attention to county performances as a basis for international selection than some of their predecessors. 42-49 minutes

Stephen draws attention to a little-known record set in a recent round of county matches by Hassan Hameed, the Nottinghamshire opener once of Lancashire and England. 46-47 minutes

Finally, he traces the vital influence of the late Duke of Edinburgh on the County Championship during a somewhat accidental supposed centenary year in 1973, and tells the story of the emergency trophy he had to present to Worcestershire in 1988 when no one collected the proper one from the previous year’s winners, Nottinghamshire. 50-55 minutes

Peter and Richard are taking a short break from the podcast for other projects (and possibly to play cricket themselves). They are due to return in the last week of May. In the interim, on behalf of their previous guest Charles Lysaght, they invite listeners to trace any newsreel film of the Duke of Edinburgh batting: please send any link or reference to obornehellercricket@outlook.com

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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