CRICKET

Surrey vs Yorkshire – One of the great county rivalries, stripped of all that’s good about the game

It could have been the biggest club match of the season: Surrey and Yorkshire head-to-head for the first time in T20 history, England players available, in front of a capacity crowd at the Kia Oval in the quarter-final of the Vitality Blast.

It could have set the standards for the county game and communicated that England’s professional circuit is not dead yet. It could have appeased traditional supporters at a time of change as well as showing new fans that there is life below the England side, even an England side playing such uplifting cricket.

But up to nine players could be missing from what could have been one of the highlights of the county summer. That number, in theory, will be reduced to seven because Joe Root, for Yorkshire, and Ollie Pope, for Surrey, have been made available. And the Test against India will finish by early afternoon at the latest on Tuesday, so Wednesday evening at The Oval should be manageable.

After four mentally and physically wearying Tests within a month, for those two to play requires a special effort. Arguably, the two players presented as available have the strongest case to say no.

There are minor consolations. Finn Allen will team up with New Zealand in Ireland after the quarter-final, so plays for Yorkshire. Fears about Sunil Narine‘s fitness after he was one of several players rested by Surrey at Taunton on Sunday are also unfounded.

But unless representations are successful then Dawid Malan, David Willey and Harry Brook will be missing for Yorkshire because of a T20I against India the following day at the Ageas Bowl, in which they might play. Adil Rashid, who has gone on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, will also be missing, but he would have been selected by England anyway.

Jonny Bairstow is automatically excluded because he is being rested from the three-match T20I series. After his heroics in the Tests, who can even begin to resent that? His emotional attachment to Yorkshire might still be there – only he knows – but his physical presence is long gone. He is a world-class, multi-format player, an exhausting undertaking, and there comes a time when some players attuned to the highest level mentally have to regard the county game as something they have moved on from: just consider Jos Buttler, whose county deal with Lancashire is entirely pointless. He is one of five players they are likely to miss in their own quarter-final against Essex on Friday.

Surrey, too, have equivalent problems. Chris Jordan is unavailable alongside Jason Roy, Sam Curran and Reece Topley. They also might make the final eleven. Topley, incidentally, had his brand new blue bowling boots stolen in transit after England’s tour of the Netherlands, so at least England cricket is not being run by airport baggage handlers.

The ECB’s attitude has so far been described as “fluid”, which is good survival PR and a polite way of saying a few crumbs might be thrown onto the table at the last minute, or maybe not – and if they are, then county cricket had better give thanks for the gesture. We wait, agog.

Nobody at the highest level is taking this seriously enough. Nobody regards it as a priority. Everybody views it as just a little inconvenient. Partly, the schedule is so non-stop, everyone has too much to think about. Partly because England are so celebratory at the moment that everybody is just loving the party. But this is also the arrogance of centralised power and professional club circuit can do nothing about it. As Chet Baker (and many others) once sang, county cricket has long mortgaged all its castles in the air.

Surrey, the richest and currently most successful county club in the land, have long lobbied courageously on behalf of the professional game in England and have suffered for it. Messages – perhaps unofficial but messages nonetheless – have been relayed in the recent past from the ECB to Surrey suggesting certain executives should be removed or silenced. And Yorkshire, in transition after the Azeem Rafiq scandal, are not exactly in the position to make demands. They are short-staffed and as they have been charged by the ECB for bringing the game into disrepute (the sins of an old regime, lest you forget) they are hardly in the position to shout their mouth off in traditional style. The two power blocks of county cricket are being brought to heel.

Ah, well. We have been here before. So it could have been a great occasion. “Could’ve, would’ve, should’ve,” as the football manager, Republic of Ireland defender and pundit, Mick McCarthy, liked to say. He added another line to that, too, to hammer home his point, but only in mildly impolite company. The core message (because core messages do not necessarily need a marketing agency to invent them) was that he was tired of excuses.

County cricket is also tired of excuses, and so are county supporters. Lovers of the county game can be easily caricatured as resistant to change – if they are somewhat wedded to tradition, this is England after all, it is a national malaise – but they recognise mindless vandalism when they see it and hold the ECB (whoever is in charge of it these days) entirely responsible for an overstocked fixture list that, instead of respecting their everlasting love, suffocates the county game.

In football, the club game holds sway but it has negotiated a reasonable truce with England, especially when it really matters. In England, international cricket still dominates and too often it shows scant regard for the world in which it belongs, burning resources, destroying habitats and risking sending the game into irrevocable decline. Planet ECB is consumed by greed.

Not that McCarthy didn’t understand that players need rest: he once controversially followed up a win at Spurs by resting all 10 outfield players for a match at Old Trafford so he could win a relegation battle at Burnley a few days later. He knew he had to manage resources. There is only so much players can fairly be expected to do – and the international cricket schedule is insanely crowded.

Not everybody cares. The game is buoyant again, thanks to England. The Hundred, as disruptive and contentious as it is, is delighting a new audience. But that does not justify destruction elsewhere. The Blast must make do with a debilitated set of quarter-finals because of its clash with a T20I series against India that has been shoehorned unsympathetically into the summer.

As we thrill at another stunning Test match – a Test format reinvented for the modern age, more aggressive than those who first cut their teeth on Tests of the late 60s / early 70s can begin to believe – and as we look forward with even more anticipation at the possibilities to follow in the international summer, complaints about the details of team selection in the Blast quarter-finals will be impatiently waved aside by many.

But there has to be some accommodation. International cricket must take a backward step. It must become more holistic and recognise the collective interest. Windows must be built into the schedule so that the Blast quarter-finals and Finals Day can achieve their full potential. To do that is not actually all that difficult. The counties must show the collective resolve never to accept such a fixture list again.

If this does not happen then, as the remake of The Fly had it, “Be afraid. Be very afraid”. This self-harm is so unnecessary. Fail to look after the roots and the plant will surely die.

  • Surrey must be strong favourites despite their recent blip in form. The admonishment by Yorkshire’s captain, David Willey, that their last two bowling performances have been inadequate and that it is time for people to stop making excuses sums up their problems.
  • David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps


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