The Kings of Summer: Showing why English cricket's County Championship still has real value
IT IS ironic, as Duncan Hamilton points out in The Kings Of Summer, that the much-maligned County Championship should so stir the senses at a time when it is being stirred towards senseless damage by those who cook up the cricketing schedule.
This year, the competition has been cut from 16 matches per county to 14, the equivalent of presenting a Sunday dinner without the satisfying completeness of the sage and onion stuffing.
Before long, there will no doubt be fewer Brussels sprouts on the plate, fewer carrots, and big chunks missing from the Yorkshire pudding too.
At some point – the author fears as soon as “a dozen years or so” – there will not be a “proper” Championship of which to speak.
By then, the plate could be almost bare, the fast-food fix of Twenty20 all-consuming, and there would be precious little incentive for cricket’s traditionalists to return to the restaurant.
Hamilton, a former deputy editor of this newspaper and double William Hill sports book winner, was at Lord’s last September to capture the final match before this latest indignity took effect.
You may remember the game in question: Middlesex beat Yorkshire by 61 runs and so denied Yorkshire a hat-trick of titles and a fairytale send off for coach Jason Gillespie.
Instead, Middlesex were “The Kings Of Summer” as they clinched their first Championship since 1993.
The summer’s supreme sovereign was Toby Roland-Jones, who won the match – and the title – with a hat-trick, as you do.
Like most who ventured to London for the dramatic denouement, Hamilton is one of the Championship’s self-confessed “hardcore supporters”.
His spiritual homes are Scarborough and Trent Bridge, and, according to the book’s inside jacket, “he regards drinking tea while watching a game of cricket as one of life’s great pleasures”.
No argument would be brooked among fellow devotees – save, perhaps, for the strength of the liquid.
The point is that the Championship matters, and this book shows why.
It is a little classic of the game, weighing in at around 25,000 words, at a rough guess, and showcasing not only the Championship’s compelling rhythms, but also the skill of one of the world’s best writers.
The backdrop was this ...
Yorkshire went into the game in second place, nine points behind Middlesex and one point ahead of third-placed Somerset, who faced Notts at Taunton.
It was a tantalising truel, cricket’s answer to the tense, final showdown between Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
If Yorkshire or Middlesex blinked, Somerset could have shot them down and made off with the gold.
As it was, they could do little but look on helplessly after beating Notts inside three days, which meant that their rivals at Lord’s had no alternative but to try for a win ultimately achieved through contrived declaration.
Although the climax was indeed dramatic, I never felt – watching from the press box – that Yorkshire ever seriously threatened a testing target of 240 in 40 overs.
To these eyes, the main drama of the match was condensed into a spellbinding struggle that no T20 worshipper or American, or indeed T20-worshipping American, could possibly understand.
It came as Yorkshire battled to reach 350 in their first innings and thereby claim a fourth batting bonus point needed to stay in the title race.
At 204-6, Gillespie’s men were clearly a long way short of winning this game within a game and, at 334-9, the job was still not done.
“You want this palpitating anguish to end and you also want it to go on,” is the author’s pinpoint distillation of the drama.
Finally, as we know, Tim Bresnan and Ryan Sidebottom did the necessary, surviving a nail-biting rain delay at 349-9 to go on to claim the all-important point.
“The bonus point’s finest hour,” proclaimed a press box colleague.
Bresnan is a favourite of the author, the “archetypal pro’s pro… bespoke for a crisis”.
Bresnan’s unbeaten 142 was one of the great Yorkshire innings of recent times, perhaps of all time. He also top-scored with 55 in the second innings and took three wickets.
If you want dry evocations of the match scorecard, however, you will not find them here.
The book – beautifully published by Graham Coster of Save Haven – drifts down myriad highways and byways, with the spirit of Neville Cardus never far from the roadside.
At the heart of it all is a deep love and appreciation of the Championship that will strike a chord with Yorkshire cricket followers.
It also comes with a powerful note of warning.
Pondering the “troubling demographic” of Championship crowds (the average age of Yorkshire members is 69, unless I have got that figure the wrong way round), Hamilton asks, with palpable sorrow, “Where is the generation to follow my own?”
He fears, as John Arlott wrote almost 50 years ago, that “English cricket as we know it is dying”, adding: “It wasn’t so then, but may be so now.”
He thinks it “doubtful” that the Championship will survive and that “a parlous state is becoming a perilous one”.
If, as he suspects, it eventually dies out, there would be small comfort only if he wrote the obituary.
The Kings Of Summer: How Cricket’s 2016 County Championship Came Down to the Last Match of the Season is published by Safe Haven Books, priced £9.99.