The Heart of English Cricketing Ways: County Cricket

Item in The Economist, entitled The unique culture of English county cricket,”…. In a quiet battle of giants, Surrey clinch the championship ….

Can there be any sporting event more quintessentially English than a county cricket match? Your correspondent recently attended the third day (of a scheduled four) of a match between Surrey and Yorkshire, the county of his birth, at the Oval ground in south London. The two teams are the historical giants of England’s oldest county trophy, which dates back to the 19th century. At the start of play they boasted a combined 53 solo, and shared, titles.

The crowd was sparse, perhaps 1,000-2,000 in a ground that can hold 27,500. Those attendees who made it were overwhelmingly ageing, white and male, a demographic into which your correspondent fitted admirably. These enthusiasts probably learnt to love the game as young boys, played it a little at school (or in their villages) and absorbed its liturgy like adherents to an obscure Protestant sect. They understood the meaning of fielding positions like deep square leg and silly point; knew the difference between a googly and a leg break; and were conversant in the mysteries of the leg-before-wicket law.

The atmosphere was sedate. This was not one of cricket’s newer forms, the Twenty20 or the Hundred, where the ball disappears regularly into the stands and the stadium loudspeakers blare out pop tunes between overs. For this game, the stadium announcer had a plummy voice that would not have been out of place in the royal household. Had he played some music, it might have been a Mozart string quartet or a Chopin étude.

The crowd mainly confined its reaction to polite applause; a smattering when the Yorkshire score reached first 150 and then 200, or when there was a smart piece of fielding. When a bowler completes an over (a set of six deliveries) without conceding a run, an event known as a maiden, this also merits a polite clap. This leads to the (sadly apocryphal) story of the Nazi spy in the late 1930s who was mystified to observe the crowd clap when nothing had apparently happened. The next time they applauded in the same fashion, he stood up and cheered wildly, blowing his cover.

At the Oval, the volume rose eventually, because the home crowd had plenty to cheer. Yorkshire began the day at 89 for the loss of two wickets in their second innings, still 65 runs behind Surrey. They lost more wickets steadily through the morning, and were all out after lunch, with a lead of just 54. There followed an embarrassing period of play in which Yorkshire conceded 20 runs off the first seven balls bowled and Surrey cantered to victory. The ghosts of the hard-nosed Yorkshire team of the 1960s—men such as Brian Close, Ray Illingworth and Fred Trueman—would have looked on in horror. (The next week, things got even worse: Yorkshire were relegated from the top division of the championship.)

Just before the home side’s win, news came through that their rivals Hampshire had been defeated and that Surrey were accordingly county champions. It was easy to see why they were successful. They have an aggressive pace attack, led by Kemar Roach, a skilful West Indian fast bowler with more than 250 Test (international) wickets. Dan Worrall, Jamie Overton, Jordan Clark and Tom Lawes all looked hostile too. In the batting, Surrey had Rory Burns, a former England opener, Hashim Amla, a South African with a Test triple century to his name and, for this match, Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes, two England regulars. A depleted Yorkshire, by contrast, were without their best batsmen, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Harry Brook, variously resting after a busy international summer, injured and on England duty. Little wonder that the contest was one-sided.

At the end, the Surrey batsmen hugged, cheers rose from the crowd and the home dressing room, and the players shook hands and trudged off. Surrey may have won what, in theory, is cricket’s premier domestic trophy, but there were no fireworks or razzamatazz. “Jolly well played” was the overwhelming sentiment. That is the English way.


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