Chris Waters: Why we must savour this summer as cricket heads to the abyss

NINE years ago a book appeared entitled A Last English Summer.

Saturday, 5th January 2019, 6:45 am
Updated Wednesday, 9th January 2019, 2:44 pm
England's Joe Root: Relishing the summer challenges.

Written by Duncan Hamilton, the former deputy editor of The Yorkshire Post, it focused on games played during the 2009 season and looked nostalgically at a sport now unrecognisable to most traditionalists.

A decade on and it could reasonably be argued that 2019 will be ‘The Last English Summer’.

It will certainly be the last summer of cricket in this country as we know it before the new 100-ball competition starts in 2020, a format that will dominate the months of July and August and push all other forms of cricket firmly to the periphery.

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In this self-inflicted journey to the edge of the abyss, in which the England and Wales Cricket Board and the first-class counties are compliant, the sport is putting its faith in a concept that the overwhelming majority of cricket fans consider to be anathema.

Even if it proves successful (born out of the pursuit of money, remember, rather than any cricketing merit) the likely damage caused to longer forms of the game such as the four-day County Championship is considerable, and, by definition, to England’s Test prospects, too.

Already shoehorned to an extent that it makes a tin of sardines seem roomy by comparison, the Championship is being slowly throttled to death.

The way things are going T20 and lowest-common denominator concepts such as The Hundred will completely rule the roost, by which time most of us will have long since uttered the words “Beam me up, WG Grace”.

If this, indeed, is ‘The Last English Summer’ then we should probably make an effort to enjoy it for all it is worth.

As a line in the sand for the sport in this country it could hardly be more appetising on paper featuring, as it does, the Ashes, the World Cup, and also the rarity of Championship cricket played at the height of summer (to accommodate the World Cup), albeit not on sufficient weekend days to satisfy some palates.

Joe Root, the England Test captain, recently described it as “a summer of dreams”, which summed it up well.

In contrast, 2020, and the wretched 100-ball slog-fest, which gets the juices flowing about as much as a council tax reminder notice, promises to be “a summer of nightmares”, a journey from the sublime to the ridiculous in the space of 12 months.

Enough of 2020, the ‘Year of the Halfwit’, as the Chinese might say.

Let us focus instead on 2019, the ‘Year of the Mouthwatering Possibilities’ – not to mention the return to such long-lost county outgrounds as York and the Isle of Wight, with the respective headquarters in those instances of Emerald Headingley and the Ageas Bowl needed for World Cup action.

It is a summer when the cricket, as opposed to the commercial side of the game, will dominate the agenda, which is precisely why it has such an appeal.

After all, a contest between The Ashes/World Cup and The Hundred is no contest at all – a bit like pitting Tyson Fury in the ring with a Flat racing jockey.

To make matters even better England have a good chance of winning the Ashes and also the World Cup, of turning Root’s “summer of dreams” into one of the most glorious memories.

Granted, neither challenge will be a cakewalk, with Australia set to be boosted by the return of the disgraced Steve Smith and David Warner (whose bans for the ball-tampering scandal expire at the end of March) and blessed with a bowling attack that will significantly test Root and company.

England go into the World Cup as favourites, but also with the considerable pressure of that tag around their neck.

For there is no use in trying to play things down; England – the world’s No 1 one-day side – will be expected to win that tournament on home soil.

So special promises to be 2019, indeed, that Ashley Giles, the new managing director of England men’s cricket, reckons that “the next 12 months could transform the game like no other time in recent memory”.

No doubt his words were well-intentioned, and a reflection of England’s excellent prospects going into the summer, but Giles’s contention was actually highly dubious.

For no matter how well England perform in the World Cup and also in the Ashes, the only youngsters likely to be inspired to the extent that they would actually take up the sport, for instance, are those fortunate enough to have tickets and/or whose families have subscription television.

If the next 12 months do indeed “transform the game like no other time in recent memory” it is as likely to be because people are turned off cricket due to the ongoing lack of free-to-air television exposure of Tests and one-day internationals, along with calamitous concepts such as The Hundred, not for any positive reason.

How long, indeed, before one-day international cricket, the format at which England are now undeniably outstanding, is damaged by the 100-ball competition to the detriment of future World Cups?

After all, the county 50-over competition, the Royal London Cup, will be played at the same time as The Hundred, thus depriving the Royal London Cup of the very best players.

In addition, overseas players will not be allowed in the Royal London Cup from 2020 thus freeing them up for the new franchise event.

This will further lower the standard and devalue the 50-over game in this country, which will effectively become a second-class competition.

How long, indeed, before England’s one-day side is selected as much on T20 form (or, in the case of The Hundred, on T16.4 form) as anything else?

Some might say that this is already happening, but 50-over cricket has its own particular skills and challenges; it is too easy to describe it as an extended version of T20.

Yet in the rush to make money, in the desperate race to play catch-up following the calamitous decision to take cricket off free-to-air and the failure to properly capitalise on T20 when it first appeared, the ECB are playing with the very forms of cricket that so many people relish.

The counties, who are essentially being paid for either hosting The Hundred or else turning a blind eye to it, seem to care little about this, effectively taking their loyal supporters for granted.

No, 2019 could indeed be ‘The Last English Summer’.

It will be a summer that reminds us what is truly important and worth preserving – the cricket itself, not some jumped-up 100-ball nonsense.

The pinnacle of Test cricket (the Ashes) and of one-day international cricket (the World Cup) in our green and pleasant land will only serve to ram this fact home.

So, let us relish and savour this “summer of dreams”, before the game is further tarnished for future generations.