During winter months gone by, after having read every newspaper article on the football season, occasionally I would chance upon a snippet of cricket just prior to the classifieds. In these snippets often I'd find tales of record-breaking performances by players in the English County Championship. I still recall reading of Brian Lara's (still) world record first-class score of 501 not out made in under a day and a half of cricket, while playing for Warwickshire, and being amazed that such a feat was possible.
Domestic cricket in England is a feast for those endeared to statistical analysis. The extensive amount of cricket played and the longevity of players produces first-class records that are incomparable to those plying their trade solely in Australia's Sheffield Shield. Batsmen scoring not thousands of runs, but tens of thousands; bowlers taking thousands of wickets – astonishing figures.
In the years prior to exorbitant contracts with hastily formed franchise cricket teams, Australian cricketers travelled during the southern hemisphere winter to mine wickets, runs and riches for county teams. Such sojourns were thought of as a must for the first-class cricketer aiming for higher honours. For others, resigned to being unable to hold down full time employment as supplement to their meagre cricketing income, it allowed them to be truly professional cricketers.
Adding to the charm of the county game is that each of the counties is in fact a cricket club as opposed to the representative team of a cricketing association. These clubs are steeped in history and tradition, and while history and tradition are still evident for cricketing associations, there is something maybe more lasting and tangible for cricket clubs. You represent associations whereas you are a member of a club.
The club tradition also has extended to international cricket. Of great curiosity to me as a young cricket fan was why the English test teams would wear navy blue caps, yet the trim on their sweaters was red and yellow. I learned that this indeed was not 'red and yellow', but the 'egg and bacon' combination of the Marylebone Cricket Club.
From 1903 until 1996 the England cricket team was administered by the most famous cricket club of all. In test matches the team was always to be referred to as England; but up to and including the 1976-77 tour of Australia the players represented the MCC in all other first-class matches.
Its home at Lord's, the MCC remains an active cricket club, playing over 500 matches a year at various levels. This includes the traditional opening first-class fixture of the English summer against the county champions of the previous season. The MCC is responsible for the upkeep and development of Lord's and are the copywright owners of the Laws of Cricket.
Of interest to me always when reading county news or scores was the performances of Australian cricketers. With creative licence, the MCC is not immune from antipodean participitation. Five cricketers in history - Albert Trott, Sammy Woods, John Ferris, Billy Murdoch and Billy Midwinter - played test cricket for both Australia and England, all of whom represented Australia first and then England. All had test careers prior to the turn of the 20th century (therefore prior to MCC administration). At this point in history it appears easy to have changed teams: Midwinter later returned to play again for Australia; and Murdoch had indeed captained the Australian team on 16 occasions prior to switching allegiances. In a somewhat sadistic twist of fate Trott, Murdoch, Midwinter, and Ferris all lost their lives prematurely in tragic circumstances not long after their cricketing careers had finished.
The English game is subjected to praise and criticism depending on national fortunes. When the national team struggles, the County Championship will be labelled as weak, rewarding of mediocrity and too cumbersome. Contrasted to this, at times of national sucess the competitiveness will be lauded. Indeed, cricketing nomads from many nations have always flocked to English shores to compete regardless of the strength of competition.
To me there is a romanticism attached to the English game, and its clubs, that has largely been forgotten in the past 15 years. Such romanticism and tradition, often opined as being problematic and antithetical to the development of the game, remains one well where a cricketing purest can continue to dip their cup.