April Fools’ Day fell 24 hours early for England cricket fans this week, as the national side’s worst ever winter finally ended with an utterly embarrassing capitulation to the might of Holland in the dusty climes of Bangladesh.
Forget that Holland will never achieve Test status, or that Bangladesh, sadly, should not have been awarded it in the first place.
This was still a professional cricket match (of sorts) and England’s wretched performance summed up an almost irredeemably wretched winter for the national team.
The Ashes were a complete humiliation, the one-dayers little better, a meaningless one-day jaunt in the Caribbean was best forgotten, and the team returned home from the World Twenty-20 after suffering defeat after defeat over the winter.
Apart from Ben Stokes’ maiden Test century in a losing cause in the Perth Test, and Alex Hales’ match-winning ton in the Twenty-20 win over Sri Lanka, it is hard for any England cricket fan to take any comfort whatsoever from the winter of 2013-14.
But life goes on, and this weekend the County Championship begins, while England lick their wounds and prepare to take on Sri Lanka and India later in the summer.
But any fan looking forward to dusting off the thermos flask and driving off to catch a bit of county action at the likes of Edgbaston, Trent Bridge or Lord’s this Saturday will be deeply disappointed.
In one of the most unfathomably bizarre decisions by any institution since Decca turned down the Beatles, the England and Wales Cricket Board has ruled that championship fixtures will mainly start on Sundays this season.
There is no county championship on a Saturday until May 31, and then only with the single example of Northamptonshire against Yorkshire.
Just one fixture per round will subsequently be staged on a Saturday, apart from one weekend in August.
Of the 25 Saturdays throughout the season, 10 will feature no county cricket whatsoever. It’s very nearly the equivalent of the Football League playing half their matches on a Tuesday lunchtime.
There is no logic whatsoever in this peculiar ECB cricket-free Saturday ruling.
It will merely further alienate all those devotees of county cricket who have been following the game around the shires for decades.
It is an absurd decision taken by bureaucrats and committee men with little consideration for the soul and spirit of the national summer game.
In seasons past, the third or fourth days of fixtures, when games are often drawing to potentially riveting climaxes – yes, county cricket can be as compelling as any sporting event on earth for a few of us – have been arranged for Saturdays.
This seemed to make eminent sense, even to the men in blazers who think they know best.
Many county followers are retired, but there are thousands of others with full-time jobs who may not be able to attend midweek fixtures.
This season, for the first time ever as far as I am aware, the majority of games will start on Sundays, providing some weekend solace for dyed-in-the-wool county fans but none for those seeking an enthralling finale.
The ‘Sunday is best’ decision is yet another sign that county cricket is being increasingly marginalised, a mere sideshow to the unstoppable juggernaut that is international cricket, with its year-in, year-out domination of all things cricket.
Print coverage of the counties has been diminishing for years, with the nationals and regionals paying scant attention to the game – with a few honourable exceptions – compared to the fortunes of England.
Even the latest county scores, once an hourly fixture on the BBC, are no longer guaranteed.
But the county game, at its best, offers an irreplaceable, charming alternative to the obsession with England.
Not everybody wants to join the Barmy Army. I have no desire to dress up as Dennis the Menace, Darth Vader, Superman or even Fred Flintstone when I make my way to Trent Bridge over the course of the English summer.
Broadcasting great John Arlott, who more than any other cricket commentator understood CLR James’s famous dictum ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ once described the county game as the true soul of cricket. But that was decades ago.
Another of the cricket world’s all-time greats, Sir Neville Cardus, once said, equally memorably: “It is more than a game, this cricket. It somehow holds the mirror up to English nature.”
In a highly prescient book, Betrayal, the Struggle for Cricket’s Soul, written more than 20 years ago, former Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac editor Graeme Wright, wrote: “Cricket may not be one of THE great institutions, but it is a great one nonetheless, and Britain will have lost something when first-class cricket is no more than just a game; no more than a means of making money for marketing men bent on making their mark.”
To a very large extent, the Wright vision – articulated years before Twenty20, the meaningless circus that is the Indian Premier League, back to back Ashes series and all the rest – has come to pass.
Even non-cricket lovers might ponder on that as they drive past the padlocked gates of Lord’s and Trent Bridge, Edgbaston and the Oval on Saturdays this coming summer.
The Cardus mirror reflecting English nature is cracked, with a plethora of pound signs distorting the view.