Haseeb Hameed and his new England colleagues are back in the shires as the county game enjoys a rare moment in the sun – metaphorically and literally
It has been a strange start to the cricket season. The established pattern is that the “summer” game – misnamed since so much of the action takes place in spring and autumn – creeps into action as dozily as a hedgehog coming out of hibernation. But this year cricket somehow seems more prominent.
Usually there is just the shuffling of the shelf to make room for the latest Wisden, whose 154th edition was launched at Lord’s on Wednesday. Another yellow-bound beauty, another notch in the passage of time. For those revelling in symmetry and order, which accounts for so many cricket nuts, the latest Wisden just has to be perused and then plonked alongside the rest of them.
But in 2017 there are some oddities. We have been talking cricket for a while. The Twenty20 issue briefly made the national news. To call it an argument would be inappropriate. No argument has been sought or encouraged by the England and Wales Cricket Board. Instead counties, outmanoeuvred by the centre, find themselves taking the money and hoping for the best. Most of them do not have a choice with a promise of £1.3m each year, a figure that most effectively stifles meaningful debate .
There is plenty more positive stuff. For the parochially English there is fresh attraction in the Indian Premier League, which kicked off on Wednesday. Each squad has an Englishman and there is the curiosity about how Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Tymal Mills and Chris Woakes, whose $500,000 IPL contract somehow prevented him collecting his leather‑bound Wisden for being one of the cricketers of the year, are faring. In the Tavern Bar at Lord’s before the Wisden dinner hacks could be seen dutifully staring at the TV and noting Mills’ figures in his first match. One for 31 from four overs is hardly noteworthy in itself but Mills is now news.
So there seems to be more visibility about the game at the start of the County Championship. The memories return of last September, the melodrama of the finish at Lord’s coupled with the despair at Taunton. Middlesex’s Toby Roland‑Jones, who took that hat-trick against Yorkshire, was another of Wisden’s cricketers of the year and he received his special copy from a grateful Angus Fraser, who was still smiling. There have been five months in which to bask in the warm glow of victory but the champions’ director of cricket is more aware than most that success in 2016 counts for nothing now. Middlesex begin the defence of their title in the second round of games when they meet the Lazari of Hampshire.
At Lord’s last Wednesday night there was no shortage of smiles. Guy Lavender, Somerset’s chief executive, raised his eyes and took in the scenery in the knowledge that he would be taking over from Derek Brewer as MCC’s CEO in September. There is a bit more to look after than at Taunton, where Lavender has done an excellent job. He is bound to enhance the reputation that Lord’s has earned in the 21st century as a friendly rather than forbidding place.
Lawrence Booth, Wisden’s editor, was smiling too, perhaps in relief that another 1,536-page almanack was complete. And maybe there was relief that the evening passed so smoothly. This time there were no losses of temper from the representatives of the ECB. Colin Graves sat at Booth’s side and behaved impeccably. So, too, did the two cricketers of the year present, Roland‑Jones and Ben Duckett.
Who will be those cricketers next year? This is impossible to predict, but who would England’s selectors like to be strong candidates as a sign that the holes in their Test side are being addressed? A couple of spinners would be handy. Mason Crane has an unforgettable name and this winter became the first English spinner to play in the Sheffield Shield since … well, me, actually. His triumph was that he performed so well in grade cricket, which is not always an easy environment for a visiting Pom, that the state selectors of New South Wales chose to pick him – unlike the Hampshire selectors for the county’s current game against Yorkshire. That is one sad consequence of starting the season so early.
Jack Leach, the Somerset left-arm spinner, has had a wretched winter through no fault of his own. A few employees at the ECB might sleep more easily if he had another excellent season with discussion about only his wickets rather than his action. Haseeb Hameed, Lancashire’s opening batsman and most probably England’s when the Tests start against South Africa, has raised very high expectations. It would be handy if he headed to Australia established as one of England’s openers.
Most of Hameed’s new England colleagues – provided they are not engaged in the IPL – are going to be turning out for their counties this April, which is another thing to be cheerful about since this raises the profile of the game. There are, however, some distractions. Andy Wilson, once of this parish in part as rugby league correspondent but now doing sterling work to promote county cricket in his role at the ECB, has pointed out that there were five simultaneous Super League games on Friday. And he acknowledges there are one or two other sporting contests of note among Premier League football teams as well as those at Augusta and Aintree.
Most surprising of all, the sun is shining. This year there are unlikely to be any snowflakes in the pictures to ridicule the advent of the cricket season. Enjoy it while you can.