England’s Test failures will raise the County Championship’s profile | Rob Smyth

There are 30 or 40 players who could make the first Test against Pakistan and the start of the County Championship on Friday is their chance to stake a claim

The weather is miserable, the football season is approaching the business end – yes, it’s time for hackneyed but well-meaning jokes about the start of the cricket season. The County Championship begins on Friday with some enticing fixtures, including Yorkshire v Essex and Lancashire v Nottinghamshire in Division One. The Spin is so excited that we won’t be able to sit still until we have shared with you, dear reader, our Five Talking Points/Things to Look Forward to This Season. Here they are:

1) Overseas players

There is a school of thought, albeit not one you’d be wise to share at closing time in Britain’s more antediluvian public houses, that a competition is only as good as its foreign players. If that’s the case, county cricket is in splendid health in 2018. Cheteshwar Pujara, Aiden Markram (probably the world’s best young batsman, if you’ve been asleep for the last six months), Kane Williamson, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn are among those who will play in the championship, while Virat Kohli (gasp!), Dean Elgar (swoon!) and Steve Smith (you what?!) could join them.

The record-breaking Afghanistan leg‑spinner Rashid Khan is among the T20 recruits, along with the Australian pace bowlers Billy Stanlake and Andrew Tye. Even the Kolpak signings look more exciting than usual, with the wonderful Morne Morkel joining Surrey. As well as the increased entertainment, the benefits for young English players are enormous. Talking of which …

2) The Test dream

The County Championship is usually blamed when England return to being useless at Test cricket. But there is an upside to having recycled abuse flung in its direction. England’s poor winter means a craving for change, which means greater focus on the championship. The early weeks of the season will be spent looking at the form of the 30 or 40 players who could conceivably be picked for the first Test against Pakistan, with mundane observations such as “I see Vince has got runs” or “I see Vince has failed again” punctuating the daily grind.

The weather and pitches will not make it easy for batsmen but everyone from Joe Clarke to Sam Northeast knows a succession of big scores would give them a great chance of making a Test debut. That’s quite an incentive for them – and for us to steal just one more look at the scorecard before the boss puts his boot up our monitor.

3) Moaning points

This isn’t, strictly speaking, something to look forward to – unless you are one of those who needs the occasional cathartic grumble to survive the modern world. There are plenty of such people among the cricket fraternity. Complaints about the marginalisation of the County Championship will be a recurring theme of the season. The schedule, with the majority of the matches in April, May and September, is almost the exact opposite of what England need if they are to develop a side that can compete away from home in Test cricket. With the ball moving around on helpful pitches, it’ll likely be the usual story of Poms and dobbers.

Balancing finance and sporting integrity is evidently a lot harder than we bedroom idealists realise, and there is an increasing fear that the England and Wales Cricket Board is wrestling with an unsolvable problem. Even if that is true, it won’t stop many of the summer’s talking points rapidly turning into moaning points.

4) The Continuing Adventures of Haseeb Hameed

The Spin makes no apologies for a slightly excessive obsession with Haseeb Hameed. He is an adorable fusion of Geoff Boycott, Gary Neville and Rushmore’s Max Fischer. We have never seen a young England batsman demonstrate such a range of virtues as he did during his maiden Test series in India 18 months ago. You suspect Trevor Bayliss is desperate to get him back in as soon as form and opportunity are in sync.

Hameed had a dreadful sophomore season in 2017 but it is nothing to worry about in the long term. He is barely 21, younger than most batsmen when they are discussed for a debut, never mind a recall. After a decent winter with the Lions, he can start afresh this week.

England will face a lot of spin in the next 12 months, with series at home to Pakistan and India followed by trips to Sri Lanka and the West Indies. At the moment that is Hameed’s greatest strength, so it might make sense for England to ease him back into the side in the middle order at No 3 or No 4. Most of England’s greatest modern openers, including Alastair Cook, Mike Atherton and Graham Gooch, had an educational stint down the order early in their careers. The timing of Hameed’s return needs to be right, for him and the team. But the world will make more sense when it happens.

5) County Cricket – Live!

A shameless bit of self-promotion here, but you’ll allow us that. You will allow us that, won’t you? Our county blog, with regular updates above the line and gentle chatter below it, is a little nook of calm in a digital maelstrom: a place full of warmth, wit and essential details about the cricket and the press-box food.

This year it won’t be hosted by Will Macpherson, who has been snapped up by the Standard on his journey to cricket-writing stardom. We’ll miss him plenty, though you can still read him over there; we won’t mind. For the start of the season we’ll copy the Have I Got News For You model and have a series of guest hosts. Be nice to them.

This is an extract taken from the Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe just visit this page and follow the instructions.



Rob Smyth

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