The best, most compelling cricket going on anywhere last weekend wasn’t being played in London or Mumbai, but Hove, where Sussex were taking on Middlesex in the Second Division of the County Championship.
There, one of the world’s best young fast bowlers, Shaheen Shah Afridi, was squaring off against one of its best old Test batsmen, Cheteshwar Pujara. The match was in the balance, Sussex were 40 runs ahead and had eight wickets left in their second innings and the two fought over it through that day and into the next. It felt like Championship cricket the way old salts tell you it always used to be back in their playing days.
These are good weeks for county cricket, a reminder of the Championship’s strengths at a time when it is being blamed for so many of the English game’s failings, and a rejoinder to those who insist that the competition needs to be entirely reinvented.
Sussex did well to sign Pujara while he has a point to prove to the Indian selectors who dropped him from their Test squad. He has scored four centuries in back-to-back matches now, and is racing against Pakistan’s opener Shan Masood, among others, to try to become the first batsman to score 1,000 first-class runs by the end of May since Graeme Hick did it in 1988.
It’s a great story, but it is running alongside the Indian Premier League, which, as Graham Gooch once put it, is a bit like a fart competing with thunder. Some of the reports make Pujara sound like a man who has gone off to prove himself by serving on some wild and distant northern border of the sport.
He’s not the only one out there. Pujara made a good chunk of his runs in partnership with his new teammate Mohammad Rizwan, who has just been named Wisden’s Twenty20 player of the year. The world’s leading Test batsman, Marnus Labuschagne, is at Glamorgan. His sometime teammates Marcus Harris and Matt Renshaw are trying to force their way back into the Australia side through their performances for Gloucestershire and Somerset respectively. And along with Afridi, Hasan Ali, Haris Rauf, Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Amir and, until he was injured, Naseem Shah, are all out there terrorising batters. Pakistani quicks have replaced South African all-rounders as the season’s must-have accessory.
The common denominator, of course, is that they are all players who did not make it to the IPL. Labuschagne, like Pujara, went unsold in the auction, while the Pakistanis are still shut out of it. But there’s a glimpse here of where the Championship fits into the sport, as a red-ball tournament partly run in parallel with the IPL. And right now, if first-class cricket is your thing, it’s where your attention is drawn too. Especially if you’re English.
The overseas players may not have had a choice, but some of the homegrown ones did. Ben Stokes laid down a marker when he decided not to enter the IPL auction because he wanted to make Test cricket his priority. It was interesting to hear that he told Saqib Mahmood that he ought to do the same.
The other reason why these early weeks of the Championship have been so interesting is that there are so many English players with something to prove, whether they’re older ones such as Dom Sibley and Rory Burns, who are trying to show they deserve another shot at Test cricket. Or younger ones such as Harry Brook and Tom Haines, making the case that they should get it instead.
If you’re English and want to get ahead in Test cricket this season, you need to be playing in the Championship. Which invites the question whether that should go for coaches too.
All the talk is that England may need to give one, or both, of the two head coaching roles to men who will want to double it up with their current jobs in the IPL. Brendon McCullum, who is apparently now the favourite for the Test job, has been working as the head coach of the Kolkata Knight Riders (although it’s interesting to see that there are reports that he may have fallen out with either, or both, of the captain and chief executive, so who knows how that will go), and another of the favourites, Gary Kirsten, is with the Gujarat Titans.
England’s director of cricket, Rob Key, says it’s better to have the right man for 10 months of the year than the wrong one for 12. Better yet, of course, to get the right man all year round. Or is that really not an option?
There’s a lot to like about McCullum, and the idea that he might oversee the sort of revival that he led in New Zealand when he was captain there. But unless he’s going to give up the IPL he needs to persuade English cricket that he will bring so much to the job that it would compensate for the fact that he would be away working in another country, in another format, for a significant stretch of the first-class season.
Which is a hard case to make. Because as soon as the team loses the job share will become a problem for him and the England and Wales Cricket Board, in the same way that England’s rugby union head coach Eddie Jones’s (much smaller) consultancy role at Suntory Sungoliath has for English rugby. And understandably so. It would be different in white-ball cricket, where the two jobs might at least be complementary, but right now, it really feels like English Test cricket needs undivided attention.