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Duncan Hamilton on Cricket's Identity Crisis

Posted on 3rd July 2020 by Mark Skinner

Duncan Hamilton's magisterial A Last English Summer captured the game of county cricket just as the notorious Twenty20 tournament hove into view. Now, in the superb follow-up, One Long and Beautiful Summer, Hamilton reflects on the drastic changes that The Hundreds could bring to the game. In this exclusive piece, the triple William Hill Sports Book of the Year-winner  discusses cricket's eternal tussle between tradition and modernity.     

Every week since the beginning of April, which is when the season was supposed to start, I’ve gone through a wistful little ritual. It involves staring at the fixtures and wondering where I ought to be.

Trent Bridge, of course; it was my boyhood home. Headingley (Yorkshire has been my local club for the past 17 years). Lord’s, where I knew I’d have my annual squabble with a white-coated steward about where I could and couldn’t sit in near-empty stands. I’d also planned to go, very early on, to Chelmsford to watch Essex, who I’d seen deservedly – and with a twitch of drama – win the Championship against Somerset at Taunton last September. Because of the circumstances of the past few months, I’d swear that match was played at least two lifetimes ago.

The places I haven’t seen in this sun-soaked summer just mount up: The Parks at Oxford, Chester-le-Street, Old Trafford and, possibly, Guildford. By far the most poignant is Scarborough. On Sunday, June 14, North Marine Road was due to stage The Roses Match, the first there in 29 years and only the third in the history of Yorkshire-Lancashire cricket, a contest which began in 1849, the year the Corn Laws were abolished. 

On what should have been the game’s opening morning, I sat at home and thought about being in Scarborough. I’d have done what I always do. I’d have collected the morning papers from the corner newsagents. I’d have admired the front gardens of the boarding houses, full of begonias in terracotta pots. I’d have claimed a scorecard and found my usual spot on the Popular Bank. I’d have bought a strong cup of milk-less tea and a bacon roll. At lunch, I’d have wandered over the road and been fanned by the breeze coming off the North Sea.

Oh, well. Dreaming costs nothing.

The reason I love Scarborough goes well beyond those small pleasures. Or the fact that cricket by the sea is always different from cricket anywhere else.

The attraction is that North Marine Road represents a kind of cricketing Brigadoon. In the pavilion, you’ll find photographs, some of them snapped a century ago, that you think could almost be contemporary. That’s because so little change has occurred in the landscape. The changes you do detect have been done with a kindly hand, seldom disturbing history. Put it this way: Lord Hawke, the patriarch of Yorkshire’s cricket, has been dead for eighty-odd years, but he’d immediately recognise North Marine Road if, rising from his grave in Lambeth, he walked through the main gates again. 

This is important – at least to me – because cricket is always on the move. No sport, I think, so urgently feels the tug between modernity and tradition. It is – and perhaps always will be – in a struggle with itself. It constantly frets about whether the game is in tune with public taste. As a consequence, the laws (or rules), the playing conditions, the equipment and the formats are perpetually tinkered with in ways major and minor.

When I first began watching – I fib about that date the way I fib about my age – County Championships matches lasted three days, the knock out competition was 60 overs per side and every Sunday was devoted to the John Player League. There were no one day internationals, let alone a World Cup, and the Twenty20 competition wasn’t even a glint in an infant’s eye. You’d buy a copy of Playfair at the season’s start and know, with absolute certainty, that the playing rosters it listed so meticulously would barely alter until the season’s end. Nowadays, you’re never quite sure who is playing for whom until the teams get into the nets. I exaggerate, but not a lot.

Much to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I came to accept and then become fond of Twenty20, albeit from the comfort of my sofa. But as I watched it grow and gradually take a grip, like ivy spreading across a bare wall, I sensed the shift from red ball to white was sadly irreversible. That’s why, a decade ago, I wrote A Last English Summer. It captures the events of the 2009 season, which I believed was a tipping point.

Honestly, I didn’t want to be proved right.

My latest book, One Long and Beautiful Summer, is a sequel. It was written specifically in response to The Hundred, a tournament designed to appeal to people who don’t like cricket and find even Twenty20 a tad too long for them. Brace yourself for whiz-bang razzmatazz in city franchise form. The Roses Match, rather than pitting Yorks against Lancs, will be between Manchester Originals and the Northern Superchargers. I bet Neville Cardus and J M Kilburn are singing in Heaven about that . . .   

When it finally arrives, The Hundred will be more than a little reorganisation of the summer’s furniture. It will reorganise the domestic game. What lies ahead for the County Championship in particular isn’t extinction – not yet – but certainly further marginalisation.

The sub-title to One Long and Beautiful Summer is A Short Elegy for Red Ball Cricket. I got lucky. I witnessed some wonderful examples of it – from the village green to the high church of a Test match that ranks (probably) as the greatest ever played. If cricket as I prefer it perishes, I’ll draw solace from that.

Otherwise, I’ll just think about Scarborough.

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