Champion County Match Faced With Identity Crisis

Ask any county cricket fan about the season’s “traditional curtain-raiser”, and they will tell you that side time immemorial, the county season has started with a first-class fixture between the previous season’s County Champions and an MCC XI.

However, as with so many things in cricket, there is an element of urban myth about the Champion County fixture. Indeed, whilst fixtures between the MCC and the County Champions often took place following the end of the Championship season in the pre-war era, the current format has only been in place since 1970. Even since then, there have been interruptions: in the 1990s, the County Champions often played an England ‘A’ side rather than the MCC, and between 1998 and 2003, no ‘curtain-raiser’ was played at all.

Therefore, any sentimentality about the fixture should be treated with scepticism: whilst the Champion County game does have some history, it is not the rich tradition that many believe.

With this in mind, the fixture currently faces an identity crisis.

Abu Dhabi Switch

Towards the end of 2009, the MCC announced that the 2010 Champion County fixture would not take place at the ‘traditional’ venue of Lord’s, but instead at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.

At the time, John Stephenson, the MCC’s Head of Cricket, gave two reasons for the switch.

“Firstly, we felt that the proposed fixture schedule for Lord’s [April 3-5] was far too early in the year to play meaningful cricket, with poor weather a very likely possibility,” he claimed in a press release.

“Secondly, we’ve been asking cricket authorities around the world to help us trial the pink ball under floodlights. If this match is a success, it could help to reinvigorate Test cricket. We have an opportunity to play our part for the good of the game and we’re determined to grasp it.”

The trial of the pink ball has been extremely successful. Whilst the 2010 fixture was the first time a first-class game had seen a pink ball and floodlights used, the format has now become part of the cricketing furniture, with three Test matches already played under those conditions.

And whilst this year’s fixture was the first time that the pink Dukes ball has been used, little was learned: both sets of seamers found that the twilight period was the time when the ball swung most, and the ball held its colour very well, as has become the norm.

Nothing More To Learn

However, this experiment has come to its end. With a round of County Championship fixtures and a Test against the West Indies set to be played with a pink ball in day/night conditions, there is little to be learned from staging any more first-class games in Abu Dhabi.

Therefore, the purpose of hosting the game in the United Arab Emirates must be questioned. The MCC is an associate partner of the Abu Dhabi Cricket Club, but this partnership appears to be a futile exercise. The UAE’s national team still faces the same problems it always has: the side is still almost exclusively made up of Pakistani immigrants, and it remains difficult to convince Emiratis to play, especially given that the only real cricketing facility – the Sheikh Zayed Stadium and the surrounding pitches – are so remote that they are only reachable by car or taxi.

Furthermore, the venue itself has not been tended to at all well. Whilst the players’ facilities, press box and VIP seating areas remain in an acceptable condition, the rest of the ground appears to have been left alone for several years. The seats in both the South and North stands are caked in thick layers of dust; abandoned advertising boards from the first few rounds of the 2014 IPL and toppled wheelie bins block the stairs to one block of the upper tier; and seats remain ripped out of the North Stand, with no plans seemingly in place to replace them.

Why, then, does the MCC persist in hosting the fixture in Abu Dhabi?

The fixture this year was watched by barely 500 fans across the three days, with the overwhelming majority British tourists: it is hardly the case that hosting the game there is drawing in a new audience for cricket. Indeed, over 150 Middlesex fans signed a petition requesting that the fixture be played at Lord’s rather than in the desert this year, although their clamours fell on deaf ears.

Experiencing New Conditions

It could be suggested that the game tests young English players in challenging overseas conditions. Joe Clarke proved his credentials against spin this week, whilst Jack Leach demonstrated control with his left-arm spin. Hampshire’s Mason Crane would be the first to admit he did not bowl at his best, but he demonstrated that he has the wicket-taking knack with four second-innings wickets.

However, this is exactly the reason that the England Lions exist. In recent years, the Lions has become a development side for players like Clarke and Leach, who both played in four-day games for them this winter.

Indeed, it is time for the MCC to come to their senses and either move this game back to the UK – be it at Lord’s or at the home of the Champion County – or, if a game in the first week of April is considered too likely to be weather-affected to a location that will encourage more fans to go, such as the rumoured Barbados or Antigua.

A North-South Replacement

There is, of course, a third option. In light of the recent North-South one-day series in the UAE, which is considered to have achieved its aims of giving the best county players a chance to perform in front of the ECB, the series could be extended to include a first-class game, with the Champion County fixture done away with altogether.

By resting three first-choice bowlers in Toby Roland-Jones, Steven Finn and Ollie Rayner, Middlesex demonstrated that the MCC game was a glorified pre-season friendly for them, and whilst the fixture was followed by plenty in the UK, there would only be so much lost from scrapping the ‘curtain-raiser’, and replacing it with a game between the best players in the county game that the England selectors wish to take a further look at.

However, what is certain is that there is limited merit in holding another Champion County fixture in Abu Dhabi. This week’s game was a fantastic, close-fought game of first-class cricket that ended in the most dramatic way; but with only around 150 spectators there to witness it, something has to give. Either the game should be moved to a location where more fans can see it, or it must be scrapped altogether.