This spring offers something special and unusual for the cricket fan. For once it will be far easier to see an England cricketer in the shires in April than a cuckoo. By a quirk of the international fixture list there will be England cricketers everywhere, the only major absentees being those engaged in the Indian Premier League.
Roll up to Chelmsford on Friday when the County Championship begins and, if there is a hint of green in the pitch, watch two modern giants of the game in opposition with Jimmy Anderson marking out his run as Alastair Cook takes guard. Both are impressively proud of their county backgrounds at Lancashire and Essex; both will relish the duel although there remains the assumption that there will not be quite the same venom in Anderson’s quiet barbs when he beats the outside edge.
Stuart Broad has already turned out for Nottinghamshire against Cambridge University and he will start his Championship season in the second division and back at Leicester where it all began. Even the busy new England captain, Joe Root, will be on duty for Yorkshire in at least one Championship match as well as in three 50-over games before the international season commences.
It is a bit odd that this should be deemed worthwhile since it has been decided that 50-over cricket in 2020 is unnecessary for the best players. But in 2017 it is essential preparation for the Champions Trophy, which takes place at the Oval, Cardiff and Edgbaston throughout June.
Cricket fans, a long-suffering bunch, have long since recognised that there is no set pattern to an English summer. However, in 2017 the changes to the international season are an understandable consequence of the Champions Trophy. So for England the emphasis is on one-day cricket until 6 July, when the first Test of the summer against South Africa begins at Lord’s.
In all there will be seven Tests, with three against the West Indies after the South Africa series, in just over two months, followed by the mandatory ODI series at the tail end of the season. The last game is a floodlit match at the Ageas Bowl on 29 September, a fixture that was probably not conceived by any doughty soul who has actually been huddled inside anoraks and blankets out in the windswept stands of the Hampshire countryside at 9pm. But it may make for good television.
The lights will also be beaming out in Birmingham in August for the first floodlit Test match in this country – against West Indies. Floodlit cricket can be a brilliant spectacle – especially in Australia – so that is why we are trying it here. I won’t get too grumpy about this, partly because if it does not work well it is easy to ditch the idea in the future – unlike some of the other innovations in the ECB pipeline.
Much of the international cricket should be fascinating. England might claim they should have won the last two finals of the Champions Trophy played in this country in 2004 and 2013. In a refreshingly brisk tournament they have the chance to atone under Eoin Morgan, the single-minded white-ball specialist and, more recently, the foremost ECB advocate of the brave new world.
Thereafter Root takes the helm for the first time in Test cricket against South Africa, a more demanding challenge than the second series against the West Indies. At the very least England must hope that by the end of the season there is no debate over who should lead the side in Australia this winter; at best England would travel there with two series victories under the belt.
For all the bluster – after a 4-0 defeat in India and a draw in Bangladesh we still heard much about the prodigious talent in the dressing room and how England “were in a good place” – there are frailties. The “old firm”, who take possession of the new ball, may be creaking; there is no certainty about how the top order lines up, though it should be intriguing to monitor the evolution of Haseeb Hameed. And the doubts remain about the spinners, though England’s next three series will not be so spin-orientated as last winter.
Likewise the women have the challenge to revisit previous highs. The Women’s World Cup occupies a month of the season, culminating in the final at Lord’s on 23 July. It would be fanciful to suggest that Heather Knight is leading the favourites.
Domestically it would be greedy to expect a climax to the season as captivating as the one that thrilled and tormented a remarkably large number of people last September. The tension surrounding Middlesex’s triumph in 2016 did much to bolster the Championship. As a consequence, when the plans for 2020 are being plotted there have been no designs to reduce the number of Championship games even further.
This summer each county will play 14 four-day matches. The first division now has just eight teams, so everyone plays each other home and away. There are 10 second division sides, so that symmetry is disturbed. Those aghast at the inequity of this should perhaps remember that this was always the case from the 60s to the 90s.
It is important to remember that early in the season matches now start on Fridays, not Wednesdays. Later in the summer they revert to Tuesdays – or Mondays. They like to keep you on your toes. Also, to save wasting time in the week of 26 June it may be handy to note that there will be a round of floodlit Championship matches starting at 2pm and finishing at 9pm. To call these games “floodlit” may be disingenuous. At that time of year it is barely dark at 9pm. Again, this is a format that works well in Australia.
The NatWest Blast reverts to being played in a block with matches starting on 7 July. Is it now a seditious act to hope that this year’s tournament is a spectacular success with record attendances and culminating in a victory for one of the “smaller” counties – like Northamptonshire last year? These are the clubs that have apparently given their unstinting support to the ECB’s 2020 plans, yet have been firmly instructed not to talk about them.