‘I’ve been called a moron, cretin and old fart’: Life as a county cricket member in 2024

Spectators watch a County Championship match between Sussex and Somerset at Hove in 2009/'I've been called a moron, cretin and old fart': Life as a county cricket member in 2024
Spectators watch a County Championship match between Sussex and Somerset at Hove - PA/Clive Gee

“I’ve been called a moron, a cretin, an old fart, a dinosaur,” bristles David Wright. Huddled up in his coat to protect himself from a biting spring wind, he discusses something that can feel even more tribal than politics: English domestic cricket.

While watching Surrey’s opening game at the Oval this summer, Wright, 55 and a newly retired mortgage adviser, explains how toxic the discourse within the game has become. Those like him – who support the retention of a 14-game County Championship season and have no warmth towards the Hundred – have come to feel besieged.

Fifteen of the 18 counties – all bar Durham, Hampshire and Northamptonshire – are member-controlled. Members losing this role is a growing concern, with private investment being discussed. Further reform to the domestic schedule is also being mooted again; this week, the Professional Cricketers’ Association advocated cuts to the county fixture list.

“There has been some ill-tempered stuff,” Wright reflects of the debate about county cricket, on social media and in person. “Fundamentally, that’s been aimed at me because I want to watch Surrey play cricket, which doesn’t feel like too bad a crime.”

Like several other members from across the country who share such views, Wright brings up two comments. First, in November 2022, after the reaction to the High Performance Review, which advocated cuts to the county schedule, a county source lamented members’ power, telling Telegraph Sport: “It is not the tail wagging the dog but the fleas on the tail wagging the dog.” Second, Durham chief executive Tim Bostock called members “Luddites”, as quoted in Ben Bloom’s new book about the county game, Batting for Time.

“Those are pretty appalling comments,” says Wright, whose first season as a Surrey member was 1983. “The foundations of the game, and many of its most dedicated supporters, are under attack.

“Some people want us to be utterly silent and just let the game be run by the money man. And it raises the question of what is the game for? Is it purely to make money?

“When you’re building a business, you build on the customers that you have. You don’t tell your existing customer base to get stuffed.”

A general view during the Vitality County Championship match between Surrey and Somerset at the Kia Oval on April 12, 2024/'I've been called a moron, cretin and old fart': Life as a county cricket member in 2024
Surrey host Somerset in front of a fair smattering of spectators at the Oval in the County Championship last month - Getty Images/Ben Hoskins

With the occasional interlude, the history of county cricket is, essentially, one of enduring amid existential threat.

The florid writing of Neville Cardus created an image of a ‘golden age’ of county cricket running from around 1895 until World War One. Yet even this period was one in which many counties suffered gravely from financial strife, as the academics Keith Sandiford and Wray Vamplew document.

Counties scrapped second elevens, cut the number of ground staff or stopped providing lunch for young players. Before World War One, financial peril led Worcestershire and Gloucestershire to call members’ meetings to discuss withdrawing from the County Championship. Essex literally flogged a dead horse – it was sold for 7s 6d – to stay afloat.

‘We want what we always had’

To many members today, the period between the 1970s and 1990s were the modern heyday for county cricket, and not only because they associate these years with their own youth. At Thatcher’s Bar, watching the final day of Gloucestershire’s Championship match against Middlesex in Bristol, John Gordon, who has been watching county cricket since 1959, recalls the “golden days” of overseas stars like Mike Procter and Zaheer Abbas. Often he saw them together at Cheltenham, one of the most-loved outgrounds.

Cheltenham is only hosting one Championship game this year, another sign of what has changed – and, to many members, been lost. “There is an element of ‘we want what we’ve always had’,” Gordon says.

David Griffin, 62 and a retired soldier and policeman, has been a Derbyshire member for exactly 50 years. Reeling off a list of names he used to watch in the shires, he observes: “The equivalent today would be to have Virat Kohli facing Jasprit Bumrah. You got that virtually every day of 1970s, ’80s and ’90s county cricket. That was the absolute golden era.”

Yet the late 20th Century was an age when the England Test team struggled. It is a microcosm of an eternal debate: should the county game exist for its own sake, or merely to satisfy the demands of the England side?

Two spectators watch the action during day one of the County Championship match between Hampshire and Warwickshire at the Utilita Bowl, Southampton on April 19, 2024/'I've been called a moron, cretin and old fart': Life as a county cricket member in 2024
Dedicated fans watch Hampshire take on Warwickshire at Southampton in this year's County Championship - PA/Andrew Matthews

As Rob Key’s recent plea for bowlers to bowl at 85mph in domestic cricket reiterated, saying that he was more interested in speed than averages, England’s management do not believe that the county game is set up to produce a successful Test side. Members also do not think that the domestic game is anything like the best competition that it can be. If county cricket must try to please two masters, right now it is pleasing neither.

‘Saying members have too much power is like saying voters do’

Nevil Road, Gloucestershire’s ground, brims with mementos of the great names who have represented the club in the past, which include two of English cricket’s most storied names: WG Grace and Wally Hammond. But one plaque celebrates fans, rather than players. In the Covid-ruined summer of 2020, 650 members donated their full membership fees to help to keep the club alive. All now have their names inscribed at the club, below a sign that reads ‘With grateful thanks to our members and supporters’.

“It makes me angry,” Gordon says when asked how he feels to be called a Luddite. He points to the plaque. “The members may be limited and some of the views may be out of date, but actually, your members care about cricket.”

Gordon rattles off a list of changes that he has come to welcome. Then, he pauses. “Franchises are probably the one that’s far more difficult for me to accept.”

Spectators read the paper as the start of play is delayed ahead of the Vitality County Championship match between Kent and Surrey at the Spitfire Ground on April 19, 2024 in Canterbury/'I've been called a moron, cretin and old fart': Life as a county cricket member in 2024
Spectators wait as play is delayed for rain ahead of the County Championship match between Kent and Surrey in Canterbury last month - Getty Images/Justin Setterfield

Two years ago, Gordon was among those who walked around Nevil Road with a clipboard in hand, getting signatures opposed to cuts in the number of County Championship matches proposed by Andrew Strauss’s High Performance Review. Members made it clear to county boards that they would not countenance the cut from 14 games to 10, which followed a previous cut from 16 matches after the 2016 season. “It showed that there’s still some power with the members,” Gordon says, with a wry laugh. “It was good to flex our very few muscles.”

The episode encapsulates the debate about members’ role. As many county members concede, the group tends to be more pale, male and stale than the overall demographic of fans in the country. There are around 70,000 county members today; counting white-ball and junior members, who generally do not have voting rights, there are a total of 115,000 members. The number varies wildly between counties: Surrey have over 19,000 members. The lowest figure is believed to be Derbyshire, sneaking just into four figures.

“If Derbyshire disappeared tomorrow, you would lose an inordinate amount of people who’ve got an interest in the game,” says Griffin. “History and heritage count for something.”

Alan Higham is a member of three counties: Lancashire, his boyhood club; and Hampshire and Surrey, near where he now lives. Two years ago, Higham became one of the most influential voices in the English game: as national coordinator of the County Cricket Members Group, he led the successful grassroots campaign against the Championship cut.

“We live in a democracy and we’re used to leaders having some form of consent,” he says. “My concern would simply be about the way in which the people who run the game have the debates about the choices we need to make.”

Asked whether members have too much influence, Higham retorts: “It’s like saying that voters have too much power.”

Higham laments opaque decision-making among county clubs and the England and Wales Cricket Board alike. “You’re seeing changes pushed through that supporters haven’t consented to and that is leading to fractures and divisions within the game.”

While Bostock complained of a small number of members holding sway, Surrey member Wright says: “He seems to be OK with huge changes being made by 20 to 25 people: the ECB and county CEOs. I know which one sounds more democratic.

“If anything, cricket fans have been too apathetic. Look at the reaction of the football fans to the European Super League. If cricket fans had a 10th of that passion, maybe things could have been a bit different.”

‘A compromise where some member power is retained could work’

If the summer of 2022 was the moment of greatest feuding between county fans and English cricket’s suits, there has been a slight rapprochement since.

For now, there are no proposed Championship cuts. Several members draw a favourable contrast between the attitude of Richard Thompson and Richard Gould, who began their stints as chair and chief executive in the winter of 2022/23, and previous holders of their roles, notably Tom Harrison and Colin Graves. This year, Championship games are mostly being scheduled from Friday to Monday, based on research into fan preferences.

Yet new battles lie ahead. This summer, Alex Hales and Jason Roy will both miss Twenty20 Blast matches to play in either the United States’s Major League Cricket or the Lanka Premier League in Sri Lanka. Even English players not playing the international game now have more lucrative alternatives to the county game.

While most members begrudgingly concede that the Hundred will remain, private investment in the competition is a new concern. “Big money never says ‘we’ve had enough’,” reflects Wright, who fears that this will ultimately lead to the Hundred expanding to the further detriment of county cricket. If he did not oppose investment in the Hundred, Wright says, he could not look friends in the eye who are members of counties that are not attached to Hundred teams.

Budgetary pressures have left counties feeling newly embattled. Annual ECB payments to counties remain static over a five-year broadcasting cycle; Gloucestershire estimate that the value of their ECB income declined by £750,000 in real terms from 2020 to 2024 due to inflation and the largely fixed nature of ECB funding.

Changes in interest rates and increases in energy costs added a further £250,000 on to their bills. Since 2022, five counties have received an advance on their payments from the ECB.

Should ECB funding for smaller counties reduce, sides such as Derbyshire could be imperilled, even though they have made a profit for 16 of the past 18 years. Griffin points out that reliance upon central ECB funding is nothing new.

“Can we survive? Absolutely. But the way we wouldn’t survive is if they said, ‘we’re going to withdraw all funding from the centre’.

“I believe it should be funded from the centre because if you go for every man for himself, in 10 years’ time there’ll only be eight clubs left.

“That’s the fundamental choice. Do you allow the centre to continue to keep you going? Or do you just say ‘pull the ladder up, Jim’ and it’s every man for himself? Because then we’ll get what we’ve got in football – we’ll have clubs going to the wall.”

Fans watch Derbyshire take on Essex in a County Championship Division Two match at the County Ground in 2016/'I've been called a moron, cretin and old fart': Life as a county cricket member in 2024
Fans watch Derbyshire take on Essex in a Division Two match at the County Ground in 2016 - Alamy

Derbyshire have long felt maligned. “You always go to Derbyshire when your career is on the wane; that’s the last club you go to,” the Australian Stuart Law, who played for the side in 2009, later told New Zealand’s Ross Taylor.

Griffin accepts that clubs like Derbyshire will effectively be feeder sides. “That’s what we are now – we can’t hold on to our best players,” he says. “I want us to be able to play some form of cricket against other counties. And I’m not really bothered if we never play the big boys again.”

For all the focus upon private investment in the Hundred, private investment in the county game is an increasingly salient issue.

“There’s quite a lot of that feeling members do get in the way of things,” says Annie Chave, a Somerset member who is also a columnist for The Cricket Paper. “A lot of members do feel like we’re [seen as] just getting in the way of progress.”

Asked about the suggestion that members have too much power, “I understand what he’s saying because cricket is a massive game,” she says. “Members care about the game, they’ve been there through thick and thin and they will always be there to support. I’m a real fan of cooperatives and member-owned clubs.”

To Gordon, Gloucestershire’s financial turbulence, which is leading the club to press ahead with plans to leave Nevil Road, emphasises that the financial model of county clubs might have to change. “Clubs will need some kind of big capital injection,” he reflects. “Will the model of members’ clubs survive? Probably not.”

Yet he fears what this might mean. “I would be worried. Maybe I’m looking for some kind of British compromise whereby the members retain some power.”

Injecting greater funding into the domestic game; and appeasing county members. As English cricket attempts to balance both these aims in the coming years, the fear is that the two are irreconcilable.