Every player who wields cricket bat only aims for one goal in life, to play for their country. But the road to reaching this target is hard, there are countless matches in countless tournaments that you need to play and perform to be chosen for the national side. Of these, the first class competitions in your country play a major role in propelling you and giving you a good boost of expertise and experience to play at the highest level. In India, you may be familiar with the Ranji trophy in India. It is the highest level of domestic cricket in India with every state or region having a team in the tournament. Similarly, English county cricket is the pinnacle of the domestic sport in England and Wales. It is a professional competition featuring 18 first-class teams, each representing a county or region.
Credit: ESPN Cricinfo
In this chapter by ZAP, let’s know more about the history of the English County Cricket, the players to have played County Championship, and everything else.
What is English County Cricket?
The County Championship is the domestic first-class competition in England and Wales, which is organised by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). There are 18 clubs participating in the competition, 17 from England and 1 from Wales, all of which bear the names of historic counties and represent them.
But what are counties?
So in simple terms, counties are geographical areas of land in the United Kingdom, divided to make governance easy. Teams that have been given the International Cricket Council's (ICC) approval to participate in first-class contests are known as "first-class counties." 18 first-class counties in England and Wales are qualified to compete in the County Championship.
History and Origin of English County Cricket:
The history of the county championship can be traced back to the history of cricket. County championship has a rich history, with the first recorded match taking place in 1709. The County Championship is more than just a match for English and Welsh fans; it's an integral part of their history.
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Back in the 18th century, cricket matches between counties like Kent, Hampshire were played, and games were a matter of superiority not just for sport, but for the county as a whole. Often players from various cross town club played in these game, like the Hambledon club in Hamshire. By the dawn of 19th century, clubs like Sussex, Kent, and Nottinghamshire emerged as the strongest amongst all. As the sport grew, more and more matches were played amongst counties, there was a grave need to regulate these matches. The leagues got structured system in the 1860s.
From 1864 to 1889, the County Cricket Championship lacked official status, but gained momentum through press endorsements. Various sources, including publishers like W.G. Grace and publications such as Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, pitched their own criteria for the title. Common consensus leaned toward the team with the fewest losses, paving the way for later formal recognition.
It was decided upon a fixture schedule for the 1890 season at the annual conference of county club secretaries, which was held at Lord's on December 10, 1889. On May 12, 1890, Yorkshire and Gloucestershire played in the first-ever official County Championship match, which Yorkshire won by an eight-wicket margin.
The 18 First Class Counties in England and Wales include:
Derbyshire, Durham, Essex, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Middlesex, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Surrey, Sussex, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, and Yorkshire.
The promotion and relegation system, just like in football is used in county cricket in England and Wales guarantees that the best teams play in the top division of the County Championship. The two Division One teams with the fewest points are demoted to Division Two at the conclusion of each season, while the two Division Two teams with the most points are promoted.
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The best teams will have the chance to fight against one another thanks to this system, which keeps the County Championship competitive. It also gives level Two teams an incentive to perform well and advance to the top level.
English County Cricket Format:
All of us thought that county games were only first class or test match like games that lasted multiple days and the players have to play in white clothes, didn’t we? But that’s not true. You will be surprised to know that this tournament is not just played in the test format, but in a variety of formats.
Credit: Cricket World
The county cricket season is a test of endurance and skill, with teams playing over 14 matches in the County Championship. The top two teams from the championship qualify for the prestigious Bob Willis Trophy final, which is played at Lord's, the home of the sport.
This tournament involves the relegation and promotion method. The bottom 2 teams at the end of the reason gets demoted to the second division while the top teams in the second dimension get promoted to the first. This cycle continues and adds a sense of never ending competition to the game.
One Day Cup:
Apart from the first class games, one day games are also played as a part of county cricket. The One-Day Cup is a fifty-over limited overs match between first-class counties from England and Wales. It started in 2014 to take the position of the ECB 40 competition, which was active from 2010 to 2013. To align the tournament with One-Day Internationals, the number of overs per innings was increased from its 40-over predecessor to 50.
Aside from the County Championship, the Bob Willis Trophy and the One Day Cup, the tournament also features a limited-overs competition known as the Vitality Blast.
This fast-paced competition features 18 teams split into two divisions, with matches lasting just a few hours. The Vitality Blast is an electrifying T20 tournament that brings together the best English and Welsh first-class counties. It was established in 2003 by the ECB, making it the first professional T20 league in the world.
Despite the introduction of new formats such as one-day and Twenty20 competitions, the County Championship remains the most prestigious domestic competition in England and Wales.
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Because this tournament is filled with history, it is obvious that a some of the best players ever have played in this tournament and we have had some amazing moments.
Brain Lara with his 501 runs in a single innings. Can anybody believe it? Playing for Warwickshire against Durham he set a record for the highest runs scored in a single innings in a first class match, which is still unbeaten.
Glenn McGrath, who is one of the greatest ever bowlers hailing from Australia played for Worcestershire Club from 1998 to 2001. And in just 46 games, for the club, he picked up an insane 201 wickets.
Another legend of the game, Kumar Sangakkara, scored 1491 runs in 2017, helping Surrey win their first championship since 2002.
Some Indian legends have also played in this tournament and made significant contributions to their teams success. Zaheer Khan played for Worcestershire in 2006 and took 78 wickets in just 16 matches.
Cheteshwar Pujara played for Yorkshire in two stints in 2015 and 2018, scoring a total of 818 runs in 13 matches. Ravichandran Ashwin too played in the championship for Worcestershire in 2017 and in his debut match against Gloucestershire, took 5 wickets in the first innings.
Credit: ESPN Cricinfo
County cricket has a rich and storied past that is still very much alive today. It has produced some of the greatest players in history and remains a premier breeding ground for talented players. The championship's intense and challenging nature demands the best from those who compete, constantly pushing them to be exceptional athletes. Though it may not have the glitz and glamour of T20 leagues, the competition is the purest form of the game, and the passion and dedication shown by its players are a true testament to their love for cricket. As fans, we can only look forward to the future of the competition and the exciting moments it has yet to provide.
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