County Championship gears up for 125th season

New Road, Worcester
New Road will be the focus for Worcesetershire in 2015 as the county celebrate their 150th anniversary

For so long now, the pleasant sight of Worcester, with its Cathedral and tree-lined landscape leading off to the nearby Malvern Hills, has always been associated with the start of an English cricketing summer.

No winter seems complete without pictures on news bulletins of New Road under water as the groundsman attempts the thankless task of getting the place ready for another new season.

In times gone by, in the days of summer-long tours by visiting Test teams, this was the place where the tourists would play their first game.

BBC cricket correspondent Brian Johnston would make a point of visiting New Road for that first game to find a quiet corner outside the press box and make his notes on the tour team.

But times change in the jam-packed schedule of modern-day cricket.

When the new English domestic first-class season started on Thursday, with Worcestershire's three-day game against Oxford University in The Parks, it will be England's cricketers preparing to go on tour - to play the once-mighty West Indies in the Caribbean.

First-class season starts
Worcestershire's meeting with Oxford University's students in The Parks is one of six fixtures involving the MCCU sides starting on Thursday to launch the new domestic first-class season.
Cambridge MCCU host Northants at Fenner's, Glamorgan play Cardiff MCCU at Sophia Gardens, Hampshire host Loughborough MCCU at Southampton, Somerset play Durham MCCU at Taunton and Sussex entertain Leeds/Bradford at Hove.
Although MCCU games do not generally count as first-class fixtures any more, the early season games against the first-class counties do, as they are played against virtual full-strength county sides.

The endless marathon that was the 2015 Cricket World Cup has only just finished and, in another Ashes summer, the five-times winners are not due to touch down here until July, after a short visit from New Zealand.

As far as the majority of this country's cricket-watching public are concerned, the Championship is just something to fill the void until the start of the now three-month long T20 Blast in May.

And, after spending two months under water in early 2014, this time even the River Severn has behaved itself and the Worcester outfield has remained predominantly dry.

Nonetheless, the England and Wales Cricket Board recognise the continued importance of the County Championship, 125 years old in 2015, as a breeding ground for the Test players of the future. And, even if it was on April Fool's Day, what better place than Worcester to stage their first official press launch to trigger next weekend's start of another Championship season?

If only to remind everyone that there is one player scheduled to be back in Championship action this summer who really can put bums on seats - a certain South Africa-born former Natal, Cannock, Nottinghamshire, Hampshire, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Deccan Chargers, Delhi Daredevils, St Lucia Zouks, Melbourne Stars and England wannabe who will be playing for Surrey.

Kevin Pietersen
Kevin Pietersen will be playing four-day cricket for Surrey this season for the first time since 2013

Even a discussion about Championship cricket on a quiet April lunchtime in one of the most tranquil settings in English cricket cannot escape Kevin Pietersen's apparent all-pervading influence.

Veteran Glamorgan left-arm spinner Dean Cosker, one of several representatives from counties in both divisions invited along to extol the enduring virtues of the four-day domestic format, was invited to respond to Pietersen's assertion about some who ply their trade in county cricket as "muppets" who might be better employed elsewhere.

"I don't think players really take that on board," said Cosker. "Every professional cricketer has that professional pride. I don't think it needs anyone to rile them in that way.

"It's all about humility. I've always been taught to respect the game in any way you can. As soon as you start disrespecting the sport, then it gets a little bit awkward. But it's great to see Kevin playing in the Championship - we want to be bowling against those kind of players."

Pietersen's return to the Championship stage with Surrey will be in Division Two, a level below where his two former English county sides - Nottinghamshire and Hampshire - currently reside.

County Champions since 2000
3 - Sussex (2003, 2006, 2007), Durham (2008, 2009, 2013)
2 - Surrey (2000, 2002) Yorkshire (2001, 2014), Warwickshire (2004, 2012), Nottinghamshire (2005, 2010)
1 - Lancashire (2011)

Somerset director of cricket Matthew Maynard, another of those present at the press launch, has loftier ambitions.

He wants to rid his adopted side of the title of being the only club in this year's top flight never to have been crowned county champions.

"The four-day game is brilliant," he said. "It brings the best out of the players. It's certainly our priority."

It will be a tough ask for Maynard's Somerset. Only seven of the 18 first-class counties have won the Championship since the competition was split into two divisions in 2000. And, of them, Surrey and relegated Lancashire are the only ones not up there in the top flight competing with them.

Maynard and Cosker, at 37, now one of county cricket's oldest veterans, were team-mates when Glamorgan last won the Championship in 1997.

The question was put to Cosker: "How much has the Championship changed in that time?"

"Well," he replied with a laconic grin, "Glamorgan haven't won the Championship since. But the first step is getting back our First-Division status."

Steve Rhodes
Steve Rhodes guided Worcestershire to promotion from Division Two last season

That was the same ambition for Worcestershire coach Steve Rhodes last summer - and, not purely down to the efforts of Saeed Ajmal, the county won promotion to the top flight for the fifth time since going up to Division One for the first time in 2003.

This summer's main aim is to prevent a fifth relegation back to Division Two and Rhodes is well aware of the task facing his team, deflecting expectations with his typically dry Yorkshire humour: "We're tipped to finish bottom again, aren't we?"

But Rhodes does at least know what it takes. Along with Worcestershire chief executive David Leatherdale, also present at New Road for the launch in a building erected in honour of the star of that team - The Graeme Hick Pavilion - he was twice part of a championship winning team in 1988 and 1989.

Another cricketer to take to the stage at Worcester as a former Championship winner was Ireland's World Cup captain William Porterfield, who won it with Warwickshire in 2012.

The Bears batsman was adamant about the relevance of the county game.

"Twenty20 has had a positive effect," said Porterfield. "Run rates are going up and it has helped make Championship cricket more exciting.

"But the four-day game is still the most important, the one you want to win the most. That's the best feeling, walking off having beaten a side over four days."

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