The inexorable growth of Twenty20 cricket is impinging on the first-class game. In 2010 domestic competitions will start even earlier in April than hitherto, which means, almost certainly, that there will be no room in a desperately cluttered fixture list for the traditional opening matches of the season between Oxford and Cambridge Universities and counties keen to obtain some practice on decent pitches. Frank Bough on BBC TV's Grandstand used to say that cricket had made its "usual apologetic start" on a cold Saturday when the umpires wore balaclavas, hot chocolate was served in the middle and spectators huddled up in anoraks. Yet everyone, supporters of varsity sport, players, umpires, scorers and the Press went home happy.
Who, attending a day's cricket in the Parks could not be happy? It is a glorious place. Yet the consequence of no first-class matches there and at Fenner's and the other university centres of excellence is that Oxford and Cambridge will lose their first-class status. There can be no denying, of course, that the standard is not what it was. Mike Atherton tells an amusing story in his autobiography of 'Pumper' Pyman coming out to bat at Fenner's in his time there in the 1980s wearing what appeared to be his grand-father's old pads with a towel stuffed down his trouser leg to act as a thigh pad. He was on his way to the City, not county or Test cricket, and increasingly that was the case with the undergraduates who made up the numbers, however appreciative they were of taking part. "But it didn't matter," wrote Atherton. "We had a wonderful time and were always acutely aware of our great privilege in being able to play first-class cricket."
Alas, greedy batsmen in the opposition took full advantage and there was little in the way of a contest. The crowds, such as they were, fell away, to the extent that for the Varsity match this summer, played in good weather in the Parks, there were barely 50 people present each day. Even the local newspapers were not present, preferring to concentrate on the giddy close-season goings-on at Oxford United and Cambridge United.
Although Atherton and Steve James, now also excelling as a journalist, played in the same Cambridge XI in the 1980s, it is necessary to trawl back to the 1970s or even the 1960s to find what could be described as a strong side. Here, the admissions tutors are to blame. Tony Lewis, one of the last England captains to be nurtured at Oxbridge, memorably said that "they shrink by their own myopia." Their unworldly preference for swats, geeks and rowers has brought about this state of affairs. Even Imran Khan, turned down by Cambridge, where his cousin Majid Khan, had gone, only got into Oxford through the efforts of the late Dr Paul Hayes, a keen cricket enthusiast at Keble College, and that was in the 1970s. At Cambridge, a lack of respect for the game and its traditions is evident in the recent building of a hideous hall of residence almost on top of the boundary.
So whither cricket at Fenner's and in the Parks and at the other four centres of excellence? MCC is committed to its admirable funding programme, at least for 2009. This has benefited the first-class game immeasurably: five captains and 45 players have been nurtured within them over the past ten years. Had the ECB decided to extend the domestic season into October, as was a possibility, there might still have been space for a tradition that started with Oxford and Cambridge being granted first-class status in 1827. They can, of course, continue to play wandering club sides, county 2nd XIs and any county that wants some practice in early April.
As good a person as any to provide some necessary perspective is A.C. Smith, formerly chief executive of the ECB's forerunner, the Test and County Cricket Board, an Oxford Blue and for the past nine years the president of Oxford UCC. "I am very surprised by this news," he said. "The ECB has a broad brief for all cricket, not just the first-class game, and it has devised a scheme for six centres of excellence, which has worked well. These had a certain amount of clout and have been an introduction to first-class cricket for promising players - someone like Joe Sayers, who was very close to gaining a first-class degree in physics, a very difficult subject, and who has gone on to Yorkshire.
"The counties enjoy coming to the Parks for early season matches," said Smith. "They play against reasonable opposition who are extremely keen, on good surfaces. Yes, it would have helped if the admissions tutors had noted that there is no harm in attracting a student who is good at cricket as well as his academic studies."
As an example of the worth of MCC's funding, a triangular tournament is taking place this week between its universities, University Sports South Africa and an ECB elite player development squad. "In helping to fund and organise this, MCC is deepening its commitment to the universities scheme and continues to provide opportunities for talented players," said John Stephenson, the club's Head of Cricket. It remains to be seen whether this will be affected by what effectively is a proposed downgrading of the centres of excellence.