Raw numbers paint the picture. The viewership of Yorkshire’s live stream hovered consistently around 3,500. As the afternoon ticked along, so too did the flow of viewers. The steady click of electronic turnstiles turned into a stampede, as people raced to view the climax of Northamptonshire’s visit to Headingley.
As soon as Northants lost the ninth wicket, attendees arrived en masse. The numbers whirring upwards like an odometer fraud in reverse. 3,981, 4,121, 4,333, 4,550, 4,670, 4,695, 4,792, 4,752, 4,779…and breathe. Northants needed 14 runs; Yorkshire needed 1 wicket. And people cared.
Despite the ECB’s attempts to convince us otherwise, it’s clear that the County Championship still features prominently in the cricketing consciousness. Over the last couple of seasons, the introduction of live streaming at every county has provided a reference point in black and white for encouraging levels of interest in the domestic first-class game.
The final day’s play at Headingley is currently sitting at 35,693 views, bringing total eyes across the four days to 117,648. So much for one man and his dog.
This particular window in the cricketing calendar is gutted out for the billion-dollar behemoth of the IPL. Given the scarcity of other cricket during this period, some will look to the County Championship for an antidote to the bright lights and razzle dazzle. Some will watch alongside the IPL, perhaps getting the best of both worlds. They are both cricket after all.
Whether viewers tune in for all eight hours every day or just dip in for a few overs, it doesn’t particularly matter. What matters is that they have been there. There is at least curiosity and at most obsession. Ultimately, people care. More people than we are often led to believe.
Regardless of whether it was by design or sheer luck, the decision to move the start date for matches to Thursday – thus generally finishing on a Saturday or Sunday – has worked a treat. Sunday afternoon is prime time for sports watching. As many available eyeballs is the optimal position.
Similarly, the format of packing nine rounds of Championship action before the first Test of the summer is positive. True, it may risk some weather issues, but the UK “summer” can leave you second-guessing regardless of the month. Maybe it will be The Hundred in July that welcomes the rain…..
Perhaps it is that opportunity for the Championship to breathe which has sparked a feeling of revitalisation this year. Nine consecutive rounds allow storylines to develop. The search for form of England incumbents like Rory Burns or Zac Crawley titillates, the push for an international call up from Adam Lyth, Haseeb Hameed or Ollie Robinson intrigues and the emergence of promising youngsters like Sam Evans, Tom Haines or Matt Critchley thrills.
All before you even contemplate those attempting the unique milestone of 1,000 runs by the end of May or the claustrophobic nature of the current league tables, which provide context for every match. Will Essex fail to qualify? Can Somerset afford another loss? Have Durham completed their long road back to the top? Can Gloucesetshire remain unbeaten? Will Worcestershire ever not draw a game?
The Championship has always provided captivating storylines. But in recent years the bitty and interrupted scheduling hasn’t allowed these to develop. Any trace of momentum extinguished within a few weeks as the inevitable break for white-ball cricket was shoehorned in.
It certainly feels like this year’s Championship builds towards the showpiece Test series against New Zealand and India. Good performances have the opportunity to be rewarded. They have context and people care.
Right up until the big reveal, a win, loss or draw remained possible for both at Headingley. In the end, Northants fell one run short. The smallest winning margin possible in four-day cricket. The non-paying electronic punters left with a buzz to last them all week.
There was still time to teleport the 225 miles from Leeds to Bristol to witness an epic Glocuestshire chase. As the required runs dropped below three figures the influx began. Over 100 new viewers in the space of a few balls started the avalanche. The figure would climb and climb as viewers looked for an accompaniment to their Sunday dinner. All were witness to 348 being knocked off in a thrillingly comfortable fashion.
No anti-climactic ending on this Sunday. The storylines built up and the Championship delivered.
Thankfully, the next instalment is only a few days away.
Sky has spent hundreds of millions of pounds (perhaps billions) building the Super Sunday ‘brand’ for Premier League football. But it rarely delivers. The ECB has their very own Super Sunday dropped from the heavens into their lap. Yet barely a penny or a thought has been spent. Establish teams, established loyal fanbases and millions of new fans all untapped.
But do they want it? They’d be foolish not to. If only there was a spare £35 million sitting in reserve.