The hills are alive with the sound of county cricket
It is that time of year in England, a glorious time: the rebirth of cricket and blossom. The weather remains a temptress, flirting as it does with a cricketer's wardrobe - not to mention with the girls in their summer clothes - as shirt sleeves one day and long woollens the next test the packing of every kit bag. Little more than a week ago, during the first county matches of the season, sun cream was required but now the call is out again for hand warmers.
Hampshire made a cracking start against Yorkshire but had their wings clipped by Middlesex, the reigning champions, who hung on gamely for a draw in the second round of matches. How James Vince, the captain who has stepped into the shoes of Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie and Shane Warne among others, must rue not having picked Mason Crane in his team for that match. Crane is a young legspinner of mighty promise, good enough to have commanded rave reviews while playing for Gordon in the Sydney grade competition over the winter and earning a game for New South Wales in the run in to the Sheffield Shield to boot. Hampshire's problem on Monday afternoon was the Middlesex tail; decent legspinners tend to unravel the tail. Crane was the first overseas player to represent New South Wales since Imran Khan 32 years ago. This is quite an achievement and Australians would not be surprised to see him touring their land with England later this year.
In the second division, Nottinghamshire convincingly took the points against Durham, though neither team should be languishing in the lower flight. The Durham players were let down by their masters, Nottinghamshire's by their own hubris. Peter Moores has replaced Mick Newell as director of cricket at Trent Bridge and a new energy will doubtless accompany a different ethic. For a decade, Newell knit the club together with enviable efficiency and his comment last September that relegation was an "embarrassment" summed up the frustration that came from a summer when a single championship win, and that in the first match of the season, betrayed the club's talent and history. Nottinghamshire cricket - from its homespun heroes Larwood, Voce, Simpson and Randall; its recruits from abroad such as Sobers, Rice and Hadlee, to the "moderns", Read, Swann, Broad and Hales - is a part of the fabric of the game in England. It is hard to see anyone denying the club its return to the first division next year.
That is unlikely to be the case with Durham, who are already 89 points behind Moores' new team. Rarely has a shock reverberated around the cricket community like the one last September, when the ECB took the unprecedented decision to relegate Durham and dock them 48 points as severe punishment for a £3.8 million bailout that saved the club from bankruptcy or something close. Those 48 points and Nottinghamshire's two-from-two start have created the gap that will surely haunt Paul Collingwood's men all summer. Worse, Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick left to pursue first-division cricket with Surrey, and so Durham, the first-class county Don Robson built, with fine men such as the Caller brothers Roy and Ian close by, are on the bones of their backsides. Collingwood is just the man for the job, however, and anything achieved by his players this summer will be loudly cheered from the north-eastern reaches of Northumberland to the south-westerly tips of Cornwall.
Yorkshire continue to impress, even amaze at times. Having lost to Hampshire, Gary Ballance led a memorable bounceback against Warwickshire as a new seamer off the old county's production line took game-breaking wickets that included Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott. The 23-year-old Ben Coad from Harrogate had match figures of 10 for 102 against Ashley Giles' new charges, to go with the eight scalps he claimed against Hampshire.
Yorkshire are half the side they might be - Ryan Sidebottom, Jack Brooks and Liam Plunkett are injured; Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow rested by the England management: Root, most people get; Bairstow seems odd given how little cricket he has played this year or is likely to play up until the Test matches against South Africa start in early July. There is a joy in springtime cricket that Bairstow is being denied. Instead, he has worked as a pundit on IPL matches for Sky Television. Such a shame. Andrew Gale, Yorkshire's recent captain and now new coach, had a good case when making his point about Bairstow in public. Whatever, Yorkshire won and reminded everyone of their bench strength, which comes from a terrific output of highly effective cricketers.
Cricket has been in the news, albeit peeking out from behind football's ever-increasing dictatorship. The ECB says it will spend £6 million a year on the promotion of the new city-based T20 competition, set for 2020, that the counties have finally agreed to. The board adds that the competition won't immediately make money. It is a gamble all right but the odds lean in its favour. The problem will be the diminished profile of the existing county T20 Blast, along with the almost certain dumbing down of 50-over cricket - as if it is not dumbed down enough already. The ECB would do better to allocate that £6 million, or more, to the promotion of English cricket across all its platforms. Test matches are badly under-promoted because the small grounds in England pretty much guarantee good attendances. Given the lack of live cricket on free-to-air television, the aim of promotion should be profile and awareness - not crowds - followed by engagement and interaction. If the people are brainwashed by the all-shiny, new and glamorous T20 extravaganza, enthusiasm for anything perceived as sepia-toned will surely be compromised. The game of cricket at large needs investment and promotion. It is an imperative that needs immediate activation.
It seems barely believable that 50 years have passed since the first Professional Cricketers' Association was formed. It was a workers' union back then, founded by Fred Rumsey, the colourful former England left-arm quick. Rumsey brought a smart commercial mind to the improvement of the lives of county players and was soon supported by Jack Bannister and John Arlott, among other immensely worthy folk who were, and still are, typical of cricket's family.
It is a very different body today from the one that skimmed the surface of its possibilities back then. Of all the remits and tentacles, perhaps the Benevolent Fund has the most resonance, for it illustrates how the game and its people take care of their own. Hard times, in their many guises, fall upon many ex-pros and the PCA is able to help alleviate some of the pressure and pain with both financial and emotional welfare and support.
The 50th-year celebrations include the Legacy Year Appeal, to which Graham Gooch, a man who has not forgotten his roots, has already donated £50,000 from his Scholarship Foundation. "I particularly want to help educate young cricketers about the dangers and worries of gambling addiction. It's a real and present danger in the internet and mobile phone world that we live."
Gooch has been the best of EngIish cricket in so many ways. Now he has found another. The buds of April and May will excite him - especially as Essex made a good start to first-division life and Alastair Cook scored a splendid match-winning hundred - as they do so many of us. It's more than the smell of freshly mown grass and the hypnotic sound of bat on ball. It's friendship, brought back to life by sunshine and the summer game.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK