With a much truncated programme of first-class cricket being played in the 2020 season Paul Dyson looks back at when there were other short seasons. The photo of Herbert Sutcliffe, taken in later life at Scarborough, comes courtesy of Mick Pope.
The 2020 first-class cricket season consisted of only 52 matches. These were 45 in the league section of the Bob Willis Trophy league, the final itself and six Test matches. This is the shortest season since 1945 when, due to the exceptional circumstances, only 11 such games took place. Prior to that, discounting the war years, one has to go back exactly 150 years to find a season when fewer than 52 games were played.
When Yorkshire CCC was formed in 1863 it was one of only seven counties which played what later became termed ‘first-class’ cricket and only 36 matches (Yorkshire played four) were played during that season. That figure remained the lowest for any of those early years and the average for the six seasons from 1864 to 1869 was 48.8 with there then being 51 (Yorkshire seven) in 1870. The number gradually increased thereafter; obviously more counties joined what eventually became the official County Championship, those counties themselves played more matches and there were also peak years when international teams visited. This was particularly noticeable in 1912 when both Australia and South Africa were hosted in a triangular tournament and, despite a very wet summer, the number of games was 264, the previous busiest season having had 237 matches.
Matters continued in the same way; the 300 figure was reached in 1926 and the seasons from 1950 to 1965 all had over that number. The busiest season of all came in 1961 when there were no fewer than 339 first-class matches, Yorkshire playing in 39 which included 32 in the Championship. Since that mountain the number has gradually declined. The 1996 season was the last with over 200 matches and the average for the three seasons of 2017 (when the matches in the Championship were reduced to 14 per county) to 2019 is 149.
Back to the 11-match season of 1945 when a fixture list was hastily arranged after peace had been declared in Europe. First-class cricket began as soon as May 19th (VE Day was May 8th) with a series of five representative matches between England and Australian Services; one of these games was at Bramall Lane, Sheffield and the season later concluded with a version of the Scarborough Festival which consisted of three matches. Lord’s also hosted two festival-type games towards the end of the season and the only other game was Yorkshire v Lancashire – well it would be, wouldn’t it – at Bradford in mid-August. It was the only county match of the year and finished in a rain-ruined draw which was a pity as the two first-innings scores were within just 20 runs of each other and a good finish would have been in prospect. Yorkshire put out a very strong team; eight players who had played important roles in the success of the 1930s were present as were two – Arthur Booth and Willie Watson – who had appeared briefly. The only debutant was Alec Coxon. An innings of 88 from Wilf Barber was the home team’s only notable contribution.