It’s that time of year when county cricket supporters are starved of sustenance. Fans of counties that underperformed in 2017 (step forward, among others, Leicestershire, Middlesex and Warwickshire) are still haunted by the Ghosts of Season Past.
Fortunately, now comes succor. The Ghosts of Season Future, in the form of the ever-generous officials of the ECB, have revealed the county fixture list for 2018.
Poring over the dates, we can note the matches that are especially appealing. Surely our own county will deliver trophies in 2018. If not, there may still be great matches, outstanding individual performances and precious victories to savour.
Maybe (mixing our sports) it was a bit of an own goal by the ECB for the April start to the season to be on Friday the 13th. And fans of the traditional four-day competition will be disturbed to see that, once again, the Specsavers County Championship has been treated as the poor relation. Four-day cricket has been largely confined to the first and last months of the season plus squeezed into whatever slots can be found in between the two one day competitions.
As was the case in 2017, the Royal London One Day Cup and the NatWest T20 Blast have a reasonably logical and coherent shape, with the qualifying rounds being played in a block.
For the Royal London competition, the group matches start on May 17th and run through until June 7th, during which time all counties will play eight games. Quarter and semi-finals follow rapidly, with the Final at Lord’s on June 30th.
The T20 Blast qualifying round runs from July 4th until August 17th, with quarter finals just over a week later. Finals Day at Edgbaston will be as late as September 15th. This should bring the one-day season to a rousing climax provided it does not fall victim to early autumn weather.
A glance at the first round of Championship matches is enough to whet the appetite. Yorkshire against champions Essex at Headingley should be an epic encounter and on the western side of the Pennines, Lancashire entertaining newly promoted Nottinghamshire will stir the blood.
It is equally tempting to look to the very end of the season when the battles for titles and for promotion and relegation will be concluded. What will be the significance of the late September clash between Surrey and Essex in Division One? Might Notts v Somerset be decisive at one end of the table or the other?
In the Division Two final round of matches, Warwickshire play Kent and Durham play Middlesex. All four of those counties might well be in contention for promotion.
Many supporters will also look to identify key venues, both ones previously visited and those on a personal cricketing bucket list.
While all the major grounds feature prominently, the eye may well be drawn to the outgrounds that still survive on the fixture list. The Cheltenham Festival remains, an annual pilgrimage for many both within and beyond the boundaries of Gloucestershire. Swansea, Colwyn Bay, Arundel, Scarborough and Southport will all host four-day matches. Fifty over cricket will be on offer at Radlett, Gosforth, Blackpool, Merchant Taylors’ School and Welbeck Colliery. And Chesterfield and Uxbridge will hold T20 games.
There will be mixed views about the return of pink ball day-night Championship matches, nine of them and featuring all 18 counties. As a preparation for England playing day-night Tests, these matches obviously have value. They may also be useful for any spectators training for a polar expedition. A personal memory of huddling in the night-time cold at Edgbaston as Andy Umeed blocked his way to the second slowest century in the history of the Championship may, of course, have coloured my views slightly.
Overall, maybe it is best to set aside reservations on the detail of the fixture list and see its publication as an early promise of future days in the sun. Such a positive attitude may make it easier to get through the cold months of winter. There are Ashes contests to be won and lost and other sports to be followed, but for the true county cricket fan April 13th 2018 can’t come soon enough.