The fourth morning at Grace Road dawns brightly and the game is moving at a frightening pace. Leicestershire, following on, are 16 without loss. The Sussex fielders are bounding and skipping across the turf in short, jerky movements. The seamer Brad Currie walks back to his mark in a droll, Charlie Chaplin-style double-step. The commentators are talking in weird electronic blips. At this point you realise the live stream is not working.
Which is obviously something that could happen to anybody. Certainly it would be premature to draw any link between Leicestershire’s apparent inability to operate a simple two-camera feed and the fact that the club have finished bottom of the County Championship in eight of the past 14 seasons, and failed to win a single red-ball game in 2022. Eventually the technical gremlins are sorted, in which time the home team have lost one of their openers and are sliding towards a meek defeat.
At which point something curious happens. The promising opener Rishi Patel goes on a spirited counter-attack, and with the all-rounder Wiaan Mulder in support Leicestershire bat out the day for a stirring draw. Steve Smith, here for a pre-Ashes hit, has just three runs and one risible over of leg-spin to show for his week’s work. And who says Leicestershire never do their bit for England?
So continues one of the early summer’s more quietly uplifting stories. Six rounds in, the championship’s perennial punchline are still unbeaten. Last month they won at Headingley for the first time in 113 years. A first promotion in more than two decades is a tantalising possibility. And perhaps the case of Leicestershire offers both a parable and a warning for English cricket, at a time when the very principles of the sport are being shuffled beneath our feet.
Every so often you hear notables from within the game wondering aloud about whether we really need 18 counties. Most of the time they’re too polite to name names, but let’s be real: they’re talking about Leicestershire. A club that hasn’t played in the top division since 2003. No Indian conglomerate or private equity fund is queueing up to purchase it. And so when the England and Wales Cricket Board debates the merits of a 12-team Premier League or a reduction in red-ball cricket, the unspoken subtext is that clubs such as Leicestershire are essentially a drag on the whole enterprise. What’s the point of you? Why should the rest of us continue to bear your impoverished existence?
Around the start of the pandemic, a new chief executive called Sean Jarvis set about trying to answer this question. Jarvis is a Leicester native who has spent most of his career working in football, and occasionally says things such as “we need to establish ourselves as one of the leading clubs in Cricket PLC”. And yet for all the jargon there is also the bones of a plan. Membership and corporate bookings are up. Last year the club achieved record turnover despite the late cancellation of a Paloma Faith concert.
But revenue is not an end in itself. Last summer Leicestershire halved their prices to help fans who were struggling financially. Several times a season the club hand out free tickets to local residents. In March they announced plans to redevelop Grace Road, with space for retail units and community housing, healthcare provision and assisted living for the elderly. Jarvis talks a lot about “identity” and on some level he appears to grasp what English cricket as a whole has largely forgotten: that any sporting team worth its space must exist not merely to sell, but to serve.
Whatever you thought of the Hundred when it arrived, there was at least a tangible rationale to it. You build it up. It makes money. The money funds everything else. Fine. But once you sell it off that rationale disappears in an instant. The one-off windfall will quickly vanish into a million sinkholes – bonuses, handouts, capital expenditure projects – and then what? Back where you started, but on the outside looking in, and with nothing left to sell. And Leicestershire, like their live feed, eventually splutter and die.
Keep the Hundred in-house, and the entity remains whole. Perhaps Leicestershire do not get promoted. Perhaps they end up becoming a de facto feeder team to the Trent Rockets. But even here there is an ecosystem with a place for them, where everyone is linked and nobody gets forgotten. You think the Delhi Capitals are going to build your gran a house? You think the benign hand of the market is going to halve ticket prices in a cost of living crisis?
For all its flaws and foibles, Leicestershire CC is a real thing. It exists, in a way the Trent Entertainment Vehicle does not. It has a mission that goes beyond simply shaking people down for whatever they can pay. It produces cricketers: the bewilderingly exciting leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed the latest. A wild thought: maybe it might achieve even more if the people at the top of the game didn’t keep trying to wipe it off the map.
What do we want sport to be? A pure consumer good, escapism on demand, a direct debit that you forget to cancel? Or can it be something more? Can it bring people together, provide a sense of pride and ownership, give people a stake in their town and their town a stake in something larger? You don’t have to be a Leicestershire fan, or even like cricket very much at all, to recognise that this is a vision of sport worth fighting for.