Officially known as the Specsavers County Championship, due to the fact that it is sponsored by Specsavers, the County Championship is the major domestic league for cricket in England and Wales, with 18 teams composed of counties. This is first-class cricket at its very best, and it has been the stage on which many of the game’s greats have learned their trade and showcased their skills.
The Country Championship is split into two lots of nine teams, with each team playing each other twice, both home and away, and with each game running over the course of 4 days.
Points are awarded for a win, a tie and a draw, and there are also bonus points to be picked up, which can even be won during a loss. These points are dished out according to run totals with as many as 5 extra points for teams that score more than 400 runs. They are also awarded for good bowling, with 3, 4 and 5 wickets scoring 1 extra point, and with 9 and 10 wickets scoring 3.
Points have also been deducted in the past, with reasons relating to ball tampering, slow overs, poor pitches and unregistered players, to name just a few.
The Country Championship began in 1890, which is when the first season was played. County clubs had already existed prior to this point — the first recorded contest between two counties was played in the early 1700s — but there had been no official competition. This changed following a meeting at Lords. Reps from 8 of the top clubs were invited along, the details were discussed and the Country Championship was formed. Although there are now 18 teams involved in this competition, in the beginning there were just a handful, with Surry, Sussex, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Middlesex, Kent, Gloucestershire and Lancashire all invited to take part in the inaugural season.
There was no points system in the early days and the title was given to the team with the best win/lose record. Yorkshire beat Gloucestershire in the very first game, with a player from the losing team scoring the very first century, but it was Surrey who would go on to lift the very first trophy.
Yorkshire have won the County Championship the most times, with 33 titles to their name by the end of 2015, one of which was shared with another county. Yorkshire were there for the inaugural competition in 1890, and within three years they had claimed their first title, with their most recent one coming in 2015. Yorkshire have only “won” the wooden spoon (given to those who finish bottom) on one occasion, contrary to the 15 times that Derbyshire have won this hypothetical accolade. Derbyshire have been declared champions on one previous occasion, but it took them many years to do so, with their first season in 1895 and their victory season in 1936, and they have also waited a very long time to add to this success.
Derbyshire are not the least successful team though, as that unwanted accolade goes to Gloucestershire, who played first in 1890 and have never won the title. They have finished as the runners-up on many occasions though. Somerset, who have finished bottom on 12 occasions, and Northamptonshire, who have finished bottom 11 times, have also yet to win a County Championship title.
Surry have won the second most titles, although at 19 (one of which was shared), they are still someway from taking Yorkshire’s record. Surry have never finished bottom, but their last title came in 2002. Other big multiple winners include Middlesex, with 12 wins, and Lancashire, who have 9. Sussex are one of the league’s recent success stories, because despite joining the very first County Championship, they had to wait until 2003 until they won their title, and between then and 2007, they won a further two. Durham also left things late, winning their first title in 2008 and claiming another two prior to 2013.
The competition’s most successful team, Yorkshire, also hold the record for most runs scored, achieving a huge 887 against Warwickshire in 1896. The lowest score was just 12, recorded in the game between Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire in 1907, and there have also been games with only 13, 14, 15 and 16 runs scored, a figure that is almost unheard of in first-class cricket. The legendary Brian Lara once managed 501 runs in a single innings during a 1994 contest, setting a record that is likely to stand for a very long time, and one that had previously been held by AC MacLaren, following a score of 424 in 1895.
Although the Country Championship is currently sponsored by Liverpool Victoria, it has undergone many changes throughout its history. The first sponsor came when the competition had been running for more than 80 years, with the soft drinks company Schweppes taking the helm. Britannic Assurance took over in 1984 and remained until 1998, before Axa, Cricifo and Frizzell all had brief spells, with LV taking over in 2006. In 2016 Specsavers took over. The sponsor’s name has traditionally gone before the name of the competition, making it the Specsavers Country Championship.