Until 1890, the concept of an unofficial championship existed whereby various claims would be made by or on behalf of a particular club as the "Champion County", an archaic term which now has the specific meaning of an unofficial claimant for the County Championship title prior to 1890. In contrast, the term "County Champions" applies in common parlance to a team that has won the official title since 1890.
The most usual means of claiming the unofficial title was by popular or press acclaim. In the majority of cases, the claim or proclamation was retrospective, often by cricket writers using reverse analysis via a study of known results. The unofficial title was not proclaimed in every season up to 1889 because in many cases there were not enough matches or there was simply no clear candidate. Having already been badly hit by the Seven Years' War, county cricket ceased altogether during the Napoleonic Wars and there was a period from 1797 to 1824 during which no inter-county matches took place. The concept of the unofficial title has been utilised ad hoc and relied on sufficient interest being shown.
The official County Championship was constituted in a meeting at Lord's Cricket Ground on 10 December 1889 which was called to enable club secretaries to determine the 1890 fixtures. While this was going on, representatives of the eight leading county clubs held a private meeting to discuss the method by which the county championship should in future be decided. A majority were in favour of "ignoring drawn games altogether and settling the championship by wins and losses." Under this system defeats were subtracted from victories and the county with the highest total were champions. The new competition, which had official sanction, began in the 1890 season and at first featured Gloucestershire, Kent, Lancashire, Middlesex, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Sussex and Yorkshire.
It is difficult to know when the concept of a county championship originated. While early matches were often between teams named after counties, they were not the club teams the usage would imply today. Rowland Bowen states in his history that the earliest usage of the term "County Championship" occurred in 1837 re a match between Kent and Nottingham Cricket Club which for the purposes of that match was called Nottinghamshire. That may be so re the actual terminology but closer examination of the sources does indicate a much earlier expression of the idea.
The earliest known inter-county match was in 1709 between Kent and Surrey but match results are unknown until the 1720s. The first time a source refers to the superiority of one county is in respect of a match between Edwin Stead's XI and Sir William Gage's XI at Penshurst Park in August 1728. Stead's XI won by an unknown margin although Gage's XI "needed just 7 (more?) in their second innings". The source says that the game could be called Kent v Sussex as the players were reported as 11 of each county. Sir William Gage was a Sussex landowner and Edwin Stead was a resident of Maidstone in Kent. Evidently Mr Stead's Kent team also won two games earlier that season against the Duke of Richmond's XI (also representative of Sussex). The source states that (Stead's victory over Sir William Gage's XI) was the third time this summer that the Kent men have been too expert for those of Sussex. This clearly implies that Kent was considered to be the champion county at that time.
In 1729, Sir William Gage's Sussex team defeated Kent on 5 September: "The latter got (within three) in one hand, as the former did in two hands, so the Kentish men threw it up". This may have been the earliest known innings victory. The report goes on to say that Thomas Waymark "turned the scale of victory, which for some years past has been generally on the Kentish side".
That statement indicates that inter-county matches had been played for many years previously and that there was keen rivalry with each team seeking ascendancy: i.e., in effect as champions or at least in terms of "bragging rights".
Inter-county cricket was popular throughout the 18th century although the best team, such as Kent in the 1740s or Hampshire in the days of the famous Hambledon Club, was usually acknowledged as such by being matched against All-England. There were a number of contemporary allusions to the best county including some in verse, such as one by a Kent supporter who celebrated a victory by Kent over Hampshire in terms of (we shall) "bring down the pride of the Hambledon Club".
Analysis of 18th century matches has identified a number of strong teams who actually or effectively proclaimed their temporal superiority. The most successful county teams were Hampshire, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex. But there was often a crossover between town and county with some strong local clubs tending at times to represent a whole county. Examples are London, which often played against county teams and was in some respects almost a county club in itself; Slindon, which was for a few years in the 1740s effectively representative of Sussex as a county; Dartford, sometimes representative of Kent; and the Hambledon Club, certainly representative of Hampshire and also perhaps of Sussex. One of the best county teams in the late 18th century was Berkshire, which no longer has first-class status.
Using the same sort of reverse analysis, it is possible to compile a list of the most competitive teams from the recommencement of county cricket in 1825. Rowland Bowen published his ideas about this in the 1960s when he was the editor of the Cricket Quarterly periodical. He began by stating that Sussex was publicly acknowledged as the "best county" in the 1827 season when they played against All-England in the roundarm trial matches, although the team's involvement in these matches had more to do with the fact that Sussex was the prime mover in the "roundarm revolution". Kent, which had a celebrated team at the time, has long been acknowledged as a champion county in most seasons of the 1840s but in other years there is no clear-cut contender.
The middle years of the 19th century are the period of county club formation. So, when Sussex "claimed" titles in 1826 and 1827, it was the same loose association based on Brighton Cricket Club that had a successful season in 1792. But claims on behalf of Sussex from 1845 were by the Sussex county club, founded in 1839. A similar situation existed with both Kent and Surrey. Nottinghamshire is the only other 19th century claimant before the 1860s, starting in 1852, but all of its claims have been made by the county club which was founded in 1841.
As the popularity of organised cricket grew throughout England, more county clubs came into contention and, by the mid-1860s, they included Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Lancashire, Middlesex and Yorkshire. At this time and into the 1870s, the press began to advocate some form of league system and various journals and individuals, including W. G. Grace, began publishing their views about who was the champion in a given season. Grace became interested after the Gloucestershire club was founded in 1870, with himself as captain, and made several claims to the championship during the 1870s.
In the 1870s, it became widely accepted that the side with fewest losses should be the champions. Various lists of unofficial champions began to be compiled by the contemporary press and others, but they are not usually in complete agreement.
An important year was 1873, when player qualification rules came into force, requiring players to choose at the start of each season whether they would play for the county of their birth or their county of residence. Before this, it was quite common for a player to play for both counties during the course of a single season. Three meetings were held, and at the last of these, held at The Oval on 9 June 1873, the following rules were decided on:That no cricketer, whether amateur or professional, shall play for more than one county during the same season.
Every cricketer born in one county and residing in another shall be free to choose at the commencement of each season for which of those counties he will play, and shall, during that season, play for the one county only.
A cricketer shall be qualified to play for the county in which he is residing and has resided for the previous two years: or a cricketer may elect to play for the county in which his family home is, so long as it remains open to him as an occasional residence.
That should any question arise as to the residential qualification, the same shall be left to the decision of the Marylebone Cricket Club.
It was in the 1870s that newspapers began to print tables of inter-county results and then proclaim a champion on the basis of their chosen criteria. In Arthur Haygarth's Scores and Biographies, reference is often made to "least matches lost" as a means of deciding the champion. This was a method that, in a modified form, permeated through to the official championship when one point was awarded for a win but one was deducted for a defeat. It was discontinued after 1909 as it was deemed to be inherently unsatisfactory and a points per win method replaced it in 1910.
As Derek Birley describes, the papers did not use standard criteria and so there were several seasons in which any title must be considered "shared", as there was no universally recognised winner. With no consistency of approach, the issue inevitably led to argument, counter-arguments and confusion until the matter was taken in hand at the meeting of club secretaries in December 1889 where the official championship was constituted.
In Roy Webber's The County Cricket Championship, he asserts that the championship "is generally accepted as starting in the 1873 season but that is a convenient date decided upon many years later" because 1873 was "the first season in which rules of county qualification were in operation". Webber acknowledges the difficulties posed from 1873 to 1890 by varying programmes with some county clubs playing many more matches than others. For example, in 1874 when Derbyshire was held by some to have won the title, they played only four matches while Yorkshire played twelve. A list of champions for the period would be subjective and in most seasons there would be strongly competing claims. In general, it may be asserted that Gloucestershire with all three Grace brothers were the strongest team in most of the 1870s; Nottinghamshire were in the ascendancy from about 1879 to 1886; and then Surrey from 1887 through the start of the official championship in 1891.
All "titles" claimed before 1890 are strictly unofficial and are based on (a) contemporary claims made by or on behalf of a particular team and recorded at the time; (b) reverse analysis performed by a writer who was trying to establish the best team in a given season by reference to the known fixtures and results. It must be stressed that the purpose of such lists when published has never been to ascribe any kind of ruling but rather to provoke discussion. The main value of the lists is to indicate which were the most competitive teams during a given period.
The first-ever official cricket County Championship match began on 12 May 1890: Yorkshire beat Gloucestershire by eight wickets at Bristol. James Cranston (Gloucestershire) scored the first century in the competition. The final positions in 1890 were based on number of wins minus the number of losses. Later, a points system was introduced but it has been subject to several variations.
In the 1891 season, Somerset competed in the championship and in 1895 Derbyshire, Essex, Hampshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire all joined; the rules were changed so each side had to play at least 16 matches per season. Until World War II, counties played differing numbers of matches, except that all counties were required to play 28 matches in each season from 1929 to 1932 inclusive. When the championship resumed in 1946, teams played 26 matches per season, and the pattern of a fixed number of matches has continued since then, although the number has varied, but again there was an exception. From 1960 to 1962 inclusive, counties could choose whether to play 28 or 32 matches.
The original points system was simply wins minus losses but with the expansion in 1895 the points system was modified so that the ratio of points to finished games (games minus draws) decided the final positions.
In 1910 the system was modified again so that the order was based on ratio of matches won to matches played, while from 1911 to 1967 a variety of systems were used that generally relied on points for wins and for first innings leads in games left unfinished. Since 1968, the basis has been wins (increased from 10 points in 1968, to 12 in 1976, to 16 in 1981, then back down to 12 in 1999, up to 14 in 2004 and currently 16) and "bonus points", which are earned for scoring a certain number of runs or taking a certain number of wickets in the first 110 overs of each first innings (the number of overs has changed at various times, but has been 110 since 2010). In an effort to prevent early finishes, points have been awarded for draws since 1996.
Of the current 18 sides in County Cricket the remaining joined at the following dates:Worcestershire in 1899 (did not play in 1919)
Northamptonshire in 1905
Glamorgan in 1921
Durham in 1992
An invitation in 1921 to Buckinghamshire was declined, due to lack of proper playing facilities, and an application by Devon in 1948 to join was rejected.
All matches prior to 1988 were scheduled for three days, normally of a nominal six hours each plus intervals, but often with the first two days lengthened by up to an hour and the final day shortened, so that teams with fixtures elsewhere on the following day could travel at sensible hours. The exception to this was the 1919 season, when there was an experiment with two-day matches played over longer hours, up to nine o'clock in the evening in mid-summer. This experiment was not repeated. From 1988 to 1992 some matches were played over four days. From 1993 onwards, all matches have been scheduled for four days.
By 2008 many voices were heard questioning the future of the County Championship in the light of the shaky financial structure of many counties, poor attendances and the irresistible rise of Twenty20 cricket. Amongst those questioning the whole basis of the competition was Frank Keating of The Guardian who said on 15 April 2008:
"sheepishly stirs another summer of what has tragically become a drawn-out primeval charade, the English County Championship. For decade upon decade it was a cherished adornment of the summer sub-culture, certainly for my generation when heroes were giants and giants were locals. About a quarter of a century ago the championship began fraying and then in no time unravelling. It is now a pointless exercise, unwatched, unwanted, serviced by mostly blinkered, greedy chairman-bullied committees and played by mostly unknown foreign and second-rate mercenaries."
However doubts have been raised over many decades concerning the competition's viability, yet it still survives. The Changing Face of Cricket (1963) by Clarke and Batchelor, made similar predictions about County Cricket.
The ECB announced that from 2017 Division One would contain eight teams and Division Two ten teams, with only one team being promoted from Division Two in 2016.
The county championship works on a points system, the winner being the team with most points in the first division. The points are currently awarded as follows, with a draw increasing to 5 points from 2014:
Win: 16 points + bonus points.
Tie: 8 points + bonus points.
Draw: 5 points + bonus points.
Loss: Bonus points.
Bonus points are collected for batting and bowling. These points can only be obtained from the first 110 overs of each team's first innings. The bonus points are retained regardless of the outcome of the match.
Occasionally, a team may have points deducted. Reasons for points deductions are as follows:
Fielding unregistered player: Points were deducted from Lancashire and Sussex in 1980, and Middlesex in 1981. In each case, the county had played an unregistered player in one match, and all points awarded in that match were deducted.
Poor pitches: Penalties for poor pitches were initially introduced at 25 points (one more than the points for a win with maximum bonus points at the time). The first team to lose points for a poor pitch were Essex in 1989. In later years, smaller penalties were introduced. In 2011, Warwickshire, Hampshire and Kent were all docked 8 points for poor pitches at Edgbaston, the Rose Bowl and Canterbury respectively. No team lost points for a poor pitch in any of the seasons 2012 to 2015 inclusive.
Slow over rates: Deductions for a slow over rate were introduced in 2001, units of 0.25 points per over short of the target number in any match. The penalty was increased to 0.5 points per over in 2004, and to 1 point per over in 2008.
Ball-tampering: Surrey lost 8 points for ball-tampering in 2005. Surrey were relegated at the end of that season, but the effect of the penalty cannot be properly estimated by simply removing the 8 point deduction from the final table. This would assume that the matches would have been played in the same way had the penalty not been enforced. Such an assumption cannot be sustained. Middlesex's declaration on the first day of the final match only made sense because Middlesex started the match with a 15-point lead over Surrey.
Breach of salary cap: Durham were subject to a 2.5 point penalty in the 2013 County Championship, as well as penalties in the limited over competitions, for breach of the salary cap in 2012. Despite this penalty, Durham still won the County Championship in 2013.
Discipline: Leicestershire were fined 16 points in 2015 "in respect of five or more separate occasions when their players committed fixed penalty offences in a 12-month period."
Yorkshire have won the most County Championships with 32 outright titles and one shared. Three current first-class counties (i.e., Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire and Somerset) have never won the official title, although Gloucestershire had claim to three unofficial titles in the 1870s.
There have been two divisions since 2000.
a Durham finished fourth in 2016 but were relegated as a penalty by the ECB over financial issues, replacing Hampshire who finished seventh.
Since the expansion of the Championship from 9 counties to 14 in 1895, the wooden spoon for finishing bottom has been 'won' by the following teams. Lancashire, Middlesex, and Surrey have never finished bottom. Leicestershire have shared last place twice, with Hampshire and Somerset.
Records can be found at Cricket Archive – County Championship Records.
A team has scored 800 or more runs in the County Championship on seven occasions, with Yorkshire holding the record for the highest score of 887 all out against Warwickshire in 1896.887 Yorkshire v Warwickshire: Edgbaston Cricket Ground, Birmingham 1896
863 Lancashire v Surrey: The Oval 1990
850-7d Somerset v Middlesex: County Ground, Taunton 2007
811 Surrey v Somerset: The Oval 1899
810-4d Warwickshire v Durham: Edgbaston, Birmingham 1994
803-4d Kent v Essex: Old County Ground, Brentwood 1934
801-8d Derbyshire v Somerset: County Ground, Taunton 2007
12 Northamptonshire v Gloucestershire: Spa Ground, Gloucester 1907
13 Nottinghamshire v Yorkshire: Trent Bridge, Nottingham 1901
14 Surrey v Essex: County Ground, Chelmsford 1983
15 Hampshire v Warwickshire: Edgbaston, Birmingham 1922 (Hampshire won game)
16 Warwickshire v Kent: Angel Ground, Tonbridge 1913
20 Sussex v Yorkshire: The Circle, Hull 1922
20 Derbyshire v Yorkshire: Bramall Lane, Sheffield 1939
20 Essex v Lancashire: Essex County Ground, Chelmsford 2013
501* BC Lara: Warwickshire v Durham, Edgbaston 1994
424 AC MacLaren: Lancashire v Somerset, Taunton 1895
405* GA Hick: Worcestershire v Somerset, Taunton 1988
366 NH Fairbrother: Lancashire v Surrey, The Oval 1990
357* R Abel: Surrey v Somerset, The Oval 1899
355* KP Pietersen: Surrey v Leicestershire, The Oval 2015
10–10 H Verity: Yorkshire v Nottinghamshire, Leeds 1932
10–18 G Geary: Leicestershire v Glamorgan, Pontypridd 1929
10–30 C Blythe: Kent v Northamptonshire, Northampton 1907
10–32 H Pickett: Essex v Leicestershire, Leyton 1895
10–35 A Drake: Yorkshire v Somerset, Weston-super-Mare 1914
10–36 H Verity: Yorkshire v Warwickshire, Leeds 1931
10–40 EG Dennett: Gloucestershire v Essex, Bristol 1906
10–40 W Bestwick: Derbyshire v Glamorgan, Cardiff 1921
10–40 GOB Allen: Middlesex v Lancashire, Lord's 1929
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