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World Cup is a summer blockbuster, but cricket’s quieter soap opera still enthrals

Roll up, roll up, here comes the Cricket World Cup, if only for one more day. In her high heels and tail-feathers, she jiggles past smiling, waving, bowing this way and that. She sings, plays air guitar, and speaks in CAPITAL letters at all times. She swallows sixes, dot balls, yorkers and spits them out into video clips. She dines out on youthful impetuosity and career-ending mistakes, while fading players chasing former glories are given short shrift. And for 45 days she has consumed our attention, eaten us up, spat us out. She’s magnificent. Look at her go!

On Sunday morning she hits terrestrial TV, care of the bounteousness of Sky via Channel Four. It will be the first time anyone younger than 14 in this country without a subscription has been able to stumble upon live cricket by just popping on the telly. A bit late and all that, but let’s take what we can get. She’s only got a day, but I’m confident she’ll catch people’s attention.

All the while, alongside this prancing diva, a smaller, quieter, soap opera has been playing out in intriguing fashion. An everyday story of cricketing folk that has undulated through the season from early spring and will continue into the darkening nights of September, so late in the year that the start of play will have to be moved half an hour earlier.

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The County Championship is 129 years old, but still means something – not just to the few hundred, or on a good day few thousand, who turn up to matches, but the thousands of others who follow it through the newspapers, on the internet or via BBC local radio broadcasts. It is the gruelling training ground for cricketers, their bread and butter, the place where they learn the hard stuff of a professional career and where a performance or two at the right time can earn a dashed email and the quiet arrival of one of the national selectors to take a look.

This season marks the end of an era. From next summer the ECB’s big gamble, the Hundred, will stretch over the school holidays. The 50-over competition – which, as this World Cup has reminded us, is irresistible when it works – will potter along as a development competition. The T20 Blast will be shoved into a spot early in the season and the championship will make do and mend around it all.

So how lovely it is, at this end of days, to see Somerset squatting proudly at the top of the table, 15 points clear of second-placed Essex. They have never won the championship and, as June ticked over into July, fans are just beginning to believe. They are a club that does good things well, with home-grown players and a famously turning pitch – Ciderabad – that has proved the graveyard of many a batsman.

In a final twist Marcus Trescothick, England and Somerset’s mighty carthorse, has announced that he will retire at the end of the year – and horror upon horror – has been dropped, spending his final summer largely out to pasture in the second XI. Sport is ruthless but I’m still hoping for one final Tres valedictory, with the Somerset cap in one hand, the championship pennant in the other and a plate of sausages by his elbow.

Down in Division Two, more unfancied clubs are throwing their weight around. With three teams promoted to Division One this year, as part of the grand reorganisation, this summer is the best chance many are going to get to leap up with the big boys.

Lancashire should be promoted, possibly flanked by unlikely lads Glamorgan and Derbyshire. In a similar surprise, the club most likely to go down from Division One are Nottinghamshire, who have spectacularly imploded and are yet to win a match. The defending champions, Surrey, have won one championship game as their injury-hit squad has struggled. As well as being compelling drama, it is likely to lead to a situation where the “wrong” clubs end up in the wrong divisions, which will bring wry smiles all round.

As the counties fight for every point, young cricketers have higher aspirations. The Test against Ireland is coming up fast, followed by the Ashes, and there are England places to play for, especially in the opening spot and potentially for a bowler, after Jimmy Anderson injured himself playing for Lancashire.

Most of the prime candidates have been picked for the Lions series starting on Sunday against Australia A: Surrey’s Sam Curran and Ben Foakes, Somerset’s Jack Leach and Lewis Gregory, and Warwickshire’s Dom Sibley, as well as the leading English qualified run-scorer in county cricket, Essex’s Zac Crawley, and bowlers Ollie Robinson and Jamie Porter.

Meanwhile, to the delight of everyone, Toby Roland-Jones, who had such a spectacular start to his Test career in 2017 but has been plagued by injury since, finally found his mojo last week, taking 10 wickets against Gloucestershire and making an unbeaten fifty.

Australians, too, have been flashing a bit of leg to the baggy green selectors. Cameron Bancroft, he of sandpaper fame, has been coming into form for Durham; Glamorgan’s Marnus Labuschagne was the first batsman to score 1,000 championship runs this season; and Peter Siddle plugs away for Essex.

Anderson’s injury came at Sedbergh, one of the many outgrounds being used this year as the World Cup elbowed in on the big venues. The championship has pottered happily round Scarborough, Tunbridge Wells, York, Arundel, the Isle of Wight and more, bringing with it tents and a gentle reminder that though the loudest voices always get the most attention, sport doesn’t always have to do things at 100 decibels to do it right.

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