And so it leaves, as it always does, with a jolt. Even though you can smell it in the air, in the hastening evenings, in the turning trees, in the shock of the cold morning and an extra jumper. Red-ball cricket, for most of the country, slides away for another year after a season unlike all others.
In the chaos of mid-March, as counties started to cancel pre-season tours, and then as the country fell into total lockdown, cricket seemed increasingly unlikely. The England and Wales Cricket Board desperately needed international fixtures to fill the coffers, planning the introduction of bubbles and sweet-talking West Indies and Pakistan, but as domestic players trained in their garages and gardens, a county championship felt like a pipe dream. But, thanks to sterling efforts by the ECB and the counties, a competition was conjured up – the Bob Willis Trophy, a regional conference system that involved limited travel and, for the first time, a domestic five-day final.
And what a success it has been, even if the action has happened in a void after audience pilot schemes had to be cancelled because of a rise in the number of Covid cases. This year the spectators have been virtual – tuning in to BBC radio from their home offices and watching the counties’ streaming services, which have been mostly free to access, with wily fans able to leapfrog the occasional hoop. (The streams have also proven very popular for the women’s one-day Rachael Heyhoe-Flint trophy which, in the absence of the women’s Hundred, has quietly built up an enhanced profile this summer.)
There have been hellos and goodbyes. Ian Bell, the last man standing from the 2005 Ashes campaign, more hirsute but cover-driving with just the same varnished panache, finished with a flourish, a fifty and a ninety against Glamorgan. That he did not get a standing ovation from a pocket of rheumy-eyed romantics seemed to bother him a lot less than it did everyone stuck at home; philosophical to the last, he spoke of looking forward to a career in coaching.
Graham Onions goes too, as fit looking as ever as he marched around Aigburth in his tracksuit, geeing up Lancashire’s young pups, his season and career brought to a premature end by injury, but with so many good years for Durham and Lancashire to look back on, and England caps limited only by opportunity.
New hands have been raised. Tom Lammonby, the young Somerset batsman whose unbeaten 107 ensured Somerset would reach the final, was highly praised by both his captain and coach in a game against Worcestershire at New Road in which 18 of the 22 players came through the two team’s academies. Zak Crawley returned from the international bubble to make a thrilling hundred against Hampshire, his teammate, teenager Jordan Cox, an unbeaten double century against Sussex before being promptly banned for accidentally breaking Covid regulations by posing for a photograph with fans. That no match was called off due to Covid until the very last round, when Gloucestershire v Northants had to be abandoned, felt like a rather large victory.
Others have moved sideways. Jamie Overton left Somerset, and his twin brother Craig, halfway through the season for the promised land of The Oval, where he hopes to get more first-class cricket with Surrey; young Tom Taylor, the talented young all-rounder, moves from Leicestershire to pastures new. All this as counties tighten their belts ahead of financial rough seas.
What happens next rests in the hands of the Professional Game group – which includes the chief executives of Durham, Surrey, Sussex and Nottinghamshire (three of which, incidentally, would have started 2020 in Division Two of the Championship and all of whom finished towards the bottom of their 2020 regional groups). They have been asked to come up with options for 2021 that will then be voted on by the county chairmen. Reports suggest that the current favourite scheme is a twist to this year’s conference system.
The idea bubbling from the group is three conferences of six counties, not regional as this year, but based on seedings worked out from positions in the 2019 Championship. The teams will then play against each other in two blocks, between April and July, and then again in September, in a rejigged three groups depending on results in the early part of the season. The teams in division one will be playing for a place in the Lord’s final; teams in the other divisions for prize money.
There are dissenters – and the proposal needs to be passed by the county chairmen by a majority of two-thirds before being ratified by the ECB. But the majority are in favour, at least for 2021, because the idea offers some semblance of security, a fixture list by November, and something to sell to members in the hope that next summer will be one where the fans get closer than the bugle player who stood blowing by the gates of Old Trafford during Pakistan’s games and the lone elderly man spotted with his deckchair outside Taunton, face pressed to the railings.
But for now, all eyes turn to Lord’s on 23 September. To Essex v Somerset and the final, the very last red-ball match of the season, between the two teams who took the title to the very last day of the last game of 2019. Some succour that despite everything, the cream managed to rise to the top.
• This is an extract taken from The Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.