County cricket started in the eighteenth century, the earliest known inter-county match being played in 1709, though an official County Championship was not instituted until 1890. 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.
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. The most successful county teams were Hampshire, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex. There was, however, 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.
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 onward, all matches have been scheduled for four days.
By 2008, many voices were heard questioning the future of the shaky financial structure of many counties, poor attendances and the irresistible rise of Twenty20 cricket. However, doubts have been raised over many decades concerning viability, yet it still survives.