April 25, 2012

Put Your House In Order, Team England

I am becoming increasingly concerned that Team England is failing in its duty to develop batsmen who can succeed in county cricket.

I am becoming increasingly concerned that Team England is failing in its duty to develop batsmen who can succeed in county cricket.

The combined contribution of 40 runs from four completed innings made by Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell during the latest round of Championship matches is just the tip of the iceberg. How many runs has Eoin Morgan scored for Middlesex since the end of the Sri Lanka tour? How far back would your regression therapy have to take you before suppressed memories emerged of Kevin Pietersen playing match-winning innings for whichever county he was contracted to at the time?

Let us be clear on this: enormous amounts of time, money and specialised coaching have been made available to the national set-up, yet we fail to see a consistent return on that investment when international players are asked to make the step up to Championship cricket.

I can, of course, appreciate the difficulty in adjusting from conditions found on a tour of the sub-continent to those when you play in England during monsoon season. In Sri Lanka, the intense humidity demands prolonged periods of concentration from batsmen as they try to spell out the full names of opposition players for their forthcoming tour diaries. By contrast, a game against Durham leaves you facing highly experienced opening bowlers who are rendered immune to sledging by years of mentally disintegrating encounters with the hen parties that terrorise Newcastle’s Bigg Market on a Friday evening.

But the fact remains that too many England batsmen are being selected for county cricket before they have developed the technique to cope at that level. Clearly this situation is unacceptable. Put your house in order, Team England. Otherwise we need to reduce the number of international matches and give your players an opportunity for the increased rest and practise that will improve their county game.

Not that suspect technique against the seaming ball has been restricted to returning Test players. I’ve already witnessed several innings this season by senior county pros that appeared to be a tribute to the Two Ronnies, as they kept using the footwork required to play the delivery they had just received, rather than the one they were actually facing. The results, as you might imagine, were complete bill hooks.

This is partly the legacy of a domestic schedule that is a muddled, over-extended compromise and an ECB marketing department that believes it can rebrand early April as ‘Summertime Lite’.

The underlying problem is Twenty20 cricket. Not the game itself, but the way it is integrated into the season. With late September being kept clear for participation in the Champions League and the qualifying rounds for that competition, also known as the Friends Life t20, draped across mid-summer like a Bayer Leverkusen beach towel across a sun lounger, Championship cricket has no option but to spill ever earlier into weather as unpredictable as a pub dog and as helpful to seam bowling as, well, spring time in England.

This is why the current argument over how many domestic T20 games should be played is missing the point. Sixteen, ten or next year’s proposed 14 match programme is not the problem. It is having that amount of games crammed together in a short period of time that is causing concerns of overkill. Two or three home games a week at £15-20 a throw is unrealistic when mass unemployment, a double-dip recession and the financial demands of the school holidays are affecting everyone’s disposable income.

The ECB should be applauded for the innovation of T20 cricket; it may well be a financial lifeline that saves the game. The blueprint they created back in 2003 for a competition played over a brief, dedicated period of time, has been copied and improved by the IPL, the Big Bash, and a number of other domestic competitions. It is a format of that allows for high-profile specialist Twenty20 players to be brought in on short-term contracts to both improve the standard of play and to market the competition itself.

But it is time for a rethink of that blueprint. It is time for ‘Friday night is Twenty20 night’ to run throughout the season, with wallets given chance to recover in between Twenty20 games and all competitions of the domestic season given an opportunity to avoid the worst of the English weather. Some big-name players would be lost, but so would the impression that the middle of summer is set aside for supporters to be milked for every possible penny.

The ECB had the forethought to innovate with Twenty20 cricket. Now is the time for them to innovate once again by breaking away from the competition format they created almost a decade ago.

Kenny Shovel has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses