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There is a malevolent presence at the heart of English cricket. An all consuming darkness that clings to the national game, wrapping its dank pervasive influence around the counties and dragging them down into a circle of Hell unknown to Dante. An evil that condemns good men to an eternity of hard toil in return for a fleeting glimpse of Arcadia, with those who stumble on the way forced into the senseless, everlasting ennui of limbo.
I speak, of course, about the format of the CB40 - a one-day competition where three qualifying groups feed directly into a semi-final stage. With only the first placed team in each group of seven guaranteed to go through to the knockout stage it’s a structure that means counties must win relentlessly for the slightest chance of qualifying, whilst any side losing three out of their first four or five games can look forward to months of one-day cricket as meaningless as the plot of a Michael Bay movie.
As a format, it’s the antithesis of the World Cup, a tournament where teams can practically lose every game of the opening group stage and still get through because of run rate and their captain having a telegenic smile.
Both competitions feature Netherlands. But while the Dutch perform a supporting role during the World Cup – they’re expected to be early fall guys while other countries, with a wider TV demographic reach, progress further – in the CB40 they’re currently topping the table in Group A after victory against Essex at Schiedam on Tuesday.
There’s something glorious about that. Something wilfully perverse to a national side competing in a domestic tournament. Something very county cricket. You’d never get Liechtenstein heading the Bundesliga or Cuba cutting a swath through the NFL and frankly those competitions are all the poorer for it.
So I don’t care if most of the team speak Dutch with the same proficiency level as Steve McClaren, they’ve got my support in this year’s CB40. Any country that gave us the novels of Harry Mulisch, cannabis cafes and the majesty of Co Stompé’s darts walk on, deserves success. Look in your history books, these people invented flood plains and the colour orange. Apart from Yorkshire with grey, when has an English county ever been as closely associated with a colour? That’s why The Netherlands should be everyone’s second team.
But this is where the full impact of the CB40 format kicks in. As despite beating four counties in as many weeks, the Dutch are still faced with seven more games spread over three months where the slightest dip in form could leave them with nothing to show for the impact they’ve already made. It’s a format that mitigates a surprise run by an underrated team when, so far, 2012 has been a season for the underdog.
Not in Division One of the championship, perhaps. Trying to predict how teams will fair in the top flight has been a fool’s game for so long now I’m not sure there are any underdogs and definitely no nailed on certainties for success. Take this year’s pre-season favourite, Durham, who are already propping up the table. Or the defending champions, Lancashire, who are doing as badly this season as they were predicted to in 2011.
But Division Two is different; as the accepted wisdom is that at least one of the teams relegated the previous year always bounce straight back up again; with a group of unfashionable sides – Derbyshire, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire – perennially tipped as also rans. That might appear to make predicting Division Two a safer bet but it’s worth remembering that the second division title is the most egalitarian trophy in English cricket after being won by eleven different counties in the twelve seasons since the championship was split.
There’s a chance that record could become twelve sides in thirteen years if unfancied Derbyshire confound expectations and continue their early season form. And here again they’ve got my support; as one of the down sides of a two division championship is that travelling fans can go years without an opportunity to visit some of the grounds on the county circuit. With Derbyshire Division Two’s longest serving team, having been stuck there since relegation from Division One way back in 2000, their supporters are long overdue the opportunity for days out at Old Trafford, the Riverside, Trent Bride and Taunton.
Should they be promoted it would also be two fingers up to the “not in my back yard” proponents of a reduced championship who would happily wipe away a hundred and forty years of Derbyshire tradition because they see an easy target that deflects attention from their own club’s shortcomings.
Yeah, I’ll have a Dutch semi-final appearance and Derbyshire promotion on my 2012 wish list. A season for the underdog.
Kenny Shovel has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expensesFeeds: Dave Hawksworth
© ESPN EMEA Ltd.
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Dave Hawksworth has been in a relationship with cricket for over 30 years. During that time he's seen Ken Rutherford score 300 before tea, Geoff Boycott hit the first ball of the day for a boundary, and drunk a lot of beer. He's never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses.