July 26, 2012

The glorious uncertainty of the County Championship

Cricket doesn’t exactly dominate newspaper back pages at the best of times, but this summer it’s almost been invisible, hidden away among so many other high-profile sporting events and headline-grabbing stories

Cricket doesn’t exactly dominate newspaper back pages at the best of times, but this summer it’s almost been invisible, hidden away among so many other high-profile sporting events and headline-grabbing stories. Even the window between Wimbledon and the Olympics has ended up being dominated by Rangers insolvency, Premiership footballer court cases and Bradley Wiggins’ sideburns.

So when cricket writers are finally afforded a little elbow room it’s perhaps understandable they’re expected to concentrate on England’s debacle against South Africa at The Oval. Understandable, if unfortunate for county cricket. As tucked away from back page headlines you might find the briefest summary of matches confirming that players in the county championship, when they finally get back onto the field of play, can still produce the most absorbing sports tournament on earth.

Because the County Championship remains the most infuriatingly unpredictable, gloriously open competition. The kind of nerve jangling, volatile climax we saw in this year’s Premiership title race has become almost par for the course when it comes to English cricket’s domestic title. And with only six rounds of matches left this summer you could still make a case for any one of five teams to have a realistic shot at the title should they maintain form. As while early season front-runners Warwickshire still top the table with a game in hand, last week’s defeat by Somerset allowed the chasing pack to make up ground and Somerset themselves to move into third place just when their inspirational captain, Marcus Trescothick, is returning from injury.

The manner of that defeat underlines just how unpredictable county cricket can be. Going into the final day of the match Warwickshire were 212 runs to the good with seven wickets in hand. Their only problem appeared to be when to time a declaration given Somerset’s record of chasing down large fourth innings totals at Taunton. It was a problem that was removed within an hour of play, along with their remaining seven batsmen. The resulting target of 270 produced three early victims to the new ball, a blistering 152 off 170 balls by Craig Kieswetter and a late flurry of wickets before Somerset’s final pair managed to scrape home to victory.

But that is the nature of the County Championship: sides can win a game from seemingly nowhere, or lose it from a position of dominance; advantage in a match can switch in the space of a few overs and a brilliant individual performance like the one by Kieswetter can not only win the day but hold huge significance for the destination of the title itself.

That element of unpredictability has always been a part of the championship, but it’s increased significantly since the switch to a two division structure in 2000 as there are no longer cheap wins to be found against demotivated sides. This year Lancashire, Surrey, Worcestershire and Durham may have little to no chance of winning the title but they still provide tough opposition as they’re involved in a close, hard fought battle against relegation.

Durham are in the most danger after being rooted to the bottom of the table for much of the season. Last Saturday’s defeat at Arundel highlighted their biggest problem this summer when they were skittled in the second innings for 93, an all too familiar batting collapse. For the last few years Durham’s batting has looked to be overly reliant on Dale Benkenstein and Michael Di Venuto. I’ve often wondered what would happen if they were both out of form and the answer is that Durham has no one averaging more than thirty with the bat in the championship; no one capable of setting a total their strong seam attack can defend.

Of the other struggling Division One teams Lancashire had looked like they might have turned a corner in their season until they were soundly beaten by Worcestershire a week ago. Although it might not be wise to draw too many conclusions from a match played on one of the newly laid Old Trafford pitches. A wicket that helped spinners from the very start, yet one on which Gary Keedy wasn’t selected to play and where the highly talented Simon Kerrigan seems to have been out bowled by the part time spin of Steven Croft and Moeen Ali. An unexpected, unpredictable and very County Championship turn of events.

Exactly how unpredictable this year’s championship run-in will prove, remains to be seen. But with just two-dozen days of first-class cricket to go, in what has been a fairly miserable season for many supporters up to now, we could still be in for a richly rewarding climax.

Five teams fighting hard for the title; two from four to be relegated; Derbyshire, Hampshire, Yorkshire and Kent in the hunt for promotion from Division Two; all of them part of the glorious uncertainty of the County Championship.

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