August 24, 2012

England demands wreck climax to county season

And so another summer of Test cricket has reached its conclusion

And so another summer of Test cricket has reached its conclusion. The infuriatingly abridged three-match series against South Africa has been lost 2-0. England outplayed. Their reputation for planning and preparation undermined by determined batting, quality fast bowling and modern forms of communication that allow you to instantly converse with thousands of people across the globe but are seemingly incapable of passing the message “I’ll buy you a beer if you stop being a prat” to a team-mate at the other side of the dressing room.

For a second successive year we have witnessed the No. 1-ranked Test side dethroned, with South Africa now rightfully acknowledged as the best cricket side in the world: an abundantly talented team, well led and deserving of nothing but admiration. Yet somehow the sight of Graeme Smith parading the ICC Test mace on The Oval outfield left me hoping that the NASA Curiosity mission to Mars was the first faltering step towards finding another habitable planet on which to rebuild humanity. Perhaps that’s just disappointment?

In years gone by that kind of dissatisfaction at a series defeat would have been partially numbed by the knowledge that a month of the County Championship was left to be played out. A month of games in which England players would take full part. A month when rest was a four-letter word.

There are still three rounds of the Championship, Twenty20 finals day and the conclusion of the CB40 to be played this season. But there’ll be precious little opportunity to see England players turning out for their county side as the demands of the international schedule encroach ever more on to the domestic cricket.

The extent of that was laid bare by Wednesday’s ECB announcement about player availability for the rest of the season. It was a list as long as Steve Finn’s arm and as sobering as the role call scene at the end of Zulu. Twenty players missing for most or all of the remainder of the season. Twenty!

Particularly hard hit are Nottinghamshire. As thanks to five of their first team being in the England Twenty20 squad they’ll go into their final Championship game against Warwickshire severely weakened – a situation compounded by Warwickshire having Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott and Chris Woakes cleared to play in what could still prove to be the deciding match of this year’s County Championship.

Given the importance of that game you’d expect it to be the one covered as Sky’s traditional final Championship match of the season. Frustrating then that on a rare opportunity for the domestic first-class game to get some national media exposure, what should be a set piece contest between two of this year’s top counties will be overshadowed and unbalanced by England demands.

But then that is the lot of the Championship: a contest that can be pushed to one side to make way for more profitable forms of the game; a contest that’s as much ignored by the ICC Future Tours Programme as common sense or the need for international players to have a home life.

Not all of that can be laid at the door of the ECB, of course. It’s not their fault that Nottinghamshire have produced a crop of quality one-day players. And I doubt they have much more say in the scheduling of the World Twenty20 than they do the content of Piers Morgan’s Twitter feed.

But they could at least communicate player availability in a clear, consistent manner. Whether Yorkshire would agree they achieve that is debatable, as the announcement that Tim Bresnan was unavailable for Twenty20 finals day was at odds with the county’s previous understanding that he could play and came as an unpleasant shock for a side preparing for their first ever appearance on finals day.

Perhaps that was just a genuine misunderstanding when the ECB press release was first drafted - it’s worth noting that it has now been re-worded to reflect Yorkshire’s original understanding - but it does highlight the need for more effective communication, whether it be with a county relying on the return of a key allrounder or with a talented, unsettled individual.

Which brings us back to one man who has been made available for the remainder of the county programme – Kevin Pietersen. It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for old Kev hasn’t it? Not least his appearance for Surrey at Southampton on Sunday, which was greeted by boos from a section of the crowd followed by cheers from most of it when he was dismissed for a golden duck.

That kind of reception is perhaps understandable given Pietersen’s record of seven Championship appearances during his six years at Hampshire, which didn’t leave the supporters feeling he was the most committed player they’ve ever had on their books. What will be more revealing is his reception elsewhere on the circuit.

KP may be no stranger to a hostile crowd – he’s twice toured his native South Africa - but will someone who sees himself as a leading man be content to be county cricket’s pantomime villain? If Pietersen’s time as an England international is at an end, we may also be seeing the end of him in English cricket as a whole.

There might be some who welcome that, but Pietersen is a rare talent, one who could help shine a spotlight on county cricket at a time when world class players are rarely made available.

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