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Question: Why exactly did it take English cricket 110 years from the formation of the official County Championship before they realised organising it into two divisions was a good idea? I know the administrators were terribly busy back then separating amateurs and riff-raff into different dressing rooms and enforcing a strict black tie and tails dress code for the final session of the day at Lords, but even so, letting the entire 20th century slip by before they got round to adding the extra competitiveness generated by a two tier championship does seem to be a bit lacking in urgency and devoid of common sense.
I mention this as we're now at the point of the season which always highlights the benefits of creating a two division structure. As for all the excitement being felt in Warwickshire as they close in on a seventh championship title - failing to do so now would be almost Devon Loch-esque - for much of the rest of the county circuit the real tension surrounds much closer battles to avoid relegation into Division Two or gain promotion into Division One.
This never used to be the case. When I first started watching county cricket, thirty years or so ago, it was only ever the three or four teams at the top of the table who had anything other than pride to play for during the Championship run in. Outside of that group the cricket was still enjoyable but experienced spectators could indulge in the traditional end of season pastime of trying to spot which members of their squad were now playing to maintain their average and/or secure a contract for next season.
It's not as if prize money for minor places was much of an incentive. Thirty years ago the county in fourth place won the princely sum of £1,650. What could you buy for that in 1982? A ZX Spectrum for the club office plus a Breville travel iron and a copy of ABC's The Lexicon of Love for each member of the first team squad? Obviously that's speculation on my part as to how that year's fourth placed team, Sussex, spent the money. It may well have been on other high status consumer goods.
My point is that much as we sometimes like to romanticise the cricket we watched in our youth, too much of it, towards the end of the season at least, lacked the competitive edge generated by their actually being something at stake on the outcome of the games being played. Too much of it was being played between teams whose Championship campaign had been effectively over since the start of June.
Contrast that to this season. Any two from Surrey, Lancashire and Worcestershire could still find themselves relegated, although in reality Warwickshire's demolition of the Worcestershire batting line-up on the first morning of their current match looks likely to have sealed the fate of the Pears. But that still leaves the final round Lancashire v Surrey fixture at Liverpool looking like a classic "loser takes nothing" clash.
And the fact Durham have already hauled themselves to relative safety after winning four of their last five Championship matches further highlights how much is at stake at this point in the season. Would they have been motivated into quite the same recovery of form by the thought of improving their position in a single division table from ninth to sixth?
If anything the top of Division Two is even more open. First place Derbyshire are 23 points clear of Kent in third, so as long as they can avoid defeat in their remaining two games they should be back playing Division One cricket next year for the first time since 2000. But the current round of games will go a long way to determining who out of Yorkshire, Kent and Hampshire will be promoted alongside them. That's an entire set of games at the end of the season where every day, every session, is of huge significance to the counties involved. Games that in previous years would have determined who finished tenth and eleventh in the table.
There is a downside to the two division structure, of course. Sides can go years without playing each other in the Championship and with it the chance for spectators to have an extended visit to some of the most attractive and welcoming grounds. And counties seemingly stuck in Division Two can see talented young players move elsewhere in the belief it will increase their chances of England recognition.
But with so much competitive cricket still being played right to the end of the summer there can be no doubt as to the overall benefit the move to two divisions has had on the English game. It's been as much a factor in England's improved international form over the past seven or eight years as the much vaunted central contracts. That's why the occasional suggestion we revert to a single division needs to be treated with the same disdain as last winter's brainstorm of a 14-game Championship.
© ESPN EMEA Ltd.
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