Not all well with Twenty20
It's not often that a ram makes an eloquent point - they're just not that sort of animal - but there was something about the appearance of a ram at Derbyshire's game against Worcestershire last Wednesday that spoke volumes about the fading popularity of domestic T20 cricket in England.
There was a time when T20 was viewed as the glamorous face of cricket. In its early years, grounds would lay-on entertainment such as Atomic Kitten, fireworks and jacuzzis in an attempt to add to the excitement of the occasion.
But that's the problem with artificial stimulants. They wear off. These days a reluctant ram - judging by the way it resisted attempts to drag it on to the pitch, the ram had more attractive plans for the evening - is about as glamorous as county cricket can afford. During the game against Lancashire, Derbyshire offered a dancing dog instead. Who could resist?
Quite a lot of people, it seems. They're staying away from the domestic T20 in their droves. While attendances in the South group have held up okay, there have been some dire gate figures in the North. Worcestershire, for example, have had larger crowds for Championship games. And this year, there's no football World Cup to blame.
Now, you might argue that cricket is all the better for the absence of the sideshow. A good game doesn't need gimmicks, after all.
But that's not the reason for the change. The truth is, many of the counties have simply stopped believing in their product. They spent much of the winter telling everyone there's too much cricket and they appear reluctant to invest any more money in marketing.
To some extent, they've been unlucky. The weather, so glorious at the start of the season, has turned and, no doubt, has put off fair-weather spectators. But wet weather in England is hardly unprecedented, is it? It doesn't take Nostradamus to predict that, sooner or later, England were going to endure a wet June and the entire T20 programme would be jeopardised. It's one of the many reasons that T20 shouldn't be played in one lump in the middle of the season.
The game has evolved, too. When T20 was envisaged, it was seen as a fast-moving form of the game, full of big hits and boundaries. It's not like that now. In England, in particular, many teams have worked out that the best way to win games, is to produce low, slow wickets, push the boundaries out as far as possible and utilise spoilers: spinners and medium-pace bowlers that force batsmen to nudge and nurdle their runs. As a tactic it's a success; as a spectacle it's a disaster.
Priorities have changed, too. In the early years of T20, teams were keen to field their best cricketers and drafted in some big-name overseas players. To a large extent, that is no longer happening. Instead, several counties have chosen to rest their leading performers from T20 cricket in order to keep them fresh for the resumption of the Championship programme.
A chaotic fixture list hasn't helped, either. You'd need to be a well-trained FBI agent to work out when your team is playing, as the schedule - with games starting at different times and on different days - has no shape or logic to it.
The combination is providing domestic T20 with little chance to thrive. Which is all a shame. For it could still be an attractive product. Instead of nurturing it, however, the ECB have meddled, fudged and milked it to within an inch of its life. They haven't quite killed it off, but they've certainly made it very unwell.
It could be revived quite easily. If the T20 competition was played throughout the season, with the majority of games staged on Friday nights, spectators would know what to expect and the threat from poor weather would be diluted. Meanwhile, the counties would also participate in a T20 knock-out competition incorporating the minor counties and the closer ICC affiliate nations. Finals day could continue as now. It would be - like the old NatWest and Gillette cups - an FA Cup of cricket.
"But there's no room in the schedule," I hear you cry. Maybe. But there could be. The 2011 season actually ends 10 days earlier than the 2009 season. Meanwhile the counties could reduce the number of unnecessary fixtures against the likes of the UCCE sides and consider reducing the CB40 programme.
There's a great deal to like about T20 cricket. At its best, it remains an attractive game and an important part of the future. But it is slowly becoming everything it set out to replace: formulaic, overly familiar and jaded. If the ECB think that simply cutting down the number of games next season and trusting to luck with the weather will help them turn a corner, they're going to be disappointed.
Adrian Shankar has already won far more column inches than he deserves, but his explanation for lying about his age deserves to be heard. It's imaginative, if nothing else.
When confronted on the issue, Shankar told at least one Lancashire colleague that he had been "stillborn." Which to you, me and everyone else, means dead. But not to Shankar. He's not one to be chained to convention. Or science. Or history.
Instead, Shankar claims, it meant three years in an incubator where he didn't grow. As a result, he claimed there was some confusion over his actual birth date. Which clears all that up.
And, if you believe that, you'll probably believe that the talented Mr Shankar really was the Arsenal football playing, national tennis ace, who destroyed all before him in Sri Lankan domestic cricket and, in between inventing rainbows and teaching dolphins to knit, apparently had a host of counties begging for his services. To be honest, I'm beginning to think he made some of it up…
A perfect role model
It might not have attracted many column inches, but a quietly significant milestone was reached when Moeen Ali captained Worcestershire against Warwickshire in the County Championship match at Edgbaston.
Moeen, just 23 at the time, became the first British-born Muslim player to captain a first-class county. At a time when there is rather too much division and conflict between communities in the UK and abroad, it's an episode that reflects well on the county, the player and the game of cricket. Whatever other problems the game may have, the days when non-white players felt alienated is fast coming to an end.
It's not always been that way. You don't have to go back very far to find players who felt their race or religion was an impediment to their progress in county cricket. Even now, attempts to persuade various leagues and clubs that they would be welcome - and better off - under the umbrella of the ECB goes on. There's still work to be done on this issue.
But, with role models such as Moeen, is seems realistic to hope for further improvements. Moeen is not only a fine and pleasing player, but very obviously Muslim. With his long beard, he is an eye-catching figure and the hope is that familiarity and more Asian players competing both in professional cricket and officially recognised recreational cricket.
"I hadn't honestly thought about it until you mentioned it," Moeen admitted when asked about his achievement. "But, now I do reflect on it, I am very proud. I've heard stories of how tough things were for people [Muslim cricketers] a few years ago, but I can honestly say that those days have gone.
"Worcestershire couldn't have done more to make me feel welcome. They've been fantastic. They allow me a room to pray in and, when I told them I was uncomfortable wearing a shirt with the Pedigree brand name on it [as a Muslim, Moeen was reluctant to be associated with an alcoholic product] they sorted that out for me. They've been very supportive.
"I'm British and I'm Muslim. That's a fact and, as far as I can see, there's no conflict between the two. I'm proud to be both." In many cases, it's unwise to promote a young man as a role model. But Moeen carries the burden with ease. "I welcome that [being a role model.] I'm not afraid of it at all. I used to look up to the likes of Hashim Amla and Saaed Anwar and if, in turn, I can pass on some of their values to the next generation, I'll be very proud.
"It's true that there has been a reluctance from some people in the Asian communities to become involved with things like the Birmingham League. They've preferred to remain involved in their own leagues.
"But that's all changing. The Birmingham League is full of Asian players now and if I can provide an example to show young Asians that there is a route into the game, then I'm very happy with that. My message to them would be 'there's nothing to fear. You'll be very welcome.'
"It's part of my duty as a Muslim to spread the word of God and, if by playing cricket and talking to people, I can help in a small way to create a bridge between communities, then that's great."
Moeen is a fine player, too. He was Worcestershire's highest scorer in the Championship and in T20 cricket last season and, as he matures, he's becoming a little less flash and a lot more consistent. There's no reason to think he won't be scoring runs - and taking wickets - for Worcestershire well into the next decade.
It may be, however, that he falls just short of international standard. After all, the competition for batting places from the likes of James Taylor, Alex Hales, Jason Roy and Ben Stokes is fierce. There won't be room for all of them at the top level.
But some things are more significant than stats and personal records. And if Moeen can continue to bridge divides in a sport that hasn't always managed to coax the best out of its Asian participants, he'll have served cricket very well indeed.
News that Chris Adams had been granted a contract extension as Surrey's director of cricket was greeted, in some circles at least, with predictable cynicism.
Surrey remain perhaps the least popular team in county cricket. Some resent the swagger with which they played in their heyday. Some resent their habit of poaching other team's players. Some lampoon a club which has spent heavily without yet managing to climb out of Division Two of the championship. Adams, they say, has been given plenty and delivered little.
Yet the club is making progress. Not only are they top of their CB40 group, but they have shown signs that they could win promotion in the Championship this year. Just as importantly, they are producing players - the likes of Stuart Meaker, Rory Hamilton-Brown, Matthew Dunn and Jason Roy - who could well go on to win games for England.
They've improved the likes of Chris Tremlett and Jade Dernbach, too. Tremlett, remember, was unwanted and unloved at Hampshire at the end of 2009. Yet Adams and his coaching team made Tremlett feel valued at The Oval and helped him rediscover his love for the game. They deserve some of the credit for his recent excellence.
Dernbach, meanwhile, was a pleasing medium-fast seamer with an excellent slower ball. Thanks to plenty of hard work and good coaching, however, he's now added a yard of pace - a common expression but a very rare achievement - and stands tantalisingly close to a Test debut.
The work at Surrey might not be completed, but it's on track. Surrey's decision to invest in a long-term deal for Adams may well turn out to be good news for Surrey and good news for England.
Proving a point
When Owais Shah marked his return to Lord's with a match-winning half-century (an unbeaten 78 from just 50 balls) in the FLt20, it was widely reported that he had eloquently proved a point to the club that released him at the end of last year.
Actually, however, he might have proved Angus Fraser's point instead. For no-one - certainly not Middlesex's director of cricket, Fraser - has ever doubted that Shah is an extravagantly gifted cricketer.
What Fraser did doubt was Shah's consistency. While pondering whether to offer Shah another contract at the end of last year, Fraser says he studied Shah's record in some detail. And what he found was that Shah was more than capable of scoring heavily against any attack, but that he tended to be at his best when he had a point to prove. Such as when he was looking for a new contract.
So, bearing in mind that he had limited resources and was keen to build a team that could push for promotion from the sometimes unglamorous second division, Fraser decided to let Shah pursue his career elsewhere.
Seen in that light - and bearing in mind that Middlesex are doing well in the Championship - and you can't help but wonder if Shah's match-winning innings didn't actually vindicate Fraser.