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As we pass the halfway point of the county year, George Dobell talks to four county coaches about the key features of the season so far
July 8, 2011
Peter Moores, Chris Adams, Geoff Cook and Mark Robinson give their views on county cricket on a number of issues including overseas players, pitches and the Champions League
Is the county game fulfilling its purpose: developing England cricketers and producing entertaining cricket?
Chris Adams, Surrey coach: I'd like to think that we at Surrey are doing those things, yes. We're regularly fielding a side with eight England-qualified cricketers aged under 25 in it and, if people remain patient, I'm very confident they will go on to do well for Surrey and England in the years ahead. But it's all about balance and some clubs are certainly not getting it right. Some teams want to win at all costs and don't care about England; some just want to produce players and have no expectation of winning anything.
Part of the problem is that the criteria are quite different in the two divisions. In Division Two there's just a desperate scramble to be promoted. Nothing else seems to matter and that doesn't help sides take a long-term view. Having said that, it has produced some intense, competitive cricket and that must be a good thing.
Geoff Cook, Durham: The introduction of two divisions has ensured that the cricket is always competitive - in the top division, at least. Is the standard as high as it was three or four years ago? I'm not sure. The good overseas players have been replaced by young, English players. And the availability of the top English players is limited, too. While the opportunity for the youngsters is to be welcomed, there is a balance to be struck and whether it's quite right at the moment is debatable.
Peter Moores, Lancashire: Let's just look at the evidence: how have players graduating from county cricket into the international side fared in recent times? They've done very well, haven't they? And that suggests the standard of the county game must be pretty good.
There's another way of judging it, too. When England players come back to the domestic game, do they find it easy? Well, we've seen the likes of Alastair Cook - who has proven himself at the top level - play a fair bit of first-class cricket this season and he hasn't found it easy at all. That's a good sign, too.
Mark Robinson, Sussex: It's a good question. I think history would suggest county cricket is working well. We have been producing good players and the impact of academies and central contracts has been very positive. The cricket has been pretty entertaining, too.
Division One is very intense. There's absolutely no quarter given. There's really not that much difference in talent between the two divisions - and we were in Division Two last year - but what you find in the top division is that the batsmen at nine, ten and 11 continue to make you work for your wickets. We played Derby twice last year. In the first game they were very good. In the second, when they had nothing to play for, they just rolled over and died.
Overall the game is in a bit of a mess, really. It just serves too many masters: it has to please the members; the England team; the sponsors; the broadcasters. It's impossible. Every competition has become a marathon and, in an ideal world, the schedule would be completely different. I probably sound a bit disillusioned by it all and, in a way, I am. It's still a great game and those of us lucky enough to make a living from it are very lucky. But it could be so much better. I'd like to start again from scratch.
The Championship has been hugely entertaining over the last couple of years, partially due to the bowler-friendly nature of pitches. But will this hinder the development of future international players?
CA: I've seen some games ruined by poor surfaces. What bothers me is that we're constantly rewarding average cricketers and dragging down good ones to their level. It impedes the development of young players. We'll end up with a generation of 'stand and deliver' batsmen who just stand there and give it a whack.
The problem is, we've tinkered with lots of things all at once. We've altered the Championship points system to encourage results at the same time as encouraging more lively pitches and getting rid of the heavy roller [after the start of Championship games]. I'm not sure the balance is right now. We've seen quite a few two-day games and that just can't be good for the game. It's an issue that desperately needs addressing.
I know some old-timers think that playing on uncovered pitches helped them develop as batsmen. Maybe they're right. But I don't think we have the balance right at the moment. I thought we had it right a few years ago. We had good pitches that encouraged tough, attritional first-class cricket.
MR: Yes, it will. There's a real danger that playing on inferior wickets will help 80mph trundlers who have no chance of success in international cricket. And I say that as a former 80mph trundler. We're dumbing down the game. If you go back a few years - when we were playing on flat wickets - you can see English cricket produced some really good bowlers. Now we're playing on surfaces that flatter average players. It may be entertaining, but it won't be good for the game in the long term.
I just remember a game we played a Taunton a while ago. One team scored 600 and the other team scored 700. There was lots of talk about how dead pitches like that would harm the game. But it was nonsense. If we'd still had Mushy [Mushtaq Ahmed], we'd have won in three days. Because good bowlers find a way. And if we make life too easy for bowlers, they'll never find a way to succeed at Test level.
In all areas the game needs to be policed better. Whether it's pitches or player behaviour - which has definitely deteriorated in the last few years - we have to keep on top of these issues. Teams - all teams - will always try to take advantage of any change in the playing conditions, so it's essential that the umpires and Pitch Liaison Officers act to ensure the pitches are of good quality. There's an absence of pace in the county game, too. Better pitches and a better schedule would help.
GC: We've played on pretty good surfaces. Bowlers have been stretched to make breakthroughs and it's been good preparation for Test cricket. OK, there was quite a lot of help for the bowlers on the first day in Liverpool recently, but generally we've played on decent wickets.
PM: Division One wickets have been pretty good. Yes, there have been a lot more results - there are very few draws these days - but that's partly due to the scheduling. We've squeezed seven games into the first few weeks of the season, in April and May, and conditions always help the bowlers a bit more then. The changes to the points system have also made a difference. Ideally we could do with seeing a bit more pace and bounce in wickets - that would encourage better players and replicate international cricket - but the pitches haven't been too bad.
Performance related fee payments (PRFPs) have been introduced by the ECB in recent years as an incentive for clubs to field young, England-qualified players. Is there a danger that the absence of non-England qualified players and other senior cricketers could dilute the standard of the domestic game?
PM: I think the balance is just about OK. Guys like Murray Goodwin give so much back. But you're right that there are more young players in the county game, but that's not just about the PRFPs. There's also a better environment for young players now. There's a strong academy system around the country which is helping these players develop and, with the impact of overseas players diminishing, there's more opportunity to field these guys.
But yes, you're right, the absence of the top overseas players - and the top England players - has made a difference and not all that experience can be replaced by emerging talent. The standard is pretty good, though. There are great players in every era and we can see from every measurable sport that they always get better: people run faster; jump further. But are we in an era of great bowlers? I don't know.
|In all areas the game needs to be policed better. Whether it's pitches or player behaviour - which has definitely deteriorated in the last few years - we have to keep on top of these issues Mark Robinson|
While we definitely have more big-hitting batsmen now, I'm not sure that all the skills are there. Murray Goodwin was always masterful at moving the ball around into the gaps - not just smashing it over the boundary - and I'm not sure many players can match him there. But I suppose if you can smash the ball over the boundary, you might argue that you don't need to work it around. It all seems to be about boundaries now.
MR: I'm lucky in that I have a good CEO who lets me do what is right in the long-term interests of the club. But you're right, there is a danger that we could dilute the standard. There's no doubt that some coaches are forced to hit quotas. And any situation where teams aren't selected by merit is a worry. It makes it very hard to judge how good a coach is. Some of them just have no resources.
CA: I realised when I started here that I'd inherited a bum hand. And I knew I needed to start again. The aim was always to develop our own players who could play attractive cricket and who would go on and play for England. We're doing that, too.
When I came to Surrey there were six players on the staff who weren't qualified for England. Now, excluding the T20, we have two.
But you always need leaders. You need experienced men to lead the younger ones. So, last winter, I brought in Zander de Bruyn and he's been outstanding for us. Exceptional. He's added value and provided some much-needed experience. I was staggered when Somerset let him go, to be honest.
When PRFPs were brought in, the aim was to reward clubs that produced England players. But now it's become a key part of some clubs' budgets. There are probably at least three clubs that have to hit their quotas or they won't make ends meet. Is that what we want? Of course it isn't.
Some clubs have zero level of expectancy. Their supporters don't expect them to win anything: they throw kids out there and if they win it's a bit of a bonus. In a way that's fantastic. It creates unpredictable cricket for spectators. But in terms of producing England cricketers, it's not so good.
GC: There's balance to strike, isn't there? I wouldn't say I'm worried. That's a strong word. Providing opportunities for youngsters is good, but they do need to be well led. We've had Dale Benkenstein at Durham who has been fantastic. It's the same with [Martin] van Jaarsveld at Kent. These are great players for our young cricketers to rub shoulders with. They provide so much more than runs. They provide an example.
In many ways Yorkshire are to be admired. They've given their young players opportunities and, even though they've found it tough, I think they will reap the benefits in the long-term.
The schedule is clearly very tough. Have you been obliged to prioritise the three competitions?
GC: We haven't, no. We have two captains this year: one for the championship and one for limited-overs cricket and we went into the season agreeing that we'd try hard to win in all competitions. We have a decent squad so we're quite adaptable and can cover lots of bases. The schedule does make it difficult to maintain a high standard, but that's where it becomes important to have a squad that can cover a lot of bases.
The game is in a reasonably healthy state. But we could do with a bit more spacing so we have time for all the things we know we need: rest, recovery and practise. The search to find the right formula for that is continuous.
PM: The Championship is our priority. Then the FLt20 and then the CB40. The Championship is still the ultimate test of a cricketer and of a team. But you're right: the schedule is ridiculous. No-one will dispute that. We've seen Championship games squeezed in between two T20 matches, so the decision to reduce the volume of cricket has to be right. The move to 10 T20 games next season seems about right.
I'd like to have seen a reduction in the amount of CB40 games, too. I'd prefer to see that competition played over 50 overs as it surely makes sense to mirror what happens in international cricket. I think it makes sense to have a look at how we're playing our Championship cricket, too. If we just get one wet April - which we're bound to sooner or later - the competition could be ruined. We need to look at the whole schedule and see if we can find some more time.
CA: Not really. As a big club with big expectations, we're desperate to get back into Division One. And we'd love to make it to T20 Finals Day. In days gone by, the chance to play a Lord's final was a real thrill for players, but the 40-over competition does seem to have fallen into third place. That's a bit sad. But it can be hard to sustain a challenge in the CB40.
With no quarter-final stage, you can be out very early if you lose a couple of games. Then there's a break for T20 cricket and the competition starts again in the second half of the season. I actually like 40-over cricket. I know a couple of journalists hang their hats on the fact that it's not played at international level, but the spectators seem to like it and it's more exciting to play. I'm glad we're going back to 10 games in the T20, too. We tried 16 and it didn't work.
MR: We never have, no. We try and win all three competitions. Anything else would be a disservice to the sponsors and the spectators and would just dumb-down the game. Clearly if it looks as if you are out of the reckoning in the 40-over competition, you might look at the others a bit closer, but we still start the season looking to win all three.
There's a lot of talk about cutting the amount of T20 cricket and I understand that. But we, at clubs like Sussex, we need T20 cricket - and specifically the income generated by T20 cricket - to enable us to compete with the bigger clubs. By generating cash from T20, we can compete better in the Championship. I think we've won 11 trophies in 10 years but, if you take away our ability to earn any income, we're going to struggle to compete. It'll just be the big clubs and we'll lose some of the richness of the English game.
Look, we'll survive. Whatever happens, we'll adapt and we'll carry on. It's what we do. But the bottom line is that some of the Test-hosting clubs have got themselves in a mess and the smaller clubs - the likes of Sussex, Somerset and Essex - who have made a success of T20, are being asked to pay for that. I suppose we just have to get on with it. Maybe we could spread 16 T20 games over the season instead of in a group in mid-summer?
There's growing debate about whether overseas players should be allowed to participate in Championship cricket. What do you think?
CA: I'd be happy to debate that point now. I'm quite open-minded about it. I know how much I enjoyed playing against the likes of Malcolm Marshall when I played, but the days when we had world-beating overseas players in county cricket has probably gone. There was a time when Waqar Younis suddenly appeared from nowhere bowling exocet-like yorkers and swinging it both ways. But with the new work-permit criteria, that can't happen anymore. Maybe we should just have overseas players for T20 cricket.
PM: I want to reserve judgement on that a bit. The issue is largely dictated by finance, anyway. It certainly has been at Lancashire this year. Ideally, you're looking for something more than runs or wickets from your overseas players. You don't just want a mercenary. You're looking for them to teach your developing players something about preparation and professionalism. So, when VVS Laxman left us, he left behind a legacy. He left behind a message about his passion for his craft.
GC: There is an absence of top-class internationals. A few years ago you could have seen a Lancashire team containing Law, Flintoff and Murali. You could have seen Warne or Bond or Steyn elsewhere in the county game. That's not the case now. County cricket just isn't as attractive to them. They can earn more elsewhere. I'd think we want to see the best possible players we could in the game, but hopefully we can compensate for their absence with the type of cricket we're playing and by providing more opportunities to our young players.
MR: I can see both sides of this debate. The international schedule is now so hectic that the days of having a player like Mushy for a long period have gone. I remember playing Lancashire a few years ago when we had Mushy in our side and they had Murali. Warne and Steyn were playing county cricket around that time, too. You really knew you'd earned your runs if you scored a century against them. There's no doubt that their absence has seen the standard dip a bit.
I'd be tempted to go back about six years and change the work-permit criteria. At the time, we brought Rana Naved into the game and he was superb. He appeared from nowhere bowling at 90mph. That couldn't happen now. He wouldn't have played the amount of international cricket required to earn a work-permit. I'm not sure how that helps county cricket.
Are there any young players that have impressed you this season? Particularly those from other counties.
MR: Oh, yes. There are lots of good young players around. Chris Woakes [Warwickshire] is a very exciting player. Ben Stokes [Durham] and Danny Briggs [Hampshire] are exciting, too. And Josh Buttler [Somerset]. At Sussex, Luke Wells looks like an outstanding prospect, but it's important we don't over-hype any of them. Is Boyd Rankin [Warwickshire] a young player? Because he really impressed me with his hostility.
GC: Joe Root [Yorkshire] played nicely against us. He didn't actually score many runs, but he did look a well organised player.
PM: Ben Stokes struck me as a very bright talent. He played certain shots against a really top-class bowler like Glen Chapple that really made you pay attention. Actually Durham have another one in Scott Borthwick. He looks like a really high-energy cricketer who has improved a great deal in quite a short time.
Is it right that the whole schedule for the English domestic season has had to be altered to make room for a Champions League in which we have no stake and for which our teams may not qualify?
PM: We want to perform in the Champions League. For a start, there's a lot of prize money on offer. But more importantly, if you talk to guys from Sussex or Somerset, they found the experience hugely beneficial. It's a level above the one at which they were playing. It opened their eyes to how hard they had to work and how they had to improve their skills. They were suddenly confronted by a guy who had three different slower balls. The Champions League may be the only time out players compete against New South Wales, for example, and that should only be a positive experience.
CA: It's irrelevant what I think. We are where we are and I'm not going to blame the ECB for that. The fact is that India call the shots and they are making it difficult for us to participate. County players want to participate, I can tell you that. And it's not just about money: it's about playing at the highest level you can. 90% of first-class cricketers won't play at international level, so this is the highest standard of cricket they'll ever play.
MR: It's not ideal, but I want to sit on the fence a bit. I can see both sides of the argument. I never played international cricket so my experience with the Champions League was probably the most exciting episode of my cricket career. It was fantastic to learn from other players and coaches. We came up against guys who looked as if they'd never been to the gym in their life, but could hit the ball further than any of our guys. Playing against those people can only help us raise the standard of our own game.
GC: We're in the hands of people who have no concern for the ECB, so there's not much we can do about it. But the T20 competition has been amazing and winning that is very important. The potential finance on offer from the Champions League means it has to be a priority, really.
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