County cricket should be celebrated
Did you know that when Paul McCartney wrote the original version of the classic Beatles song 'Yesterday' the lyrics were: 'Scrambled eggs; oh baby I love your legs?"
Fortunately someone intervened before the band reached the studio and persuaded McCartney to re-write it. Sadly no-one got there in time when he recorded The Frog Chorus. Or when he married Heather Mills.
Consider, too, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The original attempt on his life ended in failure. In fact, one of the would-be murderers proved so hapless that, distraught by his lack of success, he attempted suicide by jumping into a river. Sadly he hadn't noticed it had dried up. The Archduke's driver, however, panicked by the attempt, took a wrong turn and stalled the car next to the café where an accomplice of the murderer was drowning his sorrows with a beer. He nipped out - presumably without paying - and shot the Archduke dead. The assassination is widely believed to have precipitated World War One. Who knows how different history might be had the car not stalled. Or if the other Beatles had said 'Yeah, love the lyrics, Paul. Eggs. Yumm.' Sometimes, these small quirks of fate can have huge consequences.
Now, let's imagine for a moment that England just lost the Test series against India 4-0. And that England were still ninth in the Test rankings. And that they had just lost - rather than won - seven of their last 13 Tests by an innings.
You can bet that, right now, there would be an almighty inquest going on into the reasons behind England's failure. And, amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth, county cricket would have been blamed.
There are too many counties, some would say, leading to too many players and a dilution of quality. Other would blame the number of non-England qualified players, leading to too few opportunities for young Englishmen. The fact that those arguments utterly contradict one another wouldn't worry them too much.
But England won. And yet, unsurprisingly, few people are crediting county cricket for the success.
So, it's only fair that the county game receives some of the praise for its part in England's success story. It's not the only factor, of course, but the Championship, in particular, continues to provide the foundations for the international side.
Sound over the top? Well, if it didn't provide a good training ground, how is it that Jonathan Trott, Matt Prior, Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss all made centuries on Test debut? And Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell made half-centuries. And how is it that the likes of Graeme Swann and Tim Bresnan have been able to make such a smooth transition into the Test side? And that Stuart Broad credited his spell with Nottinghamshire this season as crucial to his return to form?
It's because county cricket works. It provides good quality, competitive cricket which has been, over the last couple of seasons, immensely entertaining. Its familiarity has bred contempt. But it's a gem and we'd do well to appreciate it.
Many of the changes that led to England's current success were implemented a decade or more ago. The introduction of four-day cricket (staged from 1988), the introduction of two divisions (from 2000) and the introduction of central contract (also 2000) have had an enormous impact. Andy Flower, quite rightly, gains many plaudits, but the likes of Lord MacLaurin, Duncan Fletcher, David Lloyd and Nasser Hussain all deserve praise, too.
But there's a warning there for England, too. For changes made to domestic cricket now could come back to haunt the England team in a decade's time. The ECB must be very careful before tinkering with the Championship any further. Many already feel that the combination of young player incentives, tougher work permit criteria, more international cricket and more bowler friendly pitches have rendered the Championship weaker than it was three years ago. That may well, in time, ripple through to the national team.
More pertinently, however, it seems a shame that the climax of a wonderful season of Championship cricket is being compromised by the absence of key players. While most county coaches appreciate the importance of rest for England players, there is less understanding about the scheduling of recent Lions games. Or, indeed, the ODI against Ireland.
There's a strong argument for Lions (effectively England A) cricket. Jonathan Trott, for example, credits such games for helping him feel comfortable when he made his Test debut. He knew what the England management expected and he knew his team-mates. That's hard to ignore.
But do the games have to be scheduled during August when the Championship is coming to a conclusion and the absence of key players could have a decisive influence? Isn't that just one more example of denigrating the Championship?
The same could be said for the ODI game against Ireland. While most right-thinking people will wish Ireland well in their plans to develop the sport, did this game have to be scheduled in the final weeks of the county season? Does county cricket continually have to put itself behind the development plans of the Indian cricket board, the Irish cricket board or any other cricket board? Shouldn't the ECB take a bit more of a protective attitude towards their own competitions?
It's just another example of the gradual erosion of the Championship. There remains much to celebrate in the county game but, those who believe that the Championship provides the foundation for the England team, are increasingly uncomfortable at the way those foundations are being weakened.
Facing the axe
April really is the cruellest month. There was a time I used to attend pre-season press days with something approach envy for the young men lining up for their photographs: their youthfulness; their talent; their fitness; their unity.
Not any more. Now I look at them with something approaching pity.
Because, too many times, I've seen the haunted look on faces of out of form players who know their place - and their livelihoods - are under threat.
Because playing careers end in tears. Nearly always. For every Ian Bell or James Anderson, you can find 1,000 cricketers whose dreams have been crushed. Who are forced out of the professional game due to injury or simply because they haven't quite made the grade. Of all the cricketers I've interviewed - and that's hundreds if not thousands - only three have said they left the game completely on their own terms. And one of those - Brian Lara - later made an unsuccessful comeback.
Look at one of those squad photos taken in April. Look at all those young men busting with hope and promise and joy. And then remember that, by September, at least 10% of them will have been axed from the professional game. It's a horrid, largely unavoidable process and it's happening at county clubs up and down the country right now.
The lucky ones may have made a decent living from the game. Or leave it early enough to pursue other options in education or training. But perhaps the worst placed might be in their late 20s. They might have skipped university or those early years in a job that would have given them a start in the world outside cricket. They're left with very little.
Some will move on to bigger and better things. Some will struggle for equilibrium for a while but finally find themselves a role and a purpose. Some never recover.
The Professional Cricketers' Association - the Players' Union - provides an excellent service in preparing players both for the dreaded day and for life after cricket. But no amount of training courses, no amount of warnings, no amount of lectures can prepare all these young men for the disappointment that is coming their way.
The truth is that playing professional cricket is a monstrously harsh profession. It beguiles and promises and tempts and teases. But in the end, it nearly always bites.
Perhaps no-one can count themselves as unfortunate - or as wronged - as Maurice Holmes. Holmes is out of contract at Warwickshire in a few weeks but is unable mount a meaningful case for a new contract as he is currently suspended from first-class cricket after suspicions that his bowling action exceeded the 15% limit allowed by the ICC.
Holmes does have a very unusual action. It may even be unique. But different doesn't necessarily mean bad. And whereas, in Sri Lanka in particular, difference is embraced - think of Malinga or Murali - in the UK it is mistrusted. Just think of all the fuss when Kevin Pietersen first played the 'switch hit.' Some wanted it banned. Fortunately the desire among some to crush anything new and original was resisted. Holmes may not be so fortunate.
The oddity here, however, is that Holmes has twice had his bowling independently tested under scientific conditions and twice had it cleared. On the latest occasion, in June, he sailed through the tests. His stock ball, the off-break, measured just 1%; his 'doosra' just 7%.
So, what's the problem? Well, the ECB weren't sure that Holmes had bowled at full speed in the tests. They analysed previous footage of Holmes in match-action and estimated (yes, estimated) that, in the tests, he was bowling about 3mph slower. Therefore they recommended further testing and extended Holmes' ban until the outcome.
The tests, however, are expensive. So the ECB have not scheduled any more until September. By then the season will be all but over and decisions over Holmes' future will have been made. Holmes' career, it seems, isn't important enough to warrant better.
Surely it would have made more sense to either time Holmes' bowling at the time and, if necessary, insist he bowl quicker, or to re-arrange the testing at the earliest possible opportunity? A three-month hiatus for a man on a one-year contract seems unnecessarily passive.
As it is, Holmes has been found guilty until proven innocent. And he keeps being re-tried for the same 'crime.' He's not a big name, so his case will generate few column inches and arouse little of the feeling that surrounded similar episodes involving Murali. But it's an injustice all the same. And to one 21-year-old trying to make his way in the game, the ramifications are life altering.
It's the silly season in county cricket. The time when just about every player is linked with a move to everywhere else. Mostly Surrey.
It is true, however, that there is likely to be an increasing amount of movement between counties in the future.
This situation regarding Rikki Clarke is particularly interesting. Clarke, who has emerged as one of the best seam-bowling all-rounders in the county game over the last couple of years, is desperate to play international cricket again. While many people have fixed views about him as a character, the 29-year-old Clarke is now a mature pro with a great deal to offer. Apart from the sharp bowling, he's an outrageously good fielder - as good as anyone in the country - and a batsman who is capable of scoring important runs. An England recall is unlikely but, for any county, Clarke would be an asset.
It seems a bit odd, therefore, that Warwickshire have offered him only a two-year deal to remain at Edgbaston. He has barely missed a game in any format for the last two years and seems to be a player at the peak of his powers.
By contrast, Warwickshire have offered Gary Keedy a three-year deal. That's understandable: Keedy remains a high-class spin bowler who is playing a huge role in Lancashire's success. But he's also 36. So it does seem a little odd that Warwickshire have offered him a longer deal than Clarke. Lancashire, it should be noted, have offered Keedy a two-year deal to remain with them.
Kent and Leicestershire - clubs struggling on and off the pitch - look especially ripe for plundering in the next few weeks. Harry Gurney is already set to leave Grace Road for Trent Bridge, while Joe Denly may well be among those leaving Canterbury. Essex is the likely destination. The future of James Taylor also remains unclear. Increasingly, it would be a surprise if he is at Leicestershire next season.
Leicestershire also have several players out of contract at the end of 2012. They may well face another struggle to convince the likes of Josh Cobb, Greg Smith and Nathan Buck to stay. The club just can't compete with the salaries offered elsewhere and, judging by their Championship performances this season - they are 46 points adrift at the foot of Division Two - something is quite wrong at Grace Road. They're better than that.
Perhaps the most interesting fight in the next few weeks might involve Kent's Martin van Jaarsveld. Leicestershire are actually among the clubs interested in luring him away from Canterbury, though they face a tough fight. Derbyshire, who were thwarted in their attempts to sign Paul Collingwood, are very likely to make an approach for van Jaarsveld.
Some supporters will talk of loyalty and heckle departing players. Loyalty works two-ways, however and, bearing in mind how short playing careers are and how suddenly they can end, it's a harsh critic that judges a player too harshly for trying to maximise their earnings in the brief window available.
George Dobell is chief writer of Spin magazine