September 20, 2012

'County cricket has become much tougher'

Darren Gough reflects on the 2012 County Championship season

Is the Championship a good breeding ground for future England players?
Without doubt. It is better now than it has ever been. I hardly played county cricket for the middle period of my career, but when I came back into it, I really noticed the difference. It was much tougher. Whereas every team used to have four or five tailenders, now they all bat down to 10 or 11. Just look at Derbyshire's ninth-wicket partnership of 261 between Tom Poynton and Wayne Madsen. There is a depth and an intensity that wasn't there in the past. The key changes have been the introduction of promotion and relegation and the move to four-day cricket. I know this year hasn't shown it, but generally the pitches in the top division have been better, too. Now nearly every game matters and that has given teams something to play for the whole way through the season.

Which teams have impressed you this year?
Warwickshire have done fantastically well. To some extent that is no surprise - they have a tremendously strong squad. But they were weakened by injuries and England call-ups, so to have won the County Championship showed their strength and depth.

It is interesting to look at some of the ingredients of that success. They don't have any old coaches. In fact, they have a team of relatively young coaches - Ashley Giles, Graeme Welch and Dougie Brown - and I think that instils energy in the club. They are ambitious and demanding and constantly searching for perfection. I wouldn't be at all surprised if, one day, Ashley Giles and Andy Flower swap jobs: Ashley could take the England job and Andy could go to Warwickshire. Maybe if Somerset had had Vernon Philander for a bit longer, they might have challenged, but Warwickshire were very well deserved champions.

I'm a bit biased, of course, but I have been very pleased with Yorkshire, too. They should never be in the bottom division, but at least they have put that right. The new coach, Jason Gillespie, made a huge difference and to go through the entire Championship season unbeaten - the only team to do so - was excellent. Now we're seeing a crop of very talented players emerge from their academy. Young guys like Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Azeem Rafiq and Adam Lyth aren't just good players either, they have a strong character that will see them through the tough times. And after years of producing good fast bowlers - guys like me and Matthew Hoggard, Chris Silverwood and Ryan Sidebottom - the academy is at last producing batsmen. There are no superstars in the seam attack, but Steven Patterson, for example, has hit the seam, maintained a good line and length and kept going really well. It's been a great team performance.

Are there any particular players that have impressed you?
Joe Root is the LV= County Championship Breakthrough Player of the Season and you can see why. It's not that he has had a great season in terms of run-scoring, but he reminds me of Alastair Cook. He looks to have a lot of style when he is batting, but he had that inner steel you need at the top level, too. He'll be out of his comfort zone in India - he is used to facing seam and he'll be confronted by lots of spin bowling - but that is all part of his development. I'm glad he is being thrown in at the deep end. I'm sure he will swim. There is a great tradition of top-order batsmen from Yorkshire going on to do well for England and Root is the next to follow in the footsteps of Boycott and Vaughan.

Azeem Rafiq is another. I think I gave him his first-team debut in T20 cricket in 2008. He has the brilliant attribute for a spinner of being able to beat the bat on both sides. He has incredibly strong fingers and bowls a type of 'doosra' that will take him a lot of wickets. I remember batting in the nets against him when he was about 17 and I just couldn't lay bat on ball. He is a tough, naturally aggressive batsman, too, and will make a good captain at some stage. He has already had some experience in the role during this season's T20. Aged just 21, he is the youngest man to have captained Yorkshire.

There are several players at Warwickshire who have done well. Varun Chopra has had another fantastic season and was one of only two England-qualified players to score 1,000 runs in the top division. Chris Woakes is a fantastic young cricketer, while Chris Wright and Keith Barker, who weren't wanted at other counties, have taken nearly 120 Championship wickets between them. Fate has been a bit harsh on Rikki Clarke. He was probably picked for England too early and, as a result, he was judged far too soon in his career. But he is a serious all-round cricketer these days and weighed in with useful runs, catches and wickets.

Quite a few bowlers have enjoyed the conditions this year. People like Tim Murtagh and Toby Roland-Jones are never going to give you sleepless nights as a batsman, but they have developed into players who know how to utilise helpful conditions and have proved valuable performers this year. Middlesex were reliant for runs on Joe Denly and Chris Rogers, but their seamers did very well this year. Middlesex probably surprised a few people by coming third.

Any disappointments?
I've been disappointed with Leicestershire. They will need to gamble a bit if they're ever to get out of Division Two. As captain, I was always prepared to risk a loss to get a win and I think Leicestershire will have to do that if they are to progress. And Essex have been a bit disappointing. Paul Grayson is a terrific coach but, with Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara on England duty and Owais Shah and Ryan ten Doeschate away at the IPL, the younger batsmen needed to put scores on the board and they couldn't do it. There are some really good bowlers developing there - Reece Topley and Tymal Mills, for example - but the batsmen don't seem to be developing as they should.

Each month LV= ambassador Darren Gough goes behind the scenes in county cricket with his LV= County Catch-Up. Check out the latest at www.ecb.co.uk

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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