English season review September 29, 2008

Championship shows it can survive new age

The instigation of two divisions in the County Championship has been a blessing of sorts. In terms of maintaining interest until the very end


The County Championship still means a lot to the players and supporters - just ask Durham © Getty Images
 
The instigation of two divisions in the County Championship has been a blessing of sorts. In terms of maintaining interest until the very end of the season, the last day, no less, for the second year in succession, this has been, unquestionably, a success.

The postponement of the Champions Trophy was a godsend as well. The public and the media have been able to give all their attention to what remains, even in this era of Twenty20 cricket, the prime domestic tournament. As captain of Kent, Rob Key will have had his head in his hands on numerous occasions this summer owing to their failure to win a one-day trophy, but to observe him on the pavilion balcony at Canterbury when he realised that his county would be relegated to the second division for the first time was to witness a shattered man.

Durham's triumph, of course, was good for the game as well as for the north east. Another championship pennant fluttering over Trent Bridge would not have been so well received. The possibility, too, that Somerset would become champions meant that interest was maintained in the north, the midlands and the south of England until the very last morning, and, at any rate at Canterbury and Hove, the weather was glorious. Continuing the season into October does not seem such a bad idea after all.

The blend of overseas players and cricketers nurtured in the north east, as illustrated by Callum Thorp, from Australia, and Stephen Harmison, from Ashington, who between them bowled Durham to victory over Kent, was telling. True, they have been bolstered by ringers, but then so have Somerset, and Nottinghamshire's poaching of Stuart Broad from Leicestershire cannot be for the good of the game. If the ECB can rid domestic cricket in England of the majority of Kolpak cricketers, as appears could be the case under forthcoming EU law, the Championship might be considered as worthy a competition as it was until the 1990s.

The weather has been appalling this summer, but at least the upshot of that has been a tight bunching of counties in first division so that the final placings were not resolved until the last sessions of the season. But for injury and his eventual retirement, Mushtaq Ahmed would probably have spun Sussex to a 12th trophy for Chris Adams in his 11 years as captain, which are celebrated by Bruce Talbot and Paul Weaver in 'Flight of the Martlets: the golden age of Sussex cricket' (Breedon Books, £16.99).

Top Curve
How the title was won
Bottom Curve

The downside of two divisions is not only that the wealth of the clubs with Test match grounds has become overweening - not least in terms of Ashley Giles trying to scoop up players from other counties for Warwickshire - but that young players are not always given an opportunity by coaches who prefer the prospect of greater immediate consistency from seasoned cricketers from overseas.

An abundance of Kolpak cricketers has prevented, for instance, Arul Suppiah and Neil Edwards playing regularly for Somerset and Neil Dexter and Sam Northeast for Kent. Vic Marks, the chairman of the cricket committee at Taunton, admitted on Test Match Special this summer that his club is fielding a Kolpak too many, but the likelihood is that nothing will change except through the laws of the land.

Young, impressionable supporters will not be able to empathise with their counties if these field too many Afrikaners. In days gone by, the likes of Clive Lloyd and Malcolm Marshall could be identified with Lancashire and Hampshire because they remained a part of them for so long, and quite obviously not merely for the money. Nowadays, it is nigh-impossible to recall who has played for which county simply because overseas players come and go in a matter of weeks.

The acquisition of Shoaib Akhtar, or Shoaib Actor as the Australians call him, at a reported £5000 a match, was a ridiculous decision and just about summed up Surrey's season. A couple of months ago the great Alan Knott was conversing from his home in Cyprus, where he lives for a fair part of the year. When told that Somerset were playing Kent, his old county, and that Justin Langer was batting, he did not know which side the Australian opener was representing. If the best players and the cricket journalists are confused, heaven help the public.

So have two divisions worked and can this year's championship be viewed as a success? Overall, the answer has to be in the affirmative. Unlike football, the richest clubs are not necessarily the most successful. The fact that Surrey did not win a match all season despite having Mark Ramprakash in their side underlines that. The dreadful days of joke bowling and contrived finishes to three day matches are largely a thing of the past and when the likes of Langer state the standard is better at present than domestic cricket in Australia, that really does say something.

In Giles Clarke, the ECB has a chairman who wishes to protect the smaller counties and who saw off, rapidly and effectively, the Keith Bradshaw/David Stewart plan for a revamp of English cricket that surfaced in July. After Durham's success, the only three counties not to have been crowned champions are Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire, who both remain in the second division, Somerset, who lost their way at the end of the season, but will have another decent opportunity in 2009. Perhaps the sculpturing of Gimblett's Hill for cider drinkers and all will not have been in vain.