July 2, 2008

Two-innings time again

England's top six don't seem to be making the switch to the longer version quickly enough

Andrew Flintoff bowled well but had no wickets to show, and failed with the bat against Sussex. His colleagues in the national side didn't fare much better © Getty Images

The County Championship is underway again after three weeks of one-day cricket, allowing a significant minority of cricket followers to feel more comfortable. I am tempted to say that they are the real cricket lovers but I think that would be sniffy and probably wide of the mark, because it takes all sorts to make a cricket world. Nevertheless they are like landlubbers safely back on solid ground after a restless bobbing on the ocean. Someone remarked to me at Hove on Sunday that it was bliss to hear a gentle ripple of applause when the first four of the match rolled over the boundary rope, rather than a blare of music over the loudspeakers and a waving of placards marked with a giant numeral four to please the simple-minded and attract the television cameras.

Unfortunately, considering the Sky cameras were at Hove and the Championship was in the shop window, there was some rusty cricket played by the county champions, Sussex, in the first two days of their game against Lancashire, the rivals they pipped at the post last September. It was marked by crucial dropped catches and personified by the normally reliable Murray Goodwin flicking a leg-stump half-volley in the air to square-leg on an all too sluggish pitch from which not even a resurgent Andrew Flintoff could draw much spark.

Flintoff bowled well without taking a wicket, before failing yet again with the bat. Not that most of his would-be batting colleagues in the imminent Test series against South Africa did any better. As happens far too often, England's batting regulars were sharply reminded of the steel and concentration that is required to get runs in two-innings cricket when they find themselves competing against so-called journeymen.

Justin Langer recently described the first division of the County Championship as being on a level with the Pura Cup. That may not always be true but the fact is that Michael Vaughan, Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood proved true to their normal county form by failing in each case to get to double figures when they batted in the Championship on Sunday. Meanwhile, Hashim Amla was scoring 172, and Jacques Kallis 160, against Somerset.

As usual, Kevin Pietersen was rested and didn't play for Hampshire, but he could no doubt have played for them had he wanted to get back into two-innings tempo. Alastair Cook got much-needed runs but even he further extended what one might call "typical" England team form when he got to 95 but failed to turn that into the sort of 150-plus innings that winning Test teams need. Ian Bell had to field all day before putting the record straighter with an imposing double century against a decent Gloucestershire seam attack, and Vaughan counter-attacked boldly for Yorkshire in his second innings against Durham, who remain my clear favourites to win the 2008 title.

Surrey and Lancashire are probably their most serious rivals. Stuart Law has been a perennial thorn in Sussex's side, and how good it would have been to see more of England's top six producing the sort of dedicated long innings that Lancashire's Australia-bred captain produced at Hove. Les Lenham, the former Sussex batsman and long-time coach to the county at various levels, aptly observed that great players bat in much the same, measured way whether they are five not out or 155 not out.

One generation will think, amongst others, of Boycott, John Edrich or Gooch. Another of Hutton, Bill Edrich and Compton. It has become a different game because of one-day cricket, but are England's current top six really the best specialists in the country? Not proven. Are they too rich? Perhaps. Do some have agents who pay as much attention to the colour and styling of their hair as they do to the tightness of their batting techniques? Probably. Does the present Championship produce the best possible England teams? Better than the proposed three-Conference League would do, I suspect.

If players and administrators alike feel that Test cricket is the apogee, rewards for playing it well should be greater than for other forms of international cricket. The ECB needs to look after the competition that breeds the Test players. There are commercial as well as moral reasons for doing so

But let us savour the current Championship while we can, and as newspaper reporters always should, think about teams and match situations as well as about individual "stars". After three weeks in which, as Matthew Hoggard succinctly put it in his Times column, the bad balls have taken wickets and the good ones have been hit for six, solid virtues will be rewarded again for the time being. We all know it is an unjust game but it is as reassuring when cricketers get what they deserve.

That applies not just to runs and wickets but to the material rewards for professional cricketers. If players and administrators alike feel that Test cricket is the apogee, rewards for playing it well should be greater than for other forms of international cricket. The same is true for the domestic game. In both cases the recent injection of money from India and Texas has unbalanced the game, not least in the UK. Having promised more for its Test players, to try to balance the £500,000 that will be available to each of the winning XI in the Antigua Twenty20s, the ECB needs now to look after the competition that breeds the Test players. There are commercial as well as moral reasons for doing so, because in England at least, Test cricket remains the essential milch cow.

Earlier this month the ECB, over and above payments to players, agreed a guaranteed share of £1.75 million a year from the Allen Stanford Twenty20 promotion in Antigua, not to mention whatever it is going to make from the proposed £4.75 million quadrangular tournament in London. It can afford to be generous, therefore, and the board should guarantee a £1 million first prize to the LV county champions from next season onwards. Simultaneously, whether by decree, more effective financial incentives, or the leadership that makes possible an unofficial gentleman's agreement, they have to force the counties to play at least eight England-qualified players per game. Forget their age: that is a red herring.

This year's winners will get what last year's did: £100,000. County clubs offer their own incentives by awarding a win bonus of the same amount, but divided among the 15-odd players who share the burden of playing 16 four-day games, even that amounts to only £13,300 more for members of the side that comes top of the first division than for those playing for the side that finishes last in the second. Tradition and prestige actually go a long way towards the truth of the adage that virtue brings its own reward but prizes at this level, too modest by current standards, need revision, whether or not there really is a first prize of £2.5 million available for whichever team wins the proposed Twenty20 Champions League.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins has been a leading cricket broadcaster, journalist and author for almost four decades, during which time he has served as a cricket correspondent for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and the Times