August 13, 2008

Who cares for county cricket?

The players, certainly; the fans, to an extent; but the media hardly do; and on the evidence of it, the selectors aren't considering performances on the circuit either



The likes of Mark Davies (second from right) have reason to feel aggrieved at not being picked for England despite good performance for their counties © Getty Images

It will be no bad thing for county cricket, increasingly feeling the media's cold shoulder as Big Event Syndrome becomes more and more virulent, that Michael Vaughan, the Banquo at Kevin Pietersen's Oval feast, has expressed his intention to work his way back into the England team by doing well as a batsman for Yorkshire. Once he has had his deserved break to shake off the shackles with which five years of captaincy, with all its remorseless demands, had increasingly bound him, everyone will hope that his true quality will re-emerge.

Sports editors will follow his fortunes then as they did those of Andrew Flintoff earlier in the season. But in a more perfect world they would show a more consistent interest in the county game and its players for its own, and their own, sakes. The sad truth seems to be that limited space for sport, and the perceived need to send the heavy artillery in for all the major televised events, means that fewer and fewer newspapers and broadcasters appreciate the widespread desire, felt by intelligent readers and cricket anoraks alike, for a thorough and interesting coverage of the county game.

Sky Television, with their copious airtime, signed on again by the ECB for four more years, are the honourable exception, and the former broadsheets all do their best, not least my own newspaper, the Times, especially on Mondays when a separate supplement for the all-pervasive football makes life easier for hard-pressed editors.

John Arlott used to be fond of quoting someone's witticism about a certain young lady who was "very fond of cricketers but not especially fond of cricket". Too many sports editors are like that, but of course cricket lovers see things from a biased standpoint. The editors have a quart to fit into a pint pot.

Giles Clarke had a good point about the BBC's preference for motor racing over cricket - "How many people 'play' Formula One?" he asked - and it is the greatest shame that BBC television did not, despite careful consideration, bid even for the Test highlights. They blame the ECB for removing cricket from the list of national events that by government decree have to be shown on terrestrial television. The game consequently gets more money but less exposure. When the BBC covers a sporting event, for example, it tends to get a higher priority on their news bulletins.

Despite the Sky monopoly, the ECB keeps producing figures that claim more and more participation in the game - according to the 2008 annual report, last year's rise was "an incredible 27%" (David Collier), so by 2013 the consequences of eight years during which more than half of British households will have seen no live cricket on television may not be as drastic as was feared, but if participation were the only yardstick, television screens and sports pages would be full of news about fishing.

Meanwhile, often derided by those who do not watch it, county cricketers soldier on, generally speaking, with pride and professionalism, despite a topsy-turvy fixture list that does no one any favours. They still attract decent crowds, not least for the Championship matches when the sun shines, as the 3000 who packed Horsham's little ground for the first day of the Sussex-Somerset match will testify. The rain that prevented Sussex from closing down probable wins on the last day of both the Somerset and Lancashire matches has made it certain now that another county will be flying the champion's pennant next year; probably Durham.

That the players themselves care deeply no one need doubt. Robert Key's anguished remarks after Durham had bowled them out twice cheaply in last week's low-scoring match at Chester-le-Street emphasised the point. From a distance it looked as though Durham were very lucky to escape the loss of some points for a pitch that Key clearly felt was designed for the home team's greater strength in fast bowling.

More often than not, however, the "pitches panels" that are called in for an objective judgement on these occasions come to the conclusion that swing, and bad technique against a moving ball, are as much to blame for batting failures as any excessive movement off the seam. One of the umpires, John Holder, said as much this time. The truth is that lavish swing will undermine most teams, whatever the venue.

 
 
The selectors know what they are looking for but they seem to me to take too much notice of a bowler's speed and of any cricketer's age, picking too often on potential rather than performance. Nor do they take sufficient account of the context of successful performances
 

Mark Davies of Durham, who took ten wickets against Kent, and who, like the Australia-born Callum Thorp, often outbowls the more vaunted fast bowlers in the team, is one of many county cricketers who will wonder why consistently good performances for his county never seem to attract the attention of the national selectors, particularly of the three full-time talent spotters and form assessors, Geoff Miller, James Whitaker and Ashley Giles. A perceived lack of pace seems to be the answer.

The selectors know what they are looking for but to a man they seem to me to take too much notice of a bowler's speed and of any cricketer's age, picking too often on potential rather than performance. Nor do they take sufficient account of the context of successful performances. Regular wickets for a seamer at Chelmsford or Hove, for example, ought to weigh more heavily than they do at Trent Bridge or Davies' home ground, the Riverside. Equally, runs scored in a crisis should count more than those made on a flat pitch.

The Lions squads for the two matches against the South Africans this week are an odd mixture. Are these England Second X1s or "development squads"? The perennial bridesmaid Chris Tremlett gets into one side, Darren Pattinson into the other, both to spare the selectors' blushes as much as anything. Owais Shah plays both matches for the same reason, apparently. Hindsight has virtually proved that he should have been chosen ahead of Ravi Bopara in the Test team against Sri Lanka last winter. Sajid Mahmood and Kabir Ali are suddenly back in favour despite having been failures, more or less, when bowling for England under pressure in the past.

Kabir, with more than 50 first-class wickets, has earned the honour more, but relative novices, such as Eoin Morgan and Luke Wright (2008 Championship batting average 22, bowling average 59), are preferred to consistent performers such as David Sales and Davies. Both are clearly seen as exceptional talents but the oft-repeated promise of the selectors that county form will be taken into account seems to be ignored as often as it is upheld.

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

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