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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Andrew on August 14, 2008, 14:04 GMT

    CMJ is as often right to bemoan the lack of detailed writtrn County coverage, especially of the four-day version.

    As regards Sky's allegedly nagnificent job, it remains unforgiveable that the Blair Government, to please Rupert Murdoch, allowed Test matches to leave free-to-air TV. Let us hope that the next Government - Tories, you're supposed to conserve what is best - of whatever colour reverses this swiftly.

    The thought that I might have missed the 2005 Ashes because they'd been Murdochised is unbearable.

    Personally, I refuse to pay for Sky and Setanta partly because of the high expense, partly because of political opposition to a live sports near-duopoly.

    Channel 5 do a resonable job - too many interviews, not enough play - but it just isn't the same as having life taken over for five blissful days.

  • Jonathan on August 14, 2008, 8:49 GMT

    When people like CMJ say 'county cricket' what they really mean is the County Championship. Davies has hardly played a one-day or Twenty20 game all season - he's not a consistently good player, he's a consistently good four-day player - which is hardly the same thing. England should be trying to build a nucleus of players who can excel in all three formats. Sales, it is true, should have had a chance by now, although the bulk of his runs have been scored against second-division attacks.

    Morgan and Wright, however, are excellent performers in all forms of the game and deserve a fairer assessment than they get here. What do Wright's Championship averages have to do with anything? The Lions games are one-day matches.

  • Steve on August 14, 2008, 3:57 GMT

    .....and here was me, a mere Aussie cricket nut, thinking that County Cricket's sole purpose was for playing young and up-an-coming Aussies into form and acclimatising them to English conditions for continued Ashes dominance. This article says it's for breeding English cricketers! I stand corrected.....

  • Duncan on August 13, 2008, 23:48 GMT

    Picking on county form would have meant Simon Jones, Trescothick and Vaughan wouldn't have played for England in 2005: nowhere near the top 11 on statistics. County averages are not an accurate barometer of a players' test potential. For every Boycott and Gooch, there's a Gower (or a Ramprakash).

  • Duncan on August 13, 2008, 11:36 GMT

    CMJ's two examples (Sales and Davies) are different cases. Sales, as readers may recall, had a particularly prolific period of scoring from about 1999-2002, which included several double hundreds and at list one triple. He was on the 'A' tour and a dark horse for selection in the winter of 2002-3 (I think) when he was badly injured playing beach volleyball. This was pure misfortune, and despite solid scoring ever since, I think he's missed his chance.

    Davies is a little younger than Sales, and has an exceptional first class record with the ball. But he is bowling at the Riverside (where admittedly he has a better record than England bowlers Harmison, Plunkett and Onions) and he is definitely medium pace. He has merited a place on the A team in the past but I think (and this is pure prejudice) that he is emblematic of the good pro who would be outgunned at Test level. Gentle medium pace on flat pitch just doesn't bowl sides out any more.

  • Steven on August 13, 2008, 10:18 GMT

    This article is very true. County form means absolutely nothing. And for the selectors to say that it does is absolute rubbish! You can score runs and get wickets and still not get picked. Poor Owais Shah is the best example of this. It seems that the only changes made are blokes that have been tried and tested before. Im also amused as to how Ashley Giles became a selector in the first place.... I mean he was a pretty average player himself so who is he to be deciding who should and shouldnt be in the side? It wasnt that long ago he wasnt good enough to keep his place in the team and here he is as selector??!!! I think he and the other jokers (selectors) should be the first to be replaced. They are the ones that keep picking the team that doesnt deliver against opposition other than NZ, West Indies or Bangladesh (with no disrespect to them). The whole set up seems all a bit too matey to me!!!!

  • Michael on August 13, 2008, 9:44 GMT

    Mark Davies is a good seam bowler and a good county performer. However, he has missed many, many matches with injury over the past few seasons and does not possess the pace to bowl out Test sides. How many times do we have to learn that "English style" bowlers will not consistently win you Tests around the world? Simon Jones has only just come back and, even for Worcestershire, has had to be carefully managed. This winter's tours are the appropriate place to see where he is with his rehab and his progress towards being physically capable of bowling in a Test match.

    We only now have two players back in the side who are capable of getting Test wickets around the world in Flintoff and Harmison. Jones would be a great addition but it would have been a dangerous gamble putting him into Test Cricket this season.

  • Andy on August 13, 2008, 9:21 GMT

    If county performances are one of the influencing factors on selectors, Miller and co should be looking at James Tomlinson. A left arm seamer who has really come on this season, he frequently outbowls Tremlett and would be a useful option if Sidebottom is out of the side. England also needs an aggressive opening batsman and should be grooming Denley in the same way that they brought on Trescothick a few years ago. And let's not get on to wicketkeepers... Prior is probably worth another go but Foster is the best keeper in the country now.

  • Suda on August 13, 2008, 8:15 GMT

    It is indeed appropriate that ECB has consistently been ignoring the exploits in County matches.

    It has been seen time and time again that County stalwarts falter big time when it comes to the real thing. Evidence is overwhelming when it comes to performance outside of England where the ball stops swinging and spins a lot more and bounces more steeply. Most of these so called champions deliver nothing but utter rubbish in the international arena.

    English county cricket is a classical case of quantity over quality.

  • john on August 13, 2008, 7:53 GMT

    The problem with the selection of the England team is that a self-perpetuating 'cosy club' has been created by appointing the former charges of David Graveney as selectors. It must be difficult for Giles as a former player not to be guided by the playing relationship he has with many of the current England players in making a judgement about who in the current side should be dropped. England have lost there way over the last three test series due to the selectors being unable to make the difficult decisions about the composition of the team - most markedly in the case of Vaughan who should have gone some time ago. The current sad state of affairs began with the appointment of Flintoff as captain and the dismissal of Strauss who had been a success in that role. Pietersen as captain can only be a good thing. His dynamism and clear thinking on the structure of the England team is an encouraging start.

  • No featured comments at the moment.