September 10, 2008

Wet end not mandatory

The rain has ravaged the season, but there are still chances of a good finish to the County Championship

Nottinghamshire have a chance of doing a double this season © PA Photos

Worcester is flooded again and Mark Ramprakash got yet another hundred during the last miserably soggy round of County Championship matches, but there are things that change, inexorably. Graeme Hick's retirement, for example. Hard on the heels of Mushtaq Ahmed's, it means the end of an era in county cricket and at New Road in particular, just as Mushtaq's departure and one to follow from Chris Adams, as captain at least, heralds a new one at Hove. Now, too, it looks as though Angus Fraser will be following his heart back to Middlesex, this time as the director of cricket at a county in need of a new direction.

That is not to say that Ed Smith was not, to my mind, worth the gamble. He has a brilliant mind and a first-class batting average in excess of 40, which made him, potentially, another Mike Brearley. He had an injury at a bad time and might otherwise have been able to boast of more than his considerable strategic part in Middlesex's exceptionally lucrative success in the Twenty20, and consequent appearance in the Champions League. But he was never so popular in the dressing room as the universally liked and respected Fraser, whose conscientiousness, generosity of spirit, consideration for others, capacity for hard work, and common sense, are well suited to bind - assuming he decides to take the plunge - together a riven playing staff.

Smith, son of a novelist, and already a successful author, would have to get used to the nuts and bolts of journalism but he would have to be on any shortlist to succeed Fraser as cricket correspondent of the Independent, as would Fraser's able, assiduous and readable Sunday stablemate Stephen Brenkley. But if Smith himself has the stomach for more cricket after the disappointment of being told that he will not be captain, there should be no shortage of counties willing to offer him a batting place should he decide to move from Lord's.

The weather, meanwhile, has made it virtually certain that this year there will be no late dash for the County Championship - to be worth a more realistic £500,000 to the winners from next year, I hear - from counties outside the top four of the first division. The format seems to guarantee an exciting finish each year, and if the rain ever stops for long enough that is what we shall have.

Potentially one of the three frontrunners could be pushed out of contention this week at Taunton where the Somerset versus Durham match, despite being rained off on the first day, has the feel of a decisive encounter, but it is still all Lombard Street to a china orange that the title will not be decided until the last round of games starts, on September 24. By that time, touch wood, the traditional Indian summer that follows a lousy one like this will be underway.

Nottinghamshire and Durham still have a chance of doing one of the possible doubles that the somewhat indulgent county fixture list makes possible, namely the Championship and the NatWest Pro40. It would be stretching a point to give the word "double" in this context the favourite journalistic accompaniment of "coveted", but both counties would take what they could get, both for the kudos and the modest prize money. The reward for winning the first division of the Pro40, £44,000, does not stretch too far when it is divided up between 15 players or thereabouts. Still, given that the convention is for the winning county club to reward its players a bit further by doubling their prize money, a season's bonus of £5866 per cricketer must be a tremendous help towards winter heating bills.

The reward for winning the first division of the Pro40, £44,000, does not stretch too far when it is divided up between 15 players or thereabouts. Still, given that the convention is for the winning county club to reward its players a bit further by doubling their prize money, a season's bonus of £5866 per cricketer must be a tremendous help towards winter heating bills

The Pro40, dogged by the weather this year but still a useful follow-up to the Twenty20 as far as county chief executives are concerned, looks like having its own critical fixture, the one between Notts and Sussex. At the time of writing, Sussex would be champions were they to win their two remaining games, against Middlesex at Hove this Thursday (September 11) and Notts on September 14, when Trent Bridge should be close to full.

There have been two doubles since Warwickshire's famous Championship/ Sunday League/Benson and Hedges treble in 1994 - the year of Brian Lara, Dermot Reeve and Bob Woolmer. Surrey won the Twenty20 and Pro40 in 2003 and Sussex combined the Championship and Cheltenham and Gloucester titles in 2006. Sussex would have won the treble too that year had they not slipped up in their Pro40 game - also against Notts at Trent Bridge, so Adams and a team that has had to be reshaped in Mushtaq's absence will have a score to settle.

One particular double has been consigned to history forever, it seems: the individual one of 1000 runs and 100 wickets in the same first-class season. It is 20 years now since Franklyn Stephenson, the lean but powerful Barbadian, became the last man to achieve that great feat of endurance and sustained skill. Even the modern double of 500 runs and 50 wickets has proved elusive since. Stephenson, one of only three West Indians to have done the double - Learie Constantine and the less famous SG Smith were the others - got his for Notts but became an almost equally useful overseas player for Sussex. He earns some of his dollars now by playing golf professionally in the Caribbean, leaving only two members of his Notts colleagues in 1988 still closely connected to the club.

Chris Broad remains so through his son, Stuart, who will be taking no further part in the county season because the England coach has ordered him to rest, while allowing Samit Patel to return to the team and, even more significantly no doubt, Stephen Harmison to carry on bowling for Durham. Mick Newell is the other direct link with the era of Clive Rice, Richard Hadlee, Derek Randall, Eddie Hemmings and company.

Rice and Hadlee had left Trent Bridge the season before, members of a Championship team and both bathed in Nottinghamshire glory. As coach in 2008, Newell has had the advantage of a committee and management willing to make sure that he has plenty of expensive playing resources. But because of England duties he has had so little input from Broad Junior and Sidebottom Junior - Ryan is also resting and preparing to try to win his England place back this winter - he would have reason to be especially proud of any title the county does eventually win this season. If either Somerset or Durham outdo them, of course, they would be winning a Championship for the first time.

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