September 24, 2008

Some young, some old, some homegrown

What sort of team composition does a successful county side need?

Imran Tahir has been among the best signings of the season © Getty Images

You could draw all sorts of conclusions from this year's County Championship, which reaches its now customary rousing climax this week, but the clearest of them all is this: if you want to get ahead, get a legspinner. Not just any old leggie but a good'un, preferably one who has somehow just missed the lucrative international gravy train or who has been pitched off it into the undergrowth of the county game, like Ian Salisbury.

Mushtaq Ahmed, let it not be forgotten (it never will be at Hove), was something of a washed-up veteran when he returned to county cricket to transform the fortunes of Sussex with five seasons of magic from 2003 to 2007, during which he took 459 first-class wickets in England and helped make his team competitive in practically every one-day match he played. His absence, and a couple of untimely wet Saturdays, when even without him they looked like beating Somerset and Lancashire on the last days of games of which they were in control, are the reasons that Sussex will be battling against Yorkshire this week - not for the title but to stay in the top division. One or the other of these two looks like going down to the second division in company with Surrey.

With the possible exception of Simon Jones for newly promoted Worcestershire, Salisbury and Imran Tahir have been the two best signings of the season. If Surrey had retained Salisbury, indeed, rather than spending almost as much, no doubt, on Pedro Collins and probably a lot more on Usman Afzaal, it is more than likely that they would still be in the first division next season. As for Imran Tahir, whom Yorkshire rejected after a single match last year, his 37 wickets at a cost of 17 runs each completely transformed Hampshire's season.

Nic Pothas apparently recommended Tahir after his performances for the Titans in South Africa, so the Lahore-born and -educated bowler, as full of confidence as he is of back-of-the-hand tricks, might be deemed yet another South African import. The real mystery, however, is why he has taken so long to come to prominence. Poor, proud, hot-blooded, cruelly cold-shouldered Pakistan produce more brilliant and unsung cricketers than any other country with the possible exceptions only of Sri Lanka and India. Tahir himself has played cricket for - in addition to Yorkshire, Hampshire and Titans - wait for it: Lahore City, WAPDA, REDCO, Lahore Whites, Sui Northern Gas Pipelines, Sialkot, Middlesex, Lahore Blues, PIA, Lahore Ravi and Staffordshire. He also took 11 wickets at 18 runs each for Sussex Second X1 in 2007. If only they had known that Mushy's knees were not going to make it through another long season.

Danish Kaneria, as usual, did well for Essex, but had he not been injured at a crucial stage of the season, I suspect it would have been Essex, not one of Warwickshire and Worcestershire, who gained a promotion place. After all, in the game that ensured Warwickshire's return to the first division, and probably the £30,000 prize for coming top, Kaneria would have been even more likely to do for Essex what Salisbury, with a match-winning spell of six for 27 from 11.4 overs, did for Warwickshire.

The chemistry of a county's success remains intriguing. A potent wrist-spinner really does seem to be an important part of it, given the lifelessness of too many wickets in England (and Wales). Others are: a captain and coach who command respect and loyalty in the dressing room, pitches that offer a decent chance of a result inside four days (perhaps the most important ingredient in Nottinghamshire's pole position going into the last round - they have been beaten twice at Trent Bridge but only three of the seven games there have been drawn, two of them rain-affected) and the right blend of players, preferably with a core of local ones.

It was more than significant, for example, that the Lancashire attack that bowled out Kent at Liverpool last week was truly Lancastrian. In both innings the wickets were shared by Glenn Chapple, Oliver Newby, Tom Smith and Steven Croft. In its crucial importance to their season, and to those who might have been under pressure for their jobs, such as Mike Watkinson and Stuart Law, Lancashire's rousing victory from behind was reminiscent of Hampshire's against Durham at Basingstoke three weeks before.

The best sides need young men of potential, older ones of ability, locally produced players whose heart and soul are in the club, and yes, two or three well-chosen players of outstanding ability from overseas

All this is all very well, the broader-minded follower of the county game may say, but what about producing England players of the right quality? The ECB weighs its incentive payments to counties towards the fielding of England-qualified players under 25. There is much talk of the importance of grooming young homegrown products, such as Smith, rather than sticking too long to "old" ones, such as Chapple. But it was the experience of a 34-year-old swing and seam bowler like Chapple, capped as long ago as 1994, that enabled the exploitation of conditions at Aigburth last Friday. The best sides need young men of potential, older ones of ability, locally produced players whose heart and soul are in the club, and yes, two or three well-chosen players of outstanding ability from overseas.

That leads finally to the now well-documented Leicestershire viewpoint: that players gleaned from overseas are fine so long as they are not blocking the way of young home-bred players who need to get experience if they are ever to fulfill their potential. "Let's take the cheque book out of the equation", is the chairman Neil Davidson's view. "If there were sufficient high-quality English players to sign, no one would be buying from overseas."

Why aren't there enough? Because, claims Davidson, English cricket did not have its development structures right in the late 1980s and early nineties. "If we get them right now - and academies should be achieving that - it will still be another decade before we get a sufficient number of England-qualified players, like South Africa and Australia have now. They only come here because they have an abundance who can't get into their own international sides. We have 60 million people, so 18 centres of excellence are not too many, but if the 18-to-23 age group are not playing county cricket, they are not going to become regular England players in future."

That is true in most cases but nothing is ever simple. Leicestershire's admirably flinty captain Paul Nixon is keeping two promising and much younger wicketkeepers out of the side. Tom New has been on loan to Derbyshire and Joel Pipe, an outstanding young keeper, cannot get a first team place.

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