No county for Englishmen
First, the good news. The County Championship, which started on Wednesday amid the usual fears for its health and longevity - as much a ritual now as the rain that greeted the beginning of the first-class season at Lord's last week - isn't just about keeping the fabled members happy. It may come as a shock to those of you who rely on newspaper columnists with a space to fill in early April, but county cricket is more than that. National pride to one side, it just happens to be the best breeding ground there is.
Exhibit A: some selected stats from 2008. Durham's Will Smith averaged 51 with the bat, Essex's Ravi Bopara 64, Gloucestershire's wicketkeeper Stephen Snell 46, Northamptonshire's Rob White 49, Nottinghamshire's Samit Patel 53, Warwickshire's Tony Frost 83, and Worcestershire's Stephen Moore 53. With the ball, there was Durham's Mark Davies averaging 15, Glamorgan's Adam Shantry 18, Hampshire's James Tomlinson taking 67 wickets at 24 and Middlesex's Tim Murtagh claiming 64 at 26. The good news? They're all English.
To find those stats, I had to trawl through the new edition of Wisden. And that's where we come to what I hope non-English readers will forgive me for calling the bad news. Because the Almanack tells us - Exhibit B - that the following players topped their counties' averages last summer: Chris Rogers (Derbyshire, batting), Charl Langeveldt (Derbyshire, bowling), Danish Kaneria (Essex, bowling), Marcus North (Gloucestershire, batting), Imran Tahir (Hampshire, bowling), Azhar Mahmood (Kent, batting and bowling), Dillon du Preez (Leicestershire, bowling), Dirk Nannes (Middlesex, bowling), Lance Klusener (Northamptonshire, batting), Johannes van der Wath (Northamptonshire, bowling), Andre Adams (Nottinghamshire, bowling), Zander de Bruyn (Somerset, batting), Murray Goodwin (Sussex, batting), Corey Collymore (Sussex, bowling), Jacques Rudolph (Yorkshire, batting). The bad news? None of them is English.
If your head's hurting by now, I don't blame you. Not only is that list a bit of an eyesore, it is also a reflection of the way the overseas players are dictating terms. It was ever thus, of course, but the effect is now magnified by the presence of so many non-English-qualified players in county cricket. Even so, their dominance does seem disproportionate.
In fact Exhibit B does not even reveal that Michael Di Venuto, Dale Benkenstein and Shivnarine Chanderpaul came second, third and fourth in the champion county Durham's batting averages, nor that Callum Thorp came second in the bowling; that Shane Bond was second in Hampshire's bowling averages; that Martin van Jaarsveld came second in both Kent's batting and bowling figures; that HD Ackerman came second in Leicestershire's batting; that Andrew Hall and Nicky Boje came second and third in Northamptonshire's bowling; and that Saqlain Mushtaq - technically qualified for England, but a bowler who learned his trade in Pakistan - topped Surrey's bowling.
So when I say county cricket is still the best finishing school around, I'm not just talking about the English. This has long been a grumble: Johnny Foreigner has always been an easy target in all walks of life in the UK, possibly because he exposes weaknesses the British don't care to admit to. Look at the uproar that greeted news of Phillip Hughes' stint with Middlesex and Stuart Clark's run-out with Kent (now aborted because of a call-up to Australia's one-day series with Pakistan). The idea that Hughes could actually be traumatised by his first taste of England's lush early-season pitches - well, the Poms can live in hope - does not seem to have occurred.
The truth is that overseas players have always used the bloated county system for two purposes: to hone techniques in possibly the most unique set of conditions in the world (only in New Zealand in certain conditions does the ball swing as much as in England); and to earn a heap of cash. The counties, keen to win trophies and a small heap of cash themselves, have been understandably happy to acquiesce.
But the results have been two-fold. One, the best and brightest overseas talent feels relatively at home when it comes up against swinging, seaming conditions in its first Test in England, with often dire consequences for our national side. Two - more subtle, this - homegrown talent grows accustomed to letting the big-name overseas pro/Kolpak signing/Italian passport-holder do the hard bits: bowl yorkers at the death of a one-day game or make mincemeat of a target of 90 off 10 overs. In other words, they learn to fail to take responsibility, which may be why Andrew Strauss felt the need to encourage his England players to do just that ahead of their underwhelming tour of the Caribbean recently.
The figures at the start of the piece suggest all is not lost. Bopara and Samit have already played for England, even if Samit has to lose weight before he does so again; and Smith, Moore and Davies may well do so one day. But for every good-news English story in the county game, there are way too many good-news non-English stories. And this in an era when county afficionados have bemoaned the drop in quality of the average non-English county cricketer.
The IPL starts tomorrow. It is regarded with mistrust by large sections of the county game, partly because it represents everything county cricket is not: young, dynamic, money-making (so they claim), TV-friendly, and - of course - Not Proper Cricket. But from its very inception, the IPL hit upon a formula that serves both it and Indian cricket well: four players per squad must be Indians under the age of 22. The integrity of the competition as a genuinely international league is maintained, while young Indians are guaranteed the experience of their lives.
The ECB, it's true, has expressed concern at the number of non-English-qualified players in our domestic game, and operates an incentivisation scheme whereby counties are financially rewarded for, among other things, producing "players chosen for England at all levels, including development and age-group side". But this is only one of five criteria that determine the size of each county's annual handout. There is no constitutional obligation.
This may be for legal reasons. But it would not take much for the county chairmen to reach a gentleman's agreement: insist on four English-qualified cricketers under the age of 22 per game, accept the temporary falling-away of standards, and watch them learn off their English elders and overseas betters. Perhaps future Wisden averages will then tell a different tale.
Lawrence Booth is a cricket correspondent at the Guardian. He writes the acclaimed weekly cricket email The Spin for guardian.co.uk