September 11, 2009

What's so great about two divisions anyway?

The current structure may have been put in place to encourage more results, but it hasn't quite worked out that way

Was a modern championship season ever better than the heady summer of 1995? Three teams - Warwickshire, Middlesex and Northamptonshire - fought it out from April until September, conjuring outrageous wins (they were bowled out for 46 by Essex, 59 by Surrey, conceded 527 against Nottinghamshire, and won all three games) and tugging at their supporters' heartstrings. The county treadmill never felt so alive. And a look at the table that year suggests it never felt more attacking.

Warwickshire lifted the title with 14 wins out of 17 in what was then an all-play-all format (the nostalgia!). Middlesex and Northamptonshire both won 12, while fourth-placed Lancashire won 10. Season-long four-day cricket was still a relatively new concept, it's true, and players reared on a diet of frantic three-day stuff may not have known what to do with the extra 24 hours. But even so, this was championship cricket from another era - more innocent, almost, and certainly more fun.

Now take a look at the current division one table. If Durham beat Nottinghamshire in the game that started on Wednesday at Chester-le-Street, it will be their eighth win of the season - a figure they could stretch to 10 by beating Hampshire and Worcestershire in their final two matches. That's respectable enough, but Nottinghamshire, the team vying for second place, had won three of their 14 matches going into this round of games, as had Somerset, who are third. In 1995, Kent won three matches - and finished bottom out of 18.

The process of sterilisation can be traced back to the division of the championship into two tiers at the end of the 1999 season. That summer, a fraction over two-thirds of games achieved a positive result. The year before, 71% of matches did not finish as a draw. Yet as soon as two divisions came into play in 2000, the number of draws increased: in 2000, division one produced definite results in 56% of its games, division two in 51%.

Those percentages have fluctuated since then, but last summer they dropped to a desperate 44% in division one (Durham, the deserving winners, claimed six wins out of 16) and 46% in division two (where Warwickshire, with five wins, were promoted with Worcestershire, who won six). This season, the safety-first approach has ruled once more.

In the pursuit of creating a more competitive environment - the whole point of two divisions, after all, was to cut out the dead matches - county cricket has reverted to type

There are mitigating factors at work. Fewer overs are bowled a day (96 now, 104 previously), and the covered pitches are much of a muchness. Fewer outgrounds mean fewer vagaries - counties, in keeping with modern society's no-risk ethos, are increasingly wary of risking a points fine for a substandard pitch out in the sticks. Rain has played its part (folks, we live on a small island in the north Atlantic). And an increase in prize money - for second place as well as first - means teams are inevitably more likely to settle for being runners-up.

But, well, you get the system you deserve, and in the pursuit of creating a more competitive environment - the whole point of two divisions, after all, was to cut out the dead matches - county cricket has reverted to type. Logically, this is understandable: if you have half as many rivals in each division, you are twice as likely to want to deny them the chance of a win.

But it needn't be this way - and neither should it. It's no coincidence that two of the most adventurous county captains of recent times were not English: Shane Warne of Hampshire and Stephen Fleming of Nottinghamshire were both prepared to risk defeat in order to win. And while that isn't necessarily a philosophy that would find much favour with too many international captains, it seems fair to say England's style of cricket tends to be more conservative than most. Witness the delayed declarations in Antigua (when West Indies finished nine down in their second innings) and Trinidad (eight down).

The enervating effect of the ridiculous bonus-points system is partly to blame, but then you can hardly criticise the counties for playing the system. Last summer Kent won two more games than Yorkshire, but were relegated because Yorkshire had achieved 20 more batting points than they had over the course of the summer. To which you may be tempted to say: bully for them. And there have been times when Somerset, it seems, have been happy to produce belters at Taunton and set their stall out for a handy 12 points (five for scoring 400 in the first innings, three for taking nine wickets or more, and four for the inevitable draw).

Durham will be very worthy winners this season, and their story is a cricketing rags-to-riches to rival any. But in 1995 - the summer of Dermot Reeve, Allan Donald, Mark Ramprakash, John Emburey, Allan Lamb and Anil Kumble - the side finishing 10th, Worcestershire, won six matches. This year, that would easily be enough for second place. Scrap two divisions and the dreaded bonus points and we could just have a competition on our hands again.

Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail. His fourth book, What Are The Butchers For? And Other Splendid Cricket Quotations, is published in October 2009 by A&C Black

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