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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • PeterPan23 on September 14, 2009, 9:29 GMT

    A proposal would be…

    * Three leagues of six teams: play each other home and away in a 5 day test-match-style format. First batch of five games to be played by mid June; second batch after T20 tournament and to be completed by mid/late-Sept * A T20 tournament to take place through the second half of June and first half of July. Three leagues (a north, midlands and a south) comprising of six counties in each who play each other home and away: top two in each league go into quarter finals along with the best two third placed sides. Finals day to be played in mid/late July * A 50 over round-robin-knockout competition to be reintroduced. Matches to start in June on alternate weekends to the county championship, with the final to take place in early August at Lord's * The Pro 40 to remain. Matches to be on midweek and weekend days alternative to the county championship

  • winstonfg on September 14, 2009, 5:52 GMT

    I agree with Lawrence Booth on one point: scrap the bonus points system - or hand them out only for truly exceptional performances: like scoring 400 at five an over at Old Trafford, not 3 an over at Taunton; or bowling a side out for less than 100. Completely disagree about the two divisions though. We've had several seasons since the start of the two division system when the championship title went down to the last week, including two of the three times my team (Sussex) won it. Given our weather, you can't take draws completely out of the equation, but I agree with the Rev Weasel that you can dissuade teams from playing for them. 7 point s for a win to 2 for a draw sounds about right to me.

  • nafzak on September 13, 2009, 5:06 GMT

    Scrap the 2 division system. I bet that if the teams from both divisions were to play each other, you would have both divisions winning 50% of their matches.

    I remember Warwickshire being regulated a couple of years ago. At the time I remembr thinking that that's so unfair because they would have done better if their top players were not playing on the test team. And in county cricket all is takes is one or two good men to make a difference.

  • Patrick_Clarke on September 12, 2009, 21:21 GMT

    Why oh why is cricket dominated by backward thinking reactionaries like Lawrence Booth? He probably also prefers mediocre nonenties who are "home grown" instead of overseas players or Kolpaks. The fact is that Division 1 cricket is vastly superior to that in Division 2 which is full of useless deadbeat teams as witness Kent's easy sweeping aside of these sides since their relegation last season and the hopeless inadequacy of Worcester since achieving promotion last season (Can't there be a playing regulation to keep them in Division 2 so they don't waste any more sunny weeks with their spineless uncompetitive 2 and 3 day ritual capitualations?). The only tinkering of the bonus points system would be to award an extra one for sides reaching 450 and no more bowling points once that total is reached. Why should a side get the same number of bowling points for bowling out a side for 500 in 120 overs as it would get for bowling a side out for 150 or less?

  • CricketingStargazer on September 12, 2009, 20:18 GMT

    I'm afraid that this article misses the point completely.

    1.) With two divisions, there are fewer mis-matches. The level in CC1 is cut-throat. The margin between success and failure is wafer-thin, as Kent discovered last season. How many games between Durham and CC2 sides would last 4 days? Very few, I suspect. Talent is being concentrated in CC1 and the level has risen because of it.

    2.) It is not simply a reduction from 104 to 96 overs. The overs have reduced progressively, from 117. From 117 overs to 96 per day takes nearly a full day of play out of the game. Are we amazed that there are more draws?

    3.) The 4 points for the draw was introduced to make sides fight on the 4th day, rather than just folding limply, by giving them a reward for hanging on. The idea was to make batsmen work against the odds to prepare them better for Test cricket. It can produce bore-draws, with sky-high scores and a safe 12 points, but does have a positive side too, rewarding fighting rearguards.

  • MartinAmber on September 12, 2009, 13:22 GMT

    It might be worth mentioning that the (justly) celebrated 1995 county championship coincided with the last truly hot British summer. The Test series of the same year (Eng 2 WI 2) wasn't too shabby, either, although drought conditions rather spoiled the pitches for the August Tests, which duly ended in high-scoring draws. Regarding the championship points system: there is much complaint in Wisden 2009 about the ludicrous impact of bonus points. I love cricket almost to the point of obsession, but I have never even wanted to understand the bonus points system, because it strikes me as a travesty. My thoughts are in line with those of others who bemoan the relative under-valuing of wins and over-valuing of draws. Points for wins and draws per se are probably about right, but why can't any bonus points be based solely on end results, and not on arbitrary targets that take no account of pitch variation? Simpler and fairer.

  • bicyclelegs on September 12, 2009, 13:17 GMT

    @AsifRathod: Don't kid yourself, the reason so many international players play county cricket is money, pure and simple. The Championship isn't the best domestic competition in the world, just the best paying.

  • reverend_Weasel on September 12, 2009, 10:11 GMT

    Two divisions are an improvement, but if you want more results, the bonus poitns have to change.

    at present, a team in division one can stay up easily with as few as three wins from 16 games, because teh draw is overvalued.

    A typical win will secure about 20 points, while a drawn game can get 11. This means that a draw is worht more than half a win. Where is the incentive to attack? It leads to negative thinking, too much "safety first" securing the maximum bonus points for the first two days, then going through the motions in the latter half of too many games. This then has a knock on effect in teh test arena, as our players aren't used to needing to win.

    Get rid of bonus points completley, and award 17 points for a win, and five for a draw. (or 7 and 2) this makes a win worth more than three draws. Teams have more incentive to take risks - to set adventurous declarations, and to attack, as the win is now truely valued in comparison to the draw.

  • Betelguese on September 11, 2009, 22:25 GMT

    A key factor overlooked by the author is that with a greater disparity between teams - which was the case when there were no divisions - more results are inevitable. When teams are closer together in strength the chances of more draws is going to increase.

  • Hiteshdevilliers on September 11, 2009, 22:05 GMT

    It is an interesting article. But, if memory serves me correctly, the last two seasons have had quite exciting finishes. At the climax in 2007, Lancashire put up a brave chase of 400+ at the Oval, only to fall short by a very mere margin. As if that wasn't enough, Durham came from behind as underdogs to win their first, when there were multiple teams in contention. Yes, the number of draws has increased as compared to 1995. But you also have to realize that the standard of quality bowling has decreased whilst the pitches have become drastically in favor of the batsmen. It is a similar tale to that of international cricket over the same time span on which you base your article(1995-2009). Counties are also looking to shape up their bottom lines, which means flatter pitches and bigger hitting. I stand strongly by my argument of how money is ruining cricket, and your findings here help reinforce my point of view.

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