June 3, 2010

Pitching it right?

George Dobell
With the County Championship about to take a break for Twenty20, a look at what has been a fascinating opening to the season

It has been a wonderfully entertaining start to the County Championship season. Whereas the last few years have been typified by a series of run-drenched bore draws, this season has seen a much more even balance between bat and ball. The result has been a series of well-contested games, with many ending in outright results. It's been a breath of fresh air.

The difference? Well, the early start to the season probably resulted in more bowler-friendly pitches, while the use of the hover cover at Test match grounds also seems to have encouraged the seamers. The theory is that the pitch sweats overnight under the hover covers, unlike the traditional, ventilated ones.

In Division Two of the Championship, the difference has been exaggerated further by the use of Tiflex balls. All the evidence seems to suggest that such balls are helping bowlers gain extra movement. There have been only seven draws in the second division to date, many of those caused by the weather.

But the decision to ban the use of the heavy roller (after the start of the game) has also been vital. It has meant that indentations made by the ball in the early overs each day - especially in early season, when many of the pitches are just a little soft at the start - are not rolled out between each innings. So the bowlers are able to gain more assistance throughout the match. From a spectator's perspective, it's been a great success.

But is it good preparation for Test cricket? Bowlers will be afforded no such help on Test pitches, and if they've developed in conditions that make life too easy, they may never learn the necessary skills to prosper at the highest level.

It was a point well made by Sussex coach Mark Robinson. "There's been a lot of talk about wickets," he said "It's a bit of a bugbear of mine. Yes, pitches need to offer a bit more pace and bounce. But we don't want them helping mediocre bowlers. The wickets out there aren't as flat as some would have you believe, and they're certainly no flatter than the wickets on which international cricket is played. Bowlers will find a way. They'll evolve skills to enable them to take wickets. It would be a mistake to make things too easy for them.

"The standard of bowling generally isn't what it was. Particularly fast bowling. The skills have been lost a bit. What English cricket doesn't need is more bowlers like me; typical English seamers. The game shouldn't accommodate them. They'll never do well in Test cricket."

He makes a good point. But it would be a shame to diminish the entertainment on offer for county spectators - and there are many more of us than is sometimes suggested - by reverting to using the heavy roller.

Instead, the answer may be to push for changes in Test cricket. There have been far too many bore draws in recent years and the removal of the heavy roller could help produce more entertaining international cricket. Could it happen? Almost certainly not. The game is largely run by accountants now and their main desire seems to be to see games lasting five days to ensure they can wring every last pound from spectators. That such thinking is short term and will eventually damage the game doesn't seem to cross their minds.

Instant success
Is cricket becoming more like football? With apologies to those who still think of football as "the beautiful game", I don't mean it as a compliment. Certainly the character of county cricket is changing quite rapidly. Not all of it is bad, by any means, though some of the charm may be ebbing away.

"What English cricket doesn't need is more bowlers like me; typical English seamers. The game shouldn't accommodate them. They'll never do well in Test cricket"
Mark Robinson isn't convinced sporty pitches are good for the game

For a start, we now have a transfer system in county cricket. Ever since Warwickshire made Derbyshire a "compensation payment" for Ant Botha midway through the 2007 season, the movement of players between counties has escalated. Whether they're in contract or not. Just think of Kabir Ali and Rory Hamilton-Brown. There will be many more.

Meanwhile the role of the manager (or "director of cricket") at many clubs has grown as the role of the captain has diminished. Agents are a growing force in the game, too.

The next development will be the demand for almost instant success. Already this season, two captains have stepped down: Will Smith at Durham and Nicky Boje at Northamptonshire. It's most unlikely that they'll be the only casualties. Who might the others be? Well, it's surely relevant that two of the biggest spenders, Hampshire and Surrey, are currently bottom of Division One and Division Two respectively. Giles White and Chris Adams may be sitting especially nervously over the coming weeks.

The Twenty20 Cup could well prove the catalyst for change. It has become the most high-profile competition and several clubs have brought in some big-name players. Such investment demands a return.

Certainly there are some at Surrey growing concerned at the lack of progress that Adams' expensively assembled squad is making. While it might be asking a great deal of him to bring instant success back to The Brit Oval, few anticipated that Surrey would still find themselves bottom of the pile at this stage of the season. Adams needs a good Twenty20 campaign.

But if football teaches us anything, it is that money does not guarantee success (just look at Manchester City) and that it sometimes pays to show some patience (just look at Manchester United). It's a point that Adams and White may need to reiterate in the coming weeks.

Kirby's wise warning
Gloucestershire's Steve Kirby is an engaging fellow. Not only is he rare in that he continues to bowl fast as a 32-year-old in the second division of the County Championship, he is surely the only cricketer whose life was once saved by the footballer Gary Neville.

Kirby used to suffer from blackouts. On one occasion, as a teenager, he swallowed his tongue and, but for the prompt action of Neville, would have been in deep trouble. "I owe him masses," Kirby admits. "If he hadn't pulled my tongue out [of my throat] I'd have died."

Some will also be interested to hear that Kirby recalls Phil Neville as a better cricketer than Andrew Flintoff when the pair were 15.

"Phil was captain of the England under-15 side at football and cricket," Kirby recalls. "He was brilliant. I know it's a big statement, but he was better than Flintoff at the time. Anyway, Lancashire did offer him a two-year contract when he was about 15, but Manchester United just put £200,000 straight into his bank account and told him he was going to be a footballer. What else could he have done?" It does sound like a persuasive argument, doesn't it?

But Kirby has far more to offer than some interesting anecdotes. As someone whose professional career didn't really get going until he was 25, he spent several years with a "normal" job. "I was in the flooring game," he says. So he knows what a privileged life today's cricketers lead and can provide an interesting perspective on such things.

So when he calls the current county schedule "dangerous", it's sensible to take heed. It's not exactly that Kirby believes today's cricketers play too much, but that he fears for a schedule where Gloucestershire had finished half their Championship programme (eight four-day games) by June 1. It is surely no coincidence that Kirby limped out of the last match suffering from back spasms.

The problem is the growth of Twenty20 fixtures. Not only has this year's Twenty20 Cup swollen to 16 matches in the group stages, but the birth of the Champions League has necessitated the 2010 season finishing two weeks earlier than the 2009 season. By the time it became apparent that English counties would be unable to compete, it was too late to change the fixture list.

That has resulted in the ECB discussing various ideas for restructuring the game. But instead of curbing the amount of limited-overs cricket, they are focused purely on reducing the Championship programme. So the ECB sent out a document to county coaches, chief executives, chairmen, broadcasters, the England management and sponsors (everyone but the supporters, basically) asking them to choose from five options for change. But all of them are awful. It's like phoning a call centre and being told "Pick A if you want to hold for three hours or B if you want to be shot in the knee."

The most silly suggestion yet - and that really is saying something - comes from Warwickshire. They've suggested that the Twenty20 Cup "should be played in two tiers determined by ground facilities and match-day experience, not on performance in previous years." In other words, cricketing merit becomes irrelevant.

Yet, in recent days, I sense that the tide has started to turn. It's not impossible that the 2011 season will still consist of two divisions of nine teams each playing 16 four-day games.

In 2011 the Champions League is scheduled to start on September 23; in 2012 it will begin in October. There is no reason why a full Championship programme cannot be accommodated before that time.

Quite right, too. Not only should it be considered essential to retain the integrity of the Championship, but from next season, many of the reasons for change will have disappeared anyway. In 2011 the Champions League is scheduled to start on September 23; in 2012 it will begin in October. There is no reason why a full Championship programme cannot be accommodated before that time.

Perhaps, however, there will need to be a rethink about the shape of the Twenty20 Cup schedule. Giving over six weeks to it in midsummer is surely excessive. Sixteen qualifying games also seems too much. Early indications suggest that ticket sales are sluggish.

Alas, the problem once again is that the game is now run almost entirely on commercial grounds. While county cricket was crying out for an injection of business acumen, the balance has now gone too far in the other direction. Someone needs to stand up for what is best from a cricketing perspective.

So what can be done? Well, my inital idea was to suggest storming the ECB offices and putting some heads on spikes. Sadly there are bothersome laws about such things, however, so that idea is probably out.

But if you too are concerned that the lunatics have finally taken over the asylum, that there is, right now, someone wandering around Lord's with underpants on his head and pencils up his nose thinking up ways to increase the participation of penguins in county cricket, you might like to consider signing this petition

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