September 19, 2010

The good, the bad, the ugly

George Dobell
In his final column of the 2010 season, George Dobell looks back over six months of action and hands out his awards

Team of the season
Somerset. It would surely be fitting to place them second but, though they end 2010 without a trophy, Somerset have been the most consistent team this season. Missing out on Twenty20 and Championship silverware by the narrowest of margins - a single run or point would have done it - they were then only denied the CB40 trophy by a very fine innings from Ian Bell. For a club who do not host international cricket (or men's international cricket, anyway), Somerset continue to punch above their weight and will surely end the long wait for that elusive championship title soon.

Yorkshire deserve credit, too. Tipped by the bookies as favourites to go down, their new captain, Andrew Gale, inspired them to an excellent season which, but for a bad day against Kent, could have won them the Championship. And they did it despite England call-ups, with a squad of players that was largely developed through the club's system and against a backdrop of impending financial doom.

Batsman of the year
Despite conditions tending to favour bowlers this year, several batsmen enjoyed the best seasons of their career. Hampshire's Jimmy Adams, at 29, suddenly emerged as a fine Twenty20 player (he scored a season's record 668 runs at an average of 39.29) and enjoyed a prolific campaign (1351 runs at an average of 48.25) in the Championship. James Hildreth, averaging 68 in List A cricket, 65 in first-class and 32 in Twenty20, also began to deliver consistently on his undoubted potential and played a key role in Somerset's success. Twenty-two-year-old Adam Lyth (1,509 first-class runs for Yorkshire) also enjoyed an excellent season.

There were, as expected, also excellent returns from the likes of Chris Rogers (1276 first-class runs for Derbyshire), Mark Ramprakash (1,595 first-class runs for Surrey), Jacques Rudolph (1375) and Michael Carberry (1385).

Ian Bell deserves a mention, too. When he returned to Warwickshire duty, the club was embroiled in a relegation fight. Two centuries from Bell later and Warwickshire had not only ensured their Division One survival for another season, but they'd claimed the CB40 title. Whatever his future at international level, Bell is a giant of the county game.

But the winner, for his performance in all types of cricket, has to be Marcus Trescothick. There were times when Somerset's captain looked a class above anyone else on the pitch and some of his batting - such as the 13-ball half-century against Hampshire or his unbeaten 228 out of a total of 367 for 8 against Essex - was simply magnificent. He played the pace of Tait with ease, was murderous against spin and reinforced the impression that he remains the best batsman in England. His country's loss is his county's gain.

Bowler of the year Andre Adams. It was surely telling that, when the defining moment of the season came, it was Adams who took the key, Championship-winning wickets for Nottinghamshire. Strong, consistent and determined, Adams finished as the leading wicket-taker in first-class cricket and played a huge role in Nottinghamshire's success.

Alfonso Thomas also deserves a mention. He was top wicket-taker in Twenty20 and one-day cricket and, despite playing much of his cricket on the small playing surface at Taunton, showed the virtue of excellent control and variation. He's also added a yard of pace over the last couple of years.

All-rounder of the year
Without Neil Carter, Warwickshire would have sunk without trace this year. Aged 35, he not only produced the best bowling of his career - he became the first Warwickshire seamer to claim 50 championship wickets in a season since Tim Munton in 1999 - but he also batted superbly. Only Bell and Jonathan Trott scored more List A runs for Warwickshire, or averaged more in the Championship.

Adil Rashid also enjoyed an excellent season. He claimed 57 championship wickets at an average of 31.29, scored 732 runs at 45.75 and also claimed the most wickets - 26 - by a Yorkshire bowler in the FP t20. Yes, there were times when he was relatively expensive but, crucially, he takes wickets and, aged only 22, he surely has a golden future.

Comeback of the year
At the end of last year, Chris Tremlett's career was at a crossroads. His ability was unquestioned but, at the age of 28, he was unwanted by Hampshire and dogged with the reputation of being injury prone and wilting under pressure. He will surely now have proved most of the doubters wrong. Despite playing much of his cricket on the flat Oval wickets, Tremlett has enjoyed the best season of his career, claiming 48 wickets in 12 championship games and emerging as one of the leading Twenty20 bowlers in the country. He bowled with pace, hostility, persistence and, most impressively, heart. There were times when he stood, literally and metaphorically, head and shoulders above his colleagues. A winter in Australia looms.

From a team perspective, Worcestershire deserve immense credit. In the circumstances, their Championship promotion is little short of a miracle. At the end of last year, they were relegated after going through the whole Championship season without a win. They then lost five senior players (Kabir Ali, Steve Davies, Stephen Moore, Gareth Batty and Simon Jones) and had to cut their cricket budget by £300,000. While their position in the limited-overs tables remains lowly, they showed improvement in winning four CB 40 games in succession towards the end of the season and, by winning four of their last six Championship games, guaranteed their position among county cricket's elite next season. Leicestershire, with five wins from their last nine Championship games, showed that they were making progress, too.

Breakthrough of the year
Gemaal Hussain had played only one first-class game before this season. Now, however, the 26-year-old Gloucestershire seamer is the highest English-qualified first-class wicket-taker in the country (with 67 victims), has the best strike-rate, and is wanted by a host of counties. Not bad for a man who, just 18 months ago, worked in a call centre and had been turned down by five counties.

Disappointment of the year
There was a moment, about halfway through the season, when it appeared Surrey might be showing the first, faltering steps towards recovery. Perhaps they still are, with several of the new signings - Davies, Tremlett, Batty and Hamilton-Brown - all settling in well. But a final position of seventh in Division Two of the Championship and a failure to progress in either of the limited-overs competitions can only be regarded as a crushing disappointment. Especially bearing in mind the money the club have thrown at the playing and coaching staff. Chris Adams will need to have demonstrated considerably more progress by this time next year if he is to survive.

But Middlesex are the winners in this category. They invested heavily in overseas talent for the FP t20, but failed to progress and, despite boasting some of the most talented batsmen in the country (Morgan, Shah, Malan and Strauss, to take but four), finished only one off the bottom of the second division table. Their shoddy treatment of Shah did them little credit, either. Whatever his faults, he deserved better than to learn of his release from a journalist. How long can they excuse failure by claiming they're in a rebuilding phase?

The Mushtaq Ahmed award for best overseas player
A few contenders here. Chris Rogers and Mark Cosgrove both enjoyed excellent seasons, with Cosgrove coming within an ace of leading Glamorgan to promotion. Murali Kartik played a big role at Somerset, too. No-one in the country took so many five-wicket hauls (five), while his economy rate ensured his captain of control in the field. The club have had many more glamorous overseas stars - Richards and Garner; Gavaskar and Chapple; Crowe and Waugh; Ponting and Langer - but none have taken the club closer to that elusive Championship title. Warwickshire's Imran Tahir is also worth a mention. He claimed 56 first-class wickets, as well as playing a leading role as Warwickshire reached the quarter-finals of the FP t20 and the final of the CB40. His five wickets in the final were also crucial.

But the winner is Shakib Al Hasan. The first Bangladeshi overseas player in the county game, he defied some slow wickets and produced match-winning bowling performances against Surrey, Gloucestershire and Middlesex.The figures aren't outstanding - a batting average of 25 and a bowling average of 22 - but it is surely significant that Worcestershire won four of the eight first-class games in which he played and, after a horrid losing run, enjoyed four List A victories out of five involving him. He was also refreshingly low maintenance and excellent value for money.

The Shoaib Akhtar award for worst overseas player
The fact that there were so many candidates for this award speaks volumes about the quality of some overseas recruits. Perhaps most damaging were those who didn't turn up at all: Hampshire and Surrey had built their plans around Ajantha Mendis and Piyush Chawla respectively and were unable to find suitable replacements.

In terms of value for money, Andrew Symonds (who averaged just 20 in Surrey's Twenty20 campaign) and Dwayne Bravo (who cost Essex £10,000 plus expenses for the five runs and 1 for 46 from four overs he took in the FP t20 semi-final) are contenders, while Phil Jaques, with six ducks in 15 first-class innings, also warrants a mention.

But the winner is Kent's Malinga Bandara. Although the Sri Lankan leg-spinner did put in some telling performances, they were mainly for the county's second XI. For a club in financial trouble, that seems like an odd luxury.

Best young player
It is surely encouraging that there are so many candidates. Chesney Hughes, Adil Rashid, Alex Hales, James Vince, Danny Briggs, Steve Finn, James Harris, Nathan Buck, Jason Roy, Matt Coles, Steve Davies, Moeen Ali, James Taylor, Chris Woakes, Dawid Malan and Rory Hamilton-Brown all merit consideration. All have bright futures, too.

A couple of young batsmen stick out, however. Firstly there is Worcestershire's Alexei Kervezee. A 20-year-old in his first full season, Kervezee scored 1,190 championship runs and showed the confidence and range of stroke to damage any opposition. People laughed when Kervezee was first compared to Graeme Hick. But it would be no surprise if it is Kervezee who finishes his Test career - for he will surely play at that level - with the better Test record.

The winner in this category, however, is Adam Lyth. The 22-year-old Yorkshireman responded to the challenge of opening the batting by amassing 1,509 championship runs - only Ramprakash scored more - and coming within touching distance of 1000 first-class runs before the end of May. Equally happy against pace or spin, Lyth drives unusually well and could well go on to flourish at the highest level.

The Mark Ramprakash award for 'not so young' player of the year
Neil Carter, Alan Richardson, Murray Goodwin, Glen Chapple, Ramprakash and Darren Stevens all deserve a mention in this category. But the winner has to be Dominc Cork. Inheriting a struggling side that was missing several senior players (Lumb, Kabir Ali, Pothas and Mascarenhas), Cork not only produced some excellent form himself, but harnessed the ability of his side so well that Hampshire snatched the FP t20 trophy and avoided championship relegation. They won four out of five CB 40 games under his command, as well as 10 out of 18 Twenty20 games. As a bowler he remained masterful at the end of limited-overs games, while 45 wickets in 13 championship matches is a fine return for a 39-year-old.

Decline of the year
Eighteen months ago, Tim Ambrose was playing Test cricket for England. By the end of this season, however, Ambrose was appearing for Warwickshire's second XI and far from certain of winning another county contract. While his keeping remained good, his batting form imploded so completely that he averaged just 13 in the Championship and there was a growing concern that, aged 27, his career may be over.

His team-mate, Jim Troughton, struggled, too, averaging just 20 and passing 50 only once in 30 championship innings. Joe Denly, who averaged 25 for Kent, and Jonathan Batty, who averaged just 16 for Gloucestershire, also endured chastening seasons, while Michael Lumb, a World Twenty20 winner in May, felt back to earth with a bump after averaging just seven in Hampshire's FP t20 campaign.

From a team perspective, it's hard to look beyond Kent. Not only were they relegated in the championship, but they failed to progress in the CB 40 or FP t20. Worse still, their financial plight rendered them unable to retain all their players and facing an uncertain future. Sad to say, they have lived beyond their means for some time and are now reliant on the goodwill of their chairman. Survival is not guaranteed.

Good idea of the year
The decision (by the ECB's cricket committee) to ban the use of the heavy roller after the first morning of games breathed fresh life into the County Championship. After several seasons of run-laden bore-draws, there was a return to exciting cricket, with ball often dominant over bat.

Some, like Sussex director of cricket Mark Robinson, make the valid point that such tactics flatter the performance of mediocre bowlers and will not encourage them to learn the tricks required to flourish at international level. He has a point, too, as most Test wickets around the world are unforgiving to the point of tedium. But, from the spectators' perspective, the change has been wonderful. And it is meant to be a spectator sport, after all. It's hard to recall a more entertaining season. Perhaps there's a case for banning the heavy roller from Test cricket, too?

Awful idea of the year
The five suggestions for the re-structuring of the Championship were the work of a madman. Talk of splitting it into conferences or admitting more teams from the minor counties games were naive to the point of absurdity. They threatened the integrity of the competition, in particular, and suggested that some at the ECB had little respect or value for the competition that has been the bedrock of the English game for a century. Fortunately, the backlash that followed the leaking of the proposals surprised the ECB and forced a re-think. Had they consulted spectators in the first place, they would have known the ideas were hopeless.

The idea of playing the CB40 final under floodlights was flawed, too. A crowd of just 13,000 - surely the lowest in the history of such games - told its own story. The late finish made life much harder than necessary for supporters of both Warwickshire and Somerset - getting home was a nightmare for some - and again showed a lack of respect towards spectators. The reason? Partially to appease Lord's neighbours: there is a large synagogue in the area and the MCC were keen not to offend those celebrating Yom Kippur.

Problem of the year
Confusion over next season's fixture schedule continues. While all agree that this year's schedule was imperfect, there's very little agreement over the solution. Some - such as Essex and Somerset - say there was the optimum amount of Twenty20 cricket this season. Others feel that eight home games is three too many. They also feel there should be more space between home fixtures so as not to over-burden players and spectators. A reduction in the number of Twenty20 fixtures, or playing them on Friday nights throughout the season, are among the options that will be discussed.

It may well be that no change is made before next year, however. Many feel it is already too late to change - counties have already allocated budgets and made decisions about their playing staffs - while there is also a sense that there has been too much change of late and the game needs a period of stability before lurching towards another 'quick fix.'

There should be some easing of the schedule next year, however. The 2010 season finished early, remember, to make room for the Champions League in which no English county participated. There will be no need for such an early finish next year.

There will also shortly be a review of the policy over young player incentives. As things stand, many counties are selecting a side more on financial expediency than merit. Again, it is unlikely the policy will be abandoned at this stage, despite reservations from the Professional Cricketers' Association and several members of the ECB's cricket committee.

Farce of the year
As if life were not hard enough for the smaller counties, Leicestershire have increased their burden significantly with a bout of in-fighting that would have looked intense at Yorkshire in the 1970s. Sparked by the suspension of the chief executive, David Smith (who was accused of breaching confidentiality), the players, coaches and ground staff all combined in demanding that the club's chairman, Neil Davidson - who was accused of interfering in cricket matters - resign or be removed. At the same time, a group of members presented a petition calling for a vote of no confidence in Davidson and the Leicestershire board. Though Davidson insists he will go if the membership don't want him, it appears that wild horses wouldn't drag him from Grace Road. Proud and principled or arrogant and stubborn: it depends on your point of view. A Special General Meeting may clear the air, though it is more likely that the problems will fester for years.

Meanwhile the club's on-field improvements are jeopardised by the imminent departure of senior coach Tim Boon - who has had enough - and will leave to take up a job with the ECB.

Theme of the year
There is no end in sight for counties suffering financial problems. One county chairman told me recently that he didn't know how his club were going to get through the winter. "We're in trouble," he said. "And there are others in worse trouble."

The challenging economic climate combined with a surfeit of cricket (especially international cricket) and inflated ticket prices, saw many grounds fall well under their sales budgets in all areas. Many clubs may have over committed themselves to ambitious redevelopment projects, too. Far less forgiving banks (one club has been asked to pay interest rates of 29% after going over its agreed overdraft limit) and a realisation that players' salaries have rocketed to unsustainable levels have provided the catalyst to the worst crisis to affect the domestic game in many, many years. There will be casualties.

Lesson of the year
There were those who, only a few months ago, claimed that the Championship served no purpose. They said few people were interested and recommended abandoning the two-division system for one designed to allow players more time for practise and rest.

They were wrong. The 2010 season provided some hugely entertaining, competitive and high-quality competition with an ending so dramatic, that Sky, BBC 5Live and countless other news outlets increased their coverage to cater for the interest. The fight for the title and, just as importantly, the fight to secure promotion or avoid relegation, ensured most sides remained motivated throughout the season and ensured tough, meaningful cricket.

The Championship continues to prepare players for international cricket, too. How else can we explain the immediate success of Strauss, Trott, Prior, Cook (who all made centuries on Test debut) or Bell and Pietersen (who both made half-centuries)? . Swann, Sidebottom and Finn also learnt their trade in the county game.

Crowd numbers may never provide visible proof of the interest in county cricket - people have lives to lead, after all - but the following in newspapers and on websites such as this remind us of the game's abiding popularity. County cricket is facing pressure from many sides at the moment but, in terms of producing players and providing compelling matches to watch, it works. We meddle with it at our peril.