April 20, 2011

Youth flourishes, but where's the experience?

George Dobell
It's been a thrilling start to the county season, but do the fluctuating standards and performances suggest an underlying weakness in the competition?

If the start of the county season has taught us anything, it is that cricket remains a gloriously unpredictable game.

Who could have foreseen Warwickshire's crushing vistory over pre-season favourites Somerset? Or that Derbyshire and Northants would be topping the Division Two table? Or that spectators - and there have been many of them at some grounds - would be complaining more of sunburn than frostbite in the first half of April? These are early days, but it's been a thoroughly enjoyable start to the summer.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the season to date has been the performance of several young players. Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Reece Topley, Varun Chopra and Adil Rashid are among those to have caught the eye in recent days. Each of them could have a bright future in international cricket.

To some extent, their success bears out the policies of the ECB. For a start, all the players mentioned have progressed through the England age-group teams, suggesting that that process of talent identification and development is working pretty well.

More controversially, the success of Stokes et al also goes some way to justifying the ECB's policy of reducing opportunities for non-England qualified cricketers and older England players who, in times gone, might have blocked opportunities.

Seventeen-year-old Topley, for example, may well not have played had Essex been able to secure the services of an overseas fast bowler. With two five-fors in his first two championship games, it's a chance Topley has seized with alacrity.

It's a similar story with Chopra. Had Warwickshire been able to register their overseas player, Mohammad Yousuf, in time, then Chopra may well not have played at Taunton, and would never have had the chance to make a high-class double-century. For a man who is out of contract in September, it could prove to have been a career-defining moment. Sometimes the margins between success and failure in professional sport are remarkably slim.

There's another side to that argument, though. Some would argue that the value of performances in county cricket will be compromised by the absence of experienced players, and that the ease with which young players are taking to the county game actually points to a lowering of standards. Rashid's wickets, for example, came against a Worcestershire side who folded like wrapping paper. It's relevant, surely, that after his 11 wickets at New Road, Rashid came down to earth with figures of 1 for 158 against stronger opposition in the form of Durham.

It may sound a churlish point of view, but it is a legitimate concern. Runs against UCCE sides long since ceased to have real value - their first-class status notwithstanding. It would be a shame if championship performances came to be seen in the same way. Or if the gap between county and international cricket grew any larger.

It is also interesting to look at the performances of two more experienced professionals. Gerard Brophy (with an innings of 177 against Worcestershire) and Dale Benkenstein (with centuries against Yorkshire and Hampshire) have also enjoyed excellent starts to the season. Both were born in southern Africa and both are in their mid-30s. To some, they represent everything that is wrong about the county game. But their batting raised the standards of the games in which they played and gave their opponents an idea of the benchmark required if they are to succeed. Experience, be it developed in England or overseas, surely still has its place.

Talking balls
"No heavy rollers and Tiflex balls a recipe for low scores. C**p cricket." That was Ravi Bopara's assessment, delivered via Twitter, of the balance between bat and ball in the early weeks of the season.

Bopara's rant is unlikely to endear him to the England management. For a start, they are unlikely to be impressed that he chose to express himself via Twitter - where emotions are so often conveyed before sense has intervened - and secondly it hardly demonstrates the admirable "no excuse" culture that the England team has developed in recent years.

His frustration is understandable, however. He recently declined an offer of £100,000 from Rajasthan Royals to appear in this season's IPL, in order to pursue his laudable aim of recapturing a place in the England Test side. He certainly has the ability and the hunger to do so. Perhaps he can be forgiven for allowing his exasperation to spill over.

But is he right? Has the balance between bat and ball swung too far in the direction of the bowler?

The statistics would suggest it might have done. In an excellent article in the latest Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, Neville Scott recounts how, in the 2010 championship, the "average runs per wicket, excluding 'joke' bowling, fell to 30, the lowest for 10 years. The strike-rate in the second division... was the lowest (one wicket per 53 balls) since purely four-day play began in 1993. And, even ignoring matches where rain brought contrivance, 51 out of 144 fixtures ended in the equivalent of three days or less."

Why? Well, the absence of the heavy roller (no longer used once the match has begun) was one factor. The recalibration of the points system (wins were worth 16 points, as against 14 in the previous year, while only three - rather than four - points were awarded for draws) was also significant. Meanwhile the balls (Tiflex in Division Two and Dukes in Division One) appear to have retained their shape longer and subsequently aided swing bowling. The combination of all those factors has been telling.

Whether it's a good or bad development is debatable. The last season was one of the most entertaining in living memory. After several years of desperately benign pitches and run-soaked draws, bowlers enjoyed better fortunes. Batsmen, after years of easy runs, failed to adjust.

Some, like Bopara, think that has resulted in a poor standard of cricket. He might, however, reflect that batsmen of an earlier vintage learned their craft on uncovered wickets that favoured bowlers far more. Modern batsmen benefit from heavier bats, shorter boundaries and far more protective equipment. It's only fair that bowlers should have been allowed some redress.

Crucially, Bopara would also do well to remember that cricket is a spectator sport. While batsmen may revel in the high scores of recent years, it had created some stultifying cricket. Dull pitches might just represent a greater danger to the game's health than performance-enhancing drugs, sledging or suspect bowling actions.

Perhaps Scott Newman put it best. Responding to Bopara's comments on Twitter, Middlesex's Newman replied: "Dry your eyes, big lad. No feet movement and loose shots is a recipe for nicking off."

It's interesting that Bopara targeted the Tiflex ball for his criticism. According to Worcestershire's Alan Richardson, who has bowled with both balls over the last couple of seasons, the difference between the two types of ball now used is minimal. As Richardson put it: "It can't really make that much difference, can it? I mean it's the same size, the same weight and the same colour. How different can it be?"

Both Carter and Richardson make the point that the introduction of a different brand has been good for the game. As Richardson explains: "A few years ago, the Dukes ball was poor. We could only claim a new ball after 90 overs, but we would routinely have to change it three times before then as it went out of shape.

"But the introduction of the Tiflex has made Dukes pull their socks up. They're much better now and the difference between the balls is minimal. Maybe the Tiflex stays a little harder and had a slightly more pronounced seam, but I wouldn't say it swings any more than the Dukes.

"The biggest difference is that wickets in Division Two tend to be a little bit more spicy. You have to win games if you're going to be promoted out of the division, so clubs prepare pitches that they think will produce results. But you'd think that was compensation for the lesser bowling attacks which you'd expect to face in Division Two. So it's swings and roundabouts."

Neil Carter agrees. Warwickshire's allrounder, who was rated as the most valuable player in county cricket last season, found that the improved Dukes ball kept its shape and swung more than ever last year. And that, he says, can only be good for English cricket.

"English batsmen don't play swing bowling very well," Carter reckons. "But if they can learn to score runs when the ball is moving around, it must serve them well when they play international cricket, where most of the pitches are like roads.

"I remember an innings Jonathan Trott played against Lancashire last summer. They had Anderson, Chapple and Mahmood in their team and the ball was doing plenty, but Trott got stuck in and made a really classy 150. Well, what better practice could he have had for facing the Pakistan swing bowlers? And we all know how well he's done ever since."

It's a pretty compelling argument, isn't it?

But there is a counter-argument. That is that moderate seamers will be flattered by helpful conditions and then unmasked as impotent when they graduate to international cricket.

Consider Gemaal Hussain, for example. He made merry on some decidedly spicy pitches at Bristol last year, claiming 67 championship wickets at just 22 apiece. But having being lured to Taunton by the offer of an improved contract, he fell to earth with quite a bump last week. His first 28 overs with a Dukes ball and against tougher opposition brought him just one wicket, at an eye-watering cost of 154 runs.

Was the wicket that much flatter? Maybe. But it didn't look too flat when Warwickshire bowled on it. Somerset's second innings only lasted 88 balls, after all.

Either way, the ECB have decided to step in to ensure that the balance doesn't swing any further in favour of the batsmen. Their Pitch Liaison Officers have been instructed to take a tougher line with pitches this season, meaning more penalties are entirely possible.

It might not be enough to appease Bopara. But, as Kim Barnett once remarked, there was a period in his career when he kept feeling he was on the receiving end of unplayable balls. Eventually it dawned on him he had to develop a technique that could cope or he had to find a new profession. No one said earning a living from professional sport was easy.

Welcome home
Of all the mouth-watering encounters in the new round of County Championship matches, the return of Tom Maynard to Cardiff is particularly eye-catching.

It's only a few months since Maynard negotiated his release from a contract with Glamorgan. He had been regarded as the most exciting batting prospect at the club, but after falling out with the management he signed for Surrey. Understandably the 22-year-old felt he couldn't remain at the club where his father, Matthew, had recently been director of cricket.

Glamorgan's management insist they didn't want either man to go. Instead, they just wanted to remove the county captain, Jamie Dalrymple.

Dalrymple appears to have enjoyed little support. But the decision to remove him had consequences. Matthew Maynard was the one man who had thrown his weight behind Dalrymple, and when it transpired that county officials had flown to Dubai to interview the new captain, Alviro Petersen, without Maynard's knowledge, he resigned, stating he felt his position was untenable. It was inevitable that Tom Maynard would follow him through the exit. The club president, Peter Walker, soon joined the exodus. Three generations of Glamorgan talent had, therefore, gone in a moment.

So in retrospect was it worth it? That's the question I put to Glamorgan's chairman, Paul Russell.

"Glamorgan cricket has been a shambles on the field for five years," Russell explains. "If we'd been successful on the pitch, everything else that people complain about would have disappeared. But our spectacular lack of success has magnified any problems off the field.

"People have to remember how bad our results were! We were losing time after time after time. We were beaten at Taunton by the biggest margin in the history of the universe in limited-overs cricket. We lost by 285 runs! 285! [It was actually 249 runs and was the biggest margin in the history of 40-over cricket]. No county has won fewer one-day matches than Glamorgan during the past three seasons. We finished below the Unicorns in the CB40 last year. That's embarrassing. And it damages the business.

"The thing you have to understand is that one-day cricket is the vital thing from a commercial angle. Before we started our T20 season, we spent a fortune marketing it, and we employed Shaun Tait as an overseas player. That worked, too, as we got over 9000 spectators for the first game. But that number fell away steadily because of our awful results. People want to watch successful sides.

"I was advised - strongly - that the way we were approaching matters on the field would not lead to success. The encouragement of the younger players, the tactical approach on the field, the discipline of the younger players: all those things were a concern. And we were far from being the fittest squad.

"I had a fiduciary duty for the good of the club, for the good of the business, to intervene. We've invested million of pounds in the stadium. We had the largest playing budget we've ever had - it's gone up about 40% since 2007 - and if you make investments like that, you need a return. And we couldn't win a game of snap. Our poor form was damaging the business and we had to act."

But couldn't he have foreseen Matthew Maynard's resignation?

"I've thought about that a great deal," Russell says after a long pause. "Yes, I can understand why he left. And yes, I've reflected many times on the action that the club took. Matthew and I were very, very close personal friends. It is a source of the most immense disappointment to me that he is, for the moment, no longer with Glamorgan.

"I suppose it wasn't completely unforeseen that this could happen. And in retrospect I, perhaps, could have done more to keep Matthew on side. I wish I had been able to do more. I did try, I can assure you. I used our personal relationship to its maximum to persuade him to stay.

"It's true that he didn't know we were going to Dubai to sign Peterson. But that's because I had informed him [Maynard] of our decision to change the captaincy and he didn't support the decision. He made it clear that if Dalrymple was removed, his own position would be untenable. So we didn't feel we could inform him of the trip to Dubai."

And what of Tom Maynard? Russell had described it as "his mission" to persuade him to stay.

"Yes," he admits. "And I failed. Of course I understand - and respect - that he thinks he is being loyal to his father. I feel no resentment to either of the Maynards. Quite the contrary. I disagree with them, but I respect and like them both.

"In due course I firmly believe that they'll both be back at Glamorgan. It's where they belong. They're good Welsh men."

Russell's popularity is far from universal at the Swalec. Some don't like his apparent interference in cricket matters; some simply don't like him. The announcement that he would step-down from the chairmanship in "the foreseeable future" was received with relief by many.

But he will leave quite a legacy. Their Cardiff home, embarrassingly antiquated not so long ago, is now a fine, world-class international venue which also doubles as the largest conference facility in Wales. Cardiff has already hosted one Ashes Test and rumours persist that they'll capture another when the next round of international packages is announced. Russell, who has given or lent the club over £2 million (interest-free) over the years, must take substantial credit for that.

As he puts it: "A few years ago, our ground was a joke. It was awful. You couldn't get your mother-in-law to have a cup of tea there... Now everyone enjoys it. We've hosted prime ministers, ambassadors and secretaries of state. We've seven restaurants and 11 bars. We've transformed it... I'm very proud of what we have achieved. Look what I've done! Who could have imagined that we could stage an Ashes Test. Or create a world-class stadium."

If that sounds immodest, Russell is equally damning about his on-field legacy.

"If you were to judge the performance of county chairmen by results on the field then I would be bottom of division two and seeking re-election," he says. "It's been the source of my greatest [pause] frustration."

Russell will never win over all the doubters. And we'll leave it to history to judge his contribution to Glamorgan cricket. He says he now only reads the Daily Mail and Private Eye as he finds people have been "beastly" about him when he looks elsewhere.

And the criticism clearly hurts. Let's leave the final word to Russell; some will dismiss it as manipulative and cunning; others as heartfelt and genuine. For what it's worth, I lean towards the latter.

"Look, I don't rule Glamorgan as Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq," he says. "I've never done anything that I wouldn't explain on television. Everything I've done has been done because I believed it was in the best interests of Glamorgan. I may be wrong at times, but I've done my best in the best interests of the club."

George Dobell is chief writer of Spin magazine and will be writing for ESPNcricinfo through the 2011 county season.