April 9, 2013

Let's enjoy the county bounty

The county season is about to start - time to stop the moaning and get excited

Well, that didn't take long. The county season hasn't even begun, but already the bashing of it has.

The headline to Scyld Berry's recent piece, "County cricket in need of reinvention with falling crowds and lack of stars leaving the format in the doldrums" was typical. Amol Rajan predicts a near future in which "little noticed and even less lamented, four-day county matches are swallowed whole by the pitiless drift of history". Reports that county cricket is being blamed for Margaret Thatcher's death are, as yet, unconfirmed.

It's not quite clear just what this annual charade - journalists effectively telling readers not to bother with the county game it is their job to cover - accomplishes. All things have their problems. But it's become so fashionable to focus on county cricket's flaws that its considerable strengths are ignored.

And there are many. Warwickshire are justifiably Championship favourites, but Division One has an openness that would have fans salivating if this was the Premier League. Two Old Trafford teams were champions in 2011, and both disappointed the following season. For Manchester United this meant the failure of second place; for Lancashire, relegation to Division Two.

Even amid the glorious uncertainty, a few predictions for 2013 seem reasonable. Marcus Trescothick and Shivnarine Chanderpaul will score lots of runs in very different ways; James Foster and Chris Read will expose the fallacy that the art of classical wicketkeeping is dead; England's spin tormenters of a year ago, Saaed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, will enjoy English pitches in August. Somerset will come second in something.

Nick Compton, an overnight success ten years in the making, is the latest proof that county cricket can still produce hardened cricketers able to succeed at Test level. The 13 years since the introduction of two divisions have pushed the standard of Division One up, to the extent that its quality is the envy of the rest of the cricketing world. Of today's regular England cricketers, only James Anderson and Alastair Cook will play in Division Two in 2013. This may irk some but it is exactly how it should be: the point of two divisions was to close the gap between the top and Test cricket, and it has succeeded.

Perhaps people are negative about county cricket because they always have been: 50 years ago, a book called The Changing Face of Cricket predicted gloom. Conventional wisdom has it that 18 first-class counties are unsustainable yet, of the three most would soonest discard, one (Northants) produced 19 of England's 20 wickets at Mumbai last year; another (Leicestershire) developed Stuart Broad, Luke Wright and James Taylor; and the other (Derbyshire) last year won promotion to Division One.

Conventional wisdom, too, has it that the money that the ECB gives to the counties comes in the form of "handouts". Actually, they are more akin to investment in education. With fewer counties, it would be harder for players to get noticed or get the opportunities they deserve - not to mention have their interest spiked in the first place.

Consider that Toby Roland-Jones was unable to win a Surrey contract when he played for their second XI. He has since claimed 27 first-class wickets at 11 apiece against them for Middlesex, and took 64 Division One scalps last year. Or how Warwickshire have profited - think of Varun Chopra, Rikki Clarke and Chris Wright - from players unfulfilled elsewhere. These are all players who may yet play for England (again in Clarke's case).

Many supporters won't be at grounds at 11am on Wednesday, owing to work and other mundane realities. But that doesn't mean they won't be refreshing ESPNcricinfo's live scorecards and daily blog, chatting to fellow enthusiasts on Twitter and listening to BBC's expanded online radio coverage. Regardless of the lack of interest from the daily newspapers, the county cricket lover has never been better served.

Whatever the obligatory pictures of the OAP and his dog to mark the start of the new season tell you, the dystopian vision of a world without four-day county cricket isn't one we're likely to see anytime soon. Perhaps we should stop fretting and get a little excited.

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Nottinghamshire v Middlesex could be seen as a clash between the Barbados beaches and the English snow. While Notts went to Barbados for pre-season, playing all three formats of the game, Middlesex erected a marquee and put on some thermals.

Middlesex's is an intriguing approach - and one copied from Essex, who pioneered it a year ago - but the success of the sides who went to Barbados before the 2012 season should be acknowledged. As well as the champions, Warwickshire, the list included both sides promoted from Division Two, Derbyshire and Yorkshire, as well as Twenty20 and CB40 winners Hampshire. As Northants coach David Ripley said before they went to Barbados this year, "We're going because you look at what happened last year - teams who went did very well."

Thanks to subsidies from the Barbados Tour Authority and players themselves contributing - £400 apiece in the case of Derbyshire - the cost to counties is around £35,000, about £10,000 more than Middlesex's combination of training under a marquee in England and going on a team bonding trip to Spain. Middlesex's trip to Trent Bridge might reveal a little about which approach is better.

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The MCC Champion County fixture can scarcely have felt less relevant than in 2013: Warwickshire didn't even bother sending their best available team to Abu Dhabi, where daily crowds were in two figures. There have been calls for the game to return to Lord's but a March fixture in the frost would only give cause for more obtuse criticism of the county game.

Given that Dubai is Afghanistan's home from home, why not allow the Afghan side to play under the MCC banner? The quality of the game would barely be affected - Hamid Hassan claimed seven wickets in the match when MCC beat Nottinghamshire in 2011. It would make the game into a spectacle, attracting crowds of several thousand (to judge by those for Afghanistan's World Cricket League games in Dubai) and helping the development of the Afghan side. The Champion County game deserves better than to be quietly retired - but it also deserves better than the current, unsatisfactory status quo.

Fixture of the week

Warwickshire v Derbyshire, County Championship, Division One

An intriguing fixture, pitting last year's champions, now without Ashley Giles, against the Division Two winners. Derbyshire have a resilient side, and bat very deep, but may need Chanderpaul to score runs on a Ramprakash-esque scale - which he is very capable of doing - to be safe; taking 20 wickets as regularly as in Division Two must be unlikely. Edgbaston will provide some insight into their prospects, although it is against weaker sides that their season will be defined. Dougie Brown's Warwickshire are rightly considered title favourites but this will be an early test of their pace-bowling depth: Keith Barker and Boyd Rankin are injured, and Chris Woakes has been withdrawn by England.

Tim Wigmore will be writing a weekly county column, appearing every Monday morning, throughout the summer. If you have any suggestions for topics to cover, you can tweet him @timwig_cricket

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