October 7, 2015

Is the County Championship anti-spin?

England's slow-bowling cupboard looks bare because of the tournament's spinner-unfriendly pitches and its sapping and lopsided schedule

The leading spinner in the County Championship this year is not an Englishman © Getty Images

If there is such a thing as a blind ear, this column has one for Leonard Cohen, the celebrated songsmith and world-beating miseryguts. All the same, one album, 1974's New Skin for the Old Ceremony, is engraved in the memory, if only for the title's profound and enduring relevance to the planet's most venerable sporting league, the County Championship. And if ever this ancient tribal ritual needed new skin, it does right now. Make that a new spin.

As an understatement of the bleedin' obvious, to propose that English spin is in a pickle - the bowling variety, not the infinitely more cunning political variant - is up there with suggesting the war on drugs might not be over by Christmas. How severe is the malaise? The numbers have been dutifully crunched by the unquenchable Stephen Chalke, whose latest perceptive and soulful homage to the way we were, Summer's Crown: The Story of Cricket's County Championship, was published this year to celebrate its 125th official birthday (and properly won the Cricket Writers' Club book prize): the summer of 2015 saw seam account for nearly five times as many wickets as spin did - a pitiful, shameful, all-time high.

Almost as galling for many was the identity of the leading slowie: Jeetan Patel, a New Zealander who resisted a recall to national colours last year to solidify his future with Warwickshire because a) it made financial sense, and b) Warwickshire regard him as a match-winner worth cooking pitches for, rather than someone picked to pep up the over rate, give the quicks a breather and journalists something to moan about.

Will history recall Graeme Swann as inspiration or aberration? The early evidence is not encouraging. This column is fervently hoping Adil Rashid makes it eat every remaining word in this sentence, but let's face it: here Team England are, on the verge of a Test assignment in Greater Arabia, where twirl will surely be king, utterly and (perhaps blissfully) free of expectation.

For tragic confirmation of Shakespearian proportions, look no further than Monty Panesar's exit from Essex last month. Seldom can that softest of euphemisms "released" have been so sadly apt. For all the optimistic noises, England's hero in India in 2012 had long since hit the buffers. Domestic problems cannot be divorced from behavioural ones, but could it be that he was also dispirited by bowling on unresponsive surfaces at the wrong time of year for the wrong kind of captains?

"Captains are a big issue," concurs Neil Burns, who kept wicket with flair and intelligent distinction for Essex, Somerset and Leicestershire, and has been Panesar's mentor for the past couple of years. "Great captains empower players and know how to collaborate. Monty's natural deference makes it hard for him, but one big problem he had was being fast-tracked, which can lead to a player suppressing his opinions. That's why Joe Root's so special. He's a rare exception."

Was Monty Panesar a victim of unresponsive pitches, or did he play under the wrong captains, or both? © Getty Images

In a thoughtful article for this site, the Middlesex offspinner Ollie Rayner claimed, with understandable envy, that Edgbaston pitches are tailored for Patel - a rare blessing. For his part, Patel detects a deficient work ethic. "I don't think spinners do enough in the UK," he declared recently, before delivering the stinger. "When we played Middlesex I felt like I bowled at least an hour more than Ollie outside play."

Last week brought us the happiest cricket-related quote of the year, from Father Robert McCulloch, co-founder of the Vatican-based outfit St Peter's. Mount CC, a team of mostly Pakistani heritage from Batley, near Bradford, will fly to Rome this month to play McCulloch's mob, uniting Muslims and Catholics, as the priest put it, "in friendship, energy and good competition and a desire to win without pushing the other lot off the bridge". Last week also gave us the saddest quote of 2015, not to mention Phil Hughes or Richie Benaud. It came from Michael Munday, reflecting on his brief professional career as a legspinner.

One Wednesday in 2001 this column fell hook, line and sinker for Munday. Just 15, playing for Cornwall against Sussex in the somnolent surrounds of Truro's Boscawen Park, he'd outwitted Murray Goodwin, so premature infatuation can perhaps be forgiven. Coached and emboldened by Terry Jenner, by 2005 he was flexing that rubbery right wrist for Somerset in the Championship; two years later came 8 for 55 against Notts. Three years after that, he was "released". These days he's a pricing consultant and bagging victims aplenty for Horsham.

"It's difficult to get a run of matches to build up your confidence," Munday told the Times last week. "Early-season pitches aren't helpful, then you're brought in later in the season and expected to win matches. Captains would always want attacking fields too. I had a short leg in hundreds of times and I've never taken a wicket there in my life." Had Munday failed to develop a googly? Had he been treated poorly or insensitively? Either way, that last sentence is especially damning.

Mike Munday: raw deal? © PA Photos

Now consider this: this year saw bags of Championship matches in April and May but a solitary round between July 23 and August 20, when surfaces were bare and beckoning. Organising the fixture list is a thankless task, as the ECB's master scheduler Alan Fordham has occasionally needed to remind this column, but seriously: is there anyone in NW8 thinking about this with any coherence?

Stuart MacGill could have been hailed as the most prolific Test spinner of all had he been born ten years earlier (or later), so this column was all ears in 2002 when he told it how captains should handle spinners, and vice-versa:

"The important factor for me is that they mustn't be impatient. It's often a battle of temperament - if you want to have a couple of sweepers out there, if you can cut off boundaries… the big problem is that most young spinners don't know how to argue their case - 'This is what I'm trying to achieve and this is how I'm going to do it'. At times I definitely haven't had the confidence of my captain. A lot of the time, when that happens and you're bowling to stay on, you stop bowling your wicket-taking deliveries." Not Stuart Charles Glyndwr MacGill, you understand ("I just keep trying till I get it right"), but ordinary, obedient mortals.

To be a consistently successful spinner is as complex as the modern game gets. However justified Patel may or may not be in lamenting Rayner's zest for practice, county cricket currently fails the latter on two fronts: pitches rarely reward turn, and that sapping schedule encourages caution. In other words, to remix that ditty from The Sound of Music, how can you solve a problem like English spin without first solving the Championship conundrum? The short answer? You can't.

****

County members are currently congratulating themselves on seeing off a dastardly, if not terribly cunning, plan to prune the Championship to 14 matches per team, which would have ruined the competition's so-called "integrity" - sides wouldn't play every divisional rival home and away. But T20 attendances are up and talk of a franchise-based league persists; surgery is a matter of when, not if. Besides, as Chalke notes, 1928 was the first time in the 20th century that all the combatants even played the same number of fixtures. In 1919, to cite the most egregious integrity-free campaign, Yorkshire played 26 while Kent, their closest rivals, played 14.

Get the likes of Netherlands, Ireland and Scotland into the Championship © Peter Della Penna

Born shortly after England plummeted to the bottom of the Wisden Test rankings, the two-tier setup was instrumental in the revival. True, central contracts were more critical, but the sharper edge now demanded led to a stream of new caps - such as Matt Prior, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Joe Root - adapting to the loftier stages with a degree of aplomb unimaginable in the "One-Cap Blunder" days of non-entity that dominated the final quarter of the 20th century.

The present dilemma is twofold. Firstly, as Mark Baldwin, the chairman of the Cricket Writers' Club pointed out at last week's annual lunch, next April - for the first time - all six traditional Test clubs will be in the top tier. Reflecting the nation itself, the gap between rich and poor is growing. Secondly, staying on the international merry-go-round is proving trickier for young Poms these days - and only an exceedingly generous soul would attribute this to rising global standards. Time, then, to return to a Championship that can not only be won by all 18 contestants but does its job for the nation appreciably better.

In laying out his blueprint for a fairer, better, more relevant Championship, Baldwin called for NFL-type conferences - just as this column has done on a nauseatingly frequent basis. Banish the threat of relegation, or so runs part of the reasoning, and that old-fashioned gambit of buying wickets could yet make a comeback. The differences are in detail, not principle.

To do its bit for widening participation (as opposed to facilitating working trips to Amsterdam), this column would add Netherlands, Ireland and Scotland, then split the 21 combatants into three parallel, regionally based divisions, with semi-finals and five-day final to follow. At a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 14 fixtures per team, this would have the dual virtues of trimming an overstocked season to humane proportions and ending it with something other than an apologetic whimper.

Gratifying indeed was the response of a cricket-loving executive at a major British terrestrial TV channel when this idea was put to him. Playoffs? Too right, he'd have some of that. To which one can only add that he is a very wise fellow as well as a jolly good one.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

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