Self-defeating move of the season I
While the ECB's policy of lobbying for tougher work-permit criteria was well-intentioned, there is increasing evidence that it has now become too hard to register non-England qualified players. Trent Copeland and Cameron White, for example, who provided fine service for Northants in 2013, are both ineligible to return as they have not played the sufficient number of international games in the qualifying period. As a result, the standard of the county game will be eroded just a little more and developing English players will not benefit from the experience of playing with and against such tough, experienced cricketers. Combined with the absence of the leading England players, the unavailability of the best overseas talent and the growing use of young-player incentives, such moves increase the gap between domestic and international cricket.
Self-defeating move of the season II
Few could dispute the value of England Lions fixtures or central contracts to the development of the England team. But there is a growing concern that, by continuing to raid the county game during the season, England are actually creating a greater gap between the domestic and international games. There will always be a tough balance to strike in such circumstances, but the current policy may well damage the strength of the England side in years to come by weakening the Championship in which developing players learn their skills.
While few had called for it, the heavy roller made a comeback in 2013. It meant that, after some of the most entertaining years in county cricket's history, pitches were returned to a slow, colourless uniformity that did little for spectators. There are some decent reasons for allowing the use of the heavy roller in Championship cricket - not least to help replicate conditions found in international cricket - but when combined with the lack of pace in most county surfaces, it resulted, all too often, in bland, attritional cricket that rewarded persistence and patience more than flair and skill. A wider consultation on the issue might prove beneficial.
Disappointment of the season
It's not the award Surrey were after, but it's the only one they can win. After investing heavily in new recruits - Vikram Solanki and Gary Keedy alongside the overseas contingent - Surrey won only one Championship match and finished bottom of Division One. There were mitigating factors - they played on awful pitches at The Oval that did nothing for their bowling attack - but there was the unavoidable sense of a side that had lost its way in 2013.
Maybe it is harsh to place Somerset in this category. For many years a place in the knock-out stages of the limited-overs competitions and sixth in the Championship would have been deemed more than acceptable but, after building expectations in the last few years, this was a poor season by their standards and one which raised questions about the contribution of new director of cricket, Dave Nosworthy. Leicestershire, who went through the season without a first-class victory for the first time in their history, were pathetic and lost to Leeds-Bradford MCCU among others.
Among batsmen, Alex Hales, who averaged 13.94 from 18 innings and was dropped from the Nottinghamshire Championship side, Josh Cobb, averaging 14.62 in the Championship despite playing nicely in limited-overs cricket, and William Porterfield, who averaged 14.68, endured poor years, while Ajmal Shahzad and David Balcombe found their wickets coming at a cost of around 50 runs apiece, and Tymal Mills, for all his pace, claimed only six wickets in five Championship matches. James Harris, an expensive recruit from Glamorgan, had his injury troubles and never quite lived-up to expectations at Middlesex, while spinners' struggles were typified by Monty Panesar, who was released by Sussex after his on-field form and off-field behaviour deteriorated, and James Tredwell, who claimed 17 Championship wickets in 11 matches.
Sajid Mahmood failed to restart his career with only three Championship wickets at 109.66, while Steve Harmison failed to even warrant selection for Durham second XI. But the biggest disappointment of all was left to the end. Essex, in "resting" four senior players a week before they could all rest for several months, undermined the integrity of the Championship by failing to do everything they could to push for promotion in the final match of the season. While there are, as ever, caveats, the fact is that had they beaten Hampshire with full bonus points, they would have won promotion ahead of Northants. It says much about the complacent, defeatist attitude at Essex and an appalling absence of meritocracy that has been allowed to develop in the county game, that they accepted failure before it was assured.
Unsung heroes of the season
The increased availability of audio commentaries from county games has been one of the delights of recent years. So those involved at the BBC and ECB deserve credit for agreeing a deal that ensured another year of the service at a time when many newspapers were cutting back. The success of The Cricket Paper, a publication that by embracing the county game is exploiting a significant niche left by the mainstream, is also welcome, as is the growth in online coverage from various bloggers and sites such as Deep Extra Cover. Their enthusiasm and commitment continues to shame those who should know better.
Credit is also due to the management at Derbyshire and Northamptonshire, particularly their respective chairman and chief executive, Chris Grant and David Smith. While several of the smaller counties have done little other than bemoan their lot in recent times, Grant and Smith have refused to accept their teams' place among the also-rans and, by revitalising clubs that had slid into irrelevance, have shown what can be achieved at every first-class county in the land. Their work is far from complete - neither county has contributed much to the England side in recent years - but they have taken significant steps in the right direction and shown the management of Leicestershire, Worcestershire and Kent that achievement and progress is possible despite the trying economic conditions.
Lesson of the season
Trust your own. Both Northants and Durham excelled in 2013 through trusting their own players and not attempting to bring in too many imports. There is, of course, a place for role-model cricketers and signings that strengthen and lead. Northants' squad, in particular, is a result of years of recruitment. But one of the key roles of counties remains to produce players from their own locality to strengthen the domestic game and challenge for England honours; both Northants and Durham remembered that in 2013. They also showed the timeless value of shared experienced and values in constructing a team spirit that will withstand the inevitable stresses and strains of a county season. While teams such as Surrey sought short-cuts to success, Northants and Durham provided a reminder that there is no substitute for a side that has grown together and is playing with a sense of unity and purpose that, under pressure, perhaps provides an extra edge that can turn defeats into draws and clinch tight games. Gratifyingly, both sides showed that good coaching, scouting and management will beat the chequebook every time.