It was a strange cricket season in England that ended ten days ago, with the way ahead in the professional game no clearer than it was last April. The gap between Twenty20 and Test cricket remains cavernous, and the relationship between the ECB and the BCCI still dangerously volatile. It will be two years yet before we can properly judge whether the country where the game started can continue to function with true independence. It may depend on the success or otherwise of the attempt to fudge together the traditional framework of the county game with the bold franchise system launched in India six months ago.
The financial muscle power of Mumbai rules now, as it did in the spring. That is clear from the fact that the ECB is telling all the cricketers, clubs and even umpires under its jurisdiction that to mess with the IPL's rival, the ICL, would be to commit professional suicide. But statesmanship and broad vision from the administrators, rather than a shameless pursuit of self-interest, is as desperately needed in the small world of cricket at the moment as it is in the real one of international finance. Such is the essential attraction of cricket that all the petty disputes and crises will be worked out in due course, but the ride will no doubt continue to be bumpy and exciting.
My brief on this site has been county cricket, and as usual the perception of its state of health has been coloured to a large extent by the weather. In that sense it was very far from a vintage season, but the ultimate success of Durham in the LV County Championship was highly satisfactory.
Primarily, of course, this was because the representatives of an area that has long been a hotbed of cricket lifted the biggest prize in the domestic game only 16 years after entering the Championship, but 126 after the foundation of Durham CCC itself, in 1882. It was pleasing, too, because the modern Durham is something of a paradigm: a successful business that puts cricket first, and has as its driving force the encouragement and development of young cricketers from the locality.
It was unjust that Kent should finally have become the last of the 18 counties to experience life in the second division from next season, because they won four games, two more than Sussex and Yorkshire and one more than Somerset. But the sale of one of their very own, the little pocket Hercules, Matthew Walker, was somehow symbolic of the way that they have got the balance wrong between the homegrown cricketers and the imports. Incredibly, too, the main local paper, the Kent Messenger, has told its chief cricket reporter, Mark Pennell, a man who has worked tirelessly and honourably to cover the game in the county, that he will not be on the circuit next year. Such foolish misreading of what its readers want says nothing for the judgment of those responsible.
If I had to choose the most enjoyable day's cricket I watched last summer, it would be either the first day of the cricket festival at Horsham in July, when the sun shone on a beautiful club ground as Sussex began the process of manoeuvring themselves into a position from which they would have beaten Somerset - Marcus Trescothick, Justin Langer, Andy Caddick, the underrated Peter Trego and all - only for rain to ruin the hard work in the end. Or the one a few weeks later, on another ground close to the game's heartbeat, at Basingstoke in north Hampshire, when it seemed that Durham were going to win, after the end of the second of two dramatic days, on rather too sporting a pitch for anyone's good. At the end of that day's play, on August 28, I informed readers of the Times that:
"Durham look probable county champions, borne on the swift wings of their fast bowlers. Mark Davies, their 27-year-old fast-medium bowler of growing repute, ensured a probably decisive first-innings lead of 60 with the best analysis in first-class cricket this season, a career-best 8 for 24. Having hit the stumps three times in his 21 balls in the morning, he was scarcely less dangerous on a pitch still seaming violently as Hampshire sought an improbable 241. Having no luck, they were 77 for 5 before Sean Ervine, Liam Dawson, and at last sunshine kept their flame flickering."
Hampshire, with five second-innings wickets in hand, needed 133 to beat Durham when the third day started, and that they got them led eventually to their finishing only 12 points behind the new champions. But Geoff Cook, the soul of Durham cricket since the old TCCB accepted them as the 18th first-class county, was impressively generous to the home side in defeat at Basingstoke, and level-headed about what was to follow. No doubt he would have liked to have had the services of Imran Tahir, the Pakistani legspinner who transformed Hampshire's season with his 44 wickets at 16 in the second half of the season and who should make them a potent force again next year.
Cook also knew, however, that the county had a hard core of locally developed fast bowlers in Davies (41 wickets at 14), Steve Harmison (65 at 22), his brother Ben, Graham Onions and Liam Plunkett (lucky, though, that Plunkett is to have retained such faith from the England selectors that he is again going to represent the Lions). Add Phil Mustard and Paul Collingwood (although, because he was chasing higher goals, Collingwood's influence this season was marginal), and there was the important regional heart of the team. Around it were the well-chosen additions such as the Australian swing bowler Callum Thorp, the astute captain Dale Benkenstein, his probable successor Will Smith (Durham University-educated), the inscrutable Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and the former New Zealand offspinner Paul Wiseman.
Imports from overseas and from other counties - Surrey, for example, have already made a sensible autumn signing in Michael Brown - will still be important in the next phase of county cricket, but it will be all to the good of the English game in the long run if success is seen to be based on the production of local players through a strong club system. Lancashire finally got the message late in the season, reaping the rewards that come from trusting locally produced talent. Glenn Chapple was the star in their late revival, his 42 wickets at 20 runs each demonstrating how important it was to have experienced professionals to guide the younger ones.
Lower down I am not convinced that in most counties, premier leagues are producing a sufficient number of good young cricketers for the county academies that now have the responsibility of nurturing tomorrow's professionals. But it is in these two areas of the production line that more of the ECB's profits from the international game need to be channelled.
Unfortunately the proposed increase to 20 Twenty20 matches per county in 2010 threatens the logic of such a system. Overseas players will come and go for inflated prices, absorbing too much of each county's relatively scant resources. An improved version of the Bradshaw/Stewart proposals for an English Premier League, short and spectacular but using grounds from all the counties, would have been a better way forward. Cook expressed his anxiety at the end of the season about the mental and physical demands that too much Twenty20 would make on players, and the possible erosion of basic skills. He is not alone. It is not too late for the ECB to heed the warning and to find a better balance.