Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2006

Notes from the cesspool

Robin Martin-Jenkins

'More and more players I've talked to believe that, if we do play too much, it is only by a smidgin' © Getty Images

The departing Surrey coach, Steve Rixon, described a "good percentage" of county cricket as being a "cesspool of mediocrity". When I read this quote out to the Sussex dressing-room one morning it caused a bit of a rumpus, from which came the general retort that it must have been grapes of the unripened variety talking. The overwhelming view among those that played county cricket in 2005 is that the game is in a very healthy state, thank you very much, Steve.

Actually, Rixon's quote doesn't sound so acerbic when put into context with his other comments. He was clearly frustrated with two things: inertia at his own county, and the amount of cricket played. The former grievance is something Surrey may have to sort out, but the other is one of the oldest chestnuts on county cricket's tree. There have always been calls by both past and present players to reduce the amount of county cricket played. Too many injuries, they said. Not enough time to practise between games to iron out faulty techniques, they said. But this year, for the first time, despite Steve Rixon, I detected these voices getting softer. More and more players I've talked to believe that, if we do play too much, it is only by a smidgin.

As county cricketers' salaries have increased to more acceptable levels, so too has the realisation that we must fulfil our obligation to the entertainment side of our industry. Sure, it would be good to be able to practise more, but playing competitive games in front of crowds should be what makes us tick. The animation amongst the players surrounding the fortnight of Twenty20 cricket bears testament to this.

Furthermore, whilst the best English players are now protected from overuse injuries by the central-contract system, the rest of us are being monitored by an ever increasing circle of health and technique experts. Just at Sussex in 2005 we alone employed a host of cricket coaches (including a specialist fielding coach), two physiotherapists, a strength and conditioning coach, a masseur, and a video analyst who ensured that every twist and turn of sinew could be monitored by the others. Long gone are the days when the team climbed on to the bus for an away trip followed by just the coach and physio, clasping a 24-pack of lager.

If the players became enthused by all this "professionalism" in 2005, then so too were they inspired by the Ashes series. It was the talk of every dressing-room. The public had new heroes in "Freddie" and "KP". We nodded knowingly to each other - we'd all been on the receiving end of their freakish talents for years. On the final morning of the Edgbaston Test, Sussex even interrupted a warm-up (usually a sacrosanct time) to watch the closing moments of theatre.

'Pitches seem to have become deader too. A lot of ancient county squares need the Shake 'n' Vac treatment to bring the freshness back' © Martin Williamson

Then we'd watch Simon Jones bowl brilliant reverse swing. Again, we'd mutter about how this phenomenon, creeping into the county game for the last few summers, this year became the preferred weapon of choice round the circuit. Jason Lewry has been one of Sussex's premier fast bowlers of the last decade. He used to bowl big bananary inswingers that would have Ray Julian and other out-minded umpires drooling with anticipation. This year Jason reckons he took five of his 48 first-class wickets with conventional swing and the rest with reverse; he was eighth in the averages too.

The reason? The balls. They just don't make 'em like they used to. The consensus is that Duke balls stopped swinging conventionally three years ago; they tried to standardise the manufacturing process, and subtle aspects must have changed. Either that or the El Niño effect is more mysterious than first thought.

Pitches seem to have become deader too. A lot of ancient county squares need the Shake 'n' Vac treatment to bring the freshness back. A dead pitch and a non-swinging ball. Counties have found two solutions to the problems - get a bowler who can do reverse swing, or find one who can spin it two feet; preferably both ways. The overseas mystery spinner has replaced the big bruising fast bowler of yesteryear in the county game.

For Sylvester Clarke, Wayne Daniel, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner, read Mushtaq Ahmed, Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne and Harbhajan Singh. Old players in pubs talk of the horror of facing Clarke on a wet wicket, and of the broken bones they had to show for it. Find me in ten years time and I'll tell you about trying to read Muralitharan's doosra on an Old Trafford turner. My bones might have remained intact but my ego was certainly broken.

Whether England's success in the Ashes, and the fervour it created, will translate into bigger gate receipts at county cricket remains to be seen. The Sussex players were mildly surprised, but delighted, when a totesport League match against Surrey just after the Trent Bridge Test pulled in a huge crowd.

There were kids and pensioners, of course, that Wednesday afternoon. But there were plenty of in-betweens too: the kind of people the county game must attract. I wonder if the spectators who saw Mushtaq Ahmed bowling his wonderful array of leg-breaks and googlies that day thought they were watching a cesspool of mediocrity, or something much sweeter.

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