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Comment

County game has much to consider as early-season Championship dishes up thin gruel

2022 season has been defined by slow pitches, faulty balls and only sporadic entertainment

David Hopps
David Hopps
24-May-2022
Darren Stevens bowls his first ball of the season for Kent, Essex vs Kent, County Championship, 1st day, Chelmsford, April 7, 2022

Darren Stevens has four wickets at 92.75 this season  •  Andrew Miller

Lie back and think of England, a phrase first attributed to the advice of prudish Victorian mothers to their soon-to-be-married daughters, might easily have been adopted by the poor, put-upon spectators of the LV= County Championship as the competition reached the end of its first phase.
Flatter pitches are widely justified as essential to the rehabilitation of England's failing Test side, and with some sound reasons, but the Championship has always had two functions - not just to produce Test cricketers, but to be entertainment in its own right. That entertainment has been sporadic, better in some counties than others. While coaches have understandably praised their charges for admirable dedication and discipline, what spectators remain have sometimes struggled to find delight.
Spectators are all for England batters learning to concentrate, but few see why they also have to learn stoicism in return - especially when it is too cold to just do the crossword and soak up the sun.
Four-day Championship cricket, of course, is understood to be another world. Outside Headingley, around 5pm on Saturday, a typically hedonistic weekend was in full swing. Inside the gates, Will Rhodes and Sam Hain, were dutifully saving the game for Warwickshire with a stand of extreme self-denial that began at barely one run an over and then stoutly added a wicketless Sunday, centuries for both and a stand of 227 in 104 overs. The different mindsets on either side of the Headingley walls were quite something, a game out of kilter with the society in which it must find a future. It cannot afford any false steps.
Just as the counties' ever-improving live streams are making the game more accessible than ever, too many games have died a death. Half the matches in Division One have been drawn (Yorkshire and Warwickshire have drawn nine out of 12 between them) and many such stalemates have been laboriously signalled hours, sometimes days, in advance. It is no way to persuade new converts that the four-day game is worth preserving and no way to protect what little coverage remains in the mainstream media.
Six matches in seven weeks (seven in seven for Durham and Leicestershire), each of them almost the equivalent of a Test match in terms of overs, have allowed bowlers no let-up. They are being asked for both intensity and endurance. Some have been up to the challenge and their penetration in difficult circumstances has identified them as England prospects as a result, Durham's Matthew Potts, with 35 wickets at 18.57, among them.
Meanwhile, county stalwarts such as the 46-year-old Darren Stevens, who was understandably piqued last year to find himself presented as an example of what is wrong with the professional game in England, has found life rather harder going. Many will argue that, however much Stevens' longevity deserves colossal respect, the shift has been long overdue.
An average first-innings score over 55 matches of slightly more than 350 also sounds about right. But there have been too many times over the first seven weeks of the season when the progress of the game has slowed rather than quickened and tedium has been the end result. The perfect scenario - help for the seamers on the first day, the best batting conditions on the second and third, with spinners coming to the fore on the final day - has been a rarity.
Too many pitches are not wearing and when they do there is a terrible dearth of quality spin bowlers to take advantage. Somerset's Jack Leach, Notts' slow left-armer, Liam Patterson-White and Lancashire's leggie, Matt Parkinson, are the only regular English spin bowlers to have taken their wickets this season at an average below 30. Surrey haven't even picked Amar Virdi yet and he is potentially one of the best young spin bowlers in the country. As they are top of the table, it is not easy to question their decision - but Virdi needs to be bowling.
If better batting surfaces persist then there will be no magical appearance of spin bowling overnight as a consequence, especially if so many matches are packed into April and coaches do not adjust their selection thinking: Lancashire left out Parkinson at the Ageas Bowl in favour of five right-arm seamers. It will take at least five years' concerted efforts, maybe 10, to bring about change. Along with spin bowlers, English cricket also hankers after fast bowlers capable of bowling at speeds above 90mph (145kph), but they have always been a rare commodity and will remain even more so as long as development pathways remain damagingly narrow.
The season has been dominated instead by bowlers of traditional virtues, struggling to keep body and soul together while seeking limited seam and swing at 80mph (130kph). In the meantime, can county cricket withstand the pain? And with English cricket in another power struggle, with the future structure of professional cricket under review (again), there is scant encouragement anyway for counties, or indeed ambitious young players, to make long-term plans.
While bowlers are being found out in more exacting conditions, by the same token, hundreds have become devalued, too many made in sedate fashion against moderate and weary attacks. As many as 32 players average more than 60 as the first stage of the season comes to a close, compared to only six when the 2021 season came to an end. Tot up the number of absent pace bowlers from an average round of Championship matches and the figure can exceed more than 30 as injuries, IPL opportunities and England withdrawals take their toll. English cricket, as so often, has swung from one extreme to the other.
Fast bowling, in any case, appears to be more of an occupational hazard than ever before. For all the medical analysis, all the individually-designed programmes, all the gym work, all the well-meaning protection of young bowlers as they grow, we live in an age of inactive lifestyles. Rarely can quick bowlers put in the sort of bowling shifts of 85-90% intensity that can allow their bodies to strengthen. In short-form cricket especially, 100% intensity is demanded all the time. Many of the county bowlers with the best injury records, those who have allowed a responsive pitch to do the work, now face conditions that are alien to them.
Another problem with the ECB's lobbying for pitches to be shaved lower, and to possess less moisture content, is that such instructions have come with many other variables. Any scientist will tell you that the best experiments test for one variable at a time with everything else constant. But this county season has several variables in play - and they have all increased the likelihood of drawn games.
So much Championship cricket in April and early May condemns the Championship to slow pitches. The sort of pace the ECB hankers after is hard enough to produce in England in midsummer and almost impossible to find in early spring which has led groundstaff in the past to zest up their surfaces with greener pitches.
Squares are under heavy pressure in terms of usage as the Hundred and the rise of women's cricket increases demand. With most outgrounds abandoned long ago for reasons of cost and convenience, finding faster, fresher, turning surfaces is not an easy task. Rob Key, the MD of England men's cricket, has wondered aloud whether improved outfield drainage, which has been massively successful in reducing rain-affected games, has had a detrimental effect on the pace and bounce of pitches. Another variable to consider.
Then there is the performance in 2022 of the Dukes ball. Perhaps the biggest influence of all. Bowlers have complained the balls have been going softer quicker, they have repeatedly had to be changed for going out of shape, and the seams have been less prominent. They have found swing harder to come by. although that might also be partially explained by a cold and dry Spring. New-ball wickets have always been important, but rarely to this extent. .
It took five rounds of matches for Dilip Jajodia, the owner of British Cricket Balls Ltd, to concede that the company had suffered Covid-disrupted production lines, and six rounds for the counties to receive fresh stocks. It should have happened quicker. Stuart Broad joined up with England complaining that it had been like "bowling with Plasticine".
Last week, the ball appeared to swing more at some grounds, the first two days at Headingley for one, but then the weather was more unsettled, so perhaps it would have done anyway. But it was another variable to consider.
And we must not overlook that old favourite - the debate over the regulations surrounding the heavy roller. Its use is intended to help replicate conditions found in international cricket, but the pitches are dry and there are few dents to flatten. When combined with the lack of pace in most county surfaces, it results, all too often, in colourless, attritional cricket that rewards patience more than skill. If drier, shaven pitches are the future, then the heavy-roller regulations need changing.
Ottis Gibson, Yorkshire's coach, knows he is supervising one of the weaker seam attacks in Division One, but after four draws from winning positions at the start of the final day, he recognised that demoralisation was creeping in. "The first two innings the ball did a bit, but maybe it was the four heavy rollers - two per innings - which then deadened the pitch," he said.
Finally, the biggest bugbear of all: eight points for a draw. English football introduced three points for a win, rather than two, as long ago as 1981 to shift the balance against negative football; English professional cricket has increased draw points to 50%, enough to avoid relegation without winning a single game.
County cricket, in recent years, has been a game of survival. Players, especially captains, have had little need for ambition or imagination. Just hang in there and the game will naturally take its course. For the moment, the batters are dipping their bread. But bread and dripping is no sort of diet.
"A balance between bat and ball". It is what everybody wants. It appears to be notoriously hard to achieve it and constant meddling makes it harder still. Not for the first time, the county game has a lot to consider. And the game, lest people forget, is the thing.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps