On one hand the County Championship reached an exciting climax and players say it is getting tougher. On the other there are growing grumbles that matches are dull and spectators are ignored. Paul Weaver goes in search of the truth.
Cruel summer: spectators have been left out in the cold in more ways than one this English season
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This has been the Blade Runner cricket season - if you recall Ridley Scott's bleak, dystopian vision of a Los Angeles in which the rain never ceased to fall. The County Championship, which is still the domestic game's most coveted title, achieved a proper climax in September. But the damp and disjointed nature of the summer also got people wondering about how much entertainment was being offered to spectators.
In rain-abridged matches captains appeared to have lost the ability - so necessary in the days of three-day cricket - to move the game forward with declarations. In the first division, where the pitches are generally better, captains know that draws, together with a strong hand of bonus points, can spell survival at the end of the season.
When Gloucestershire played Nottinghamshire there was brilliant sunshine but hardly any play on the last day. Matches starting on a Wednesday were often virtually over before the working population could watch them on a Saturday. Short-term signings, whether overseas players, Kolpaks or loan players, continued apace, further eroding old loyalties and identities. By the end of August, 124 players who learned the game abroad had appeared in the county game in the course of the season.
When rain stopped play for virtually the second half of the season at New Road, and Worcestershire matches were moved to Kidderminster, there were no signs in the town pointing the way to the Chester Road ground.
And bottom of the priority list have been the spectators, who have been ignored to the very edge of contempt. Joke bowlers have been employed to scurry through their overs to pep up the rate and reach the unrealistic target of 104 a day. At Edgbaston in June the scoreboard showed players how many overs their side were behind, at the expense of showing spectators the score.
The ECB comes close to admitting that the Championship is not played for the benefit of customers but for the development of potential Test players. John Perera, the ECB's commercial director, admits that the costs of the competition are not covered by Liverpool Victoria's sponsorship (worth £1.2m over four years until the end of 2009) but adds: "There are other cricket reasons for the Championship, such as developing Test players. What price can you put on that?"
But what is the cost to the spectator? Paul Sheldon, Surrey's chief executive, admits: "I don't think Championship crowds in general get what they deserve, and certainly communication is not very good." On the plus side, Sheldon points to Surrey's successful festival weeks at Guildford and Whitgift School.
His engaging counterpart at Glamorgan, Mike Fatkin, is more upbeat: "There is only one thing missing - that big yellow thing in the sky." And others argue that the standard of cricket in the first division is higher than it has been for years.
To discover the true state of the Championship we talked to a cross-section of those involved in it.
Chris Adams (Sussex)
When I came into the game 20 years ago I was in awe of some of the players, not only the West Indian fast bowlers - and every county seemed to have one - but also English legends like Graham Gooch. There was greater variety in the pitches. And, because it was three-day cricket, there was always something happening. But the cricket being played now, in Division One, is the best we've had for 15 years. We played a terrific game at Liverpool recently, where Lancashire had Brad Hodge, Stuart Law, Freddie Flintoff, Sajid Mahmood, Dominic Cork, Glen Chapple and [Muttiah] Muralitharan.
Some scheduling is just nonsense ... we played or travelled every day for a fortnight
I went to watch the Friends Provident final and it was great to see young English batsmen play Shane Warne so well. There were sweep shots, slog-sweep shots, reverse slog-sweep shots. New shots. Today, the pitches are more even. Practice facilities are better too. I sit on an ECB advisory panel and work closely with the Professional Cricketers' Association and there is a great desire among players to make the Championship as much like Test cricket as possible. I'm sure it would improve the quality of cricket to reduce the number of overs in a day to 96, with the chance to make up time as in Tests.
The quality will not be quite so intense next year, with one overseas player. I'm happy with quality overseas and Kolpak players. Glamorgan have gone the homegrown talent route but they're not producing England players or a successful product for their membership.
But I don't see the point of Kolpaks like Yorkshire's Jacques Rudolph because he will be on the first plane back to South Africa if they pick him. All counties should play eight England-qualified players and the ECB should challenge people to challenge them legally.
Steve and Mary Gallivan (Middlesex members)
Mary and I have divergent views. Mary thinks that the introduction of the four-day game hasn't really improved the quality, while as paying supporters we get less opportunity to watch the game. I think there are fewer occasions in which contrived targets are arranged and thus I regard the four-day game as "proper cricket". I prefer to see such cricket rather than some of the nonsense that was previously the case.
Information at grounds is appalling. If it's raining or been raining, no one has a clue what's going on. Facilities are not great - and Lord's is our home ground. You have to drink Foster's or Foster's. If you want traditional beer, sandwiches and Pimm's you have to bring your own.
The quality of welcome is variable. Lord's is iffy, The Oval is awful, while Cardiff is good and Hove a pure delight. There is a special promotion at some grounds where if you pay for the first three days you get the fourth free.
When we went to Hove on the fourth day, clutching our tickets for the previous three days, they explained that we had to buy the deal up front. But they still let us in without charge and with a big smile. We'll be back.
David Harker (Durham)
If you add up the costs, players' salaries, travel and hotels, we lose money on Championship cricket. Counties with very large memberships might make a few quid but most of us struggle. The two main sources of income are the money you get from the ECB, which is about £1.3m, and then the membership, which takes most counties to £1.5, £1.6 or maybe even £1.7.
It is difficult to make the County Championship more accessible to the public without getting into evenings and weekends
But most counties pay salaries in excess of £1m, so there is not much to play with. It will never be a lucrative competition. But it is the ultimate test of a county cricket team, and in terms of producing England players it is the one that matters. In terms of the quality of players and the toughness of matches I would say the game is as hard as it's ever been, certainly in the first division.
The drive against overseas players is counter-productive because in the absence of England contracted players it weakens the competition. It is difficult to make the County Championship more accessible to the public without getting into evenings and weekends and I'm not sure whether there is anything more we can do there.
I think the game would be more attractive if there were fewer points for a draw. In the first division teams stack up the batting to put defeat beyond possibility, so there is something that can be tinkered with there.
Martyn Moxon (Yorkshire)
The quality of the cricket in the first division in the last couple of years has been tough, more so than a few years ago. But it's very tough for players, physically and mentally.
Martyn Moxon: "We need a template which allows players to prepare, play and recover before preparing again"
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We can improve the product further and the best way to do that is to have a template which allows players to prepare, play and recover before preparing again. The other week we played Middlesex in a day-night game on Wednesday and on Thursday morning we were playing Lancashire in a Championship game. That can't be right. Some of the scheduling is just nonsense. We recently had a fortnight in which were travelling or playing every day. How can young players like Tim Bresnan or Adil Rashid, who is on the fringe of the England side, go through non-stop travel and cricket without getting injured or fatigued?
It would be better for players and spectators if players were fresh for each game. I also think we should play cricket in blocks, so we've got a four-day block, a one-day block and then another four-day block. If we made it more symmetrical it would be better for the players and easier for spectators to follow.
There are too many bonus points available. I favour the Aussie route, with points awarded for a first-innings lead.
Mark Baldwin (The Times)
Standards are definitely rising in the Championship's first division. Whether they are from the middle of the second division downwards is another matter.
The two-up two-down system - as opposed to the original three-up three-down - will make this distinction even more marked. In effect a different type of two-tier Championship will evolve (very soon as I see it) featuring a top 12 or 13 and an "also-ran" bottom five. Sadly, in my view, counties like Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire will now struggle ever to be first-division clubs.
That is why Stuart Broad, for instance, left Leicestershire for Nottinghamshire. Of the clubs currently at the wrong end of the second division, only Glamorgan seem to me to have the population base and infrastructure to "do a Durham" and build themselves a lasting presence on the top table.
In terms of entertainment, sides in the second division are generally more adventurous, whereas fear of relegation has induced ultra-conservatism among first division captains
In terms of entertainment, sides in the second division are generally more adventurous, whereas fear of relegation has induced ultra-conservatism among first division captains (Shane Warne excepted).
I have reservations about the move from two to one overseas player per county. One of the reasons that standards have generally improved is the presence of two overseas players (plus two or three Kolpaks in most cases). Perhaps a limit of four players not qualified for England should be imposed or agreed. But overall I would like current levels of performance to be maintained so that young English talent can be better prepared for the international arena.
It is no coincidence that significant numbers of high-quality young players (Alastair Cook, Monty Panesar, Ravi Bopara, Stuart Broad, Ian Bell, Rashid, Phil Mustard, Billy Godleman, Luke Wright, Joe Denly, James Harris) have emerged in recent seasons.
David Leatherdale (Worcestershire)
Personally I would like to see greater emphasis placed on winning games. They've done stuff in league cricket to reduce the number of draws. It used to be 16 points for a win with a maximum of eight bonus points. Maybe we should go back to that. When Warwickshire won the Championship a couple of years ago they did so by winning only four games and picking up a lot of bonus points.
We don't want to see 700 plays 700 games because that's no good. It can be boring when sides play for a draw, which they are more likely to do in the first division where pitches are also better. For that reason I'm doubtful about the suggestion of points for a first-innings lead because people might say "Sod the game" provided they get a first-innings lead.
But it's difficult to look at the four-day game in isolation. We've had Championship cricket starting on all sorts of days because we've had to squeeze other competitions in. We're a strong membership club and we get really good support for Championship cricket. This season we have had over 2000 people in on some weekdays. Other grounds would struggle to get a few hundred.
This article was first published in the October issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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