Beaten by the weather

Hampshire 341and 16-0 Gloucestershire 266-9 dec
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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY the Independent produced an intriguing county cricket table, which revealed that only three of the 18 first-class counties had not been involved in a match finishing within three days this season. Hampshire - who, when play finally began here at 5.50pm yesterday after rain in their game against Gloucestershire, managed to reach 16 without loss in seven overs before the clouds again halted proceedings - have not yet reached the scheduled fourth day in six Championship matches. They will now.

What does this mean for the future of four-day cricket? The Championship's fiercest critics claim that the early finishes merely confirm the low technical standard of today's professionals: many of them are simply not capable of carrying a match beyond three days.

There are almost certainly subtler reasons for sudden-death finishes like the one at Luton on Friday, when Northamptonshire beat Essex. The weather has been unusual, even by traditionally erratic English standards - a very wet winter followed by a hot dry spell, followed by heavy rain and then cold days under grey cloud. All this has arrived at a time when groundsmen everywhere thought they had just come to terms with preparing their squares for the third year of four-day matches. The result has been quirky surfaces almost everywhere, not least at Headingley, where England found themselves playing on a pitch of unusual pace and bounce. And where the pitch has behaved normally, as at Luton, freak atmospheric conditions have given swingers a glimpse of nirvana.

A first-class umpire indicated another reason when he said last week: "No one seems to want to graft it out any more. If they get behind, and the ball starts to seam, or swing or turn, they give it away. There are no points for a draw." Certainly there is evidence that English tail-enders no longer seem prepared just to hang around. They all appear to want to play shots, even when survival alone would be a prize.

Players like Darren Gough, Peter Martin and Richard Illingworth are able to block out all but the best bowlers, yet they batted against West Indies as if their highest ambition was to win a cheer from the Western Terrace.

The Test and County Cricket Board, or the nascent English Cricket Board, is to look at the whole Championship structure. Two proposals seem certain to be considered: the abolition of bonus batting points, which can be fairly meaningless when a team bats first on a flat pitch; and the restoration of points for a draw giving back some merit and honour to the idea of resistance to the last man.

For the English are nothing if they are not the most bloody-minded and best last-ditchers in the world.