Cricket: A flicker of fading glories

County Championship: As an old friend heads for the sunset, the fears remain for the new dawn
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The Independent Online
Sometime late tomorrow morning, in a low-key announcement from Lord's, the new sponsors of the County Championship will be revealed. There will be no official launch, no party, no conference. The occasion will have the razzmatazz of a pauper's funeral.

In a way, that is precisely what it is. The Championship, as it has been constituted since 1890, is being killed off. The England and Wales Cricket Board (who held their own convivial pre-season gathering last week) can only accede to the wishes of whichever national company is providing the money, and perhaps the organisation concerned is anxious to avoid the publicity which might find it being convicted of murder by association.

The Championship remains the most prestigious of all the domestic competitions, but somehow it has become the poor relation. It is the peer who dwells in a stately pile but is broke. It has kudos, but no glamour. These may be unfair perceptions but low attendances and sadly diminishing interest, not least in many tiers of the media, have heightened them.

There must be some reason that it has taken until the day before the competition starts to be certain that it has some commercial support. The ECB themselves always seem to have other matters on their minds, except the dear old Championship. These are usually concerned with the significance of the England team to the health of the game at large, but without the Championship there would be no England team. It needs more coverage everywhere. Few are prepared to give it because few are prepared to promote it.

From next year, in an attempt at revitalisation, if not rebirth, the oldest of all cricketing competitions - it was initially contested less formally in 1864 - will be played for the first time in two divisions. This revolutionary change is not being claimed, thankfully, as a panacea, but it is confidently expected to broaden appeal. The novelty of promotion and relegation alone should ensure that. Yet only now, at the point of no return, is the long-term wisdom of the alteration to the structure being questioned. It would seem obvious that players will wish to gravitate to those counties in the first division. As Mark Ramprakash suggests opposite, there may be a reluctance among players to stay with relegated clubs for the simple reason that if there is a difference in standards between the divisions (and if there isn't then there is no point) the selectors are bound to look at the top tier.

There is also the poser, albeit mischievous, of whether second-division runs and wickets should be first-class, or as first-class as the first division. The distinction may have to be made one day. There will definitely be a tendency among all clubs to tempt players with money (which in most cases they probably do not have), and the richer ones will win in the end.

Then there are the recent large movements of the counties from season to season. A glimpse at the tables of the past 10 years confirms this. On four occasions the reigning champions have finished in the bottom half of the table the following summer. In all but one year at least three teams in the top half have been in the bottom half the next year. Last year, probably unprecedentedly but with magnificent timing, the top four teams from 1997 finished 12th, 11th, 13th and 17th respectively.

Thus, had two divisions been introduced then as was originally hoped, Glamorgan, Kent, Worcestershire and Middlesex would now be lining up in the second. As it is, that fate could easily await some of them in 2000. If such fluctuations are not addressed in the new format by player movement, then expect regular turnrounds in divisions.

At the heart of the two-division plan change is a desire to try to raise standards, as if the Championship had only become soft recently. Do not believe it. It might have been hard when it started in 1890 and there were only eight teams, but by the time there were 16 in 1905 and 17 in 1921 there were regular whipping boys. Northamptonshire, Glamorgan, Derbyshire, Worcestershire and Leicestershire could usually be relied to finish in the positions ending in "teenth". In that respect, therefore, it has actually improved.

It can be pretty dreadful fare. Too often the suspicion is prevalent that the players are not helping themselves. Somehow the balance is rarely achieved between the need to entertain by playing attacking innings and the need to consolidate by playing long ones. Mediocre bowlers are encouraged on sub-standard pitches.

But for the past three seasons it has gone to the final match, and in the past two to the final day. That might not happen this year but there is certain to be joy and heartbreak as the competition reaches its climax on 18 September with promotion and relegation being decided. A solitary point separated Somerset and Derbyshire in 1998 and they were ninth and tenth. It was the difference between a first-division side and a second- division side.

Some sides may still choose to concentrate their effort on the one-day competitions (Gloucestershire have hired a one-day specialist as their overseas player) and if it brings in the fans so be it. But they may pay in time. One county, particularly, however, appears to have constructed a deliberate policy aimed at winning the Championship.

Time was when it belonged to Yorkshire almost as of right. Between 1893 and 1968, a span of 75 years, they won it 29 times, more than a third. They probably were not counting because only first counted to them but they finished second another 12 times, third another 11.

Unfortunately, it was time that caught that up with them. Only since they chose to enter the 20th century in its last quarter have they begun to compete again, still with some of the old-fashioned virtues. It would be fitting as the County Championship reinvents itself if Yorkshire restored the old order at the last.

A NEW LOOK TO THE CRICKET SEASON

County Championship: All 18 counties will play each other once in the final season of the competition in its existing format. The top nine teams will form the first division, the bottom nine the second. Points for a win have been reduced from 16 to 12 and points for a draw increased from three to four. No sponsor has yet been announced.

NatWest Trophy: Sixty teams will compete this year - the first-class counties, who are all exempt till the third round, teams from all 38 regional county boards and Denmark, Holland, Scotland and Ireland. For the first time matches will be of 50 overs a side, not 60. It starts earlier than usual, on 4 May, and the final is on 29 August.

CGU National League: This two-division competition replaces the Sunday League and matches will be 45 overs a side. Three go up, three go down, there are free hits for no-balls, nicknames for the sides, numbers on shirts and 20 floodlit matches.

Benson & Hedges Super Cup: The top eight teams from last season's Championship will participate in a 50-over knockout cup with the final at Lord's on 1 August.

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