Cricket: All change, but is it for the better?

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IT MUST be my age - 30 later this year - but many people have been trotting out the old saw to me recently: "Watch out, your playing days go quickly, enjoy them while you can." It hasn't become an old saw for nothing. It is 12 years now since I started county cricket, turning up at Lord's for a quick stretch with the likes of Downton, Emburey, Edmonds, Daniel, Cowans, Butcher and, of course, the captain, Gatting.

That was a great team with an abundance of international experience. Like most counties, back then the pre-season training started on 1 April (not an omen I hope) with a week of nets outside on good surfaces at Lord's. With a couple of friendly matches we were ready to go.

I was reminiscing about this while running up the hills at Alexandra Palace in north London during the Middlesex pre-season training. My, how things have changed dramatically since the good old days. For the first time we have been contracted for seven months, with March totally devoted to preparation.

All Middlesex players were actually given personalised fitness programmes for the winter, so we could hit March running. And run we did. Based at our indoor school in Finchley we enjoyed/endured a variety of activities: circuits, basketball, aerobics, fielding drills and the odd net. This culminated in the piece de resistance, a week's trip to Portugal for some solid outdoor practice.

So what of the vital new season? At its end the County Championship will be divided into two divisions for the first time. The England and Wales Cricket Board say more competitive and interesting cricket will be produced by the new structure.

While most professionals favour the new system, there are questions. Let us take pitches. Last year many games lasted two and a half days - not a good advertisement for four-day cricket. The umpires say early finishes are mainly caused by poor playing techniques, and in some cases I agree.

However, the Teletext is switched on in the dressing-room to discover that 15 or more wickets have gone down at the end of the first day too often for that to be the whole answer. It is just too easy to prepare a damp green top for medium pacers to swing and seam the ball around.

In today's climate, and even in cricket, sponsors want winners. The pressure is on to get results, and the points deduction system for poor surfaces does not seem to be a deterrent.

But what of learning how to play an innings, or of spinners bowling long spells? A proposal has been put forward to have roving pitch inspectors keeping a random eye on preparation so that ECB guidelines are adhered to. My own opinion, which does not appear to be particularly popular, is that the ECB should consider employing groundsmen centrally. This would ensure the best surface for a fair contest between bat and ball, and take pressure off groundsmen to doctor the pitch. This method is partly in place at Lord's, where Middlesex play on what they are given by an independent groundsman. Let us hope the spirit of the game is upheld this year when teams are fighting it out for promotion and relegation.

From a player's perspective it is only natural that we all want to play in the top division. I wonder whether in time players will sign only one- year contracts or have a get-out clause, as in football, if their team are relegated. The benefit system may prevent this movement but what are a player's prospects of playing for England in Division Two? Surely, selectors will be looking at who scores runs and takes wickets in the top division.

The new structure could well have long-term consequences for some counties. If the ECB reduce their handout money (at present 60 per cent of Middlesex's income) it will be well and truly survival of the fittest. Not necessarily a bad thing perhaps. I believe there are too many first-class teams.

This season sees the first Super Cup played on a knockout basis. To qualify for this reward of a one-day 50-over competition a team must, in the previous season, finish in the top eight of the four-day Championship. Bizarre is a word that comes to mind. And the last four teams in the Championship get a slap on the wrist by being denied Minor Counties opposition at the first stage in the NatWest Trophy - yup, you guessed, a one-day tournament.

I learned a lot on England's tour of Australia. Although happy to be fairly consistent I know a top-order batter must always look to go on once in. Doubtless, that is what I shall be hearing from Justin Langer once he returns from the West Indies. He is a top player and an excellent example.

Langer represents all that is good about overseas players, although we did not see eye to eye about last year's coach at Middlesex, John Buchanan. Looking back, John came over trying to make the county a replica of Queensland, where he had enjoyed great success, overnight. I think this was naive and unrealistic. To try to change what had been an extremely successful club in so short a time was throwing the baby out with the bath water. It was more logical to modernise gradually.

With the appointment of Gatting and Ian Gould as coaches the young players will now have the technical expertise and firm guidance missing last year. Of course, our inexperienced seam attack will miss Gus Fraser during the World Cup at least. But I'm predicting a few turners for my old mate Phil Tufnell in his well-deserved benefit season. It's the Year of the Cat.