Cricket: Championship in need of structural change: Glenn Moore gauges the impact of four-day cricket in the county game

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The Independent Online
WITH both international teams overseas, the Australians no doubt indulging in some R'n'R in Dublin and England, in the Netherlands, trying to avoid being cast as 'tulip heads' by the tabloids, this weekend is a rare opportunity for the county game to take precedence.

Taking top billing was yesterday's domestic final in the capital, but for those players enjoying a rare Saturday off watching it on television, it is the daily repertory in the provinces that will have occupied their minds.

This is the stage of the summer when the rest of the season offers either the promise of glorious success or the prospect of anonymous endurance. The latter is already the case for Durham and Gloucestershire and the more powerful trio of Essex, Nottinghamshire and Hampshire are in a position where retaining an interest in the Championship - their only remaining hope - requires a string of victories.

While the one-day cups are something of a lottery, the new format is clearly having an impact in the leagues. In the Championship, the policy of basing a challenge on the practice of batting second and chasing targets is no longer viable. On Sundays, the longer game is having the undesired effect of reducing the number of last-ball finishes, with a number of games effectively over by mid-afternoon.

While further revision may be needed for Sundays, four-day cricket is shaping up as a success. Even those counties coming off worse are aware of the benefits. Mark Alleyne, of Gloucestershire, who have lost six of their eight games, said: 'In three-day cricket we might have scraped a draw in some of those matches - at least that is nice to know for when we do start playing well.'

His team-mate, Mark Davis, is one of those players four-day cricket is designed to benefit. A young left-arm spinner, he has bowled 328 overs in the Championship, which is 60 more than at the same stage last year despite Gloucestershire's struggle to make teams bat twice.

'Spinners are bowling longer spells as sides are batting longer,' said the 24-year-old, who bowled 54 overs in Hampshire's first innings last week. 'As the season goes on and a few hosepipe bans come in we should get even more, especially on the last day when the pitch wears.

'It should also mean better cricket. Everyone is sick of declaration bowling. Some games are slow at present but sides are still learning how to win four-day games. As the season progresses there should be less teams attempting to block to 400 and more playing positively like Kent, looking to score quickly and put the opposition under pressure.'

That should be some consolation to those disgruntled members who dream of distant summers when 20- overs-an-hour was the norm and there was always a match going on. The problem is, who is cricket for? Spectators or players, the counties or the country?

Four-day cricket is primarily designed to produce better players for the national side. Ossie Wheatley, chairman of the England cricket committee and a prime mover behind the change, said: 'I think it is more difficult to hide poor cricketers in four-day cricket than it was in three-day cricket. You had a lot of bits and pieces players who played a part but were never exposed.'

However, expanding the number of teams in the Championship has, for the time being, made it weaker. The worst thing that can happen to a county is having their match with Durham rained off. It must be difficult for Durham supporters, meanwhile, to summon up enthusiasm for a season that reached the fag end almost as soon as it was lit.

Assuming Derbyshire overcome their financial problems, 18 counties will remain. As Wheatley said: 'It is a structure we are never going to change because no one is going to volunteer to drop out or amalgamate. It is a problem general to British sport - there are also too many football clubs. This is our historical structure, it is our task to make the thing work as effectively as possible.'

A radical attempt to concentrate quality and give the moderate sides an interest outside one- day cricket would involve two divisions and promotion and relegation. With the current format it would have to apply to both competitions together - if some teams were in the First Division of the Championship and the Second Divison of the Sunday League, the motorways would again be clogged with sponsored cars at the weekends.

It would not necessarily mean the big clubs getting bigger. Wimbledon prove that in football. In cricket, Essex have done far better than Lancashire and Yorkshire in the Championship in recent years.

Few counties make much on gate money anyway - they are kept afloat by hand-outs from Test cricket - while in football the problem is that the Premier League clubs attract all the cash because it is provided by television. It is hard to see anyone wanting to cover a season of Championship cricket.

Interest would be sustained for much longer for most counties and the prospect of say, the Roses teams meeting in a relegation 48- pointer in late August might earn the the Championship some rare attention.

For the time being, it remains the forgotten relative. Obligatory visits are made by supporters and the media alike but people only really get interested when the end is near, to see where the cash will go. For all Australia's crowing about the strength of their domestic cricket, the Sheffield Shield is played out in a vacuum. Making the Championship more competitive might revive the quality of both players and the game.