Cricket Commentary: Profit not the only motive

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The Independent Online
One of the more baffling aspects of any England-Australia contest over the past 10 years is that the country where cricket is fully professional, England, is so often made to look amateur by the country where cricket is still mainly semi-professional.

Only the very best make a living from the game Down Under, and judging by results you would have to say that is to their advantage and England's disadvantage. Many English players are obliged to find odd jobs in the winter but by and large - and with a benefit season to look forward to - there is not the same pressure on them to excel if they want to spend all summer playing cricket.

There are fewer first-class teams in Australia for a start, and far fewer first-class matches. The whole system is much leaner, which is healthy, but it is meaner, too. In an ever-more competitive and commercially-driven environment, our County Championship is an anachronism - but then, it could be argued, so is our National Health Service.

At the moment England is a haven for full-time cricketers, which should be something to be proud of. It would be a pity if the County Championship - the envy of the cricket-playing world - were to fall prey to the kind of mentality that demands profit from public services.

The argument goes that until we have a more competitive, streamlined Championship we will continue to lose at Test level. And, of course, we want to win the Ashes from time to time, but at any price? Every now and then a Botham will come along and we will win the Ashes, but in the meantime England, thanks to the Championship, can still lay claim to being cricket's champions in the truest sense of the word.

Two divisions with promotion and relegation might have been fun - and it will be for one-day cricket - but since it is clear no one wants to be branded as second-class citizens in a first-class game, then forget it. Never mind about trying artificial stimulants to make the Championship more attractive to the public: that will never happen unless fewer teams are involved and competition is more intense. Just play it midweek and leave the watching to the connoisseurs, the England selectors, the reporters, the retired or the just plain tired. No one should be forced to watch it, but it is good to know it is there and we can still read all about it.

The Championship can be a breeding ground for Test cricketers, with a series of four-day matches at the start of every summer involving the best players from the previous season: in effect, a series of Test trials, after which the team for the first Test could be selected and perhaps a squad of players contracted to the England and Wales Cricket Board for the season.

The Championship could start off quite happily without two or three players from each county, thus providing opportunities that might otherwise never arise for youngsters or amateurs to play at a slightly higher level and stake their own claims. There could even be play-offs at the end of the season for the top four teams, just to add a little spice.

In the meantime, Saturdays and Sundays would be free for the national one-day league, which will attract the spectators and sponsors, with the knockout competition taking over on certain weekends. Hopefully, there would also be a free fortnight in July or August for some kind of floodlit tournament on the Test grounds. Draw the kids in for that and they should be hooked for life.

As for this season, the latest round of Championship matches has at last produced a clear group of title contenders, with Kent leading the way. John Wright's side have responded well to the disappointment of defeat in the Benson and Hedges Cup final, and Saturday's victory over Essex - in which Paul Strang's leg-spin was a significant factor - should give them the self-belief needed for a tricky run-in.

That starts a week on Wednesday at Taunton, where Gloucestershire's challenge got bogged down this time round. Despite a desperate attempt to salvage victory after nearly two days lost to rain, they were eventually denied by Somerset's last-wicket pair.

Glamorgan, who had no game, and Middlesex might prove to be the biggest threats to Kent's first title since 1978. Middlesex are a little way behind but, like Glamorgan, they have a game in hand on the leaders and all their key men are running into form, none more so than Angus Fraser, whose 5 for 38 did the damage against Hampshire at the weekend.

The other notable result was a first win of the season for Sussex, albeit in a contrived one-innings affair at Eastbourne. Paul Jarvis was their match-winner, with 5 for 44, all but extinguishing any lingering hopes Leicestershire may have been harbouring for a successful title defence.