Cricket: Divided we stand, united we fall

COUNTY COMMENTARY

Wouldn't it be refreshing if the government of English cricket, like the government of the country, was subject to a general election every five years?

Conservatives of one sort or another have been in power at Westminster for only half of this century, while Liberal, coalition and Labour governments have accounted for the rest. Would that it were so democratic at Lord's; perhaps then the pond would not be so stagnant. We have at least had a change of "prime minister" (though hardly a democratically elected one) and breath is increasingly bated as 5 August draws near, the publication date of proposals for domestic reform.

Last Thursday, while the weather was ruining one of the great days in the sporting calendar, Lord MacLaurin was heard saying that he "saw no reason why we should not become the best team in the world." Glenn McGrath was kind enough to enlighten the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board over the next two days, and it is to be hoped that the good lord now knows that England v Australia or the West Indies does not represent the same set of problems as Tesco's v Sainsbury's or Safeways.

Nobody is expecting Lord MacLaurin to turn England into a team of world beaters, and there is no need to attract people to Test matches: over the last few years, it seems, the worse England have played, the more people flock to see them. But it is to be hoped that by the time he has finished, county cricket will not look completely out of place in the 21st century. To that end he should be concentrating on three key issues.

The first is the league structure. It is becoming harder and harder to work out why so many counties are against the idea of two divisions, with promotion and relegation. The loss of some traditional fixtures and the irrational fear of change are just not professional arguments.

Some say "improve the pitches and everything will be all right." We have tried that. "Increase the prize-money," others suggest. Maybe. "Change the Sunday League, but not the Championship," comes the most pathetic cry of all: the Sunday League is the only aspect of our domestic game that does not need changing as far as the punters are concerned.

The second issue is overseas players. While football and rugby have been welcoming foreign talent, and reaping the rewards at the turnstiles, cricket has gone completely the other way. The argument was that the more imported players the fewer the opportunities for those born or brought up here, thus weakening the England team. As the flood of overseas players has been reduced to a trickle, England have not exactly gone from strength to strength (but the number of players picked by England who were neither born nor brought up here has increased).

County cricket may never win back the spectators it has lost over the years, but while watching Gloucestershire play Hampshire, for example, may not be the most exciting way of spending four days at the moment, it was a completely different proposition when Sadiq Mohammad, Zaheer Abbas and Mike Proctor were playing for Gloucestershire and Barry Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Andy Roberts for Hampshire. And would Ian Botham have become quite the player he was for England had he not spent so much time playing alongside Viv Richards and Joel Garner at Somerset.

On Saturday, two overseas players stood out after yet another round of matches that illustrated how difficult it is to sustain a consistent level of performance. Waqar Younis, with 7 for 25, shot Lancashire out for 51 at Liverpool, this for a Glamorgan side bowled out for 31 by Middlesex the previous Saturday. And David Boon put in an early bid for man of the year by cajoling Durham into their first Championship win since the season before last, at the expense of Kent, who would have gone top had they won.

That honour instead went to Middlesex, who negotiated the minefield at Bristol marginally better than their hosts and erstwhile leaders, Gloucestershire. Whisper it quietly, but Richard Johnson, last seen pulling out injured from England's tour to South Africa 18 months ago, is back among the wickets for Middlesex.

There was a tense finish at Northampton but Hampshire were denied by a stubborn last-wicket stand and, like the game between Somerset and Leicestershire at Bath, it ended in a draw. There was no play at Derby, Trent Bridge and Worcester because of the bad weather - which brings us to the third issue for Lord MacLaurin to address. Well, he is supposed to have friends in high places.

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