Cricket: Every pitch tells a story in the continuing tale of ordinary folk: The counties remain on the back foot as a new season gets off the mark today: Whither the English domestic game? Glenn Moore canvasses opinion from the men on the front line

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The Independent Online
THERE is still a Test and a bit to go in the Caribbean but the domestic season is here already and, at Fenner's and The Parks today, four teams will face the traditional ritual of reaching for thermal underwear and third sweater.

Soon, despite England's better performance in Barbados, other regular customs will follow: the calling for more old players; the calling for more young players; and, finally - though this will probably be delayed until South Africa replace New Zealand as tourists - the calling for new selectors.

At which juncture Ray Illingworth and Keith Fletcher - if he is still in a job - may point out they can only work with the players available and that the fault lies deep within the first-class structure, prompting that other ritual, the working party.

These, over the years, have made a series of recommendations which have been successively shelved or watered down. Most, like the Murray Report which brought in four-day cricket last season, have concentrated on conditions of play rather than a county structure which, Durham's introduction apart, has been unchanged for 73 years.

But is it so weak - and is it to blame? Domestic weakness has not hindered South Africa (whose provincial sides were severely exposed by the England A team) nor Pakistan (whose domestic game is so confused Imran Khan disregarded it). One theory has it that today's opening fixtures, between under-strength county sides and weak University XIs, symbolise the main deficiency - too many teams playing too much cricket leading to a surfeit of mediocrity.

The County Championship, with its heavy points bias towards winning, does little to teach the art of saving games. In contrast with domestic cricket in Australia and the West Indies, the number of matches and relative dearth of Test-class players - few of whom perform flat out in county games - means easy runs and wickets are always around the corner.

A solution is either county amalgamation (a non-starter) or promotion and relegation, as advocated by Illingworth, to improve competitiveness. Kim Barnett, Derbyshire captain and 15 years a professional, disagrees. 'In reality that would mean the poorer counties, like ourselves, would end up in the second division with all the Test-match grounds in the first.

'We have been encouraged to have four-day cricket on flat wickets but we need a variety of pitches. Our problem is bowling. Not since Bob Willis and Ian Botham have we had anyone averaging less than 30. We brought on Devon Malcolm by bowling him on helpful pitches. A lot of pitches don't encourage people to bowl quick. Counties should be able to do what they like, green at Derby, turning square at Chelmsford. The only criteria I would have is no dangerous pitches.'

The Australian Darryl Foster, who coaches Kent and Western Australia, is a fan of the county game but not of 'result' wickets. 'I don't believe there are too many counties,' he said. 'In Australia there are six teams for 17 million people, here there are 18 for 55 million. The top county sides are of a standard with their Sheffield Shield equivalents. With four-day cricket there are not so many easy runs but there are too many poor wickets; bowlers just need to run in at present. We need to remove pressure on groundsmen.'

Bob Cottam, the Somerset coach, blames the selectors, a failing he hopes to remedy by being elected to their ranks this month. 'There is nothing wrong with the system, they just don't pick the right players,' he said.

'The Test players should have a lower salary and bigger bonuses for winning or drawing. You can make a good living in this country as a loser. Look at all those tennis players who never pass the first round. At Somerset our system is geared to success: once we pass 160-170 points the players are in the money.'

Tim Lamb, the Test and County Cricket Board cricket secretary, said one problem the board is trying to rectify is the lack of facilities and inclination to practice. 'Skills should be second nature,' he said. 'The reason the Murray Report reduced the number of playing days was to give more time for practice.'

But county cricket is not just about producing Test players for England. There are members, already unhappy with the fewer days and slower pace of the four-day season, to consider. The Sheffield Shield, for all its strengths, is largely played to miniscule crowds. As Barnett points out: 'Rewarding draws and playing on flat wickets can lead to a lot of dour stuff. There is a tendency towards defensive cricket. It should be an entertainment.' To that end promotion and relegation would probably increase interest without necessarily, as Wimbledon have proved in football, leading to domination by wealthy clubs.

The problem with England constantly losing is that changes are not given time to take effect. The final word, perhaps, should go to to someone with an outside perspective. 'I think four-day cricket will be the salvation of English cricket,' Foster said. 'It is not in the parlous straits people think, Atherton is an inspired choice as captain and he will build a good team.'

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