Cricket: Hard work ahead in Hobart match

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The Independent Online
THE MOST informative and, for England, perhaps the most chilling event on this fourth day in Adelaide, was the release of the names to represent an Australian XI against England just before Christmas in Hobart. It is a side which would have the better of the current England team in a Test match and perfectly illustrates the strength of Australian cricket.

Greg Blewett and Matthew Elliott both made significant contributions to Australia's success in England in 1997. Michael Bevan, Stuart Law and Darren Lehmann, who seems to be the favourite to become Australia's next long-term captain, have all made a considerable impact for their country and in county cricket as well.

Mike Kasprowicz, Paul Reiffel, Gavin Robertson and Brendon Julian have all played Test cricket. The only two who have not are Adam Gilchrist, who has been kept out understandably enough by Ian Healy, and Cory Richards, the highly promising New South Wales batsman. They are all battle-hardened cricketers trained in the most demanding of cricketing environments.

Places in the Australian side are highly sought after and most jealously guarded. Those who have had a taste of life under the baggy green cap and have then dropped out, work desperately hard to get back, not least because of the financial rewards that come with it.

The players who go to Hobart are playing their hearts out in each round of Sheffield Shield matches. The batsmen constantly pile up runs knowing that failure will count against them in their endless struggle to fight their way back.

The bowlers think likewise, and it makes certain that Shield cricket remains the most testing and successful of breeding grounds. Australia's back-up cricketers are hungry for success and every innings is a significant opportunity which must not be wasted.

There are six teams in the Sheffield Shield and the players come into their State sides through the Grade or District cricket in each state. In their minds, State cricket is only the stepping stone on the way to Test cricket.

The counties in England have just taken a huge step by voting for two divisions from the year 2000. The danger is that it will be allowed to become a step sideways rather than a step forwards. The will to succeed has to be there; county cricket in its new guise must not be allowed to establish a comfort level for mediocrity.

The danger is there because the clubs in the lower division are to receive as big a share in the annual financial handout from the England Cricket Board as those in the top division. This will establish a comfort level and may blunt the incentive for both the clubs and the individuals to better themselves.

This, presumably, was done to help the less successful counties agree to support the two-tier system when it came to the recent vote at the First-Class Forum. But the principal idea behind the two divisions is first to concentrate excellence in the top division and then to stimulate players in the lower division to do all they can to lift themselves up the ladder.

At first, there are apparently not going to be significant changes to the registration rule to prevent an out-and-out transfer system coming into operation. But if the object really is to produce a more competitive England side, a proper transfer system would only help.

The second division, giving three counties the chance of promotion each year, would then also be acting as a feeder league to the top division. The counties have agreed to start on the process of change, but the Australian example shows that there are more steps to be taken before England is going to be able to produce tough and hardened cricketers who are good enough to play the cricket which will one day see the return of the Ashes.