Cricket: No mistaking the signs of decline

The failings of the County Championship and the poor quality of the England side must be addressed to rescue cricket. By Derek Pringle
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The Independent Online
TO PARAPHRASE Edmund White, the cricket season just over comprised largely of "islands of ecstasy in a sea of uniformity". But if the poor, uncompetitive cricket appears to be on the increase, the isolated peaks as exemplified by Michael Atherton's duel with Allan Donald on the fourth evening at Trent Bridge, were vertiginous. Even in football's year of the Rat, it is heartening that, when the conditions are right, cricket can still move a mass audience.

All of sporting life was condensed into that 30 minutes of fierce gladiatorial combat between Iron Mike and White Lightning. Indeed, only cricket can sustain a moment of such intensity for so long and then allow the spoils to finish even. Nevertheless, those who witnessed it will take the memories with them well into the next millenium, where its place in the game's folklore will be assured.

For once, much to the relief of the country as well as the marketing men, England made several bold strides forward against a strong side. Only a clumsy stumble against Sri Lanka in the one-off Test at The Oval, where a dry pitch enabled Muttiah Muralitharan to take 16 wickets, removed some of the lustre to England's first major series win in 12 years.

But if England played the start and the endgame well against South Africa, the middle Tests were poor and it would not be over dramatic to say that cricket was within a single ball of crisis at Old Trafford. Had South Africa managed to roll over dear old Angus Fraser and take an unassailable 2-0 lead, the feel-good factor that has somehow managed to permeate this soggy summer would simply not have materialised.

His small but vital part played with the bat in the third Test, Fraser then came into his own with the ball, taking 18 wickets in the last two. Australia's hard clay pitches will be a different prospect this winter, and before we all believe the Ashes to be coming home, let us remember just how ineffective England's bowlers were on the firm surfaces at Old Trafford and The Oval.

On the domestic front, Leicestershire, largely unaffected by Test calls, ended up as deserved champions in a rousing finale. To thrash your closest rivals, Surrey, by an innings and 211 runs at The Oval to win the title is an unequivocal show of superiority.

Lancashire, poised until the penultimate day of the season for a history- making treble, finished a game second. With NatWest and Axa League trophies in the cabinet, Lancashire will now have to contemplate life without their overseas player, Wasim Akram. Probably the finest left-arm bowler the game has ever seen, Wasim faces an uncertain future following allegations of match fixing with Pakistan. He has vowed not to play international cricket until he has cleared his name.

Parting company with cricket can be an emotional occasion, and, like Dickie Bird, who umpired his last first-class match a week ago, Mike Gatting's last supper with Middlesex probably saw more than a few tears end up in the cheese dip.

Like his fellow selector, Graham Gooch, who retired from Essex last season, Gatting and Middlesex success have been synonymous with one another, a reality that is no longer the case for either club. With 95 first-class centuries to his name, however, a return cannot be entirely ruled out. Gatting has long been prone to temptation and it should surprise no one if he were to return as Middlesex's first player-coach.

Essex's problems, despite romping home in the last ever Benson & Hedges final, appear deep-set, and the club finished bottom of the Britannic Assurance Championship - also in its last year of sponsorship - for only the second time in its history.

The powers that be at Essex have always allowed players their head. In return, the players have always performed, a part of the bargain that is now being reneged upon. Though they have never been a club to panic, one or two tough decisions will surely need to be taken before widespread apathy takes root.

In some ways, the 1998 season was a defining one for cricket and its followers. Apart from the appalling weather, which emasculated most spin bowlers, professional cricket is stratified, with the international and domestic games sharing little common ground.

Actually, Test and county cricket have been pulling apart for some time now, a gap set to widen further as the England and Wales Cricket Board seeks to increase the number of Tests and one-day internationals.

The main problem is that county cricket is a duff product. Apart from important one-day matches, few people have either the time or the inclination to watch cricket for six hours a day. When such cricket is barely relevant to Test players you can hardly expect the public to embrace it with enthusiasm.

Two divisions is not the answer, though it is bound to be aired when the counties have their annual meeting on 13 October. Any system that involves promotion and relegation has to be played on a level playing field, something Test calls and the weather tend to negate in cricket.

As in football, the power of the cheque book will eventually come to rule, with the richest clubs - usually those with Test grounds - ensnaring the best players. Unless a transfer market is set up, the incentives for most clubs to bring on talented youngsters will be lost. Why invest in a talented player's improvement if he is going to be poached before you can reap the rewards?

As there is no commercially successful first-class cricket anywhere in the world, the ECB will be better directed towards improving the quality of the cricket rather than any half-hearted efforts at boosting its image. Children, as well as adults for that matter, identify with players, not gimmicks. Cricket's popularity really rests on the success of the England team and those taking wickets and scoring runs.

Regional cricket, played between Test matches, is the only way to improve the standard quickly. Five regions, comprising the best players from three or four neighbouring counties, play each other twice. Although county cricket is still played, supporters - unless they go and watch regional or international cricket - will not get to see many Test players, a situation which is now virtually the case anyway.

People have to face facts. The domestic game, for all the pleasure it brings those who still follow it, is simply a means of serving the national interest, a role it has not exactly performed with distinction for 20 years. Unless change that will benefit the Test side is forthcoming now, English cricket is in danger of losing its relevance in modern life.