Cricket: Old cobblers, young cobbers and a new age: With the County Championship taking a fresh guard today, Martin Johnson pads up for a season of change

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The Independent Online
WHEN Pakistan began their current tour of the Caribbean to the whiff of freshly cut grass with pharmaceutical rather than horticultural connotations, it was a further reminder of cricket's capacity for generating controversy. Last summer was as memorable for ball-scuffing allegations, libel writs and umpiring rows as it was for exploding stumps, crushed toes and inswinging yorkers.

Whether England's Test team has gone to pot, or whether the winter debacle was merely a one-off aberration, we will find out soon enough, but at least the atmosphere should be freer than it was against Pakistan of mutual mistrust and cultural division. On the field, it will be 'G'day yer Pommie bastard. . .' same as always, but off it, Australia and England tend to sort things out through the bottom of a glass rather than a lawyer's briefcase.

However, the worry is not so much about this contest being hard fought, as closely fought. Australia's record in the last 12 Ashes Tests is won eight, lost nil, and such is England's state of disrepair that the series would appear to be between a bunch of young cobbers and a load of old cobblers.

As Graham Gooch philosophised last week, our own sportsmen are rarely viewed in neutral shades, permanently oscillating between 'brilliant' and 'bloody idiots'. Unlike Pakistan, who attracted the (unfounded) attentions of the drugs squad, our lads are more likely to be linked to the greengrocer. The price of failure for the manager of England's football team is to have a variety of turnip named after him, while Gooch picked up a newspaper in India to find himself caricatured as a Bombay potato.

Gooch has also been advised by his Lord's masters to employ an old farming remedy - stubble burning - to restore England to the pick of the crop, and while the Desperate Dan, night-on-the-tiles look has gone, it is hard to tell whether last week's re-appearance for Essex sporting a full beard represents an act of contrition, a metaphorical two fingers, or a new TCCB edict that players' faces, like groundsmens' pitches, are OK as long as they are 'evenly grassed'.

As for Ted Dexter, he may already be preparing a list of excuses ('It was the smog from Fred Trueman's pipe . . .'), but whatever the heartache of last winter, it is difficult to be pessimistic at the start of an Ashes series. Whoever loses this summer, it will not, judging by advance ticket sales, be the Test and County Cricket Board's treasurer.

There are other reasons to look forward with anticipation to the next five months or so, not least the radically reformed county programme which gets under way, weather permitting, at 11am today. The opponents of four-day cricket argue, principally, that it will not only be boring, but fail in its intention of improving techniques at Test match level.

Its proponents, on the other hand, are a touch puzzled by this threat that we are all about to die of tedium (to listen to some people, you would think that three-day cricket had been one long round of frenzied excitement, with mounted policemen making regular baton charges to keep the crowds in check). What has been more turgid than two days of routinely exchanging bonus points, before the two captains get together in the sponsors' tent to wrangle over the runs-per-over equation on the final afternoon? 'How about 280 at four an over?' 'Er, sorry, not with Hicky in the team. Make it 310 at four and a half and we might have a deal.'

It is the sort of formula that produces cricket in which the performers might as well take the field wearing red noses and funny hats. It was this kind of rubbish that allows an average county player, Steve O'Shaughnessy, an entry in Wisden as the joint fastest scorer of a first-class hundred.

As for four-day cricket failing to raise standards, it probably will not unless groundsmen are encouraged to provide a decent contest between bat and ball, but it is hard to see how a form of competition that rarely allows the weaker team to win cannot be a change for the better. During the experimental period of four-day cricket, 71 per cent of matches have produced non-contrived results.

If it is not a success, there will be a case for returning to three-day cricket, but only on uncovered pitches, and only with vastly tougher legislation on over rates. As Alec Bedser will happily tell you: 'We used to play four-day cricket in my day - but it only took us three days.'

Over rates would, of course, be substantially better than they are were it not that, for an uncomfortably high number of present-day bowlers, the only cure for no-balling would appear to be amputation of the front foot. When Australia were here in 1961, there was one no-ball all series. The average for the past two home series is 211. Thirty-five overs of no-balls.

In a clearly exasperated attempt to encourage bowlers to toe the line, or at least keep their toes the right side of it, the law-makers have now decided on a penalty of two runs per no- ball, plus any others that might be registered by the batsman. Ergo, anything delivered from 21 yards and then propelled over the sightscreen will now count as eight.

It is a moot point whether coloured clothing will make for colourful cricket in the Sunday League. The one advantage for the players, who tend to find it difficult switching from one form to another, is that when they pull on their pyjamas it will be a reminder not to play anything with a straight bat, and on no account attempt to bowl a ball designed to get someone out.

How popular the 50-over format and noon start will be with spectators is hard to say (the players are predictably unhappy at losing their one morning off) but the one certainty is that gimmickry for the sake of it (coloured clothing has a practical advantage in floodlit cricket) will not sell the product. Sales of replica kit are going well, and the uniforms will change every three years. In the interests of fashion, rather than wanting to get their hands on the kids' pocket money, of course.

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