Cricket: Summer shorn of seduction: The new-look County Championship, made up entirely of four-day matches, starts this week. Simon Hughes expects a long haul

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SOME predicitions for 1993. Top rugby union players will be recognised as professional. Wimbledon will be won by a Briton, and the public will gracefully accept four-day cricket.

All equally fanciful dreams. The Test and County Cricket Board's attempt to raise the standards of our domestic game, thereby improving the performances of our national side will only marginalise county cricket further. It is fair to say that in a four-day contest the better team will win more often, but there will be no one there to see them do it.

A four-day county game could last 432 overs, barely less than a Test match and those who are convinced the cricket will be riveting must remember Parkinson's Law: 'Work expands to fit the time allowed for its completion'.

The aim of the Murray Report, which recommended the introduction of the four-day game, was to allow batsmen even more time to build an innings and to encourage bowlers to abandon caution in the quest for wickets. It is more likely that batsmen will be even more circumspect and confronted by negative bowling, so the trial of patience will be acted out. Some time limit needs to be imposed on skilful sportsmen for their real expertise ever to emerge.

County Championship cricket was once an intriguing game of cat and mouse. Now, the chances are it will be a head-on clash of tortoises and the only mouse you will find is the one attached to the scorer's lap-top computer. One dubious advantage is that the technology can print those circular score charts for individual bowlers as well as batsmen. So after a particularly harrowing day, you may find the poor workhorses hiding their 'wagon wheels' rather than the more familiar final bowling analyses.

Using the white ball and gaudy team strips on Sundays will be an advantage for the spectators to identify players, but the actual participants may find it less easy. The ball, for example, is practically invisible to fielders on grounds where the stands have been whitewashed. There could be some surprising finishes. A no-ball counts two runs this season, in addition to anything the batsman may score off the delivery.

This is a substantial departure and means that striking an eight without having to run is feasible, opening the door to some phenomenal scores. South Africa's target of 22 off one ball in the World Cup semi-final would still be out of reach, but the point is significant. If there is one thing county captains are unanimous on it is that a no-ball is now strictly taboo. Bowlers always seem to get it in the neck but it must be admitted that it is worthwhile to give the new system a go, if only to prove in three years' time that there was nothing wrong with the old one.

Given the new script, then, who will dominate the stage? The championship pennant should go south again come September but not to Essex who look fractionally past their best. Instead, Kent and Sussex will fight it out across their ancient boundaries. Both have awesome batting line-ups which will not be disturbed by Test calls and most importantly, potent sets of bowlers.

Kent have the edge with the new ball in view of their two new signings - the talented Dean Headley from Middlesex and Duncan Spencer, a bustling Western Australian with English parents and considerable pace - he startled the England A team in Perth last month.

Sussex may fancy themselves on dustier surfaces with the recruitment of Eddie Hemmings to supplement Ian Salisbury's burgeoning ability. There are other strong counties, but Nottinghamshire's general dourness, back-room wrangling at Lancashire and a spin dearth at Derbyshire will hamper progress.

As usual, predicting one-day superiority is a complete lottery. The traditional names will figure - Northamptonshire, Lancashire, and Surrey - they must win something with so many good players and significant urban arrogance. The restriction of two boundary fielders for the first 15 overs of a Sunday innings guarantees some fireworks at the start and the explosion of colour on the sabbath may well extend to the interaction of white ball on brightly coloured pad - the manufacturers have yet to find a paint that does not disintegrate on contact.

The ramifications of the Murray Report, around which all this structural tinkering is based, will take time to emerge. One thing is certain, the retiring Ian Botham will not be part of this brave new world for long. Nothing in the new constitution will change his approach - 'four-day or one-day, last ball or first, if it's in the slot it's going.' Oh for the ability.

(Photograph omitted)

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