Cricket: The long, hazy, crazy summer

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TODAY AT around 6.40pm, if darkness or winter have not descended before, the longest English cricket season of all will end. The last rites will be performed in the grandly titled CGU National League, which is culminating on a Sunday, having made earlier appearances on every other day of the week except Friday. It will be a merciful release, possibly to be gained only after Duckworth-Lewis and their close pal, Net Run Rate, have intervened to decree who should face the ignominy of dropping into the second division.

The season has ended slightly later - in 1996 the County Championship campaign continued until 22 September when the combatants' families were wondering if their lads would be home by Christmas - but it has never started so early. It is 165 days since the official beginning. Until now 165 had been a significant figure in English cricket only because that was the score Charles Bannerman compiled for Australia in the First Test match in 1877.

True, games were scheduled on a mere 149 days (hitherto simply the number of runs Ian Botham made in starting his rescue of English cricket in 1981) but from early April to late September is not necessarily the perfect combination for the summer game. The length, embracing a World Cup and a Test series which aggravated England's long-standing pain, has been only the part of it. The nature of the programme has made it difficult to follow. The dear old Championship has been grossly mistreated, like an old retainer being kicked from pillar to post.

It was possible to know your way round if you accepted that four-day matches could start either on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday and were likely to end two and a half days later. In the old days, which admittedly are largely to blame for what the present days have become, three-day Championship matches began on a Wednesday and a Saturday. The players got blotto on a Saturday night. Thay had Sunday off, or did until 1969 when the Sunday League, now the Anyday, sorry the National League, began. Change was probably essential but at least they knew how to organise a fixture list then.

This has been a groundbreaking summer when it has not been a heartbreaking one. At the start, the World Cup naturally dominated. It was entrancing despite the premature start and the early exit of the hosts, and the limited overs game showed its mettle. New Zealand were deserving winners of the Tests, exhibiting the importance of team play, no more than on the crucial Saturday at The Oval when England were right back in it and Chris Cairns played a breathtaking innings of 80. England stood there and took it.

For the first time, English domestic cricket has been played, in the aforementioned National League, in two divisions, so far neither to its benefit nor its detriment. Many more floodlit matches have been played and the crowd figures seem to reveal that 11 per cent of spectators at these occasions had not attended a cricket match before. Some would say that they still had not. But floodlit instant cricket is a real, if belated find, which, if it is not in itself the future will help to secure the future of the game at large.

While the one-day stuff has already split itself into two, the original article, the Championship (sponsored in a way that was bleakly apposite, by PPP healthcare, a conglomeration of which few had ever heard and which could have been formed to tend to a dying institution) prepared for The Great Divide. It was fortunate that it had arrived. Surrey won the title embarrassingly early and had there not been two divisions to play for there would have been nothing to play for. The impending split has made it bearable.

The pitches have been, pretty uniformly, a disgrace. If they have not been deliberately rigged then the art of English groundsmanship is in as much trouble as the art of English batsmanship. They have hindered struggling batsmen, encouraged moderate bowlers. It is not entirely a surprise that Stuart Law is the leading run scorer or that Hampshire earned most batting points. Chelmsford and Southampton were two of the places (Taunton and Hove were, generally, other exceptions) where pitches were, more or less, properly prepared.

Never has a regulation been brought into such ridicule as 39.1.8: "A county which is adjudged to have prepared a pitch which is unsuitable for four-day first-class cricket shall be liable to have 25 points deducted from its aggregate of points." Ten years ago Essex were deprived of the title when they were docked for a sub- standard pitch at Southend, but this time everybody stayed intact. It was abrogation of responsibility akin to a jury acquitting of theft a band of robbers who were not only found with their hands in the till but had a million in used, stolen notes under their mattresses at home.

The counties have been desperate to be in the First Division, though it has been noticeable that those already consigned to the second have been saying that it may be no bad thing for a year or two. It is also noticeable that they have made big-name signings to guard against their continuing presence down below. It will be extremely strange to watch the world's two most charismatic fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Glenn McGrath, perform in the Second Division, for Nottinghamshire and Worcestershire respectively. Hampshire signed Shane Warne (for a justifiably exorbitant fee, for he packs grounds, fills columns, empties bars, swells TV ratings) before they knew their fate. Thanks, by the way, should go to Worcestershire and Hampshire for allowing McGrath and Warne the opportunity to become fully attuned to bowling on English pitches the year before an Ashes tour.

Many counties spent last week shedding staff, five from one, four from another. About time too, though they have reinstated the Benson and Hedges Cup. At the other end of the professional scale, centralised contracts will become a reality for up to 16 players. Ah England. How the game has come to revolve round their shortcomings. Only 200 days to go before the cricket season.