A flawed county show, but there are glimmers

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The Independent Online

Not a bad Championship. Greatly improved by promotion and relegation. There were no obvious themes or trends and there was no doubt from 22 July that Surrey would be champions, but it was always possible that Middlesex's promotion hopes would implode. They didn't. And it was hard to believe that Yorkshire, last summer's champions, really would be relegated. They were.

Not a bad Championship. Greatly improved by promotion and relegation. There were no obvious themes or trends and there was no doubt from 22 July that Surrey would be champions, but it was always possible that Middlesex's promotion hopes would implode. They didn't. And it was hard to believe that Yorkshire, last summer's champions, really would be relegated. They were.

But the Championship was not the fertile breeding ground for Test players that it is intended to be. The recalls of John Crawley, Dominic Cork and Alec Stewart did not inspire great confidence in the Championship as a nursery. Steve Harmison (26 wickets at 32.15 in the competition for Durham) and Simon Jones (33 at 26.36) were gambles rather than part of an evolutionary process. Robert Key got a chance because Marcus Trescothick broke a thumb. Ian Bell's promise was ignored and seemed to wither.

In the financial balance sheet, the counties still take more from the England and Wales Cricket Board's distribution of Test match income than they contribute in talent. Despite the consolidation of the exhilarating talent of Trescothick and Michael Vaughan the cupboard looks bare. As if to make the point, a veteran like Phil DeFreitas, 36, is still one of the leading all-rounders – 609 runs at 29 and 51 wickets at 31.25.

But there may be better news from beyond the boundary. The evidence is anecdotal, but it is possible that the decline in attendances has been reversed at last. If this is so, then reports of the death of the Championship may be an exaggeration.

If you want the crucial moment of the season, how about the last day of the Kent v Surrey match at Canterbury on 22 July? Surrey had looked exposed when they bungled a run-chase at The Oval and lost their previous game to Warwickshire. At Canterbury they were set 410 to win and had lost half the side for little more than 200. But Ian Ward was not out, and he was still at the crease when Surrey won with two wickets to spare.

The career of Ward, who is 30 on 30 September, has been like a switchback: signed by Surrey at 19, let go, restored, selected by England A and then by England in 2001. A disastrous series against Australia (68 runs at 13.60) exposed technical failings. He seemed a burned out case.

Some case. He scored seven Championship centuries, including four successive hundreds in the final three games, averaging 65.69. There is no stronger candidate for Player of the Year.

Ward helped win a vital match, but Surrey's batting was uniquely strong: three players with more than 1,000 runs, and nine averaging 37 or more. The bowling was nothing to sneeze at. Saqlain and Azhar Mahmood took 73 wickets between them, and James Ormond proved a shrewd purchase with 51 wickets. The return of Adam Hollioake kept the flame of desire burning hot, and Rikki Clarke proved a capable successor to the late and lamented Ben. The ungenerous might remind Surrey that they can be stopped. They were fourth in 2001, though that may be seen historically as an aberration.

A promotion system of three up and three down meant that five of the nine teams in the First Division were vulnerable as late as August. Hampshire came up and went straight down. Warwickshire, only just promoted last season, not only won the B & H but fought a stirring battle with Kent for runners-up behind Surrey. Leicestershire managed to survive many defections; Sussex clung on; Somerset lost their leader and their place. But the most remarkable demotion of all happened to Yorkshire.

Yorkshire's hopes were irreparably damaged by the usual litany of injuries (Kirby, White, Silverwood) and loss of form (Wood, Dawson, Sidebottom and Hamilton). Their main man, Darren Lehmann, was reclaimed by Australia. Problems on the field were multiplied off it as Yorkshire's management went into free- fall and the Fraud Squad asked to look at the books. The C & G Trophy was compensation for the prospect of Second Division cricket, but not for the end of the Roses match for the first time since 1873 after 239 consecutive contests.

Middlesex lost one leader when Angus Fraser left, though he stuck at third in their bowling averages. But they found a young one in 25-year-old Andrew Strauss, who was about to pass 1,000 runs, joining Ed Joyce and Owais Shah, when his jaw was broken at Worcester. Middlesex lost a key game against Essex before winning the vital one against Derbyshire. Essex, like Hampshire, experienced severe velocity of motion, but theirs was up not down. They were inspired by Graham Gooch and Ronnie Irani, a very odd couple.

Next season central contracts will stop England's squad playing county cricket most of the time. But doubling the limit on overseas players to two will make replacements available. Although not all players from abroad are more expensive than decent English cricketers, more overseas players means fewer vacancies for Englishmen and might strain budgets. (Paul Nixon quit Kent last week when he was asked to take a pay cut.)

But the change guarantees a happy flow of runs. Look who piled them on this summer: Michael Di Venuto, 1,538; Mike Hussey, 1,379; Lehmann, 1,136; Andy Flower, 1,048 – not to mention Martin Love and Michael Bevan. If these Australians can pass on knowledge to young England players and continue to draw crowds, should we complain?

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