A stage for the great and quite good

Seasons do not come much bigger than this. There are seven Test matches, 10 one-day internationals, divisions - though not, we are assured, schisms - for the first time in both forms of domestic league cricket, the serious advent of floodlit games, a group of players contracted for the first time to the governing body instead of individual counties, a hesitant pyramid structure leading from village green to Lord's. Where will it all end?

Seasons do not come much bigger than this. There are seven Test matches, 10 one-day internationals, divisions - though not, we are assured, schisms - for the first time in both forms of domestic league cricket, the serious advent of floodlit games, a group of players contracted for the first time to the governing body instead of individual counties, a hesitant pyramid structure leading from village green to Lord's. Where will it all end?

The official answer is at eight grounds on 17 September when the CGU National League is to be concluded. The unofficial one is likely to be under lights at one of the big-city stadiums even closer to October. Another possible response to the question, of course, is in tears.

Cricket is not in crisis in England. There is too much goodwill towards it for that. But it lacks and does not appear to be in any danger of rediscovering the feelgood factor. This might be a commodity which belongs to the modern vernacular, but it is as old as spectator sports.

It was not mislaid in a moment of aberration, it was dissipated over many years by poor England teams, distrustful, self-interested counties with their heads in the sands of time and a growing bunch of professional players who for too long were not sufficiently pro-active.

Businesses wishing to be associated with a great sport are not exactly falling over themselves to form a queue with their outstretched palms overflowing with lucre outside the Grace Gates. If they have to go that way the likelihood is that they are dashing past en route to Lancaster Gate and Football Association headquarters.

The company which has sponsored Test matches in this country for 20 years (and has burgeoned into a household name as a result) will withdraw after this summer; the NatWest Trophy (because the bank will sponsor one-day internationals here from now on) and the Benson & Hedges Cup (because fag sponsorship is no longer permitted) will be no more after this season. The PPP healthcare County Championship and the CGU National League at least have a little while to go and soon the nation may come to know what it is exactly that those companies do.

But enough. At last and at least there are some changes to a weary and wearisome structure. They may not all work - and whatever the noises from the England and Wales Cricket Board, two divisions in the Championship, even after all the debate, smacks of panic more than panacea - but they should all be given time. They show a belated willingness to adapt.

During the 2000 season there will be at least 45 days of international cricket (more if India play Pakistan late in the summer), 41 or 42 of which will involve England. Nobody will mind if it turns out to be 42 because it means they will have reached the final of the NatWest Triangular Tournament.

There will also be a host of the game's biggest names. Not many of these will be playing for the first tourists, Zimbabwe. Who could not fail to lick their lips at the prospect of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Shoaib Akhtar, Anil Kumble, Allan Donald, Saqlain Mushtaq?

These are some of the game's greatest players - one of them, Warne, among the best five of a whole century - and if they do not always pack 'em in because of the times when cricket is played, they will unquestionably get it talked about. Surely, not since Sir Garfield Sobers and Sir Vivian Richards, two other cricketers of the century, were strutting their county stuff can the domestic game have been so filled with talent and personality.

What it will all mean for an England team still well off the pace is uncertain. But the presence of these genuine stars, unlikely to be repeat-ed as international demands grow, can only stimulate a domestic structure which has been accused of most things short of murder. Warne arrives this week and it is a sound bet that by the time he leaves in August he will have managed to diminish the stature of football on the tabloid back pages on a dozen occasions and could easily have appeared on the front a time or two. Likewise Shoaib, an immensely captivating fast bowler. It is possible that they will divert attention from England's continuing travails. Maybe it was a plot to do so.

The fixture list unfortunately is a hopeless tangle which a drunken spider could not have constructed, and it is difficult to tell what is happening and when. Matches crop up on all manner of strange days so that on a Friday night in June there is one solitary game at Edgbaston and on a Tuesday in August one at Trent Bridge. Still, the denizens of of Birmingham and Nottingham may like it that way.

Championship matches begin on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and if there had been any more days in the week they would have no doubt started then, too. Organising the programme is obviously complex but much more uniformity is essential.

The Championship does not begin until 26 April but stumps are down on the season proper on Saturday with the Benson & Hedges Cup, probably the most maligned domestic tournament in history and not only because its sponsor manufactures a product which kills. It has often been implied that their cricket tournament will kill the game as well.

The ECB, however, are sanguine about it. Their chairman, Lord MacLaurin, who was a proponent of less cricket when he came to office, said that if the counties wanted it they were quite within their rights to have it. Central contracts, he observed, made all the difference. The B & H has always been an easy scapegoat. But it does represent a gentle yet competitive start where the players have to go through more than the motions or suffer early ignominy. Equally, many is the season that has gone downhill after a county have won the competition in July.

This year, it is back in a familiar format although there are no minor teams. The 18 first-class counties will compete in three groups of six with eight going through to the quarter-final. The top two in each group automatically qualify, leaving two other quarter-finalists to be found by points, matches won or, most probable, the horrible invention that is net run rate.

Ignore all that. Enjoy the show while it lasts. It is often warned that there may not be 18 counties for much longer (probably by the bigger counties) but then that is the past too. They should remember that the whole thing began officially in 1890 with only eight of them.

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