Counties must make their long division add up

The test is yet to come as the County Championship heads into its new era this week

After 110 years of a solitary existence the County Championship begins life anew on Wednesday with a split personality. Schizophrenia rules: the move to two divisions for the first time is designed primarily not to salvage a moribund competition but to revive the England team.

After 110 years of a solitary existence the County Championship begins life anew on Wednesday with a split personality. Schizophrenia rules: the move to two divisions for the first time is designed primarily not to salvage a moribund competition but to revive the England team.

Perhaps the two principles do not necessarily conflict, but the mandarins at the England and Wales Cricket Board, rightly sensing scepticism, have already made plaintive appeals for the system to be given a chance. Just so long as they do not expect a wait of 110 years to regain the Ashes.

Nobody could accuse the new Championship of being short of star quality, at least in the overseas department. Division One contains three of the most illustrious spinners of the age in Shane Warne (Hampshire), Anil Kumble (Leicestershire) and Saqlain Mushtaq (Surrey).

Division Two, of all places, has a plethora of formidable pace: Allan Donald (Warwickshire), Glenn McGrath (Worcestershire) and Shoaib Akhtar (Nottinghamshire).

It will not always be like this, but it is a smart way for the new structure to try to establish itself. No disrespect to the journeyman English professional (well, maybe just a little), but those fellows will get the domestic game talked about repeatedly. Actually, it is a while since there has been a week like this, for the luminous presence of Warne and, perversely, the dark shadow of match-rigging have put cricket high on the agenda again.

The two-division competition, with three up and three down, will certainly go as far as the wire in mid-September. If the first modern champions have been decided by then, plenty of counties will still be jostling for status. Indeed, it is possible that all 18 of them will have something to play for in the final round of matches, though Durham, in Division One, and Sussex, in Division Two, may have an anxious wait, since their fixtures will already have been completed.

A main plank of the purportedly purist argument from those who frown on the split is that a champion will be declared without having played all 17 other first-class teams. This does not hold much historic water since, in the days before the programme was reduced in 1993, counties played some opponents twice and some once, hardly equitable.

The two divisions will probably take a year or so to settle down, if they ever do, with a third of the clubs each season subjected to movement. They were based straightforwardly on positions in the 1999 table, which are, coincidentally, not too far removed from a table of merit based on the eight seasons when the Championship consisted of 18 counties.

Six of the nine in the top division are in the top half of that table, though the other three, Derbyshire, Hampshire and Durham, filled 16th, 17th and 18th places. Then again, eight different counties were champions in the 13 seasons between 1987 and 1999 and six of them are now in Division Two.

The 2000 summer should provide some keenly fought matches, but that is much different from supplying cricketers capable of playing at Test level. There are too many players, and the good ones are still spread too thinly. Four divisions would make no difference to that, and it will not change until the more talented ones are mostly in Division One. All matches, of course, remain first-class, but in time it might be necessary to differentiate between runs scored, wickets taken and catches caught in the two divisions, since the second should be less first-class than the first.

The competition is being sponsored by PPP Healthcare, who declare themselves roundly satisfied by their first year's association. Yorkshire, threatening for so long, have it in them to pip Surrey for the title and Warwickshire, Sussex and Glamorgan may be in the Division Two frame. And do not expect Messrs Warne and McGrath togo quietly.

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