County Championship: Million reasons to value an old friend
Clubs may be full of Kolpak players but the four-day game provides a blend of youth and experience and is worth extra investment
It has been a humdinger of a Championship. Not that anybody might have noticed, including the players for most of the time. The oldest, most respected and, for a century, the only domestic competition has been all but devoured in the rush to embrace new-fangled things.
But the climax of the 2008 title race promises to be as intriguing and tense as it has been in ages – or at least since last season, when it went down to the last 10 minutes. Going, albeit ridiculously late, into the last two rounds of matches, four sides still have a realistic chance of taking the title, with only three points separating three of them, two of whom have never won it before. Hampshire, bizarrely, have gone top, but unless weather intervenes utterly conclusively, their chances can be discarded.
All season long, on those occasions when rain has not been stopping play, it has been like this, but the international season and Twenty20 have dominated the scene. The dear old Champo has been in danger of atrophying through simple lack of attention. Which is why the injection of cash by the England and Wales Cricket Board is as significant as it is timely.
This season, one of Nottinghamshire, Durham, Somerset or Kent will receive £100,000 for winning Division One. From next year the county champions will win £500,000. The ECB, grasping the nettle before being stung in every orifice, have at last acted to preserve the status of their most important competition and therefore, ultimately, of Test cricket.
Perhaps it is a pity that they could not make it an even £1 million for taking the pennant, which would have created its own allure. The move, as far as it goes, at least ensures that Twenty20 does not have matters all its own way. The phenomenon is showing no signs of abating, and nor should it, but man cannot live by T20 alone.
If money talks – and T20 has shown how loud – then the new generation of players may realise that four-day cricket still has so much to offer, not least in the mastering of skills. True, the tricks learned in T20 can and have been remodelled for the longer game, but it's not entirely one-day traffic. Four-day cricket is still, officially, first-class; no phrase could have been better designed to put all other forms of the game firmly in their place.
But money is not the only issue. This season's Championship has been compromised again by the sheer number of overseas professionals. Of the 355 players to have featured, almost a quarter are not qualified to be picked for England. Since the present selectors appear to believe in a policy of choosing their Test team only from around 12 players, win or lose, this may not matter, but it wouldn't happen anywhere else.
There have been 32 players who are officially ranked as overseas signings, and 55 more who are ineligible for England but able to play county cricket by being a Kolpak registration, or holding an EU passport. The last overseas recruitment, the busted flush that is Shoaib Akhtar, by Surrey was perhaps the most despairing of all. The enduring justification for overseas players is that they raise standards. There have been some South Africans in the Championship who would not be fit to oil Kevin Pietersen's bat.
The ECB continue in talks with the Government, whoare in turn seeking EU advice, about how the numbers of foreign players might be reduced. Nothing will work better than common sense, a commodity which remains in as short a supply as their own money among most counties. Each receive £1,100 for every England-qualified player they field in a Championship match and £275 per player in a one-day match, up to nine players in both cases. The total at stake over a season, assuming no cup progress, is around £140,000, so fielding say two more ineligible players in every game would cost some £50,000. There is a mood at the ECB to increase the incentives.
Of course, it is not only being a foreigner that precludes playing for England but being too old. Leicestershire, for instance, might be able to mount a defence of sorts about their policy. True, this week they put out a side containing five non-qualified players (as well as an Australian who does not count as an overseas player) but they have used 11 players this summer under the age of 25, six of them under 23.
If the perception is that there are too many older players, the birth certificates show that there are plenty of younger ones. Some 25 teenagers have appeared in the Championship in 2008, 65 under 23, 117 under 25. They may not all amount to much eventually but most of them are British. There have been 128 players over 30, 33 of whom have marked their 35th birthday. But when those older players include Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash, true servants of a game whose standards have been impeccable, there should be few complaints.
The age balance seems about right. But it should be a warning that older teams have struggled. Surrey and Lancashire, both big guns, both in danger of relegation, have frequently fielded sides with an average age of well above 30. When they played each other in April, Lancashire's average age was 32.43, Surrey's 31.26.
Middlesex, stricken by internecine strife, can at least point to youth as giving them hope for the future. They have fielded the youngest team overall (25.45 last month), and Yorkshire, with six players under 23 in all, have done so in Division One.
And so to the title run-in. Although both Somerset and Durham await their first title, the sentimental vote goes to Somerset because they have been around longer. But whoever wins, it counts all right.
A memory that will endure is from the World Twenty20 semi-final in Durban on 22 September last year. India beat Australia and Yuvraj Singh was in splendidly rampant mood, but the contingent of English reporters sat round a laptop closely following on the updated scoreboard Lancashire's eventually forlorn pursuit of 489 which would have won them their first title since 1934. They lost by 24 runs.
If something similar happens this time the dear old Champo will be all right. If a million was at stake it would be better still.
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