Dismissed by ECB but Championship appeals

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The Independent Online

In this fractured, fragmented season, it is a pleasure to welcome the return of the County Championship on Tuesday. It has been away too long.

The oldest domestic competition in the world has been treated dismissively lately, rather like the old duffer in the pub whose tales of yesteryear are tolerated but who some say has outstayed his welcome and frankly is going gaga.

It fails to garner the necessary coverage any more, in any form of the media; it is treated as an afterthought, an irrelevance, a necessary evil. It has done nothing to deserve this.

The world view, misguided though it is, has not been helped by the manner in which the Championship has been shunted aside by its putative guardians, the England and Wales Cricket Board. It is providing mere bookends to the 2010 season.

By the start of June the competition was all but half done and has only been seen fleetingly since. The weeks between have been filled by a grossly expanded Twenty20 competition whose first stage at long last ends today.

Meanwhile, the LV County Championship has been deliberately weakened by those who should be promoting it. This has not prevented a grand contest emerging. Yorkshire are top. That is a sentence which could have been written at almost any time in any summer until 40 years ago. They have won only one title since 1968, in 2001, but, according to close observers, have constructed a balanced, formidable side, seemingly able to withstand international calls.

The top three in Division One form a northern power base of yore. Nottinghamshire are second, Lancashire third. It was in 1929 that this trio last bestrode the table together.

Yorkshire's success so far has been built largely on powerful batting. Their 22-year-old left-handed opening batsman, Adam Lyth, is the first in the country to 1,000 runs. But Anthony McGrath and Jacques Rudolph, young Jonathan Bairstow and the impressive new captain, Andrew Gale, are all averaging well into the forties or above.

The leg-spin of Adil Rashid, interviewed opposite, is once more bamboozling the county circuit but the seamers Steven Patterson and Oliver Hannon-Dalby have lent penetrative support and that barely takes account of Tim Bresnan and Ajmal Shahzad.

While all Lancashire might desire that their time has at last come after failing to lift an outright title since 1934, Yorkshire's strongest challenge could come from Nottinghamshire, 21 points adrift with two games in hand.

Calmly and astutely led by Chris Read, they lack stars (Stuart Broad and Ryan Sidebottom barely being present) but everybody knows what they are up to. Mick Newell, their coach, knows about team ethos and is aware of collective responsibility. Read is only 31 but has been around forever and is a robust, thoughtful cricketer who will be refreshed for having handed over the captaincy during the T20.

Lancashire, led by another gnarled old pro in Glen Chapple, have won three times and have yet to lose. They will probably contrive to muck it up but something is clearly right there because it is noticeable how fondly Jimmy Anderson talks of playing for the county. It is good to see that Team England do not utterly consume them all.

Durham are beginning to run smoothly after early-season turbulence. This week's series of matches could be significant, and if Yorkshire over-power Essex again as they did at Scarborough in May and Nottinghamshire again beat the bottom club, Warwickshire, gaps could open up. Durham need to beat Lancashire.

In Division Two, the fascination revolves not so much on the top – Sussex for the title – but the bottom, where Surrey and Middlesex, blue-riband counties, occupy two of the bottom three places. Surrey's appointment of a 22-year-old captain, Rory Hamilton-Brown, appears to have been premature, and they will need Mark Ramprakash to drag them from the mire. Middlesex should do better.

There is the unmistakable concern that all this fascinating stuff is passing much of the world by. It would be possible to have keenly contested competition without much of an audience. It happens everywhere else in the world, and they still produce Test cricketers. But this is England. It deserves better, and an important few weeks in the life of the County Champion- ship, officially 120 years old, unofficially 146, are coming up.

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