England's debt to Warne

Farewell to summer » Championship fizzles out, but abiding memory is of greatness
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The Independent Online

The 2005 season barely deserved its limp conclusion, which sadly, but also pertinently, tended to draw attention to other shortcomings. Nottinghamshire, having secured the title with a priceless piece of collusion the previous week, were now demob-happy to a degree that almost compromised their professional principles. It was not that they did not try (or not much), but that they seemed not to care. What should have been a dramatic finale to the Frizzell County Champion-ship was well and truly frizzled.

It went something like this. Nottinghamshire won the title for the fifth time in the penultimate match after persuading Kent to declare 249 runs behind, then gift them some runs and be set an improbable target of 420 at precisely a run a ball.

Kent agreed to this scenario because a victory was their only chance of themselves still winning the title. In the event they collapsed - the players showing their disenchantment with captain David Fulton's suggestibility - and thus punctured the more realistic prospects of being runners-up. This also meant that Hampshire's chances of becoming champions were scuppered. Their match against Nottinghamshire would in effect have been a title decider.

In the event, Hampshire beat Notting-hamshire with risible ease (by an innings and 188 runs, having scored 714 for 5 declared after astonishingly being put in) because Nottinghamshire had nothing to play for and it showed. At one point on the third day Shane Warne, the greatest bowler of his age, was delivering bouncers and had nine fielders on the off side. But Warne can probably do what he wants.

This thoroughly artificial contest affected the real one between Sussex and Kent and effectively deprived Sussex of a proper attempt to finish second and claim the £40,000 prize money and possible extra sponsorship opportunities that would bring.

Meanwhile, Surrey and Middlesex were going through the motions as soon as Middlesex ensured that Surrey could not earn enough points to avoid relegation from Division One at their expense.

This was all a great shame, because those who have managed to follow the County Championship closely this summer have talked of its intensity and competitiveness.

Chris Adams, the extremely miffed captain of Sussex (and not many do miffed better), said: "This has been the best, most competitive, Championship season that I can remember, but it's ended in farce. No one puts the other side in to bat at the Rose Bowl, but that is what Stephen Fleming did before allowing them to score 714 for 5, and he is meant to be the best captain in the world. It was the second-worst decision in the history of the Championship. The worst came the week before, when Kent agreed to chase Fleming's target of 420 in 70 overs. That was diabolical."

Adams was telling it like it was. Paul Terry, Hampshire's manager, was uncon-cerned. "Nottinghamshire deserve the title. It's played over a whole season," he said.

The trouble is that these shenanigans have focused attention on the counties for other reasons. It might have been properly combative until close to the end, but the number of overseas players was a constant concern. This is not to be xenophobic, but it made one raise an eyebrow at the work of county academies.

If counties are not breeding and grooming their own players, then England cannot hope to continue being successful. While there will always be a place for men like Warne, Hampshire were a case in point, with a side packed full of players who learned their cricket anywhere but Hampshire. Terry was not terribly sympathetic. "Most of them are qualified for England and we have given lots of boys a chance. It's up to them to take it." Up to a point.

Hugh Morris, the performance director of the England and Wales Cricket Board, is optimistic of change. "When fee payments begin to be related to the number of qualified players put out, I'm certain things will change." They need to. Nobody is saying, nobody could say today, that a county's players should all have been born or brought up within its borders, but the last time Nottinghamshire won the title, 18 years ago, albeit with Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice, eight of their regulars were Notts lads. Last weekend there were none.

The ECB have almost all the strategies in place. This week the élite fast bowling group comes together for assessment at the National Cricket Centre in Loughborough. But the spinners remain a different, tougher proposition. Shaun Udal should be wished well on England's tour of Pakistan, but if an uncapped, 36-year-old bowler is the second best English spinner, something is not working yet, though at least Alex Loudon finished the season on a high with six wickets for Warwickshire yesterday.

The conclusion to summer, then, was a huge disappointment. But it was missed by millions, as the events that went before were witnessed by millions and could never be overwhelmed. Ultimately, it was just a privilege to see Warne playing in the Championship. As he walked off the fieldon Friday he was surrounded by acolytes. He might be flawed, but you knew what they were worshipping.

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