New format assists clubs but players stuck in old attitude

The County Championship starts today but the rewards for enterprise may be undermined by reactionary domestic work-force

IT MAY have been cricketing weather for the best part of two weeks, but the first verbal indication that summer is almost with us is when those men in white coats call "Play" to start the first round of matches in the County Championship.

It may have been cricketing weather for the best part of two weeks, but the first verbal indication that summer is almost with us is when those men in white coats call "Play" to start the first round of matches in the County Championship.

At 11 o'clock today dozens of talented young cricketers will leave the dressing-rooms and make their way to the middle full of optimism and ambition. "This is going to be my year", they will keep telling themselves. Come September, some will have exceeded their expectations, most will have done enough to be offered another contract and a few will be in need of another breed of men who wear white jackets.

With two overseas players, a new 20-over domestic competition replacing the Benson & Hedges Cup – aimed at bringing in a fresh, younger breed of spectators – and the financial burden of expensive England players taken away by central contracts, the counties have been armed with everything they wanted to make the 2003 season a success both on and off the field. It is important they do, because money from the central fund – the England and Wales Cricket Board – is only going to become tighter as sponsors and broadcasters prove harder to attract.

The new format is here so that the more industrious and enterprising clubs can give themselves greater financial independence and this is what they will need if they want playing staffs and levels of pay to stay at the current level.

The prospect of belt-tightening has not been lost on the players, who even before a ball has been bowled want the number of overseas players reduced back to one. Communication between the committees and their cricketers are obviously as open and trustworthy as ever!

That the players are against such a decision comes as little surprise, but their reasoning explains one of the weaknesses in the English game. More overseas players, and indeed EU players – cricketers from other parts of the world who can play freely in the UK even if they are ineligible to play for England because they possess a European passport – means fewer jobs for the boys and this is why the players' union, the Professional Cricketers' Association, is attempting to introduce a policy to make each county side contain at least eight players who are eligible to play for England.

Concern over whether this influx will have a detrimental effect on the future strength of the England side is worthy of debate, but this is not the reason why players are taking such a stance. Their vision for English cricket looks no further than the end of their current contract and it is the possibility of losing this comfortable and privileged existence which has stung them into action.

Sadly, instead of backing themselves to be good enough to survive a cull, players appear content to maintain the cozy position they have rather than attempt to improve the standard of their play. Such an attitude fails to produce the calibre of cricketer England require to become a major power.

To make the gap between county and international cricket narrower, the domestic game needs to be as competitive as it possibly can and this can only be achieved by raising the quality of player in the system. The amount spent on overseas players is the only drawback to having two because this money could be better spent on improving facilities and coaching.

As for reducing the amount of opportunity for potential England players, forget it. Australia has a maximum of 66 cricketers playing in each round of first-class matches. England have 198 and even if 50 places were taken up by players unavailable to the selectors there is still plenty of room for those who are good enough. And why should the game make it easier for those who are not?

No such attitude exists within the country's leading side, Surrey. In a similar manner to Australia, the "brown-hatters" dominate domestic cricket and remain the side to beat especially in four-day cricket. For one of their staff, though, the 2003 season is huge. After a much-publicised divorce, which led to him withdrawing from the game to such an extent that some feared he might never play again, Graham Thorpe needs to prove he still has a hunger for the job he performs as well as any batsman in the country – scoring runs. Convincing the England selectors his rehabilitation is complete could take some time because Thorpe is good enough to score heavily when coasting. To get back, the 33-year-old needs to rediscover his desire for and his commitment to the game.

With Zimbabwe offering the prospect of easy Test runs and wickets at the start of the summer, it is important players like Thorpe make an early impression because performances against Heath Streak's depleted and divided side will ensure places for the tougher challenge of South Africa in July.

Challengers for Surrey's crown are few and complacency could be their biggest danger. Warwickshire and, possibly, Lancashire are a realistic threat, but most counties will be looking to avoid the drop to the Second Division. The favourites to come straight back up are Yorkshire, who were amazingly relegated the season after winning the Championship, and Somerset, who were runners-up in 2001.

Five players to follow this season

Shane Bond (Warwickshire)

Bond proved at the World Cup, where, after Brett Lee, he was the most impressive fast bowler on show, that talk of his ability was not cheap. The Kiwi, 27, is quick, aggressive and accurate. Bond is the real thing and Warwickshire have done well to secure his services.

Ian Bell (Warwickshire)

Should have batted for England at the start of the 2002 season but the selectors went for John Crawley. Despite having an indifferent summer, Bell remains a class act and the 21-year-old should be the player the selectors turn to if a vacancy appears at the top of the order.

Chris Tremlett (Hampshire)

Individuals mature at different ages and bowlers often take longer because growth spurts in tall men affect co-ordination. At 6ft 7in and with a strong physique, this seamer has plenty going for him. After two years of sensitive treatment now is the time for the talented 21-year-old to make his mark.

Paul Franks (Nottinghamshire)

Injury has halted the progress of this fiery all-rounder since his international debut in 2001 but fully fit the 24-year-old remains one of England's most promising cricketers. Good early-season performances could see him replace the injured Craig White in England's one-day side.

Monty Panesar (Northamptonshire)

The spinner made a good impression at the National Academy in Australia during the winter with his bowling and attitude to the game, and appears the natural successor to Ashley Giles. Wearing a patka, the 21-year-old has a smooth, high action in the Bishen Bedi mould.

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