Off and running: a county season that will be half-finished in May

Demands of 20-over game have forced the struggling Championship into today's record early start

The County Championship begins today. By the end of May it will be half-done. Matches are likely to be played in cold, damp, unforgiving conditions if they are played at all. Most of the other half will be played as autumn approaches.

It is a strange way to treat what everybody still insists is the most prestigious of all the competitions, the one most important to the survival and adequacy of the England team, which is the key to the existence of the whole professional game. What they mean is that it will be tolerated as long as it does not interfere, the wise old grandfather committed to a nursing home because, frankly, he's in the way at home.

Everybody associated with the game knows that the structure of the season is useless. Not that they have managed to do much about ensuring it was rejected. Players, administrators – both paid and unpaid – and the long-suffering supporters know what is wrong and why.

David Stewart, the chairman of Surrey, said this week: "The fixture list is the stuff of nightmares. It goes all over the place. It's being looked at again for next season and clearly we can never have this structure again."

The players are similarly non-plussed by the earliest ever start to the Championship season, though they are hedging their bets. Will Smith, captain of double champions Durham, said: "It's not ideal but we have to make best use of it. Twenty20 is where the game makes a lot of money so you have to bow to that but you have to hold the traditions of the game fairly dear. Most cricketers still think the four-day or five-day game is the true test of ability whether physical, mental, technical or tactical."

Andrew Strauss, England's captain, said: "We're playing too much and that's been the case for years. But I'm not saying anything that has not been said before." But still the domestic game is on a road to catastrophe.

Two counties are teetering on the financial brink, an unpaid bill or a litigious creditor away from administration. A few more are fighting for their lives while still trying to sign fancy players on fancier wages. Perhaps it would be more honest all round to admit the level to which everybody associated with the game is now in thrall to Twenty20. There are no fewer than 147 games of it this summer starting on 2 June, continuing more or less uninterrupted until mid-July and finishing on 14 August with Finals Day.

When Twenty20 was invented in England in 2003 there were 45 matches and it was an instant hit. The formation of the Indian Premier League – what a trick the ECB missed then – has taken it further. It is impossible now to dispel the feeling that T20 is driving the game and, eventually, it will drive everything else over the edge.

Paul Sheldon, the chief executive of Surrey, touched on the rawest of nerves when he said: "We can't be in denial about the strength of the Indian cricket board and the IPL. We intend to be at the top table when the crunch comes, and we all feel the crunch will come because of the power of the player, the amount of money around in the IPL."

English players may have to act decisively through the Professional Cricketers' Association. In some ways, the ECB is playing into their hands. When it recently had to appoint a new chairman of the Cricket Committee, an obvious post for a former cricketer, the counties elected Peter Wright, the chairman of Nottinghamshire who never played first-class cricket, instead of Tim O'Gorman, a lawyer who played for Derbyshire for 10 seasons.

The launch of the ECB's latest five-year plan yesterday, laudable in many respects, could not assuage the truth. There may be, as the ECB insists, more coaches and participants than ever before (though anecdotal evidence is not wholly supportive) but the professional domestic game is in a mess.

They cannot even get Twenty20 right. The finalists of the English competition are supposed to compete in the Champions League (another tournament nicked from under the ECB's noses) except that the Board of Control for Cricket in India has decided that it must be played while the English season and the County Championship are approaching their climax.

To try to salvage something, the ECB has suggested to the BCCI that the two Champions League finalists play in a separate competition in England with the two English T20 finalists. There has as yet been no response but it is predictable. Channels of communication between English and Indian officials are now open but that does not mean India will rush to do any favours. The balance of power is tilted their way – they own Twenty20.

The pity is that the Championship this summer could have been a corker. In Durham there are title holders for the ages, a model of overseas, loyal experience and homegrown players. Through diligence and determination they have managed to find a blend of seam bowlers, which means they can rotate, a state to which other counties merely aspire. They might be pressed by Nottinghamshire, even Lancashire but they should become the first county since Yorkshire in 1969 to complete a hat-trick of titles.

But Twenty20 will never be far away. And if a county should win the Twenty20 and wish to compete in the Champions League in India come what may, the best domestic competition of all will truly know its place.

England expects: Six home-grown players to watch

Steven Davies

Surrey; wicketkeeper

A highly regarded wicketkeeper-batsman, Davies, 23, scored 952 runs at an average of 39 in 2009 for Worcestershire. Having moved to Surrey this season and been called up to the Test squad last October, he'll be hoping to claim the No 1 England spot behind the stumps – but so will Craig Kieswetter.

Chris Woakes

Warwickshire; right-arm medium

Birmingham-born Woakes, 21, has already represented England Under-19s and England Lions. Given his impressive averages with the bat at 34 and taking 37 Championship wickets as a right-arm medium in 2009, Warwickshire will be hoping for a repeat performance.

Steven Finn

Middlesex; right-arm medium-fast

Finn made his Middlesex debut at the age of just 16 and unexpectedly made his Test debut against Bangladesh last month. At just 21, standing 6ft 7in tall and having taken 53 wickets with his right-arm pace in just 14 matches last season, he illustrates the advantage of height for a pace bowler. Could he be the Steve Harmison replacement England have been looking for?

James Taylor

Leicestershire; right-hand bat

Taylor holds the record as the youngest Leicestershire batsman to make 1,000 runs in a season, as 2009 saw him score 1,184 runs at an average of 65. Having already represented England Under-19s, the diminutive batsman, still only 20, will be hoping for a hot, dry summer perfect for batting.

Andrew Gale

Yorkshire; left-hand bat

At 26, Gale might be the oldest of this bunch, but he could prove to be the brightest. Yorkshire's new captain has also led the England Lions on tour in UAE this year. Geoff Miller, the national selector, has said that this marks "the real start of his international career," and his six first-class centuries show he has the pedigree to reach the top.

Scott Borthwick

Durham; leg-spin

Having only played one Championship match last season, Borthwick, 19, will be eyeing a permanent spot for Durham in 2010. As a right-handed leg-spinner, a rare find in the counties, England selectors will be keeping a close eye on his form. He also has a decent googly in his armoury.

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