One step forwards, too many back

Summer 2000: England's success papers over dangerous shortfalls of emerging talent and new backers

A momentous season finally ends this evening after 163 days and nine competitions of varying merit. On balance - and what a balancing act it is - the English game is healthier in the autumn than it was in the spring, yet it remains in a precarious state.

A momentous season finally ends this evening after 163 days and nine competitions of varying merit. On balance - and what a balancing act it is - the English game is healthier in the autumn than it was in the spring, yet it remains in a precarious state.

England might have turned the corner in the direction of sunny uplands but the conclusion of domestic proceedings is accompanied by the serious prospect that the flagship competition, the County Championship, will lose its sponsor. PPP Healthcare, who agreed a four-season deal days before the start of the 1999 Championship, are considering invoking a two-year opt-out clause.

"We have to sit down at the end of the season and decide whether there are enough benefits to continue," said their media relations officer, Phil Hickley. "There are some positive things but there are some things we are not so happy with. In general terms we have been quite pleased with the way the sponsorship has gone. It's speculation to say we won't be renewing, but we can't say that we will be."

PPP were taken over earlier this year by Axa, the insurance company who used to lend their name to the Sunday League before switching from cricket to football and who now sponsor the FA Cup. Hickley said that the Axa merger had nothing to do with PPP's continued involvement in the Championship, but he agreed that if the sport was football they would not even be considering quitting.

The likely withdrawal will be embarrassing for the England and Wales Cricket Board after the splitting of the Championship into two divisions. It would leave them without backers for three events: Test matches, the Championship and what was the NatWest Trophy. There is no doubt that the change in the Championship has lent the competition a more combative air, and although both divisional titles were won with a match to spare, the three Second Division promotion places remained undecided until the final day.

It is difficult to understand what more a sponsor might want out of it (except, presumably, business) unless they went in with their eyes shut. The shortage of both standards and supporters was hardly a secret, and coverage in print and on radio and television (Sky screened two matches this year, and, who knows, might be persuaded to devote more airtime in the future) is still considerable. Cricket has to learn to stand on its own feet, but perhaps it deserves sponsors with greater vision. Both NatWest and Benson & Hedges must have seen something in it.

Surrey were runaway champions, a fact which two defeats early in the season merely disguised temporarily. They had the best team and the cockiest outlook. This was not designed to win them a popularity contest but, as their captain, Adam Hollioake, would eagerly point out, they were rather keener on winning points.

Hollioake was clearly pleased that the 2000 competition was tougher than its forbears. Every match in the season, until the last couple, counted for something. It brought out further the competitive streak in his team. Neither the under-achievers at Lancashire or Yorkshire could live with it.

Not that Surrey or any other county could dispel concern about the paucity of English batting. It has been said for years that accurate seam bowling of the just above military- medium variety, a traditional English product, ain't what it used to be. The batting is worse and hopes that better pitches would lead to improvement came to nought, primarily because the pitches were not, by and large, any better at all.

Whoever and whatever is to blame - step forward the weather, groundsmen, relaid pitches, Surrey loam and woeful batting methods - it meant that picking the England batting order was relatively easy. A look at the Championship averages in both divisions reveals the absence of viable contenders for promotion.

There is a severe shortage of men in their early twenties, and this will have been of scant help in the selection of the England A squad for the winter tour of West Indies, which will be announced tomorrow. Small wonder that the selectors felt able, bizarrely, to pick their senior cadre before the Fifth Test.

It was not that they are any good particularly, but that the rest aren't. Of those who may have a prosperous future, Vikram Solanki, maddeningly short of constancy though he was, has an average of nearer 50 than 40, and Usman Afzaal had a splendid late run for Nottinghamshire. Afzaal at least is only 23. Michael Powell, of Warwickshire, developed reasonably well and his second hundred in the season's last match could hardly have been more timely.

Other young players who have received plaudits probably had their stumps uprooted more often than they pulled up trees. It was to Glamorgan's credit that they kept faith with their Michael Powell, but he took a while to get going and still finished with an average of below 30. Andrew Strauss, of Middlesex, another who has attracted admiration for his mature approach to his pro- fession, did not achieve the results his preparation might have deserved, falling well short of 1,000 runs. Matthew Wood, Robert Key, Michael Gough, and Elliott Wilson all struggled to make runs.

If there was a greater optimism to be gleaned from the bowling charts, the key young names demanded the eyes to move downwards. Steve Harmison, the fastest bowler in England, who was picked in four Test squads without making the final cut, took 26 wickets at more than 30, Chris Silverwood, who was in the England team last winter, took 26 at almost 30, Paul Franks, the young cricketer of the year, had more than 40 at 29. These figures are barely acceptable, and it was supposed to be a bowlers' summer.

As for the spinner of the future, Chris Schofield, of Lancashire, he took 23 wickets on England A's last tour and only three more this entire season. Not one young name leapt off the page and, more importantly, not a single young name compelled in the middle. Well, save for Andrew Flintoff, but his fitfulness threatens to be the story of his career.

Perhaps all that is why PPP Healthcare insist on prevarication, perhaps their top brass are clandestine supporters of retaining the Championship as it was. Like everybody else they should give the new structure time to establish itself, though there is a distinct dilemma to be resolved.

Surrey received £100,000 for being top of the First Division and Lancashire £50,000 for being second. Third-placed Yorkshire won no money. The Second Division winners, Northamptonshire, got £40,000 and the runners-up £25,000. Effectively, 10th and 11th places were more valuable than third to ninth, which is not, in any sense, rewarding merit.

It might also have been tense in the promotion race but it is a defective system that allows a team who have won only four or five matches (from 16) to go up at the expense of those who have won six or seven.

In time, Second Division runs and wickets must have less kudos than First Division runs and wickets. A distinction must be made, as it is between Tests and other kinds of match. In the long-distance future it could be that only Test matches deserve to be regarded as first-class.

For Northamptonshire, at least it was a novelty. All right, it was only the Second Division title, but they had never won the old Championship in 94 years. The one-day team of the season were Gloucestershire, who took an unprecedented treble and still lost money. Ah, money. It is difficult to know what the old game needs more urgently, money or players. But maybe not.

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