Second import the answer to lifting county standards

The Wisden Trophy has been home for only nine days, the weather is stuck in mid-summer, the county championship is still technically undecided, but after its day in the sun last week, cricket has already slipped back into the autumn shadows.

The Wisden Trophy has been home for only nine days, the weather is stuck in mid-summer, the county championship is still technically undecided, but after its day in the sun last week, cricket has already slipped back into the autumn shadows.

The nearest it has come to producing a news story this week was when Brian Close gave his views on the new system of central contracts - "it's crackers". I reckon he was misheard - what he actually said was "it's a cracker". Either that or Close, once an independent-minded England captain, has become the worst kind of one-eyed old pro, too blinded by Yorkshire pride and prejudice to see any connection between England's victory over the West Indies and the fact that their main strike bowler stayed fit all summer for the first time. And anyway, Yorkshire won't miss Darren Gough until they prepare decent batting pitches. Any old Hamilton, Hoggard or Hutchison can take a hatful at Headingley.

Close's line is that the young players on the circuit won't learn unless they are playing against the best. It seems to have escaped his notice that many of the current England team are not big achievers at county level.

Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick, the batting finds of the moment, started the summer with career averages of 33 and 29 respectively. Mike Atherton hasn't made 1,000 runs in a season since 1995. Alec Stewart's loyalty to Surrey is undoubted, but he only turns it on for them about twice a season. Dominic Cork and Craig White were not picked on the strength of their county stats. Out of the 11 heroes of The Oval, only Graeme Hick and Andy Caddick are big fish in the small pool of county cricket.

It's true that the county game needs more players of the highest class, but the answer is not to rush them in from a Test match, like in the bad old days. The answer is to allow each county to sign a second overseas player.

They are liable to miss a chunk of the season, to play in Sri Lanka or Singapore, but not half as much of it as the England players. And the fashion for Australian second XI-ers has meant that some big stars from elsewhere have yet to be snapped up. Among the international stars not currently attached to a county, and not necessarily unavailable, are Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Abdur Razzaq, Shahid Afridi, Courtney Walsh, Jonty Rhodes, Shaun Pollock, Nantie Hayward, Ricky Ponting, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee, Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Carl Hooper (reported to be returning to the West Indies side for the winter), Chris Cairns, Stephen Fleming, Daniel Vettori, Heath Streak, Andy Flower, Javagal Srinath - that's one per county and a couple to spare.

A few may disappoint, as Sourav Ganguly has at Lancashire. But most will pay for themselves - and if each team has two, more of their time could be spent coaching and mixing with the kids.

The standard argument against more imports is that they take the place of young English players - debatable as counties are just as likely to give fringe places to ageing time-servers - but it's a view that can be dismissed altogether now that places are being vacated by England players - 15 or 16 of them next year, if Duncan Fletcher has his way, rather than 12.

Young players learn fastest when they are exposed to new ideas and sustained excellence. Overseas stars bring rather more of these commodities than solid English journeymen.

The moment that Hampshire's young batsmen will remember most vividly from their difficult summer will be the duel that Warne fought with Rahul Dravid when they played Kent.

It's too early to pass judgment on the two-division championship, but one thing has become clear in its first year: bonus points, never a great idea, are now an even worse one. Among the six teams jostling for promotion from the Second Division are two that have won only two of their 15 matches, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire. They haven't lost much either (Warwickshire twice, Notts three times) but they are essentially being rewarded for collecting draws and bonus points. The first rule of sporting leagues is that they should be simple; the second is that they should be an accurate reflection of quality. Bonus points are neither. If cricket had a dead-simple football-style system, three points for a win and one for a draw, there would only be four teams fighting for those last two promotion slots, and Warwickshire and Notts would not be among them.

That's it from me for another season. To end with, a useless fact. When Mike Atherton made that great 108 at The Oval, it was the first time he had ever reached a hundred in the third innings of a Test match. Strange but true.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly and wisden.com.

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