English football has much to teach county cricket, but the summer game persists in learning the wrong lessons. Instead of taking a few tips on how to attract bigger crowds, cricket seems intent on importing that most anti-competitive aspect of football: the idea of the "big club". In football, it means only a few teams can ever really aspire to win trophies or even to hold on to their best players. Cricket may soon find itself in the same boat.
At least in football, though, most of the "big" clubs have earned their place at the top table with performances on the field. This week's news about Hampshire's move for the Essex captain, James Foster, suggests that, in county cricket, it is not producing good players or winning Championships that matters. Instead, a rich benefactor is what separates the haves from the have-nots.
The most depressing aspect of the possible capture of Foster by Hampshire is not the fact that he might move clubs – plenty of cricketers have done so before. It is the belief that he would be moving to a bigger club, purely because Hampshire have more money and host international cricket – which, inevitably, makes them potential members of a still-possible breakaway nine-team T20 league. The Essex coach, Paul Grayson, told Cricinfo that "these big clubs come along with a pot of gold and it can turn a player's head".
Hampshire are undoubtedly richer than Essex, but a bigger club? In the last 30 years, Essex have provided England with Graham Gooch, Nasser Hussain and Alastair Cook, three of the country's finest recent talents. Hampshire have produced the potentially brilliant Chris Tremlett, although it appears to have taken a move to Surrey to unlock his ability. Incredibly, he is the first Hampshire-born Hampshire cricketer to have played Test cricket for England in England. In that context, Hampshire's place in that frequently mooted breakaway league looks quixotic at best.
Essex, too, have the advantage in title terms. Hampshire's last (their second) came in 1973, since when Essex have carried off English cricket's greatest prize six times. And though Hampshire may be in the top flight while Grayson's side languish in the Second Division, that state of affairs may not last longer than this season. They travel to Durham (a county that, despite being first-class for less than 20 years, has a real claim on big club status) today bottom of the table, having taken just 48 points from 10 games. They are yet to win a match.
Which makes it all the more important that they find some form today, but Durham too have good reason to want to win. With four games left to play, four teams – Durham, Lancashire, Somerset and Warwickshire (with a game in hand) – are still in the title chase. Durham have led the way in recent weeks and they should prove too good for Hampshire.
The match at Chester-le-Street today gives Durham a chance to steal a march on their rivals, who do not play this week (it also represents a chance to gain revenge for their defeat in a T20 quarter-final at the Rose Bowl: whatever Hampshire's shortcomings, they are one hell of a T20 side). Durham's success this season has been built on the batting of Dale Benkenstein and a gaggle of local players, the sometimes thrilling Ben Stokes among them, and a deep bowling attack led by England's forgotten man, Graham Onions.
Will it be enough to secure them the title? They look the best-equipped but, whatever happens, at least the county game should have a thrilling finale. Now that's something that football could certainly copy from cricket.