England must give county game the lead

COUNTY COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
They used to say: "When Yorkshire are strong, England are strong." The maxim still applies but, instead of referring to the Yorkshire team, we simply say: "When Darren Gough is strong, England are strong." How differently we perceive the health of the whole game in this country when we have just one bowler capable of causing problems for the opposition.

As the soul-searching climbs into the back seat to make way for some action, it will be interesting to see just what, or how many Hollioakes it takes for everything in English cricket to be rosy once more, and for all the bickering about the County Championship to be forgotten. Covered wickets, uncovered wickets; two divisions, three divisions; promotion, relegation, zonal systems; four-day matches, three-day matches, even two- day matches if you believe everything you read in the papers. None of it will matter if Goughie has unravelled the mysteries of reverse swing.

The generally accepted wisdom is that if England are playing badly, losing to everyone except Timbuktu, then the Championship itself is to blame for producing too much soft cricket and too many soft cricketers. But what if you turn the argument around? Could it not be that the county game only mirrors performances at Test level, and if England get tough with the Aussies this summer, that attitude would be reflected by county cricket?

Perhaps that is wishful thinking, but it is not inconceivable. What will not change overnight, however, is the number of people who attend four- day cricket. Whether its existence, in an increasingly commercial climate, can still be justified by its abstract contribution to the spiritual well- being of half a nation should be taxing Lord Tesco more than anything else.

The future of the Championship remains unclear and one glance at the table is just as confusing, with Gloucestershire leading, Nottinghamshire second and Lancashire propping the whole thing up. It could hardly have been a worse start for Lancashire, by common consent the biggest club in the land.

Rarely can a county have been afforded such an apparently comfortable start to a season - consecutive home maches against Durham, Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire, yet they are still seeking their first win. After 63 years without a Championship title, rumour has it that the club motto is to be changed, in accordance with more Olympian ideals: "The important thing is not winning, but taking part."

On Saturday their game with Northamptonshire ended in a tame draw, as did that at Grace Road between the champions, Leicestershire, and Surrey, another big club struggling to punch their weight. They were saved this time by an unbeaten 47 against his former county by the acting captain, Chris Lewis. Surrey are already reported to be back-tracking on their plan to manage without an overseas player for this season.

Elsewhere, there were second successive victories for both Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire, for whom Graeme Welch took 5 for 46 against Middlesex; and maiden wins for Yorkshire, surprisingly at Taunton thanks to Peter Hartley's 5 for 34, and Kent, not so surprisingly, against Sussex, who nevertheless made a decent fist of chasing 422. Martin McCague took 7 for 82 as Sussex were bowled out for 317, Keith Newell scoring a career- best 112.

All the other games were drawn. Glamorgan fell 24 runs short of Hampshire's contrived target at Cardiff; Gloucestershire and Essex, sadly but probably correctly, refused to compromise; and the tightest finish was at Chester- le-Street, where Durham and Worcestershire finished with the scores level after Worcestershire lost three wickets from the last three balls when only two runs had been needed for victory.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the entire round of matches was that there was so much Saturday play. Whoever it was that said every cloud has a silver lining certainly knew his cricket.

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