Glimmers despite the gloom

As a damp squib of a season closes, faint signs of optimism are visible
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UNTIL THE beginning of July it seemed that the cricket season might never begin. Come the fag end of September it is possible to wonder if it will ever end. The dear old County Championship, sponsored for the 15th and final time by Britannic Assurance, was beset for its first two months by dreadful weather and has suffered for its last two from indifference of similar proportions.

Six teams were in contention for the most important domestic prize going into the last three weeks and three were still vying for it when the final round of matches began on Thursday. In its way it has been fascinating stuff, but never been so gripping that it has prevented the "so what" factor coming into operation. When the prize money is at last divvied up today, with all of pounds 100,000 going to the winners, few will be watching but the greater danger is that few will also care.

There are arguments for and against splitting the Championship into two divisions but those in favour are gaining ground with each uncompetitive match. It is not as though it has suddenly become imbalanced and that down the long years all the counties have been well matched. Yorkshire, for instance, did not win 29 titles, nor Surrey seven in a row by getting seriously sustained competition from the likes of Somerset and Northamptonshire, but that was then and this is now.

Even in a wet, miserable summer such as this, county matches possess a slow, old-fashioned charm which has, as its defenders point out with misty eyes, made them part of the social fabric of England. But uncompetitive cricket makes for uncompetitive cricketers. It is not that they are not doing their best, they are trying their socks off, but in any county match it is possible to see glaring, elementary errors.

This has led to the much-lamented difficulties in the breeding of international cricketers which have been put solidly into perspective by the advances of other Test nations. Australia have always been a handful but the idea of England being beaten by 10 wickets by Sri Lanka in a Test, not to mention being dismantled in a one-day match, would not have persuaded any self- respecting bookmaker to offer odds a mere 20 years ago.

Enough, for the moment, of the downbeat. There are reasons to be cheerful, as espoused by men like David Collier and Vinny Codrington. County secretaries both - or in Collier's case, chief executive - but not long enough to have become entrenched dinosaurs. They can still bring almost an outsider's view.

"We have reached the last four in every domestic competition this season and interest in Leicester is huge," said Collier. "We are an integral part of a very big sporting success story which includes rugby and football." Attendances at Grace Road may not at first sight tend to support such bullishness but Collier pointed to the 5,000 members and, for the NatWest semi-final against Derbyshire, the highest attendance for more than 20 years.

Codrington is cautiously optimistic and suspects it is probably time to be upbeat on the grounds that, who knows, the mood might spread. Middlesex's transitional period notwithstanding - and history shows they will be back shortly - Codrington said: "I think that the four-day game has got to be more competitive and that the introduction of the national league of two divisions is very good thing which will make the one-day game very attractive."

The ECB and the counties will meet next month to try to agree on a vision of the future which does not necessarily constitute the status quo. Having decided last season not to have two divisions in the Championship the counties may be asked to change their minds. Nothing, however, will come into force before the year 2000.

The Championship has not yet found a sponsor to replace Britannic, who may be, considering the number of mentions and identification with the product, among the more generous sponsors of all time. Richard Peel, the ECB's director of corporate affairs, said last week that interested parties may be biding their time until English cricket's new television deal is finalised. "We started off with 10 interested broadcasters and narrowcasters," he said. "That has now been whittled down and negotiations are ongoing with those left. We know the price we want for our game and ideally we would like to have it all signed and sealed by the end of the year."

The rights to the game will revolve largely around Test matches. Since there are four of those next summer against New Zealand, who are hardly the biggest drawing card with which to persuade a television station to sign a new contract, the Board might make much of the planned triangular one-day tournament and the domestic competitions. It may also ask itself why it did not play two series of two matches each. The Championship may not necessarily figure large in negotiations but Peel is convinced it might have a television future. "With the advent of more and more channels and digital television coming on stream there will be lots of air time to fill and the Championship might be just the thing to fit that bill."

From this distance the Ashes are assuming a vast importance, though Peel denied that potential broadcasters and sponsors are waiting to see how England might do. The success of the World Cup next spring is also paramount and while the intended eight sponsors have not been forthcoming ticket sales have gone better than anybody dared hope.

Meanwhile, the 1998 Championship, is consigned to history. There were great moments. They included Mal Loye's splendid triple-hundred for Northamptonshire which helped to make him the player of the year. Loye's performances were the more creditable for coming in a bad side. But the the hardest working, most prolific player of 1998 was a fast bowler not considered good enough to go on the Ashes tour. Andrew Caddick has taken more than 100 wickets and bowled almost 700 overs. By any reckoning in any year, that was monumental.