Mal Loye hit 10 sixes in nine overs on his way to 88. It took him 35 balls - none of them served up with a declaration in mind

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The Independent Online
Tough, competitive cricket produces top quality performances at all levels, including in the Second XI Championship. Northamptonshire are in with a great shout for the title this year, which will be decided by this week's remaining games.

In pressing for a win in our final game of the season against Sussex at Hove last Thursday, Mal Loye hit 10 sixes in nine overs on his way to 88 out of 110. It took him 35 balls - none of them served up with a declaration in mind. It set up a victory that means only a win for Hampshire against Leicestershire in the game that started yesterday will deny us the honours.

For Northamptonshire, it was a spectacular signing-off to what has been an excellent year for the second team. Overall, from what I have seen while supervising them, the Championship has been well contested. There are some talented young English cricketers developing just below the first- class level who are benefiting from a professionally run shadow season that includes 17 three-day games and a well contested one-day competition. The one or two poor sides that are around only mirror the state of play in the senior game.

In the past, the seconds have never fully reflected what competitive edge there has been in the County Championship - players played with the intention of having a bat or a bowl and being noticed.

Now, though, it is much more positive, as is correspondingly true of the county game. To some extent, counties still use the Second XI fixtures as opportunities to develop batsmen and bowlers. But there is also the intention of teaching cricketers how to win games and how to apply pressure to the opposition. Today, the Second XI Championship is about preparing players for the time when they are called up to play first-class cricket.

This is as it should be. It seems to have no real purpose if it is used as glorified practice for the seniors. Neither is it the right place to begin worrying too much about young players' technique. All players who join a county's staff have basic ability. If they use a bit of bottom hand when batting, or bowl with an open chest, then let them, as long as it does not become a hindrance to progress.

There is a lot of talk about the need for cricket academies to encourage sound technique. In truth, it is just a trumped-up name for what should already come at the beginning of the system - that all counties need to bring players through from junior cricket to the first-class game.

Just as John Edrich and Peter Lever have been acknowledged for putting some mental resolve into the England side this summer, so the Northamptonshire Second XI coach, Bob Carter, deserves some of the credit for ensuring that the Second XI now plays its part in that development.

Bob, who is leaving for New Zealand at the end of this season, was brought up in an era that featured a Second XI circuit that was relatively free from pressure. You played for yourself. He realised that this was short- sighted and worked hard on getting players to perform in meaningful match situations. His lead is being followed now by other young coaches on the circuit, such as Mike Newell at Nottinghamshire and Durham's Martin Robinson. County cricket is all the stronger for it.

The two-day NatWest Trophy final, the weekend before last, featured exactly the sort of intense cricket for which today's young professional must be prepared. It was disappointing that the match was marred by what many thought was some sub-standard umpiring from Dickie Bird. He is increasingly disinclined these days to make any sort of decision. Fully aware of this, Warwickshire deserve credit for exploiting his reluctance to give lbws with clever use of the pad against Anil Kumble when he was bowling from Dickie's Nursery End.

They highlighted that teams today must be durable as well as talented to win trophies, however erratically the man in the white coat performs. Hopefully, the Northamptonshire second team players who become the county's future stars will be equipped for the time when revenge can be taken.