Quick-fire finishes reach fever pitch

Essex and Northamptonshire yesterday managed to complete a four- day County Championship match before tea on the second day. This season the majority of matches have failed to go the distance. Michael Austin looks for an explanation
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The Independent Online
A few more "pitch battles" will colour the English summer if Geoff Cook, the Durham executive director of cricket, has read his crystal ball correctly. So far, 18 out of 55 County Championship matches, just under a third, have finished in three days or less, including Northamptonshire's game against Essex at Luton yesterday.

A total of 30 wickets fell in that match on Thursday, exactly 35 years to the day since the last Championship game to be completed in a day, between Kent and Worcestershire at Tunbridge Wells.

Cook said: "Ninety per cent of this season's fast finishes are connected with pitches, I am certain. Poor quality wickets lead to diluting the attitude of batsmen and it's a bone of contention that some pitches have not been reported to Lord's. Players get into the frame of mind in which they think: we will probably lose today, but will possibly win next week. The way England bowled in the first Test against West Indies suggested that wickets at county level are a bit too easy to take."

After 25 years in the first-class game, initially as a Northamptonshire player, then as an England batsman and now as an administrator, Cook has a depth of background to allay with in-bred common sense. "Last week, there was a game at Derby against Northamptonshire which finished inside two days, and one at Nottingham which went to the last over. The Trent Bridge pitch was reported but not Derby's. There are various inconsistencies and I would think the guidelines are a bit grey," he said.

Only three of the 18 counties, Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Warwickshire have not been involved in a match finishing within three days. After six Championship games, Hampshire have not even contested a fourth day's play.

Even more remarkably, they have won three and lost three, which testifies to Cook's hint that some counties might accept what seems the inevitable and throw the bat valiantly in defeat, rather than block on and on, still knowing they would be beaten on the last day.

Tony Baker, Hampshire's chief executive, emphasised: "It might sound like complacency but I believe a wet end to the winter, followed by an unusually dry spell, contributed to pitches not being as good as expected. There has been a strange mixture of bad batting and bits of inspired bowling."

Some dire collapses have already been a blot on the summer's landscape. Northamptonshire, the Championship leaders, have been dismissed for 46 by Essex and 59 by Surrey, the two lowest scores this season, yet they won both matches.

The groundsman's lot is not always a happy one but Ron Allsopp, in his 43rd and final year at Trent Bridge, reckoned that the meteorological preface to this summer was not much different from any other.

Only two pitches so far, at Lord's and Worcester, have been reported as "poor" and been confirmed as such. Bradford was subject to an inquiry and Allsopp's own surface for the match against Worcestershire last week had similar attention. It still produced an excellent contest.

As Donald Carr, the chairman of the pitches committee, confirmed: "We encourage umpires to bring any doubts to our attention and are reassuring them that this is not an automatic condemnation of any pitch."

In Nottinghamshire's case the report was a precaution, but the longer the season goes on and the nearer to the top of the table that some counties creep, preparation of certain pitches will come under increasing scrutiny. With four days available, preparation of early "result" wickets allows, among other factors, an insurance against rain, which has played a part in the destination of many a Championship title.

Four-day cricket?

Matches Finished Position

played before in

fourth day table

Hampshire 6 6 7th

Leicestershire 6 5 6th

Derbyshire 6 4 17th

Yorkshire 5 3 10th

Northants 7 3 1st

Middlesex 6 2 8th

Sussex 7 2 12th

Kent 7 2 3rd

Glamorgan 7 2 9th

Durham 7 2 18th

Worcestershire 5 1 16th

Lancashire 5 1 5th

Surrey 6 1 14th

Gloucestershire 6 1 4th

Essex 7 1 11th

Nottinghamshire 5 0 15th

Somerset 6 0 13th

Warwickshire 6 0 2nd