The forgotten art of saving the game

INSIDE CRICKET
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The Independent Online
Batting and bowling bonus points apart, you get nothing for a draw in the County Championship. It encourages attacking cricket, but with the top of the table as tight as it is at the moment - we at Northamptonshire are tied with Warwickshire, and clear of Middlesex and Lancashire - avoiding defeat becomes crucial in the games involving the title contenders. If you cannot take the spoils it is vital to deny your opponents the 16 points for a win.

The art of digging in to stave off defeat has been on the wane ever since wickets were covered. It used to be the case that every county had two or three batsmen under whom you would have to stick dynamite to shift them - Clive Radley of Middlesex, the Steeles of Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, and Alan Hill of Derbyshire.

With protected wickets came contrived finishes and doctored pitches to get a result. On a bad batting surface, players would have the attitude that if they could not win the game they might as well get it over with.

With four-day cricket, there is no need for captains to agree declarations and arrange a last-day run chase. County matches are only 18 overs short of Test length and that is more than enough time, if the weather holds, to achieve a result.

Batsmen are still struggling to adjust and you can see signs of this in the Test side. England's batting has never been more fragile. It used to be Graham Gooch who held the innings together. Now it is Michael Atherton. Hopefully, four-day cricket will harden up batsmen. In preparation for Test match cricket, the mental approach has to be: "If I can't win, then I mustn't lose."

Last week, David Steele's son, Mark, made his second XI debut for his father's county, Northamptonshire, and may be a doughty cricketer in the making. He learned his first lesson about the professional game: don't believe everything a senior pro tells you.

Mark was sent on a spurious "collection" for his two colleagues who scored 50 in the game. The pounds 40 he raised on a full circuit of the ground was worth a lot more in laughs. Luckily, like his father, he is pretty thick-skinned. Let's hope for England's sake he is as durable at the crease.

However determined the team, there is little that can be done against top-quality fast bowling on a sporting wicket. Last week, facing an unachievable target of 400-plus to win, the Northamptonshire first team were bowled out on the fourth day by Lancashire. It was simply a case of coming up against an in-form Wasim. With Warwickshire to come next week after a home match against Hampshire, it is our second vital game of the month. If we cannot win against Warwickshire, avoiding defeat is vital.

To some extent, we are unlucky to be playing our three main title rivals away from home. I'd expect Warwickshire to prepare an Edgbaston pitch similar to the one for the Test match. Middlesex, whom we face at the beginning of next month at Uxbridge, will ensure a dry, turning surface which obviously favours their spin attack. That, though, is just the way it goes. For all our remaining home games the wickets will be good and green. The hosepipe will see to that. Until groundsmen are employed by the Test and County Cricket Board, counties will always produce strips that favour the home attack.

Also in our favour is the likelihood that Lancashire, and maybe Middlesex, will have to cope with Test calls. We are also out of contention for the Sunday League, which means we can rest our bowlers if they are carrying niggles - they all are at this stage of the season - and face a long day in the field on Monday bowling for a victory.

That said, all successful counties will bring replacements into a dressing- room full of confidence. Lancashire beat us without three of their Test players. Their attitude will not change, no matter how many of their top players are absent playing the West Indies. Positive thinking will win matches.

Who says county cricket isn't competitive? The Championship is building up to be one of the most exciting finishes in years. Lancashire, Warwickshire and, of course, Northamptonshire, are my three to finish in the medal places. The next few weeks are crucial. Especially avoiding defeat.

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