The key to success lies in perfect pitch

INSIDE CRICKET
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The Independent Online
There has been a lot of hot air recently about the need to restructure the County Championship - and the Second XI game - with two divisions to make it more competitive. Are radical changes needed? I am sure they are not. English cricket does not need wholesale changes, just better pitches so good players in county cricket have the surface on which their skills can thrive. Pitches dictate the game. Poor pitches equal poor cricketers. It is very simple, really.

The County Championship that I play is most certainly competitive. We do have good players. Ask any former professional. It is far tougher than it was 20 or 30 years ago. The suggestion that two divisions would add an edge is simply not true. It would mean some counties would lose players, sponsors and spectators and go into a steady decline. That cannot be allowed to happen.

What problems there are with English cricket originate from the Eighties, when three-day cricket was played on covered pitches. Then, green, seaming wickets were in abundance; seamers could, through easily generated movement and uneven bounce, take wickets and win matches. Batting technique suffered. Too many just put a foot down the wicket, prodding forward in defence. They still do today.

The Australians toured in 1989. In the Test match I played in it was clear they had better technique. Their bowlers could land it on a handkerchief. The batsmen could go forward and back. We got hammered 4-0 in the series.

We have not got four-day county cricket right yet. If we do, it may be the answer, but the key is providing the right sort of wickets. My preference is for three-day cricket on uncovered wickets. If groundsmen produced the best-possible surface, there would be time to get a result without the game becoming a farce of contrived declarations and run chases.

Bowlers would have to bowl excellent line and length to take wickets and batsmen would have to have good technique accordingly. With the possibility of rain and the wicket turning, teams would have to select two spinners for a balanced attack. This would encourage the development of technique against slow bowling. Playing against orthodox English finger spinners helps develop good technique, so that batsmen acquire the ability to cope with the wrist spinners of other Test countries. That Shane Warne ball which caught out Mike Gatting in 1993 need not be such a problem in the future.

In truth, the Test-playing countries England used to beat - India, Pakistan, New Zealand, the West Indies - have more than caught up, partly as a result of their best players receiving a good grounding in the County Championship. Lose a one-day competition by all means and make the other 50 overs a team - it is ludicrous we do not play the same number of overs as is now the norm in international cricket - but overall changes are not the key to a successful County circuit and, consequently, Test team. The pitches are more important.

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The Second XI structure - with 17 three-day matches and a one-day competition - seems right to me. Allan Lamb, the captain of Northamptonshire, believes the system is outdated. I disagree - but then coaching up-and-coming players at the moment I would say that, wouldn't I. But the amount of cricket they play does allow for two solid days' coaching. That's important.

The talk of a shake-up to the seconds is based on the fear that counties are going to reduce squad size, I believe, to around 16 paid professionals when the new minimum salaries agreed with the Test and County Cricket Board come into effect later this year. The message seems to be: "You wanted more money? OK, we'll have fewer players."

To cut the playing staff to this extent and expect trialists - most of whom will be trying to hold down jobs outside cricket - to fill in the gaps is a serious mistake. At Northamptonshire, we have 28 paid professionals, which is probably too many, but Somerset, who won the Second XI Championship last year, released eight players at the end of the season and are now struggling with injuries. It is remarkable they have made it to the Benson and Hedges semi-final next week.

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I was surprised to see Robin Smith in the Test team. It suggests to me that Ray Illingworth is not happy with the form of any of the candidates for the wicketkeeping slot and has plumped for Stewart as the all-rounder in the side (bat and gloves) and looked for a replacement to partner Atherton. The selection of Richard Illingworth will surprise even more. Tufnell and Yorkshire's Stemp were the popular choices. Going for Illingworth instead is another "common sense" style decision. He was definitely the chairman's choice.

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