The plus points of doing the grounds

Cricket Diary
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The Independent Online
By common consent it is increasingly agreed that England's best cricketers play too many games. It is less often suggested, however, that they also play in too many places.

There may be only 18 first-class counties but by the end of this summer they will have played Championship fixtures on 48 different grounds. No sooner have cricketers become accustomed to their home turf each summer than they must up sticks to the unknown vagaries of an outground where the bounce, the light and, more importantly, the luncheon arrangements are likely to be different.

In a revolutionary announcement last week, Yorkshire ended this policy in the Broad Acres. Having played on six grounds this summer, as is traditional, they will, from next season on, play only at Leeds and Scarborough. Sheffield, Bradford, Middlesbrough and Harrogate will join places like Gillingham, Burton and Newark in becoming ex-first class venues.

Revolutionary it may be, trend setting it is not. A random poll among other clubs indicated that they would like to keep county cricket as God apparently intended it, as a game for the whole county. While, 25 years ago, there were 58 grounds and 50 years ago 68 (Oh, my Clacton and my Barwell long ago, as the poet might have said), there were also more county matches and further reduction does not appear imminent.

Nigel Bett, the chief executive of Sussex (four grounds this summer), went to the kernel of the policy: "It is a quintessential part of the county game," he said. "It's a very difficult thing to cost but we are taking the game to places our members want to see it. They perhaps wouldn't turn up to watch only at Hove."

Glamorgan (four grounds for first-class matches this summer, another for a Sunday League match) will also retain outgrounds, even when they buy their Cardiff headquarters.

"It may well reduce but we would hope to have some cricket in the north and the west," said their secretary, Gwyn Stone.

While economics - rather than being forced to adapt to so many varying conditions and thus shed any home advantage - may have forced Yorkshire's hand such thoughts would be heresy in Gloucestershire.

"We lose slightly on the Gloucester Festival but it is the county town after all," said the chief executive, Philip August. "We make a great deal on Cheltenham, far more than if we stayed in Bristol. I'd like to think we will go to these places forever and a day, though it took us a game to get used to Cheltenham's pitch this summer and we lost."

Only Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Northants play all their Championship games on one ground. Equally, next summer, with Yorkshire's retreat only Sussex, Essex and Glamorgan are likely to have games on four different grounds.

Doubtless, Yorkshire are being wise. But sometime in the future they may have occasion to recall matches like that at Harrogate last month. For three days the ground was full of people and joy, and during tea Malcolm Marshall, coach of the visitors, Hampshire, and one of the world's great former players, played cricket with his son in the outfield.

It could not happen at Headingley. With 4,000 in, the place will still feel empty and characterless and games on the outfield are not permitted.

IF nothing else, the Whyte & Mackay Rankings are demonstrating the advance of the English left-arm swing bowler. Nothing quite in the Wasim Akram category, you understand, but the computer-assessed charts show what averages do not.

Three of the top four places for the season so far are filled by the left-arm boys, Simon Brown, Alan Mullally and Paul Taylor, and Mike Smith is at ninth. Mark Ilott of Essex, who has been injured, is in 24th.

This leaves but one specialist, left-arm swing bowler, Jason Lewry of Sussex, who may be the best of the lot. Lewry was ill earlier this summer but his W&M points in a losing cause in the NatWest Trophy on Tuesday won him the pounds 500 monthly award for July.

The positions indicate either an abundance of unusual riches, the shortcomings of batsmen confronted with a different angle of attack or the weaknesses of computer-generated ratings. Mind you, the top two batsmen are also left-handers, which might conceivably show the machine has been programmed to be positive towards minorities.

Details have yet to be revealed, but the Brian Johnston Memorial Trust, set up a year ago to honour the eminent, idiosyncratic commentator, is already preparing for its finest moment. Having been approached by a group being described only as "wealthy benefactors" its plans for a residential national school of cricketing excellence will soon be announced. Lord's mandarins know all about it. These are the Lord's mandarins of course who, thwarted by the counties, have repeatedly failed to establish a national academy of their own. Who knows, they may be the wealthy benefactors.

One-man stand

Vince Wells, who on Thursday scored his second Championship double- century of a season which has also brought him a 197, had previously scored only two hundreds in 76 matches. "I think opening the batting has made a difference," the Leicestershire all-rounder said. "Before I'd go in in the middle order and get 40s. I'm now determined to go on and when I get to a hundred I have a word with myself." Wells knows his debt to Nigel Briers. If the 41-year-old hadn't retired, the opening batting place would not have been vacant.