Title pursuit carries too many makeweights

Martin Johnson on the long hard slog ahead as the County Championship cricket season starts today
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The Independent Online
The English cricketing summer gets under way in earnest today with the opening round of the Britannic Assurance County Championship although, as a vehicle for the national team, the sponsors are not so much perceived to be underwriting a Rolls Royce as a moped. In fact, as far as the England selectors are concerned, the one real difference between the Championship and a moped is that the former carries a larger number of passengers.

Warwickshire are the county champions and Leicestershire finished as runners-up, but if the England selectors were at all conspicuous by their presence at Edgbaston and Grace Road last summer, it might have had more to do with the quality of the committee room gin and tonic than anything on offer on the other side of the windows. Neither team was hampered by Test calls in 1994, and it would be a touch surprising if Raymond Illingworth's 1995 contacts book contains a note of the new telephone codes to Birmingham and Leicester.

There is, as England have demonstrated with occasional high-class performances, no great shortage of individual talent to pick from, but equally there is, as England have likewise demonstrated by limiting their triumphs to the odd day or the odd match rather than the odd series, a distinct shortage of the mental toughness required to compete with the likes of Australia or this summer's visitors, the West Indies.

For this, the blame is largely apportioned to a system that is the equivalent of issuing itself with a pair of stepladders to take on Everest. The domestic game contains too much cricket, too much one-day cricket, and too many players with not enough talent to remove itself from a daily treadmill routine that breeds complacent and negative attitudes.

Michael Atherton was sufficiently brassed off after the tour to Australia to call for a streamlining of the system and hardening of attitudes. The England captain's difficulty in coping with the profusion of county games either side of mentally draining Test matches is reflected in last summer's batting average for Lancashire of 23.78, and his generally defensive captaincy in Australia was also a product of the way the game is played in England.

Most of the 14 counties in action today will have playing staffs that are not only far too large, but also, as a result of three of the four domestic competitions being limited overs, and the anachronistic benefit system, include players that are either not good enough, too old, or both.

Too much one-day cricket inevitably leads to counties employing too many cricketers (the ones who can do several things passably well, but nothing outstandingly well) and the benefit system produces players hanging on (mostly at the expense of promising youngsters) for a golden handshake. Then, once they have had their tax-free collection, off they go to another county to hold back more young players.

The number of rejects flitting their way from one county to another is one of the more negative aspects of coaches and managers. Judged more by short-term results than visions of the future, they invariably mirror this in selection, which is partly the reason why new England cricketers take longer to emerge than those from other countries.

On the positive side, domestic attendances are showing a steady increase, and if the weather is half decent, there should be a goodish crowd at Edgbaston today to see Warwickshire open the defence of their title against the 1993 champions, Middlesex.

Surrey, who promise much but deliver little, are at home to Gloucestershire, who are so unfancied that Ladbrokes managed to omit them altogether from their pre-season quotes.

Lancashire are among the shorter prices, although the impending VE day celebrations are a reminder that Hitler was still five years away from invading Poland when they last won the title outright, and the value for money bet at 40 to 1 might well be Somerset.

n The Sussex batsman Martin Speight is likely to be out of action for at least a fortnight after missing the start of the season with a virus. Speight, 26, fell ill after Sussex's pre-season tour of Spain and has seen a specialist after losing a stone in weight. Results of a blood test will not be known until early next week.

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