There are just too many draws in County game
Derek Pringle looks at the worrying trend of draws taking precedence over victories in the County Championship
Essex won this year’s County Championship by the grand margin of 68 points with the quaint, old-fashioned notion of actually winning games.
Their tally of 10 victories was double that of their closest competitor, Lancashire, so there was no doubt they were deserving winners. But while they had clinched the title with two games to go, the dog fight to avoid relegation involved every team from third place to bottom – which seemed excessive given that part of the idea of a top division is to create an elite.
There were eight teams in the top division this year of which two were relegated, in this case Middlesex and Warwickshire. However, the former are demanding a meeting with the England and Wales Cricket Board after they were docked two points for a slow over-rate incurred in the match against Surrey abandoned due to a crossbow bolt being fired into the Oval. That sits in contrast with the 10 teams lodged in the second division, a nadir from which further descent is impossible.
The priority for teams in Division One, which offers the benefits of bragging rights, happy members, media coverage as well as enhanced opportunities for sponsorship, is to stay up.Winning the title, it seems, is secondary. The best way to achieve that is to not lose, there being five points awarded for a draw along with first-innings bonus points for batting and bowling.
If you doubt the power of that approach just look at Surrey. They finished in third place having won just two games, the fewest wins save for bottom-placed Warwickshire. Kumar Sangakkara scored over 1,400 runs for them at an average of 106, while two other batsmen, Mark Stoneman and Rory Burns, also made over 1,000 runs. These three were the only batsmen to surpass four figures in Division One.
Good batsmen all, there can be little doubt that the pitches they played on, at least at the Oval, were good to them, prepared, as they almost certainly were, with the draw in mind. Now, some would argue that docile pitches better prepare players for Test cricket though conditions in that form of the game seem to have become more spicy in recent years. With the format seemingly under threat, the dull draw, with the emphasis on dull, seems to have gone the way of the Dodo with even Asian countries, a great repository of such draws in the past, now producing result pitches.
My instinct, having played for Essex in Championships where no points could be gained for drawing matches, would be to return to that model. I realise it is a somewhat blunt instrument and might cause a shift towards incautious cricket, but the zeitgeist has shifted in Test cricket, the production of players for which remains the main raison d’etre for counties.
One county coach I spoke to is dead against losing points for the draw for the reason stated, that it would create more reckless cricketers, something, to my mind, T20 has already done when it comes to batting against the red ball. His other worry, that counties would create result pitches, is already with us as well, if Middlesex’s complaints about the spin-friendly surfaces Somerset have produced at Taunton have any merit.
In any case, the ECB have Cricket Liaison Officers at every county match who report on pitches, umpiring quality, player behaviour in order to prevent the worst excesses. Mind you, another interested party I spoke to, with regard to pitches judged to have turned too early, said that there is an in-built bias towards seam bowling in England. If surfaces encourage seam they mostly pass without comment, while those that encourage spin are nearly always reported or tut-tutted.
If that is true nobody yet has been
Some argue that docile pitches prepare players for Test cricket but conditions in that form have become more spicy
censured for providing a turning pitch, which suggests Andrew Strauss, director of England cricket, may have been pulling a few strings.
If you look at matters from his point of view, no Test team is likely to become number one in the world without being able to win in Asia, which now boasts four Test teams, five if you count West Indies, whose pitches have become similar to those on the Sub-continent.
Being able to play and bowl spin well in such conditions is essential to winning there and really needs to start in county cricket, if not before. As such, teams who have produced spinning pitches in the Championship have not been reprehended for them, the message being that teams, instead of whingeing, need to get on and learn how to play on them. Another bug bear of those coaching/running teams in Division One, is that two teams down is too great a proportion of the division. Such flux creates, they argue, a situation that stifles any long-term thinking such as investment in home-raised talent.
If survival is paramount, which it is when a quarter of teams can be relegated, there can be no waiting for local players to mature or come good. Instead the urge to dial-up a Kolpak, most of whose capabilities are well known, becomes irresistible as we have seen. They feel just one team should go down though that would limit interest for those not so closely involved.
One obvious tonic to that, given two down remains preferable to just one, would be to increase the number of sides in the top division from eight to 10. A bottom division of eight teams would give the laggards just that bit more hope of escaping while an enlarged top division would prevent the disproportionate to-ing and fro-ing, which many feel undermines its worthiness.
Assuming every team would play the others home and away, it would mean more games for the top teams, room in the calendar that may be impossible to find once the England and Wales Cricket Board launches its new city-based T20 competition, due to be launched in 2020.
Mind you, the failure of South Africa’s latest franchise-based T20 to find both a broadcasting deal or a title sponsor might just be a warning shot across the bows of white-ball cricket, while simultaneously being one in the arm for the red ball game, especially if it should result in more time and space being found for it to properly flourish.
Runs: Kumar Sangakkara profited from a batsman friendly Oval pitch
d Stalemate: Surrey drew ten times in 2017 with runs galore at the Oval