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

The Cricket Paper - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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