Alex Massie

Fixing the County Championship

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The cricket season has begun which is, as usual, a cause for celebration and an occasion to lament the guarantee that the first month of the new innings will be ruined by rain.

Commercial considerations - that is, the need to stuff the calendar with as many limited overs fixtures as possible during the prime summer months - demand the further marginalisation of the venerable County Championship. Nearly a quarter of the fixtures will be played by the end of May, with others just as liable to be afflicted by poor weather as the season staggers to a close at the end of September.

Times change, of course, and even traditionalists have to accept that. The bigger problem with the Championship is that performances for your county have ceased to have much relevance when it comes to selecting the England test team. The Championship is no longer a proving ground. It's not true to say that it cannot develop test players; one need only look at the number of Australian and South African players (and before them, of course, the West Indians) who have benefited  playing county cricket. Nonetheless, it has ceased to be terribly relevant to the England team.

In part this is a consequence of the (overly) crowded international calendar which, in turn, has meant that the best English players almost never play for their county. It is, I think two years since Kevin Pietersen played a championship game for Hampshire.

One consequence of this is that it becomes increasingly difficult to measure the worth of runs scored or wickets taken in the championship. Form means very little and there's a sense in which performances for your county often have little bearing on your selection prospects for England. Even if Ian Bell scores heavily for Warwickshire (or Michael Vaughan for Yorkshire) there';; be some who shrug their shoulders and say "so what?"

Meanwhile, the proliferation of overseas and Kolpak players must have a detrimental effect on young English cricketers. This is not so much a problem of numbers, rather that the hired guns - some of them playing for just a month or two - are the players burdened with expectation. It is their responsibility to take the crucial wickets or score the vital runs. If the English players fail well there's the overseas men to bail them out. In other words, not enough English players are given the responsibility of leadership. (I'd argue this is a problem for English rugby too: at many Premiership clubs, the players expected to provide something special are the overseas signings).

So what's to be done? Well, as so often the past provides a clue. Two old matches, long since abandoned, could be revived to offer high-quality cricket and permit the best English players to test themselves against one another. That being so, the first week in June (say) should be reserved for the revival of the old North vs South match. Later in the summer - perhaps at the end of August or early September - you could also revive the England vs The Rest fixture.

Taken together these two games would act as a kind of test trial. At the very least they would give county players a fair chance to impress while also reminding the test players that their places must be justified by more than the ownership of a nice, fat central contract.

Meanwhile, my hope for the County Championship this year is pretty simple: please let this be the season in which Somerset win the damn thing for the first time in their history. That's not too much to ask, right?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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