Why Championship match overload is a myth

This week we’ve seen Middlesex rack up a club record 676-5, Leicestershire 528 and Durham 503-8. But not before 102 wickets fell on day one up and down the country in the County Championship – 39 of them before lunch.

The latter prompted some of the pundits covering another England Test defeat to suggest it’s further evidence that the championship no longer fulfils its purpose – producing future England cricketers.

Time after time it’s this: England do badly, so who can we blame? I know, let’s put the boot into the championship.

The reaction proved to be knee-jerk. That 102 total was 15 more than for any other round of opening days this season and the average per game, even after this week’s initial clatter, remains eight, which is what you want on day one.

Eight or nine wickets per day in the championship delivers – in terms of producing an even contest between bat and ball.

Had the likes of Michael Vaughan also taken the trouble to scratch the surface, they would see the preponderance of youngsters currently being given first-team experience; thus lending weight to the argument that promotion and relegation is the only way of guaranteeing intensity right the way through to the end of September.

Another factor is that now we’re in September, championship matches start at 10:30 rather than 11:00.

We’re seeing fresh-faced line-ups particularly in Divisions Two and Three where there isn’t a great deal to play for. There have been three instances recently of four or more teenagers appearing in a team for a first-class match – all for Sussex, who fielded as many as six against Worcestershire.

Other than Surrey’s four teenagers against Middlesex in 2017 – Sam Curran, Ryan Patel, Ollie Pope and Amar Virdi – the last time there were that many was way back in 1939.

And just look where those four are now – Curran and Pope have gone on to play for England while Patel and Virdi have become very handy county pros, all before turning 24. Investing in youth carries risk, but if you don’t, how will you ever know?

Laurie Evans did a stint on commentary during the game at Northampton and, despite the Surrey batsman’s reputation for being a white-ball specialist, he too was concerned by over one hundred wickets falling on Sunday.

He also suggested that one way of producing better players would be to reduce the number of championship matches a season from 14 down to 10. He argued that would then give seamers licence to run in hard as well as bowl faster, and for batsmen to put a higher price on their wicket.

I wouldn’t disagree – but for the three certainties in life: namely death, taxes and any reduction in the number of championship days being filled, almost overnight, with more white-ball cricket.

In the late 1990s, it was common for the leading 25 bowlers in the country to send down 600 or more overs a season in all competitions. These days, even with The Hundred, it’s more like 500.

So, whenever I hear a county pro complaining they play too much cricket, it doesn’t wash; to the extent that I’m minded to point them in the direction of Martin Bicknell, the last bowler to take a total of 1,000 first-class career wickets for Surrey for, I suspect, the rest of eternity.

Now we have reached a sensible balance, I would say to anyone who puts forward the argument that less quantity means better quality to be careful what they wish for.

It was great to see Ben Foakes back in action, as keeper as well as batsman, for the 2nd XI this week, against Gloucestershire’s seconds.

The merest glance at Surrey’s championship batting averages highlights just how big a whole the absence of Burns, Foakes and Pope has created, on top of the departure of Mark Stoneman to Middlesex.

At Northampton, Surrey could have exerted so much more pressure had they not been 15-3 in the first dig and 49-3 in the second.

Cameron Steel has been brought in as a stop-gap. It’s great he also offers with the ball. But I can’t help feeling that signing an overseas opener stroke number three will be high on Alec Stewart’s winter wish list.

Finding a replacement for Rikki Clarke will also be right up there, simply because there’s no knowing how much Surrey will see of Sam and Tom Curran in 2022.

The last time I had a proper chat with Rikki, he said how much he has enjoyed his cricket since returning to Surrey. He attributed his longevity to that and starting each day with a pint of full fat milk.

Retirement comes to every player, but it’s the wonderful memories they leave behind. Rikki leaves so many, but, for me, it’s not his runs or his wickets, but the catch he took at Guildford in 2002 to dismiss that summer’s leading run scorer, Darren Lehmann, for just 7, which is the most vivid.

Thanks Rik, for everything.

 


 

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