(Photo: Getty Images)
By Dan Whiting
There are some pretty large gulfs in this world – the Grand Canyon, the distance from Perth to the nearest city, the warmth of political relations between the USA and North Korea at present, for instance.
However, until recently the train of thought amongst the cricketing cognoscenti was that of the distance between Division One and Division Two of the County Championship.
As in many other sports, the fissure between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ has widened in cricket in recent years. A ten-team Division Two may have created more teams but the well documented struggles of the likes of Leicestershire, Gloucestershire, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and Glamorgan in red ball cricket are replicated by a quick look at the table.
Yet despite the fact that these counties are thriving in T20 cricket – look at the recent successes of Northamptonshire or this season’s remarkable exploits by both Derbyshire and Glamorgan – the fact of the matter amongst those in the know is that the four-day game carries more weight when it comes to England selection.
Does a player now have to move to one of the big boys such as Surrey, Lancashire, Yorkshire or Middlesex to be at the forefront of the selectors’ minds?
When the County Championship was split into two divisions some years ago now, this was the train of thought behind it. It was designed to create an elite group, one that provided future Test players to the England side and with four-day cricket on uncovered wickets, a game that was supposed to replicate the international five-day game, albeit one which rarely goes to five days now anyway.
The successful moves of the likes of Jack Brooks and David Willey heading up the M1 from Northampton to Leeds, or the plethora of players that moved from Leicestershire to Nottinghamshire such as James Taylor or Stuart Broad were classic examples of this. So do players now have to move from Division Two sides to be able to cope at Test level?
There are two schools of thought.
Firstly, those in the no camp will point at the success of champions-elect Essex and their rise from Division Two drifters to a side that is walking away with Division One of the County Championship. Essex are an anomaly though. Having England’s record run scorer, Alastair Cook, return to their ranks for such long periods of the season could only be described as a bonus.
Having one of the finest bowlers in world cricket, Simon Harmer, as a Kolpak and staying fit is lottery-winning material. But Essex have a history of success, albeit a modern one. Despite only winning their first trophy in 1979, the Eighties saw them as arguably the best side in the country and their battles with Middlesex in all forms of the game were the decade’s cricketing equivalent of Coe and Ovett, Liverpool and Everton or Senna and Prost. The influence of many players of that era live on at Chelmsford with Graham Gooch leading the way on the batting front. The pedigree of Essex in trophy collection cannot be compared to many other counties in Division Two.
The other viewpoint, which many cricket followers think, is that the gulf is so huge between Division Two and Test level that these players have to move to take a halfway step to the highest level of the game. One professional described it as “coming from non-league to the Premier Division, with Division One as the Championship”, in an analogy of football terms.
A look at the likes of Ben Duckett who was taken on tour to Bangladesh and India last year is a classic example. Duckett scored runs for fun in Division Two last year, smashing attacks all around on the flat decks at Wantage Road. However, even against the Bangladeshi spinners his game was found somewhat lacking in technique. Exposing his stumps in the fashion that he did would have been sorted out at Division One level, let alone by spinners on wickets that spun square at times. The lack of spin bowling in the top of the averages in Division Two last season may have played a part in Duckett’s downfall.
The yo-yo nature of sides who get relegated from Division One to Division Two, only to bounce up again are another example of the abyss between the sides at the top of our internal structure and those at the bottom. Nottinghamshire will return straight away by the looks of things this year and don’t bet on Warwickshire or Somerset doing the same next season, should they get relegated to Division Two this year.
There have been many calls to make the amount of counties smaller in this country. Reasons such as intensity for players, lack of finances – although some say the ECB like it that way as the manipulation of votes that are incentivised by cold, hard cash make it easier to push through changes in the game. That however, is a debate for another time. The fact of the matter is that the five counties – Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire – have a long and rich heritage, having produced many players for England.
The fans of these counties may be smaller in number but show just as much loyalty as the most one-eyed, partisan Yorkshireman. They deserve their place in the game but the ECB need to level up the playing field.
A structure in place that rewards the development of young players and not filling up your side with Kolpaks would be a start. To see a side filled with South African imports languishing at the bottom of Division Two isn’t the way to take the game forward in this country.
The development of young English talent and proper reward for that is the answer. The system of allowing agents to pluck the meat from the carcass of the weaker animals in the pack is something that may belong to the Serengeti but English cricket, with development plans implemented, should be better than that.
The success of Essex this season should be a lesson to all.