County set still have a lot to offer despite the rise of the Twenty20 game
21:30 GMT, 4 April 2012
The County Championship gets under way on Wednesday — and it’s tired of being patronised.
In an age when the gentle cadences of four-day cricket are being drowned out by the crash, bang, wallop of Twenty20, the first-class competition still gets the juices of players, coaches and administrators flowing.
It’s true that success in 20-over cricket remains, in theory at least, the quickest route to fame and fortune. Mumbai Indians, the winners of last year’s Twenty20 Champions League, walked away with 1.6million — roughly three times what Lancashire had picked up a couple of weeks earlier for claiming their first outright Championship title since 1934.
Long game are real winners: Middlesex director of cricket Angus Fraser says the best team wins the county championship
But with Champions League odds stacked heavily in favour of the IPL franchises, with their greater resources and higher calibre of overseas players, those riches are something of a mirage for county sides.
And so it is the Championship that continues to absorb them — because it offers a more tangible pot of prize money and more kudos.
‘The best side in the country wins the Championship, not the Twenty20,’ says Angus Fraser, managing director of cricket at Middlesex. ‘You develop your players in the longer form of the game, and they can then adapt to the shorter formats — not the other way round.’
There is no doubt that aspects of the competition are not what they were. The head-turning contracts on offer in the IPL mean the best overseas players no longer need to spend all summer with a county.
And England’s centrally-contracted cricketers appear so rarely for their teams that a few gatemen may soon struggle to recognise them.
International commitments: Nottinghamshire will be without David Hussey for parts of the season due to Australia commitments
Nottinghamshire coach Mick Newell admits: ‘We’d love to have Australian David Hussey with us from April through to September, but it just isn’t going to happen.’
The England Lions matches against touring sides also have an impact, taking aspiring internationals away from the counties. This summer, the Lions’ four-day game against the West Indians clashes with the fifth round of Championship matches.
Perhaps most damningly, there is a feeling that the Championship is not accorded the respect it deserves; that it is regarded by the England and Wales Cricket Board as little more than a breeding ground for future internationals, rather than entertainment in its own right.
This idea infuriates those who can point to two thrilling final-day finishes to the Championship in the last two years, with Lancashire’s defeat of Somerset in September — enough to pip Warwickshire — as good a storyline as any in the competition’s history.
Knows its worth: Surrey captain Rory Hamilton-Brown says the four day game is where players are noticed
Lancashire may struggle to defend their crown in 2012, with Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, Durham and newly-promoted Surrey all looking well-placed to mount a strong challenge.
Aged 24, Surrey captain Rory Hamilton-Brown might be seen as a member of Generation Twenty20, but he insists: ‘Four-day cricket still tests you in a way Twenty20 does not. If you play cricket for the love of the game, to be as good as you can, and to play Test cricket, you know the Championship is always how you’re going to be measured.’
Surrey are desperate to recapture the glory days of the late 1990s and early 2000s. And for them, the glory days mean only one thing: winning the County Championship.