Counties forsake winning strategy

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With an Ashes series beckoning and any excuse for optimism welcome, there could be no more encouraging measure of the health of English cricket than that provided in the new Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. For the first time in four decades, the Five Cricketers of the Year chosen by its editor are all Poms. Only a Scot might have had some cause to be miffed.

But for Dougie Brown, the all-rounder from Stirling who led Warwickshire's wicket-takers and averaged 50 with the bat, that county would never have been at Lord's on Friday as county champions to open the new season against the MCC. Their success was almost as unimagined as the first-class counties' expected decision to curb their say in the governance of English and Welsh cricket, and hence risk their own existence.

The disbanding of the First-Class Forum, the veto-wielding body comprising representatives of the 18 counties as well as the MCC, in favour of a streamlined management board, is further evidence that change is no longer deemed the mortal enemy. When the 2005 championship opens on Wednesday, however, the need for a less radical piece of surgery may become apparent.

Concern about the rising numbers of county players not qualified to play for England - more than 100 last year, a quarter of the total - has prompted two measures: financial incentives for counties to nurture homegrown talent and the reintroduction of player loans to discourage the mid-season acquisition of overseas professionals as a short-term fix.

Yet the Wisden headline, "In the not-so grand manner", told a more pertinent and disturbing truth about Warwickshire's triumph. Despite becoming only the 20th side to enjoy an unbeaten championship campaign, Warwickshire won just five matches out of 16, two fewer than Kent, the runners-up. And admirable as Brown was, no champion county have ever boasted a leading wicket-taker with as few as 38 victims.

This imbalance was a by-product of the decision in 1999, spurred by England's then frequent batting collapses, to introduce a two-division championship, as well as the development of blander pitches and a more recent increase in the number of points for a draw from three to four. The reward envisaged, that batsmen would place a higher price on their wickets, have been borne out by two of that Wisden quintet, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss, who have since become England's most productive opening pair since Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe.

However, the fact remains that bowling the opposition out twice, mandatory to success at Test level, is discretionary for county players who aspire to international status. The England and Wales Cricket Board proposed various remedies last autumn, including 16 points for a win and three for a draw; curiously, these were rejected by the county captains.

"They thought Warwickshire's record was a quirk," explains Alan Fordham, the ECB's director of cricket operations, who attributes the resistance primarily to an England Test team that went though 2004 unbeaten. "The feelgood factor is strong. Pitches are as good as they've ever been, games are competitive. The mood is 'let's not tinker let's be content'."

It is a long time since English cricket could afford to be so blasé.

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