The new county season has arrived with yet another debate about the future structure of our domestic game. And I’d like to add my voice to this debate by saying: ‘Hang on, let’s be very careful about what we are doing’.
As someone who played the first-class game for many years, played for England and captained my country, and as someone who is still very involved in coaching and mentoring, I think I know what I am talking about when I say that players only ever improve as cricketers by playing.
Indeed, I would want to make it very clear that I would not have become as good a player as I did if I had played the game less.
I enjoyed playing, and both as a spinner and a lower middle-order batsman I learned to improve my skills by the constant demands of being out in the middle. One hour’s batting, or bowling, in a competitive game did far more for me than four hours spent in a net practising.
The problem with the current theory about players needing to play less so that they can practice, or rest, is that you often don’t improve that much simply by practising.
In fact, I would say that short, sharp net practices are better for every type of cricketer. And match practice is far better than that.
Spinners, in particular, are constantly asked to bowl far too much in nets simply because they are slow bowlers with short run-ups and therefore don’t get as physically tired as fast bowlers if they bowl for longer periods.
But their fingers get tired, and if you start putting the ball there rather than actively bowling it, or if your arm drops a little and if you undercut the ball rather than spin it, then you quickly get yourself into bad habits that can have a hugely-detrimental effect on your game.
This last winter, for instance, Adil Rashid spent a ridiculous amount of time bowling in net after net, with England, when he would have been far better served playing in some matches.
It is out in the middle that you are properly tested, and it is out in the middle that you get the intensity that just cannot be replicated in practice. Yes, players need quality practice, but they also need the quantity of match opportunity to do full justice to the development of their skills.
A lot of people keep banging on about the fact that Australia and South Africa have domestic systems with only about ten first-class games, but they forget that young Australians and South Africans supplement that by playing a lot in the northern hemisphere.
English county and club cricket has been used for years in this regard, and it is now happening too in the IPL where a lot of young Australians in particular are using it to hone their skills.
The wind seems to be blowing us towards a three-conference County Championship, from next season, in which every team plays the twelve counties in the other two conferences, followed by semi-finals and final and possibly other final ‘placement’ matches all the way down to 17th and 18th.
That would mean every county playing a maximum of 14 matches, rather than 16 as at present in the two-division system.
All this has come about because coaches and players in particular think we play too much cricket, but that has only happened because the amount of one-day cricket has been increased from 2009 – despite the axing of one of the previous three different one-day competitions!
But what if the weather is bad during our summer and every county loses the best part of either two or three Championship games from their allocation of 14? That would not be unusual in an average English summer, but it would suddenly leave some players – and especially younger players – facing a significantly reduced amount of cricket-playing opportunity compared to the present structure.
My belief is that we need to safeguard the amount of first-class cricket we play every summer – which is about right at the moment – because our players need that if they are to develop fully.
I don’t think we should go back to three-day Championship cricket, as was the case when I was coming up through the system in the 1970s, and I regard four-day cricket as the better training ground for Test cricket.
But we need to think very carefully indeed about the impact of reducing the amount of four-day first-class cricket that our best young players get to play. Because, in my view, we could be seriously harming the rate of their development if we do cut it down.