Two good things have happened in cricket during the last week. Firstly, for an old bowler like me the opening rounds of County Championship matches have been rather fun, a sort of a throwback to the days of uncovered pitches.
Well almost. The batsmen may be moaning – particularly those from Somerset (50 all out v Warwickshire) and Essex (bowled out cheaply twice by Middlesex at Lord’s) – but cricket is far more interesting when ball isn’t paying total homage to bat.
And the ICC have done an about-turn regarding qualification for the next World Cup. It sounds likely that the bottom two Test-playing countries will be obliged to enter a play-off for the remaining two places with the top four associate countries. Ireland’s prayers, or should that read pleas, appear to have been heard.
Taking the pitches first, despite the purists’ clamour for the removal of the roll-on tarpaulins and a return to the old sticky dogs of the 1970s, it was never going to happen. Life moves on.
But the ECB introduced the next best thing – a banning of the heavy roller from first-class pitches. At last batsmen who believed footwork was just something you did when you got an invite on to Strictly Come Dancing were being exposed.
For too long they have luxuriated in flat, easy-paced surfaces and blithely hitting the ball on the up. There was major run-inflation. Now they have to find a new dexterity and nimbleness to make runs.
They might complain now, but it will do them good in the long run. It will enhance their games and enable them to play more successfully abroad.
England were found wanting in the World Cup partly because of their inability to adapt to the low, slow subcontinental pitches. They were rigid and crease bound. They were outmanoeuvered by the artistry and fluency and imagination of the Indians and the Sri Lankans where a ball moving (turning) off the straight is as common as a car horn. To them it is not something to worry about.
The new conditions in county cricket – moving pitches and a swinging ball – necessitates playing the ball later, with greater feel and touch. It will bring back a deftness and wristiness that has become virtually extinct from modern English batting. In recent times, the phrase ‘soft hands’ has only been heard in
commercials for Johnson’s baby oil.
Bowlers, meanwhile, are re-discovering the art of late swing and feasting themselves on rigid prods at the ball, rather like the now disgraced Pakistani Mohammad Asif was last summer. It keeps the game moving.
Meanwhile, the ICC have seen sense. A tad anyway. If they do decide to organise a play-off for the last two places in the 2015 World Cup it will be a brilliant way of joining the Test and one-day spheres together.
By linking qualification to a country’s position in the Test match ‘table’ it makes every Test series, even match, important. There is a carrot at the end and it’s not just the honour and pride of being second behind India, or whoever. There is always something to play for.
And for the associates, there is real incentive to get their houses in order and plan a four-year campaign. As a result of this shift in the ICC’s stance, indeed, there may even be a further elevation of the World Cup in importance, making it the premier trophy to win for all countries, not just the subcontinental ones. I’ll second that.
*Follow Simon Hughes on twitter @cricketanalyst or download his cricket analyst app featuring a comprehensive guide to every player and piece of cricket jargon.