I hope people do not think I am over-egging this, but I am afraid cricket’s authorities in this country are aiding and abetting the demise of Test match cricket by their continued insistence that we should play County Championship and Twenty20 matches right on top of each other in our domestic game.
As a fierce supporter of county cricket, and of Test cricket as the ultimate form of our game, and as someone with a reasonable amount of experience to offer in this regard, I am very worried about the sort of match I found myself playing in for Surrey against Kent at the Kia Oval recently.
In terms of overall standards, it was very average – and on a blameless pitch. There were two extremely fine innings, by Rob Key of Kent which so nearly won the game for them, and by Zander de Bruyn for Surrey. Otherwise, the batting was well below what should be acceptable in first-class cricket and some of the bowling was no better. I was frustrated myself to score only 12 and 20 although I am rusty and have not played a great deal this season following my knee operation, but even with my experience I have also found this season disjointed and hard to get myself into rhythm batting-wise.
None of the young frontline batsmen who played in the match – such as Jason Roy, Rory Hamilton-Brown, Tom Maynard and Steven Davies for Surrey, and Joe Denly and Sam Northeast for Kent – scored many runs. Most of their dismissals were as a result of ill-judged strokes, but I have a lot of sympathy for young players desperately trying to get the balance right between the adrenalin-fuelled Twenty20 and needing patience and discipline for the four-day game.
There have been three rounds of Championship cricket forced into the last six weeks, which has mainly been the preserve of the Friends Life t20, and it is obvious to me that this scheduling is having a very harmful effect on the way players are performing on the field. I hope the administrators are listening to people like myself, because it’s not doing anyone any good at the moment.
Meanwhile, does it also undermine the credibility of county cricket that the England Test captain, Andrew Strauss, goes off to play for another county simply because he is searching for form? All England players should have the chance to play a Championship fixture in the lead-up to the first Test of a series anyway.
I understand fully the need for county clubs to make money from Twenty20, and county finances are currently under a lot of strain, but the domestic fixture list is so confused and damaging to our players at the moment that the English game’s authorities are effectively saying that practice – proper practice and preparation for different formats of the game – is not anywhere close to being a priority.
One of the things that has always bugged me about how English cricket is perceived from outside is the view that we don’t take preparation seriously at county level – that another game and another innings will be along shortly so why worry? I think player preparation at county clubs has actually improved during the latter part of my own career – but where are we going now with the fixture list we have had to endure for the past couple of years?
Middlesex and Kent started a Championship match a few weeks ago just over twelve hours after finishing a Twenty20 match under lights – on a different ground! We at Surrey ended a Championship fixture at Derby the day before we had to start – I repeat, start – our Twenty20 Cup campaign. Crazy.
But it is not just us and a few other counties. Everyone has been a victim of the current system and it has got to be sorted out. Sixteen Twenty20 games in so short a timespan is simply too many, and it is incredibly difficult even for very experienced players to switch from the four-day to the T20 format and then back again without any practice or preparation in between. For younger players, it is impossible and the adrenalin-fuelled approach now being carried over into four-day cricket is highly damaging to their development.
The Tiflex ball being used in Division Two of the County Championship is also a bone of contention for me – especially when in Division One and our home Test matches we are using Dukes balls – because they seem to swing more than Dukes and for longer, while at times I have found it inconsistent swing. In one-day cricket, meanwhile, the white balls don’t swing much at all – so batsmen can play totally differently.
It is the bottom line that worries me most, though. I’ll say it again: sixteen Twenty20s mixed in with County Championship cricket is seriously affecting the standard of our first-class domestic game, and that will in turn filter into our Test team. A lot of Championship matches have also been shunted back into April in the last few years, because of the fixture over-crowding.
If we get to the stage where the England Test team is underperforming, because those players being brought into it are not up to standard due to a below-par domestic game, where would that leave Test cricket in this country?
*Mark Ramprakash has played first-class cricket since 1987 and has scored 113 first-class hundreds.