County Championship promises box-office entertainment

The British Summer has unexpectedly burst into life in recent weeks and with it comes the start of the English County Cricket season. Usually derided for poor attendances and Arctic conditions, the early rounds this season have brought sunburns and media interest. Whilst the former will almost certainly dissipate, the latter should be consistent throughout the season.

One perhaps unexpected result of England’s awful World Cup showing is that County Cricket now matters. England need new heroes, new superstars and it is the domestic game that will produce them. Once again English cricket can’t help but talk about Kevin. KP is back playing for Surrey in the hope to force his way back into international reckoning and you have to believe that a couple of good scores at The Oval will twist the selectors’ arms. South London has no shortage of stars either; Sri Lankan legend Kumar Sangakkara has signed on as the season’s overseas player on the back of a record breaking display at the World Cup.

If England are to look to the future, however, it will probably be found in Division One, where champions Yorkshire will be under threat from the perpetually strong Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire. Nine of the current England test touring squad come from these three sides, and this talent conveyer belt shows no sign of slowing. Already, Alex Lees, Alex Hales and Varun Chopra have put in very strong early performances. These three are perhaps best placed to play themselves into test match contention, with the England opening berth still far from secure. Hales is the most interesting of these prospects. Few in the domestic game time the ball as sweetly or drive with such intent as the imposing Notts opener and many see him as the answer to England’s pedestrian top order in all forms of the game. His sparkling 236 against the reigning champions fired him right back into contention for longer format honours.

Here, in a nutshell, is England’s continual conundrum. Do they plump for the safe bet or the potential match-winner? Lees, a tall, dependable left-hander with an outstanding domestic record will surely play a large part in England’s future, but his sedate, watchful style does seem to fit the blueprint the national selectors like. Hales, on the other hand, has always been pigeon-holed as a short-form slogger, someone with little value in a game lasting longer than four hours. As is so often the case with English cricket, their thinking seems to have been scrambled by Australian bravado. David Warner and Shane Watson had such an impact in the Ashes whitewash as attacking top order batsmen that they were heralded as the answer to all England’s ills. This is clearly not the case, and in any case, Hales arguably is not even England’s closest imitation to either of these dashers; Durham’s Mark Stoneman would fall into this category. Hales has not yet displayed the patience or technique for red ball cricket, hopefully he does, but right now that seems far off.

His case, however, is typical of the English conservatism that has seen mercurial leg-spinner Adil Rashid consistently eschewed in all forms when his wicket taking abilities would be celebrated by other countries. It has seen Pietersen criticised, dropped, disciplined and re-integrated. It is not what needs to change if England are to progress as a cricketing force, but who they choose to change it for is important. The only way to find potential saviours is the domestic game, and that is what makes it absolute box office viewing this summer.

Photograph: Majorshots

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