Australia’s spectacular collapse against South Africa in Hobart a couple of days previous prompted an interesting discussion in our office. Chief amongst the ruminations was the inability of many of the Australian batsmen to knuckle down and build an innings against quality bowling; the surfeit of limited overs and T20 cricket clearly influencing cavalier, careless shot selection and a general air of impatience amongst many a batsman required to play test cricket. Compiling an innings, as opposed to bludgeoning one, appears to have become passé as the generation brought up with T20 cricket and the success of the Big Bash emerge into state and test teams. In some respects, the worm has turned, it is a good time to be a bowler in test cricket once again. Pitches may still theoretically favour the batsman at large but the playing surfaces at times seem irrelevant as batsmen attempt a limited overs modus operandi.
Australian cricket searches for answers and solutions. Perhaps the latter partly lies with an old friend. During seasons of yore the English county championship enjoyed a fair representation of players from the Antipodes. Many a batsman regularly played the county circuit, honing their abilities and techniques with the hope of breaking into the all-conquering Australian test team captained by Messrs Waugh and Ponting. In the pre T20, IPL, Big Bash era it was probably a handy way to make a few bucks during the Australian winter to boot. Thus, names such as Michael and David Hussey, Phil Jaques, Martin Love, Matthew Elliott, Brad Hodge, Michael di Venuto and Stuart Law became part of the county championship fabric; annual returns to their respective counties permitting such batsmen the opportunity to experience the varying conditions that are part of the English summer. Most players plundered runs aplenty but were largely unable to break into the Australian team; Michael Hussey, and to a lesser extent Elliott, the only performer to enjoy an established place in the starting XI but even he had to wait until past the age of thirty. Nevertheless, it could be argued that they became better players for their time in the county championship, experiences that surely counted in their favour if, or when, a call eventually arrived.
The age of T20 cricket has had a changing effect on the overseas player though. Time was when a county would sign one player for the whole summer and said player would perform in all competitions. Now counties are all but required to ship in specialists for each format of the game for short periods of time. Players still venture across from Australia but most specifically for one format, mainly the T20 variant. Perhaps Australian Cricket needs a leg up from the counties again to help its young players play abroad, establish themselves and learn the trade, a la Chris Rogers or Simon Katich rather than Glenn Maxwell and Aaron Finch. How often do young Australian batsmen experience the equivalent of a chilly, breezy day at Headingly or Chester-le-Street playing against the swinging ball as opposed to a balmy afternoon or evening at Hove or the Oval slapping leather for fun? Hobart’s very English conditions highlighted the lack of technique and patience in the Australian batting line-up; the success of Kyle Abbott with old style English seam bowling, and a player with county championship experience, further underlining the theory.
Under such circumstances one ponders the status of the poor old, beleaguered county championship. Often it is derided and scorned but maybe the current lack of technique amongst many a test batsman has opened a niche. Perhaps the county championship, with its revised fourteen match season, could once again offer a proving ground for wannabe test batsmen. Particularly as the first class equivalents elsewhere seem to have lost some of their importance.
Glance at the England set up and look at the results. The county championship is disparaged in many a quarter but the stark reality is that it has produced batsmen like Alastair Cook, Haseeb Hameed, (too early?) Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root who can play the long game. Even Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes are displaying maturity in their recent controlled, cerebral performances as middle order batsmen. Players of that ilk certainly aren’t as forthcoming as previous generations but the breeding ground of the county championship has remained constant, arguably in contrast to equivalents elsewhere which appear to have declined. In some respects its stock has also retained its value. Maybe it will have increased against others in cricket’s currency exchange? Perhaps a fourteen match stint touring the shires for two or three summers could prove of use.