Is the County Championship Division Two producing enough England cricketers?
All of a sudden, there seems to be an air of positivity around English cricket. After a thrilling Test series against New Zealand, an exuberant ODI side has captivated the country with a style of play that no England team has displayed before.
Young players from around the country are showing the English public just how much talent is out there in the county system: Sam Billings from Kent, David Willey from Northamptonshire and Jason Roy from Surrey are prime examples.
But is the two division County Championship producing enough Test quality cricketers? We have heard often that the gap between the first and second divisions is growing, so what does this mean for the England Test team?
The County Championship was split into two divisions of nine teams in 2000. The rationale was that it would reduce the number of dead rubbers; every game would have an impact on promotion and relegation, keeping the cricket competitive and the players under pressure for longer.
Most observers would argue that this has been the case. There are very few games that have little or nothing riding on them, even as we get to the end of the season.
However, there is a feeling that the gulf in quality between the two divisions is becoming more pronounced.
Dale Benkenstein, who played for Durham in Division One, and now coaches newly-promoted Hampshire, went on record before the season as saying that he believes the gap between the bottom three sides in Division Two and the sides in Division One is large, and growing.
Daryl Mitchell, captain of Worcestershire, agrees. Upon winning promotion last season, he warned that the difference between the divisions is sizeable compared to when he played in Division One a few seasons ago, and that his side would face a real test of their ability to stay up.
The evidence shows that it is extremely hard for some clubs to get in to the first division and then once there, to stay there. In the last five seasons, only 13 sides have played in Division Two. Five teams have been in the second division for all of those five years and two sides have been out of the second tier for only one season.
Northamptonshire were comfortably relegated last season after being promoted in 2013 and Worcestershire and Hampshire are struggling already this campaign.
The second division’s main purpose is the same as the first: to produce England cricketers. Clubs in Division Two are likely to provide less England cricketers than those in the higher division - this is simple logic - but it is imperative that the second tier does continue to produce players who can succeed at Test level.
In those same five seasons, 17 players have made their debut for England in Test cricket. Only four of these (Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Steve Kerrigan and Moeen Ali) made their debuts when they were playing in Division Two. Of the England Lions squad who toured South Africa this winter, only three players out of the 14 man squad ply their trade in the lower tier.
This is the real crux of the matter. Do the England selectors look down on the cricket played in the second division? Is cricket heading in the direction of football whereby every player picked in the national squad comes from the top division of the professional game?
If the players believe that the selectors look more favourably on performances in Division One, this exacerbates the problem. Good quality players in Division Two think that they need to be playing in the top division to be noticed by the selectors. They will often move to Division One clubs, further diluting the talent pool in the lower tier.
Some players do get the recognition they deserve, however. The latest is Mark Footitt of Derbyshire, who has taken 116 first-class wickets since the start of 2014, at under 20 runs apiece. He has been included in the England squad for an Ashes training camp, though some would argue that an international call-up has taken longer than it may have done had he been taking those wickets in Division One.
The reason for the gulf in class is, as so often in professional sport, down to money. Most of those clubs in Division Two face difficulties financially and this means that, whilst their strongest team may well be a decent side, when injuries or loss of form hit, they do not have the quality in depth that clubs in the top tier have. Their challenge for promotion, or survival, is often hard to sustain as the season moves on.
Essex are a case in point. At the start of the season, injuries and IPL commitments ruled out Ravi Bopara, Jesse Ryder, Ryan ten Doeschate, Mark Pettini and Tom Westley at various points. Essex made a loss last year and simply do not have the quality in the squad to cope with such losses. It is no surprise that they started the season in such abysmal form.
Contrast this with Yorkshire, who had six players away with England in the Caribbean at the start of the season, but were still able to call on internationals Tim Bresnan and Cheteshwar Pujara, in a team containing over 900 first-class games worth of experience. That is the depth that clubs in the first division have.
In terms of preparing players for Test cricket, the sustained intensity is often missing in second division cricket because of this lack of depth. Counties often have one or two experienced, quality bowlers for instance. Once these have been taken off, the batsmen can make hay. This let up in intensity does not happen in a Test match.
However, it is simplistic to say that the players in Division Two are inferior. When Surrey met Kent earlier in the season, the excellent Matt Coles bowled a terrific spell to Jason Roy of Surrey on the final day. Coles didn’t get his man and Roy led his team to victory but it was high class cricket.
The contest between Alastair Cook and Footitt in the recent game between Essex and Derbyshire was similar. The quality is there, it is the depth that is missing.
There is no easy remedy for clubs in the second division. County finances are not going to miraculously improve overnight. The likes of Essex and Leicestershire will not be able to grow the quality and depth of their squads, unless they produce their own cricketers and Leicestershire know just how hard it is to keep home grown talent from moving to teams in Division One.
There are some excellent cricketers in the second division but they are not exposed to enough high quality, intense cricket - the very cricket that prepares players for Test matches - than they would be if they were playing in Division One.
There is not an easy solution but there needs to be some attempt from the ECB to look at improving the standard because they run the risk of having a situation where the selectors may rule out players from the lower division because they regard the standard as too low for them to accurately assess a player’s suitability for Test cricket.
Players need to be tough, technically sound and able to handle pressure in order to thrive in the Test arena. These attributes are what is required to play for England in an Ashes Test match.
Clubs in both divisions should always be working towards providing England with players who meet this standard.
© Cricket World 2015