We’re at that time of year when the big sporting events are all around us. Not for now the week in, week out winter diet, but after Wimbledon we head towards the Open and the remainder of the Ashes, which is a pretty rich feast. Gloucestershire cricket fans also gorge themselves at the Cheltenham Festival too, and the win over Northants in the first of two Championship matches was somehow managed in only two days. It was the first time a game at the College ground had been done and dusted in such a time frame for nearly 20 years.
While it will be remembered for Jack Taylor’s innings of 156 – a punchy counter attacking effort – bowlers Craig Miles and Liam Norwell both moved closer to 50 Championship wickets for the season. Miles, who is not 21 until later this month, has 42 wickets at 25.40, and Norwell (23) has 46 wickets at 23.02. Both have bowled over 300 overs. In their different roles – Miles as a strike bowler, and Norwell as a reliable first change – this has been a real breakthrough season.
The worry for Gloucestershire members in the week that captain Geraint Jones announced his retirement from the game at the end of the season is being able to retain players with obvious promise. The first class season has some way to go yet, but by the end of it we could find a distinct split between Divisions 1 and 2 of the County Championship.
The England team that won the first Ashes test contained nine players from counties which host Test cricket, the only exceptions being captain Alistair Cook and all rounder Moeen Ali. Only Cook and Jos Buttler play for teams in Division 2, and with central contracts neither play very much first class cricket for their county anyway.
The selection of the team merely shows how the county game, for the support of the ECB, has two divisions with a widening gap. As things stand Lancashire and Surrey are well placed at the top of Division 2. Should they both win promotion, we could have all six counties who have traditionally hosted Test match cricket in Division 1 of the Championship for 2016, Lancashire and Surrey joining Yorkshire, Warwickshire, Middlesex and Nottinghamshire, although Notts at the moment are far from safe.
Durham – a recent addition to the Test roster but with 3 County Championship titles to their name in the last decade – would fully justify their play alongside the long standing heavyweights of county cricket, leaving only two spaces for those with more modest resources.
2015 is the 125th anniversary of what we now regard as the County Championship, a period where only Gloucestershire, Northants and Somerset have never won the title. If Somerset fail to beat the drop all three could be in the lower tier, even though the Bristol County Ground has been a regular venue for one day internationals, and Taunton is in the mix for the 2019 World Cup. While Cardiff and Southampton are new Test venues Glamorgan (3 matches) and Hampshire (2 matches) may also find that such status is no guarantee of a place at the top table domestically.
To my knowledge there is no talk, as there is publicly in rugby union for example, of getting to a point in the calendar and pulling up the drawbridge to secure the teams at the summit, but in the long run you have to wonder if counties in Division 2 will merely become feeder teams for counties in Division 1.
There is already a squad salary cap for all 18 counties, but my understanding is that some do not use the cap to its full extent simply because they cannot afford to.
In recent seasons we’ve seen Nottinghamshire cherry pick Stuart Broad, Harry Gurney and James Taylor from
Leicestershire, as well as take the more experienced Will Gidman from Gloucestershire. It’s also hard to believe that the move of Will’s brother Alex from Gloucestershire to Worcestershire, and before that Jon Lewis’ switch to Surrey was not driven to some extent by financial security as well as cricket.
Geraint Jones’ retirement at Gloucestershire, coupled with the expiry of Michael Klinger’s contract, will leave veteran New Zealander Hamish Marshall in splendid isolation at the end of the summer as the one player on the staff with extensive first class experience.
On the one hand, it could be argued that bringing through a group of players together should enable head coach Richard Dawson to make the team better than the sum of the parts, but when ambitious young men with agents start turning heads with their performances, a syphoning of talent by more affluent teams wouldn’t surprise anyone.