Chumps to champs
Ian Ward wraps up the domestic cricket season with praise for Durham and words of warning for Surrey.
Last Updated: 02/10/08 12:26pm
Like a lot of people I was very pleased to see Durham crowned county champions.
Obviously they are the newest first-class county and to come as far as they have in the 16 years since they were awarded first-class status is fantastic.
I remember playing against them years ago when they were very much the whipping boys, but how things have changed and it has all culminated this season.
The whole club - from the sponsors to the members to the players - can take credit for taking the club from where they were to county champions over a number of years. It truly is an astounding achievement.
On the playing side, it's hard to nail down exactly why they've done so well. They've won more games than anybody else this season - six out of 16, which is one more than Notts and Hampshire. That shows they have been playing winning cricket in a season blighted by weather.
They've certainly benefited from a motivated Steve Harmison who clearly had a point to prove. He's been speaking in the newspapers recently about how low he felt in New Zealand, but Geoff Cook and Dale Benkenstein have clearly got him enjoying his cricket again.
The seam bowling department has been excellent. They have an arsenal of quality international-class seamers and that's been a potent mix for taking wickets.
I don't think you can really single out too may people because to win a County Championship requires the best efforts of an entire squad. However, the captain and the coach deserve plenty of credit because they've strung it all together.
Cook has really built the confidence in the side. Winning the Friends Provident Trophy gave them a lift and I don't think you can underestimate the impact of providing players for England.
When I was at Surrey you'd see Alec Stewart, Mark Butcher, Graham Thorpe and the rest going off and playing for England and that made you realise you had to improve if you wanted to stay in the side. You start thinking like an international cricketer and trying to emulate what they were achieving.
Durham have had Harmison, Collingwood and Plunkett going into international cricket and that will have motivated the other players.
They've been the stars for the last few seasons and it's all culminated this year.
Somerset had a great season. Justin Langer has moved them forward as a much more professional unit and they're benefiting from Marcus Trescothick being there.
They've played some unbelievable one-day cricket at times and some outstanding first-class cricket too. It's always going to be difficult to win championships down at Taunton because of the pitch, but they can take a number of positives from the season.
There aren't too many negatives there. They perhaps ran out of gas towards the end of the season but all in all they should be happy.
As for Nottinghamshire, you could almost say they were in two finals and lost both of them. Obviously there was the Pro 40 Division One decider against Sussex when they somehow snatched defeat from the jaws of victory - and they also had it in their own hands in the last County Championship game against Hampshire and fell at the line.
They need to find out how to get over the line and that's an art in itself sometimes.
But you'd have to say Chris Read and Mick Newell have continued to do a great job; they were in contention to win two competitions but couldn't quite manage it.
Again, they've provided players for England and the seam bowling department is very powerful. It was a shame they weren't allowed to use Stuart Broad in the latter stages and Ryan Sidebottom was injured, but Samit Patel has been a big plus for them.
They've had a good season, but haven't quite had that killer instinct to win things.
I think Graham Thorpe said that if Kent had won one of the finals they were in it then they might not have been relegated from the County Championship. I don't think you can underestimate the impact of those defeats.
They looked like a side that couldn't take any more hits. They reminded me of a boxer who'd taken too many body blows and was teetering on the ropes. The mind was willing but the body wasn't able and I felt sorry for Rob Key and the boys.
They've played some brilliant cricket this year. They weren't the one-day side of the season - that has to go to Essex, who've won two trophies - but they were closely pushed by Kent even though they came up completely empty-handed and got relegated.
Like Notts they couldn't get across the line in the Twenty20 Cup, the Friends Provident's Trophy and the Nat West Pro 40 - and they too need to discover that desire to finish the job.
Sometimes that requires a bit of luck in one-day cricket. I do feel sorry for them because they played some good cricket.
As for Surrey, it's a struggle to know where they're going. I heard Mark Ramprakash say relegation should surprise nobody because they've been in this position for the last few years.
What he means is even though they got promoted last year, they were effectively 10th in the old County Championship and they have languished around mid-table mediocrity for some time. For a side that was winning everything in sight not too long ago, that is a horrendous place to be.
A lot of flak has come the way of Alan Butcher as head coach but you've got to look at the players and also at the planning behind the scenes.
The planning at the Oval has all been about building the stadium and making money. That's fine if you are simply running a business but there's more to county cricket than that.
The chief executive and the chairman have got to take the lion's share of the responsibility for not planning ahead. They had a sensational side around the turn of the century and that should have been a springboard to bring other players through - but it hasn't happened.
They appear to be living off their financial agreement with the ECB and it's all very well being the most financially successful club in the country and having the highest-paid chief executive but there's more to sport than that.
This is a big club with a big pool of players and a lot of money floating around. There are also a lot of public schools in the area which provide cricketers. Where are the players coming through and why hasn't there been a transition?
It seems the decision makers at Surrey have completely taken their eye off the ball on the cricketing side.
What we've seen for quite a while is quite a substantial gap between the quality of cricket in Division Two and Division One, particularly in the longer form of the game.
So Warwickshire and Worcestershire will find it difficult next year, but that's not to say that they can't kick on after promotion this season.
I'm very pleased for Warwickshire. They're a powerful club with a big pool of players and they should be in Division One.
Ashley Giles has transformed the dressing room, transformed the way the club was going and long may it continue.
A little bit like Surrey, they've got promoted but when the cheering stops they need to realise they've finished mid-table in the old County Championship.
There's still another step up that needs to be made. Giles is trying to do it with English-qualified players and I think everybody will support and applaud that but I can't see them being title-contenders next year.
They need to move forward and consolidate and build on this rather than thinking they're going to win the division next year. But full marks to everybody at Edgbaston for transforming the club from the dire mess it was last year to what it is now.
I'm always pleased to see Worcestershire doing well. I think Steve Rhodes is a great coach and Vikram Solanki is a wonderful captain.
They've got some good young cricketers there like Gareth Batty and Steven Davies, Kabir Ali played well all season and it's great to see they took a punt on Simon Jones and got him playing some great cricket.Like Warwickshire it's now time to take a deep breath and look at where they go from here. The challenge for them is to stay up - and they'll have to do that without Mr Hick for the first time in 24 years.
Some of the cricket we've witnessed, particularly in the latter stages of the season, has been absolutely superb.
The climax to the County Championship was absolutely fascinating and any of the sides apart from Surrey could have won it; even Kent looked like contenders at one stage.
The weather had a part to play in terms of keeping everything nice and tight, but we certainly saw some good cricket being played around the shires.
Division One was excellent, Twenty20 Finals Day was stunning from ball one to last ball, the FPT Final was also fantastic and that game at Trent Bridge between Notts and Sussex was one of the best one-day matches I have ever seen.
We've seen two or three all-time great one-day innings this year from the likes of Murray Goodwin. Hopefully we can see more English players providing the entertainment next year, but I still think we can learn a lot from the good-quality overseas players.
All in all then, county cricket is in good shape.