The IPL’s Loss Is County Championship Cricket’s Gain

Pakistan star Shaheen Shah Afridi in County Championship action.
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One of the chief criticisms levelled at the County Championship in recent years is that it fails to prepare English batters for Test cricket. The reason for that is that the green-tinged pitches and the playing conditions allow medium-pacers to run riot, giving the Counties little to no incentive to play genuinely quick bowlers or spinners. However, the dial appears to be moving on that front, or at least in relation to the number of fast bowlers currently plying their trade in the County Championship.

The unwritten rule that Pakistani players cannot play in the IPL is a big reason for that. Were that not the case, it is hard to believe that the likes of Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali and Haris Rauf, nevermind a genuine superstar in Shaheen Shah Afridi, would currently be playing in England. All four Pakistan quicks are Test quality bowlers and, unlike their compatriot Mohammad Abbas, they bowl with genuine pace. They are seamers who can succeed in all conditions.

That is not to impugn the quality of Abbas. He has led Hampshire’s attack with distinction and has a Test match bowling average of 23.02, which improves to 21.40 in England. But for all his ability, facing him in swinging conditions is not exactly the ideal preparation for a batter looking to make the step up to Test-level. There is a real difference between facing the subtle variations Abbas and the genuine hostility that bowlers like Pat Cummins and Jasprit Bumrah can summon.

The English batting unit were entirely unable to cope with the pace and bounce that the Australian seam attack conjured on home turf during the recently concluded Ashes series, with the result a humiliating 4-0 defeat. By themselves, four Pakistan quicks are not going to solve all of England’s batting woes. But they do offer the chance for English batters to ‘test’ themselves against the sort of bowlers they are likely to face if they make the step up to the Test arena.

The IPL is also benefitting the County Championship in other ways. As the financial rewards on offer have grown, so too has T20 become almost a sport unto itself. It is hard, for example, to imagine Tim David starting to play first-class cricket at this point or that Odean Smith will resume his. With players now able to bat so explosively and scores of above 200 relatively commonplace, the traditional anchor role is fast disappearing. One need look no further than Virat Kohli’s struggles for evidence of that.

That has left a large number of red-ball specialists at a loose end during the IPL. Which makes the County Championship an attractive proposition and some excellent batters have taken advantage of it. Cheteshwar Pujara, Mohammad Rizwan, Marnus Labuschagne, Azhar Ali and Keegan Petersen have all proven themselves at Test level and are all currently playing in the County Championship. And they are just the headline acts.

All are playing in England this summer for a variety of reasons, and not all have been in the runs, but the presence of such elite players can only be a benefit to their teammates. It also serves as a reminder that the County Championship does not exist merely to furnish players for England. It is a tournament well-worth watching in its own right for lovers of the red-ball game. One can only hope that point isn’t forgotten during the ongoing discussions about England’s red-ball reset.

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