County Championship - Parallels between the second tier and Test cricket
James Knight was sat minding his own business one day when an email arrived in his inbox asking whether he would like to try to draw some parallels between the world of Test cricket he writes about for 51 All Out and English football’s second tier. So he wrote some words, clicked ‘Reply’ and now you can read them for yourself…
The Championship is a league of fine margins. Rarely do huge gaps develop between top and bottom as they do in virtually all of the elite divisions across Europe. That most teams are on a similar level in terms of quality means having one supremely talented player can prove the difference between the untold riches of the Premier League and yet another trip to Oakwell on a Tuesday night. Similar can be said of Test cricket, where it is often just one strike bowler or one star batsman who turns a solid, if unspectacular, team into a genuinely top quality outfit.
The current league leaders perhaps exemplify this more than anyone, as while there is no doubting their credentials as a good Championship side, few would have expected Southampton to sit top of the pile going into the New Year. It is Rickie Lambert’s goals which have seen them rise to such heady heights and their fortunes thus far have been intrinsically linked to his form. Even if Lambert himself doesn’t score, his presence can often create space and opportunities for others instead.
This sort of reliance on one man for breakthroughs is something to which the Sri Lankan side of the last two decades can relate. They were a team containing some excellent players, but lacked the cutting edge needed to consistently win Test matches until Muttiah Muralitharan exploded onto the scene in the early 90’s. In similar style to Lambert, it wasn’t just the wickets with Murali. Opposition sides would concern themselves with how to deal with him to such an extent they would neglect the rest of the Sri Lankan attack. They are two players who could barely look less alike, but their value to their respective sides is comparable. Since Murali retired 18 months ago, Sri Lanka have won once. Lambert has missed one game this season and been sent off in another – Southampton lost both without scoring a goal.
The other side threatening the top of the league who also look slightly (read; very) over-reliant on one man is Cardiff City. Peter Whittingham has been the creative hub of the side for a number of years now, and is probably even more valuable to the Bluebirds than Lambert is to Southampton. Not only does nearly everything Cardiff create go through him, but he also chips in with a substantial number of goals as well. Before Whittingham joined the Welsh side, he was primarily a winger who had only scored one league goal at Aston Villa. While he was a decent player, he had shown little to suggest he would go on to be such a vital member of a team, even at Championship level.
When Daniel Vettori made his debut for New Zealand he was a genuine number 11 batsman, and for the early part of his career proved himself to be solely a very good spin bowler. In the past few years, Vettori has become one of the premier all-rounders in the game while also captaining a side in which he was often the only person standing between their opponents and a crushing victory. By the same token, at Cardiff Whittingham has transformed into a creative midfielder whose strike at Coventry in November was his 50th Championship goal for the club. Both are examples of players who have worked hard to develop their game. Since embracing a new role, Whittingham and Vettori have both managed to perform to the absolute maximum of their ability on a consistent basis.
It’s not just leading players who can evoke comparisons with successful counterparts. Some Championship stars of the past are struggling this year, and there is certainly no end of cricketers with which they have much in common (it’s taking great willpower to refrain from reeling off a list of Australians here).
Jimmy Bullard, formerly a likeable character whose presence alone sometimes lifted the sides he was part of, has spent recent times falling out with all and sundry while struggling to get in the Ipswich team. Worrying similarities, you might say, with another ‘character’ who started off his career at the top level like an express train, before releasing a book in which he criticised his own team-mates for no particular reason. Since then, Graeme Swann’s performances have suffered accordingly — he has spent the past couple of days being out-bowled by Monty Panesar.
What’s perhaps interesting is that of the three teams promoted last season, it is the one most reliant on a single player – namely Adel Taarabt – which has struggled in the Premier League. In the same way Sri Lanka have been something of a shambles since they lost Muralitharan to retirement, last year’s champions QPR have, in a stark warning for the current Championship leaders, suddenly found themselves with a squad patently not strong enough for survival with their talisman’s powers weakened by the stronger defences of the top division.
Norwich and Swansea are proving that a side set out to maximise its collective strengths is better placed to cope in a tougher league than one set up to maximise the strengths of just one man. Just like the England team of the last couple of years, perhaps…