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Lawrence Booth: Bonus points must go

October 1st, 2008 by Lawrence Booth in County cricket and tagged , , , , ,

Kent fans must be pretty hacked off right now. Not only did their team lose in the finals of the Twenty20 Cup and the Friends Provident Trophy, they were relegated from the first division of the County Championship after winning more matches than Somerset, who finished fourth, and only two fewer than the champions, Durham. If that feels counter-intuitive, well, that’s because it is.

Let’s get straight to the point, or possibly the bonus point: teams should no longer be rewarded for runs scored or wickets taken in the first 130 overs of their first innings (five points are on offer for a side scoring 400; three for a side taking nine wickets). They should be rewarded mainly for winning matches and partly for saving them. The rest merely complicates the issue at a time when first-class cricket cannot afford to be anything other than transparent and fan-friendly.

The fact that bonus points played their part in the excitement surrounding the final round of championship matches last week, when Kent’s failure to take more than seven Durham wickets in their first 130 overs was the beginning of their end, should not detract from the big picture: bonus points feel arbitrary and unfair and militate against attacking cricket.

Of course, there is a logic behind encouraging teams to build big first-innings scores, but this logic would exist even without the lure of five batting points: big first-innings scores are, after all, a time-honoured way of winning games of cricket. But Yorkshire’s impressive haul of 50 batting points brought only two victories, while Lancashire’s tally of 24 translated into five. It is self-evident which of the two played the more innovative cricket.

I was at a game in Taunton in August between Somerset and Surrey that was ruined a) by the weather and b) by the tedious pragmatism of the two captains. Rather than agree to a spot of contrivance on the last day in the hope of creating the kind of pressurised runchase which puts hairs on chests and prepares players for international cricket, Mark Ramprakash chose to push on to 400 instead to condemn the game to a draw.

The mentality which concludes that 12 points for a draw (eight bonus points plus four for avoiding defeat) is a better investment than the possibility of victory (and thus of defeat) is a damaging one. Somerset, who play at pancake-flat Taunton (unless they need a win, in which case – as happened last week against Lancashire – the grass suddenly grows), have exploited the rules more expertly than most.

There is another point here, and one that rarely gets discussed. In games of four innings, why place undue emphasis on the first two? Cricket lore has it that games are won and lost up front, but try telling that to New Zealand, who make a habit of blowing promising positions when they bat in the third innings of Test matches and in May choked spectacularly after establishing a first-innings lead of 179 runs against England at Old Trafford. Yet if New Zealand were a county, their combustible tendencies would not matter quite so much with all those first-innings batting points in the bag.

It’s been pointed out before that a football-style system of three points for a win and one for a draw wouldn’t actually change the end-of-season positions. But this year we would have a different story. Here’s how the first division would look (with actual positions in brackets):

1 (1) Durham 28pts
2 (5) Lancashire 24
3 (2) Nottinghamshire 23
4 (3) Hampshire 22
5 (4) Somerset 20
6=(6) Sussex 18
(8) Kent 18
8 (7) Yorkshire 15
9 (9) Surrey 11

In other words, Kent stay up and Yorkshire go down, while Lancashire jump three spots to second. If England are serious about turning the county game into a cauldron of competitiveness some claim it to be, bonus points must be shown the door and told never to return.

Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Guardian. His third book, Cricket, Lovely Cricket? An Addict’s Guide to the World’s Most Exasperating Game is out now published by Yellow Jersey

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