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20 Apr 2018

County Championship Review: Week 1 – Drips and Drabs

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Pushed to the fringes

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Laughably low

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A mixed bag

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No surprises

Picture credit: FoxyCoxy

It took just 52 balls for the first person to look silly. Middlesex’s Robbie White has doubtless spent plenty of hours this winter in the nets fine-tuning his awareness of his off-stump, yet under dark skies at Lord’s on the opening day of the County Championship season, and the opening day of his first-class career no less, it was he who came a cropper, leaving a ball which promptly nipped back and sent his wicket cartwheeling into the air.

White’s dismissal at the hands of Northants’ Ben Sanderson was the second wicket in as many balls and suggested the 2016 Division One champions might struggle to return to the top tier at the first time of asking after last season’s demotion. Or perhaps not. Despite White’s blushes and that bright start from the visitors, Middlesex ran out comfortable 160-run winners. Not bad against a side that was firmly in the promotion mix last year.

Starved of the talent of Eoin Morgan, Dawid Malan and Steven Finn (to name just three), Middlesex’s victory will have pleased the besuited gentlemen in the Lord’s Pavilion. The fact they were able to take in a completed match might have brought an even larger smile to their faces.

Pushed to the fringes

Laments about red ball cricket’s maltreatment are nothing new, but that does not diminish their strength. This season’s County Championship actually kicked off a full six days later that 2017’s iteration, but that is of scant consolation. It is true that this past winter has been rather more miserable than these shores are accustomed to, but the folly of starting the four-day season this early would be evident even had much of the country not been blanketed in another covering of snow just a couple of weeks ago.

It was not always thus. Mike Selvey, among others, was quick to bemoan the early start, pointing out that in the days of yore the season frequently didn’t kick into gear until early May. Yet these are different times with different priorities; the pushing of the County Championship to the fringes of the domestic season allows for more one-day cricket to be crammed into those few days that genuinely constitute ‘summer’ and that, to an increasing number of people, is apparently all that matters.

So it was that two-thirds of the 18 counties took to the field last Friday to commence the opening half of the Championship, running as it will until mid-May, before taking month-long breaks between games up until late August, where again it will become a ‘priority’. It is little wonder that counties and players increasingly focus on the shorter format when England’s governing body cannot even bring itself to afford the four-day game much airtime at the height of summer.

Moans aside, 12 teams kicked things off. Or were meant to. Alas, such was the deluge that has been thrust upon Headingley in recent weeks that Yorkshire’s opening game was abandoned without a ball even being bowled. That meant locals were not only deprived of seeing last year’s champions Essex in action, but also that they did not see a single ball bowled in a match for the first time in over half a century.

Laughably low

Where play was able to get underway, some batsmen might have wondered whether or not they’d have been better off batting underwater. Dank pitches produced exactly what one could have expected they would, as innings scores might easily have been confused with checkouts down the pub on darts night: 64, 71, 73, 110, 127.

It is entertaining, but it also a tad ludicrous. Take the denouement at Old Trafford. Trailing at the turn of the innings by 64, Lancashire openers and England hopefuls Keaton Jennings and Haseeb Hameed carefully put together a measured response. One shy of a 50 partnership, Hameed nicked one behind into Tom Moores’ gloves and, from there, all hell broke loose. By the following morning the hosts had surrendered their remaining nine wickets for just 24 runs, Harry Gurney had notched 6 for 25, Jake Ball 4 for 14, and Notts required just 10 to win. That they lost four wickets of their own in getting there pretty much summed things up.

Notts coach Peter Moores described it afterward as “extraordinary”, and there was little that could be said by way of dispute. But he also said of Ball that he had “made a statement”. While Ball took nine wickets and can only bowl on what is given to him, such impressive figures stood in stark contrast to his unsuccessful summer Down Under. That is not to single Ball out for criticism, but rather it helps highlight just how poorly the current state of the county game prepares many England players for overseas tours.

A mixed bag

Those players regularly in with a shout of selection for England endured somewhat contradicting fortunes across the opening weekend. James Vince showed his undoubted class for Hampshire, cover driving his way to a seemingly effortless 75 from just 74 balls in his side’s opening innings at home to Worcestershire. But the fact Vince tumbled before getting his century served as a reminder of his winter failings in Australia; the feeling that he is all style and little substance refuses to subside.

Vince, Hampshire’s captain, was at least able to enjoy a comfortable victory. His side sit atop Division One after the first week of the season, their 196-run win coming on the back of impressive bowling performances from Kyle Abbott and Fidel Edwards. Abbott, who has not appeared for South Africa for over a year now, also nabbed a handy half-century with the bat in the second innings, before ensuring that the visitors fell well short of their target of 324.

If Vince at least showed some of the form that has encouraged England selectors to persist with him, his new teammate Sam Northeast saw his hopes of making the step up from the England Lions into the main squad take a dent. Signed from Kent in February after he was replaced by Sam Billings as captain, Northeast is viewed by plenty as unlucky for not having been given a chance at the highest level. Yet two dismissals at the hands of Joe Leach, both bowled, for a combined score of just 21 will have done little to help his chances. In the same game Liam Dawson, afforded three tests for the Three Lions a year again, put up figures that are unlikely to put him in the frame for a recall any time soon.

At Lord’s, Toby Roland-Jones managed just two wickets, and was comprehensively upstaged by fellow medium-quick James Harris. Harris is another who once turned out for the Lions without ever gaining a full call-up, and while the likelihood of a return to the England fold now looks unlikely, his match figures of 9 for 48 were the pick of the bunch in a weekend that constituted a bowler’s paradise. Ben Duckett, another England hopeful, managed just 15 runs across his two innings for the visitors.

Perhaps the most impressive showing from anyone associated with the England fold came via a man who has had his day with the national setup. Ian Bell, now 36, put together a sumptuous 70 in Warwickshire’s rain-hit hosting of Sussex. Though Bell was outscored by Tim Ambrose’s 81, he being another who once enjoyed a stint for England, albeit a much shorter one, it was impressive to watch Bell as he patiently built his way towards a respectable total. While Vince outscored him in quicker time, the Hampshire captain would do well to learn from Bell if he is to make his own Test career a lengthy one.

That Warwickshire-Sussex tussle ended in a draw, and bore witness to both the only century of the opening round and the only innings in which a side skipped past the 300 barrier. David Wiese’s 106 came from just 105 balls, and Sussex’s 374 suggested that Warwickshire’s toils last season – they finished bottom of Division One, well adrift of even their relegation compatriots Middlesex – may continue into this.

The final game from the opening weekend came at Canterbury, in a battle of last season’s Division Two mid-table sides. Kent and Gloucestershire played out an extremely low-scoring tie, in which just 435 runs were scored across four innings, and it was the visitors who triumphed by five wickets. Kent’s first innings skittling for just 64 saw 'Extras' as their second top-scorer, never a good sign, and though Daniel Bell-Drummond managed a battling half-century in the second innings it proved insufficient when none of his teammates could manage anything similar.

No surprises

A weekend that promised much for medium-fast bowlers delivered similarly. Though predictable, that is not to say it was a weekend without intrigue. One of the many joys of the County Championship is the sheer wealth of talent on show, even if the weather can, particularly at the extremes of the season, be the single most important factor.

One point of note was the performance of Warwickshire’s Olly Stone. Though Sussex managed the top score of the weekend, Stone took 8 for 80 in a single innings and, most promisingly, showed signs of genuine pace. His dismissal of Luke Wright had the England one-dayer hopping all over the crease in a failed attempt to avoid a looming bouncer, and made it clear why no fewer than nine counties had sought Stone's signature in 2017 upon his departure from Northants.

After a rain-fuelled opening round, this coming weekend sees a full schedule with all 18 sides on show. Though it remains troublingly early, the recent unexpected arrival of sweltering weather should mean that this round of fixtures offers a little more in the way of variety. Faced with an ever-rising tide of dismay from traditionalists, the ECB will certainly hope this is the case.

What were your highlights from the first week of County Cricket action? Let us know in the comments below.