By Mark Kidger (@MarkFromMadrid
Essex finally got their title defence under way after the wash-out at Headingley and look in an indecent hurry to finish their game. Both the game at Chelmsford and the game at Taunton look set for a finish in two days, while the other two games are not much further behind: there may well be no Division One cricket on Monday.
Let’s start at Chelmsford and the Essex title defence. They would hardly have hoped to find themselves 113-9 soon after Lunch. Bailey, Onions, Meenie & Clark shared the wickets, with only Nick Browne reaching a score in the twenties in the morning session. Essex’s Championship win though was based on resilience. Early in the season they were in desperate trouble against Middlesex and wriggled free and struggled in other games: when they found their feet though, they were unstoppable. Today, Siddle and Porter added 37 priceless runs for the last wicket, Siddle top-scoring with 33, including 1x4 and 2x6, pushing the momentum suddenly and firmly with Essex. Alastair Cook is rested from this game, but Lancashire could showcase two potential suitors to bat with him this summer in Hameed and Jennings. There were signs on the Lions tour to the Caribbean that maybe Hameed was getting his batting back as Jennings started to struggle under the pressure of trying to carry a Lions side that were totally out of their depth but, today, knowing that early season runs would put immense pressure on Mark Stoneman, both were back in the hatch after nine overs and Lancashire were 19-3 and sinking fast in the face of destructive bowling from Porter. A series of small partnerships have helped Lancashire creep up towards the Essex total and, at 141-8, it looks likely that there will be close to parity on first innings. The match is there for the taking tomorrow morning, with the side that has the best first session favourites to win. There is every chance that this match will not go into a third day.
A two-day finish looks a real possibility at Taunton too. On hearing the score, one Middlesex fan suggested that the pitch had obviously not been as well raked as the one served up for them last September. That said, only Matt Renshaw, Cameron Bancroft’s replacement, has reached fifty. Renshaw scored exactly half of the Somerset total of 202, making a superlative century and, only when he was batting with James Hildreath, did batting look easy. Barnard, with 5-52 was the main destroyer, but Somerset will reflect that with Renshaw and Hildreath scoring 149 between them, they should have reached 300 rather than just struggling past 200. When Worcestershire batted they did no better and will be desperate for their ninth wicket partnership to keep chipping away at the likely Somerset lead on the ‘morrow. So far Barnard and Tongue have added 29, invaluable runs but, still 49 behind, Worcestershire face a significant first innings deficit in yet another low-scoring match. Lewis Gregory and Josh Davey have three wickets each so far and, with another burst of pace in the morning, Somerset will hope to put themselves in pole position to win this game.
By far the biggest first innings score of the day in Division 1 came at Headingley, fortunately now fit for play. Both sides lined-up before the start for a minute’s silence for Dave Callaghan: a touching tribute to a well-loved commentator. During the first hour the efforts of Andrew Lyth added a little respectability to the scoreboard but Lees, Pujara and Ballance all went cheaply before Hodd organised the tail to great effect, so much so that, despite the fact that even getting one batting point was looking highly unlikely half way through the afternoon session, Yorkshire were able to push on past 250 thanks to an old-fashioned tail-ender’s innings from Jack Brooks. Luke Fletcher and Harry Gurney took four and three wickets respectively although Luke Wood took a lot of punishment: a worry for Notts. Nottinghamshire’s start could not be more catastrophic – in a bizarre echo of their collapse last Sunday they fell again to 6-3 – with Jack Brooks taking 3-11 so far. Only Ross Taylor, 34* overnight, has made runs so far and Yorkshire will be thinking that if they can get him quickly tomorrow, Nottinghamshire could be dismissed very cheaply. At 53-4, Nottinghamshire are still 203 behind and their first priority will be to get past the follow-on mark of 107 in the morning.
Finally, at The Oval, a strong candidate for the title of “Collapse of the Day”, despite this being a vintage day for collapses. Surrey, who were 110-2 and 187-4, subsided to 211ao. Burns and Foakes made 46, Elgar 44 and Pope 34, but no one could make a telling contribution with the bat. Fidel Edwards caused all kinds of problems and was not flattered by his figures of 4-38, while Liam Dawson blew away the tail with 4-30. Hampshire reached 37-0 in reply and seemed to be threatening to take control, but two wickets for Ricky Clarke and a wicket with the last ball of the day for Sam Curran has evened things out and, at 52-3, both sides will think that they can take control tomorrow. With that late Hampshire collapse, possibly it is Surrey who will feel the more pleased of the two sides but, with batsman finding life difficult, you would not rule out another big clatter of wickets in the morning.
Meanwhile in Division Two there was equal mayhem as the bowlers held sway in four of the five matches. With one of which looking likely to finish on Day 2, possibly in four sessions. Sixty-one wickets. Five completed innings. And just five batting bonus points: two each for Derbyshire and Sussex, one for Gloucestershire. It is still early days, but Sussex and Warwickshire seem to be making steady progress without making headlines and look serious candidates for promotion. In contrast, Middlesex, as their fans feared, remembering their highly inconsistent performances in 2017, looked far from the unstoppable force of the first round of matches. Elsewhere, surprise package Gloucestershire have edged the first day of their game and will retain their dream of starting the season with two wins.
The two sides that were relegated from Division One will look back on their day’s work in quite different ways. Middlesex looked so good against Northants that some fans felt that Division 2 would be a cakewalk however, Warwickshire have done their own demolition job on the same side that only just missed out on promotion last season. For Northamptonshire, this was a case of déjà vu. Last week they were unhappy about the state of the Lord’s pitch; this week though they are playing at Wantage Road and have no excuses for rolling over for 147 against a Warwickshire side robbed before the start of Ollie Stone, their most potent bowler, by injury. The fact that this was their best innings total of the season and that they have improved in each of the three innings does not make the sequence of totals of 71, 142 and 147 any easier to bear. In Stone’s absence, Ryan Sidebottom made an unexpected comeback and responded with 6-35 from 12.4 rabble-rousing overs. For Northants, who were 101-3 at one point, the loss of seven wickets for 46 was another indication that something is seriously wrong with the batting, especially after suffering multiple collapses last season. Northants needed a devastating response with the ball and had the visitors 28-3 in reply, but the fact is Rhodes and Hain have put on 85 so far and the Bears are just 34 behind. Warwickshire must be wondering if they can win this match batting just once.
In contrast, Middlesex looked off-colour. It is nothing that you can quite put your finger on, but a feeling that they were well off the pace today. James Harris added another four wickets and, if he continues like this, the England selectors may yet take notice of him, while highly-rated Tom Helm took three. You felt that wickets were there to be taken, so Derbyshire must have been more than satisfied when they reached 117-2 shortly before Lunch, with things not quite happening for the previously unstoppable Middlesex attack. However, the fall of Hughes just before Lunch left Derbyshire crumbling in the afternoon and seemingly throwing away their good start. At 167-7, Middlesex must have hoped to finish the innings for under two hundred but, instead, they lost the plot completely. Palladino and Viljoen started to re-build before Sam Robson tossed the ball to Ollie Rayner for this first bowl of the season. Viljoen went ballistic and greeted him with three sixes in an over. Poor Ollie must have wanted to put a couple of fielders in the carpark and later joked on Twitter that he owes the owner of a house by the ground a beer to compensate for a damaged roof. Rayner did get the last laugh as he took four catches at second slip, two of which were just sensational, but he admitted that, even though he was glad to contribute with the catches, his first bowl of the season had not quite gone the way that he had hoped. Derbyshire’s 265ao looked to be a good total and got better rapidly as Rampaul got Holden for a duck and White fell to Olivier. When Viljoen made his day even better by adding the wicket of Cartwright, Ollie Rayner had to come back out as nightwatchman and, at 45-3, Middlesex are looking decidedly rocky. Sam Robson is still there, 15* and it is sobering to think that he has already scored more than rivals for the England opening spot Hameed, Jennings and Stoneman combined. Suffice it to say that Middlesex did not show the form of a side for which promotion is a formality: the fan name of them is “The Machines” and, if last week they were a Mercedes, today they looked more like a rattling jalopy.
What of Round 1’s other winners: Gloucestershire? They looked in real trouble at 86-5 and 124-6 after deciding to leave out Craig Miles on a distinctly foggy morning that had Glamorgan deciding that they wanted to make first use of the ball. However, Ryan Higgins – who looks a better signing with every passing day – made 43, Noema-Barnett, 46 and Worrall 36*, taking Gloucestershire to their first batting point of the season and threatening to reach a second. 236 looks a competitive total, although Glamorgan made a good start, surviving eight overs and reaching 26-0. However, the ball is still new and they know that they will need a good start in the morning. Gloucestershire probably have not won their first two games of the season since the days of W.G. Grace – who played his cricket in the next village to the one where I grew up, on a green that I passed hundreds of times over the years – but will be dreaming that, with a couple of early wickets, they might yet find themselves top of Division 2 on Monday.
At Grace Road, there was a severe attack of proper cricket. As wickets fell like snowflakes in a blizzard elsewhere, the last game of the day to see a wicket was, by some distance, Leicestershire v Sussex. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t glamorous. Sussex crawled to 254-7 from 96 overs, with Luke Wright and Ben Brown adding 119 from 37 overs the batting highlight. The key though is that Sussex are still batting and are in control of the match. With their two biggest stars away on IPL duty, Sussex are progressing quietly and steadily and look like a good bet to be in the promotion shakedown when they will be able, at last, to field their strongest attack.
The game at Chester-le-Street is already hurtling towards a finish in under two days. Durham were indebted to tail-end resistance to make as many as 91, batting first. Matt Henry, with 5-28, was the wrecking ball and Durham rolled over, failing to bat out the first session. No one passed 16. When, despite the loss of an early wicket, Kent reached 67-1, Durham must have feared the worst. Dickson and Kuhn were threatening to take the match out of Durham’s reach. But three quick wickets gave Durham hope of limiting the damage and even of getting back into the game, but Kent were still ahead with only four wickets down. Could they make it count? As had happened against Gloucestershire, when they seemed to be taking control of the situation, a cluster of wickets fell: Kuhn, Rouse and Henry fell in the space of eleven balls and Kent were grateful to a ninth-wicket partnership to get as far as 169ao although, in the context of the match, it might as well be 500ao. Durham started their second innings 78 behind and, with Markram falling to a second duck in the day – not quite the impact that Durham expected from their South African Test star – third ball of the innings, the danger of an innings defeat on the second morning of the match looks all too real. Durham need 65 to make Kent bat again and it must be no better than Evens that they will make the runs. Warn the Chester-le-Street caterers that it may be an early Lunch…
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