By MaRk Kidger (@MarkFromMadrid)
After the T20 Blast interlude, we are now into the Championship run in. Six of the eight sides have six games left – the exceptions are Nottinghamshire and Lancashire, who have only five. There will be six weeks of concentrated Championship cricket now, on pitches that should have something for the spinners after the early season green-tops.
The Championship title looks to be a two-horse race. As in 2017, we have a runaway leader, and we have a chasing pack, desperately trying to stay in touch. Even with six games left, it would take a Devon Loch moment for Surrey to fail to win, so big is their lead. Thirty-four points clear – more than two wins – of Somerset, you have to suspect that the Cidermen would need to win at least five of their last six matches to put any sort of pressure on the men from south of the river. Nottinghamshire, in third, are 43 points back and, with a game fewer to play, would surely need to win every one to challenge: a tall order at best. Essex, defending Champions, are fourth, a whopping sixty-one points back and surely too far away to mount any serious challenge to defend their title needing to make up more than ten points per game on the leaders.
Realistically, it looks like Surrey to win the title, with the battle for the runners-up spot between Somerset, Essex and Nottinghamshire.
At the bottom of the table, things have closed-up. Realistically, even Essex are not safe, just twenty points clear of the relegation places and would slip into trouble with a couple of defeats. Yorkshire did a lot to ease their relegation worries with a win in the Roses match but will need at least one more win to feel safe. Only twice in two-division history has a side with four wins gone down, but Yorkshire and Essex have accrued only 29 bonus points all season, far fewer than any of the sides below them and Yorkshire’s ten batting points from eight matches is the worst in the Division, which goes a long way to explaining why, with three wins each, neither are out of the relegation woods. Realistically though, relegation looks most likely to be between Hampshire, Lancashire and Worcestershire. Worcestershire are now only fourteen points from safety, having finally got a win in the last round of games and Lancashire, in the relegation places and with a game fewer to play, look to be in real trouble.
Somerset v Essex
This is undoubtedly the stand-out game of the round. If either side is to make Surrey even slightly nervous, it has to win. With both sides desperate for the win-points, do not expect a draw, as there is a strong incentive to make something of the game, even if a stalemate seems to be coming. In the last two seasons, Somerset have been a one-trick pony, their success based on big turners at Taunton in the last few games of the season. This campaign has been marked though by Somerset showing the strength of their seam attack, backed-up by some powerful batting, so it will be interesting to see what type of pitch the Taunton groundsman provides: taking a long-term view of England success, more pitches that encourage spinners would be welcome. Essex’s season is put into context by the fact that Surrey have almost as many batting points (26) as Essex have batting and bowling points combined (29): no side in the division has fewer bowling points than Essex, and only Yorkshire have fewer batting points.
Marcus Trescothick, on his return to Championship action at Taunton, after recuperation and runs in the Somerset 2nd XI, struck four boundaries in Porter's first two overs in an exhilarating start, including consecutive boundaries. He then became becalmed in mid-session and rendered virtually scoreless for an hour, before repeating successive boundaries off Porter again to bring up an excellent, 83-ball half-century as he accelerated again before lunch. With Somerset playing both spinners and with Essex bring Simon Harmer into the attack after just nine overs, all the signs are that Somerset’s seam sojourn has ended and they plan to chase Surrey, who still have to visit Taunton, using Plan A: bat, put up a score of some kind and spin out the opposition.
Marcus Trescothick reached the nineties and seemed to be on the way to a century before Peter Siddle bowled him a short ball, and he picked out Deep Square Leg to fall for 95 although, with Tom Abell managing a fifty of his own, 200-4 at Tea was hardly a disaster. Seventy from Tom Abell, well supported by 45 from Steve Davies ensured that Trescothick’s efforts were not wasted and when they fell, Lewis Gregory got through to Stumps on 42*, leaving Somerset 308-7. With just 18 overs to go to obtain bonus points, Somerset will be looking to hang around and get their fourth batting point and, hopefully, deny Essex a third bowling point before putting Bess and Leach to work.
Hampshire v Nottinghamshire
Nottinghamshire are, realistically, looking at runners-up spot – and a handy cash prize – at best this season after four wins and four defeats. Hampshire, who have been hanging on to Division One status by their fingertips for the last two seasons, are in another struggle for survival. Having seen the men from Southampton survive at the expense of Durham in 2016, there are plenty of fans north of the Solent who would see karma in a relegation, so it is essential for Hampshire’s image in the game to show that their Division One status is deserved. Defeat for Hampshire in this game would leave them deep in trouble, while a win for Nottinghamshire would keep the pressure on Somerset.
Rain at Southampton caused a late start and, when the players came out, the conditions were tough for batting, but Hampshire got through to Lunch relatively unscathed, with just one wicket down. The post-Lunch session though was a dreadful one for them, as Hampshire slid to 137-7, with Mullaney taking three, before Liam Dawson and Kyle Abbott put on a fifty partnership. The recovery continued after Tea as Liam Dawson went on to a confident fifty. What started as a nuisance to Nottinghamshire became a major annoyance as the partnership went past one hundred and the second batting point loomed, while Nottinghamshire, having sealed two bowling points early, were utterly unable to seal the third, let alone put a stop to the fun. Abbott then reached his own fifty just after the second batting point was brought up and Nottinghamshire was becoming desperate to break the partnership somehow. Dawson fell finally for 72, bowled by Matt Carter, making an almighty heave at a straight ball, having added 133 with Kyle Abbott and reduced Nottinghamshire to distraction. Dale Steyn fell immediately for a duck and Carter had two wickets in an over after several hours of fruitless toil. Fidel Edwards was the last man out, run out for 1: a total of 277ao must have looked like riches to Hampshire from their desperate position halfway through the day.
Things got even worse for Nottinghamshire as Fidel Edwards ripped into them with three, cheap wickets, including both openers and nightwatchman Matt Milnes, for figures of 3-5 at that point. Edwards was well-supported by Gareth Berg, who removed Chris Nash. Nottinghamshire were 25-4, and in disarray with five overs still to come, however, Samit Patel and Steven Mullaney held on to take Nottinghamshire to the Close on 39-4, still in deep trouble in this match and needing a partnership in the morning.
Yorkshire v Worcestershire
Two relegation-threatened sides who need points badly. At the end of May, it seemed that only a miracle could save Worcestershire from the drop after a start that recalled some of the most awful Division One starts of recent seasons (Derbyshire and Northamptonshire come powerfully to mind here). However, a win, combined with the awful form of Hampshire and Lancashire has given Worcestershire some hope. Yorkshire have hauled themselves away from the relegation places and know that defeat in this fixture would put them back in trouble and, worse, leave their rivals in this match breathing down their necks. The announcement of coming, high-profile departures from Leeds have re-opened the spectre of turbulent post-seasons past with their inevitable destabilisation of the run-in, while Worcestershire, the original yo-yo side, would like to have the unusual pleasure of consecutive seasons in the top division.
An excellent first session for the visitors saw Yorkshire reduced to 63-4 before Williamson and Tattershall started a recovery. Williamson was finally dismissed by acting skipper, Moeen for 87, with Daryl Mitchell takes a one-handed diving catch to end a stand of 88, after which they added just 63 runs, 38 of them coming in a whirlwind knock from Jack Brooks in only 20 balls. Brooks and Fisher had added 56 in rapid time. The recovery ended with Brooks caught and bowled by Ed Barnard off a skier for 38, while Dillon Pennington took 4 for 53 in the innings. To have Yorkshire 216ao was an excellent performance for Worcestershire, who started confidently before the rain began to fall and the players went off at 39-0, which proved to be the last action of the day as rain brought a premature finish.
Surrey v Lancashire
A win for Surrey in this game would all but settle two issues: Surrey would be virtually the anointed Champions; while Lancashire, with just four games left, would be confirmed to be in grave danger of spending a season at some of the lesser grounds of England and Wales in 2019. With just four games left, Lancashire would need probably two wins from them to ensure survival. In contrast, at The Oval, after several years of trying all manner of different options to obtain success, Surrey have hit, finally, on what looks to be a winning formula: a mixture of youth and experience, a potent pace attack, backed-up by some excellent spin; all bases are covered, and it is hard to see any real weaknesses in the squad.
This match was the joker in the pack, continuing the day/night, pink ball experiment. Surrey welcomed back the Curran brothers, with Sam released by England and Tom back from injury, but were missing Jason Roy, whose fit of pique at getting a golden duck in the Blast literally re-bounded on him: he threw down his bat, and it bounced back and hit him in the face, putting him out of this match. Surrey made a very poor start to the day with Burns and Stoneman falling quickly to leave them 21-2. At Lunch, there was a slight recovery, but 110-5 was a great first session of work for Lancashire and left the title and relegation races interestingly poised. Sam Curran fell soon after Lunch and Surrey were now 130-6 and in some trouble. Morne Morkel and Jade Dernbach hit out to add some respectability and brought up the batting point, before both fell in four balls and Surrey were 211ao, with five wickets for Tom Bailey.
In reply, Jade Dernbach, who is experiencing a great revival in fortunes in the twilight of his career, took Alex Davies with the last ball of the first over, edging to Rikki Clarke at slip. Thereafter Curran and Dernbach bowled tightly and kept Haseen Hameed and Rob Jones almost runless until they broke the shackles with three boundaries in four balls. That though was as good as it got for Lancashire. Morne Morkel took Chris Jones for 10 (34-2), and Haseeb Hameed’s vigil ended when Morkel bowled him for 22 (41-3): Hameed still looks a shadow of the player who made such a wonderful entrance into Test cricket. Matt Parkinson was already getting turn early in the day, suggesting that there could be plenty in the pitch for Amar Virdi so, as the match moved into the evening session, Lancashire started to re-build as captain, Rory Burns turned to Virdi to engineer a breakthrough before the Close, although this time without success.
Dane Vilas and Shivnarine Chanderpaul brought up the fifty stand, before Vilas crashed a ball to the boundary to bring up his own fifty, passing on the way the 43 of Aaron Finch that had been the highest score of the day at the Kia Oval and, at the same time, bringing up the Lancashire 100. With the scoring rate increasing and the batsmen looking increasingly comfortable under the lights, Surrey needed a break-through before the Close. As play moved deep into the last hour, the batsmen were content to score almost exclusively in singles, of which there were a plentiful supply available, and it seemed that Surrey could be facing a significant first-innings deficit. Finally, Vilas started to get ambitious against Sam Curran and, after hitting the first boundary in plenty of overs, tried a booming drive two balls later and only edged through to Ben Foakes, departing in high dudgeon, knowing that he had let Surrey back into the match. What he was not to know is just how the game would turn on that one mistake. Steven Croft came in with just over half an hour to play and got off the mark with consecutive boundaries off Curran: the first a big cover drive, the second an edge past the slips to keep up the momentum. However, Vilas’s folly in opening an end late in the day was illustrated when Steven Croft edged Rikki Clarke to Aaron Finch and, at 129-5, Surrey were looking at perhaps even managing to engineer a small lead first innings lead. Two balls later, nightwatchman Matt Parkinson was LBW to Clarke, who had a double-wicket maiden and 114-3 had become 129-6. Debutant, Josh Bohannon, came in with five and a half overs left. Twenty-five consecutive dot balls were played before Bohannon broke the sequence with a single. Lancashire closed on 134-6 and know that they have let an excellent position slip here.
All the teams in Division Two have six matches left and, having looked as if Warwickshire and Kent were going to run away with the promotion spots, suddenly we have a battle on our hands, as both were defeated in their last game. As a result, the promotion race has concertinaed, with Warwickshire still top, but now Sussex their nearest challengers, Kent in third and, the surprise package, Leicestershire, in fourth are very much in touch. Just seventeen points cover the top four.
For the inveterate fantasists, Middlesex – 34 points behind the promotion spots – and Derbyshire – a further point back – are clinging on to their hopes of promotion and, even Gloucestershire, forty-five points behind Sussex, could still challenge mathematically. However, for any of these three sides to come from so far back will take a minimum of five wins from six.
Leicestershire v Kent
Top billing today has to be for Leicestershire’s home fixture against Kent. With four wins from their last five matches, the Foxes are, suddenly, out of the wooden spoon fight and into the promotion battle. This is very much a “promotion 48-pointer” with the winner pushing its claims to go up at the end of the season. Kent, with just six batting points from eight games, take on a Leicestershire side that has accrued eighteen (only the top two have more), on a Grace Road pitch that has encouraged huge scores and, while other grounds offered matches that were over in two days in early season, was giving us pitches that would have struggled to get a result in even five or six days.
This pitch though was certainly more lively as Leicestershire struggled in the morning session. Things were no better after Lunch as Leicestershire staggered drunkenly to 114-6. There was some tail-end stubbornness as Leicestershire moved on to 170-8 and then 216-9, with Dieter Klein batting as a concussion replacement for the injured Zak Chappell, but Harry Podmore’s three wickets and three more from Ivan Thomas had put Kent into a good position, despite the recovery.
When Kent batted, Dickson fell to Raine for 15 to make it 24-1. Mohammed Abbas then removed Bell-Drummond and Kuhn and, at 45-3, the match had taken a sharp turn back towards Leicestershire. Soon after the umpires decided that the light was too bad to continue and Kent, no doubt, at 51-3, fell some relief at being able to go off and re-group. The light did not improve, and the umpires called Stumps for the day. Kent cannot afford to concede a lead and will look at add to their meagre supply of batting points tomorrow: if they cannot do so, their promotion push will start to stall badly.
Sussex v Derbyshire
Sussex’s season has come alive since Jofra Archer, and Chris Jordan returned to the attack. Not unreasonably described as an almost Test-standard attack, they are the team with most batting points in the division (20) and have muscled into the promotion party as a formidable batting line-up has been backed-up by its bowlers. Derbyshire, whose season started so well before tailing-off, have the third highest number of batting points in the division (18) and, were they to win this one, they might just start swapping thoughts of another season trudging round Cardiff, Bristol and Leicester, for more exotic locations, if not climes, next season.
Drama before the game started, as Derbyshire keeper, Harvey Hosein dislocated a finger in the warm-up. He was replaced behind the stumps by Wayne Madsen, while Derbyshire awaited the arrival of Daryn Smit, who finally reached Hove around Tea after a rapid drive. Then, Derbyshire’s problems increased as Ravi Rampaul started to experience such severe breathing difficulties that he was hospitalised, although latest reports are that he is feeling much better. Despite everything, Sussex were reduced to 65-3, before recovering and, by the time that Smit could take the field, had climbed to a much more satisfactory 271-5 at Tea, taking firm control, helped by 82 from Harry Finch. Ben Brown though then took on the mantle of leading the way and pushed his side past the 300, finally reaching his century from 155 balls, after a seemingly endless time waiting on 99*. After his period of self-denial, he then added twelve from the next six balls bowled, powering Sussex past the 350 and a fourth batting point. Brown finally fell LBW to Callum Ferguson for 116. Sussex ended the day 400-7, bringing up the fifth batting point with the final ball of the day, with Wiese 89* and Archer 13* and in an excellent position to bat Derbyshire out of the game in the morning.
Warwickshire v Gloucestershire
Warwickshire’s seeming royal progress back to Division 1 has been rudely interrupted by defeat to Middlesex in their previous match. Still favourites to go up, a win is desperately needed to get the season back on track after the disappointment of missing out on the T20 Quarter-Finals and the disappointing Championship defeat in the last round. In front, they have a Gloucestershire side that seemed to be in terminal decline after a highly competitive start to the season. Victory in the last round of the Championship and a scrambled progress through to the T20 Quarter-Finals has restored some hope to the Bristol faithful, who were looking at another season of struggle to avoid the wooden spoon, but two miserable defeats in their last two T20 fixtures have brought back the shadows.
After a late scare, when David Payne reported sick, having fallen ill overnight, requiring a late call-up for Chris Liddle, with Kieron Noema-Barnett already ruled out by his injury in the Blast, there was an interesting first session saw Gloucestershire’s openers put on a rare fifty partnership. Skipper Chris Dent, who has been playing in the 2nd XI to get some middle time, was looking in better nick than recently. Unfortunately, every time that Gloucestershire seemed to be getting on top, with everyone getting a start, a wicket fell. All the top four all looked well set and then, disappointingly, got out: with a long tail to come due to the late changes in the side; it did not bode well. However, any suggestion that Gloucestershire would come as sacrificial victims to get the home campaign back on track seemed confounded by the first two hours of play as the visitors reached 101-2. Unfortunately, a wicket just before Lunch was followed by three immediately after and Gloucestershire were soon back in their familiar position: on the ropes and hanging on for dear life at 113-6, with only a long tail to come! The procession continued as batsman after batsman gave his wicket away against some excellent bowling from Wright and Barker. Chris Wright, heading to Leicestershire next season, produced a spell of 5-9 after Lunch and Gloucestershire were 127ao. In the end, the top five had all got a start, but no one else passed 2. The last eight wickets fell for twenty-six. It was a wretched performance.
When Warwickshire batted, they were as gloriously untroubled as Gloucestershire had been initially. The difference was that Warwickshire continued to bat on, with the collusion of the fielders. At 80-0, Will Rhodes produced a big skier, Matt Taylor ran in, got to it and shelled a simple chance, even as Rhodes started to walk off: it was a good summary of the last three days of abject cricket played by the Shire. The century came up with fifties for both batsmen and no extras at all and was only the sixth Warwickshire partnership of the season for any wicket and the first that Rhodes and Sibley have managed all season. Warwickshire were already ahead when Chris Dent put down a second, sharp chance off Matt Taylor and everything continued to break their way. Finally, the opening stand was broken on 161 as Bracey caught Sibley for 65 off Ryan Higgins, at which point, with nine overs to go, Chris Wright was sent in as nightwatchman!! The early nightwatchman policy backfired when Chris Liddle got Wright LBW, and Ian Bell had to come in anyway before the Close, accompanying Will Rhodes to his century. Warwickshire will look to bat long and bowl Gloucestershire out a second time for an innings win, to obtain maximum points here.
Northamptonshire v Middlesex
After winning their opening Championship fixture at a canter, the more radical Middlesex fans were talking about winning all fourteen games. What has happened since has been a severe reality check: Middlesex are mired in mid-table obscurity, did a little better than in previous seasons in the One Day Cup, without ever looking to get to the knock-out stages, and finished bottom of the South Group in the Blast. Middlesex insist that they are still alive in the promotion stakes, although they need a formidable run in to get into the top two. In front, they have a Northamptonshire side who had a horrific start to the season, having missed out on promotion in 2017 only due to an over-rate penalty, but who have recovered with two wins and are off the bottom of the table. Realistically, if Middlesex lose this match, their season is over, with just pride left to play for, while a win will allow them to continue hoping.
Middlesex though did not have a particularly good start, with wickets refusing to fall, despite Duckett falling for 6 to make it 16-1. Northants were 234-4 by Tea, with Ricardo Vasconcelos past his century, well-supported by Richard Levy with 41. Vasconcelos, the only centurion of the day, finally fell for 140, bowled by Middlesex debutant, nineteen-year-old Ethan Bamber. At 301-5, it looked like being a long day in the field for Middlesex, but even James Harris must have been surprised to find himself on a hat-trick as the visitors fought back late in the day. Without Harris’s five-for, Middlesex would have been in a sorry state. Saif Zaib and Brett Hutton added an unbroken 20 for the ninth wicket and Northamptonshire were 332-8 at Stumps and in a good position to add a fourth batting point in the morning.
Glamorgan v Durham
A bottom of the table clash, between two sides that know that they will spend 2019 in Division Two and who now have little more to play for than avoiding the wooden spoon and reaching mid-table mediocrity. Durham though can approach the end of the season with more optimism now that, having spent two seasons losing start players hand over fist in the ECB-inspired meltdown, are now starting to make some high-profile acquisitions. While Durham can feel, with some justification, that they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, Glamorgan’s season has been one with few high points to take pride in and already suggests another season of struggle in 2019.
Rain at Cardiff meant a very late start and, when it did come, Glamorgan made a poor start, losing three wickets cheaply and going into Lunch 29-3. Carlson and Lloyd added 51 to add some respectability before there was another clatter of wickets to 91-7. Salter and Smith then added another fifty partnership, before again wickets fell quickly. It cannot be often that a total of 154ao has contained two fifty partnerships, as the Durham bowlers exploited favourable conditions to roll the batsmen with great ease around those two stands. Seamers Chris Rushworth and Matt Salisbury led the way with three wickets apiece, while spinner Axar Patel claimed the last two wickets of the innings on his debut.
Durham responded confidently, and the fifty came up in just the thirteenth over, with Alex Lees 38* from only 36 balls. Stumps were drawn at 75-0, with Lees, bringing up his fifty in the final over of the day, 53* and Cameron Steele 22*, as the revival in Durham fortunes continues after a difficult early season. A good morning session and Durham will be looking at a win that will push them up to a comfortable and respectable mid-table position.
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