6/13/2018 0 Comments
As there is no white ball cricket this week, as a sop to those who prefer to see red, the ECB has thrown in a round of Championship games. Of course, only six of the eight First Division and eight of ten Second Division sides are playing: there is obviously a logical reason why the other four sides have no game… if you find out what it is, please let us know! Hard as it is to believe, we are almost halfway through the Championship season and the shape of the race for the Pennant is getting increasingly clear. No longer can a side justify a defeat with the cry “it does not matter, there is still a long way to go” (some are still trying to). While it is not unusual to hear the phrase “it’s a game of two halves” when referring to some other ball game that is intruding on the cricket season, as the season advances, Division 1 itself is increasingly becoming a Division of two halves.
The title race looks to be a four-horse race between Somerset, Surrey, Essex and Nottinghamshire, although, at this stage, Somerset and Surrey seem to have an advantage here (how many people, pre-season, would have picked these two sides to be the ones scrapping at the top at this stage of the season?) At the bottom, the Worcestershire cause is looking increasingly hopeless, while Hampshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire (albeit the last, with a game in hand), are separated by just six points. There is already a keen anticipation of just how Hampshire will engineer yet another last-gasp escape from relegation – or maybe not – come the final day of the season.
Let’s start at The Oval, where remarkable things happened. It cannot be too often that a side is 1-2 after just 5 balls on the first morning and wins by an innings and plenty. However, given that one of those two wickets was the unfortunate Mark Stoneman, things become more plausible. George Dobell has pointed out that, since he took a blow on the head halfway through the Ashes series, Mark Stoneman has looked a shadow of himself. He is still yet to reach 30 this season and has reached double figures just once in his last six innings: might it not be kinder to let him play a couple of low-profile 2nd XI games to try to regain some confidence, away from the glare of publicity? After Stoneman had fallen for a third-ball duck, Scott Borthwick was dopy enough to run himself out second ball, leaving Surrey in a mess. A decidedly unpromising position was transformed as Burns and Foakes added 199 for the fourth wicket, with Rory Burns scoring 151, before Surrey collapsed from 282-3 to 368ao. The fact that Hampshire were fielding an attack with three high-class bowlers who have 152 Test caps between them, makes you wonder just why it is that they are struggling to keep their head above water in Division 1: that is, you wonder until they start to bat. The tremulous Hampshire effort in the face of a decent, but by no means terrifying, Surrey attack, answers that question. From a high point of 41-1, their reply deflated rapidly; in truth, it never got going. The main reason was that every time that Rikki Clarke got his hands on the ball, a batsman retreated quickly to the safety of the Pavillion: he seemed to give the Hampshire batsmen the holy terrors in the same way that Ian Botham did to Australia batsmen when in his pomp. It is one of life’s little mysteries why Rikki Clarke never got another Test cap after his early debut, but his 5-29 was far too much for Hampshire to handle. 135ao. Thanks very much. Have another bat and try to do better. Hampshire did do somewhat better second time around but, as Bruce Forsythe used to say in The Generation Game, “they had nothing to beat!” As Hampshire subsided for a second time, Amar Virdi added to his already impressive statistics for the season by taking 3-23 to ensure that Hampshire fell well short of making Surrey bat again. Virdi has 20 wickets in 5 Championship matches for Surrey this season, which is all the more impressive when you realise that in only five innings has he actually had more than a token spell. The more that the season progresses, the less that a spin attack of Leach, Bess and Virdi in Sri Lanka looks like being an outlandish possibility, with Moeen potentially needing batting form even to get into the squad. There is a genuine risk that, after several winters of being out-gunned in this field, England could actually play a better spin attack than the hosts. The bottom line was that, after the attentions of Clarke in the first innings and Virdi in the second, Hampshire could only manage 135 and 175ao and lost by an innings and 58, in well under three days. This Surrey side means business.
If Surrey were clinical, the defending Champions were efficient. While the first two days showed huge swings of fortune, that was nothing compared to the remarkable third and final day at Old Trafford. Suffice it to say that Essex put down a marker against Lancashire, making a big statement that they will not give up the title without a fight. Starting that third day, Essex were 221-6, chasing Lancashire’s 301ao and first innings bragging rights were far from clear, yet the match ended well before the scheduled Close that same day. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. How did we get here? Let’s start by saying that the fact that Lancashire had reached 301ao was a remarkable achievement starting from the depths of 59-5. For that recovery they had Chanderpaul and Joe Clark to thank for putting on 141 together to stabilise the innings. Afterwards, there were other contributions down the order and the end result was a very competitive total. When Essex batted, Cook and Westley put on 110 for the second wicket after Chopra fell early, before Joe Meenie showed that he is really a meanie, sending Essex diving from 119-1 to 130-5. It took a last wicket partnership of 42 to bring Essex up to parity and obtain a one-run first innings lead, with the third morning now well advanced and the prospect of a draw was looming. What no one could have imagined was the carnage that was to follow. Lancashire lost both openers – Jennings and Davies – in eight balls without a run on the board. Hameed followed soon after. Then Livingstone, Vilas, Clark… At 29-6, Lancashire were looking for the old warhorse, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a mere stripling of 43, with a Test average of 51.4, to rescue the situation once again. Even Superman has been known to have the odd off day when faced with some Kryptonite and, in this case, Shiv’s Kryptonite came in the form of Jamie Porter, who is starting to show the sort of form that even the selectors will notice. For once, not even not even Chanderpaul could salvage the innings. Essex were left with seemingly simple target of 105 to win and keep their title defence very much alive and on course. Graeme Onions though does not seem to understand the concept of “impossible”. He may be 35 now, with a history of injury problems and his England career long past, but he remains capable of lethal spells and decided that this was a good moment to produce one with the new ball; at 41-4, he had dismissed the top three, who seemed determined to reach the target and get home early and the match was back in the balance. If one thing characterises this Essex side though, it is their cussedness and ability to squeeze over the line in tight matches. Here it was personified by Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate who added 52 and took their side to the verge of victory. When ten Doeschate fell, even Graeme Onions knew that the game was up. Essex are not going to surrender their title without a battle.
So, three days into the round of matches, Surrey and Essex sat proudly at the top of Division 1 with three wins apiece and 84 and 78 points respectively. Surrey, though, count with the priceless advantage of a game in hand. Would they stay top? That all depended on events at Taunton, where a win for either side would make the winner the leader.
Here, we had another remarkable game. Pre-season, most pundits seemed to think that whatever jiggery-pokery the groundsman at Taunton came up with (do NOT mention the word “rake” to Kevin Hand and, while you are at it, best not to use “arrow” or “crossbow” either in polite conversation with him), Somerset would do well to avoid the drop. To the surprise of many though, Somerset have been thriving instead on seam-friendly pitches that have left Jack Leach (even before his injury) and Dominic Bess toiling for little reward. In fact, even without the seemingly permanently injured Jamie Overton (currently playing in the 2nds as he attempts yet another comeback), Lewis Gregory, Craig Overton, Josh Davey and Tom Abell are proving to be a formidable strike force. When opponents produce green, seaming tracks, with the aim of muzzling the spinners, they are receiving the Somerset seam whammie instead. Somerset’s 392 owed a lot to Matt Renshaw’s 106, although he received Abell support from the captain and from Steve Davies. In reply, had it not been for Ross Taylor’s 74, Nottinghamshire would have been in an even sorrier mess. Overton and Gregory reduced them to 28-5 and, for all Taylor’s efforts, 134ao was a sorry effort. Somerset enforced the follow-on, presumably hoping for a day off, but saw that almost inevitable result: suddenly, batting looked simple and the first wicket pair scored more than the entire XI had managed in their first effort. As the score mounted, horrible imaginings started in the Somerset camp – a captain who enforces the follow-on and loses always looks like a proper Charlie – and, at 456-6, with the lead 198 and Moores and Root taking a delight in reminding Bess that a spinner’s lot is not normally a happy one on English pitches, Dave Bracegirdle in the commentary box was anticipating dining-out for the rest of the summer on the tale of an unlikely victory. Up until then, Roelof van der Merwe was the only bowler who was threatening: his final figures of 48-12-138-4 tell their own tale. Then, Dominic Bess bowled Billy Root (it is possible that he had some help from Root’s inside edge) and an end was open. Bess and Davey needed no second invitation and, despite relatively stern resistance from the tail, they worked their way down the order and limited Nottinghamshire to 505ao and a target of 248 in around 78 overs. There is always a danger, when you have been chasing leather for 146 overs, that exhausted fielders lose their wickets tamely when they have to bat. Somerset though are made of sterner stuff and bedded in around Matt Renshaw to ensure that the target was hunted-down steadily. Somerset reached it with 6 wickets and 11 overs to spare and leapfrog from fourth to top of the table. While the top four have all won three games, Somerset and Surrey have a game in hand and have dealt a sore blow to Nottinghamshire’s chances as their record is now “won 3, lost 3”. Lancashire, in fifth, are 28 points behind, having also played a game more and have a 1-3 record: they would need to win at least five and probably six of their remaining eight fixtures to lift the title.
Division 2 is less advanced than Division 1. All sides have now played 5 games, so we are now officially in mid-season, starting the middle third of the games. The next four matches will define the shape of the table before the final run-in starts. Increasingly though, the impression is that the race is for second place, with six teams the within points for two wins of the current occupants: will someone move out of the pack to settle the issue early? Suddenly we have two, unexpected contenders. The current round of games has featured a couple of quite extraordinary finishes, including another remarkable win by Durham from a pretty dire position and Leicestershire, at one and the same time, dashing the hopes of their rival and doing something that they have not done for years, while Gloucestershire recreated Groundhog Day.
We have to start at Edgbaston, if only out of respect for the leader. The visitor was Glamorgan. The result looks, on paper, to have ended in a routine walloping – as has become habitual for Warwickshire’s opponents this season – but, it looked anything like that at the start of the final day. The bottom line though at the end of the day was that Warwickshire won their fourth match from five and have a healthy gap to the team in third: now of 34 points. In 2017 promotion required 7 wins and 222 points; in 2016, the last season with 16 games, 5 wins and 212 points. Either way, they are nearly halfway to promotion and should seal it with 4 wins from the last 9 games. So, how did we get to that position? In the final analysis, there were two reasons: Ian Bell and Jonathon Trott, the former with two unbeaten centuries in the match, the latter with two fifties. Between them they contributed 345 runs and were the difference between the two sides. It all looked so much simpler for Warwickshire as they bundled out Glamorgan for 220 on the first day. Four batsmen reached 30, but none could reach 40. In reply, Warwickshire stumbled to 18-2, started to recover through Bell and Trott and then lost wickets regularly, with only Chris Wright at #9 giving any kind of support. The lead of 30 was a lot less than they would have wished but, critically, the second batting point was obtained… just, with the last two wickets falling to consecutive balls. Batting again, Glamorgan got a solid start, Usman Khawaja registered a century on debut, captain Chris Cooke supported him well and, at 259-4, Warwickshire started to sweat on being batted out of the match. The critical moment was when Jethan Patel got one through Khawaja to win an LBW, just before the new ball was due. With an end open and the new ball, it became a catch-weight contest and the last six Glamorgan wickets ended up falling for 64, with Brookes, Barker, Wright and Patel sharing the spoils. A target of 294 could and probably should have been a major challenge, but Warwickshire survived a tricky spell on the third evening and, when they came back on the last day, fifty partnerships for the first two wickets and a century partnership for the third, set things up nicely. That said, a few Brummie bowels must have been turned to water when Trott and Hain fell in the space of three balls just before the new ball was due, but Ian Bell carried on regardless and Tim Ambrose is a decent batsman to steady a ship. Ambrose fell finally with 8 needed and Keith Barker followed two balls later, but a couple of boundaries finished it off and, to be honest, the margin was much bigger than the official one of 4 wickets would suggest.
For remarkable events though, Durham seem to be the side to follow. Let’s face it, they must have been in contact with Harry Houdini and there has been a lot about Durham’s recent cricket that Houdini, master escapologist, would approve of. Durham fans are starting to get used to the concept of “Sunday Marty” – a scowling, morose figure – and “Tuesday Marty” a beaming, cheerful Geordie, who is bursting with bonhomie and teasing pitilessly his stooge, the long-suffering Dave Bracegirdle. How does this change appear? Picture the scene. It is the close of Day 2. Martin Emmerson has watched Derbyshire put Durham in and dismiss them for 96 shortly after Lunch. After Durham had produced an impressive fightback with the ball, particularly after Tea, he had then seen the ninth wicket pair add 57 priceless runs and turn a manageable first innings deficit for the hosts in a low-scoring match into a towering 109. Durham wobbled like a blancmange in a gale in their second innings and, by the end of Day 2, it was 155-6, the lead was just 46 and a finish before Lunch on Day 3 looked a pretty safe bet. Martin Emmerson was not a happy bunny, raging against the vicissitudes of life. When it took just 9 balls on the third morning for Derbyshire to take the seventh wicket, it only served to confirm to our hero that the world or, at very least, the Fates and the ECB, were against his beloved team. At Lunch, though, Harte and Rimmington had produced a century stand for the eighth wicket and the world seemed a somewhat better place. Then, things got seriously weird. After Lunch, Harte and Sainsbury added 99 for the ninth wicket as Derbyshire disintegrated: there was no other word for it. How else do you explain 81 (yes, EIGHTY-ONE) extras? Daryn Smit let through 34 byes and 23 leg byes, the largest combined total since 1990, when Tim Boon, acting as emergency wicket-keeper for Leicestershire, conceded 33 byes and 26 leg byes. Smit allowed 40 byes over the two innings! You cannot go wrong with that kind of support from the opposition. By the time that Harte fell finally for 114, the target was 268 and you felt that the game was Durham’s to lose. Salisbury and Rushworth reduced Derbyshire to 35-4 and, from there, it was just a case of not panicking. Durham won by 95 runs and have vaulted into fourth in the table, well in touch with the promotion places. Sides now know what to do in the future: avoid bowling Durham out for a pittance in the first innings if they want to have some hope of beating them! You have to suspect that reality will catch up with Durham at some point, but you have to admire their spirit.
Speaking of spirit, the other two games showed another two examples, both sad in the way that they are so heartening. Last season, only a bizarre over-rate sanction separated Northants from promotion. This season Northants are the Worcestershire of Division 2: sides see them in the fixture list and rub their hands with glee, thinking of what the win points will do for their position in the table. However, the visitors on this occasion were Leicestershire. After a blip in 2016, when they won 4 matches (and still finished 8th), 2017 saw a return to normal with a winless season and no fewer than 9 defeats. Their winless streak of 17 matches had finally ended in the previous round when Leicestershire squeaked home against Glamorgan having seemingly thrown away a certain win for the second time in consecutive games. Here, we had the legendary anti-battle of the resistible force against the moveable object. The first innings showed the fragility of both teams: no less than 14 batsmen reached double figures, but not one reached 50. 217 plays 204: advantage Leicestershire. In this fast-motion match, Day 2 ended with Northants 165-3 in their second innings, with Wakely and Rossington well set and well on their way, it seemed, to registering their own first win of the season. Then, it all went horribly wrong. Next morning, 192-4 became 229ao and a victory target of 217 for Leicestershire. Despite two ducks, Leicestershire decided that this winning lark is fun and reached the target with great comfort, to win by six wickets. It is many years since Leicestershire registered consecutive Championship wins – eight to be precise. One suspects that, like Durham, their current position in the table (third) flatters them slightly, but they are going to enjoy it while it lasts.
And finally, to Bristol. I have been a Gloucestershire supporter since the late 1960s. I have seen legends of the game play for the Shire. I have also seen a side that just missed out on promotion in 2011, torn apart and driven to the verge of insolvency by ECB demands, to the point when, in one season, the playing staff was so thin that they relied on amateurs to be able to put out an XI. Not for the Shire the high-profile stars of wealthier counties: the press release announcing the new overseas signing is usually greeted with a chorus of “WHO???” followed by a rush to the Internet to see if the player has a profile anywhere that sheds some light on what to expect. One of the entertainments of recent Gloucestershire games has been to compare the two XIs and decide which Gloucestershire player, if any, would make the combined XI (Kevin Hand, predictably, picked an all-Middlesex combined XI, while Matt Coles was immune to Sir Robert Hunt’s pleas to include Ryan Higgins in the combined Kent-Gloucestershire XI). Watching this game, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were watching the movie Groundhog Day because it followed an identical pattern to the Middlesex game in the previous round. In fact, the Gloucestershire Chairman might want to check that this was not a re-broadcast of the Middlesex game with the names of the opposition players changed. Opposition bat and make a huge first innings score – CHECK!! Gloucestershire bat and struggle and are all out cheaply – CHECK!!! Opposition scents an easy innings win and invites the Shire to follow-on – CHECK!!!! Gloucestershire bat again and show that, actually, the pitch is not a minefield after all – CHECK!!!!! Against Middlesex the heroes were Bobby Bracey and Graeme van Buuren, who saw Gloucestershire through to the draw, here it was the even less likely combination of Graeme van Buuren and Kieron Noema-Barnett. 219-6 against the new ball and with a full session to survive, forged a partnership of exactly 100 to see Gloucestershire to safety. It was great to see Gloucestershire fight their way to a draw for a second consecutive time, but having beaten Kent in the opening game of the season and been in an incredibly tense finish with Sussex, which could have gone either way had the last day not been washed-out, the fans would prefer the Shire not to make a habit of these fighting draws after following-on.
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