By Harry Hill (@HarryHill96)
Where: Grace Road, Leicester
Ins: Michael Carberry (Hampshire), Ateeq Javid (Warwickshire), Tom Taylor. (Derbyshire), Mohammad Abbas (PAK, first CC game, then mid-June onwards), Mohammad Nabi (T20 Blast), Varun Aaron (IND, Late April - Late June) .
Outs: Clint Mckay, Will Fazakerley (retired).
Last season: County Championship Division Two 10th, One-Day Cup 6th (North Group), T20 Blast 4th (North Group) – Quarter-finals.
2018 odds: County Championship Division Two winners: 33/1, RLODC: 25/1, T20 Blast 33/1 - Odds powered by Oddschecker.com
There is a sense of renewal at Grace Road ahead of the new season, a new coach and captain has given a much-needed boost to the club that has simply drifted through the motions for too long. Leicestershire have had the displeasure of propping up the bottom of Division Two for four of the past five years and find themselves without a Championship win since 2016. The man tasked with turning the ship around is none other than former captain and club stalwart Paul Nixon. There was at least something for the Grace Road faithful to enjoy last year, as they progressed to the quarter-final of the T20 Blast, a format that has served them well down the years.
One man who can be more than happy with his return last year includes Mark Cosgrove, as the Australian scored 1,112 runs at an average of 48.34 in the Championship, which was right up there with the best in the Division. Despite relinquishing the captaincy to new signing Michael Carberry, you can be sure that Cosgrove will be key to any success this season. Despite struggling for form on loan at Grace Road towards the end of last season, Carberry has proven class over many years and will add some vital nous to a relatively inexperienced side. With the ball, Mohammad Abbas is a cracking signing and will be available when not playing the two-match test series for Pakistan against England in May and June. Abbas has built up a global reputation after bursting onto the test scene against the West Indies last April and will be looking to transfer an excellent domestic record in Pakistan to the County Championship this year.
A couple of youngsters to look out for this year include Sam Evans; the 20-year-old batsman scored 114 in just his second first-class match for Loughborough University against Northants last season. After impressing for the 2nd team last season, Evans has been promoted to the first team and will be looking to feature at Grace Road at some point this summer. Another good prospect to look out for is left-arm spinner Callum Parkinson, who toured Australia over the winter with the England Lions. A mainstay of the successful T20 Blast side last year, he also enjoyed some fine end of season form in the Championship, culminating in a 10 wicket-haul against Worcestershire last September. Parkinson also appears to be more than able to contribute with the bat, as he scored an impressive 75 from just 92 balls at number 11 against Kent last year. Despite this, I do wonder whether Leicestershire lack batting depth, as only Mark Cosgrove and Callum Parkinson averaged above 33 in the County Championship last year, an area that I am sure has been worked on over pre-season.
The white ball had clearly been a priority for Leicestershire last season, and I expect that it might be again this year. However, two players who were key to their success in the Blast last year, Luke Ronchi and Clint McKay will not be returning to Grace Road this year. The explosive Ronchi was one of the stand out players in the Blast last year, scoring 429 runs at an incredible strike rate of 180, leaving quite a hole for someone to fill in the Blast this year. The aim for the County Championship will simply be to find 2 or 3 wins and avoid occupying bottom spot again come the autumn, a feat that I predict they’ll achieve.
Where I think they will finish
County Championship: 9th
One-Day Cup: 7th (North Group)
T20 Blast: 6th (North Group)
3/26/2018 0 Comments
By Harry Hill (@HarryHill96)
Where: The 3aaa County Ground, Derby
Ins: Ravi Rampaul (Surrey), James Kettleborough, Duanne Olivier (SA, first half of season)
Outs: Tom Taylor (Leicestershire), Shiv Thakor, Tom Milnes, Ben Cotton, Tom Wood, Rob Hemmings, Greg Cork
Key man: Wayne Madsen
Last Season: County Championship 8th, One-Day Cup: 7th, T20 Blast: 2nd - Q/F
2018 odds: County Championship Division two winners: 20/1, RLODC: 25/1, T20: 25/1 - Odds powered by Oddschecker.com
Derbyshire supporters can take plenty of pride from last season, particularly with a spectacular run to the quarter-finals of the T20 Blast after finishing 2nd in the North Group. Moreover, some fine September form in the County Championship with two home wins over Sussex and Gloucestershire saw Billy Godleman’s men finish 8th in Division Two. Looking ahead to this season, Derbyshire begin their campaign at home to recently relegated Middlesex on the 20th April.
Over the winter, there was the surprise that four young fast bowlers, Greg Cork, Tom Taylor, Tom Milnes, and Ben Cotton have been released despite the latter three having spent time as part of England’s pace bowlers programme. However, they all had limited opportunities and Kim Barnett has looked to trim his squad to a more manageable size. There have been a couple of notable incomings to the bowling department as Ravi Rampaul joins from Surrey and the impressive Duanne Olivier will be available for the first half of the season. The tall and fast South African is expected to take the new ball with compatriot Hardus Viljoen in a dangerous looking opening bowling partnership. In addition, James Kettleborough bolsters the batting department, after impressing with three back-to-back centuries in minor counties cricket last season with Bedfordshire. Disappointingly for Derbyshire supporters, however, is the recent injury to Mitchell Santner, the exciting Kiwi all-rounder was due to replace Olivier as the overseas player for the second half of the season, before injuring his knee; ruling him out of action for between six to nine months.
One to watch is Hamidullah Qadri, the young spinner was the first player to appear in the County Championship born in the 21st century. In just three Championship matches last season, the 17-year old took 10 wickets at 28.80, including a five-wicket haul on debut against Glamorgan last June. Another youngster to look out for is Callum Brodrick, who scored 52 on his first-class debut against the West Indies last season. Although yet to feature in the County Championship, he did appear in the middle-order for most of the T20 Blast campaign last season.
Noticeable from last season was Derbyshire’s lack of bonus points in the Championship, with the lowest number of bowling points and only Glamorgan had fewer batting points in Division Two. I worry if Derbyshire have the bowling depth for the season ahead, especially after Olivier leaves the county late June. 33-year-old Ravi Rampaul and 34-year-old Tony Palladino may be required to do a lot of the hard overs once the new ball stops swinging.
As to whether Derbyshire can repeat the success they enjoyed last year in the T20 Blast will rely a lot on Wayne Madsen, who took 13 wickets in addition to his 526 runs at an impressive average of 47.82 last year. The Falcons will miss the loss of Imran Tahir and Matt Henry who were key with the ball last year, taking 22 wickets between them in 14 matches they appeared in. In the County Championship, Derbyshire will be looking to recreate the end of season momentum, and look to find a first away win since beating Northants in August 2015.
Where I think they will finish:
County Championship Division Two: 7th
One-Day Cup: 6th (North Group)
T20 Blast: 5th (North Group)
By Charlie Jennings
Where: Riverside Ground, Chester-le Street
Ins: Will Smith (Hampshire), Nathan Rimmington (Overseas), Aiden Markram (Overseas), Tom Latham (Overseas)
Outs: Paul Coughlin (Nottinghamshire), Graham Onions, Keaton Jennings (both Lancashire)
Last Season: County Championship: 9th, RLODC: Group Stage, T20: Group Stage
2018 odds: County Championship 16/1, RLODC: 25/1, T20: 25/1 - Odds powered by Oddschecker.com
Durham will be looking to put a sorry 2017 campaign behind them, a period of transition naturally ensuing after the pathetic treatment of the ECB bearing its tainted fruit last season. Dealing with a 48 point deduction in the County Championship Durham did, however, gain the respectability of not earning the dreaded wooden spoon – an admirable feat considering the aforementioned deduction. The evergreen Paul Collingwood will once again be looking to lead his troops to bigger and better things this season, with an exciting looking blend of talented youth prospects and some shrewd overseas acquisitions – notably the capture of Aiden Markram – Durham are my tip to be dark horses this year.
In Tom Latham and Markram, Durham have two batsmen with undoubted promise – if both perform to their potential and knuckle down on the green tops of the North, batting should not be of much worry with Collingwood acting as the middle order anchor. A poor showing with the bat last term will no doubt reinstate the desire, and necessity, for heavy runs – and in Cameron Steel, they have someone who looks to have the promise to provide. Fresh off the back of a maiden first-class double century in his breakthrough season, Steel will be looking to tie down that upper middle order position. With this potential comes responsibility however and Collingwood will be looking to Steel to live up to the hype that surrounds him at Durham. The loss of Keaton Jennings at the top of the order will no doubt lay heavy on what looked a weak lineup in 2017, Latham and Markram will need to deliver if Durham want to compete this term.
The bowling department has taken a massive blow – the loss of record wicket-taker Graham Onions and promising young quick Paul Coughlin has left a gaping void to fill. In Nathan Rimmington, the Northerners have a solid fast-medium bowler, someone with a lot of experience of Sheffield Shield cricket; someone who will have a lot of pearls of wisdom to impart on the youngsters coming through the Durham system. He and the ever-reliable Chris Rushworth have the potential to form a destructive opening bowling partnership. A lot will also depend on how much cricket Durham get out of Mark Wood, who no doubt will be in and around the England setup for much of the summer. If Durham can get a decent amount out of the injury-plagued quick he will provide a nice change up for this bowling attack. Wood can provide a nice variety, his pace together with the swing and accuracy of Rushworth and Rimmington looks a daunting task for any batting lineup. Besides those three, Barry McCarthy and James Weighell will be looking to push on from encouraging maiden first-class campaigns.
Perennial white-ball strugglers, there is no doubt that ground needs to be made up to compete in both limited-overs competitions. The captaincy of Tom Latham in the Royal London One Day Cup will be, if anything, interesting to observe. There is no doubt that there is potential there for a side that only as recently as 2014 were 50-over champions. In last years Blast, a sorry performance saw only 3 wins from 14 matches. The aim must surely be to compete for a qualification spot, and in the likes of Usman Arshad, James Weighell and Barry McCarthy the Jets do possess some firepower which could be used to propel them up the standings this time around. However, I fear the financial heavyweights may put pay to any hopes Durham have of competing in this competition.
Predictions: County Championship – I feel a middling campaign is on the cards; there will be plenty of highs and lows as is ever the case with Durham. I, along with the majority of the cricketing community, will be rooting for Durham to rise in the face of the adverse position they have been placed into by the ECB
Royal London One Day Cup: 6th
T20 Blast: 8th.
You can follow Charlie on Twitter @AVCJX
By Hector Cappelletti
Where? The Ageas Bowl, Southampton
Ins: Chris Sole (YTH), Sam Northeast (Kent), Hashim Amla (SA, 3-month deal)
Outs: Michael Carberry (Leicestershire), Will Smith (Durham)
Key man: Hashim Amla
Last Year: County Championship: 5th, RLODC: 6th, T20 Blast: S/F
2018 Odds: County Championship: 7/1, RLODC: 11/1, T20: N/A - Odds powered by Oddschecker.com
Twelve months on and the smell still lingers. If anything it has become stronger. Hampshire continues to be the Grinch that keeps on grinching. Post copping plenty of scorn for the demotion of Durham and the whole Kolpak farrago little has changed in terms of cause celebres in the intervening period. The club managed to dodge the relegation bullet again at the conclusion of the 2017 summer, reigning champions Middlesex dropping to the second division instead, before a winter of discontent.
Limited overs skipper James Vince was surprisingly included in the Ashes party and for almost four hours and eighty-three glorious runs, it appeared as if the West Sussex native was set to fulfil his promising potential and become the mirror image of David Gower. The calamitous run out which followed was arguably a metaphor for England’s chances and Vince regressed back to the norm, each edged drive to the slips provoking further howls of derision. Liam Dawson last winter, James Vince this and Mason Crane’s ignominious debut amid much trumpeting of his abilities seemed to provide further grist to the mill against Hampshire.
Once the England issues had subsided the non-award of an Ashes test to the ‘Bransgrove Bowl’ stirred the pot whilst Reece Topley’s decision to concentrate on white ball cricket (a sensible choice bearing in mind his injury woes) added further fuel to the fire. The club then had the temerity to deny the remainder of the first division in the chase for Sam Northeast’s signature, a boon for the club but most cricket fans will likely be less than enamoured that he has signed for Hampshire. Only signing Morne Morkel as a Kolpak player would make things worse.
On the field of play, the season undertook a rather schizophrenic sojourn. Three early Championship victories, with Kyle Abbott to the fore, prompted thoughts of a potential title challenge but as the season ventured through its fragmented median the victories dried up and only a last day ‘they shall not pass’ resistance at Edgbaston maintained the county’s top-flight status. The Royal London Cup proved a particularly damp squib but the combination of Shahid Afridi and Mason Crane, a leg-spin student and master scenario, contributed to a seventh Finals Day appearance in eight years, although the almost annual exit at the semi-final stage proved particularly disappointing.
The club, of course, carries on regardless and six weeks prior to the genesis of the new season the announcement of Hashim Amla’s signing proved invigorating. Truly world class performers are few and far between in the modern day County Championship so the prospect of the South African anchoring the batting order proves mouth-watering, if only for three months. Amla’s signing does not bode well for long-time servant Jimmy Adams or promising academy graduate Tom Alsop though. With the likes of Rilee Rossouw, James Vince, Liam Dawson, Sean Ervine, Sam Northeast and Amla forming the top six opportunities look limited for the two batsmen. Alsop may well look for pastures new to further his career but one ponders whether Adams’ long tenure at the club has reached its conclusion, a sad loss whatever the outcome. The club also said goodbye to another long-time servant in Michael Carberry as the stylish left-handed opener moved to Leicestershire to become the club’s captain.
Amla’s three-month residence at the Ageas Bowl dictates that Hampshire will need to take advantage of his presence considering the nosedive the four-day team undertook once the limited overs play began last summer. If Hampshire can avoid such a scenario again this year then a Championship challenge is not out of the question. Fifty-over cricket remains something of an enigma for the team, the club has only progressed from the group stages twice in the last five seasons, but one suspects that the T20 Blast will provide the main white ball focus, such is Hampshire’s success in recent times. Much will depend on whether Mason Crane’s discombobulated cricketing brain can be unscrambled. Post his Ashes baptism of fire the young leg-spinner appeared all at sea during the disastrous Lions tour to the Caribbean as his bowling appeared to be unravelling. No overseas signing has been announced for the Blast and one suspects that the club need to look elsewhere as signing the ageing Afridi again could prove one season too many.
One cannot deny that the general ambience toward Hampshire remains as hostile as ever, and may well have worsened over the winter, but one feels that the club could capture some silverware this summer. Kyle Abbott aside, the bowling attack remains light though and one wonders how long the evergreen Gareth Berg can keep performing at the highest levels in domestic cricket but the presence of a vastly improved batting line-up offers the strongest top six that the club has been able to call upon for many a summer. One hopes that the difficult winters endured by Messrs Vince and Crane can be filed away by the respective players as they will have major parts to play during the summer.
County Championship: 4th
Royal London Cup: 5th
T20 Blast: Champions (being optimistic!)
You can follow Hector on Twitter @YahoooverCC
By Matt Layton
Where? Edgbaston, Birmingham
Ins: Jeetan Patel (NZ - full season), Colin De Grandhomme (NZ - T20), Will Rhodes (Yorkshire)
Outs: William Porterfield (Released), Ateeq Javid (Leicestershire)
Last Season: Championship 8th (relegated), RLODC (9th in group), T20: runners-up
2018 odds: County Championship promotion: 5/1, RLODC: 10/1, T20: N/A - Odds powered by oddschecker.com
It has been a turbulent 12 months at Edgbaston with the county suffering their 1st relegation out of Division One since 2007 under the leadership of controversial figure Mark Greatbatch. There are a number of similarities between the relegation season of 10 years previously and the Bears recent campaign where they dropped out of Division One with an incredibly poor 86 points (with 1 win) and a full 60 points behind Middlesex who unexpectedly got sucked into Division Two during the last game of the 2017 season. In 2007, Warwickshire were relegated by 14 points and although that doesn’t quite seem as bad as 2017, the turbulent leadership of Greatbatch behind the scenes was clear to see. Zimbabwean international seamer Heath Streak relinquished the captaincy after one game of that season and was replaced by Darren Maddy for the remainder. Postseason there was a restructure in coaching staff, notably the employment of Dougie Brown and Allan Donald – both former and successful Edgbaston favourites who were installed to develop the talent line of young hungry local players and enhance the qualities of the established pros within the dressing room. Ian Bell who had subsequently taken over the captaincy from Varun Chopra in 2015 who cited poor batting form when passing the reigns to Bell followed the trend by resigning the role during 2017. Jonathon Trott (maybe reluctantly) took the leadership of the team for the remainder of the season. It was an obvious and safe move at the time to try and bring some stability to their cricket.
Changing of the Guard
The winter has also seen a management reshuffle with established and well-respected backroom staff being moved on including Strength and Conditioning coach Chris Armstrong and Alan Richardson as bowling coach. They were replaced by, again, former Warwickshire man Graeme Welsh (returning for a 2nd spell as bowling coach) and Ian Westwood returning after immediate retirement early in 2017 as batting coach to support Tony Frost and the head coach Jim Troughton.
There is one common denominator that remains between 2007 and 2017 and that is Ashley Giles. Like in 2007 ‘Gilo’ answered an SOS call to be appointed to a new role of Director of Cricket and although his role has changed in wording to ‘Sporting Director’ Ashley is again very much at the helm and taking charge of rebuilding and re-establishing Warwickshire as a superpower of county cricket. The appointment of so many former Bears to guide the fortunes of the club can be viewed in 2 ways. 1: These highly qualified former teammates trust, check and challenge each other and work exceptionally well in partnership. They understand the operations of the whole club inside out and have a deep desire and passion to bring success to back to THEIR club. or 2: The management staff is too cosy, does not challenge each other which brings apathy and a culture of mediocre acceptance. All members hope the former is true and judging by the interviews and comments coming out of Edgbaston since ‘Gilo’s’ reappointment there seems to be a clear plan and structure to the development of the playing squad and direction of their cricket ‘brand’, which is the popular phrase used these days.
What Has Gone Wrong?
Even during the major successes of recent times, winning the Championship in 2012 and more recently in one day cricket, winning the T20 Cup in 2014 and One Day Cup in 2016 there was a feeling amongst members that well-established players were all performing at their peak at the same time and that some had too much negative controlling influence. Standards were allowed to slowly slip meaning results started to become inconsistent. Although these alarm bells had been loudly ringing for some time, this was not addressed. Giles must now take control yet again. Will it bring immediate returns like in 2007?
There is now a clear focus on youth. Not since Ian Bell, Chris Woakes, Ian Westwood and a little more recently Ateeq Javid has a young player developed through the Academy system to establish themselves as a first-team regular. This is a desperately poor record for a TMG County who’s catchment area covers England’s 2nd city. To date, apart from Moeen Ali’s elevation and very early departure to neighbours Worcestershire to seek 1st team cricket, the Bears have failed to capitalise on the talent of young inner-city cricketers.
There are seeds of optimism, however. Sunny Singh is developing and became the 1st player nurtured through the ECB Chance to Shine programme in the country to make a first-team debut and carries the hopes of the clubs’ Asian support. Ed Pollock and Aaron Thomason burst onto the scene during T20. Andrew Umeed showed signs of gritty promise. A day-night 113 off 392 balls demonstrated he has the application to open the batting in 4-day cricket. England U19 International trio George Panayi, Liam Banks and Henry Brookes have broken into the first team and the average age of the playing squad has been reduced further with the signings of Dominic Sibley (22) Adam Hose (25) Will Rhodes (23) from Surrey, Somerset and Yorkshire respectively. Although this may bring with it less experience, it is hoped the level of athleticism in the field and application on and off the pitch will be enhanced. The club has high hopes for middle-order batsman Matt Lamb in 4-day cricket, having semi-established himself for 7 games at number 5 during 2017 he will, however, need to improve his shot selection in order to improve his current average of 23. It is also another huge season in 4-day cricket for Sam Hain. One of the best one-day openers in the country averaging 61 with 5 hundreds and 7 fifties from 26 games in 50 over cricket and 829 runs in 29 games in T20, it is a mystery to all at Edgbaston as to why he cannot transform this form into 4-day cricket. He seems to have the technique (a carbon copy for Jonathon Trott) but averages just 31 from 47 matches and without a hundred all last season only contributing a small handful of scores above 30. It is hoped that Oli Stone is fully fit after his serious knee injury which kept him sidelined for nearly all of last season can stay fit and spearhead the pace attack in all forms. If he does, expect International recognition with the youngster sure to be on the England Lions radar.
It is also a huge season for a number of senior pros in 4-day cricket. Jeetan Patel the new First-class skipper will have to set the tone for his young talents (and his captaincy heir Dom Sibley). He will have to draw upon all the years of outstanding service his have given Warwickshire to maintain his own level of performance whilst taking responsibility for the team. With the bat, Ian Bell without a hundred last season for the first time in his career surely must fill his boots in the second tier. Jonathon Trott, the same. These two are crucial to stabilising the top 6 in order to allow the younger players like Umeed, Lamb, Banks, Alex Thompson and Pollock to establish themselves. Dom Sibley will open the batting and should score runs and Adam Hose could be a surprise signing at 5 or 6. Tim Ambrose found form towards the end of last season must score more consistent runs. Normally playing 5 bowlers Ambrose needs to take more responsibility at the crease. The Surrey bound Rikki Clarke leaves a large, deep all-rounder hole at 7. Will Rhodes will fill that void and having played within Championship winning squads at Yorkshire, he comes with pedigree and expectation. Amongst the seamers expect the ever-reliable Keith Barker to swing his way to 50+ wickets. In addition as one of only one of 2 players to average more than 30 last season (Trott the other) the all-rounder will again be crucial to Warwickshire’s hopes of promotion. He is in the last year of his contract and needs a big season after slightly disappointing last year with the ball. Ryan Sidebottom was THE shining light after being signed from Birmingham League cricket mid-season and took 24 wickets @ 25 last year. It is also big seasons for experienced seamers Chris Wright and Boyd Rankin who will hope to rekindle their performances of recent past.
In T20 cricket expect Warwickshire (Birmingham Bears I think they are called!) to again be in and around the knockout stages. Experienced T20 specialist Grant Elliot will again captain and big hitting Colin De Grandhomme will fly in to hit the ball into the city centre. Ed Pollock will set the tone at the top of the order and has developed a growing reputation as a one-day hitter. Expect pace off the ball with Jeetan Patel and Josh Poysden providing double spin and a battery of medium pace seamers bowling offer cutters and all types of slower balls. Adam Hose will provide the middle order fireworks to complement the classical top order play of Bell, Trott, Sibley and Hain. The lure of another finals day at their home ground seems to inspire the Bears in T20 cricket.
One Day Cup
50 over cricket may become 3rd on the list of priorities this season behind the Championship promotion hunt and the glitz and glamour of T20. A number of young players will be given a run in the team meaning inconsistency may be present in this form of the game. The Bears will be competitive however if they do not start well and look unlikely to challenge for quarterfinals expect players to be rested for Championship and T20.
Like in 2007 county members will be hoping (and expecting) to gain immediate promotion back to Division One. But with a competition second tier this year, it will be a tall order. Middlesex and Sussex will lead the race for the top spots and I expect those two to take the honours. 20 wickets from the likes of Barker, Patel et al, should be achievable but 1st innings runs which had served Warwickshire so well in recent years, but were so desperately lacking last season could prove to be the defining factor.
In T20, Birmingham Bears will hope to make finals day yet again and the Chief Executive will certainly demand it. With a squad now packed full of dynamic one day cricketers, the pressure will be on to go all the way in the Blast. The One Day Cup will be a physical and psychological challenge during May and June. Not losing sight of the clubs apparent Championship priorities during the mid-summer glut of white ball cricket could be key come September.
Where I think they will finish:
County Championship: 3rd
One Day Cup: 5th (North Group)
T20: Semi Final
You can follow our new recruit on Twitter on @Matt_layton5
By Mark Kidger
Where: SSE Swalec, Cardiff
Ins: Shaun Marsh (Australia)
Outs: Jacques Rudolph (Ret), Will Bragg (Ret)
Key man: Nick Selman
2017 season: Championship 7th, RLODC 4th, T20 Blast S/F
2018 Odds: Championship promotion: 20/1, RLODC: 18/1, T20: N/A
Our West-Country correspondent Mark Kidger sees the Welsh side as being highly competitive in white-ball cricket, but likely to be, once again, in the battle of the also-rans in the Championship. He pens his views below.
Despite modest returns in the County Championship, any side that reaches Finals Day in the Blast and misses out on the knock-out stages of the One Day Cup by a single point, can look back on the season with a degree of satisfaction, if not full-blown pride.
It comes as a surprise to many people that Glamorgan have managed to do three times what their local rivals over the Bristol Channel, Gloucestershire and Somerset have never managed in over a century – win the Championship. However, since the split into two divisions in 2000, Glamorgan have only spent one season – 2001 – in the top division. Division Two of the County Championship looks to be brutally competitive once again in 2018, with six teams that will feel that they have real chances of promotion. To match the 2015 result of fourth in Division Two – the highpoint of recent years – would probably be seen as a magnificent over-achievement.
The loss of long-term servant and adopted Welshman, Jacques Rudolph will be felt within the club. Michael Hogan remains Championship captain, while Colin Ingram takes over for the white ball games. Glamorgan have made what looks to be an excellent signing in Shaun Marsh, who will reinforce the middle-order, although with five batsmen averaging 35+ and two 40+, runs were not Glamorgan’s biggest worry in 2017. Young dual Anglo-Australian national Nick Selman led the run-scoring, with 872, including four centuries. At 22, this was his second season with Glamorgan and, after a promising first season, avoided the “second season syndrome” that plagues many young players after a fast start. Currently, he is recording a First Class century every 4 matches, but an average in the low 30s hints at too much inconsistency (his last four innings in 2017 were: 0, 142*, 0, 70 – which tells its own story). If he can add consistency to his ability to make big scores, runs will not be an issue for Glamorgan.
Glamorgan’s issues were more to do with bowling depth. Michael Hogan was magnificent with his 50 wickets at 20.9, but had little back-up save in the small fraction of games when Tim van der Gugten provided potent support. Carey averaged over 30 with the ball, de Lange, almost 40 and Salter, mid-40s. Glamorgan even became one of the three counties to sign Middlesex’s Harry Podmore on loan, although without solving their fundamental problems in the bowling department.
Without reinforcement of the bowling resources it is hard to see Glamorgan doing better than playing their part in what looks likely to be a four-way dog-fight between Derbyshire, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire & Leicestershire for the title of “best of the Division 2 also-rans”. Making competitive totals should not be a problem: converting them into wins will be.
Things look brighter in the white-ball. Glamorgan topped the South Group in the Blast and, despite more games being washed-out than any other side, had the equal best win-loss record with Nottinghamshire – the eventual winners. Having annihilated Leicestershire in the Quarter Final, they were unfortunate to come up against an inspired Warwickshire, who gave them too much to do in the first semi-final. The runout of Jacques Rudolph in the fifteenth over left the tail too much to do, although they went down bravely. The One Day Cup was a case of what might have been. Although no games were rained-off, the lottery of Duckworth-Lewis played a major part in their games: just one more win would have seen Glamorgan through to the knock-out stages.
Without Jacques Rudolph and with no second overseas player yet signed, success is not guaranteed in 2018 in white-ball cricket, but Glamorgan will be disappointed if they cannot make the knock-out stages in at least one and, preferably, both of the competitions.
Championship – 8th
RLODC – Q/F
T20 – Q/F
You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkfromMadrid or at http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/ and, talking about space, at https://openspacescience.blog/
3/21/2018 0 Comments
By Mark Kidger
Where: Bristol County Ground, Bristol
Ins: Daniel Worrall (Australia, until 2 July); Ryan Higgins (Middlesex)
Outs: Patrick Grieshaber (released), Brandon Gilmour (released), Cameron Bancroft (Somerset)
Key man: Liam Norwell
2017 season: Championship 6th, RLODC 7th, T20 Blast 9th
2018 Odds: Championship promotion: 16/1, RLODC: 25/1, T20: N/A - Powered by Oddschecker.com
I was at the County Ground in Bristol in 1977 when Mike Proctor’s wonderful side only missed out on a first Championship since 1877 on the last afternoon, thanks to a century by one Gordon Greenidge. Only in 2003-5 have Gloucestershire made it to Division One, although there was a near miss in 2011. Since then, expectations of a return to the top division have been modest and, usually, almost nil. Division Two of the County Championship looks to be brutally competitive once again in 2018, with Warwickshire and Middlesex coming down, Northants (who only missed-out on promotion due to an over-rate points deduction) and Kent again likely to be in the mix and Durham and Sussex (fourth in 2017) both hoping for a revival of fortunes and a return to Division One. For Gloucestershire, fourth or fifth place would be an immensely satisfying result in the face of such strong opposition.
The bad news is that with the defection of Cameron Bancroft across the River Avon to local rivals, Somerset, Gloucestershire only have an overseas player lined-up until the start of July. Money is tight at Bristol and when the county announced, pre-season, a big-news signing, social media scepticism was intense. It is fair to say that the reaction from most fans has been the widely predicted “Daniel Who?” A second blow is the fact that Jack Taylor will not be allowed to bowl initially in 2018 due to an illegal action: he has been a vital part of Gloucestershire’s limited-over success in recent seasons. There has been no better team man in the successes of recent seasons and the fans hope that he can come back from this latest blow.
On the plus side, Gloucestershire have managed to keep their all their squad, with its array of promising pace bowlers, without any being snapped-up and have made a shrewd signing in Middlesex’s highly-regarded Ryan Higgins. In a superb coup, they have also brought in Chris Rogers as coach for the first two months of the season. Higgins showed what he can do in hitting 68 in 28 balls against Gloucestershire in the tied Blast match last season and as well as adding useful wickets to his runs. With the new Championship format putting results in April and May at a premium, Daniel Worrall could just turn out to be a canny signing on early-season, juicy green pitches. Good enough to play three ODIs for Australia in 2016, the coaching staff will look to him to mentor bowlers such as Liam Norwell, Craig Miles and David Payne and push them on to the next level. The fact that Norwell took 59 wickets at 17.4 and was ignored by the selectors for the Lions and other minor winter tours though is a sad indictment of how hard it is to make an impact when playing in Bristol.
One of the indications of Gloucestershire’s problems in 2017 was the fact that rarely was the first-choice attack available due to injuries. None of the attack, save the (by obligation) sparingly used Jack Taylor, played more games than Liam Norwell’s eleven and, in those eleven games he took more wickets, by a comfortable margin, than the next two highest wicket-takers combined, as well as bowling sixty overs more than anyone else over the season. Another illustration of Gloucestershire’s problems is that none of the other regular bowlers averaged under 32. When Liam Norwell was missing, the attack all too often looked totally impotent and the frail Gloucestershire batting was too often put under pressure by massive first innings totals from the opposition.
Thereby lay Gloucestershire’s second, major issue in 2017: the batting was far too inconsistent. On paper, averages of 42.6 and 40.3 respectively for Chris Dent and Cameron Bancroft look impressive, but Chris Dent was 350 runs down on his return from 2016 and less consistent than before (in 2016 he actually had better figures as an opener than some of those selected to go on the various winter tours) and Bancroft’s average was padded by an unbeaten double century: take it out of his season’s figures and his average drops below 30. Six batsmen scored centuries and two more had near-misses, but the weight of runs was not there to set up winning positions and Gloucestershire were too often indebted to Jack Taylor’s efforts to add valuable runs shepherding the tail.
Will Tavaré, the nephew of Chris, has had his last two seasons severely undermined by injury, but knows that he needs to do better in 2018 than his 422 runs at 26.4 in 2017 and that he has the ability to do it. After coming to Bristol with high expectations attached to him, Graeme van Buuren’s returns have been disappointing and Phil Mustard made less impact with the bat in the Championship than was hoped, while George Hankins was unable to take advantage of the opportunity to have a run in the side. All averaged in the 20s while having the talent and ability to be averaging mid-to-high 30s.
One to look out for though is James Bracey. After making his debut at the fag-end of the 2016 season, he came into the side for the last four games of 2017, batting at #3 and scored 370 runs in six innings at an average of 74. Just twenty years old, his First Class average stands at over 50 from his first seven games.
Given the side’s manifest problems in 2017, to finish sixth and “best of the also-rans” in a very strong division was a creditable result. To get around the fringes of the promotion race in 2018, Gloucestershire will need Liam Norwell and Daniel Worrall to combine to good effect in the early season and get effective support from one of the other seamers. They will also need the captaincy to inspire Chris Dent and for him in turn to inspire two or three of the top order to perform well above their 2017 level. Fourth place is not impossible, but anything better would be a huge surprise.
For the travelling support, there is the enticing prospect of a 4-day match at Lord’s for the first time since 2011 – to be played, less enticingly, in mid-May – and at Edgbaston in late August holiday season. Sophia Gardens is the third Test ground that Gloucestershire will visit, although the vagaries of the fixture computer’s deliberations mean that there is no fixture at the lovely Riverside Ground at Chester-le-Street in 2018.
The Gloucestershire squad probably looks better suited (on paper at least) to achieving success in ‘white ball’ cricket, particularly in the shorter T20 format.
Sadly, despite being on the Gloucestershire books for another two years, the hugely popular Michael Klinger has had to be relieved of the captaincy of the 50-over side as he helps his wife battle cancer. His availability is very doubtful and Chris Dent has also taken over the side in Klinger’s likely absence. Andrew Tye has been signed again for the Blast, having needed to be replaced at short notice for the 2017 competition by Thisara Perera of Sri Lanka, but a measure of the uncertainty at Bristol is that no T20 captain has yet been appointed, in part because Chris Dent does not play in the competition.
In the One Day Cup, which had been won in 2015, the best that can be said was that 7th in the South Group was a better result than in 2016 but, four defeats in the first five matches meant that Gloucestershire’s interest in the competition ended in the first week of May. Without Klinger and without Jack Taylor’s bowling, the chances are that 2018 will again be a struggle in the Royal London One Day Cup, barring some magic from Benny Howell, who is showing in the Bangladesh Premier League that his talents adapt to foreign climes and that his success in England is no flash in the pan.
Having topped their T20 Blast group in 2016, before losing in the Quarter Finals, Gloucestershire were second in their group after ten of the fourteen games of 2017, lifted by a magnificent Michael Klinger century and by some mean bowling from Benny Howell, who seems to get better and better with the white ball. They would have qualified comfortably for the Quarter Finals with just three points from the last four games. Instead, all four games were lost and Gloucestershire slumped to last in the South Group. It was a dispiriting and unexpected implosion.
With Michael Klinger looking sadly unlikely to play, Gloucestershire will hope that Andrew Tye can turn out this time. Cockbain, Howell and Mustard all backed up Michael Klinger with 230+ runs last season but, of the rest, only Cameron Bancroft, who shared the second overseas spot with Perera, scored the weight of runs to support the “big four”. Similarly, although Benny Howell had admirable support from David Payne, Tom Smith and – when he played - Thisara Perera, Matt Taylor followed a promising 2016, with a nightmare T20 season in 2017, going at nearly 10-an-over and having (un)comfortably the worst strike rate of any bowler who took more than one wicket.
Just like Mark Alleyne’s unlikely all-conquering side of early in the millennium, Gloucestershire’s successes in the white ball game in recent years have been down to a team of individual modest talents that are, jointly, far greater than the sum of the parts. A team, like Alleyne’s, who have been raised to the heights by skilful captaincy. Without the father figure of Michael Klinger to coax out performances that some of those who produced them probably did not even believe themselves capable of, success is less certain. Much will depend on team spirit and on developing successfully a David and Goliath mentality.
While the Gloucestershire playing staff is not as small as it was five years ago, in the darkest days when the club almost folded, it is less well-equipped to handle injuries and loss of form than most, so the T20 Blast is the most likely competition to allow a team with limited resources to ambush its more illustrious opponents. As Gloucestershire found in 2017, margins in the Blast can be tiny and if the luck falls the right way they could get into the knock-out stages and, when you are there, logic often goes out the window while the knock-out games are being played, leading to some unlikely champions.
Championship – 5th
RLODC – 6th
T20 – 6th (but with a hope that the dice fall right and that the Shire sneak into the Q/Fs, at which point all bets are off)
You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkfromMadrid or at http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/ and, talking about space, at https://openspacescience.blog/
By Mark Kidger
Where: Taunton, Somerset
Ins: Cameron Bancroft (Overseas, Australia) and Fin Trenouth (Academy)
Out: Jim Allenby (released), Ryan Davies (released), Michael Leask (released)
Key man: Jack Leach
Last year: Championship 6th, RLODC Q/F, T20 Blast Q/F
2018 Odds: Championship 14/1, RLODC 14/1, T20 Blast N/A - Powered by Oddschecker.com
After just missing out on the Championship on the last afternoon in 2016 to what many felt was a contrived finish from their two main rivals, many fans must have felt that 2017 could be the year for that elusive Championship pennant. However, a consequence of the change in Division 1 to fourteen games was to neutralise in part Somerset’s ability to make a late-season charge on turning pitches. There was, though, a certain irony in the fact that the side that had pipped them to the title in 2016 – Middlesex – went to Taunton in the last round, with the second relegation spot between them, knowing that even a defeat would save Middlesex and condemn Somerset… unless Somerset took more bonus points, which they duly did. It was a curious game to end the season, with a spinner taking the new ball in three of the four innings of the match, on what can most kindly be described as a result track – with Middlesex briefly holding out hopes of salvation, even after the season ended, in the form of a sanction for an unsatisfactory pitch.
You would have to be a real curmudgeon not to want to see Marcus Trescothick – Banger to the fans – obtain the one county honour that he has never won and the one that probably would mean more to him than any other, in what may well be his final season. He will be close to his 43rd birthday come the end of the season and has not played limited-overs since 2015, preferring to drop down to play for the 2nd XI rather than play white-ball cricket. You cannot help but feel that he has hung on one more year in the hope that he can see Somerset go one better than its four runners-up spots, achieved in 2001, 2010, 2012 and 2016.
Such was the mid-table log-jam in 2017 that just two points separated Yorkshire, with their 4th place and a not to be despised amount of prize money, from Middlesex, in 7th. But while 6th in the Championship and an undignified late-season scramble to survive was a disappointment, there was no shame in the manner of their Quarter-Final exit in the Royal London One Day Cup. Chasing 430 to win, they gave Nottinghamshire an almighty scare before finally losing. Jamie Overton and Tim Groenewald had scored 38 from the previous 23 balls and reduced the equation to 25 needed from 13 – certainly well on – before Overton was run out to end the game. Fourth in the group in the NatWest T20 Blast with a 6-6 record was a big improvement on 2016, even if the Quarter Final ended up with Nottinghamshire again getting the better of them, on this occasion, quite comfortably.
Tom Abell retains the captaincy for a second season and will take over the One Day Cup captaincy too with the departure of Jim Allenby. However, under 600 runs, no century and an average of just 26 will have done nothing to suggest that the people who doubted the wisdom of his appointment were wrong. Having dropped down to 3 for the start of the season, to avoid the double load of the captaincy and opening, four fifties in twenty-five innings is a return that will have to improve in 2018 if Somerset are to challenge in the Championship. Later, in the second half of the season, he dropped himself further down the order to #5, although with no greater success.
Dean Elgar has been replaced as the overseas player by Cameron Bancroft. The South African opening batsman only played six Championship games in 2017 but held the batting together when he played, with 2x100, 2x50 and a batting average of 47 (twelve more than anyone else). Between him and Marcus Trescothick, they scored four of Somerset’s nine centuries during the season. Charged with the job of filling his very large boots Cameron Bancroft, who has moved westwards across the River Avon from the County Ground at Bristol is an interesting choice. Sixteen games for Gloucestershire over two seasons have hardly set the West country alight, producing just a single century – albeit an unbeaten double – and 5x50. However, Bancroft has also made his Test debut – in the Ashes, no less – and, after an uncertain start, is beginning to suggest that he can make a success of it. It is hoped that Bancroft’s solidity as an opener, added to Trescothick’s hitting, will allow Somerset to post some decent starts.
Bancroft’s second string is as a gloveman. He will back up Somerset’s big winter signing from 2016/17, former England wicketkeeper, Steven Davies. Davies played every Championship game in 2017 and was the only batsman other than Elgar to average over 35. However, with two international wicket-keepers on the books and a third ‘keeper, Fin Trenouth, who played for Somerset 2nd XI and for Devon in 2017, signed for 2018, Ryan Davies, the club’s other wicketkeeper, who ended 2016 strongly, did not get a First Class game in 2017 and has been released.
To challenge, Somerset will need more runs from some of their senior batsmen. James Hildreth’s runs were critical in the crucial win over Middlesex but, before that game pushed his Championship average over 30, he had been averaging only 26, far below what his side needed or expected. Byrom and Barlett, who came into the side in the second half of the season, averaged mid-twenties and mid-teens respectively. Added to Abell’s struggles and the fact that Marcus Trescothick averaged well under 30 too, meant that there were rarely many runs for the bowlers to defend.
When analysing a particular side’s troubles a few years back, the situation was summed-up with the words “too many batsmen averaging under thirty. Too many bowlers averaging over thirty!” If Somerset can presume to have the former trouble, the latter is not an issue. No fewer than five front-line bowlers averaged under twenty-five and Jack Leach’s 51 wickets at a highly respectable 25.8 saw him finish well down the bowling averages.
Craig Overton finished just short of fifty wickets, with 46 at an average of 22.4, putting him sixth in the list of Division 1 wicket-takers and, of bowlers to send down at least one hundred overs, eighth in the Division 1 bowling averages. The result was a call-up by England and a Test debut, impressing both with the ball and, by his courage in playing on despite a broken rib, quite apart from making useful runs at Perth. Fortunately for Somerset, the return of Ben Stokes should limit Craig Overton’s chances of adding to his two Test caps during the summer, although another season as good as 2017 will see him touring next winter and, undoubtedly, playing many more Tests in the near future.
Injury limited Jamie Overton and Lewis Gregory to just a dozen games between them, but those games showed glimpses of what they offer if the much-changed backroom staff can keep both fit. Gregory made a maiden First Class century and bowled with good effect in the first half of the season. Jamie Overton had a good game with the ball for the Lions against South Africa A in June but was only able to play a single 2nd XI game in August after that. However, on the plus side, off-spinner Dom Bess became a regular in the side and formed a lethal spin partnership with Jack Leach.
What to say of Jack Leach? After a miserable winter during which he lost a possible Test debut as he was re-modelling his action and then struggled initially with his new action during the Lions tours, there were concerns that Somerset’s biggest weapon – the chance to exploit fully turning pitches at Taunton – might be seriously compromised. He could not match his 65 wickets at 22 from 2016, but 51 wickets at 25.8 in two fewer games was a fantastic effort with his re-designed action. One of the few successes of the disastrous recent Lions tour of the Caribbean, Leach has been rewarded with a place in the England Test squad in New Zealand, replacing the injured Mason Crane. While, at the moment, a Test debut in New Zealand or, during the summer, in England, looks unlikely, a good 2018 will undoubtedly see him making a Test debut in Sri Lanka in October. If anyone can bowl Somerset to a Championship pennant, it is Jack Leach.
Some fans are already beginning to think of a future England spin attack of Leach and Bess, the first county spin twins for England since the Middlesex pairing of Edmonds and Emburey. As a slow left arm/off-spin combination, it would offer England potentially their best-balanced attack for all conditions since Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar combined so effectively in India in 2011. Somerset should be praised for offering the one pitch in England that really rewards spin and trains batsmen to play in the kind of conditions that have caused their batsmen so many problems in recent years.
A look at the fixture list though shows that Somerset will play three of their home Championship games in April and early May, one in June and just three in late August and September. If the Somerset pace attack can stay fit and if the batting can give them some runs to defend, Somerset may not be too far off the pace come August for Leach and Bess to power another surge up the table but the reduction in fixtures has inevitably done Somerset no favours.
Somerset’s t20 cricket improved massively in 2017 and a Quarter Final was probably about right – the side was too irregular to go further. Corey Anderson of New Zealand returns as the T20 overseas player. He only played four games in 2017, but made a big impact, scoring 142 runs at the impressive strike rate of 184: comfortably the highest strike rate in the side. If Anderson plays more games this season and if the young lions in the attack fire – their returns were promising in 2017 – Somerset may even threaten to reach Finals Day.
The Taunton faithful have just one question though: could 2018 be the year when the County Championship finally comes to Taunton? There were high hopes for 2017, but Somerset were never in the hunt and were extremely lucky to escape relegation in the end. It is a lot of ifs that must be fulfilled for Somerset to win in 2018, but England calls are unlikely this summer, so all the fit players should remain available. Somerset will either be title challengers, or relegated: I cannot see a season of mid-table anonymity in the side’s DNA, but it may be too much of a stretch for the county to give Marcus Trescothick the retirement present that he most wants, especially considering the unusually changes in the off-field staff over the winter that may hint at an unsettled support team.
County Championship: 2nd
T20 Blast: S/F
You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkfromMadrid or at http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/ and, talking about space science, at https://openspacescience.blog/
By Harry Hill
Where?: Wantage Road, Northampton
Ins: Brett Hutton (Nottinghamshire), Luke Proctor (Lancashire), Ricardo Vasconcelos (EUP), Doug Bracewell (New Zealand, 1st month of the season), Rory Kleinveldt (South Africa, from Mid-May), Seekkuge Prasanna ( Sri Lanka, for T20 Blast).
Outs: David Murphy (Retired), Azharullah (Released)
Last Season: County Championship: 3rd, RLODC: Group stage, T20: Group Stage.
2018 odds: County Championship: 9/1, RLODC: 20/1, T20: N/A - Powered by Oddschecker.com
Last season played out rather differently to how many would have expected, with a very strong showing in the County Championship with Northants finishing 3rd in Division Two after a strong backend of the season saw them pick up four wins on the spin to push Nottinghamshire all the way. Northants will be looking to gain similar momentum at the start of this season, but it starts with a tough looking trip to Lord’s in the opening round of fixtures against recently relegated Middlesex.
Looking ahead to the strengths and weaknesses of the squad, Northants will be delighted to have kept the core of the group together, as the tight-knit comradery was certainly a driving factor in last seasons’ successes. I suspect that skipper Alex Wakely will be happy with his bowling options this season, an area of real improvement last season. The club looks to have a nice balance to the bowling attack, and the signing of Doug Bracewell will add valuable international experience for the early part of the season to complement the likes of Ben Sanderson and Richard Gleeson. Perhaps one area that David Ripley has been looking at over the winter is the batting depth, as Northants took only 29 batting bonus points last season, amongst the lowest in the division. The addition of all-rounder Luke Proctor from Lancashire will add some depth to the middle-order, after impressing with three half-centuries from just two matches on loan at Wantage Road at the end of last season.
There are several players to look out for this season, Rob Newton has gone under the radar at the top of the order with the likes of Richard Levi and Ben Duckett understandably grabbing the headlines. But Rob Newton got ten half-centuries last season in the County Championship, and if he can convert a few of these into big hundreds, Northants can look forward to competing towards the top of Division Two this season. Another player to keep an eye on is Richard Gleeson, who was rewarded with a trip to the West Indies with the England Lions, impressing with both the red and white ball over the past few months. The arrival of exciting wicket-keeper batsman Ricardo Vasconcelos will add some competition for the gloves with Adam Rossington as the highly-rated South African replaces retired club stalwart, David Murphy.
The race for promotion to Division One will be extra competitive this season as Middlesex and Warwickshire will both be desperate for a short stay in Division Two. I suspect that Northants will enjoy being the underdog, with a fearless ‘can-do’ attitude proving its value in the County Championship by Essex last season. Northants have long been renowned with white-ball success, but last season was disappointing for the club, as they failed to progress through the group stages of either the One-Day Cup or the T20 Blast. The Northants squad is very much suited to T20 cricket, with the likes of explosive batsman Ben Duckett, Richard Levi and Adam Rossington, complemented with the accurate medium pace of Rory Kleinveldt and Steven Crook.
Northants supporters can expect an exciting season ahead, and with a bit of early season momentum to carry on from last year, a promotion push could be a distinct possibility.
Where I think Northamptonshire will finish:
County Championship Division Two: 2nd
One-Day Cup: 5th (North Group)
T20 Blast: 3rd (North Group)
You can follow Harry on Twitter on @HarryHill96.
By Mark Kidger
Where? Lords, North London
Outs: Ryan Higgins (Gloucestershire)
Key Man: Toby Roland-Jones
2017 season: Championship: 7th (relegated), RLODC: 8th, T20 Blast 7th
2018 odds: Championship 15/8, RLODC: 12/1, T20: N/A - Odds powered by Oddschecker.com
The last dozen years have shown wild swings of fortune for Middlesex fans and, not least, for the admirable Radio London commentators who have recounted it cheerfully, day after day, however awful things were on the field. Radio London started commentary long before the current service that sees every ball of every Championship and List A game broadcast, as well as some Minor Counties games. Pioneered by Mark Church at The Oval and by Ned Hall and the Kevin Hand at Lord’s, they have followed the highs and some pretty desperate lows. The joy with which Kevin Hand broadcast the final overs of the Middlesex charge to the Championship title on September 26th 2016 was counterpointed by the cheerful bonhomie of the sadly departed Dave Callaghan, the visiting commentator for Yorkshire, describing the massive party in the ground, with even the curmudgeonly Dave Townsend sounding slightly less miserable than usual on the commentary.
Roll on one year and things were so different. Rather than defending their title, as many expected, Middlesex were spiralling to defeat at Taunton, their relegation effectively sealed by a crossbow arrow at The Oval and their failure to take batting bonus points at Taunton.
Where did it all go wrong?
Even in early August, that final fixture at Taunton was looming its gorgon-like head and, with it, a realisation that it might be crucial and that, if it were, Somerset were unlikely to be generous hosts after the events of twelve months before. First Division safety should have been sealed long before staking everything on that final game.
Division 1 in 2017 was all about fine margins, as testified by the gap of just two points between Yorkshire in fourth and Middlesex in seventh. With one fewer side, there were two fewer “easy games” in which big points could be bagged. As such, opportunities had to be grabbed with both hands when they presented themselves. Middlesex will regret a handful of moments of absent-mindedness that ultimately proved costly.
The worst of these were two, ultimately catastrophic brain-fades as early as April 23rd. Having amassed 507-7d, powered by centuries for Robson, Gubbins and Eskinazi – the top three in the order – Steve Finn and Tim Murtagh engineered an Essex collapse from 282-6 to 295ao. Rather than enforce the Follow-On, James Franklin decided to rest his bowlers and batted again. Robson, Gubbins and Eskinazi filled their boots again and, with a poor weather forecast for the last day, the declaration was delayed, unbelievably, until just eight overs before the Close, with a ludicrous target of 452. The weather, inevitably, closed-in and Essex survived with 8-down, almost 300 short. Middlesex missed the chance of an early win and some Championship momentum and did not finally register a win until Round Six, when they did not repeat the same mistake of not enforcing the Follow-On and beat Yorkshire by an innings and plenty at Lord’s, before succumbing themselves to Essex in the next round to an innings defeat, by which time alarm bells should have been ringing loudly.
The second black day was August 31st. The events of that day have been endlessly discussed and Middlesex can, quite rightly, feel hard done by, although it was an accident waiting to happen. All season Middlesex had been behind on the over-rate, sometimes by as much as 5 overs and only smart work by the scorer – known within the club as “The Magician” – again and again, to get umpires to make allowances for minor delays in play, had saved them from points deductions. Even The Magician’s powers were defeated as Middlesex, found themselves in the centre of the possibly the most bizarre incident ever seen in a British cricket ground.
A game that should have been dead after the whole of the third day was lost, blazed to life on the last morning as a typical Middlesex collapse saw Surrey sniffing the unlikeliest of victories at Lunch, with Middlesex 61 ahead with six wickets down and Nick Compton retired hurt and looking unlikely to bat again. Stubborn resistance, led by the admirable John Simpson, inched Middlesex to safety. The draw had been ensured when a lethal crossbow bolt, fired from several hundred metres outside the ground, crashed into the square close to one of the players, provoking a terrorist alert, an evacuation of the ground and the abandonment of the game. Middlesex, who were two overs behind on the over-rate, had planned a token declaration before the handshake to allow them to whistle down a few overs and avoid a points deduction. The declaration never happened. In the confusion, the umpires failed to report that they felt that the over-rate violation should be pardoned and the resultant two-point deduction sent Middlesex down.
These incidents, individually relatively trivial, epitomise the Middlesex 2017 campaign. It was a chapter of accidents. You got the feeling that after the supreme effort of winning the title in 2016 after so many near-misses, the side just relaxed slightly and that few percent below maximum performance, combined with an absurdly tight table, made the difference between a top-three finish and relegation.
It is absurd that a county that could field six players with England Test caps, two who will undoubtedly play Tests for Ireland and one who played Tests for New Zealand, should be consigned to Division Two, but that is what 2018 brings. The squad, mob-handed with talent, has not been reinforced, no overseas professional has yet been confirmed and the only change is the loss of white-ball player Ryan Higgins to Gloucestershire.
One would like to think that Middlesex will outclass the opposition in Division Two in 2018 in the same way that Nottinghamshire did in 2017 after relegation. In Sam Robson and Nick Gubbins, they have one of the best opening pairs in the country, both of whom might have harboured hopes last September of going to Australia as back-up openers. A hungry Nick Compton is an insatiable run machine. Eoin Morgan has declared his intent to play Championship cricket again, though where he would fit into the first-choice middle order is doubtful. Paul Stirling is beginning to deliver on his promise. John Simpson is rated one of the best wicket-keeper batsmen in the country and the seam attack is so strong that James Harris, who had had an amazing season with bat and ball in 2015, could be loaned-out to Kent without diminishing its depth. A fit seam attack of Finn, Roland-Jones and Murtagh, backed-up by any one of Harris, Helm and Podmore, with Ollie Rayner as a better than average spinner, should be far too good for Division Two batting line-ups on the spicier Division 2 pitches.
That is the theory. The reality is that for such a talented side, Middlesex seemed ridiculously prone to horrific collapses in 2017, so much so that fans again threatened to set up the MiddlesexBattingCollapse.com website. Almost as bad was the bowling attack's inability to take maximum bowling points on several occasions. No one epitomised more the struggles of the middle order than Steve Eskinazi, so highly rated at Lord’s, who was top run-scorer for the season, with 793 runs to his name, but who tailed-away so badly that he managed a top score of just 16 in his last six Championship games, scoring a mere 75 runs at an average of 7.5 in those games. Apart from Sam Robson, who also fell away badly after a wonderful first half of the season and John Simpson (who averaged 28.5), no one else managed 500 runs. Finn, Roland-Jones, Helm, Harris and Rayner all averaged the wrong side of 30 with the ball, although some excuse can be found in the nature of the home pitches that they bowled on. The impression was that the attack missed having a wrecking-ball bowler that Harris had been for them in 2015 and Roland-Jones and Rayner in 2016.
Middlesex should come straight back up without breaking a sweat but, if they do not, you can imagine that it might take five or six years to gain promotion, as it had after their previous relegation. The key to promotion may be the fitness and availability of Toby Roland-Jones: if he stays fit and if England does not take him away, he should pick up a stack of wickets. Almost as vital will be Sam Robson’s appetite for runs and his ability to combine with Nick Gubbins to give solid starts and force scoreboard pressure.
The Lord’s gloom extended to the white-ball game. The One Day Cup has been a source of pain to fans for several years now. Two wins from eight games saw Middlesex interest ended quickly. Middlesex also had a losing record in the Blast, in a desperately tight South Group, in which just one more win could have brought passage to the knock-out stages on Net Run Rate. While any success with the white ball in 2018 will be received with open arms, these competitions will certainly take a back seat to the season’s real priority of promotion in the Championship.
Where I think Middlesex will finish:
County Championship: 1st
One-Day Cup: 8th (South Group)
T20 Blast: 7th (South Group)
You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkfromMadrid or at http://spanishturn.blogspot.com.es/ and, talking about space, at https://openspacescience.blog/
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