Five Things We Learned In County Cricket

 1)      Lancashire could be the new home for the left arm spinner

For Lancashire the story of the match prior to the toss was the return of James Anderson to first class duty, yet by the end of the match there was only one thing person wanted to talk about, the art of spin was alive and well in Manchester.

That’s not that Anderson bowled badly, three wickets and some decent overs under his belt were good for a first start, it’s simply the spectacular manner in which Warwickshire collapsed under the dual threat posed by Gary Keedy and Simon Kerrigan who took 3-2 and 5-7 in the second innings.

Lancashire’s seam bowlers have been largely responsible for their flying start to the season with Glen Chapple, Sajid Mahmood and Oliver Newby all starting well, but here it was their spinners leading the way which is a promising sign once the pitches start to dry. Certainly their current speciality appears to be the slow left arm spinner, with the dependable Gary Keedy continuing to thrive but the development of Simon Kerrigan is very promising. Kerrigan has a strong action, good control and a decent temperament, all ingredients for a left-arm spinner to perform well.

Add in the potential of Stephen Parry who has shown promise in T20 cricket previously and you have three capable performers, all of whom practice one of spin bowling’s more underrated forms. Certainly in English cricket it is undergoing something of a revival with Monty Panesar at Sussex and Danny Briggs at Hampshire, but judging by the performance on Friday, it is Lancashire which is the real home of left-arm spin in England.

2)      Northants old boys have still got it

County cricket is undergoing something of a youthful revolution at the moment as the ECB’s attempts to incentivise youth development for counties encourages them to give greater opportunities to younger players. So much so that the old boys who were once to be found on County team-sheets up and down the country are very much becoming a thing of the past.

Yet amidst the juvenile excitement and talk of potential stars of the future, one club is still providing a home for the old boys of County cricket and so far they are proving their worth.

Northants’ recruitment policy may never be everyone’s cup of tea-too many Kolpaks down the years, not enough youth development-but they know how to get the best out of what they have, and still manage to reinvigorate some of cricket’s elder statesmen. But the decision to sign Chaminda Vaas last season proved to be the bargain of the season, and he has continued to both take wickets and score runs this season too.

Then there is the captain Andrew Hall, forgotten by South Africa yet still the anchor of Northamptonshire’s middle order and one of the canniest bowlers on the circuit. David Sales continues to provide cameos which demonstrate why he could have been one of England’s finest but for injury. Then there is James Middlebrook, another underrated operator who was apparantely written off when he left Essex but who has been reinvigorated at Wantage Road as has Mal Loye following his exit from Lancashire.

They help balance a team which remains one of the weakest on paper as it continues to accommodate some largely unproven players such as Lee Daggett, James Brooks and Alex Wakely but thanks to their experienced heads they continue to punch above their weight. Clearly the old boys have still got it.

3)      Surrey’s ground-staff know their own strength

Credit to Chris Adams and the Surrey ground staff, they realised their overwhelming strength this season and they are determined to make the most of it. Thus when they left a bit of green on the Oval wicket ahead of their game against Lancashire it was probably in the knowledge that the fastest bowling attack in the country were probably going to be too much for Leicestershire.

In truth that is exactly how it turned out. Surrey’s strength this season has been the four pronged pace attack, led in this match by the returning Chris Tremlett, Pakistan seamer Yasir Arafat and the ever-developing duo of Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker. Here they were comprehensive in their demolition of Leicestershire, particularly in the second innings where only James Taylor could defy them on a pitch which was livelier than many the Oval has had in recent years.

Not that it was always like that during the match, when Surrey batted they batted well and showed that application and discipline could ensure runs would flow. But this was a pitch which suited their attack more than Leicestershire’s, one with bounce and decent carry which suited their quicker, taller bowlers. If the ground-staff have any sense they’ll keep preparing one’s like that all season, it could be the best way forward for Surrey. After years of flat wickets, a lively pitch for a lively attack could well be the answer.

4)      Rotation policies can do counties more harm than good

Come the end of the season one hopes that Middlesex aren’t left to rue this weekend’s match in Bristol when the leaders were held to a draw by Gloucestershire. That’s not to say they didn’t perform up to scratch, they did. Well enough in fact to dominate most of the match, but not enough to push for the win.

Their batting was good, but it was their bowling that ultimately let them down. It was a good match for the seamers with Corey Collymore, Tim Murtagh and Toby Roland-Jones all taking wickets-Roland-Jones indeed managing to take a 5-fer, but only two wickets were taken by Gareth Berg and the rest of their attack went wicketless.

So what was missing? Well actually it was probably Steven Finn who has started the season like a train and appears a cut above the rest of the bowlers in Division Two. Finn was actually in Bristol, but as he revealed on Twitter, was being rested due to a rotation policy. One wonders quite what Angus Fraser, always a bowler who preferred to bowl as much as possible, was thinking though ultimately it has cost Middlesex. With Finn here, they would probably have won and kept up their early momentum. Sure he could have benefitted from the rest, but ultimately Middlesex have shot themselves in the foot.

5)      Craig Kieswetter is back and better than ever

Last season could have been a tremendous one for Craig Kieswetter. He won the World Twenty20 with England and played a key role in the Final victory over Australia. He left the tournament with a winner’s medal and potentially a 50-over slot as England’s opener for the World Cup in India within his grasp. Yet something went wrong. Kieswetter was brought back down to earth in a tough limited overs series against Bangladesh and then Australia as he was frequently exposed by the moving ball early in his innings as his unconventional technique proved his undoing.

He was then swiftly dispatched back to County cricket by Flower who opted for Davies ahead of him insisting that work with Somerset and rehabilitation in County Cricket would help in the long run. Yet if that was the aim, last summer it didn’t work as he failed to register a first class hundred and averaged just 27 runs in first class cricket-hardly the stuff which would knock on the door for England honours.

Thus while England were winning the Ashes and then off to India for the World Cup, Kieswetter had to watch from the Caribbean were a winter of technical work with Graham Thorpe and plenty of matches against regional opposition were designed to get him back on track.

Judging by his start to the season, the work has paid off. The sages assure us he has returned a less frenetic cricketer and far more assured both against the moving ball and the short one. After a couple of quiet County matches, he has exploded into life-starting with a couple of fine CB40 knocks before notching a century against Worcestershire on a wicket which was proving troublesome for even Somerset’s top order.

It’s a start, but a promising one which suggests that the breakthrough summer he was due last year could well be in the offing. Keep up form like this and an ODI recall will be little more than a formality while a winter away on full tour could well follow. For Somerset fans the good news is that Kieswetter is back on form, though the bad news is that England will know that too.

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Matt Prior Is Proving His Point after England One Day Snub

Were England fans to name a potential Test XI for the Ashes opener in the winter then few, if any, would argue with the choice of Matt Prior behind the stumps. After years of chopping and changing in the wake of Geraint Jones’ slump in form, it is a strange, yet comfortable situation to be in.

Not that England are short of quality keepers, including Surrey’s Steven Davies, the aforementioned Jones who has enjoyed something of a batting renaissance, Essex’s James Foster and the rising star of England’s T20 victory Craig Kieswetter.

Proving a point to the England selectors

Yet such has been the form of Prior since his return to the England fold, with huge improvements in his wicket-keeping courtesy of sustained work with Bruce French complimenting a batting ability which is manifested in a more than satisfactory test average of 40.

But, the steady rise of Prior since his return to the team hit a snag, when he was dumped from the One Day and T20 teams in favour of Kieswetter.

The endorsement from Flower, who likened the Sussex player to Australian batsman Michael Slater, was hardly flattering, and Prior left with the words: “He has had a lot of opportunities up the order in one-day cricket and has not quite grasped them, and has consequently been playing a role in the middle order.”

That much is true, if the benchmark of a One Day International player is 30 games, then Prior at 55 international games ought to be settled-but his statistics (average 25, 2 fifties, 0 hundreds) do not bear this out. However in mitigation he has been shunted throughout batting line-up’s in various guises which has hardly helped his cause.

In truth the decision was as much an acknowledgement that Kieswetter, a bigger hitter of a ball-whereas Prior tends to be a much purer timer-fulfils the role of pinch-hitter at the top of the order with much greater authority than Prior does.

But such a stance has led some to speculate whether Prior’s long-term future as Test keeper may be under threat, however like he did when he was first dropped by England, Prior appears to have heeded the lessons and learnt quickly from them.

Upon his return to Sussex, where he has always fulfilled the role of pinch-hitting all-rounder with great aplomb, Prior has appeared right at home and taken on the mantle with genuine gusto-sending a message that perhaps England may yet rue dropping him so quickly.

In the T20 competition so far this year, he has scored 320 runs in eight innings-only nine runs behind David Hussey, the leading run scorer, having played two games less. Furthermore a strike-rate up near 180 shows he is more than capable of scoring the quick runs needed at the start of an innings. The highlight of his campaign so far was a thrilling 115 off just 55 balls against Glamorgan.

Clearly Prior is sending a message, and one he was more than happy to endorse when he spoke to Cricinfo this week, and said: “It’s a frustration because you want to be there but they’ve gone for a different balance with the wicketkeeper opening the batting and at the time I wasn’t opening.

“Now it’s down to me. I’m back opening in one-day cricket for Sussex, which I enjoy and it’s the most natural spot for me, and I have a lot belief in my ability. Now I’ve got to score a lot of runs and keep knocking on the door.

“I’ve known that if I want to be the England keeper I have to be the best out there, and if someone comes in a does better I have to raise my game.”

While England may be looking to stick with Kieswetter as wicket keeper/batsman for the foreseeable future, especially in light of their T20 success, few would doubt Prior will not be far behind.

And his recent form for Sussex suggests that, as he has throughout, Prior is intent on proving a point to the selectors.

One Day selections show England’s eyes are firmly fixed on the World Cup

Showing that they are not contented with simply leaving the T20 World Cup victory in the West Indies as a one-off, England’s selectors and management are showing the kind of strategy aimed at mounting a sustained charge for the 50 over trophy, even though the event is months away.

One of the features of their recent success was the acknowledgement that square pegs in round holes do not work, so gone were the likes of Michael Vaughan and Alistair Cook opening an inningss, as dashers like Craig Kieswetter and Michael Lumb were picked.

Now England’s 50 over’s squad selection shows that they have learnt from those lessons and built a squad of players well-suited to limited overs cricket, and capable of thriving in the kind of conditions they will encounter in India at the World Cup.

So Craig Kieswetter, the man who provides the dash at the top of the order is picked, little surprise given the recent limited overs form of Matt Prior.

While some may have speculated whether Michael Lumb would also have been picked, Kieswetter-who will also keep wicket-is a far better batsmen, has already racked up a sub-continent ODI hundred and is a far more adept player of spin-which will be vital in India.

An ability to thrive against the spinners may also have played a part in Ian Bell’s inclusion, having been omitted from all international short-form cricket since November 2008.

Such an omission was surprising, especially given that Bell would generally be ranked as one of England’s better one day international batsmen, but perhaps indicative of the travails which had begun to afflict his game after three years of international cricket.

But while the likes of Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara took his place to mixed results, Bell has steadily been improving in county cricket.

Few would argue that he has returned a better player, as a Test match average of 71 in 2010, and the memories of the responsibility of his knocks in South Africa and Bangladesh attest to. Plus given that he remains England’s best player of spin bowling, such a return should be welcomed.

There is also the return of Michael Yardy, whose no frills brand of slow bowling worked well in tandem with the guile of Graeme Swann.

Whether Yardy can thrive in the longer form of One Day International Cricket remains to be seen, but his selection shows that England are aware of the types of conditions likely to be facing them in India, and hope to integrate him into their plans.

Though he may not be as big a spinner of the ball as the likes of Adil Rashid, Monty Panesar and James Tredwell, he is a multi-dimensional cricketer with bags of experience, and ought not to be overawed should he and his team struggle.

The other main talking point of the squad was the presence of Andrew Strauss. Such talk of omitting him from the ODI captain was short-sighted.

While his average, and style may not make him an ideal candidate to open the innings, Strauss’s game has evolved to the stage where he is capable of making a run-a-ball innings, and drop anchor while others around him take risks.

Meanwhile his status as England ODI captain remains unchallenged, further justifying his selection.

While some have argued that Paul Collingwood deserves the role, judging by his haste to relinquish the role two years ago it is not a position he particularly craves.

Indeed some would argue he was able to thrive as T20 in the Caribbean in the knowledge that Strauss was viewed as England’s overall captain, liberating him from some of the burdens which he has previously encountered.

Overall the selections hint at a permanence and desire to build a core group of players who will be in India in 2011.

While there is still time for the likes of Rashid, Flintoff and perhaps even Finn or Shahzad to stack their claim for inclusion in the World Cup, England appears to be building steadily towards a competition.

After years of short-term chopping and changing searching for success, England have learned that playing the long game can be the best way to win in Cricket’s shortest form.