Five Things We Learned In County Cricket This Week

1)      Marcus Trescothick is getting better

Only an idiot would doubt Marcus Trescothick. In an ideal world he’d still be in the England team, possibly as captain and be both their highest century maker and run scorer but he’s not and sadly the tendency is to treat every county achievement with a sense of “what if”. It is only natural, but does Trescothick, Somerset and the County Championship a disservice by almost diminishing his achievements. Because if anything ‘Banger’ is getting better; no mean feat at the age of 35 and without the motivation of a Test spot to aim for.

Marcus Trescothick: Better than the rest

His captaincy continues to develop; he is an astute and understated leader who has had to lead an often inexperienced batting and bowling line-up while keeping up his form with the bat. Indeed the remarkable thing is that his batting continues to astound. He stands head and shoulders above the rest of the county circuit there. He has notched up 978 runs before the end of May and is over 250 runs away from Varun Chopra, his closest rival. He also boasts the highest average-81.60 and has a strike rate at 71 which is matched only by fellow big hitters Ben Stokes and Ian Blackwell-neither of whom opens.

His latest effort for Somerset-189 in the first innings followed by a typically belligerent 151* off 131 balls was too much for Yorkshire, a county with an attack which contains Ryan Sidebottom and Adil Rashid. Somerset’s fluctuating form this season is often tied to their captain’s, when Trescothick fires, his county tends to as well-that is how crucial he has become and a sign of how good a player he really is.

2)      Ravi Bopara has got serious competition as England’s potential part-timer

Ravi Bopara has every reason to feel aggrieved. One imagines he will have watched this England match with a vested interest given how close he came to selection, and felt more than aggrieved at the sight of James Anderson going off and Jonathan Trott being forced to bowl some overs as a relief bowler. For that was Bopara’s role in this team before Eoin Morgan intervened.

Ben Stokes: The next Collingwood

Instead Bopara was at Chelmsford, getting out twice for single figures and taking three wickets for 130-odd runs, in terms of a riposte it was far from a telling one. Meanwhile elsewhere there were further ominous signs for Bopara in the form of another confident young star that is both scoring runs and taking wickets in Durham’s Ben Stokes.

Stokes, who has already scored two centuries this season, took 7-145 in Durham’s comprehensive victory over Warwickshire. His bowling has never been his strong suit but it has begun to develop with an extra yard of pace added over a winter spent training with the England Lions and the results have manifested themselves in 16 first class wickets at an average of 31. As Ian Botham would put it, his averages are the right way round, 42 with the bat, 31 with the ball this season and if he carries on like this then England honours will surely be just a matter of time. Having just lost one red-headed northerner who bats, bowls and fields well, it would be ironic if England replaced him with another one.

3)      Alviro Petersen really is Glamorgan captain

Of course we all knew that Alviro Petersen was Glamorgan captain, he arrived in such controversial circumstances that we could not have missed it. Yet after his first innings double hundred against Surrey now we can safely say, he REALLY is the Glamorgan captain. The innings itself was special-210 off 352 balls with 24 fours and 1 six-but ultimately in the context of the match it was meaningless as neither side appeared capable of dislodging the other on a relatively tame surface, but in the context of Glamorgan’s season and Petersen’s captaincy it could yet be crucial.

Alviro Petersen: The knock of a captain

This was the innings of a leader, opening the batting and taking responsibility to lead his side forward in a match which had potential significance against one of their promotion rivals. It was one which spoke of a leader, a real captain’s knock which perhaps for the first time we had really seen from Petersen in his tenure. His arrival may have been controversial, but he has been doing a good job in difficult circumstances this season and after an innings such as this, a real captain’s knock, he really has become Glamorgan’s leader.

4)      Lonwabo Tsotsobe has found the only way isn’t Essex

Lonwabo Tsotsobe’s brief stint in county cricket will probably go down as one of those mysterious ones-like the signings of Andy Blignaut by Durham in 2004 (4 wickets at a cost of 50) or Iftikhar Anjum by Surrey in 2009 (8 wickets at 40). Yet Tsotsobe unlike those two was a genuinely gifted international bowler who was seemingly at the top of his game having starred for South Africa in their series against India and performed well at the World Cup. So how he managed to end up with just five first class wickets at an average of 77 will surely remain the subject of much debate.

The mystery of Tsotsobe

It has already proved to be quite the storm with Paul Grayson publicly slating the player (a rare event for a County coach) after the player himself had used his Twitter feed to bemoan the environment at the club and his decision to move there instead of staying in South Africa. The exact reasons behind his failure will now be investigated thoroughly by both Essex and Cricket South Africa to determine both why it occurred and how it could have been avoided.

It is a great shame because county cricket can be a great learning environment for pace bowlers. Zaheer Khan said this week that all Indian pace bowlers should go there after his spell at Worcestershire in 2004. Thus it is a real shame that Tsotsobe has gone, a shame for Essex and South Africa but most of all for the player himself, because what has now gone down as one of the worst moments in his career should have been one of his finest.

5)      County cricket can learn a lesson from Adrian Shankar

If Tsotsobe’s story is a mystery then what can you make of the case of Adrian Shankar? The story is covered in far greater detail here, but needless to say the story of a cricketer who managed to bluff his way into first class cricket will go down in history. Though the story hardly reflects well on Shankar himself, what to make of the counties who signed him without proper investigation. Neither Lancashire or Worcestershire have exactly covered themselves in glory in this tale, and the apparent ease with which Shankar has managed to forge a career will serve as a warning to them in the future. As much blame as Shankar will ultimately take for his part it is worth remembering that with appropriate measures in place he would never have managed to get so far. Next time, if there is a next time, they will surely have learned their lesson.

Five Things We Learned In County Cricket This Week

1) Sussex are masters of the run chase

Sussex may have been gone from Division One for a year but they have certainly made quite a mark upon their return to English cricket’s upper echelons. Three wins, two draws and one defeat have made a mockery of pre-season predictions that last year’s Division Two champions would struggle upon their return. If anything Sussex have thrived upon it-boosted by the form of openers Ed Joyce and Chris Nash, the emergence of Luke Wells and bowlers Rana Naved Ul-Hasan, Amjad Khan and James Anyon who has 21 wickets already.

There’s is a typically resilient bunch, knitted together with a strong work ethic and team ethos and managed impeccably once more by Tim Robinson. Nothing has signified these factors more than their impressive mastery of the daunting run chase. First up was the two-wicket victory over Durham as they chased down 309-8 courtesy of Luke Wells’ hundred, then came a nerveless 187-1 to beat Nottinghamshire and finally their latest effort: 275-2 in the second innings to defeat Somerset.

From promotion last season to champions this time round? Why not? As Sussex have already shown they are good when it comes to the chase.

2) Somerset and Nottinghamshire have the teams to win but not the squads

The Championship’s top two last season are finding the going far tougher this time round-with Somerset currently sitting in fourth and Nottinghamshire in sixth-but worryingly both have also suffered heavy defeats and are struggling to hit their straps. The reason? Well injuries and call-ups mostly.

Somerset were missing Craig Kieswetter and James Hildreth while neither Murali Kartik or Alfonso Thomas were available as they fell to defeat against Sussex with a team containing youngsters Alex Barrow, Lewis Gregory and Craig Meschede in their middle order. Meanwhile Nottinghamshire had no Alex Hales, Samit Patel, Darren Pattinson, Luke Fletcher, Andy Carter and Neil Edwards at the last count. Taunton and Trent Bridge will start to resemble A & E wards at this rate. Both counties have the first XI to win the title, but neither has the strength in depth to cope with a raft of absentees like these.

3) Farveez Maharoof will be sorely missed by Lancashire

Farveez Maharoof has probably not been around long enough to go down as a Lancashire legend, but his role in Saturday’s epic chase has made sure that his brief time at Old Trafford will not be easily forgotten. Smashing 31 off just 19 balls to make a tricky chase manageable against your biggest rivals is one way to go about it. But this is just the latest episode in what has thus far been a remarkable season for the Sri Lankan, whose arrival at Lancashire was perhaps overshone somewhat by the signing of Ajantha Mendis by Somerset and Mohammad Yousuf by Warwickshire.

Yet the statistics themselves do Maharoof credit. His weakest suit-his batting-has shone with an innings of 102 batting at 8 against Somerset and an average of 65. His bowling has not sparkled quite so much but 8 wickets at 30 in a mainly supporting role to one of the strongest attacks in County Cricket have been important. Furthermore he has settled in quickly and proved popular with the dressing room, quite a contrast from the arrival of Daren Powell last season.

The bad news for Lancashire fans? Well sadly “The Roof” as he is known, has been rewarded for his good form with a call-up to the touring Sri Lanka team, a call-up which could potentially keep him out for a large portion of the campaign. This is a big blow in what has thus far been an almost flawless campaign for the Red Rose outfit, only time will tell just how sorely “The Roof” is missed.

4) Graham Napier deserves far more recognition

For Surrey, the sense of relief on Saturday will have been palpable. It was not so much they had been hit by a sledgehammer, but rather the cricketing tornado which was Graham Napier in full flow. The statistics of the onslaught he brought in the closing stages of Essex’s first innings make quite remarkable reading. 196 runs scored off 130 balls with 19 fours and a world-record equaling 16 sixes-drawing him level with a fellow big hitter in Andrew Symonds who struck the same number in an innings of 254* for Gloucestershire against Glamorgan in 1995. This makes it a second world record for Napier, who also took the world record for the number of sixes in T20 cricket with that innings against Sussex which first brought him to the world’s attention.

That innings brought him an IPL contract and a spot in England’s Twenty20 spot neither of which really worked out quite as he hoped thanks to a lack of opportunity and injury. Yet to describe Napier as simply a Twenty20 slogger is unfair-his hits are clean, struck with little backlift and considerable finesse. Furthermore he was striking against one of the better pace attacks on the County circuit, admittedly on one of the smaller grounds. If this was a big name like Kevin Pietersen or say perhaps Cameron White who are regularly renowned as the biggest hitters around then doubtless it would bring far greater recognition than Napier has so far had, yet as he proved on Friday he is capable of outhitting even the finest when he is in the mood.

5) Northamptonshire’s juggernaught isn’t slowing down just yet

Northamptonshire are County Cricket’s only unbeaten side, a quite remarkable achievement given the number of matches and competitions which each team play. Their success has rather slipped under the radar given that they: a) don’t contain a team packed with young English stars, b) rely heavily on a number of aging imported stars. There’s is not a tale which County Cricket will choose to promote, nor the media choose to focus on, but it deserves respect all the same.

This may well be an indian summer for their ex-international stars such as Andrew Hall, Chaminda Vaas plus steadfast county pro’s like David Sales and Mal Loye but it is testament to their ability that their standards haven’t dropped despite their aging years. So too has the form of unsung bowlers Lee Daggett and Jack Brooks who have 46 first class wickets between them at an average under 25. Given the number of games they have left to play it is unlikely they will manage the whole season undefeated, indeed if they do it will be a remarkable feat and they aren’t slowing down quite yet.

The County Cricket Five-Fer: Round Two

Five Things We Learned From The County Championship

1) Graham Onions will play for England again sooner rather than later

England’s successful last 18 months have created their own fair share of victors and victims. But few can have been more of a victim of England’s success than Graham Onions who was surely the forgotten man of English cricket.

When he stonewalled South Africa to ensure England got a draw from the 4th Test which gave them a fair chance of securing a series victory his place appeared beyond all reasonable doubt, especially given that he had enjoyed a fine series with the ball too.

Yet history tells us differently. Onions was dropped for the very next match for Ryan Sidebottom, England lost and drew the series and the Durham man was to suffer a terrible injury to his back which prevented him from bowling for almost a year.

During that time England have gone on and conquered all while discovering the talents of Steven Finn along the way plus enjoying the pleasant double surprise of Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett’s impact at Test level over the Winter. Pace bowling places in this England team are now contested more fiercely possibly than at any stage previously.

As if hes never been away

But don’t rule out Onions making a return to the Test arena. Because he is back, and judging by his performance against Yorkshire then it’s like he’s never been away. Pace, bounce and that devilish late movement gave him a five-wicket haul on his first game back and helped set up Durham’s victory.

He already looks a class above the County Championship which is remarkable given the length of time he has spent out injured. A good sign for England perhaps, and if he continues to kick on then don’t rule out a return sooner rather than later.

2) England’s pace bowling cup runneth over

While Onions was running in to destroy Yorkshire’s top and middle order, there were familiar tales elsewhere across the County Championship.

At Cardiff it was James Harris laying waste to Gloucestershire with 5-39, Nathan Buck took 4-112 for Leicestershire against Derbyshire, 17-year old Reece Topley destroyed Middlesex at Lords only for Steven Finn to do the same to Essex twice and Chris Woakes took match figures of 9-101 as favourites Somerset were thrashed by an epic margin at Taunton.

Reece Topley: One of the new brigade

Five pace bowlers, all under the age of 23, playing pivotal roles in their side’s County Championship matches are the stuff which Andy Flower’s dreams are surely made of. With the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and Chris Tremlett set to return then batting in the Championship could be a nightmare.

But for England the long-term prospect in the bowling department are healthier than ever. Flower has long talked about building up England’s strength in depth to enable weary players to be rested. Such developments will allow him to do just that because on the evidence of the County Championship so far England are spoiled for choice in the seam bowling department.

3) Jonathan Bairstow will get the century monkey off his back

Sometimes the monkey on someone’s back is hard to get away. For instance it took Ian Bell to his 10th Test century before he scored one without a team-mate scoring one. But as Jonathan Bairstow was edging ever closer to that elusive first Championship hundred doubtless there were more than just Yorkshire fans willing him onto that mark.

Sadly Bairstow fell for 81 as he edged leg-spinner Scott Borthwick to slip to become the seventh wicket to fall as Yorkshire eventually succumbed to defeat. He now has 16 first class 50s but has yet to reach the magical three figures mark. But don’t doubt that he will get there because he certainly will.

Too good not to ton up

For all the concern over Bairstow’s ability to convert starts into substantial scores, spend time watching him bat and you see a young player of great promise and such concerns tend to wash away. His capacity for playing innings of note in difficult circumstances was apparent from his debut when he top scored in the second innings on debut.

One particular instance was an unbeaten knock of 63 off 51 balls to see his side home in a key clash with Nottinghamshire at the back end of last year-an innings of real character. Yesterday’s innings came in trying circumstances with his side slipping to 158-6 before Bairstow and Pyrah managed to drag them to 225-6 which ultimately was not enough.

Sure he hasn’t got that elusive first hundred, but his ability to grind out scores of note when it really matters is the one which counts most. When he scores his first hundred, which he most certainly will sooner rather than later, don’t doubt it’ll be the first of many.

4) Paul Grayson might not have wanted an overseas players but Essex badly need one

“It’s been a complete nightmare. If it was up to me I don’t think I’d have any overseas players for championship cricket anymore, it’s just been so difficult.”

So said Paul Grayson after his club were unable to agree terms with Peter Siddle to be the club’s overseas player for this season. They would subsequently be unable to secure terms with Tim Southee before finally agreeing to sign Lonwabo Tsotsobe.

Yet his side could arguably have done with a decent overseas batsmen judging by their early season batting collapses. Batting cards this season reading innings of 201 and 227 against Kent and 115 and 215 against Middlesex speak volumes for the problems in their batting line-up. Though the subsequent arrivals of Owais Shah and Ryan Ten Doeschate after IPL duty ought to help matters they will be offset by the departures of Alistair Cook and probably Ravi Bopara once England duty resumes.

In their place the onus falls on young batsmen Tom Westley, Billy Godleman and Jaik Mickleburgh and the experienced James Foster and Matt Walker to cope. It is hardly a recipe for success and the departure of the experienced Zimbabwean Grant Flower at the end of last season is clearly having an impact. Though the arrival of Tsotsobe will clearly be a boost for the club, a batsman rather than a bowler would have been vital.

5) Who will win Division Two is anyone’s guess

Seven of the nine Counties in Division Two have recorded one victory so far this season with only Essex and Surrey, who have played one game less, yet to get off the mark though Surrey admittedly almost pushed leaders Northants close in their first match.

Certainly this division promises to be a wide open contest. Surrey were initially tipped as the favourites for the division though their lack of a top class spinner could potentially count against them. Northants have experience in the likes of Andrew Hall and Chaminda Vaas but little strength in depth.

Derbyshire and Glamorgan are both rebuilding under new captains, Kent have a decent blend of experience and youth while Leicestershire’s young side captained by Matthew Hoggard are perhaps a little too green for promotion despite boasting in James Taylor and Nathan Buck two of England’s finest prospects.

Certainly compared with last season when Sussex steamrollered the division to romp home with the title by a fair margin there are few outstanding candidates. Ultimately this is the Division which could be one by anyone. All the teams have strengths and weaknesses which may dilute the quality of the cricket somewhat but makes the quality of the spectacle all the better.