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.

Surrey CCC find long-term changes mean short-term struggles

Far from resembling the Manchester United of the county game, Surrey CCC currently play more like the Macclesfield Town of it.

It has been two years since Chris Adams took over the club promising to engineer a revival to those days when Surrey ruled the county game, yet in that time despite a root and branch, and highly expensive, overhaul of playing personnel Surrey fans have witnessed only two wins in County Championship matches at that time.

Yet the dire straits which Surrey found themselves in, last night arguably represented a new low as they were booed off by their own fans at the Oval having been soundly thumped by Gloucestershire in a 20/20 clash.

It summed up the frustrations of the fans over the past years, but also spoke about the current problems with their squad.

Despite an expensive overhaul of their playing squad-including captain Rory Hamilton Brown, there is little sign of improvement-as shown by their low score of 97 yesterday.

This is a batting line-up including some quality batsmen-including a middle order of Mark Ramprakash, Younus Khan, Andrew Symonds and Usman Afzaal-all international players. Meanwhile the opening partnership of Hamilton-Brown and Steven Davies features two of the most promising youngsters in English cricket.

Meanwhile the bowling, including Andre Nel, Chris Tremlett and Gareth Batty has struggled to both maintain a level of control and take wickets throughout the season. The ever-improving Jade Dernbach has been an exception.

Amongst it all, their novice captain has understandably struggled. The pressure on him to score the requisite runs required of him for his team and also inspire a team which is struggling to put team’s under pressure.

It also puts pressure on his mentor, coach Chris Adams, who having arrived to such fanfare from Sussex has so far opted to take the long road in regenerating Surrey CCC.

Despite enlisting the help of some notable names from the club’s past, including Graham Thorpe and Alec Stewart, there have been precious signs of regeneration as Adams’ recruitment strategy and development schemes have seen little in the way of results.

While the failure of notable big names is mystifying, especially given that on paper Surrey could well be battling with the top county teams-the main cause of disgruntlement among Surrey fans, there are few signs that Adams may yet be under pressure.

As one of the county game’s richest clubs, Surrey have spent extravagantly on assembling a squad with some of the brightest names in English cricket, but such a policy has won them few friends as fans of Worcestershire and Sussex bemoaned the bully-boy tactics employed to snare the likes of Hamilton-Brown and Davies.

Yet while the club have been spending wisely, there have also been some notable PR gaffs-not least the spat with Sussex, the pursuit of the long-retired Brian Lara and not to mention the signing of a vastly under-prepared Shoaib Akhtar.

It has been a rather cumbersome two years in charge, though as Adams admitted in a pre-season interview, he said:  “Young, fresh, brave and positive, those are the keywords for the squad this season.”

Yet focussing on the long-term, as Adams seems content to, may not be enough for Surrey fans who have grown accustomed to watching their team struggle.

While the club and its staff may believe that there are signs of promise for the future, judging by the response of Surrey fans to yesterday’s latest defeat, they are becoming even harder to see.