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.

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County Corner: Is Captaincy in County Cricket Becoming an Impossible Job?

Failure to build on success cost Pettini the Essex captaincy

Captaincy in cricket even to this day remains the central and focal point of any cricket team. As Mike Brearley wrote in his book The Art of Captaincy:

“With a good captain a company, orchestra, any group, can be made to work – a good leader who makes them the best they can be under the circumstances they find themselves in.”

While England have begun to reap the rewards of Andrew Strauss’ steady hand, in County Cricket-where captain’s have traditionally been left alone-a new tradition of hiring and firing captain’s with ever-increasing haste has begun.

The latest who has seen the axe fall is Essex’s Mark Pettini, who after handing over the reigns as T20 captain to James Foster last month, has now given the captaincy in all formats to the wicketkeeper.

“I felt it was time for me to step down as Essex captain,” he told the club website. “We suffered a poor start to the Friends Provident t20 campaign and I wanted to be able to focus on my own game. I got to the point that I was exhausted and I was under pressure with my batting.”

Pettini follows Shaun Udal, Will Smith and Nicky Boje who have already given up the full captaincy this season, and the likes of Chris Read, Nic Pothas and Chris Rogers who have given up captaining T20 matches.

His reasons are understandable given a poor run of form with the bat, but the statement of his exhaustion perhaps gives an illustration about the all-consuming need to win which is now beginning to cost these captain’s their job.

As Shaun Udal told the Daily Mail after he resigned: ‘It’s a results-led business and the captaincy is an all-consuming role.

“I thought I would be able to handle it, but it affected my form. There is so much cricket these days that you never get a day off and when you do, the phone doesn’t stop ringing. You take the job home with you.”

Certainly the need to win-which is now beginning to permeate County Cricket at all levels-and in particular the bigger counties such as Middlesex and Surrey is beginning to pressure captain’s who feel the need to step down.

How captain’s cope with this pressure is crucial, though given the sheer volume of cricket it is perhaps understandable if there are problems with pressure.

It is perhaps telling that County Cricket’s finest captains-Michael Yardy at Sussex, Rob Key at Kent and Chris Read at Nottinghamshire all have experience of International Cricket-a higher level of pressure.

Key to victory - The Kent captain remains an honourable exception

Yet these are the exceptions that were once the norm and there are few signs that captains are being given a real chance to either stay the course, or learn from their mistakes.

Surrey-a club who are in the process of a long and costly reboot after years of stagnation-took the bold step of appointing Rory Hamilton-Brown, a 22 year old, as captain.

It was a big step, which has thus far reaped mixed results, and Surrey and Hamilton-Brown have had some difficult moments-not least after being booed twice in a row by the crowds at the Oval.

Yet it is a bold move, and a brave one, and one which may ultimately prove the making of both Hamilton-Brown and this new emerging Surrey team.

But as Mark Ramprakash, as good a man as anyone to provide a sense of perspective, said: “If Surrey finish bottom it doesn’t necessarily mean Rory is a bad captain and if they finish top it doesn’t make him a good one.”

“On paper it can look very rosy but it is completely unknown. You can’t get away from the fact that he is only 22 and has played only seven matches.”

Worthy of praise and patience

Such sentiments (and patience) seem oddly misplaced in the current firestorm which is currently taking place in County Cricket, and both Surrey and Yorkshire-who appointed the 26-year old Andrew Gale as captain over the winter, deserve praise for opting to swim against the tide.

Because while in cricket captains remain as important as ever, as the reigns of Graeme Smith, Ricky Ponting and Andrew Strauss over their countries prove absolutely, in County Cricket the job of captaincy is fast becoming an impossible one.