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.

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One to Watch: Alex Hales – Nottinghamshire CCC

Few players can have enjoyed quite so thrilling an introduction to the national cricketing conscience as Alex Hales had.

It was 2005, the setting was Lords, and the 16 year old Hales was making hay. Picked originally as a fast bowler for the London County Cricket Club’s Founders Day tournament, he smashed 114 not out.

Standing tall at 6ft 5in

This included a mammoth 55 runs off just one over and a further three sixes off former England spinner Min Patel in a wonderful spell of power hitting.

It was an innings which prompted tournament organiser Neil Burns to remarks: “I have never seen hitting like that in my life. Few of us have seen 36 hit off an over, let alone 55.”

It was an innings which marked Hales out as truly special talent, and nothing which anyone has seen from him since has dissuaded anyone otherwise.

Indeed it is a style which he has managed to bring to the County game, where he has scored runs-and plenty of them-with a sound technique and an ability to clear the boundary with apparent ease-benefitting from his huge  6ft 5in frame.

His time at Notts has been short-he only signed for them in 2007-but right from the off he has scored runs.

While on trial at the club, he hit 218 against Derbyshire Second XI, then after a season of development in 2008-where he averaged 50 for the England under 19 team in Test matches-he began to really make his mark in 2009.

He hit two List A hundreds in the Pro 40 and 50 over matches against Worcestershire and Ireland, the first an exhilarating 150 off just 102 balls.

Hitting big, as always

Since then he has scarcely looked back, scoring his maiden first class century in May against Hampshire-an innings of patience and application which showed he had more to his game than just clean hitting.

Meanwhile in the T20-he and Ali Brown, two clean hitters at the opposite end of the spectrum-have set Nottinghamshire away to some lightening starts. Hales himself has hit 320 runs at an average of just under 30, with a strike rate of 148-including the fifth fastest fifty in T20 history with 50 off 16 balls against Derbyshire.

Often he has outperformed his senior partner, no mean fit against a man who put the hit into a pinch hit, yet despite his tender years Hales continues to excel like a man far beyond them.

The question now is when, not if, he progresses to full international honours. Ideally given his style and position in the Nottinghamshire domestic sides, a position at the top of England’s T20 and One Day line-ups would be his best route into the England set-up.

It is a route which many-including as shrewd a judge as Mike Atherton-believe he is capable of making, and one day all those who watched a young fast bowler smash bowlers to all parts of Lords may yet be able to say they saw the start of something very special.

What They Say

“At his best, Hales’ clean striking of the cricket ball is breathtaking, and marks him down as a genuine crowd-pleaser. (Hales’) star may shine even brighter in the weeks and months to come.” Neil Burns, managing director of London County Cricket Club.

“For a young player he looked dominant against us last year. He’s a big, strong lad and seemed mentally in tune as well.” Will Smith, former Durham captain.

“Alex has all the attributes and plays fantastically straight. He’s shown in one-day cricket what he’s capable of. He needs to convert the potential into quality four-day cricket. We believe he has the potential to do that.” Paul Johnson, Notts Batting Coach.