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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Ashes 2010: The good, the bad and the ugly England are missing down under

On Friday England’s squad will head off for Australia as their preparations begin to heat up ahead of the Ashes’ campaign.

It will be an interesting experience for the team, rekindling old, unhappy memories for some, better ones for others, and for the newcombers it will offer them a personal, cricketing experience on a whole other level to what they are used to.

Andrew Strauss’ “Rabbit in a headlights” description of their last campaign perhaps sums up what the Australia experience did to some of the team in 2007.

As England set off to try and retain the Ashes in Australia for the first time since 1986/87 it is worth remembering those who for whatever reason can’t be there in this squad, yet have somehow played their part in England’s progress over the past 2 years and in their preparation for this tour.

Graham Onions

But for injury, Onions would probably have been a Test match regular this summer, and we may never have even seen Steven Finn, except playing for Middlesex. The Durham man, who has been out injured since the tour in South Africa, had made quite an impression during his brief Test career.

But for injury Onions could have been a certain starter

Taking wickets against the West Indies, Australia and South Africa, showed that he could mix it with the best and his accurate, pacey and economical bowling-allied with a tricky bouncer-could have been of great use in Australia. Hopefully he can return sooner rather than later and avoid the same fate which befell the last England bowler to be plagued by injury, Simon Jones.

Ravi Bopara

Bopara was ruthlessly exposed, and yet to recover

Suffered the rudest of rude awakenings at the hands of Mitchell Johnson and his slower ball variations which ruthlessly exposed the weaknesses in a technique which has already been sharply dissected during his brief Test career. It’s not to say his chances of returning are non-existent, but his progress has certainly stalled.

It’s easy to forget that Bopara is 25, boasts 3 Test Centuries-though all against the West Indies (god it’s sad to have to qualify Test match runs), but he is well out of favour in terms of Test selection having watched a resurgent Ian Bell, a methodical Jonathan Trott and the mercurial Eoin Morgan charge past him in the queue. He has time on his side to return, but until solves his technical issues, it won’t be coming anytime soon.

Owais Shah

Owais Shah: Explosive, Inconsistent, Misunderstood?

Whether he would have been on the plane or not is debatable. Shah’s forte was always the limited overs game rather than Test Cricket where he effectively got a batsman’s version of the yipes and turned into a version of Nasser Hussain in that he frequently ran out partners.

Yet Shah’s fall from grace has been both painfully horrible to watch but also hard not to sympathise with. He was jettisoned from the ODI team just two innings after making a magnificent 98 against South Africa in the Champions Trophy. Plus, along with Paul Collingwood and Eoin Morgan, he revolutionised England’s ODI form in that tournament-hitting big and embracing the brave new era the two Andrew’s were trying to instill.

Ryan Sidebottom

Sidebottom is another English bowler whose career has been affected by injury. Prior to his injury in 2008, Sidebottom was effectively half the England bowling attack on his own, and he bore the load well at first, but eventually become overburdened and eventually injured.

Ryan Sidebottom - a real competitor

He has never quite recovered since then, and eventually announced his retirement from international cricket this year. But the Roger Daltry lookalike, and inventor of the best non-cricketing shot around.

Yet he was popular, probably would have been in the squad, remained a key part of England’s T20 squad-which beat Australia in the final-and he was vitally important that day too with two key early wickets. He was the best English left-arm pace bowler since Alan Mullally, and could be missed in Australia.

Andrew Flintoff

Andrew Flintoff: Scourge of the Australians

English cricket’s own messiah has retired from cricket after failing to recover from long-term injury. It’s tempting not to class Flintoff as a forgotten cricketer because he will seldom be forgotten due to a) his starring role in defeating the Australians in 2005 and b) a burgeoning media career and a larger than life personality.

For so many reasons this is a crying shame, but in particular given the car crash nature of his previous tour of Australia, he’d probably have loved to answer a few of his critics with a big final tour before he finished.

Honorable Mentions and outside contenders: Adil Rashid, Craig Kieswetter and Luke Wright.