Trying to work out who’ll win the county championship is a thankless task at the best of times. Not least as the vagaries of form and fitness for just a few key personnel can have a huge affect on virtually every club on the circuit.
What you can say about this season is that the return of Sussex, some sensible recruiting during the winter by a number of clubs and the improbability of Durham suffering the same catalogue of injuries for a second successive summer should combine to make division one stronger and more competitive this year.
Of the nine teams only Worcestershire looks obviously out of their depth, with the batting frailties of Lancashire and Warwickshire making them the most likely candidates to get caught in a relegation fight.
After coming within an inch of last year’s title and having strengthened since, Somerset are the team to beat, with Nottinghamshire and Durham (assuming their first choice bowling attack is fit again) fighting it out with them.
I’d fancy Yorkshire and Sussex for middle table but with either of them capable of mounting a challenge, or slipping further back dependant on form and fitness.
It’s Hampshire I’m finding hardest to place. They’ve recruited well during the off-season and look a strong team on paper. Where they finish in the table will depend on how well Dominic Cork can gel his team together. But I’ve a sneaky feeling about them this year, and have them marked down as my outside bet for the title.
Should fair weather bring a spinners summer I’d expect Hampshire, Lancashire, Somerset and Yorkshire to be the beneficiaries. A big unknown factor this year is the exact make-up of England’s one-day side following a poor series of results during the winter. Will established faces remain or new blood be brought in? With the final three rounds of championship games clashing with the ODI series against India, players used by England will be unavailable to their counties at the most critical time of the summer, meaning the national selectors could have a significant, and unwanted, input into the destination of this year’s title.
We arrived in Sydney near midday on New Year’s Eve. Already crowds were gathering in and around the harbour for the celebrations and the fireworks display.
The harbour is a wonderful sight. The coat-hanger bridge and the opera house are so familiar as to be almost clichés, though the size of the opera house came as a shock to me. The ferry boats are great, too, little ones scuttling in all directions and the bigger ones plying the route to Manly. They belong in the same ‘steampunk’ universe as the old Melbourne trams.
This is visually the most exciting city I have ever visited.
On New Year’s Day, with a few thousand others, I took the big ferry to Manly, near the mouth of Sydney Harbour. A short walk across a spit of land and you’re on the Pacific Ocean or Tasman Sea side of the resort, as opposed to the calmer waters inside the harbour. A lovely beach, but too crowded on this occasion.
The following day we had our guided tour of the city, which included a morning stroll from Bronte Park past some delightful little bathing and surfing beaches, finishing at Bondi Beach, still very quiet early in the day. We continued by coach and, our guide being female, we were well informed about all the shops in Sydney – redundant knowledge as far as I was concerned. She sounded exactly like Dame Edna Everage, so I was kept amused. Sydney has impressive architecture, too, and lovely parks.
We finished with a cruise round the harbour, which was superb. Next day it was back to cricket action, with England looking to win the series outright.
Australia won toss, 134-4, (rsp).
England were unchanged but Australia had to replace Ponting, Clarke taking over as captain and new boy Khawaja coming in as number 3 bat. Another debutant, spinner Beer, came in for the injured Harris. To the delight of the Barmy Army, Johnson kept his place.
Clarke’s captaincy began with a tricky decision. It was an overcast day and the pitch looked mottled, patchy green. But Sydney is supposed to be spin friendly, and England had Swann, so he batted.
Playing out of character, Watson and Hughes stuck it out for 29 patient overs before Tremlett got Hughes on the stroke of lunch; 55-1. The left-handed Khawaja looked a real talent from the start, no sign of nerves at all, but Bresnan dismissed Watson and Clarke. The bonus wicket was Swann getting Khawaja just as rain began to fall; not another ball was bowled this day.
The SCG is scarcely less impressive than the MCG, at least on the inside. But surrounding space is at a premium and we were cooped up in the narrow confines of the Victor Trumper Stand during intervals. For some reason there were no passouts available, and the food and drink outlets were hopelessly inadequate. Fortunately, our seats in the Trumper Stand were exactly opposite the old Pavilion and Ladies’ Pavilion, which have been retained as the ground has been developed into a ‘stadium’.
No advertising signs have been allowed to sully these lovely old buildings, and the view we had, from third-man or wide long-on, is the one on all the postcards. I feel so privileged (though poorer) for having been there.
Australia 280 all out, England 167-3
It seems silly, with hindsight, but just for a moment there was this sinking déjà vu feeling as first Johnson smashed the bowling and then England, following a bright start, lost wickets in quick succession. This was Perth, all over again.
The day began well for England, with Haddin going cheaply. Hussey and Smith put together a partnership but never looked like getting away against disciplined bowling. Collingwood struck a huge blow when he bowled Hussey, the last delivery with the old ball. The new one soon accounted for two more wickets, but a frustrating and entertaining stand between Johnson, who has batting ability, and Hilfenhaus, who hasn’t, saw 189-8 eventually become 280 all out.
Strauss wasn’t concerned as he put together a run-a-ball 50, but he and Trott fell in quick succession, and we all held our breaths as Pietersen looked like being out almost every ball. He was out before close of play, but Cook survived being caught off a no ball.
An exciting and incident packed day ended with England still ahead in the game, but only just.
Australia 280, England 488-7
The late Jane McGrath was in everyone’s thoughts today and the SCG was a sea of pink in a huge show of support for the McGrath Foundation; old and young, Pom and Convict, all united in a good cause. Pink stumps were used throughout the match.
Today, also, England won the Test series. Even the England of four years ago would have struggled to lose from this position. Remorseless Cook and glorious Bell scored centuries. Cook threatened, but fell just short of, a double ton. Then Prior put the bowling to the sword late in the day.
There had been a moment of controversy, at least in one person’s mind, when Cook was almost caught at short-leg by Hughes. The picture shows a couple of Australians appealing, while Hughes himself is in an attitude of “I’m not sure”. The England players had no complaints, and the replay showed the ball had bounced, but a certain knight of the realm, commentating on TV, saw this as a case of Australian cheating.
Australia had fielded with wonderful commitment throughout a hot day, good character from them when they must have known all was lost.
England 644 all out, Australia 280 and 213-7
Prior duly completed a thrilling century, well supported by Bresnan, then Swann cut loose before the innings ended shortly after lunch. England’s lead was 364, one whole Hutton ahead.
Our boys had shown what a good batting pitch this now was and I had expected Australia to get runs on it, but this lot were shot to pieces. Gone. Brains scrambled.
For the third time in ten innings the opening partnership was broken by a run out, Watson going this time. I have no insight into Test cricket, but if this were a club side I think there might be a few fists flying in the dressing room by now, though Hughes v Watson would be a physical mismatch, and if Hughes tried to use his bat he would probably miss.
With Swann tying up one end, though there was little turn for him, the quickies worked their way through the batting, two wickets for each of them. Johnson, mocked all the way to the wicket, was bowled first ball, prompting Strauss to claim the extra half hour, but the lads looked jaded after a long day.
Australia, 281 all out, lost by an innings and 83 runs. Series: 3-1 to England.
A rain delay and a partnership between Smith and Siddle postponed the inevitable, but Siddle eventually holed out against Swann, and Anderson and Tremlett finished the job with the new ball.
Unable to resist one last trip on a cute ferry, I spent the remainder of the day on the gorgeous Manly Beach.
We enjoyed a lovely farewell dinner at a floating restaurant in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. I had kangaroo, tasty as well as symbolic, despite being told that all kangaroo eaten in Australia is road-kill. Was this a wind-up? I just don’t know. The following day our group split several ways, some going home, others to various Australian destinations
I opted for three nights in tropical Northern Queensland, which turned out to be a mistake. It should have been a week. Or a month! Too soon it was time to fly home, departing from Brisbane Airport just as the floods were rising in the city centre.
What a difference four years can make. Obviously the Australian side is far weaker, but it seems to me the England side is proportionately stronger, even though the personnel – especially the batting – is much the same as in 2006-07.
Strauss should have been captain on that tour, but Flintoff was given a job he was clearly unsuited for, and organisation under Fletcher seemed non existent. No warm up games, quirky selections, poor team spirit. I came away feeling let down, that I cared more about the cricket than did the England players I was trying to support.
This time, under Strauss and Flower, I saw what I would expect from a top professional side. Apart from poor old Collingwood, all the batsmen who had had technical or temperamental issues seemed to have sorted them out. Cook’s head was still, his balance good. Pietersen was no longer missing straight balls from slow left-armers. Bell looked a million dollars, the best looking England player since the Graveney of my youth. All of them batted without that mind-killing fear.
The fielding was athletic and keen, fitness levels were exceptional, and Strauss always looked as though he had a plan. Prior has improved his keeping and is unrecognisable as the fumbler of Sri Lanka and West Indies tours.
Above all, it was the bowling that impressed. Anderson was as smooth as silk, the finished article now. I groaned when Tremlett replaced Broad. However, someone has done a remarkable job with Tremlett. The Rose Bowl pussy-cat has been transformed into – if not quite a roaring Surrey lion – then a pretty handy tall fast bowler. A guy who now doesn’t give up and hold his back the first time he is hit for four. The physical attributes, the height and the action, were always there. Now England has a real asset.
And what about Bresnan? I have probably seen near 50% of the overs Tim has bowled in first class cricket, but he never performed like he has on this tour. He was superb, quick without straining for it, accurate as a Statham, and obviously doing enough with the ball, old and new, to cause problems to the batsmen.
The Australians were scared to death of Swann. Green pitches nullified his wicket-taking but played into the hands of the superior (except at Perth) English seamers, yet Swann still played an important part in giving his captain control through the heat and burden of the day.
So England now has a strong hand of bowlers: to the team in Sydney, add Broad and Finn, Onions and Shahzad, plus Panesar. That’s two full Test-strength attacks, nearly all still youngsters. With the likes of Rashid and Hampshire’s young Briggs to come, the future looks rosy.
In the batting, Morgan is set to replace Collingwood, and Davies has impressive credentials, in addition to his keeping. Then there is competition from youngsters like Bairstow and Lyth, Leicester’s Taylor and Vince of Hampshire. A lot of talent, and these are just the ones I have seen.
Not only has the England team improved, so have these supporters. A bigger repertoire, more tuneful, less confrontational, funnier – an all round improvement from them. Indeed, the abiding memory of the whole tour is of watching England crush the poor old Aussies, played out to a background of Sloop John B, the Barmy Army version of that song, lustily and tunefully sung by a choir of hundreds.
And we did just that.
Lords be praised, next year’s fixtures are here. I’ve already set up a page for them on t’right. No match reports yet though, who do you think I am, Dr Who?
From a cursory glance, the highlight is a weekend match against Holland. Here’s hoping it’s in Amsterdam, then the membership can spend Saturday easing the pain of their arthritis in some of the delightful coffee bars before nibbling their way through multiple tubes of Pringles the following day.
Lowlight is yet more evidence the ECB view the English domestic summer as a means to stage baseball when the Tests aren’t on. Hence four Championship games in April, half of them completed by the end of May, and 26 days in June when a maximum of 400 overs will be bowled. Is the sight of David Lloyd trying to recreate It’s a Knockout really worth mucking up the entire summer? If the money’s right, apparently it is…
God bless you Yorkshire, after years struggling to avoid relegation you’ve finally got some of the miserable old bastards in the stands working harder to find things they can moan about. That’ll cause the kind of increased synaptic activity vital to keep a misanthrope alive during the cold winter months to come, making Moxon and Gale a kind of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole for the doom-laden.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, as little had altered since the previous season at Headingley beyond the retirement of Deon Kruis and the fractious departure of Matthew Hoggard. For all the world it looked like Yorkshire were facing another tough year, this time minus their two most experienced bowlers. As the summer drew on, Bresnan and Shahzad were increasingly away on England duty and the knowhow of Hoggard in particular started to be missed – something the current attempts to re-sign Ryan Sidebottom perhaps acknowledge. It’s worth remembering Yorkshire had pointed out money freed by Hoggard’s departure helped retain Ajmal Shahzad – a hot property 12 months ago whose signature was chased by numerous clubs – as well as invest in long-term contracts for Oliver Hannon-Dalby, Jonny Bairstow and several second team hopefuls; but was it really a choice of either/or? We’ll probably never know.
That move to back youth was also seen when Anthony McGrath stood down from the captaincy to be replaced by Andy Gale, the youngest person to take the role since Lancashire’s accounts included a championship trophy cleaning budget. Gale was officially unveiled in late December, with the suspicion that a decision had actually been made several months earlier but kept under wraps whilst McGrath completed his benefit year commitments.
But regardless of when Gale’s voice had been added to the planning for 2010, some clear headed decision making was required if Yorkshire were to avoid the fight against relegation predicted by many. There was certainly a great deal of thought put into the exact team for the opening fixture at Edgbaston. A great deal of thought that resulted in an unexpected batting line-up.
The first surprise was a new opening pairing of Sayers and Lyth. Sayers’ partner from the previous year, Jacques Rudolph, had continued at the top of the order when he returned to his native South Africa for their domestic season, but a switch in December to number three was to precede a similar move to Yorkshire’s middle order. His replacement as opener, Adam Lyth, was perhaps an even less predicted move given he’d not opened on a regular basis for the second team and had only prospered during his 2008 run in the first XI after being moved down from opener to number five. Despite this, someone at Yorkshire thought Lyth could do the job. Someone at Yorkshire was proved right.
Another big call was made by giving Jonathan Bairstow the gloves and dropping Gerard Brophy for the first time since Moxon had returned as coach in 2007. It gave Yorkshire an impressive looking middle order, one that helped the team gain a first innings lead in virtually every match during the opening half of the season. But when illness struck Joe Sayers in late June, Rudolph was moved back to open and a combination of Brophy’s form for the second XI and his younger colleague clearly being on a steep learning curve, led to the wicket keeping duties being handed back; changes that resulted in a less robust middle order for the remainder of the summer as well as further uncertainty over Bairstow’s ultimate role in the side.
For all the reshuffling of the batting line-up, improvements in solidity and consistency were marked. Lyth in particular had a fantastic summer, moving from county squad member to serious candidate for international honours with the ease of one of his own cover drives. The raw statistics of 1,500 championship runs and having won the race to a 1,000 in first-class cricket tell you little of the pleasure of his stroke play, the intent of his approach.
Rudolph remained as reliable as ever, scoring heavily in the middle-order and later in the year as a stand-in opening bat, whilst both Gale and Bairstow continued to grow as batsmen capable of reading the situation; batsmen willing to play for the team rather than themselves. Praise was rightly handed to Lyth and Bairstow for the responsibility they shouldered this season, but in his own way Gale made just as impressive a step forward. He’s now an adaptable batsman, confident in attack or defence, capable of responding to the most pressurised of situations – his counter-attacking 151 not out in the first innings at Trent Bridge was an indication of just how far his game has improved.
Add in the return to form of McGrath and the batsmen weren’t just producing individually but were also a much more cohesive unit. The batting collapses of previous years were largely gone as partnerships would form after the fall of two or three quick wickets, partnerships that repaired the damage and stabilised the innings. The only real insistences of collective batting failure were in the home games against Lancashire, Notts and Kent. Just three false steps out of twenty nine is a decent record, certainly a vast improvement on the form of 2009, but the fact two of those failures came in vital matches during the championship run-in, the final one probably costing Yorkshire the title itself, is a concern that needs addressing.
Work is also needed on our scoring rate. It’s understandable that following the fragility our batting has shown in the recent past we should try to walk before we run, but too often the boldness shown during our final day chases wasn’t mirrored by a more positive attitude earlier in games. Instead, Yorkshire seemed content to carve out a first innings lead and try to force the game from there. But once Bresnan and Shahzad were no longer available and Best started misfiring, we needed more time to bowl out the opposition twice. That time was too often eaten away, and in the process bonus points lost, by overly cautious batting, particularly against opposition spinners, many of whom were being shown more respect than they deserved.
Our own spinners had a mixed time of things. Adil’s final tally of 57 championship wickets was the most by any slow bowler in the competition; although 42 of them had come in a rush of just seven mid-season games, with pickings much slimmer during the final few vital matches.
Wainwright had a poor season from the off and needs the winter to re-group, sort out whether Yorkshire or England are giving him the best advice about his action and come back again next year with the resilience and grit he’s shown in so many games for us over the last few seasons. As for Azeem Rafiq, he just needs to pause before pressing the send button on Twitter – the knowledge Yorkshire have signed up fellow spinner Gurman Randhawa after he took 120 odd wickets for academy and second team this year should help concentrate his mind in that regard.
Yorkshire’s pace attack was another mixed bag. Bresnan and Shahzad did well in early season, but once England duty called they returned only fitfully and often undercooked from time spent watching from the international sidelines. Tino Best bowled with raw pace – he was easily the quickest bowler on the county circuit – but too often raw direction as well. As an overseas player he’d been a gamble, if his form from the first couple of games had held he’d have been a gamble that paid off, sadly that wasn’t to be.
With their more experienced colleagues absent or out of form, much responsibility fell on the shoulders of Steve Pattterson and Oliver Hannon-Dalby. Patterson turned out to be the most improved bowler at the club and certainly the most dependable one available to his captain, whilst Hannon-Dalby started with great success before wickets dried up in mid-season. They both looked tired towards the end of their first full year in the side and that may explain why it was another new boy, Moin Aashraf, who took best advantage of the more helpful wickets found in the final couple of matches.
If Patterson, Hannon-Dalby and Ashraf can continue to improve, and we manage to re-sign Ryan Sidebottom, then next year we should be in a better position to cope if Bresnan and/or Shahzad are on England duty once again. But in truth, during most of 2010, our bowling lacked the penetration, and to be fair the helpful surfaces, of some of our rivals. It’s notable that only once did we bowl a side out for less than 200, and that in very advantageous conditions on the first day at Trent Bridge, and only half a dozen times more did we bowl them out for under 300. It’s little wonder so many of our victories relied on a final day race against time with the bat.
That we managed to win six games and come within an ace of the title itself says much for the team ethos at the club, with a large share of the credit for that going to Gale himself. The blue print for the current Yorkshire team – the 2008 victory at Taunton by a young side missing its ‘big names’ – has been taken and implemented all season long. Captaincy has generally been pro-active rather than re-active, and bar the decision to bat first in the home game against Notts, the kind of occasional gaffes you’d expect from a rookie captain have been avoided – the Taunton declaration was made whilst Gale was on Lions duty and frankly I’ve already vented my spleen enough on that subject!
There’s little doubt great strides forward have been taken this summer, and there’s now a much more optimistic outlook for Yorkshire’s immediate future. But if the team is to continue that improvement some issues require addressing. Not least how we replace the runs of Jacques Rudolph; no easy task given our entire winter recruitment budget has been targeted on acquiring a new bowler and there is no guarantee that either Joe Sayers will be fit again for the start of next season or that Adam Lyth can reproduce the sheer weight of runs scored this year.
That ability to replace Rudolph, somehow, someway, will probably determine whether we continue our improvement in 2011, or if a step back is needed before we can move forward once again.
Si’thee next seaon,
February 2009, Barbados: I know I can afford it, once at any rate, but the trip cost me a fortune. Lovely hotel and beach, catamaran trip to the famous Sandy Lane Bay, swim in the cool water, a rum punch or three as the sun set. Then, next morning, it was off to lovely Kensington Oval, and I had a seat high in the Hall & Griffith stand. What could be better this side of heaven?
But there the enjoyment ended. Not all at once, not abruptly. But end it did.
England scored runs; a lot of runs. Strauss and Cook, Bopara and Collingwood all made hundreds, or near-hundreds. Then it was West Indies’ turn. Sarwan got almost three hundred on his own. Ramdin scored over 150. Our 600 for 6 was eclipsed by their 749 for 9. Second innings: 279 for 2: Cook got a hundred as the game crawled to an inevitable draw. I wasn’t there to see the end. A final day spent lounging on the beach had more appeal than this sort of cricket: 5 days, 1628 runs, just 17 wickets.
I believe that cricket is at its best when there is an even contest between bat and ball. I accept that preparing a pitch is not an exact science and that even the best groundsman cannot guarantee the perfect pitch, but if there must be variation from the ideal then let it be in favour of the bowler, please.
I also believe that batsmanship involves not only skill and judgment, but also courage; physical courage. Not all the time, but often enough to identify those who haven’t got it and to elevate the status of those who have. This is no less true of club cricket than of county or test cricket. We all know who the wusses are on our own team!
I love cricket, but the sort of game we saw in Barbados, where batsmen smash helpless bowlers for meaningless centuries, is boring, boring, boring. Even when they do it with the style and finesse of a Sarwan, it’s still boring, ultimately. Grace and beauty are a by-product of cricket played well, not the reason for playing the game.
Nor do you have to go to the West Indies to see this barren sort of cricket. Almost any county ground will do. At Headingley the pitches are low and slow and don’t spin; boring and bad for cricket. Yorkshire have not won a 4-day game there for almost two seasons, and we haven’t lost many, either.
I’m not advocating a return to the old days when batsmen used to break fingers all the time – but bowlers are people too, so give them a place of work that isn’t a torture chamber.
Elsewhere it is even worse. Taunton. Don’t get me going about bloody Taunton! Somerset should be docked 25 points every time they play there. Edgbaston is the same, I’m told, though I didn’t experience the place in 2009.
Even the grounds where we won – Basingstoke and Hove – gave us slow pitches. However, there was some turn on the 4th day for Rashid and Wainwright, and both games produced memorable performances with bat and ball. It was sub-continental cricket, I suppose, and not ideal, but it was better than the usual Headingley exercise in tedium.
I understand there’s a valid counter-argument. Even in Barbados there was one bowler, Fidel Edwards, who managed to shake up the batsmen. He was let down by lack of support from the other end and by the useless West Indian fielding. It was rightly said that the old great four-pronged West Indies attack would have caused the England batsmen problems and would probably have been able to win the game, even on that strip of rolled plasticene.
So I don’t believe the bowlers should be spoon-fed all the time. But come on, you groundsmen, give the poor devils something to smile about from time to time.
Because you’re strangling the life out of the best game ever invented.
In India vs WI, If David Wainwright can consider himself unlucky to be in the same Yorkshire squad as Adil Rashid, Yorkshire can consider themselves highly fortunate that he is. As after several years where Wainwright’s path to a regular place has been blocked, it now looks like he’s flourishing into a genuine all-rounder just as ‘Team England’ are about to drag Adil off never to be seen again.
As with Bairstow, we need to temper our expectation, but the century at home to Warwickshire, made when he came into bat at 99/7, and the impressive 85 not out at Hove, have proved the maiden first class century from the final match of last season was no flash in the pan. Wainwright it seems is a batsman of some skill – this late season innings against Sussex was played with a fluency of shot that frankly embarrassed some of those already back in the pavilion. Perhaps more importantly, he‘s also a batsman with a tendency to play his best innings when his side are in greatest need.
There might be some in the Yorkshire backroom staff who’ve taken notice of the way Hampshire have developed the batting of their own slow left armer, Liam Dawson. But whilst Wainwright is more than capable of playing higher in the order than he has this season, we need to bear in mind his bowling remains the prime asset to us, as the word from Hampshire is that Dawson is now regarded as a batsman who bowls rather than the other way around.
Next year should see a further step up in Wainwright’s career. There can certainly be no more excuse for him not be to an ever present in the one-day side, his exclusion this summer from teams containing six bowlers was inexplicable enough. Similarly, only a combination of early season wickets and the brief appearance of Rashid from England duty can keep him out of our championship side now, surely?