“Year one is about consolidation and sorting out the problems which existed previously. Year two is putting some growth into place and starting to build. Year three we might be challenging for honours.” – Stewart Regan about the three-year plan the club was working to, following the appointment of Moxon and Gough.
They say that an ability to read underlying signs can give you a greater understanding of the world. Rings on a tree indicate its age. The power surge as people put on the kettle following a popular Christmas TV programme can give a surprisingly accurate guesstimation of its final viewing figures. And how far through the season Yorkshire get before one of the membership has a stand-up row with Martyn Moxon can tell us how well the summer has gone. We made it to Scarborough last year before it happened; the final day near capitulation to Kent on 30th August, if memory serves. This year it was the 4th May. Oh dear.
Things had actually started pretty well on the pre-season tour of the UEA. Sayers appeared to have put the previous 18 month nightmare behind him, Vaughan, Lyth and Mags made runs, and the bowlers had a decent run-out. Bar the concern over Adil’s lack of match practice, the preparations had gone well.
But the reality of an opening fixture against defending champions Durham had a sobering effect. That match, with our difficulty in taking second innings wickets and the final day rearguard batting performance from our lower middle order, was to prove a template for the rest of the season. For only three times during the summer did Yorkshire manage to take 20 wickets in a match, a number far outweighed by the occasions when our youngsters had to bat us out of trouble. Such were our struggles, that the ten Championship games without victory from the end of last season were complemented by a further ten at the start of this.
That early season run of games without victory – before we finally got our act together at Basingstoke in mid August – was made all the more frustrating by so many matches starting with us gaining a significant first inning lead; made all the worse by so many ending with us fighting on the back foot. A surrendering of initiative that was mirrored in our limited overs form, where, like the ebbing of the tide, the advances made in 2008 where lost again in 2009. It felt that for much of the season we were badly underperforming.
A feeling that was accentuated by the final half dozen Championship games, where 2 wins and 4 draws produced 81 points. A tally which had it been matched over the entire summer would have seen us comfortably in second place behind Durham. Add in the success of the Academy side, which produced teenagers capable of going straight into the first team, and a second XI that swept all before it, and you wondered why we had to spend most of the summer biting our fingernails.
So why did we?
Part of the fault must lay with our top order batting. Certainly they can point at a reasonable return of runs, but that was helped by many pitches this season favouring bat over ball. So whilst we scored heavily at times on some fairly benign surfaces, we were also still prone to batting collapses that quickly threw away any initiative that had been patiently built up. The tendency for ‘one out, all out’ wasn’t helped by so many of the batsman being inconsistent during the season. Mags started well, but his form was none existent for the final twelve matches of the year. Gale started and finished the season slowly, Bairstow and Rudolph had mini dips in form, and to be honest, Vaughan never got going to start with. Only Sayers can say he scored consistently throughout the entire campaign.
You can’t expect batsmen to perform like metronomes of course, but the fluctuations of form were too marked, and lasted too long. All that was needed was for two or more of them to be off-key at the same time and the vulnerability to collapse was there to be exploited.
The struggle for wickets
As Reporter Times have mentioned, Far more of a problem though, was our difficulty in bowling out the opposition cheaply. Here a number of factors, some within our control, some outside, combined to leave us well short of the penetration needed to compete with our neighbours to the North.
A litany of dropped catches, that left our bowlers having to create a dozen or more chances to take ten wickets; a strike bowler distracted by contract negotiations for half the year; an overdue recognition that Shahzad should be given the new ball; thanks to England mismanagement, a lack of rhythm in Rashid’s bowling; an unwillingness to give in-form second teamers an opportunity; and most of all the pitches. All combined to leave us with no bowlers averaging under 30 for the first time since, well, you tell me…
Chief of all the factors working against our attack were the pitches. Little we can do about the away grounds of course, but McGrath has already talked about making Headingley more bowler friendly for next season. How easy it is for Andy Fogerty to do that over the space of a single winter is debatable, and it’s worth remembering that Gough made a similar request on his retirement. But it’s certainly a change that’s long overdue.
The question of leadership
I’ve already said in my review of Mags’ year that I don’t fully buy into all the criticism he’s taken for his captaincy. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and point out other options we could be taking in the field; there are always differing options that can be taken, that’s one the beauties of the game. But I’d be more concerned that you rarely find yourself surprised by something we do. If the observer on the boundary edge isn’t being made to think about the unfolding play in a different way, it’s hard to imagine the batsmen are either.
My concerns about our conservative approach also remain. Although, to be fair, the declaration in the home game against Sussex – setting a target of 280 from 71 overs – suggests that Mags’ natural instincts are more adventurous than his predecessor. Unfortunately if Mags does have it in him to risk defeat for the sake of victory, much of that must have been knocked out of him by the incredible run chase mounted by Somerset at Taunton. It’s to the credit of McGrath that even after that defeat it was others like Chris Read of Notts who were less interested in setting up similar run chases than he was himself.
But whether McGrath stays in the captaincy probably depends on the perception of its long term effect on his batting form. It was certainly compromised this summer, and we can’t afford for that to be an ongoing problem. These should be McGrath’s prime years as a County Championship batsman and with a young team around him he needs to score as heavily as possible. If that can only be done from back in the ranks, then so be it.
Another supporter hot-topic this year was team selection; and with good reason.
The continued experiment in limited overs cricket with a side containing only four specialist batsmen remains as perplexing as when it was first tried last season. With the majority of teams around the world resolving the need to have six or more bowling options by playing batting all-rounders, Yorkshire went the opposite route. A decision made all the more suspect by the sight of our innings being constantly undermined by the opposition’s equivalent of Mags’ military medium or Rudolph’s arm-ball leggies. Whilst the failure to select David Wainwright as one of our half-dozen bowling all-rounders was a decision that looked increasingly bizarre as the season progressed.
Meanwhile in the Championship a delicate balancing act was being performed; one where the long term need to integrate younger players vied with the short term need to avoid relegation. Praise is due for the way that players, once deemed ready for a run in the first team, are generally given understanding for the inconsistency that often accompanies inexperience. But that is balanced by the impression that once awarded a cap, a player becomes almost undroppable and that when faced with relegation the instinct to stick with experience proved too strong to be resisted.
The most obvious consequence of that approach is seen by our seam options next year. With Hoggard and Kruis now gone, much is expected of Hannon-Dalby, Sanderson and Lee, who between them have been restricted to just five championship outings. Given their success in the second team, it must have been increasingly frustrating for them to see players they convincingly bettered at that level given opportunities in other county first teams whilst they were made to wait yet further – this protectionist approach to their development needs to be proved to have been worthwhile next season.
Team in transition
So, that three year period mentioned when Moxon and Gough returned is now over. We didn’t challenge for honours this season, or even look likely too. So where are we? Well, to use a sporting cliché, we’re a team in transition.
Look back at the end of the Byas era and you’ll see just how much we’ve changed in three years. Lehmann, Gillespie, White, Vaughan, Gough and Kruis have all retired. Hoggard and Lumb moved on. In their place, Sayers, Gale, Bresnan, Shahzad and Wainwright – all aged between 24 and 26 at the start of next season – are forming a core of rapidly maturing younger players of increasing importance to Yorkshire’s future. In two or three year’s time, we could be without Rudolph, Brophy and possibly McGrath, which would leave them as the senior pros. The ones nearing the peak of their careers. The ones expected to lead the team and provide a spine of consistent performance. They need to understand the responsibility they will take on, and be prepared for it.
In the age group below there is a lot of talent: Rashid (soon to be lost to England), Lyth, Bairstow, Root, Rafiq and Ballance. Giving us plenty of batsmen, plenty of spinners and even a wicketkeeper of great promise. But Championships are won by seam bowlers above all else, which is why next season is so important for the future of the club. Bresnan and Shahzad need to continue their development, Harris prove a wise investment, and from the group of Hannon-Dalby, Lee, Sanderson and Patterson, one or more bowlers emerge capable of consistent performance. If that can be achieved, the past few years of struggle against relegation may not have been entirely wasted, as the dominance showed by the second team could be reproduced by the senior squad. It’s a lot of pressure and expectation to place on a group of inexperienced seamers, but with them lays the future of the club. Their success will determine whether Yorkshire continues to be a group of talented players forever fighting to stay in division one, or if we have truly found another golden generation.