Friday, 4 May 2018

SSCC Round Three: Talking Points

Finally…Chef delivers an early season treat 
While the rain persists and batting conditions continue to ask probing questions of some of the world’s finest batters, Alastair Cook finally got to spend some meaningful time out in the middle against a strong Hampshire attack. Former Test players Kyle Abbott and Fidel Edwards opened up the examination with the new ball and Cook predictably grew in confidence the more time he spent at the crease.
The familiar cut shots were evident, along with the nurdles off the pads, and it’s always pleasing to see Cook moving into the ball and driving through the offside. It’s a big summer coming up for England’s record Test run-scorer and he’ll have two more County Championship games against Yorkshire and Worcester to regain further confidence ahead of facing former Essex teammate Mohammad Amir in the opening Test against Pakistan.
The other rather light-hearted talking point from Essex’s rain-affected draw against Hampshire was the sight of Australian Peter Siddle running in to bowl while sporting a beanie hat! Early in the domestic season we have become accustomed to seeing hand warmers stored away in the fielders’ trouser pockets and several layers being worn in an attempt to ward off any threat of hypothermia, but a beanie? Surely that’s a touch excessive! Ok, this may not be Victoria-type temperatures but a big burly quick should be able to cope with a chill in the air after running in for a couple of overs.
Renshaw shows how to combat early season conditions
There were two contrasting performances from the overseas players at Taunton, where Somerset’s Matt Renshaw continues to capture the attention of the Australian selectors back home following on from his 101 not out in the Cidermen’s first game and his first innings for the club. Worcester were the side put to the sword in that game and this time it was Yorkshire, with Somerset winning their second game to become the only side in Division One with a 100% record.
With plenty in the pitch for the bowlers at Taunton, Renshaw blazed away and reached three figures before the players had sat down to lunch! It was perhaps a premeditated strategy and a hugely skillful attack from a batsman more likely to produce a more traditional and watchful openers’ innings rather than a Virender Sehwag style assault.
If it was a bid to neutralise conditions and assert some pressure back onto the bowlers it certainly paid off and set Somerset up for a 118-run victory despite being bowled out in that first innings for just 216. That Renshaw was back opening the batting for the second time before the end of the opening day’s play (day two as day one was lost completely) says all you need to know about the quality of his innings.
Ball back in the swing of things
After a dispiriting winter for Jake Ball it is heartening to see how he’s bounced back at the start of this domestic season. No bowler has taken more than the 21 scalps he’s claimed with another seven being added in the latest match against Division One strugglers Worcestershire. It was always likely to be a battle for the Pears as they were consigned to another thumping defeat, this time by an innings and 41 runs. This was Ball’s second five-fer of the season, even the usually stubborn and obdurate Daryl Mitchell couldn’t guard against losing his off pole on the final day from a beautiful full delivery from Ball.
There’s no question the Notts quick possesses all the attributes to return to the international scene. His pace and bounce was expected to trouble the Aussies in the Ashes but he wasn’t fully fit in the first Test, before being discarded for virtually the rest of the winter. Ball will have been keen to regain some much needed confidence at the start of the season. He couldn’t have started much more impressively, albeit in favourable bowling conditions, and he will certainly be hoping to make up for lost time.
Things can only improve for Northants
Northants would have been hoping to go one step further this season and make it into one of the top two spots, but the campaign has not started as they may have expected. Tough games against Middlesex and Warwickshire have seen them beaten comprehensively and they didn’t manage a solitary delivery in the recent clash with Durham. A five-point abandonment does nothing to resurrect their season at this admittedly early stage.
Signs are good for Leicestershire’s bid for improvement
Leicestershire continue to threaten improvement and the signs do look good under Paul Nixon’s watchful and enthusiastic leadership, but the weather dashed any hopes of an early season triumph. Colin Ackermann’s good form continued with a brisk 65 against Derbyshire’s more potent attack this year, to go with his opening knock of 186 in a hard fought draw against Sussex in their first game. A reliable presence at number three should give Nixon’s men some solidity at the top of the order.  
Heartbreak for TRJ but a new story begins
News of Toby Roland-Jones being out with a recurrence of the stress fracture that ruled him out of the Ashes series was obviously hugely disappointing for all cricket supporters. It has, however, given a chance to the talented Tom Barber to make his first-class debut for Middlesex.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for the left-arm paceman since appearing for the England Under-19’s (Barber is now 22), he was released from Hampshire at the end of the 2015 season and worked with the former Essex opening batsman Paul Pritchard while representing minor-counties side Dorset. After a spell with MCC Young Cricketers, having no doubt soaked up some more than handy tips from the former fiery quick Steve Kirby, Barber impressed Middlesex sufficiently to offer him a chance last season.
The game in which he made his debut will be instantly forgettable for most, only 58 overs were bowled in the entire game with Glamorgan, Barber delivering five economical overs. He will have learnt plenty from the experienced Tim Murtagh who picked up all four of the Glamorgan wickets to fall, the youngster doesn’t have far to look for county bowling role models.
(As seen on

Monday, 23 April 2018

A T20 alternative ? Surely not necessary

I understand that the ECB feel the need to differentiate their new competition, that is due to get underway in 2020, but to reduce the proposed T20 format down to 100 balls a side ? Surely this is a gimmick gone too far!

While England's domestic T20 tournament has lost significant ground when comparing it with the success of similar competitions around the world - the IPL and the Big Bash in particular - the new proposal of 16.4 overs per side (with the option of a final 10 ball over) seems less ground breaking and more head scratching.

The T20 Blast has sufficient interest and quality of cricket in which to build upon, but a similar tournament run alongside it may seem like overkill, despite the eight-franchise idea. It's a desperate attempt to harness interest from the UK public (mums and kids according to Andrew Strauss) and the watching world as the ECB want to be seen as acting upon and taking advantage of a possible new craze. In reality they are finding a solution to the broadcasters request to slot in a game conducive to the requisite time allowance.

I have no doubts there were similar gripes from many cricket followers when the T20 was first discussed but this idea isn't as outlandish or as full of intrigue, it's a further gimmick on a gimmick and frankly holds little interest to me.

There is nothing wrong with thinking outside the box, but it needs to add something ultimately significant or fascinatingly alternative to the game, the players and the watching public rather than simply confusing all concerned and any potential newcomers to the sport with yet another format.

Then comes the question of how all this affects the County Championship ? Already marginalised in the county calendar, will the four-day format become even more of an afterthought in the marketing meetings at the ECB headquarters ?

Despite so many questions and uncertainty over the structure of county cricket there is still so much to enjoy and admire, especially in the longer format. Plenty of counties now show live streams of the Championship fixtures which is so appealing to many county cricket fans but this format must remain a vital competition despite the lack of funds it may bring in.

We have some outstanding cricketers on these shores this season for all the formats. There isn't too much wrong with our domestic game but we need to ensure the right decisions and changes are made in the upcoming years for the right reasons.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

SA need to assert themselves

There is no doubting Australia dominated the opening Test of what should prove to be a most captivating battle between them and South Africa, even if the numbers through the gate do not depict what is undoubtedly a highly-anticipated clash.

The additional bonus is that we are treated to a series of four Test matches, which are not common place these days in an era where schedules are being devised with the intention to decrease the amount of Test cricket. With a four-Test series it allows individual battles to develop as the
teams learn about technical and mental deficiencies, players poke and prod at opponents hoping to identify and exploit any kind of weakness with which to pounce and use against them in the upcoming Tests. That this Test ignited almost immediately intimates that Australia may have premeditated such a theory and reminds South Africa they cannot afford to be as
passive as they were at various times throughout this Kingsmead opener. That Australia wanted the stump microphones turned down so you couldn't detect what was being said is a strong indicator they were planning on hitting the hosts hard.

The David Warner and Quinton de Kock altercation was a regrettable incident. Warner is never shy at initiating a word or two with the opposition, especially when they are under extreme pressure, de Kock will have felt the strain following a poor run of form resulting in South Africa opting to include an extra batsman at six, consequently dropping de Kock back down to a more familiar spot in the order. The content of the exchange will largely remain unknown, with claims that each player resorted to personal insults, something Warner is no stranger to.

Nathan Lyon effected the final act of the run out of the hugely-important AB de Villiers in the second innings before petulantly dropping the ball onto de Villiers, an act that may have provoked a more hostile response from other players, de Villiers impressively managed to keep his emotions in check.
You wonder if a more fiery character, such as a Ben Stokes for example, would have been quite so understanding, or indeed whether Lyon would have acted in that fashion in the first place!

That run out also saw Warner barking helpful words of encouragement in the direction of the highly- impressive Aiden Markram, perhaps the catalyst for the antics later on that day between Warner and de Kock. 

Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazelwood have also all been exceptionally vocal, they sense this South African batting line-up can be brittle, are prone to more than the odd collapse so are heaping further pressure onto them. 

This Australia side are a supremely confident group of players, and why shouldn't they be. The Ashes performances strengthened the belief they had in themselves if they can get their strongest bowling attack fit and out on the pitch consistently. They know they can bowl any side out in the world twice which in turn offers confidence to the batsmen. Not that Steve Smith or David Warner are struggling for confidence, while the returning Marsh brothers are feeling much more at home in Test cricket these days. 

However, verbal intimidation or mental disintegration, or whatever you wish to call it - some even refer to it as 'bullying' - has to be stood up to. South Africa need to meet this aggressive approach head on, that isn't to say they need unleash a torrent of expletives that will only hit them in the pocket and see the award of demerit points or suspensions, but they need to demonstrate they are up for this challenge, in fact, that they want this confrontation and they cannot be intimidated. Currently, they are perhaps too accepting of the Australia behaviour, maybe the de Kock incident will fire them up. 

South Africa have determined and inwardly-tough cricketers, no doubt, but a number of them appear generally quiet mild-mannered individuals and you wouldn't want any forced aggression that they wouldn't be comfortable with. As a team they need to announce themselves in this series. Back in 2005 when England were clear underdogs (unlike South Africa in this series) the importance was clear - they had to stand in the faces of the great Australian side and let them know they weren't there to lie down. 

The first chance England had they all climbed into Matthew Hayden, Simon Jones and Paul Collingwood led the charge and others followed. It wasn't distasteful or crossing the line, it was a sign of intent, they were not going to be intimidated, they obtained Australia's attention, they simply meant business. 

South Africa need to show a similar act of defiance. The partnership on the fourth day between Markram and de Kock was as competitive a period as South Africa showed throughout the Test - but that came at a stage when the Test had all-but certainly drifted away from them. 

As the series rolls on to Port Elizabeth South Africa will need to put down an early marker. Upsetting David Warner is neither against the rules nor particularly difficult - but it is a worthwhile attempt to distract him, same for Steve Smith. This isn't about petty name calling, this is about South Africa not taking a backward step, showing unity in battle (in a cricketing sense), making the two Australian batsmen feel alone out in the middle and like they're up against 11 players. They have a high quality bowling attack to create or relish in this kind of environment. 

Intense cricket between these two nations is not something new, they have history, in 2014 current South African captain Faf du Plessis likened Michael Clarke's Australia side to 'a pack of dogs' as they rounded on him when the batsmen went to pick up the ball to return to the fielding side. Du Plessis needs to instil some mongrel into his side if they are to avoid being walked over in this series. 

Ultimately the side that plays the better cricket consistently will decide the outcome in this most intriguing clash - but in a series of small margins any slight advantage could be crucial. How can the future of Test cricket be in doubt ?

Lawrence injury adds to Essex batting concerns

As Tom Westley edges closer to a full recovery following his finger injury back in December while on tour in Australia with the England Lions, another Essex batsman has been struck down with an injury to a similar area.

Daniel Lawrence has been ruled out of the remainder of the England Lions tour of the West Indies with a fractured hand picked up during net practice ahead of the Lions third Test against West Indies 'A', where Lawrence was expected to make his first appearance of the series.

It was supposed to be a winter where Westley, 28, pressed his claims for a recall to the England Test side, but while fielding against a Queensland Select XI disaster struck. Surgery was required and a  three-month lay-off meant he never travelled with the Lions to the Caribbean  a tour where he will have been keen to impress and show his talent following a period in the Test side where he encountered one or two technical difficulties.

Despite his examination during the English summer, Westley could still have considered himself unfortunate to have missed out on the Ashes squad; he didn't conclusively accept the opportunity he was given in the Test side, nor did he look utterly out of his depth and with no obvious or outstanding candidate to replace him perhaps some favourable selection consistency could have seen him retain his place.

In order to get more Test matches for England Westley will now have to display evidence that he has overcome the issues with playing across his front pad without losing what is an obvious strength in playing through the mid-wicket area. He needs time at the crease which he has been denied this winter due to the unfortunate injury.

On the plus side for Essex, the man that signed a new two-year deal in October will know exactly what he'll need to do when the season gets underway to recapture England's attention and that is score heavily for his county. A man with a point to prove can be a dangerous proposition.

Daniel Lawrence is a batsman of undoubted potential, this Lions trip was to be another stage in his development. He was unfortunate to miss out on the starting XI for the opening Test of the current series in Jamaica; scores of 2 and 35 in the warm-up game against a Jamaica XI weren't enough to convince the selectors to include him ahead of Worcester's Joe Clarke who made a second innings 87 in the warm-up fixture to pip Lawrence to the spot.

If Lawrence is not quite in the running for being 'the next cab off the rank', he's certainly working towards that group of contenders. In Essex's Championship winning season last year, only Nick Browne scored more than his 761 runs which included three centuries. In terms of temperament, 20-year old Lawrence could make a case for already being there, he has the discipline to bat unflustered for long periods but this hand injury is indeed an unwanted setback meaning he'll also miss the one-day series against West Indies 'A'. The full extent of the injury or recovery time required is yet to be confirmed but it may be a race against time to prove his fitness ahead of the start of the County Championship. 

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Meaker aims to hit the ground running

Surrey's Stuart Meaker is a bowler that generates plenty of pace, at 29 hopes of an England Test call-up diminish with each niggle; the injuries are considered simply part of the job for a quick bowler but he’s had worse luck than most in this area. Consequently he is ideally suited to short bursts to protect his body and to ensure he can maintain the high speeds and intimidatory spells that marked him out as England’s next genuine quick bowler during his formative years. Following recent career decisions from Adil Rashid and Alex Hales, you may think you know what’s coming next...but you'd be wrong.

Meaker isn't heading off down the one-day glamour route but instead he has signed for New Zealand side Auckland Aces for the whole month of March in a bid to get some overs in competitive first-class cricket under his belt. Auckland will be hoping it will improve their chances of topping the Plunket Shield table, they currently sit third and Meaker will be available for four of their five remaining  games including a big clash at home to second placed Central Districts. A successful period and he should be ready to hit the ground running when Surrey get underway on 20th April against Hampshire at the Oval.

The opportunity arose on the back of a recommend from team-mate Sam Curran who represented Auckland in their T20 competition (Super Smash) that concluded in January this year. 

It's a brave move from both Surrey and Meaker by opting for an intense month of first-class cricket just weeks before the season begins, this  for a player that has been hampered throughout his career with various injuries. He has averaged just under eight County Championship games a season for Surrey in the last five years and Surrey will hope if he is more cricket-hardened then they will reap rewards in terms of him maintaining fitness and gaining  improved consistency with his performances.

Pace bowlers will inevitably pick up strains and twinges along the way, but a fully fit and firing Stuart Meaker can be such a useful weapon for Surrey and they surely believe this is an opportunity to try and get the best out of the Surrey quick.

Last season was tough on the whole for Meaker; his 21 wickets came at a cost in excess of 41 per wicket and while it's generally accepted that the quick bowler may at times be expensive, his strike rate of a wicket near enough every 10 overs must be improved upon in 2018. 

With that in mind a month blowing away the cobwebs and roughing up a few batsmen in the Plunket Shield seems like ideal preparation in what could be a big year for Stuart Meaker. 

County Championship Exodus Continues

Adil Rashid initiated the path for county cricketers to turn their back on first-class cricket for their counties and sign a strictly white-ball only contract. Nottinghamshire's Alex Hales has wasted no time in following Rashid down this route signing a one-day cricket only contract to the end of the 2019 season.

It seems that opinion is divided on this and maybe it's a generational thing to think that shunning the first-class game shows a disregard for what is the most challenging and testing format but ultimately one that surely gives most satisfaction when you achieve success. Perhaps it's easier to quit than continue the demands of the County Championship and force your way back into England's plans. This would require demonstrating less attractive skills such as consistency, discipline, patience in a less glamorous environment than the packed houses that T20 cricket and certain 50-over fixtures bring. 

Both respective counties, in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, are willing (if not entirely happy) to offer these specialist contracts to their players as they don't want to lose what they both bring to their limited-overs side. With a national focus on the upcoming World Cup in 2019, it seems England have given their approval for players to sacrifice their inclusion in the first-class squads to work on their skills to help England claim the World Cup on home turf. 

An improvement in one-day skills for Hales and Rashid (if their performances are enhanced by this choice) should open the gates for more lucrative opportunities. You certainly can't blame players for attempting to maximise their earning potential, it's just difficult to see how they can do so by not playing the game. They will have the chance to rest the body and I'm sure obtain mental relaxation that comes with a spell away from the game.

Realistically, they could ultimately end up getting paid more for doing less work ? So in theory it sounds like a logical step. Many county players and pundits have taken to social media to condone the decision the players have taken and fully understand why they are doing it but the overriding concern is for the first-class game itself. It would be unfair to say that limited-overs cricket is the easy option; the formats still require huge amounts of skill whatever your discipline is, but you can see how it may be more appealing. It's akin to being the weekend parent that allows you to do all the fun stuff with the kids rather than setting the daily parameters and principles which is fundamentally crucial to their development.   

What irks me is that these are not players at the dying embers of their careers; Hales is 29 years old and Rashid turned 30 in the last week and both could conceivably still forge Test careers. Whether England have told Rashid, or Hales, that Test selection is unlikely and they are looking at alternative options, the heavy weight of runs or wickets for your club presses your claim for a spot more than anything else. Hales is a top or middle-order batsman and Rashid on his day a match-winning spinner, England are on the lookout for players to nail down such spots in the Test side! 

It is also a touch late in the day to be informing their clubs they wish to play no part in the County Championship. One can only think that the club have been made aware of their intentions for some time but delayed the announcement or the finishing touches to the contracts have taken some time. 

There remains a concern and a likelihood that there are more to follow, but for most County Championship supporters they will be hoping sense prevails. The one man that you would expect to opt for a contract containing similar conditions is Eoin Morgan, but this week he has stated his desire to start the County Championship season with Middlesex. Morgan's last first-class appearance came back in July 2015 where he bagged a pair against Somerset, so he has effectively, without signing a contract or making an announcement to confirm, temporarily retired from that form of cricket to an extent. Until this season of course, providing he gets selected. 

Whichever side of the fence you sit on for this debate, one thing is clear and that is that the ECB must do their utmost to preserve and even improve the attraction of the County Championship. The competition has to remain relevant during these changing times, the product on offer should be sufficient to be able to market its captivation and importance but if the quality of the product starts to deteriorate further then things will become much more difficult. 

Rashid shuns first-class cricket

It seems a strange time to take a break from first-class cricket in order to focus on white ball cricket for the 2018 season, and perhaps beyond, but that is the decision that Adil Rashid reached and announced to the cricket world last week. 

Firstly, if Rashid has completely lost the passion and interest for the longer game then there is clearly no point, from a Yorkshire perspective, to continue selecting him for the Championship and making him play if his heart is clearly not in it. Only Rashid will know if this is the case and it's difficult therefore to say he's making a mistake. It is however still a huge surprise to me that he's made this decision. 

He has failed to be signed by an IPL franchise, which would have clashed with the start of the Championship, nor has he been picked up by a Pakistan Super League side for another T20 tournament that concludes on 25th MarchSo he will effectively be twiddling his thumbs (he's been on enough England tours to realise how frustrating that can be) following the one-day leg of the tour in New Zealand until the start of June when the domestic 50-over competition gets underway. 

I personally don't see what he hopes to gain by not playing four-day cricket, or any competitive cricket at the start of the season. Surely he can only develop so much in the nets or on the practice wickets and even though the Championship schedule is hectic he could have made time for some specific one-day cricket training if he wanted that to be his primary focus. I'm sure Yorkshire would have preferred a compromise rather than completely rule him out as a viable option for the County Championship. 

It is a shame for the Championship as a spectacle to lose a player of this obvious talent with both bat and ball. It is a shame for Yorkshire to lose an important player who will have been integral to their plans in four-day cricket  this season. It is even a shame for batsmen looking to develop their skills against quality spin bowling and they would certainly have been tested by the Yorkshire twirler.  

It may be that he feels hard done to by his inconsistent selection for England in the Test match arena, never really feeling like the main spin bowler in the team and that uncertainty and lack of trust placed in him has festered into his performances and thus produced the inconsistency that we've seen from him. He was England's top wicket-taker during his last series in India back in 2016 when he took 23 wickets but couldn't stop England slipping to a convincing 4-0 defeat. He hasn't been seen in a Test shirt since and has now watched as Mason Crane has nudged ahead of him in the pecking order. But with Crane still very much developing as a bowler and Moeen Ali coming under pressure following his dip in form during the Ashes, with the right attitude and level of performance Adil Rashid could certainly have put himself back in the mix, he is still only 29 years of age after all!

Perhaps the England selectors and skipper and club team mate Joe Root just do not see Rashid as a first-choice Test cricketer. They may have detected this lack of interest in the longer-form developing recently and have opted for alternatives to take the side forward in the future. The bizarre decision to select Liam Dawson ahead of him at the start of last summer was an unnecessary kick in the guts for Rashid. While you can understand any annoyance Rashid may have felt from that selection it should surely serve as a motivation to work harder, find that consistency in the longer form and prove the selectors wrong. 

The leg-spinner's Test record of 38 wickets at 42.78 does not demand selection. Even a first-class bowling record of over 35 does not do justice to a player that has his ability, but the fact he averages 33 with the bat in first-class cricket means he is a very useful multi-dimensional cricketer. 

I find it difficult to compute that a player ever selects 50-over cricket and T20 cricket ahead of first-class cricket and the golden ticket that is Test cricket but Rashid clearly doesn't share the same sentiment. In some countries the disparity in pay can dictate a focus on short-form cricket but in England the players are generally very well recompensed. There are continued murmurings that the likes of Jos Buttler and Eoin Morgan could consider following a similar path and I sincerely hope this is not the case, certainly for Buttler who I'm certain still has plenty to offer both Lancashire and England in the longer format. 

I guess the other case in point is whether Yorkshire should have accommodated his request to be considered solely for one-day cricket ? Loyalty to his years of service for the club may have been a consideration and the hope he will soon change his mind and return back to the four-day fray could also be behind their thinking. He is also a key player in Yorkshire's white ball teams and has found consistency in these formats much easier to come by and so Yorkshire will be exceptionally keen to retain his services for their attack on the one-day competitions. 

Time will tell if this sets a precedent for further players to follow suit and sign one-day contracts with their counties, I for one hope this is very much an exception rather than becoming the rule. 

SSCC Round Three: Talking Points

Finally…Chef delivers an early season treat  While the rain persists and batting conditions continue to ask probing questions of some of ...