County cricket: three-horse title race as Championship takes a break

Ball one: Surrey still on stream for title
The big book of sports cliches demands that you go into any break with momentum. With a near six-week hiatus in the Championship underway, that’s what title contenders Surrey, Hampshire and Lancashire did.

Surrey had to delve deep into their squad and deep into their batting order to overcome defending champions Warwickshire, whose season-long fragility was in evidence again.

Conor McKerr and an injured Jamie Overton put on 72 for Surrey’s ninth wicket securing a first-innings lead of 63. After Dom Sibley was unable to take a longer look at what will be his home surface next season, out for six in the second innings, Sam Hain, who is quietly enjoying a fine season, found a partner in his captain, Will Rhodes, and Surrey – after Kemar Roach and Jordan Clark had shot out the visitors on a frenetic day four morning – had a tricky 248 to chase.

The home team may have burned through 21 players in 11 Championship matches, but it was their three Test batters, Rory Burns, Hashim Amla and Ollie Pope, who did the bulk of the scoring, one eye on the next ball and one eye on the required rate. Will Jacks, for whom everything is bowling along nicely this season, teed off at the end to hit the sixes that secured the 22 points .

The match was not without its controversy, with key umpiring decisions provoking chatter on social media. That is, perhaps, a somewhat unforeseen consequence of the ever-improving county streams, which offer no hiding place for umpires making marginal calls. All counties’ disgruntled players can now telegraph their opinions well beyond the confines of the ground itself and a feeling grows that “something should be done” before dissent becomes more of an issue and teams develop four-day long strategies to work the umpires.

Ball two: Barker, Abbott and Abbas offer more than just wickets
Kyle Abbott and Mohammad Abbas must feel like rolling up the Scarborough pitch and tucking it into their kitbags – as the old saying has it. The two wily old operators shared 16 wickets as Yorkshire completed a double of defeats last month at North Marine Road.

Add in Keith Barker (whose batting was more needed than his bowling in this match) and the Hampshire trio have over 129 scalps between them, sitting first, fourth and sixth in Division One’s wicket-taking table for 2022.

Is this a good thing? It’s 10 years since Barker got the call from the England Lions (he is extremely unlucky not to have played for England or West Indies – for whom he is also eligible) and Abbas and Abbott are overseas players, so there’s no direct benefit to England’s international set-up.

But are they not the kind of old pros to whom younger players should be listening? On how to find the right lines and lengths for a particular strip; on how to manage workloads over a day, a match, a season; on how to work with a captain to seize the initiative when opportunity arises?

Maybe these days such responsibilities fall to the coach and their data analysts, but I’m reminded of a very young Shaun Pollock hungrily hoovering up the wisdom of Malcolm Marshall when both played for Natal. Pollock had grown up in one of the most famous cricketing families in the world, but he listened and learned from a master of the craft. I hope young bowlers still do.

Ball three: Eleven Bailey wickets leave Kent empty-handed
Lancashire, knowing that a win was imperative if they were to hold on to the coattails of the leaders, endured a poor first half to their match at home to Kent. They went into the third day with the task of knocking off a deficit of 125 on first innings and then scoring quickly enough to set a target for their bowlers – and that’s what they did.

Josh Bohannon hit a second successive second-innings century, finding excellent support from Luke Wells and Rob Jones, and part one of the plan worked out so well that stand-in skipper Steven Croft was able to declare (after a handy collapse – such things are possible) with 312 the target in 82 overs.

Cue Tom Bailey, who has something of a northern Angus Fraser (who was born Lancastrian himself) about him. He did for Zak Crawley and the tail to finish with 5-46 to add to his 6-64 first-innings haul, a career-best haul. The tall seamer made his debut 10 years ago, but has played only 83 first-class matches, all for Lancashire, in which he has taken almost 300 wickets at 24. He’s not a spectacular bowler but if there’s anything in the pitch he’ll find it. It remains a delight to watch him probe a batter’s weaknesses, test their patience and winkle out the error. Not all of our game’s finest need to shout with their talent.

Ball four: Bad day at the office for van Buuren
Northamptonshire squeaked home against Gloucestershire in a fine match at Cheltenham.

Gloucestershire skipper Graeme van Buuren had set up the late declaration with an undefeated 127 and must have seen enough in the wicket to set a gettable target of 202 in 37 overs. Pitches are not really deteriorating this season and it’s perhaps telling that the key innings for Northamptonshire was played by a South African, Ryan Rickleton, who neither knows nor cares that fourth-day pitches are supposed to be tricky.

His partnership with his captain, Kiwi Will Young, brought 109 runs in 12 overs, so they only needed a few here and there from teammates to get over the line. Despite Zafar Gohar’s spin picking up five wickets and a late wobble, Northants had their 202 in the gathering gloom with a couple of wickets to spare.

Some might use such a match as an illustration of what’s wrong with the county game; and some might use it as an illustration of what’s right.

Ball five: Pats on the back for Pattinson and Patterson
In Division Two, Nottinghamshire eased away from the chasers, stretching their lead to 40 points with a victory over Sussex that owed much to their seamers.

That bowlers win matches has been challenged by England’s “we’ll chase anything” approach to Test cricket, but the maxim held up as two Test players, James Pattinson and Dane Patterson, shared all 10 first-innings wickets, with the vastly experienced Luke Fletcher and Steven Mullaney chipping in with three between them second time around.

When the Championship returns in September on what one can expect to be squares baked for months, the key to success will be taking 20 wickets. It looks like the old guys are more likely to have the answers than the young tyros.

Ball six: A plea for sporting integrity
Three teams appear to have the pennant between them when four-day cricket returns in the autumn. It is disappointing that Hampshire and Surrey will meet only once this season, with no match scheduled at the Ageas Bowl, and that Surrey will face Lancashire for the first and only time in the last week of September (in Manchester!). Hampshire will also play Lancashire just the once this season.

Such anomalies are inevitable with 10 teams playing a 14-match season. Steve Harmison made the point that all the counties knew their fixture list when the season started, so should just get on with it, but I don’t think that’s the issue for fans, whose voices are largely drowned out by ex-players employed by broadcasters with huge investments in international and franchise cricket. We want a competition with sporting integrity – and that means that in any division, all play all, home and away. It isn’t too much to ask and should be the starting point for any fixture list for 2023 and beyond.