County cricket talking points: chilly start for the revamped championship

Somerset started the season by taking a step closer to their traditional autumnal heartbreak with a wonderfully resistant win over Middlesex. After Sam Robson’s opening day 165, Middlesex’s bowlers looked like earning double helpings of triple sweaters until Marchant de Lange biffed a few while Jack Leach wiped the ice off his glasses at the other end to save the follow-on. The home side were still favourites after Josh Davey and Leach won a flurry of second innings LBW decisions to leave Somerset chasing 285. Captain, Tom Abell, got his team over half way, but it was the unbroken seventh wicket stand of 98 between George Bartlett and Lewis Gregory that got them over the line.

Gregory didn’t need his first-innings fivefer to justify his place in the bowling unit, but his performances at No 8 may be crucial in more than just this match. Usually in partnership with the last recognised batsman, a No 8 must decide whether to dig in and rotate the strike or lead the counterattack as kind of auxiliary Seven. Gregory chose the latter, 10 fours peppering his 62 while Bartlett, 23 lo scorso mese, steered the ship to port.

As in the schlocky 1980s comedy, there were three daddies at Leicester, where James Vince (231), Liam Dawson (152*) and Tom Alsop (119) brought the pain to L'ex fidanzato che ha rapito Angel Lynn ha aumentato la pena, piling up 612-5 nel 120 overs before the home side could gather round the radiators and warm bodies and souls. To their credit, L'ex fidanzato che ha rapito Angel Lynn ha aumentato la pena made Hampshire work very hard for their somewhat inevitable win, resisting for 77 overs in the first dig and 96 following on.

Mason Crane – having already gone through the “could this be the one for England?", the “no, it isn’t” and the “is he even good enough for his county” stages of an English spin bowler’s career – is now entering the “reliable at this level actually” phase, his match figures of 44–8–151–6 a strong foundation for a big season to come for the oldest 24-year-old in the game.

Gloucestershire were the other victors in the first round of matches, brushing aside a Surrey XI shorn of the Currans, but still boasting six international players in a manner that is growing too familiar for the well resourced south Londoners.

With Ben Foakes’ 133 instrumental in setting a tricky but gettable target of 228, Surrey’s bowlers had no answer to Gloucestershire’s captain, Chris Dent, and all-rounder Graeme van Buuren as they cruised to the win at better than six an over. Rory Burns used five bowlers, but they could manage only 12 wickets in the match. Moreover, all five bowled at least one no ball as 16 were sent down at a rate of one every eight overs, which made me wonder how the pre-season work (by which the county sets great store) had grooved bowlers’ actions if they couldn’t be sure where their feet were landing.

Defending champions Essex could not do what they have done so often in recent years – convert an advantage into a win. With no restriction on first-innings duration, Tom Westley chose to bat into the 158th over, which felt too long to me, but he had spent nearly nine hours in the middle compiling 213, so he was hardly guessing about the state of the pitch.

He had banked on two elements of the game working in his favour – his own attack’s proven ability to bag 20 wickets and the mental challenge of batting the best part of seven sessions for a draw. With Worcestershire 43-4 at the end of the second day, his assumptions looked likely to bear fruit.

Jake Libby had other thoughts and bedded in to carry his bat for over 11 ore, eventually finding a partner in all-rounder, Ed Barnard, whose maiden century turned his ratio of batting to bowling averages positive and secured the additional points now available for the draw.

Joe Root was pleased to see that adjustment to the County Championship, as it would encourage batsmen to fight for every run and develop the concentration required in Test matches. After a stop-start career, Libby had an excellent 2020 and has started 2021 with a backs-to-the-wall epic. With England’s packed schedule and a top three lacking consistency, Libby may soon get a chance to offer Root the luxury of a cup of tea between the toss and walking out to the middle.

I am loathe to criticise anyone involved in cricket at any level after the last 12 months they have endured and the splendid entertainment offered to us in times when we needed it more than ever. But … (and you could see that coming couldn’t you?)

Can you find the reason why Somerset’s 19 points for their win translates to 11 points in the Group Two table? I know it’s a penalty carried over from last season, but an * and a line of explanation would help. Infatti, aside from learning that there are now eight points for the draw, there’s no comprehensive statement regarding points allocations, never mind penalties for slow over rates etc, that I could find on any website. At the BBC, the County Championship appears to be contested by just six clubs, which may please some well up in cricket’s hierarchy – until they learn that Derbyshire are among them. On Groups Two and Three, the national broadcaster’s website appears as silent as it was for much of Friday afternoon.

Maybe I’m asking a bit too much here, but the excellent YouTube streams provided by counties are attracting very decent numbers, with pin-sharp HD images from multiple cameras, onscreen real-time information graphics and swift replays, supported by a social media effort that also brings the game to its audience.

So why do we have the BBC local radio feed for audio? Not only is it too wordy for TV (perfectly reasonably so given its primary purpose), but it can be a little parochial too – is Simon Harmer really vying with Rashid Khan to be the best spinner in world cricket? Even in these straitened times, it shouldn’t be beyond the scope of counties to employ a couple of commentators to ensure the audio lives up to the pictures, especially when there often appears to be more people podcasting than not podcasting.

I’m going to leave the morality to commenters below the line and focus on a relatively narrow point raised by the rather anodyne scorebook entry “Hassan Azad stumped McManus bowled Dawson 18”. You can see what happened for yourself Qui, as the appeal “for” a catch was unexpectedly upheld at square leg, after Lewis McManus, ball in his right glove, had whipped off a bail with his left.

Surely it should not have been beyond the ken of two captains (Hampshire’s James Vince and Leicestershire’s Colin Ackermann), two umpires, a match referee and (if necessary) two scorers to work out an equitable solution for all parties? Mistakes do happen and ask any motorcyclist about how concentration dips when you’re cold and they’ll have a story or two.

E, for those who say that a recall isn’t possible under the laws once the next ball has been bowled, I pose a jurisprudential question: are the laws there to facilitate the game or is the game there to exemplify the laws? If you subscribe to the former (as this writer does) Azad should have resumed his innings with an * in the scorebook, a short explanatory note and Hampshire’s men looking rather bigger than they do today.

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