There is little more exciting than that period at 10:30 in the morning, with whichever free stream you’ve chosen to use (the counties are streaming all their long-format games for free on Youtube), seeing which players have been given the opportunity to not only play for their county, but push for a potential England spot.
I chose Somerset vs Middlesex, as a Somerset supporter, but a lot of the matches had a great deal of intrigue, and it did not disappoint.
Essex drew against Worcestershire, after the bowlers really struggled to make an impact at Chelmsford, something we haven’t seen for a few years now. Some superb counter-batting from Durham and a typically stubborn Nottinghamshire performance meant a draw at Trent Bridge too.
Rain affected a very defensive affair between Warwickshire and Derbyshire, also meaning a draw. An inspired Gloucestershire fight against the clock earned them a hugely valuable win against Surrey. Hampshire utterly dominated Leicestershire. Somerset pulled off a remarkable comeback to secure a valuable win against Middlesex at Lord’s. Rain affected Lancashire’s game against Sussex, doomed for a draw from the start as bowlers struggled to find movement.
A similar story was found in Northamptonshire, as both them and Kent struggled to find wickets in the early season game. Snow affected quite a curious tie between Glamorgan and Yorkshire, which also ended a draw.
It is the first year in a few I remember so many draws on the opening day. Usually, pitches are still green from the spring and seam bowlers feast on the copious sideways movement available, as well as the odd silly shot. Given England’s batting frailties in the longest format, it is exciting to see so many players scoring runs right from the get-go, particularly given that more Englishmen than ever have travelled to India to play in the IPL. Anyway, onto my team of the week:
- Sam Robson – There’s a reason it’s such a tall order to get onto the Lord’s honours board. There is a lot of sideways movement even at the best of times, with its natural slope aiding the fast bowler, but at the start of the season, it is bowling heaven. Somerset bowled beautifully in the morning, but couldn’t remove the effervescent Sam Robson. Middlesex’s second highest scorer in the first innings was a bowler who scored 26, but Robson just did his job, defending the balls to defend and jumping on anything overpitched, timing the ball with effortless ease. Anything near his legs went for four, forcing the bowlers to bowl away from the stumps. Those deliveries he watched so carefully, scoring 165 as Somerset tried 6 elite championship bowlers at him. Bear in mind that Somerset and Essex are most probably the two best bowling sides in the championship, making this innings even more impressive. The main thing was that no one came close to this in the whole game, despite Middlesex’s loss. Tom Abell scored 84, but the bite in the pitch was deteriorating at this point. Robson batted at the hardest point, and did so with regal aplomb.
- Jake Libby – Chasing 340 just to avoid the follow-on against the best team in the championship in the last two years is a daunting prospect. It is furtherly daunting when you’re still at the crease and your team is 43/4. Jake Libby, only in his second year at Worcestershire after Nottinghamshire released him, played a steady, mature and brilliant innings to bring the game to a draw. Jamie Porter, steadily consistent for Essex, took 1/99. Simon Harmer, the championship’s leading wicket taker in the last two years, took 3/123, simply because Jake Libby kept them out. His 180* took him 496 balls as Essex had no answer for his solid defence and watchful eye. This provided the base for other batsmen to push on, too. Although it was hardly flashy, it was stubbornly brilliant, truly reminiscent of that 2011 Rahul Dravid knock in its class and style. He batted for 11 and a half hours, which is, simply, extraordinary.
- Tom Westley – When Alastair Cook went early I worried that Essex may not keep up against Worcestershire’s very handy bowling attack. Westley proved me very wrong, and proved my estimations of him wrong in the process. He easily navigated Joe Leach, a nightmare to face on green English tracks, to a double century oozing class. Ably supported by his middle order, Westley starred the show, scoring beautifully through the leg side like he’s always done, but showing his frailties outside off are behind him. He came in at 30/1, when he was out, Essex were on 461. Simply sublime.
- David Bedingham – Boy have Durham needed a player like this, for a few years now. Bedingham fills the role in their team that hasn’t been filled since the Borthwick/Benkenstein/Collingwood era bolstered their ranks. He is in this team not off the back of one innings, but two. He came in at 5/2 on a Trent Bridge morning where, predictably, Jake Ball had a seam wobbling, and hit a 50 with very elegant strokeplay, counter-attacking. It was the second innings, however, that was the star of the show. Once again coming in at 5/2, Bedingham struck 180* off just 228 balls in a declaration innings, turning the game from one that Nottinghamshire felt in to a game they had to fight to survive. Alex Lees and David Bedingham could just give Durham the boost they urgently need this season.
- James Vince – Dropped early while fishing outside off, most Hampshire and England fans had horrible flashbacks at his frustrating test career, thinking it was only a matter of time before he went at another expansive drive. He certainly did that, many many times. However, he seemed to find the middle at every given opportunity. Leicestershire threw the kitchen sink at James Vince, and he threw it back twice as hard. He top-scored this week, plundering 231 off 220 balls, scoring 36 fours for his troubles. It wasn’t just his off-side exploits (which we all know so well…) that did the talking, he looked devastating through the leg side, and showed ability all around the wicket. Leicestershire looked tired, Vince looked hungry.
- Liam Dawson – despite some controversy in a wicket, Liam Dawson supported James Vince ably. After a string of horror injuries, Dawson wasn’t even certain to start this year, particularly due to Felix Organ’s emergence, but he showed the talent that almost feels forgotten in the wake of his long absences. 152* off 139 balls is just brutal in the opening few days of a season, and some big sixes showed his range-hitting ability. He did only take one wicket with the ball, but he is the second choice spinner behind the young Mason Crane, so this isn’t a major concern for Hampshire. Although Leicestershire aren’t the strongest side, what an imposing start it was for Hampshire, who sit on the most points in the season thus far.
- Tom Moores (wk) – Taking four catches in the match is a good haul to begin the season for Moores. The wicket-keeper/batsman has been touted for some time, partly due to his father’s keeping ability, but also due to his wristy strokeplay and elegance. Coming in at 66/5 in a game Nottinghamshire seemed to always be chasing, Moores struck 96*, scoring briskly against the high pace of Brydon Carse and pairing with Brett Hutton to drag Nottinghamshire to 267 all out. His glovework was of the highest quality too, as it often is, as he took an important catch to dismiss Bedingham in his first innings. Moores is rising stock, and keepers like Ben Foakes (who nearly made this team himself) should be looking over their shoulder.
- Ed Barnard – The growth of this Worcestershire setup over the last few years has been a delight to watch. Their core group has been at the club for many years now, and they have built their team tactically, filling the necessary gaps and creating a real force in all formats of the game. Ed Barnard is vital to all of it. The main all-rounder of the team (when Moeen Ali isn’t available) is able to change his bowling style depending on the colour of the ball he’s bowling, and can hit a long ball. His one caveat was a lack of a championship century. That caveat no longer exists. Batting with Jake Libby, Barnard hit a well made 128, not long after taking three important wickets (Nick Browne, Dan Lawrence and Paul Walter). Particularly given the position Worcestershire were in, he guided them through the follow-on total very sensibly. One real benchmark was his ability to know when to attack and when to defend, hitting 18 boundaries but staying watchful throughout. His bowling possessed all the menace that he has promised. He isn’t express pace, but his action allows for plenty of sideways movement. 3 wickets at an average of a shade over 20 is a very good effort when Essex scored 490/9.
- Lewis Gregory – There was never any doubt that Lewis Gregory would have significant impact for Somerset this year. He has been honing his limited-overs skills all winter in the BBL and PSL, working on his batting, but his red ball ability mostly stems from his accurate, seaming medium pace. He picked up 5 wickets in the first innings back, no mean feat given the bowling attack he is bowling in, and given he didn’t even take the new ball, including the key wicket of Sam Robson. The skill in his bowling was apparent as he metronomically drew false shots outside off stump, and he is one of few who has the ability to successfully vary his pace in the county game. It is not just this that gets him into my team of the week. A tough chase of 285 felt steep for a Somerset side who had been dragged to 172 all out in their first innings (by a 93 run 10th wicket partnership), but Lewis Gregory marshalled the end of the chase superbly. Abell and Bartlett scored more runs, but neither looked close to Gregory’s fluency and hunger to win the game. He hits the ball supremely hard, and it’s a mystery to me that he bats below Craig Overton in this Somerset side.
- Ben Coad – Yorkshire strangely struggled against what is perceived to be a much weaker Glamorgan side, but Ben Coad showed himself as the one shining light in a disappointingly average Yorkshire attack. Why Matt Fisher is opening the bowling above Duanne Olivier I will never know. Coad is a superb bowler; he bowls accurately and with some venom, and makes the new ball talk. He removed the key wickets of Billy Root and Dan Douthwaite in a first innings 4-wicket haul, and took 3/18 while England spinner Dom Bess bowled 0/83 in comparison. He bowled 7 overs while part-time medium pacer Harry Brook bowled 14. He is an exceptional bowler who is mismanaged by Yorkshire in their system, and I hope Steve Patterson and Duanne Olivier find their line and lengths to support his metronomic accuracy.
- Oliver Hannon-Dalby – I speak of Coad’s accuracy, but Hannon-Dalby brings that to the next level. Hannon-Dalby cleaned out the Derbyshire top order in their second innings, reducing them to 39/4, giving Warwickshire a chance after the rain hit. He bowls from a great height, and finds awkward, steepling bounce, using slopes and angles to his advantage. He doesn’t bowl express pace but he doesn’t really need to with the style that he bowls at. In a team that leaves out quality like Henry Brookes, he has to perform well but he has been Warwickshire’s premier seamer for a few years now. His skill this week was in finding his lengths straightaway, looking to draw the batsman into a false shot and succeeding as the early season jitters set into the Derbyshire top order.
Straightaway, we have a team of genuine quality. I would expect all of these players to make the team of the week at some point. Obviously, it isn’t worth getting excited over one game, but as England are playing New Zealand in June, every run will count as places (especially in the middle order) are up for grabs. Underneath I will examine England’s performers and how they’ve fared.
- Zak Crawley – Nicked off for 14 from a very regulation leave delivery from medium pacer Gareth Berg. Disappointing.
- Dom Sibley – Again nicked off, scoring 29 off 100 balls against a very average Derbyshire attack. Didn’t get a chance in the second innings before the draw.
- Rory Burns – Went early in the first innings, but got his mojo back in the second, scoring a well-made 74. Obviously needs more fluency but a very promising start.
- Haseeb Hameed – 10 runs in 2 innings. Bad haircut. Bowled twice. Less said the better.
- James Vince – mentioned above. Exceptional.
- Joe Denly – bowled for 1 and bowled 10 overs without a wicket.
- Dan Lawrence – started well against Worcestershire, scoring 46 before being trapped by the wily Barnard. Looked fluent and at times at his best. Also being used more as a bowler this year.
- Joe Root – massively outshone by his younger brother Billy. No wickets and 29 runs in 2 innings. Showed glimpses.
- Ollie Pope – struggled on his return to county cricket. 22 in the first innings supporting Hashim Amla, but a duck in the second. Seemed very trapped at the crease and not showing the freedom he usually shows.
- Craig Overton – Struggled with his lengths in the first innings but found them in the second. Hasn’t seemed to quite put that yard of pace on that was promised. Obviously will always threaten, but will he play for England? Played some gorgeous drives.
- Jack Leach – by far the best spinner on display, taking 4 wickets (on the first match of the season, this is impressive). He found turn at Lords and bowled with extreme accuracy, taking some important wickets and being used as a golden arm/old ball option. Very good knock to save Somerset’s game with Marchant de Lange at 11 too.
- Dom Bess – no wickets at all, and not much threat of one. His skill was in his batting, as has become increasingly apparent in the test arena.
- Toby Roland-Jones – How nice it was to see him playing again. Has some work to do on his movement (didn’t make the ball talk like Ethan Bamber did), but bowled with threat.
- Saqib Mahmood – took 4 wickets. Bowled with a lot of pace and varying control. Still in t20 mode?
- Ollie Robinson – Actually didn’t bowl that well for Sussex. He started well but struggled to dislodge Dane Vilas and co. Did score a valuable 50 that will certainly have caught the eye of Ed Smith
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