Normality restored!

After close on two months (46 days to be precise) first class, four day county cricket (or red ball as some like to call it) returns. And with the start of ‘super-September’ as the marketeers would have us believe, so did the start of autumn or something that more closely resembled winter!

A more obscure corner of Lord’s!

And to top it all, it’s August Bank Holiday when there should be some semblance of summer left!

In Division Three Middlesex are playing Derbyshire at Lords with crowds for the first time in nearly two years (the last such match in 2019 was against Derbyshire so that’s a bit of a coincidence), and with overcast and cold conditions (it’s been sunnier and warmer on New Years Day here in the UK).

This strange cricket season now enters the phase of four rounds of county cricket to determine the Championship. In this phase the top two teams in each of the first half groupings form the first division, the third and fourth the second and so forth (try and keep up you at the back! I’ll be asking questions later!)

But what do they have to play for? In Divisions 2 and 3, there’s no prizes available just pride and a bit of cash; so I’m not clear how ‘super’ September will be for those 12 teams!

It’s clear that after such a break, and loads of one day or shorter games, players are rusty, out of form etc. Wickets are falling all over the land at fast rates and I doubt at this stage (part way through day one as I write this) many matches will need day 4 unless it rains. Forty two wickets across eight matches by mid-afternoon Day 1!

And so it is at Lord’s. Middlesex (new signing of Stoneman from Surrey opening with a three ball duck) manage to lose three wickets for 14 in twenty minutes, four for 52 before you can blink but lunch at 85/4 with White and Andersson showing some resistance. All four wickets leg before (two at each end) showing a lack of nimble footwork and a seaming ball in perfect bowling conditions!

Slowly…playing and missing became assured scoring shots!

I managed to convince two spectators (one Aussie, one American) as we chatted that matches at Lord’s are won in part by the excellence of the players lunch. Sides have often had a very poor afternoon and to see which side over-indulged on the pud after lunch!

Clearly Derbyshire, as they had to toil for over 90 minutes before Andersson fell for 53 after a stand of 105 with White. An early tea/bad light sees Middlesex at 173/5 with White 84no. He clearly has the temperament and talent for bigger and better things but with an England side where it is easier to be dropped than picked…then, of course with so many of the current side, the wrong side of 30, he could have a chance.

White acknowledges his 50 with the crowd!

The light improved after tea in time for a prompt restart and in 45 minutes before the light deteriorated again, Middlesex progressed to 218/5 with White making his first first class hundred. It’s clear why Derbyshire are here in the lowest division – the bowling lacks penetration and consistency, not enough maidens (less than 15%) to create pressure. This morning’s efforts to create havoc if not panic were not followed through.

On the other hand Middlesex showed character and resolve from their youngsters and I suppose if the batting comes off as it should, and the middle order prosper then there’s a good side brewing. Add in promising young fast bowlers and the odd spinner, then things should get better.

In other words, return to normal for Middlesex, Derbyshire and others just as the day showed that life is returning to what was ‘normal’.

Levelling up or dumbing down? Which way for the Royal London Cup?

With one day cricket seeming to be the main constituent of live cricket at the moment and has seemed so for longer than I care to remember, it does draw to a conclusion (50 over-wise) in the next week or so and for me with today’s visit to Chelmsford to witness Essex v Sussex. Essex need to force a win to stand a chance of progressing to ‘finals week’ – such is the denouement of the tournament!

With stars of the game being called into the national squad or into the T20-lite thrash, there always was a risk that this cup would dumb down – in fact, the ECB (just like Orwell’s Ministry of Truth) claimed that it would become a development tournament for better things.

Sussex have lost 12 of their squad, Essex two – so that doesn’t seem fair – either to spectators or sponsors – as they face up. Luckily only one match (so far) has succumbed to issues from the pandemic but it has never been too far from the surface.

In parts – so far as I’m drafting this in the innings break – this has been just what the ECB intended. Two youngsters from Essex – Rymmel and Khushi – have both rescued the innings and guided it towards safety. Losing both Cook and Westley for 50, in next to no time, they then added over 100 runs; both got out when established (inexperience showed) but a robust 50 from Wheater saw Essex to 321/8.

Youngsters showing how it’s done!

It will be interesting to see how this green top dries out in the sun and wind and how much purchase Harmer can gain. His doubting the umpire who gave him out leg before may not have the umpire super-disposed to Simon’s wiles! But we shall see.

At times the Sussex bowling looked to be holding its own but again inexperience showed and it was more lambs to the slaughter than it should have been. Sussex only have two well-known players (Wiese and Head) and of international standard.

Plon sprinkling magic dust for a boundary?

As time moved on, the Sussex innings, as expected, never got going although 38 from Travis Head (last seen in these blogs smashing NSW bowlers all over the Adelaide Oval in 2019) brought some hope but the challenge was just too much for a young and inexperienced Sussex who succumbed with under 100 needed!

One thing you can always rely on Sussex for…is hairstyles!

Look closely for the two-tone look!
Wiese has gone for the lockdown hairstyle!

But getting back to the competition as a whole…the format works; four home and away games each; plentiful crowds; the concept of a ‘finals’ week needs tweaking but introducing or giving debuts to 102 new players so far (that’s about six per county) is a significant level of ‘development’ being introduced.

How about limiting the number of ‘development’ players (ok, so we’re going to need a definition – say, players with less than 20 50-over matches) to provide a better balance than what we’ve seen this season? Or limiting ‘experienced’ players?

The drive for this will come when the sponsorship is due for renewal – but with limited (if not zero) media coverage or interest, who would want to bid?

That’s for the future – so far, the idea is beginning to work but the pressures of the fixture list and so many competitions and formats lead me to think, its days could be numbered.

The plan to end 50 over one day cricket – or perhaps a few counties!

Three of the past four days have seen me get to grips with the revised 50 over Royal London one day cup. Two visits to Fortress Chelmsford and one to the Oval give me cause for concern.

Patience needed when the weather’s like this! This cloud had passed but not before…

With the advent of the Hundred franchise competition, the ECB in its wisdom and strategic foresight decided to play the long form one day cricket in parallel to their new format. With so many county players contracted to the new competition the ECB regards the 50 over competition as a ‘development’ tournament for up and coming young players alongside seasoned old professionals who are probably disgruntled on missing out on the new cash flow!

Take away any TV coverage (ok, not free to air anyway) and the sponsors must be deliriously happy especially when there is next to no media coverage or reporting other than in the odd corners of the internet.

And decide to do this just as England become world champions in this format! Who thought this up? And why didn’t someone take them aside and kept watch over them until these thoughts subsided?

But as you will see, I think this is part of the grand plan to end county cricket as we know it!

Firstly at Chelmsford, Worcestershire cranked up over 330 with Haynes and D’Oliveira (names of old but only the latter is related) each scoring hundreds against what can only be regarded as some of the worst Essex bowling seen in many a year. Proper and consistent length was non-existent. ‘Twas men against boys!

Before the matches I saw in person, scores were either low or excessively high and only the odd game saw any type of close or thrilling contest.

Essex under lights then compound the felony by batting as if they’d never seen electric lights and rolled over like rabbits in headlights. Mind you, I’ve never seen a rabbit in headlights so I’ve no idea if they roll over or not – more likely are run over.

In full flow

So one sided, the match ended over 90 minutes in advance and is the worst ever result for Essex in 50 over competitions!

How many overs left ump? The scoreboard is useless!

One thing I had forgotten during the past year, is the sheer silence of the Essex ‘faithful’ whenever the opposition do well. Not a sound – even the musak mad DJ shuts up – I feel inclined to start applauding at excellent cricket but fear I run the risk of the ‘wrath of the faithful’ – perhaps the four day game will be better?

Taking myself off to the Oval for Surrey v Northants – had not seen the latter in years due to the divisional structure – turned out to be an exercise in patience. The forecast had been promising but was completely wrong and the match called off with just 5.3 overs completed.

The last in this little trilogy was the visit of Kent to Chelmsford. Oh, for the Kent of old! But this side had the ‘old’ Darren Stevens and the rest were youngsters with little or no one day experience. And it showed!

Bundled out for just 158 in next to no time meant an Essex charge to win by 9 wickets with 20 overs – and another 90 minutes to spare. But this wasn’t the first match to be completed – Notts despatched Leicestershire in even shorter time!

Unusual bowling action from Kent’s James Logan

Spectators will not flock to watch poor quality games and sponsors will walk away or just not bother, especially if they don’t get any media or marketing coverage. So, is this the next stage in the ECBs plan to dispense with counties?

The Championship is played at the ends of the season, this 50 over is in direct competition with a glitzy glamourised newcomer, the T20 brings in beer sales and crowds for the counties and this season has less coverage.

So what’s left? Tests and the Hundred – that’s all they need! And even with the ECB handout, counties will struggle to survive financially. The likes of Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Northants, Kent and perhaps Worcestershire could be the first to go – and when one or more does, the ECB will fold the rest into franchises and…

But let’s hope not! One small change to encourage supporters especially at Chelmsford is to address the stewarding and learn from others!

The North Korean style at Essex involves creating a ring of steel around the playing area towards the end of the innings! What are they expecting? A mass pitch invasion?

Given the demographic of these matches – the average age is closer to retirement than any other – means they are more likely to overdose on Sanatogen or Wintergreeen than anything else. And as for the energy and suppleness required to vault the boundary boards…well, Max Whitlock is not here to show us how!

Sanatogen is/was a ‘tonic’ wine to help give old people energy and vigour and Wintergreen – have never seen it so, dear reader perhaps you can tell me, can you still get it and do you eat it, drink it, rub it in, smell it or smoke it?