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.