The County Championship reached its halfway point this week, amidst yet another deluge as the Great British Summer continued to pour scorn on the cricket season. Of the eight games in this round, only one reached a positive conclusion, despite a number of forfeited innings and sporting declarations.
As a measure of how much the weather has played a part, by the same date last year, 64 CC games had taken place. Of these 20 had finished in draws, making up 31% of the total. This season the first 74 games have seen 41 draws, 55% of the total. That’s a huge shift away from positive results, so unsurprisingly the tables are rather crammed. Last year in the top flight, first placed Durham were 106 points ahead of last placed Hampshire. This year the gap between top and bottom is just 71 points.
As a result, the first half of the season feels like the qualifying session for a grand prix, with teams jostling to get into the best position before the real race starts after the T20 jamboree. The best position, of course, being the one closest to wherever on the grid the future Mrs 51allout Suzi Perry is filming.
Now seems like a sensible enough time to have a look at the last set of fixtures and see how each side is faring in the table. We’ll have Division Two soon, but we’ll start at the top with the aptly-named Division One.
Starting at the bottom of the table, it’s Durham who find themselves propping up the rest at the halfway stage after eight winless games. Their latest failed attempt was delicately poised before the weather wiped out the final day.
Batting first, Durham scrapped their way to 277, with Ben Stokes’s 66 highlighting exactly where Durham’s main problem has been: their top order batting. Stokes’s was one of just six scores of fifty or more that Durham’s top order have made so far. Stokes has three of those, Paul Collingwood, Michael Di Venuto and Will Smith one each. Dale Benkenstein, Ian Blackwell, Gordon Muchall and Mark Stoneman haven’t passed fifty a single time in a combined 39 innings, a conversion rate that Emile Heskey would be ashamed of.
Durham’s bowling has been much better. Even without Graeme Onions they restricted Warwickshire to 197, thanks to 5/46 from Chris Rushworth, the man deputising for Onions. A lead of 80 looked pretty handy, even more so when the Durham top order collapsed to 116/7. Paul Collingwood and Scott Borthwick dug in to take Durham to a lead of 227 at the close of the third day before Mother Nature intervened.
The draw leaves Warwickshire in second place, just a single point off the top spot. There’s been no sign of a hangover from last season’s near miss, even with a number of players missing at the start of the season. With the likes of Chris Woakes and Keith Barker back and Rikki Clarke in the form of his life, they look well placed to push for the title in the second half of the season, as predicted by one N Bluth, back at the beginning of the season.
Two other sides in reasonable positions for a shot at the title met at Lord’s, where the home side had much the better of it before having to settle for a draw. Somerset’s batting has been quite inconsistent (with the obvious exception of Nick Compton) with a big Marcus Trescothick shaped hole at the top of the order. This was further evidenced by a disappointing first innings score of 173 in damp, awkward conditions. Middlesex made a rather more impressive 364/3 in reply, Chris Rogers making 173 and Joe Denly 116*, but it took the best part of two days as the weather again intervened on regular occasions.
Somerset wobbled to 113/5 on the final day, but a typically patient 69* from Compton and 50 from Peter Trego saw them through to the draw, their sixth in nine games. This kept Middlesex in fourth place – a very credible performance for a newly promoted side – just a point behind their visitors. With Denly and Rogers amongst the runs and four bowlers already past 20 wickets, things are looking quite rosy for last season’s Division Two winners.
For Somerset, things aren’t quite as rosy, with a number of youngsters forced into the side by a huge number of injuries. In the absence of a front line pace attack Peter Trego and George Dockrell have carried the bowling, with Compton and James Hildreth doing the same with the bat. The break has probably come at a good time for them (at least in terms of the County Championship).
Despite the best efforts of the two captains, the weather again proved the winner at Trent Bridge with both sides having to settle for a draw with the game finely balanced. Lancashire’s first innings score of 350/9 declared stretched across all four days of the match. Their second (and Nottinghamshire’s first) were much shorter, both being forfeited to leave a difficult chase of 351 on the final day. Nottinghamshire had a decent stab at it, but eventually finished on 293/7.
Lancashire’s epic innings was built around 80 from Ashwell Prince and an entertaining unbroken last wicket stand of 99 between Kyle Hogg (61*) and Simon Kerrigan (34*). Conceding vast numbers of runs to tail-enders is, of course, something all the cool kids do these days. Andre Adams was again the chief wicket-taker, helping himself to 5/108 to reach 40 wickets for the season. No other Nottinghamshire bowler has more than 13.
Nottinghamshire’s chase got off to a sticky start (being 23/2 and then 95/4) before half-centuries from James Taylor, Adam Voges and Chris Read turned things back in the home side’s favour. A couple of quick wickets for Ajmal Shahzad then took all that momentum away and the two sides had to share the points. Nottinghamshire find themselves top of the table at this stage, a single point ahead of Warwickshire (who have a game in hand), but they’ve been extremely reliant on Adams’s bowling to get them there. Should he be injured (as he was for part of this game), they might find things more challenging, particularly in the better batting conditions later in the season.
As for Lancashire, their form has picked up following a disastrous start and they find themselves in sixth place. If they can just get away from their current ‘not picking Saj Mahmood’ plan then they might be able to aim a little higher after the T20 break.
There’s been a fair bit of weather kicking around over the last few days – I think we mentioned it earlier in this article – but there wasn’t enough of it to cover up Surrey’s deficiencies as they suffered a ten-wicket beating at the hands of mid-table rivals Sussex. After being put in to bat, a first innings score of 124 wasn’t exactly great, but even that represented something of a recovery from the depths of 32/5. Sussex piled up 351 in reply, Luke Wells making 127 and Monty Panesar (31) and James Anyon (64) adding 99 for the now-traditional tenth wicket party despite a decent spell from England’s seventh choice seamer Stuart Meaker (3/65).
As Surrey set out for their second innings they really needed at least one batsman to dig in. Of course, they utterly failed, reaching only 248 as a number of starts all failed to turn into something more substantial and no batsman made 50, Panesar finishing with splendid figures of 32 overs, 21 maidens and three wickets for 33.
Sussex knocked off the 22 runs required to win with a minimum of fuss, with the victory moving them up to fifth place, a reasonable enough position for one of the so-called smaller sides, who seem to again have their house nicely in order. The same can’t be said of Surrey, who seem to be in something of a mess, with no wins since the opening game of the season and problems at the top of the order. Without bucketfuls of runs from Mark Ramprakash (back in the side for this game but averaging less than eleven this season) the prospect of relegation will hang uneasily over The Oval during the hiatus.
Thanks to the wonders of odd numbers, Worcestershire were the side without a game in this round of fixtures. Which was probably a good thing, as New Road tends to disappear underwater if someone in the crowd spills their pint. As predicted, it’s been a tough season for Worcestershire, with no wins (but only two defeats) from their seven games. The batting has been extremely weak, with only Phil Hughes (after a single game) and Moeen Ali averaging above 30. The injury to Alan Richardson was a huge blow for their bowling attack, as well as leading George Dobell to openly weep on the Cricinfo Switch Hit podcast. They managed the great escape last season but don’t look all that likely to do so again. Having said that, they’re still six points above Durham, so it’s not all bad.
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we’ve finally managed to figure out how to do a poll. Hence, you can now vote on who you think will win County Championship Division One, somewhere over there to the right. Then, in a few months’ time we’ll come back and look at the results and laugh heartily at everyone who got it wrong.