Friday 4 July 2014 

10 County Championship Round 13 Talking Points

Lord's
Did Lord's witness Middlesex's title challenge fade this week?
© REUTERS / Action Images
 

Matt Carter rounds up another interesting week in the LV= County Championship, which saw Yorkshire among the main beneficiaries despite not even playing.

1. A good week for Yorkshire

Without hitting a Championship ball in anger, the manner in which the latest round of fixtures unravelled couldn’t have been better for title chasing Yorkshire.

With the bulk of their title rivals in action, there was significant danger of Andrew Gale’s side being forced to play catch up throughout the coming weeks, however, the week concluded with Yorkshire just eight points shy of leaders Nottinghamshire and critically with a game in the bank on the Trent Bridge outfit.

There will be plenty of exasperation among the challengers regarding chances missed and in the case of Middlesex their failure to force victory against Northamptonshire could prove a fundamental blow to their credentials.

While Yorkshire were the undoubted winners at the top week, things also aligned in a near-perfect fashion for Durham who after successive wins are now on the finges of the title landscape: victory over Yorkshire next week would without question make the defending champions genuine contenders.

2. Notts’ missed opportunity

It was a case of what might have been for Nottinghamshire, who spurned a chance to become the first side to record three wins on the spin and with it construct an imposing lead at the top.

What made the defeat to Warwickshire such a frustrating experience was the number of opportunities Notts wasted in regards to finishing off their opponents. Firstly the Trent Bridge outfit should have built a first innings total which negated any chance of a Warwickshire victory but in losing their last five wickets for just 10 runs they only scraped past 400.

That collapse was then followed up by an absence of killer instinct with the ball as the hosts recovered from 188 for seven to 343 - just 63 runs shy of Notts.

Even accounting for those disappointments Notts remained in the ascendancy and having progressed their lead to 182 with eight wickets in hand the game appeared to be heading in one direction only - yet once more the visitors squandered their advantage with their final eight wickets generating just 106 runs.

As excellent as Warwickshire’s pursuit of 289 was, Notts will be left wondering quite how this one got away. Even that chase was one littered with frustration from a Notts perspective - night watchmen Chris Wright’s breezy 45 a particular point of anguish.

Round 13 Results

Division One

Middlesex drew with Nortamptonshire

Somerset drew with Lancashire

Warwickshire beat Nottinghamshire by 3 wickets

Division Two

Essex beat Gloucestershire by 10 wickets

Surrey drew with Hampshire

Worcestershire beat Glamorgan by 249 runs

3. Woakes hauls Warwickshire into contention

A thumping defeat to Yorkshire a week ago had appeared a critical blow to Warwickshire’s title credentials, yet such is the nature of this topsy-turvy season that only seven days later the Edgbaston outfit are right back in contention.

That they have re-entered the title puzzle is in no small part down to all-rounder Chris Woakes, whose 91 masterminded their revival from the already mentioned first innings position of strife while his second innings haul of five for 35 was the fundamental factor in restricting Notts to setting a target of under 300.

Even accounting for that imperious second innings chase and the rising star of Sam Hain Warwickshire’s batting remains significantly flawed, particularly when compared against their title rivals.

Nevertheless for all their blemishes nobody can better Warwickshire’s four Championship wins - although three counties can equal it - and in Woakes they possess a player with unparalleled game changing ability with both bat and ball.

Warwickshire’s case for the title is unquestionably less as convincing as certain other sides, nevertheless they should not be ruled out of the reckoning, although to lift the crown they will undoubtedly have to do something they are yet to achieve this season and win back-to-back games.

4. Middlesex's safety first approach questionable

With things being as tightly contested as they are at the top, who eventually rises above the rest is likely to be dictated by small margins. At the same time the congestion means that taking risks could be an essential component as well.

With that in mind Middlesex’s tactics against basement club Northamptonshire generated plenty of head scratching. Chris Rogers will point to a generous declaration against Nottinghamshire backfiring recently as evidence to support their cautious approach which left Northants with just 56 overs to survive or alternatively 300 runs to secure a first victory.

Yet such is the gulf between Notts and Northants in terms of both batting talents and team moral that the situations are hardly comparable.

That Middlesex were so insistent on a 300-run lead made for curious viewing considering a battered and bruised Northants had only once surpassed 300 in their last six games, while at the same time they have been dismissed for a score of below 200 in each of those fixtures.

Eyebrows were raised by the manner in which Middlesex preceded to set that target on day four - although they hardly meandered along, a run rate of four was hardly the impetus required to truly force the issue.

Accounting for the manner in which their title rivals have been swatting away Northants with consummate ease this represents a significant setback for Middlesex. While the blow is far from terminal this could be a moment the Lords county look back on with regret come late September.

Round 14 Fixtures

Division One

Middlesex v Somerset

Sussex v Northamptonshire

Yorkshire v Durham

Division Two

Derbyshire v Essex

Glamorgan v Surrey

Hampshire v Gloucestershire

Leicestershire v Kent

5. Northants finally stop the rot

For all the lambasting of Middlesex’s lack of championship-winning character, it would be cruel not to commend Northants on ending a torrid run of seven consecutive defeats, of which all excluding a closely fought contest with Lancashire could be considered as beyond emphatic.

Although there was little rest bite for their bowlers - only declaration ensuring that 500 was not conceded for a fifth consecutive game - their batsmen displayed a renewed sense of character with Stephen Crook’s maiden first-class century securing their highest score of the campaign.

That Crook and Andrew Hall’s partnership of 144 signified the club’s highest of the season did however underline just how disastrous life in the top flight has been at Wantage Road.

Anything other than relegation would represent a miracle for Northants, nevertheless, after an opening half of campaign that not even nightmares of the worst kind could compete with, they will hope this battling showing can perhaps propel them to a more respectable second half. 

6. Lancashire again fail to strike early 

Lancashire’s grit and resilience cannot be questioned over recent months - with a narrow defeat at Chester-le-Street their only loss in six - yet for all of those battling qualities there are serious doubts regarding their ability to win games.

A battling draw at Taunton - in which Lancashire’s previously maligned batsmen survived over 100 second innings overs to nullify Somerset’s final day victory bid - lifted them clear of Sussex and as a result the relegation zone.

Sussex do have a potentially crucial game in hand, while further in the Hove county’s favour is that two of their remaining six games are against Northants.

Assuming that Sussex win at least one of those fixtures it is likely that Lancashire will need two victories from their final five games, which represents a tough task considering they are yet to taste success against anybody other than Northants.

If Lancashire are to achieve safety it is imperative their improving batsmen can get more first innings runs on the table - the fact that on nine occasions in 11 they have conceded a first innings deficit highlights how they are persistently playing catch up.

7. Ajmal weaves a web once again

Not since Mushtaq Ahmed has county cricket witnessed a bowler as prolific as Saeed Ajmal, with Glamorgan the latest side to be bamboozled by the Pakistani’s undeniable magic.

A second innings demolition job of seven for 34 - remarkably his sixth five wicket haul in just eight Championship games - left the Welsh county’s promotion dreams in the dirt and at the same time lifted his county clear at the summit of Division Two.

Putting Ajmal’s dramatic impact into perspective is that his 56 wickets have come at an astounding average of seven per game - no other bowler in the country can boast a return of better than 5.5.

As unrivalled as Ajmal’s game-turning ability is, it would be cruel to label Worcestershire as a one-man team. Even when analysing his latest heroics, Ajmal didn’t work without assistance with Charlie Morris somewhat softening up Glamorgan’s top order by reducing the visitors to 17 for three, including clinching the key scalp of Jacques Rudolph.

At the same time Tom Fell’s first innings 133 and several other notable batting contributions ensured Ajmal had plenty of runs to work with.

The Ajmal show is now nearing an end at New Road and while wins will inevitably become harder to come by in his absence, there is enough in the squad to suggest that his acts of enchantment will not ultimately go unrewarded.

8. Too little too late for Essex?

This week’s 10-wicket success over Gloucestershire was the kind of performance many had anticipated Essex - who finished third in 2013 - would produce with regularity throughout the 2013 season.

Yet this was their first victory since way back in mid-April, a run which has left the Chelmsford county’s promotion in tatters. Injuries - particularly to their intimidating bowling attack - and international call-ups have hardly aided attempts to kick-start a season that in truth has never truly ignited.

This was a show of what might have been for Essex. Reece Topley and David Masters - who through injuries have struggled for substantial impact in 2014 - laid the platform for victory in wreaking havoc with Gloucestershire’s batting, before Ravi Bopara and Jesse Ryder both passed three figures to completely take the game away from the visitors.

The defeat means any lingering Gloucestershire promotion hopes have now sailed, whilst Essex can still at least cling to theirs, although it would take a swing of monumental proportions for them to be in the reckoning come the final weeks.

9. Surrey up to Hampshire challenge

After successive wins over stragglers Derbyshire and Leicestershire the visit of Hampshire represented somewhat of an acid test with regards to whether Surrey had truly turned the corner.

Persistent rain throughout the opening two days meant a positive result was always a long shot but Surrey’s largely youthful side gave a more than respectable account of themselves. Indeed, arguably they were the only side ever in a position to force victory with the contest hinging on whether Hampshire would surpass their follow-on target.

As a result of the draw, Surrey’s task of unseating one of the top two through the closing weeks is an undeniably difficult one but they are a side for whom - after such prolonged struggles - the future finally looks bright.

The bulk of the credit for their renaissance should undoubtedly rest with the youngsters. Zafar Ansari, Jason Roy and Matt Dunn are just a few of their shining lights - nonetheless the impact of returning experienced heads Vikram Solanki and Gareth Batty to supplement those players should not be played down given that Surrey are now unbeaten in six since their respective returns.

10. Roy bandwagon gathers pace

Top of the Twenty20 run-scoring charts with a frightening strike rate of 153 Jason Roy is currently the name on everybody’s lips.

It is not just in the shortest form though where Roy’s star is rising with a swashbuckling century against Hampshire representing the 23-year-old’s second three-figure score in four fixtures. Prior to that he had score only one in 40 first-class games.

Both of those tons have arrived at a strike rate of 100 orbetter, and at the same time Roy’s seasonal strike rate stands at a healthy 77 - highlighting his game changing talent.

A limited overs call is seemingly only a matter of time away and while he has some way to go in regards to convincing in the four-day game, Roy’s potential is undeniable.  

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