Matt Carter rounds up the latest action from the LV= County Championship as the competing teams prepare for a break from four-day cricket until August.
A month ago the Division Two promotion chase was seemingly meandering into a mere precession, with Hampshire and Worcestershire appearing top tier sides in waiting – the pair basking in a 41-point cushion over a chasing pack showing minimal pressure-generating credentials.
While Worcestershire have continued on their merry way – this week’s victory over Gloucestershire opening up a virtually unassailable at the top – Hampshire have suddenly found themselves engulfed in a four-way scrap for the final 2015 top tier spot.
Kent’s win over in-form Surrey on the surface represents a positive outcome for Hampshire – considering The Oval outfit might have built an imposing lead over Jimmy Adams' men yet that success means Robert Key’s side have now arrived on the promotion radar.
The final side in the shake-up are an Essex side whose hopes looked all but blown out following a run of just one victory in eight games; however a sequence of two wins in three has reignited those top flight aspirations.
Unfortunately for Hampshire the awakening of the rest has coincided with an untimely dip by the Ageas Bowl side and with that in mind the recuperation opportunity afforded by the impending break might just be welcomed on the South coast.
All the talk prior to Surrey’s clash with neighbours Kent at Guildford revolved around the home side’s recent renaissance. Gary Wilson’s team were riding on a wave of momentum generated by a hugely impressive run of three wins in four.
Quietly though Kent themselves in recent weeks have displayed signs of turning the corner with successive wins over Derbyshire and Leicestershire although the true acid test of their progress was always likely to be this week’s encounter with the Division’s form side.
It was an examination Kent would pass with flying colours, completing an 89-run victory on the final afternoon that thrusts Key’s side firmly into the promotion picture, given they now reside 23 points shy of second placed Surrey but critically with two games in the bank.
The competitive victory at Guildford, which encouragingly again including several star turns from their talented young cricketers, means Kent have now surpassed their 2013 win tally – answering earlier questions regarding whether the Canterbury outfit were making progress under Jimmy Adams’ stewardship.
This latest win also means Kent become the first side this season to record three consecutive victories – for them there is no doubt that the mid-season break couldn’t have arrived at a worse moment.
The likes of Sam Northeast, Callum Haggett and Sam Billings were all worthy of individual praise following Kent’s success over Surrey yet the undeniable star in that victory was the evergreen Darren Stevens.
Round 16 Results
Sussex beat Warwickshire by 226 runs
Yorkshire beat Middlesex by 220 runs
Derbyshire beat Glamorgan by six wickets
Kent beat Surrey by 89 runs
Worcestershire beat Gloucestershire by eight wickets
Once merely a cut above part-time with the ball, Stevens has at the back-end of his career blossomed into a genuine all-rounder – the 38-year-old proving Surrey’s chief tormentor this week with match figures of nine for 178, including five pivotal second innings scalps. Those victims remarkably took Stevens to a best ever seasonal tally of 43 at an average of just 22 – highlighting age really is no barrier to improvement.
Without doubt Kent’s major deficiency in recent years has been their lack of bowling threat and it is testament to Stevens' character that he has been able to in many ways fill this void – it is largely down to him that Dougie Bollinger’s absence through injury over the last month has passed relatively unnoticed.
Dealing with doubters is nothing new for Worcestershire. From the season’s offset they’ve been disparaging predictions that this would be a season of relative struggle and with that in mind nobody at New Road was likely to be losing any sleep regarding a plethora of forecasts that suggested their season would slide post Saeed Ajmal.
Those reservations were quashed in emphatic fashion at Cheltenham, with Daryl Mitchell’s supreme unbeaten 167 – his fifth of a remarkable campaign – sowing the seeds for an eight-wicket win and that margin would have been even more resounding had Gloucestershire’s last pair not contributed a county record 137.
Arguably Ajmal’s absence was felt during that partnership, yet overall Worcestershire’s seamers coped just fine, taking 19 wickets for just 308 runs. Mitchell McClenaghan – stepping into Ajmal’s rather large shoes – made an encouraging start with four wickets, while Jack Shantry and Charlie Morris continued their quietly excellent campaigns.
Ajmal’s magic has allowed Shantry and Morris to slip under the radar, yet the pair can claim 40 and 39 of their respective scalps. Victory over Gloucestershire means Worcestershire can now boast a 45-point cushion on the chasing pack and with just four games left they firmly have one foot in the top flight.
Three games ago – before the likes of Surrey and Essex arrived late to the promotion race party – Glamorgan had appeared the most likely side to exert a degree of pressure on the top two.
In the space of a month however their season has almost imploded, with Toby Radford’s side falling to a run of three consecutive defeats – prior to that they had lost just one in nine – which leaves them languishing in seventh place.
After defeats at the hands of Worcestershire and Surrey, Glamorgan this week fell victim to a spicy pitch at Derby – the hosts better able to negotiate the conditions than their guests, with a six-wicket win being clinched as early as the third morning.
Glamorgan’s Achilles heel throughout the season has undoubtedly been their batsmen. Only Will Bragg averages over 40 and combined they can boast just three individual centuries – therefore the seaming conditions at Derby always had the potential to cause havoc – so it proved with no Glamorgan player registering a half-century in the fixture.
Having looked to be making real progress, the last month has signified several steps backwards for Glamorgan. With that in mind their final four fixtures carry substantial importance with regards to identifying whether they actually are heading in the right direction.
Back-to-back wins hint that Derbyshire might just be turning the corner after what has been largely a season of exasperation.
Even during their plight though Mark Footitt has stood up as Derbyshire’s one bright spot – after persistent issues with both injuries and a wayward radar everything has seemingly clicked into place for the rapid 28 year old.
The back of last season hinted at Footitt’s advancements, yet nobody would have anticipated he would be the leading English wicket-taker at the three-quarter point of the Championship season – the former Nottinghamshire man boasting 52 victims at just 21 apiece. Together with that Footitt’s strike rate of 38.7 surpasses the competition’s leading wicket taker – Saeed Ajmal.
Accounting for the conducive surface and Glamorgan’s maligned batsmen, there was always potential for Footitt to create mayhem in Derbyshire’s clash with the South Wales outfit. After a largely quiet first innings – Tony Palladino proving chief destroyer on that occasion – Glamorgan simply had no answer second time around with Footitt clinching figures of six for 48 including the first five wickets to fall.
Talk of an England call is undoubtedly wide of the mark; nonetheless an England Lions tour spot represents a realistic possibility.
To nitpick, Yorkshire’s weakness in 2014 has been a lack of finishing ability – had they boasted a degree more second-innings bowling bite the title might be all but on its way to Headingley.
In recent fixtures Durham, Sussex and Nottinghamshire have all frustratingly been able to batten down the hatches and survive substantial time periods to claim a share of the spoils.
Their fixture this week developed into a familiar story. Middlesex were the latest side tasked with batting out the final day for parity – a sterling seven-wicket first innings effort from the effervescent Ryan Sidebottom, coupled with a batting effort that saw Yorkshire pass 400 for the 11th time in 12 games laying the platform for this latest victory opportunity.
In contrast though to recent disappointments Yorkshire found a ruthless gear – the differing factor arguably being Adil Rashid displaying the kind of final day spin performance they have craved during those near misses.
The leg-spinner’s bowling star has faded – so much so many now regard him as a bowling all-rounder - yet here he produced a reminder of his ability – delivering a match winning four for 27 from 17 overs, which included a stubborn Eion Morgan.
The win means Yorkshire claim the psychological advantage of reaching the break on top of the table – exchanging places with Nottinghamshire for the fifth week running – and with it meaning they are three-quarters of the way towards a first title since 2001.
At the forefront of Yorkshire’s prolific accumulation of runs has been Adam Lyth – a fifth century of the campaign against Middlesex winning the 26-year-old the accolade of the first Division One batsmen passed the golden 1,000-run milestone.
Prior to the commencement of the season there were anxieties regarding how Yorkshire might cope without Gary Ballance – last season’s top scorer – however Lyth has stepped into and beyond that breach.
Such has been Lyth’s run regularity that his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed and Yorkshire now have reason to fret regarding the potential of yet another England call – they more than most will be hoping Alastair Cook can rediscover his batting touch given Lyth is surely next in the opening batsmen que.
Few sides have been as difficult to dissect this season as Warwickshire, with this week’s eventual mauling at Sussex only adding further fuel to that – given it had been preceded by victories over Nottinghamshire and Durham.
In a warped way however it was perhaps no great surprise, accounting that nobody has been as susceptible as Warwickshire to capitulating without prior warning – they are yet to lose consecutive fixtures but three of their four defeats can be categorised generously as resounding.
The batting problem had seemingly taken vacation in those earlier mentioned twin victories, however it returned with vengeance at Horsham. Tasked with batting to save on the final day they could only disintegrate to 99 all out, a similar story to their most recent prior defeat which saw Warwickshire cave to 186 against Yorkshire.
The title is far from over but to lift the trophy a Warwickshire side – lacking the backbone of say for instance Yorkshire – will likely be required to win three of their remaining four fixtures and avoid defeat in the others – considering they have not gone more than three games without losing throughout the season that signifies an arduous task.
Even accounting for a win last time out over Northamptonshire, Sussex were in substantial danger of heading into the layoff with their top flight status very much up in the air – victory at Horsham though will allow them to sleep somewhat more soundly through the break than might have been the case.
A run of just one victory in nine had coincided with the international call for Chris Jordan – his absence leaving Magoffin fighting very much a lone bowling battle. England’s loss however very much proved Sussex’s gain this week, with the man overlooked for both Tests against India thus far producing a game changing new ball spell on the final morning that included three wickets in his first four overs.
Sussex’s timely win necessitates that only an implausible scenario over the season’s final quarter would see them slip out of the division.
With Northants all but gone, second bottom Lancashire’s survival hopes now revolve around catching defending champions Durham whom they trail by 11 points but have played a game more than – although Middlesex with no wins in six games are in danger of slipping into the shake-up should their alarming slide persist to the season climax.
© Cricket World 2014