Top quality spin is a rarity in English cricket as a whole, let alone Division Two so Worcestershire’s acquisition of Saeed Ajmal - arguably the best spinner in world cricket - was always likely to prove a masterstroke.
The Pakistani’s undoubted x-factor was in full evidence against Essex, where on a surface that played both low and slow he clinched remarkable second innings figures of seven for 19 to blow the opposition away to seal a third win in just five games for his side.
New Road is becoming somewhat of a fortress for Worcestershire given that they have now lost only once in 11 home games and can boast a 100 per cent record this term on their own patch. If conditions continue to play in a similar vein then it is hard to see that changing with Ajmal around.
The retirement of long-time commander Alan Richardson left seemingly irreplaceable shoes to fill, however in Ajmal Worcestershire have acquired a match-winner of unparalleled proportion and Essex will not be the last team to unravelled by his tricks; already the Pakistani leads the wicket charts with 25 scalps in spite of missing the opening two rounds of fixtures.
After a frustrating start that has seen them hampered by both an extensive injury list and more than irritable weather conditions, a trip to high-flying Worcestershire presented an opportunity for Essex to claw back lost ground – albeit a difficult one considering the bulk of their bowling attack resides on the treatment table and conditions that were heavily conducive to Ajmal’s magic.
Considering those conditions it is perhaps harsh to overly criticise Essex’s batsmen - only Daryl Mitchell passed 50 for either side - nonetheless Paul Grayson might have hoped for more than the first innings 203 his side could manage - which saw them concede a pivotal deficit of 88.
Runs were Essex’s stumbling block in 2013 - no batsmen scoring over 850 runs - and with the luxury of Alastair Cook’s services a distant early season memory there are concerns over whether this will again hold back promotion - even when Ryan ten Doeschate and Ravi Bopara return.
This defeat is far from terminal, however that aside from James Foster and the now unavailable Cook no Essex batsmen averages over 35 is something they must eradicate if promotion is to be realised.
Round Seven Results
Middlesex beat Northamptonshire by an innings & 84 runs
Somerset beat Durham by seven wickets
Gloucestershire beat Kent by 290 runs
Hampshire beat Leicestershire by 278 runs
Worcestershire beat Essex by 72 runs
A trip to a demoralised Northamptonshire side in a week where they were the only member of the top five in action represented somewhat of a gift horse for Middlesex, yet such has been both the unpredictable nature of the season and the Lord’s outfit themselves that nothing was a given.
Nonetheless thanks to yet more inept batting from the hosts - their opening day 283 being painfully under par - it was all too easy for Chris Rogers’ men to win for the first time on the road and become the latest side to reach the Championship summit.
In the absence of Steven Finn -- the division’s leading wicket taker - Northants’ batsmen might have eyed a window of opportunity to regain touch, however Toby Roland-Jones showcased Middlesex’s depth with the former England Lion claiming 12 wickets to triple his wicket tally.
Another positive for Middlesex will be their much maligned middle order - who performed with greater vigour in dispatching Lancashire last week - once more were able to fill their boots with Dawid Malan and Neil Dexter progressing their seasonal averages to healthy a 40 and 51 respectively.
As much of a routine victory as this was it is hard not be impressed by the efficiency of a Middlesex side who have now won four times in just six games – twice as many as any other side.
Alarmingly not only was defeat against Middlesex Northamptonshire’s fourth on the spin, but it was their third innings defeat in just five games - highlighting just how gigantic the step up is proving.
In each of those three defeats they have failed to bowl the opposition out, while of particular worry is the ease with which sides have been able to force the pace when required. Their batting story makes even gloomier reading considering Northants have only twice passed 250 in 10 innings - none of their batsmen can claim an average higher than 32 and highlighting their shortcomings is the fact that they are the only county without an individual century this season.
Woefully out of form - in a division where success was always like to be dependent on them performing at optimum level - and with their self-belief severely knocked, turning around such a position of strife is going to take a monumental effort.
In 2013 Kent were categorised as a stubborn side that lacked the venom to prize out victories - with just a pair of defeats but the same number of victories vindication of that.
This season they have undergone somewhat of a personality transplant. On the one hand had rain not curtailed their fixture at Derby last week then Rob Key’s side might have equalled 2013’s win tally in only four games, yet on the other hand, defeat at Gloucestershire mean they have now matched their defeat count.
After a stuttering start, victory over Surrey and enjoying the better of that draw against Derbyshire hinted at better things to come yet a torrid display at Nevil Road - notably with the bat - has somewhat checked such hopes.
The batting - bizarrely - has been the Achilles heel this season which is surprising considering Kent could boast three men who exceeded 1,000 runs in 2013 - with Kent’s top four only able to offer a combined 33 across both innings against in defeat against Gloucestershire.
Although these opening furlongs have generated certain positives for Kent - most notably a greater bowling bite - their inconsistency indicate that 2014 could be a bumpy ride.
Gloucestershire are perhaps vindicated in believing that had they had bowling spearhead Will Gidman at their disposal when defending 267 against a tentative Surrey last week at the then things might have developed differently.
As it was Surrey got the runs and left Gloucestershire winless and with their promotion hopes gushing down the drain.
Back in the side to face Kent, Gidman outlined just how significant a loss he was to his side, clinching match figures of seven for 68 - in both innings wreaking havoc amongst Kent’s faltering top order.
Gidman, though, wasn’t the only returnee to make an impact with young keeper Gareth Roderick - who averaged 48 in 2013 - top scoring in Gloucestershire’s first innings before hitting an attractive 85 second time around.
Frustratingly the 21-year-old also broke a finger meaning he will undergo further time on the sidelines, although that Hamish Marshall - who scored a second innings century - has seemingly overcome a slow start softens the blow slightly on a batting line-up that has been over reliant on Alex Gidman and William Tavaré thus far.
Even accounting for victory over Kent, Gloucestershire face an uphill battle to force their way into the promotion picture, however it at least provides them with a platform and with Gidman firing they have a bowler nobody will be relishing facing.
Round 8 Fixtures
Middlesex v Sussex
Nottinghamshire v Durham
Warwickshire v Somerset
Yorkshire v Lancashire
Derbyshire v Gloucestershire
Essex v Surrey
Glamorgan v Leicestershire
Kent v Worcestershire
After three days of Hampshire attempting to get clear of Leicestershire only to be reeled back in by the resolute hosts, the league leaders extra quality finally told in devastating fashion on the final day.
Matt Coles proved the shackle-breaker with a swashbuckling 83 - the highest score of the match - that propelled Hampshire from an potentially even position of 251 ahead with four wickets left into an unassailable lead of 374.
That seemingly broke the Leicestershire defiance, with Hampshire ruthlessly dispatching the hosts in only 31.4 overs - an innings in stark contrast to what had preceded over the previous three days.
Kyle Abbott once more proved fundamental triggering the disintegration with two wickets in two balls - while Coles concluded an excellent day with three further scalps and Danny Briggs hinted he could be a threat as the season progresses with four.
As difficult as Leicestershire were to shake off throughout the opening three days, Hampshire were never put in a position of genuine pressure - something which is developing into a promising theme.
Another constant so far has been the manner in which Hampshire have consistently ground sides down, with this latest win a perfect example of that trait.
Implosions like those witnessed in their second innings against Hampshire were commonplace for Leicestershire in 2013, however this is the first time they have folded in what has been a hugely encouraging start to the new campaign.
As disappointing as their collapse was there should be no mass panic, given what has gone before this season and that they were facing arguably the most complete side in the division.
If there is a reason for frustration so far it is that Leicestershire have lacked the killer instinct to finish sides off. Their last three games - all draws in which the foxes were in a position to force victory - are perhaps more appropriate justification of that point than Coles’ late hitting but it is still a relevant example of the problem.
A lack of confidence - inevitable given a winless run that extends to August 2012 - is clearly playing a part in this issue, although Nathan Buck’s seven-wicket display hints he could provide some of the missing x-factor.
Although this first defeat shouldn’t dishearten, next week’s trip to Glamorgan now signifies a pivotal contest - given how Leicestershire respond should outline to what extent they actually are a different outfit this term.
Not even a downpour of biblical proportions could deny a brutal Marcus Trescothick against Durham, with the skipper blasting his side to a target of 248 inside just 46 overs.
Having endured an arduous 2013 - his first without a century - Trescothick had previously passed three figures against Sussex to somewhat quieten the doubters and if any were lingering - two golden ducks in three innings might have reignited them - then this devastating innings of 133 off just 129 balls will have blown them out of the water.
In spite of a positive start Somerset have somewhat slipped under the title race radar, however this element-defying success means they have now quietly climbed to second in the table - further to that in ousting Durham they become the only remaining unbeaten side in the division.
That Durham were still unbeaten, in spite of occupying a lowly seventh place, was largely down to their batsmen - surprising considering their title success has been built around bowling - and a trip to what had been a docile Taunton indicated little chance of them buckling.
Cloud cover and a pitch offering a hint of assistance coupled with some excellent bowling - primarily from Alfonso Thomas and Craig Overton - however saw them finally fold, to arguably the most improved attack of the season.
Somerset are clearly enjoying operating with an unusual lack of pressure on their shoulders, with last year’s relegation battle somewhat dampening expectations, and as result they will not mind a jolt progressing unnoticed. Make no doubts though they are fast becoming genuine title challengers.
Durham’s defeat at Somerset means any realistic hopes they possessed of retaining their crown have now all but evaporated and at the same they could now be set for a season battling relegation.
The bottom three - Durham, Lancashire and Northants - can vaunt only a single win between them and already it is developing into a case of three into two for the tickets to the second division.
That said, nobody should be written off at this stage and it would be a disservice to resign Durham to scrap at the bottom considering the manner in which their bowlers have been able to string wins together over the years but nonetheless such is the strength of those in the top six and the weaknesses of the bottom trio - particularly the promoted pair - that it would not be a huge shock for things to end in this manner.
© Cricket World 2014