Matt Carter reviews the latest LV = County Championship action which has left four teams separated by just six points at the top of the Division One table.
As we pass the halfway point of the campaign, deciphering exactly where the Championship trophy will reside come late September remains an unresolvable task.
The championship apex has been somewhat of a revolving door thus far - Nottinghamshire becoming the latest side to enjoy a brief stay on top - and realistically there are five sides that still harbour genuine title aspirations.
All have varying degrees of strengths and weaknesses and perhaps the only thing that can be confidently predicted is the second half of this season should represent an enthralling affair.
One thing that has however become apparent is a split between the top five and bottom four and even at this early stage Northamptonshire appear doomed to relegation.
In contrast decrypting Division Two is not quite such a complex scenario, with Hampshire and Worcestershire - both still unbeaten - already well on their way to promotion.
The pair have each won four games, twice as many as the rest and reeling them in already looks an almighty task for the chasing pack, especially accounting that none of those playing catch up have showcased anything like consistent form.
Four wins in their opening six fixtures - twice as many as any other side during that period - underlined Middlesex’s arrival as genuine title contenders having only flirted with a tilt in 2013.
The last two weeks have, however, represented somewhat of a rocky patch, with a draw at Durham - in which they were arguably indebted to the elements - preceding by a defeat at Trent Bridge which saw Nottinghamshire beat the clock to emphatically chase 385.
This signified a third loss of the campaign - more than any other side in the top seven - and highlights an inconsistency issue that has the potential to hinder their challenge. Of particular concern is that in these two most recent outings their seam attack, which was wreaking havoc in conductive early season conditions, has been somewhat blunted on more stable surfaces.
Steven Finn in particular has toiled with the 25-year-old taking only three wickets during this period at an average of 97, which is a stark contrast to the bowler who bagged 25 in his first four games.
Steady was the most appropriate word to decipher Nottinghamshire’s opening eight games with a return of two wins and the same number of defeats placing them on the fringes of the title landscape but without ever threatening to genuinely disturb those at the summit.
Prior to this week they had hardly been spectacular (an astounding final day victory over feeble Northamptonshire aside) but that previously mentioned superb chase, a game in which they conceded 505 first innings runs, offers indication that they could yet be genuine contenders.
There were never doubts surrounding a middle order of James Taylor, Samit Patel and Michael Lumb yet Riki Wessells - who plundered 74 off only 48 balls to fire his side over the line - is enjoying the form of his life means Notts are incomparably strong in this area.
Further to that, the reinvigoration of Alex Hales, who contributed scores of 96 and 94 in this success , has somewhat cured their long-standing opener issues.
The bowling does not quite carry the same weight, but such is the batting’s formidability when functioning that only satisfactory returns might be required for Notts to be major players in the crunch.
For Essex, a trip to Hampshire provided an opportunity to claw back much-needed ground on the top two; however their visit to the Ageas Bowl saw their promotion ambitions all but disintegrate as Hampshire ruthlessly highlighted the gulf between the pair.
While the table might have indicated differently, in reality the duo have thus far been poles apart. Essex are without a win since their opening fixture and are being hugely flattered by the third place they occupied heading into the game. Despite the clear disparity between the pair, few anticipated Hampshire’s victory to be quite so resounding: their 470-run success is the joint second highest in Championship history.
Essex hardly helped themselves with their batsmen disconcertingly only surviving 82.2 overs across the entire game. The bowling - which is no longer able to cite injuries as a sufficient excuse - was just as deplorable as Hampshire amassed 440 for three at almost five an over in their second innings.
On the evidence of this aberration Essex’s promotion hopes have surely ground to dust, while it is incomprehensible to foresee anything other than the top flight for Hampshire next season.
Round 11 results
Durham beat Lancashire by 27 runs
Sussex drew with Yorkshire
Warwickshire beat Norhamptonshire by an innings & 105 runs
Glamorgan beat Kent by an innings & 11 runs
Hampshire beat Essex by 470 runs
Surrey beat Derbyshire by 10 wickets
Worcestershire beat Leicestershire by 234 runs
James Vince was again at the forefront of Hampshire’s success, as a magnificent career-best 240 off a mere 222 balls saw the 23-year-old’s prolific season scale new heights.
That knock also saw Vince become the first man to pass the prestigious 1,000-run milestone – an achievement reached at an astounding strike rate of 81 and an average of 82. The Hampshire man’s abundant talent has never been in doubt and after a breakthrough 2013, Vince is now looking very much the real deal. So rapid has his progress been that England can surely only resist for so long.
While Hampshire’s success might have been anticipated, only a minority would have predicted Worcestershire to be matching their progress blow for blow. Victory over beleaguered Leicestershire takes the Pears to within a point of the leaders.
Saeed Ajmal will once more draw the headlines for a second innings spell of six for 13, however the bulk of the damage prior to that had been done by a seam attack that continues to disparage the preseason forecasts of strife.
Another viewpoint being belittled is that Worcestershire would stumble without Moeen Ali, with Daryl Mitchell more than filling the England man’s shoes; a fourth century of the season against Leicestershire taking his tally to a sensational 920 at a frightening average of 92.
Those remaining lingering doubters expecting Worcestershire to eventually fall away are beginning to run out of time, with the opening half of the campaign offering little evidence of stuttering.
By the time Ajmal departs in late July the job could be close to being complete. In contrast Leicestershire have now lost four of their last five and look in serious danger of a second successive winless campaign.
Not content with having denied Kent a seemingly assured Twenty20 victory on Friday night - courtesy of a wonderful final over - Michael Hogan tormented the Canterbury outfit yet further with match figures of 10 for 115 to consign Kent to an innings defeat.
That return takes the Australian’s tally to 30 in just five games - a ratio which can only be bettered by Ajmal - while the victory sees Glamorgan clamber to third with a game in the bank on those above.
This was a result of substantial positives for the Welsh county, none more so than Jacques Rudolph and Jim Allenby becoming the first Glamorgan batsmen to reach figures this season. Catching the top two looks a futile task, however if their batsmen can kick on from here then Glamorgan have the bowlers – with three of division’s 12 leading wicket-takers – to pressure the top two should they unexpectedly falter.
For Kent another season in the Division Two doldrums is looking increasingly likely, with this their second innings defeat in three games, leaving them with just a single win thus far.
Round 12 fixtures
Durham v Sussex
Lancashire v Northamptonshire
Nottinghamshire v Sussex
Warwickshire v Yorkshire
Gloucestershire v Glamorgan
Kent v Derbyshire
Surrey v Leicestershire
After a seemingly never-ending spiral of doom, there are early signs of recovery at The Oval. A thumping win over Derbyshire, who are on their own path of disintegration, was Surrey’s second of a campaign that after beginning in turbulent manner is now steadily being recuperated.
What will undoubtedly be the most encouraging factor of Surrey’s revival is the impact of their young players, who having suffered several severe baptisms early in the campaign are now rewarding the faith.
Zafar Ansari has been the brightest of those young lights and here he recorded a maiden first-class century to take his seasonal average to a lofty 69 while Tom Curran enjoyed the most productive outing of his fledgling career with a maiden five-wicket haul.
Reining back in the top two appears beyond Surrey’s youthful side, which is in truth not the worst scenario considering their young side’s development might be better served by a second season in Division Two.
At the same time, after prolonged suffering, the Surrey faithful will be merely grateful to finally envisage a positive horizon.
Warwickshire were the latest side to profit from demoralised Northamptonshire, condemning Stephen Peters' side to a sixth defeat on the spin, four of which have been by an innings.
Outlining what has become more than a nightmare this season is that this defeat signalled the third match in succession that Northants have conceded in excess of 500, while they were dismissed for a score of less than 200 for the seventh time in as many games.
For Warwickshire this was a timely victory in what has been a stuttering season, although it is a result - as euphoric as it was - which provides little evidence to negate the doubts surrounding their viability as title challengers, even though the Bears move to within a victory of the summit.
The key positive for Warwickshire was perhaps Sam Hain’s century. The 18-year-old surpassed Ian Bell to become the county’s youngest ever batsmen to record a Championship century. In a batting unit that has repeatedly held the Edgbaston outfit back throughout recent years the emergence of Hain will be a welcome tonic.
Arguably the most pivotal fixture of the round took place at Chester le Street, where Durham met Lancashire in a contest which would likely yield significant consequence in the race for top-flight survival.
As it was an enthralling fixture climaxed in a dramatic final day in which the visitors fell just 27 runs short of their 329-run target. It was a defeat which leaves Lancashire - having played a game more - slightly adrift of Durham whose first win of the season sees them scramble into the final survival spot.
Such a tense conclusion had seemed unlikely when Lancashire slipped to 74 for four, yet that brought Jos Buttler to the crease and he produced a superb century which left the hosts sweating – arguably showcasing the strongest evidence to date of his Test cricket credentials.
Fortunately for Durham Buttler was left stranded as Lancashire were forced to lament another poor first innings showing which resulted in them conceding what proved a critical first innings deficit of 72 – although allowing Phil Mustard and Phil Coughlin to guide Durham from 184 for eight to 338 in their first innings was another fundamental factor.
A draw against Sussex was enough to see Yorkshire knock Nottinghamshire off the top of the table by virtue of losing fewer games but it was a stalemate bathed in aggravation. Granted, a sluggish Arundel surface made life difficult, yet that Yorkshire took a hefty 173 overs to cautiously compile 470 was more than curious.
In an intensely contested title race, if Yorkshire are to eclipse last season’s second spot then such prudent tactics must not become commonplace. Criticism might seem harsh given their current position but the eventual location of the trophy is likely to be decided by such small margins.
All the same, while Yorkshire’s standing appears healthy, it is worth noting that they are the only county in the top five without a fixture remaining against stragglers Northamptonshire. Accounting for Northants’ deplorable form and the competitive nature of the division aside from the basement club that is a significant negating factor – particularly considering that Somerset have two games left against the Wantage Road outfit.
© Cricket World 2014