Matt Carter has the lowdown on round 12 of the LV= County Championship, starting by asking whether this could turn out to have been a pivotal week in the race for the title.
With two of the top five squaring off against each other, this was always a round of action that carried the potential to bring substantial impact on the title landscape.
Prior to the start of Sunday’s games the top four were separated by just six points, while Warwickshire in fifth sat a win further back but crucially with a game in the bank on the majority of those above so something had to give.
As it was Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire were the counties to temporarily move clear of the crowd, the former ending Somerset’s unbeaten start and the latter arguably handing a hammer blow to Warwickshire’s credentials. At the same time Durham, courtesy of back to back wins - only the fourth time any county has recorded such a sequence - have transformed their season in the space of a fortnight to highlight exactly how congested the top tier is.
In the space of a mere fortnight, Nottinghamshire have been transformed from a side on the outskirts of the title picture to one who are now carrying more impetus than any other side in the championship race.
Last week’s success over Middlesex was followed up by an emphatic victory over a Somerset side who prior to their visit to Trent Bridge had steered clear of even the threat of defeat. Such was the ruthlessness of Notts that by the completion of the first day the visitor’s unbeaten record was already on its knees – Somerset being skittled for 168 having elected to bat before openers Steven Mullaney and Phil Jaques propelled their side into a lead before the close.
Somerset, to their credit, showed significant fight following that horrific opening day nonetheless they were inevitably powerless to deny Notts achieving back to back wins for the first time this season – in the process doubling their tally prior to these twin victories.
Consecutive fixtures against three fellow title challengers represented a critical sequence in Notts’ campaign and ominously for the rest it has been an examination in which they have passed in with flying colours.
The batting has been particularly dominant during this period and Notts can now boast three batsmen in the division’s top five run-getters, highlighting their strength in this area.
Curious was the most appropriate word to decipher Durham’s opening seven games, with the 2013 champions – who won a remarkable 10 games and drew only twice in lifting the trophy - undergoing a personality transplant to progress winless throughout this period whilst being involved in more stalemates than any other county.
They are though beginning to regain their mojo, with last week’s tense victory over Lancashire being proceeded by a significantly more straightforward success over stumbling Sussex. Ben Stokes – whose return together with the arrival of Australian John Hastings has arguably been the springboard for their renaissance – was the catalyst behind downing Sussex with the all-rounder capturing career best match figures of ten for 121 – including a first innings six for 67 that allowed Durham a pivotal 132-run advantage.
Round 12 Results
Durham beat Sussex by 309 runs
Lancashire beat Northamptonshire by an innings & 200 runs
Nottinghamshire beat Somerset by seven wickets
Yorkshire beat Warwickshire by an innings & eight runs
Gloucestershire drew with Glamorgan
Kent beat Derbyshire by 10 wickets
Surrey beat Leicestershire by 10 wickets
Durham now remarkably scale the giddy heights of fourth in the table and given their previous with regards to stringing wins together – they won seven in nine at the tail end of 2013 – the Chester-le-Street side might feel they are capable yet of influencing proceedings on the top.
Their bowling attack however, although clearly improving is not quite the same animal as last year – with Graham Onions’ prolonged absence a significant factor in that – nonetheless Durham have arguably improved with the bat and signify a new danger on the championship landscape.
With victories in their opening two fixtures, Sussex might have envisaged mounting a tilt on the title however eight winless games later they are braced for a relegation scrap. Defeat at Durham means the Hove county are clear of the drop zone by a mere two points.
Their plight is illustrated by an over-reliance on two players, with Ed Joyce holding together the batting and Steve Magoffin fighting a lone battle with ball. Aside from Magoffin no other Sussex bowler is taking regular wickets at under 30, with there being countless occasions throughout the season to date in which the Australian has mounted significant pressure only for that to be released by a misfiring supporting cast.
In regards to the batting, Joyce – who averages 69 – has masked a torrid campaign, with no other Sussex batsmen – aside from Luke Wright whose average is inflated by a single score of 189 – able to boast an average in excess of 33.
The resounding manner of their defeat at Chester-le-Street will be particularly alarming considering the fixture commenced with Sussex narrowly above their opponents in the table. There is nevertheless potential light at the end of the tunnel for Ed Joyce’s confidence sapped side with one of two remaining fixtures against demoralised Northants next on the agenda.
On the surface suggesting Yorkshire will need to improve through the second half of the season might seem hyper critical considering they topped the table prior to the commencement of this week’s games.
Yet there remain lingering questions regarding last year’s runners-up, the primary two being whether they have the depth to handle a plethora of international call-ups and perhaps crucially whether Yorkshire can win games against their title rivals – of their three wins prior to this week two came against bewildered Northants and the other against a flaky Warwickshire.
An emphatic innings victory against Warwickshire doesn’t answer the second of those contentious points, however it was crucially the first achieved in the absence of Liam Plunkett – with Yorkshire having lacked the bowling spark to prize out victories in each of their previous two fixtures without the England seamer.
There was little evidence of that lack of penetration at Edgbaston, as Yorkshire’s attack – perhaps spurred by the return of the talismatic Ryan Sidebottom – ruthlessly dispatched Warwickshire in a combined total of just 140 overs.
In more ways than one this was a critical win for Andrew Gale’s side, given not only did it ensure Yorkshire kept pace with Notts but it was their first in three games – their equal longest sequence without success.
A routine win over Northants last week took Warwickshire to within a victory of those at the top, however that result somewhat disguised what has been a frustrating campaign thus far – particularly with the bat.
Those batting cracks were however brought to the surface in ruthless fashion by Yorkshire, with Warwickshire surviving only a combined total of 140 overs against their table-topping opponents and no batsmen aside from spinner Jeetan Patel passing 50.
Round 13 Fixtures
Middlesex v Northamptonshire
Somerset v Lancashire
Warwickshire v Nottinghamshire
Essex v Gloucestershire
Surrey v Hampshire
Worcestershire v Glamorgan
This was the second instance in which Yorkshire have highlighted the substantial gulf between the sides having also won the reverse fixture back in May by an innings.
Billed as possible title challengers before the start of the season, it now seems improbable that Warwickshire will live up to those predictions with a batting line-up that cannot boast a single player who currently averages over 40, apart from Ian Bell, proving their Achilles heel – although the bowling whilst performing at a satisfactory level has not proven as dominant as anticipated.
Having narrowly been denied what would have been a pivotal victory at Durham last week, the visit of wayward Northamptonshire represented the perfect tonic for Lancashire.
At the same time it also afforded Lancashire’s maligned batsmen a golden opportunity to get much-needed runs under their belts – thankfully it was a gift horse they did not refuse. Ashwell Prince and Steven Croft were the main beneficiarie, the former contributing a career-best 257 and the latter a second century in three games having previously not passed three figures since May 2012, as Lancashire amassed 650 for six - the first time they have exceeded 350 this season.
Northants’ resolve was minimal as Lancashire eased home with an innings to spare – in the process inflicting their opponents’ tenth score of below 200 and fifth innings defeat in six games. If Northants did maintain any lingering hopes of producing the most dramatic of turnarounds they were surely ground to dust by this latest aberration.
Although this win is undoubtedly a timely confidence booster, Lancashire will be well aware that they still face an almighty task to preserve their top flight status given they are likely to require at least two further victories: a significant challenge considering Glenn Chapple’s side are yet to prosper against anyone other than Northants.
Victory over a Leicestershire side who are quickly spiralling towards an unthinkable second successive winless campaign in reality offers little indication to quite how far Surrey have progressed in recent weeks.
Nonetheless, considering that prior to this latest positive result Surrey had not won back-to-back Championship games since 2011, it is a result that represents an important step for a side who in the last month appear to have turned the corner.
In truth they were substantially assisted by Leicestershire’s absence of cutting edge with the hosts escaping from 243 for seven to an imposing 522 for nine – Gary Wilson and Chris Tremlett taking advantage of the Foxes' lack of killer instinct.
As was the case with success over Derbyshire last week – another 10-wicket win - Surrey’s slow bowlers then took centre stage with Gareth Batty and Zafar Ansari sharing nine second innings wickets.
Surrey’s upturn has coincided with the combative Batty’s return – the ex-Worcestershire man having now captured 23 wickets in just five games – while Ansari can now boast together with an impressive batting average of 65 a bowling return of 29.
The Oval outfit – now with three wins in five – are clearly improving, whether they have advanced enough to put a genuine cat amongst the promotion pigeons we are only likely to find out when they face off against Hampshire next week.
Accounting for a battling final third to their eventual Division One relegation campaign and a new regime being in place, there was substantial optimism that Derbyshire could make an instant return to the top flight with the majority of the squad which previously won promotion in 2012 remaining in intact.
What has ensued however has been a season of nightmare-like proportions with defeat at Kent representing Derbyshire’s second consecutive 10-wicket mauling that leaves them just four points clear off Leicestershire at the foot of the table.
The batting has been the noteworthy concern for Graeme Welch, with Derbyshire averaging just 211 per completed innings and Shiv Chanderpaul – who is currently unavailable due to international commitments – their only established batsmen averaging in excess of 32.
To state Welch’s baptism has been one of disappointment is a huge understatement and with little remove for manoeuvre Derbyshire’s expansive ideas unfortunately currently appear distant pipe dreams – with an all-too-familiar position in the division two doldrums their likely destination.
With pace-setters Worcestershire and Hampshire not in action, a trip to Gloucestershire presented Glamorgan - third before this round of games - with a chance to claw back ground.
A true surface combined with a robust Gloucestershire meant the South Wales county were always facing an uphill battle, although that they were able to both build a 224-run first innings lead - in spite of the hosts scoring 391 - and force a scenario in which Gloucestershire needed to survive almost the entire final day for a draw represented a commendable effort.
Having taken the fifth Gloucestershire wicket with nearly 30 overs remaining victory looked plausible yet on a relatively flat deck Will Gidman and Benny Howell were able to batten down the hatches.
Glamorgan probed admirably but this result highlighted how in comparison to Hampshire and Worcestershire – who can boast Kyle Abbott and Saeed Ajmal - they lack a genuine game-changing bowler.
There was one small reason for Leicestershire to carry a wry smile following defeat to Surrey, with Charlie Shreck providing inspiration to tailenders around the world by scoring his maiden first-class half century at the age of 36 in his 155th innings.
Shreck - previously the definition of what you might class as a batting rabbit - is enjoying quite a remarkable purple patch in 2014 with 37 per cent of his career runs arriving during this period while at the same the Cornish born bowler is currently averaging 21 runs more than his career average.
His advancements are only a minor speck on the overall 2014 county cricket landscape, yet Shreck is more than worthy of special praise for improving his game despite being at the twilight of his career – thankfully the applauding Leicestershire balcony ensured his efforts did not go by unnoticed.
© Cricket World 2014