Matt Carter reflects on the latest LV= County Championship action, picking out 11 key talking points from the fifth week of matches.
Once more the elements heavily influenced proceedings with only three of seven championship games resulting in positive results.
Division one, which had seen a series of spicy wickets defy the weather gods last week was not so lucky this time around. Games at both Taunton and Chester le Street meandered into draws - although unconducive surfaces did little to help - while at Old Trafford Sussex were denied a push for victory on the final day by persistent rain and general gloominess.
In what was an all-too-familiar story in the second tier only one game brought a positive outcome, with Leicestershire hindered by the elements for a third week running at Chelmsford and Glamorgan escaping once more in another rain hit encounter against Worcestershire. Such has been the impact of the weather that Division Two has now witnessed just two victories in three weeks.
It would not be far from the truth to suggest that Ian Bell has thus far carried Warwickshire’s batting, therefore there was naturally plenty of anxiety surrounding how they would cope not only without the England man but several other regulars against a buoyant Middlesex.
Having dispatched the visitors for a mere 167 it appeared Warwickshire’s batting – of which the XI selected could claim only three half-centuries between them this season - would prove their Achilles heel once more as they slumped to 142 for six. At that point though Tim Ambrose (167) and Jeetan Patel (105) emerged as unlikely heroes, the former scoring only his third century since 2009 and the latter only the second of his career.
The stand proved the critical body blow to Middlesex as Warwickshire went on wrap up an innings victory with a day to spare, in the process firmly bringing their title push right back on track.
Patel capped an excellent all-round showing with four second innings wickets and the Kiwi has become an unheralded star at Edgbaston since his innocuous arrival back in 2009 – his overall batting and bowling averages of 30 and 28 respectively somewhat belittling career returns of 23 and 38.
Kent and Surrey have stumbled rather than shot out of the blocks, with both entering this round of games winless and were in need of ignition at Canterbury.
In surprisingly emphatic fashion it was the hosts who got that much needed lift off - clinching their first maximum point win since 2011 - in the process leaving Surrey with much to ponder.
After their opening two games were typified by inconsistencies and poor sessions at the wrong time, this was a Kent display in stark contrast. Rob Key and Brendan Nash scored centuries to provide the batting platform that had been absent in their opening two games, while young spinner Adam Riley – match figures of nine for 155 - produced the sort of match winning bowling performance that was so often craved in a 2013 campaign that saw just two victories.
Round 4 results
Durham drew with Yorkshire
Lancashire drew with Sussex
Somerset drew with Nottinghamshire
Warwickshire beat Middlesex by an innings & 47 runs
Essex drew with Leicestershire
Glamorgan drew with Worcestersire
Kent beat Surrey by 8 wickets
This latest setback means Surrey - whose inexperienced side possessed an average age of just 24 - have won only once in their last 20 championship games and worryingly these opening acts of the season hint that another year of strife might be on the agenda.
Their troubles are highlighted by the fact no bowler has taken more than ten wickets and no batsman has scored more than a single 50.
Only time will tell this if victory for Kent signifies a turning of the corner or is more a reflection of Surrey’s decline.
Rain might not have been as prominent at Taunton as elsewhere in the country but another lifeless pitch ensured Somerset were never in a position to take advantage, as for the second home game in succession the points where shared without a fourth innings looking anything like close.
Marcus Trescothick’s men have been impressive so far, with the early signals indicating they should be fighting in the upper reaches of the table rather than the basement battle they found themselves lodged in last year. Nonetheless if such lifeless home pitches persist – only 47 wickets have fallen at Taunton thus far – then any title aspirations Somerset may have will hit a fundamental stumbling block.
In what is now becoming the regular occurrence on these weekly talking points, Glamorgan were again able to escape from what appeared a likely defeat to preserve their unbeaten record.
Faced with the familiar scenario of battling to save the game, Glamorgan’s top order subsided once more - the Welsh county slumping to 38 for four early on the final morning. At that point it appeared the lives were running out, whilst when the sixth wicket fell shortly after Lunch defeat seemed inevitable against Saeed Ajmal and a Worcestershire side riding on a tidal wave of momentum.
Up until the fall of that sixth wicket Will Bragg was fighting a lone stand however the evergreen Mark Wallace joined him to see off in excess of 40 decisive overs, as the keeper passed 50 for the second time in the match. Wallace did ultimately fall but Bragg - eventually finishing unbeaten on 91 - completed an outstanding unbeaten vigil that encompassed almost six hours at the crease and 285 deliveries to ensure Glamorgan lived to fight yet another day.
The stale Taunton surface might have frustrated Somerset but Nottinghamshire’s faltering batsmen were grateful for an opportunity to regain form, with conditions significantly more docile than the testing early season pitches they have encountered thus far.
Arguably this was the perfect fixture for those maligned batsmen of whom only Rikki Wessells – with an average of 38 – could claim a season average of over 30 in advance of their journey south.
Encouragingly Samit Patel and Phil Jaques both took advantage by scoring centuries, while captain Chris Read contributed 96 - his highest first-class score since the 2012 season.
The question now is of course whether this form can be transferred onto more challenging wickets or whether Notts will revert back to the batting struggles that have hampered their campaign to date.
Round 5 fixtures - 11th-14th May
Middlesex v Lancashire
Nottinghamshire v Northamptonshire
Sussex v Durham
Yorkshire v Warwickshire
Derbyshire v Kent
Hampshire v Glamorgan
Surrey v Gloucestershire
The possible international call up of Moeen Ali - who solely held up Worcestershire’s batting throughout 2013 - was a worrying thought for everyone concerned at New Road.
Yet such has been the remarkable form of Daryl Mitchell that Worcestershire’s first experience without their prized asset passed without even the hint of a hitch. Mitchell produced back to back centuries on a testing surface, which but for staunch late Glamorgan resistance would have guided his side to a third successive win for the first time since 2008.
Mitchell’s sensational tally of 532 runs makes him the leading run scorer in the entire country – a title which Moeen claimed at the conclusion of the 2013 season - while three centuries means he has already equalled his combined 2012 and 2013 total.
With the skipper in such rich form Worcestershire can begrudgingly wish Moeen off without being riddled with worry.
Facing off against Durham in the early months of the season is meant to represent a severe examination to even the most formidable batting side, yet the defending champions have as yet struggled to find their bite – thus far failing to claim 20 wickets in a match.
They were hardly helped by a bizarrely mundane Chester le Street surface as Yorkshire become the first visiting side to pass 300 at the ground in over three years on their way to a head scratching 589 declared.
It was not all gloom for Durham given the stubborn showing of their batsman – Matt Richardson and Mark Stoneman in particular – who showcased impressive resolve to negate 193 overs, nonetheless even accounting for the pitch they were someway short of themselves during Yorkshire’s mammoth first innings.
Nobody will be panicking just yet but there is certainly food for thought in Durham’s winless start – just as there is in Yorkshire’s return of just one victory in their opening four games.
It might seem harsh to claim Lancashire were indebted to rain on a final day that was eventually put out of its misery with the Old Trafford outfit at 19 without loss in pursuit of 324.
This though is a Lancashire side who in seven innings can only claim a best score of 303 and an average innings score of just 212, who were facing off against a Sussex attack that has been ruthlessly efficient at exploiting conductive early season conditions such as those at Old Trafford.
Their first innings effort of 191 hardly inspired confidence and this was the third time in four Lancashire have failed to claim a single bonus point. That total might have been somewhat lower had Tom Smith and Alex Davies not performed a rescue act from 80 for six, with such lower order recoveries currently being required with somewhat alarming regularity.
With all this in mind Sussex are perhaps within their right to feel more than a little frustrated by the elements.
On the face of it conceding a moral victory at home to Leicestershire might represent a frustrating result for a side with promotion ambitions, yet considering Essex’s lengthy injury list it should be taken as a more than acceptable outcome against a side unrecognisable to the whipping boys of 2013.
The Chelmsford outfit entered this latest contest without their three leading wicket takers of last season – David Masters, Reece Topley and Graham Napier – and several batting regulars including England duo Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara.
If that wasn’t bad enough Essex also lost Tymal Mills relatively early in Leicestershire’s first innings.
Having conceded a deficit of 152, a first away win for Leicestershire since 2010 appeared plausible yet Essex initially through Jaik Mickleburgh and Greg Smith and then latterly James Foster – who negated a particularly precarious position – saw off 101 overs to prolong the visitors wait and secure what should be viewed as an impressive outcome against an improving Leicestershire.
After the elation of last week’s sensational victory over Yorkshire it was back to reality with a bump for Middlesex. As remarkable as that success was it was yet again another indebted to the efforts of Chris Rogers and Sam Robson - that over reliance on the prolific opening duo was however both exposed and punished at Edgbaston.
Aside from Rogers and Robson – who incidently produced forgivable rare first innings failures – Middlesex’s batsmen could muster only 194 runs across the match in spite of a relatively true surface.
Such paltry showings from the supporting cast were a significant issue throughout 2013 and have persisted into this new campaign, with Dawid Malan’s substandard season average of 24 alarmingly the highest for any Middlesex batsmen excluded the two openers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Middlesex’s two wins to date have been heavily influenced by a century from either Rogers or Robson, whilst in the two games neither has gone on to reach three figures they been beaten. For all their talents Rogers & Robson cannot continually be expected to carry Middlesex if they are to lodge a genuine title challenge, particularly with Robson’s impending England call.
© Cricket World 2014