Matt Carter picks out 11 talking points from the most recently concluded round of LV= County Championship matches.
As the season rolls past the quarter way point, deciphering who will lift the trophy come September is as difficult as it ever has been - with just 11 points separating the top five.
A host of counties have showcased the signs of a title tilt only to follow that up with evidence of why they might not finish on top of the pile. Warwickshire were the latest to display such traits, following up two successive wins with a thumping defeat to a Yorkshire side who as a result take up the mantle of table toppers - a position that has proven somewhat of a poisoned chalice.
Middlesex - who have been more Jekyll and Hyde than anyone - have shown credentials of why they will and why they won’t in equal measure, while Nottinghamshire this week emerged on the title landscape.
Amidst the melée Sussex remain in second although after a sensational start, the last few weeks have perhaps exposed their weaknesses.
The only thing that does look certain is the season’s continued unpredictable nature.
With the likes of James Taylor, Samit Patel and Michael Lumb at their disposal Nottinghamshire boast a formidable batting unit, yet thus far it has been the unheralded Rikki Wessells who has been their shining light.
In a game that appeared dead following two days of persistent rain, Wessells smashed 158 off just 152 deliveries - the final 50 arriving from a mere 20 balls - to turn the game upside down and leave Northants the best part of 76 overs to survive.
Arguably the draw remained favourite but against a side with increasingly weary morale Nottinghamshire sensed an opportunity, one which Peter Siddle and Ajmal Shahzad were able to seize as the pair claimed eight wickets between them to propel Notts into the title reckoning.
Both Siddle and Shahzad are worthy of significant praise – the former’s nine wickets in the match suggesting he is beginning to acclimatise and fill the job description of strike bowler. Nonetheless this was a victory that should be attributed to Wessels, who now occupies fourth spot in the run scoring charts and is clearly in the form of his life.
Round 6 results
Middlesex beat Lancashire by 10 wickets
Nottinghamshire beat Northamptonshire by an innings & 10 runs
Sussex drew with Durham
Yorkshire beat Warwickshire by an innings & 155 runs
Derbyshire drew with Kent
Hampshire beat Glamorgan by six wickets
Surrey beat Gloucestershire by four wickets
After the euphoric success of last year things have turned sour at an alarming rate for Northamptonshire - with the jump in divisions currently appearing a step too high for a squad badly hit by injuries.
What will be most concerning regarding this latest defeat is that Northamptonshire themselves manufactured it from a position where the draw looked the only plausible outcome. The batting once more folded meekly in the second innings as for the fourth time in as many games they were dismissed for less than 200 - alarmingly surviving only 49 overs on a relatively flat track.
It is not just the batting though which represents concern, with the manner in which Wessells together with Shahzad tore into their bowling to set up a result is no less worrying.
There was a sense of Northants being resigned to their fate and it is clear that the belief built from their exceptional 2013 has been quashed - as a result recovery from here looks a huge ask, nevertheless Derbyshire did make a similarly stuttered start last year only to come back fighting at the end, suggesting a recovery of some proportion is not inconceivable.
There will come a time in the very near future when Warwickshire must face life without Ian Bell - such has been their reliance on the England man that those times don’t bear thinking about.
In defeat at Headingley - excluding Bell - Warwickshire could muster only 188 runs across two innings. Match-winning centuries from Tim Ambrose and Jeetan Patel down the order last week against Middlesex - a game that Bell missed - masked another alarming top order showing but there was to be no bailout this time, as Warwickshire’s batting strife was brought fully into the light by a rampant Yorkshire.
Varun Chopra - a model of consistency throughout the last two seasons - averages just 17, while Laurie Evans and Ateeq Javid cannot boast a single half-century between them and William Porterfield, although performing slightly better is lacking consistency.
As excellent as their bowlers are, they can only get Warwickshire so far if the batsmen continue to toil - particularly with Bell’s departure imminent.
Reduced to 181 for six against an in-form Warwickshire it seemed a rare failure was on the cards for Yorkshire’s daunting batting line-up yet that proved mere false thought as firstly Kane Williamson and Tim Bresnan – 75 and 61 - combined to take them to relative safety, before Liam Plunkett fired an aggressive 83 from number nine to move them into a dominate position.
This was Yorkshire’s fifth score in excess of 400 and highlighted that even beyond the star-studded top order they possess considerable depth. The bowlers who had toiled away on a placid Chester-le-Street pitch last week got their long awaited reward here with Jack Brooks and Plunkett particularly impressing as Warwickshire were twice dispatched cheaply - an accomplishment made all the more impressive considering Ryan Sidebottom’s absence.
After a couple of frustrating weeks, Yorkshire would have been keen to reassert themselves and this latest merciless display has more reiterated their credentials.
Round 7 fixtures
Northamptonshire v Middlesex
Somerset v Durham
Gloucestershire v Kent
Leicestershire v Hampshire
Worcestershire v Essex
The general opinion is that if Middlesex are to win a first Championship since 1993 then prolific duo Chris Rogers and Sam Robson must be afforded more support - something which has been noticeably absent in their opening skirmishes.
Against Lancashire however the support finally stepped up. Dawid Malan was first to rise with 93 and Eoin Morgan then went one better by passing three figures - before half-centuries from Neil Dexter, John Simpson and Ollie Rayner guided Middlesex to a lofty 459.
Tim Murtagh - six for 60 - then did what he does best by producing an expert display of seam bowling to down Lancashire on day four and with it guide Middlesex to a third successive home victory.
Such is the strength of Middlesex’s bowlers and their opening pair that merely satisfactory returns from the rest should be sufficient and although sterner tests await, this showing at least offers a hint that the middle order can fill that criteria.
Two defeats from their opening five games on the surface represents a solid showing but accounting that on two further occasions Lancashire were fortunate to escape defeat, their form is concerning.
The batting has thus far has proven the Achilles heel, with scores of 266 and 233 on a relatively true surface in defeat against Middlesex meaning they remain without a total in excess of 350 and have only once exceeded 300. Further to that since Ashwell Prince passed three figures in the opening round nobody else has scored a century, with the retirement of Simon Katich - who scored four tons last year - proving a significant loss.
Batting woes were the fundamental reason for their relegation in 2012 and although their scores will never surpass those of sides playing on more generous home surfaces, if returns continue in the current vein then it will be touch and go whether Lancashire avoid an instance return to the second tier.
Having reduced Sussex to 115 for five, Durham’s bowlers might have sensed an opening from which to lift off their season - only for Luke Wright and Ben Brown to superbly slam the door shut on that opportunity as each hit career-best scores in a partnership worth 335.
Durham hardly helped themselves with a series of dropped catches and some wayward bowling, while things went from bad to worse as Graham Onions was forced off with a back injury. Durham have now taken just 50 wickets in four games and are in dire need of a kick-start before they are consigned to a relegation battle.
Sussex themselves struggled for inspiration in a game that become somewhat of a non-entity and perhaps hinted at how they may lack sting on more testing pitches without Chris Jordan - the likes of Steve Magoffin and Jon Lewis are experts at utilising conducive conditions but lack the ability to ignite particularly docile surface.
Even the wiliest of cats meet their maker in the end and although Glamorgan didn’t quite enjoy nine lives, their recent escapology acts have been nothing short of astounding.
There was no great showcase of resistance in the conclusion to their unbeaten run; this was more a case of encountering a Hampshire side who were simply a cut above - a fate that is unlikely to be unique to Glamorgan this season.
Hampshire’s batting has always been imposing - given the talents of Michael Carberry, James Adams and James Vince - yet they can now boast a seam attack to compliment that batting. The acquisition of Kyle Abbott - who already has 17 wickets in just four games and claimed six here - has given Hampshire the spearhead they craved and provided much needed support to James Tomlinson, who had previously more often than not carried the attack.
This second victory of the season takes Hampshire to the top of Division Two and it would take a brave man to bet against them finally returning to the top tier.
With Gloucestershire 142 in front and with nine second-innings wickets in hand despite being bowled out for a paltry 168 in their first innings, Surrey’s season was seemingly looking in tatters - even at this early stage.
At that moment though and in dire need of inspiration it was Chris Tremlett who emerged as an unlikely hero. A while back Tremlett was an obvious match winner yet a nightmare few years - culminating in a disastrous time in Australia over the winter - has seen him cut a pale figure of the imposing bowler he once was.
Such has been his decline that Tremlett was only selected for this fixture due to Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker being rested, yet from somewhere he found an intimidating spell of six for 59 to leave Surrey chasing 267 in easing conditions.
Unlike after Matt Dunn’s first innings five-wicket haul, Surrey’s batsmen backed up Tremlett to secure a first win of the campaign and only their second in 21 games - largely due to the efforts of Graeme Smith who belittled a season average of just 25 to produce a typically bullish pivotal fourth-innings century.
Smith’s men are far from on the road to recovery yet - after all this was a Gloucestershire side missing their two strike bowlers – but this might just be the spark they need to begin that journey.
Few counties endured greater weather-infused frustration than Kent this week - given that after bundling hapless Derbyshire out for 118 on day two persistent rain denied any genuine victory push.
Nonetheless there were still positives most notably the continued impact of Doug Bollinger who claimed his first five-wicket haul for the county and has now claimed 20 scalps in just four games. The absence of a bowling spearhead hugely hampered Kent last year - Charlie Shreck’s 33 wickets were the best any of their quick men could offer - with this a significant factor in claiming only two victories.
With Bollinger adapting seamlessly, wickets should no longer be such an issue and considering last year they were only beaten twice - which suggests runs were not a substantial a problem - an improvement on eighth place surely beckons.
© Cricket World 2014