After a month’s break - which was either welcomed or maligned depending on your situation – the County Championship makes it’s much-anticipated return from exile this week.
With the home stretch now approaching on the horizon, both the title and relegation equations remain firmly in the balance. In a season of such small margins prosperity is likely to hinge on who is able to best hold their nerve when it comes to the crunch, although there is also a nagging worry that weather could also have a fundamental impact on proceedings.
HOW THINGS STAND
In a season which has endured more twists and turns than a Hollywood blockbuster, that the title picture has been whittled down to four genuine challengers represents significant progress.
Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire appears the most likely final residence for the Championship trophy – prior to the commencement of the break the pair had exchanged the lead on five consecutive weeks – however both Somerset and Warwickshire will know sprint finishes could see them steal in at the last.
Aside from a freak loss at Lord's, where Middlesex successfully pursued in excess of 400, Yorkshire haven’t as much as diced with defeat, while at the same time Andrew Gale’s side are yet to go more than a two-game sequence without defeat.
In comparison Notts were forced to overcome a sticky start which saw them loss two of their three opening fixtures but a run of three victories in four means Chris Read’s side arguably currently carry the momentum, although deciphering where the impetus lies after the break is arguably a futile task.
It is difficult to envisage Yorkshire’s solidarity deserting them at this late stage – their astoundingly consistent batsmen have on 11 of 12 occasions exceeded 400 – nonetheless there is a nagging feeling that an absence of killer instinct has the potential to deny them ultimate glory.
On numerous occasions the White Rose have witnessed opposition batsmen scramble to final day safety, it is perhaps here where they have been most scorned by international calls – while Adam Lyth has more than masked Gary Ballance’s absence, finding a substitute for Liam Plunkett’s venom has not been so straightforward.
A final-day victory over Middlesex last time out will however offer ample encouragement and in particular a rare match winning turn with the ball from Adil Rashid.
Like Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire boast substantial batting muscle, with Samit Patel, Riki Wessels and Alex Hales all enjoying prosperous campaigns.
Arguably though where Chris Read’s men do concede an advantage is with the ball, given that aside from the now departed Peter Siddle no Notts bowler can claim a place in the division’s top 15 wicket takers.
Lancashire v Durham
Northamptonshire v Nottinghamshire
Somerset v Warwickshire
Yorkshire v Sussex
31st August-3rd September
Durham v Nottinghamshire
Lancashire v Yorkshire
Middlesex v Warwickshire
Somerset v Northamptonshire
Middlesex v Durham
Nottinghamshire v Yorkshire
Sussex v Lancashire
Warwickshire v Lancashire
Durham v Northamptonshire
Nottinghamshire v Sussex
Somerset v Middlesex
Lancashire v Middlesex
Northamptonshire v Sussex
Warwickshire v Durham
Yorkshire v Somerset
In regards to fixtures Notts perhaps hold the edge, accounting that they still have in the bank a game against perennial whipping boys Northamptonshire – at the same time besides a crunch clash with Yorkshire they don’t play another member of the current top four.
Somerset also have a clash against Northamptonshire to come, although an anxious 52-run win in the recent reverse fixture suggests nothing should be taken as a given. Marcus Trescothick’s side have only been beaten on one occasion to date - a return which can only be equalled by Yorkshire – with that enough evidence in itself to suggest Somerset should not be discounted.
There are nevertheless concerns, primarily and perhaps surprisingly with the batting. Aside from Trescothick nobody has offered consistent scores while a run of three fixtures without a win prior to that earlier mentioned Northants success raises question marks surrounding their form.
Craig Kieswetter’s absence is also a mark in the against column, however that Lewis Gregory – who has 37 wickets in just seven games – returned against Northants is an undoubted positive. In addition, their run of fixtures prior to a final showdown with Yorkshire is among the kindest – nevertheless lifting the title would likely require three wins in four which signifies a huge ask for a side who have only won four to date.
Clinging to the Championship shake-up are Warwickshire, although again to end on top of the table they are likely to need an arduous three victories from their remaining fixtures. That equation would have been somewhat less demanding had they not capitulated to Sussex previous to the layoff – although unexpected implosions when appearing set to mount a serious title assault have become an exasperating feature of Warwickshire’s campaign.
Batting has been the Bears' biggest problem, given they are unable to boast a single player who can combine 500 runs with an average surplus to 40. The emergence of Sam Hain and reinvigoration of Jonathan Trott is beginning to redress that issue, nevertheless it is difficult to see Warwickshire lasting the course – although a crunch meeting with Somerset this week has the potential to prove do or die for both.
Nightmare is not a strong enough a word to define the disastrous campaign Northants have endured on their return to the top flight. As a result they have long been consigned to an instant return to Division Two.
Who will be joining the bewildered basement club is still to be decided, with Lancashire, Durham, Middlesex and Sussex all battling to avoid the dreaded drop – the former two of the quintet being in substantially more danger than the latter.
Lancashire currently find themselves occupying the final relegation berth and having not won a single game, excluding twin victories against Northants, remain the favourites to exit the division.
In order to survive the Red Rose are likely to need a minimum of two victories from their last four games and although their fixtures appear charitable – Durham, Sussex and Middlesex are all on the agenda alongside Roses rivals Yorkshire – such a return would take a monumental effort considering their results to date.
Conceding a first innings deficit has proven a persistence hindrance, with Lancashire only once earning an advantage post first innings. Scoring runs has been their primary issue, however at the same time their bowlers have often failed to stick the knife in having negotiated a position of strength – in more general terms Glenn Chapple’s side have simply lost to many pivotal sessions.
The most vulnerable side to a Lancashire fightback are Durham, which makes the pair's clash this week beyond crucial. A win would surely see Durham over the hills in terms of achieving safety and possibly resign Lancashire to their fate.
The defending champions have presented a curious case in 2014, with their first win not arriving until mid-June and their main strength being batting resilience – a far cry from the side whose bowlers engineered an astounding 10 wins last term.
Graham Onions – their spearhead of last year – struggling with injuries has been a significant contributor to their strife as has the limited availability of Ben Stokes. Back-to-back wins in June hinted that their relegations worries would not materialise, yet a dismal showing against Warwickshire – in which Durham’s batsmen combined could only survive 105 overs – suggests there remains plenty to be anxious about.
Depending on developments this week those stresses could either substantially heighten or be distinguished – the significance of that fixture should not be undervalued.
Sussex, after an eight-game winless streak, had plenty of reasons to be apprehensive, such was their plight that in late June Ed Joyce’s side slipped into the bottom two – albeit with a game in hand.
Consecutive wins however – in particular a resounding success over Warwickshire – has seen the tension evaporate with Sussex now realistically a win from guaranteed safety.
Middlesex are also within a victory from booking their 2015 Division One ticket, yet having not won in six they have not only seen their title aspirations go up in smoke but also now have reason to look over their shoulder.
In reality it would take a remarkable set of circumstances for Middlesex to plummet – particularly accounting for Lancashire’s results to date – nonetheless it is hard not to be concerned by their nosedive in form.
© Cricket World 2014