The return of the LV= County Championship this week saw the title battle become a three-horse race and the fight to avoid relegation produced a classic encounter.
Defeat to Durham would have almost certainly consigned Lancashire to the Division One scrap heap yet a nervy but perhaps in the long run pivotal one-wicket victory has swung the relegation trap door wide open.
Prior to this weekend’s action Lancashire had not defeated a side other than basement side Northants and together with that the Red Rose were placed precariously 11 points shy of safety having played a game more.
Their twin Achilles heels have been a failure to mount substantial totals and arguably as a consequence of that first flaw, an inability to construct first innings leads. Those deficiencies though were both corrected against Durham with Ashwell Prince’s century guiding Lancashire past 400 for only the second time and with it achieving a vital 81 first innings lead.
There was still time for nerves to be frayed, however. At one stage Lancashire slipped to 90 for nine in pursuit of 107 before the ever-reliable Tom Smith combined with Simon Kerrigan to haul Lancashire out of the drop zone – albeit having played a game more than Durham.
Even accounting for that game in hand the problems are mounting for the defending champions. The batting solidarity that held their season together early on has suddenly deserted them – prior to this latest setback Warwickshire massacred them twice inside 107 overs – while their previously imposing bowling unit without spearhead Graham Onions has been a pale imitation of that which caused unstoppable carnage in the back end of 2013.
Round 17 Results
Lancashire beat Durham by one wicket
Nottinghamshire beat Northamptonshire by five wickets
Warwickshire beat Somerset by 215 runs
Yorkshire win by nine wickets
Essex beat Glamorgan by 63 runs
Hampshire beat Kent by 196 runs
Leicestershire drew with Surrey
Gloucestershire beat Worcestershire by seven wickets
Having merely hovered clear of choppy waters for much of the campaign Durham are hitting the rocks at the most dangerous of moments and their situation is not helped by Ben Stokes soon set to depart for England duty and Onions seemingly unavailable for the foreseeable future due to injury.
Highlighting their alarming batting slide is that only Michael Stoneman and Scott Borthwick now average over 37 with Borthwick’s record inflated by a single score of 216.
On a more positive note the fixtures – after a testing trip to Trent Bridge next week - do offer Durham some reason for optimism, with Northants and Middlesex on the horizon – the former’s plight needing no explanation and the latter appearing vulnerable given a run of six Championship fixtures without a win.
There is, however, a danger that given September’s variable climate, Durham’s survival bid could well be at the mercy of the weather.
Before the latest round commenced both Warwickshire and Somerset were clinging to title aspirations that allowed little room for manoeuvre so with the pair meeting at Taunton something had to give.
During the Championship break Warwickshire have quietly been building ahead of steam - with a Twenty20 finals day appearance likely to be complimented by a spot in the last eight of the Royal London Cup – although such returns are not entirely comparable to the longer format the impact of that momentum should not be undervalued.
In contrast Somerset have been short of form in both limited overs competitions and whether a coincidence or not, Marcus Trescothick’s side were second best throughout at Taunton as Warwickshire secured a 215-run victory midway through the final day’s proceedings.
A key component of Warwickshire’s recent limited overs rise has been the return to form of Varun Chopra and his renaissance continued at Taunton with a first Championship ton of the summer – further evidence that the Warwickshire jigsaw is falling into place as the season enters its final chapters.
In spite of this latest victory Warwickshire remain only the outskirts of the title landscape, nevertheless with growing impetus on their side should Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire falter then the Bears could yet strike at the last.
Unfortunately for Warwickshire, neither Nottinghamshire nor Yorkshire appear to be feeling the Championship heat – both returning from the month break to claim victories.
Notts, like Somerset before them, were made to work by a refocused Northants, however Alex Hales’ third first-class ton of the season ensured Notts progressed to their final target of 211 with five wickets in the bank – a somewhat more comfortable outcome than it appeared would infuse when they were reduced to 28 for three.
That was the second time Notts’ top order had folded, yet like in the case of Hales’ second innings ton Chris Read’s side found their way to a position of dominance – Michael Lumb, Rikki Wessells and the lower order guiding Notts to an unlikely 128-run first innings advantage.
Given Notts’ success Yorkshire’s recording of maiden back-to-back wins couldn’t have been more timely. Once more Yorkshire’s success followed a now all-too-familiar script. Their batsmen – inspired by Kane Williamson’s 189 - contributing a score in excess of 400 for the 12th time in 13 fixtures, before their bowlers ground down the opposition, in the process further disparaging those who queried whether they possess the bowling firepower to force home consistent victories.
When the action reconvenes in a fortnight Yorkshire face the challenge of a Roses clash against a buoyant Lancashire, while Notts meet a struggling Durham. It is difficult to make a case against Andrew Gale’s side not having the more testing encounter given the extra spice a Roses fixture brings.
That will then be followed by the pair facing off at Trent Bridge – when that concludes where the Championship will eventually reside should be somewhat clearer.
Northamptonshire’s resistance against Nottinghamshire might have ultimately proved futile, yet their performance in defeat was a far cry from displays which have typified a season of nightmare proportions.
Starting Sunday 31st August
Durham v Nottinghamshire
Lancashire v Yorkshire
Middlesex v Warwickshire
Somerset v Northamptonshire
Derbyshire v Worcestershire
Hampshire v Leicestershire
Kent v Glamorgan
Twice Northants recovered to from precarious positions to post respectable scores – the kind of scenarios in which previously they have almost without fail capitulated in. Synonymous with both those rescue mission was on-loan Middlesex man Adam Rossington who contributed scores of 108 and 81.
The return of David Willey has added need muscle to a bowling unit which has been powder puff throughout and the all-rounder was a significant factor in Notts’ top order toils.
That they couldn’t force home various advantageous situations is no surprise given their season of strife, however there are signs – a narrow defeat against Somerset before the break also hinting at renewed resilience – that Northants may no longer be the guaranteed pushovers they were a month or so ago.
Having been seemingly a promoted side in waiting for much of the season, Hampshire had toiled to such an extent in the weeks preceding the break that the race for the final coveted top two spot had been blown wide open.
Piling the pressure on Hampshire were the late blooming trio of Surrey, Essex and Kent – the latter of whom entered their respective contest with Hampshire on the wave of three consecutive wins.
The break though appears to have worked a treat for Jimmy Adams’ side with Hampshire recapturing the form which saw them dominate the opening half of the season alongside Worcestershire.
In his first Championship fixture of the season Chris Wood set the tone for Hampshire’s success, following up a first innings 61 – which with the aid of Sean Ervine guided his side from 218 for six to 380 – with figures of five for 39, a return which allowed Hampshire a 179-run advantage.
From that position of dominance the Hampshire stranglehold never relented as Kent subsided to a 201 run defeat.
This victory – combined with Surrey’s failure to beat Leicestershire – sees the Ageas Bowl outfit back into second spot, eight points clear of third-placed Surrey and with a game in the bank. With their run-in on the kind side and their sticky patch seemingly negotiated, Hampshire now look firmly back on course for a long-awaited top-flight return.
Defeat last time out to Kent – which somewhat derailed their burgeoning momentum – left Surrey with little space for manoeuvre in regards to their promotion tilt.
Victory at Leicestershire was considered essential, yet a combination of last-day batting resilience from the Foxes and changeable weather left Surrey with an exasperating draw. Even accounting for the elements Surrey would have fancied their chances of claiming Leicestershire’s final four wickets with just under a session remaining but Rob Taylor and Jigar Naik combined to leave Surrey’s promotion hopes on thin ice.
In reality Surrey’s chances were hindered by a failure to prise out a more substantial lead, albeit on a relatively flat surface, as Leicestershire replied to Surrey’s 480 – a total inspired by Steve Davies’ 174 – with a competitive 373.
With just two games to play with - against Worcestershire and Derbyshire – Surrey realistically need victories in both and for results to swing their way if an instant top flight return is to be realised.
Surrey’s frustrating trip to Leicestershire means Essex are now the most likely side to pip Hampshire to the final promotion berth.
Success over struggling Glamorgan – who after a promising opening half of the season have now lost four on the bounce – represented Essex’s third victory in only four outings. Prior to that they had won just one in nine.
Once again Glamorgan were let down by the ineptness of their batsmen, in particular the first innings of 161 which conceded a crucial 121-run deficit – Monty Panesar’s five for 50 instigating their demise.
The former England man captured 11 wickets in the match, taking his seasonal tally to 37 and offering a reminder of his respective merits.
20 points shy of Hampshire, Essex are likely to need a minimum of two victories from their remaining three fixtures and even that is unlikely to be enough should Hampshire finish in strong fashion.
Glamorgan are now in danger ending what initially appeared a season of much promise second bottom of the pile – that their batsmen average just 223 in their last eight completed innings being the significant factor in that slump.
Few sides have diced with inconsistency quite like Gloucestershire. That characteristic was in full evidence against Worcestershire with Gloucestershire ending the league leaders' unbeaten record in emphatic style – a side who they had been mauled by in their last Championship outing.
What will particularly please the Gloucestershire hierarchy is that this victory highlighted there is life after Will Gidman, with young seam trio Craig Miles, Benny Howell and Liam Norwell doing the bulk of the bowling damage.
Concerning for Gloucestershire is that Gidman also tops their batting averages – discounting those who have scored less than 300 runs – and it is this area which has proven their most consistent hindrance, which is surprising considering they can boast the talented and experienced trio of Alex Gidman, Hamish Marshall and Michael Klinger.
The former of that threesome did however play a key hand in victory over Worcestershire with a platform-setting century, while at the same time the return of the highly promising Gareth Roderick from injury was also a contributing factor - the keeper offering a free-flowing first innings 98.
In regards to the batting at least, there is enough evidence to suggest Gloucestershire shouldn’t endure a similar season of strife next time around, at the same time their young bowlers offer plenty of promise.
For Worcestershire, although the manner of defeat was worrying (had it not been for Richard Oliver’s destructive second innings 179 the result would have been a substantial beating) their healthy cushion at the top means they realistically are already out of the chasing pack’s clutches.
© Cricket World 2014