Ball One – Ian Bell arrests Warwickshire’s alarming slump
Five of Division One’s eight teams have “Played Three, Won One” in what is shaping up to be a tight race for the pennant after last year’s last day thriller. Surrey lead due to bonus points, having run into a Warwickshire side displaying more backbone that has hitherto been discernible this season. After Ian Westwood’s first dig of the season saw him make anchor a competitive total of 332, the home side looked on as Mark Stoneman and Kumar Sangakkara made centuries to secure a handy lead of 105 for Surrey. But Warwickshire were in no mood to capitulate and, building on the morale fostered by taking the last five wickets for 43 runs, Ian Bell’s men batted out 123 overs for the draw, the captain making 99, Tim Ambrose 85 and the always admirable Keith Barker adding 70*. It’s a start for Warwickshire, but Surrey will worry that without Mark Footitt’s cutting edge (he was hampered by injury and out of sorts on the fourth day), they lack the firepower required to turn draws into wins.
Ball Two – After Hameed comes Livingstone – dare I presume?
If last season saw the elevation of Haseeb Hameed to England’s colours from Lancashire’s ranks, might this season see the same honour awarded to Liam Livingstone? The 23 year-old Cumbrian has backed up his successful England Lions tour with a whirlwind start in the County Championship, playing not one, but two captain’s innings as he led his team to a sensational victory over Somerset. Last man out for 68 in the first innings, he rallied his troops to hold Somerset’s lead to 169, then put on 245 for the third wicket in the company of keeper-opener, Alex Davies (about whom we would all be talking if we were not all talking about Livingstone), before the seamers knocked over the visitors for 130 to send the Old Trafford members into (no doubt) grumpy delirium. While much has been made of the unimaginative signings of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Dane Vilas and Ryan McLaren, eight of this Lancashire XI (Hameed, Davies, Luke Procter, Livingstone, Rob Jones, Jordan Clark, Steven Parry and Jimmy Anderson) are products of cricket in the North West of England – and that’s not bad by any standards.
Ball Three – Bad regulations stop play at Lord’s
Was anyone in danger of injury at Lord’s in the afternoon gloom of Day Four? Things aren’t quite so bad as they were in the days when Dickie Bird would have the players back in the pavilion, feet up, reading the Sporting Life as soon as a cloud scudded across the sun, but umpires are still too cautious about the light for the tastes of many – including me. Some would argue that Middlesex’s James Franklin only has himself to blame, batting on to secure an utterly unassailable lead of 451 before declaring, and others will credit Essex’s Neil Wagner with batting over an hour at Number nine under some pressure. But really – unless the conditions are dangerous, can’t professionals just get on with the game until the scheduled close? Neither side won – but cricket probably lost.
Ball Four – Scales tipping back towards Gary Ballance?
Hampshire enforced the follow-on against Yorkshire, despite their bowlers having sent down nearly 80 overs, but James Vince would probably have settled for starting Day Four with a lead of 46 and seven wickets to get. He’d have been happier still when Test men, Peter Handscomb and Jonny Bairstow, were dismissed inside the first 20 overs, but Tim Bresnan is one of the most reliable Number 7s on the county circuit these days and he got his head down to grind out 37 in nearly three hours, while his skipper, Gary Ballance added a double ton to his first innings century, batting nearly 13 hours in the match. That’s over 500 Division One runs already for the new White Rose skipper after his shattering second casting out from the England ranks in Bangladesh six months ago. Quirky though his technique may be, the Zimbabwe born batsman has 32 hundreds and 40 fifties in 121 first class matches. A wise judge once told me not to sell Ballance futures just yet and, at 27, the age at which Alec Stewart had played three of his 133 Tests, Ballance may play again for England before he’s done.
Ball Five – The best attack in the country thriving in Division Two after Riki “Blood” Wessels stirs Nottinghamshire hearts
Nottinghamshire swept aside Sussex in two very one-sided days at Trent Bridge, making one wonder – not for the first time, nor the last – how they were relegated last season. Boasting one of the strongest XIs in the country for the third week in succession, they were in a bit of trouble at 88-5 before Riki Wessels launched a sustained four hour assault on the Sussex bowling that brought him a maiden double century which, with handy contributions from the bowlers who bat (James Pattinson, Stuart Broad and Luke Fletcher) was enough to post 447 all out. Pattinson and Broad then delivered their day job, reducing the visitors to 11-3 at the close – the Sussex hotel dining room must have been a little quiet that evening. No such problem after Day Two, as the diners headed home to the South coast in the evening sunshine, Fletcher, Jake Ball and Samit Patel joining in the home side’s fun as 17 wickets tumbled. Notts, to the surprise of few, are top of Division Two after three matches in which their international players have raised standards throughout the team.
Ball Six – Kent go three for three to match Notts at the top of Division Two
Kent are hanging on to Notts’ coat tails with a similar 100% record, putting away a Derbyshire side who have now lost their two opening fixtures. Inevitably, it was Darren Stevens who led the charge, the ageless all-rounder taking 6-47 with the ball, then making 90 having come to the crease with Kent 49-4 in their second innings, the lead an ostensibly fragile 149. But Kent’s lower order comprises five “Number 8s” (Wayne Parnell, Matt Coles, Adam Rouse, on-loan James Harris and dear old ex-England skipper, James Tredwell), so they were never really in trouble. Kent’s seamers then swarmed all over the visitors and they ran out easy winners by 169 runs. In three matches each this season, Kent have delivered five overs of spin and Notts 26 – if English players are to learn to bowl spin and to combat the turning ball, that isn’t enough. Still, there’ll be plenty of slow bowlers (not exactly spin bowlers though) firing white ball darts soon enough.