Ball One – The County Championship should stand up for itself
Shouldn’t the start of the County Championship, England’s Summer Sport’s premier domestic competition, be greeted with just a little more, well, if not razzamatazz, then at least, old fashioned publicity? Sure I know the arguments about budgets being tight and saving cash for the T20 launch and I know that the BBC did their bit with online commentary and I know that there were a few interviews and photocalls arranged and published… somewhere. But the County Championship is cowering in a corner sporting calendar, like a child hiding behind the bike sheds after being bullied in the playground, and that’s no answer. The solution isn’t too hard to divine and it’s one familiar to the businessmen and businesswomen whom we are always told understand these marketing things: find your audience and communicate effectively with them. Next season, when the Championship becomes even more difficult to understand, should start with a bang and not a whimper.
Ball Two – East Midlanders carry momentum from 2015 into 2016
In a tragic week for the club (and while we should acknowledge that James Taylor’s life is more important than his career, his retirement at 26 is a tragedy), his county, Nottinghamshire, are the early pacesetters in Division One. It was journeyman pro, Steven Mullaney, who showed the kind of boldness I call for in Ball One, by ignoring tricky conditions, having been asked to bat as the home side’s opener under the “no toss” rule new for 2016. He scored 113 at a run a ball to set up a first innings lead and, after Surrey’s inevitably stronger showing in the follow-on, made another 42 at the same rate to get the target into double figures before his team-mates squeeked over the line with three wickets to spare. Notts, having benefited from Peter Moores’ arrival halfway through last summer which helped rescue their 2015 season, have started 2016 in similar fashion – the parallels with Leicester City’s last twelve months may start to grow.
Ball Three – Bell’s ton alerts selectors
One man determined not to sulk in the domestic game or pursue franchise cricket is Ian Bell, who began his tenure as Warwickshire captain with a fine 174 that carried his team into a position from which they would have expected to win had the weather not taken too much time out of the match. Bell turned 34 on the washed out Day Two and, while he has recalibrated his sights on delivering runs to the county for whom he has played since boyhood, he will surely have an eye on England’s unsettled batting order. If he can keep turning out scores like this, it would be churlish, not to say foolish, to ignore a man who is two years younger than Chris Rogers when he was recalled to the Australian Test side to add much needed, and much appreciated, experience to a batting unit in transition.
Ball Four – Jennings off to a flyer
Another man making an early bid to catch the selectors’ eyes is Kyle Jennings, the South African born Durham opener who reeled off back-to-back centuries in a match in which no other batsman made 50. He is, of course, some way off an England place, but it will be interesting to follow this 23 year-old’s progress in 2016. Sometimes batsmen (especially openers) jump out of the pack for one golden summer – in 2001, David Fulton suddenly averaged 75 having never posted a number higher than 44 before or after. Could this be Jennings’ season?
Ball Five – Napier’s old bones still putting up the numbers
In Division Two, Essex, with Alastair Cook in the runs, rolled Gloucestershire to get off to a fine start. It was particularly pleasing to see one of this column’s favourite players back for another April – September gig and in red ball cricket to boot. Graham Napier first played for Essex in 1997 in an XI captained by Paul Prichard during which he bowled to Tim Robinson and Nathan Astle, but all those miles on the clock since then didn’t stop him doing what he has done during the 19 years since. In at nine (really? nine?) he scattered the pigeons with 33 and ball-in-hand, he bustled in at second change to take three wickets in each innings with his crafty medium pace. Napier never played international cricket, but he can reflect on a career that gave a great deal of pleasure not just to fans of Essex, but to fans of county cricket too.
Ball Six – Worcestershire need to do something to avoid predictable washouts
Kent’s Sam Northeast did not mince his words having had his club’s match at Worcester called off without a ball being bowled, the New Road outfield more lake than lawn – and he is right, it is “unacceptable”. Nobody thinks it’s easy to manage the playing area at that venue, but if four day cricket is shunted to the start and end of the summer in order to generate yet more income, enough of that money has to be dedicated to getting the game on. To be fair, the construction of floodlights at many grounds has led to fewer interruptions due to “bad light”, but all venues should now aspire to the quality of drainage that we see at Lord’s where, if it’s not raining, they’re usually playing.