Ball One – Wagner gets it in the right
It was billed as a battle between England’s opening bowlers, the Jimmy and Stuey show yet again, but this time on opposing sides, red ball in hand, fighting (to quote Alan Partridge) the way God intended. But, as is so often the case when such mouthwatering clashes roll round, it was an interloper who stole the show. Kiwi bowler and Lancashire debutant, Neil Wagner, showed plenty of his trademark aggression to take 11 wickets in the match, which, supplemented by a smart 70 from Lanky’s other First Class first timer, Liam Livingstone, was enough to secure a vital 22 points in what promises to be a tough season back in Division One. Wagner is very much the kind of cricketer this column enjoys: he won’t listen to stories of groundsmen emasculating bowlers with their shirtfront pitches, he just runs in and makes things happen. It doesn’t always work of course – in cricket as in life – but he’ll play fearless cricket and he won’t die wondering.
Ball Two – Sam Robson occupies the crease – and selectors’ thoughts
If the course of true love never did run smooth, neither did that of opening batsmen like Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Virender Sehwag, even Geoffrey Boycott. It’s hard work up there with the new ball bouncing and swinging and your first mistake often your last. So it’s no surprise that even some of the greatest openers took time to figure out a game that worked for them, balancing risk and reward, knowing when to play and when to leave, thinking only of the next ball and not the last. Sam Robson opened for England throughout the Test summer of 2014, scoring a century against the Lankans, but later showing fatal uncertainty around his off stump. He was sent back to county cricket and didn’t pull up any trees in 2015, as Adam Lyth replaced him for England and endured a very similar season – with the same result. Come 2016, Robson had the stats gurus rushing to their databases having made 231 and 106 at Lord’s on a flat pitch, and, perhaps more importantly for his England ambitions, batting almost 12 1/2 hours in the match. At 26, he has plenty of time to come again – at the same age, Hayden had also played seven Tests with one century to his name.
Ball Three – Hampshire’s late order digs in to frustrate Yorkshire
The Champions got their defence of the pennant underway with a typically powerful display at home to reach the halfway point of the match 452 runs ahead with half Hampshire’s men back in the hutch. But captain, James Vince, was still at the crease and his century inspired some impressive late order resistance from centurion Sean Ervine, keeper Adam Wheater and all rounder Ryan McLaren. Those last five wickets occupied over 100 overs and allowed Hampshire to get a hard earned draw and, perhaps more importantly, gain an early season confidence boost proving that they can hold their own with Yorkshire’s attack, one good enough to leave out David Willey.
Ball Four – Horton hears a “Who wants to open for Leicestershire?” call
No so long ago, a Leicestershire win was as rare as a quiet word from Danny Morrison, but they currently stand “played one, won one” after crushing Glamorgan. While Clint McKay’s eight wickets were critical in delivering the win, Paul Horton’s experience at the top of the order also played a part, especially after the bowlers had conceded 348 in the first innings of the match. Horton spent 13 seasons at Lancashire, with plenty of highs and lows in red ball cricket and it’s fair to say that little will surprise him any more. With Mark Pettini also slotting into the batting unit, Leicestershire will hope the weight of runs will correlate with the weight of years in 2016.
Ball Five – Sands of time run out for Sussex and Essex at Hove
Emotions ran high at Hove as Chris Nash made a century wearing a shirt bearing the name of the late Matthew Hobden, whose death shocked everyone in cricket. By Day Four, more prosaic cricketing matters captured the attention as two questions were answered. (i) Alastair Cook could bat in the new ECB approved helmet, his undefeated six hour 127 irrrefutable proof of that. (ii) Neither Essex nor Sussex could force a result, the away side falling 63 runs short, the home side three wickets away from success.
Ball Six – Batsmen cash in as early season pitches offer plenty of runs
It’s too soon yet to judge the impact of the county championship’s strange non-toss rule (which allows the away captain to bowl first if he so chooses), but if the match between Gloucestershire and Derbyshire is a harbinger of those to come, bowlers might prefer to have bat in hand rather than ball. Liam Norwell, hitherto the possessor of a single half century in 58 First Class innings, plundered 102 as nightwatchman, as 1267 runs were scored for the loss of 22 wickets. As ever with pitches, the best are those which promote a balance between bat and ball, usually through pace and even bounce – get that right, and the cream will always rise to the top.