Ball One – Ollie Rayner regal at Lord’s come mid-August
Nobody thinks scheduling matches is easy, but the ECB might have chosen a better week than the closing one of The Olympics and opening one of the Premier League football season to stage crucial matches in all three domestic competitions – but they didn’t. Middlesex enjoy a 26 points lead at the top of Division One after seeing off Durham by an innings in a rare positive result at Lord’s. The home side’s two Nicks at the top of the order, Gubbins and Compton, both made decent hundreds and Toby Roland-Jones, seldom out of a game for long, applied the long handle just prior to the declaration with a lead of 332. But Middlesex had Ollie Rayner, off spinner, affable chap and late season specialist, to thank most for their win, the tall man returning figures of 4-17 in the first innings and 5-85 in the second. Spinners earn their corn in the Championship run-in and, if Rayner can repeat his trick from 2013 – taking 23 wickets in three late August / early September matches, Middlesex will fancy their chances of staying top.
Ball Two – CC for HH as Andrew Gale refuses to unleash a whirlwind
There are six other counties who could yet make a run for the pennant, led by its current holders, Yorkshire, who have a game in hand and plenty of know-how in the bank. So it was surprising to see the White Rose settle for what turned into a tame draw at Old Trafford, hands shaken on the field as Lancashire’s always fatalistic supporters wiped the sweat from their palms. After Haseeb Hameed had added to both his reputation and list of records with two centuries compiled over nearly eight hours at the crease against the best attack in English domestic cricket, Adam Lyth and Alex Lees were still together when the draw was agreed, the visitors with all ten wickets in hand. The target of 367 in 71 overs on a pitch that was said to have made scoring quickly difficult, was not chased despite Day Four bringing 350 runs for the loss of three wickets. Jason Gillespie and Andrew Gale have won more County Championships than I have, but I was not alone in being puzzled by their tactics and in wondering if their risk aversion may prove critical in the final reckoning.
Ball Three – Brad Wheal and Mason Crane can lift Hampshire even if they drop to Division Two
At the bottom of Division One, Hampshire beat Nottinghamshire to give themselves a lifeline and leave the home side with a lot to do in the last four matches if they are to avoid the drop. Hampshire led by 74 on first innings and a 160 runs stand between Jimmy Adams and Tom Alsop, who both fell in the 90s, took defeat out of the question, but there was still a lot to do to secure the win. Highly rated teenage leg-spinner, Mason Crane, had four sessions to spin Notts out and his 3-95 showed again that he has real potential in cricket’s most difficult art. But he was upstaged by another teenager, Scotland’s Brad Wheal, whose seam-up at fourth change brought figures of 19-4-51-6. Hampshire might yo-yo into Division Two next month, but these two young bowlers have shown that they can take wickets and can only improve with time in the middle.
Ball Four – Ravi Bopara shines away from the limelight
Essex, without a win since early July, extended their lead at the top of Division Two to the 23 points they picked up in the win over Derbyshire, rock bottom and winless in a miserable season. Nick Browne’s epic nine hour 229* set up the victory but the craft and nous of Graham Napier and Ravi Bopara took 13 of the 20 wickets required for just 132 runs between them. Bopara hasn’t registered three figures with the bat in red ball cricket in 2016, but averages a tick under 40 which speaks of his consistency. With the ball, his 37 wickets at 20 have compensated perfectly for the lack of output from Jesse Ryder, whose different version of nagging medium pace has been effective in recent seasons. Of course, few areas of national sport are more under the radar than Division Two County Championship cricket, but Bopara has dug in for his home county and has shown no sign of sulking now his international career appears over – something for which he deserves much credit.
Ball Five – Kumar Sangakkara is as cool and as ruthless as Andrea Pirlo
The winners of the Royal London One Day Cup quarter-finals were Yorkshire, who will play Surrey at Headingley and Warwickshire, who will play Somerset at Edgbaston, the matches sympathetically scheduled over the Bank Holiday weekend. The match of the round was won by the shot of the round, maybe of the season, as Kumar Sangakkara, needing 12 off the last over, squatted, crouched and lifted Azharullah straight over the keeper’s head and the boundary for a six. Rather like Andrea Pirlo (another veteran icon of world sport) with his Panenkaed penalty in Euro2014, Sangakkara knew the shot was worth more than merely what was recorded on the scoresheet with its impact on his opponents, and, sure enough, he got Surrey home off the last ball, his share 130*. Northamptonshire recalibrated their sights from 50 overs to 20.
Ball Six – Two captain’s knocks from Alex Wakely steer Northants to T20 glory
And they didn’t have to wait long for redemption, as they dodged the showers to lift the NatWest T20 Blast Trophy with a comprehensive win over Durham in the Birmingham gloom. After Ben Duckett’s bravado and Alex Wakely’s accumulation had set a target of 162 (worth 20 more in better batting conditions), Nottinghamshire were only really in the chase when they hit 34 off the 10th and 11th overs and fell 8 runs short, completing a difficult week. Enjoying the longer break afforded to the first semi-finalists, Northamptonshire’s pace-off sextet of bowlers and superb catching held all but Durham’s in-form opener, Keaton Jennings in check and could count themselves somewhat unfortunate to be chasing as many as 154. But Wakely, on the field for all but nine of the 80 overs comprising the two matches, was accumulating again, and found a different partner to blast away at the other end, as Josh Cobb hit the ball all round Edgbaston. Cobb left the crease with his team six runs short of victory which, after a bit of nervous prodding and panicky running, duly arrived in the last over. In T20, Northamptonshire so often punch above their weight, even when their finances appear as shot as some of their fans in the Hollies Stand after a long day on the beers. The first silverware of the season is deservedly theirs.