Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 29, 2017

Five County Cricketers of the Year – 2017

In what will become an annual award, 99.94 recognises five county cricketers of the year – in the style of a publication that has done something similar for 120 years longer.

Kumar Sangakkara (Surrey) – Thank you Sir.

It was said that Barry Richards, his career coinciding with South Africa’s isolation, became bored with batting that notch below international as it came so easily to him. Well, it can’t have come much more easily to the South African champion than it came to Kumar Sangakkara, an all-time great of the game, whose powers, at almost 40 and in his last season of first class cricket, seem not so much undiminished, as enhanced.

Playing home matches at The Oval, a ground steeped in history for a history-maker, the Lankan lefty cut and pulled if the ball was short, drove with elegance and timing if the ball was up and if it was on a length? Well he hit some of those to the fence too, because, well, because he could. You didn’t need to look to see if the shots were his or his partner’s – the ball made a special sound off his bat, more like the crack of a whip in the desert air than the sound of leather on willow on a dank Spring or Autumnal morning. I can’t recall seeing fielders applaud his strokes, but they must surely have had to exercise will to resist the urge.

That was just the aesthetics – the statistics are even more impressive. 1491 runs in Division One at 106.5, the leading scorer by 335; 8 centuries scored against all counties bar Hampshire; and 545 runs at 78 (strike rate 97) in 50 overs cricket and 120 runs at 30 (146) in T20 cricket. All accomplished with the minimum of fuss despite the cross-Atlantic commuting to the Caribbean Premier League (second highest runscorer there too, natch), his play failing to astound but one person – himself..

As some do when the end is in sight, Sangakkara seemed to value his gifts all the more and the stage he had been offered to display them. He said this about the county game –

“The county professional is a very, very special breed of person and I’ve found a completely new respect not just for county cricket but for the game as a whole. To understand that wherever there is first-class cricket, the pride with which they play this sport, the pride in which the club supports the players and the pride with which the fans come and embrace those players, it’s something that suddenly hit me and it hit me once I retired from international cricket. I regret that but I thank Surrey for allowing me to rediscover that immense love and passion that first-class cricket and cricketers have for this game, and what an amazing breeding ground it is for players.”

He has some T20 business to conclude and then… Well, who knows? But cricket can’t afford to lose a man of such gifts; neither can sport, perhaps not the world as a whole. And if King Kumar does bring his formidable presence to fields beyond mere sport, his Cowdrey Lecture of 2011 gives grounds to believe that he will go into bat for decency and dignity – and boy, does that side need help these days.

Alex Hales (Nottinghamshire) – Hales storms to success in white ball cricket

In the Royal London One Day Cup Final, Surrey had made 297-9, a highly competitive score on a pitch that turned enough to prompt England to start their Test summer with two spinners just a few days later. Surrey’s seamers got plenty of grip too and Nottinghamshire’s batsmen trooped in and out of the Long Room with a regularity that had Surrey supporters happy at Lord’s for once. But Alex Hales was playing a different game – 50 posted from 35 balls; 100 from 83 (with the scoreboard showing 133-4). Surrey knew they had to get him out; Notts knew they needed to find someone to prop up the other end. Chris Read (who else?) did the strike rotation and Hales biffed his way to 187 not out, the champagne and the most obvious Man of the Match Award since Viv Richards made two more at Old Trafford 33 years earlier.

Hales finished with 434 runs in the tournament at 72.3 (strike rate 105.9) but wasn’t satisfied with that – and nor were Notts. They won the Nat West T20 Blast too, Hales making 507 runs at an astonishing strike rate of 204.4. That figure is largely the result of hitting 98 boundaries, his stand up straight and hit anything wide, short or full very hard indeed putting him 12 ahead of James Vince, second amongst the T20 boundary boys.

He played only seven Championship matches in the promotion season, but Notts won five of those, showing how his red ball strike rate of over 80 from his new slot in the middle order could take the game away from tiring bowlers. Hales will play in Division One in 2018 and might have rather more time to expand his four day game than he expected.

Alex Davies pictured last week

Alex Davies (Lancashire) – The boy from Darwen has evolved into a key player for Lancashire

In 2016, Alex Davies’ expected breakthrough season was ruined by injury he played only five Championship matches and no white ball cricket at all. But the diminutive, all-action wicketkeeper-batsman has made up for it in 2017, packing what feels like two seasons worth of cricket into a single summer.

Often keeping for a day or more, he would switch pads and gloves and, ten minutes later, take guard against a paceman charging in with a hard new cherry in hand – an impressive feat physically and mentally and indicative of a superb attitude towards the team, particularly in a season in which he was rehabilitating himself back into top flight cricket and could, with justification, have gone in at seven, amongst Lancashire’s impressive all-rounders.

He started the season with a bang, making 140* against Essex in a draw, an innings and result that looks rather better in the rearview mirror than it did at the time. Later in April, he was a key figure in Lancashire’s first win of an unexpectedly successful season, making 130 in the second innings, as Lanky turned a deficit of 169 into a victory by 164 runs in a match that knocked some of the stuffing out of Somerset.

He finished the season with 916 Division One runs, topping his county’s charts and behind only six batsmen in the top flight. His keeping suffered not a jot under this workload, his tidy fleet-footed work bringing him 42 catches and 6 stumpings, third on the Division One list, despite not keeping in every game.

Of course, Lancashire have England’s Jos Buttler on the books, but he played only four Championship matches for the Red Rose and seems to be, by default or design, mutating into a one day specialist. That might suit Lancashire supporters just fine if it means more of the same from Davies, the local lad from Darwen, who might not have to work quite so hard in 2018 with Keaton Jennings’ arrival at Old Trafford. Not that he’ll complain if he does.

Jamie Porter (Essex) – Pacer carries plenty of threat with the new ball as domestic potential is realised

To win the County Championship, a team need to win cricket matches and to win cricket matches you need to take 20 wickets and to take twenty wickets you need pace to knock over the top order with the new ball and spin to frustrate and winkle out batsmen with the old ball. Essex had the best opening bowler and best spinner on the circuit – and their runaway success in Division One was due primarily to them.

Jamie Porter was good in Division Two last year, but few expected him to fill the boots of the retiring David Masters and Graham Napier, whose canny swing and seam had brought 103 wickets at 22.2 in the promotion season. But Porter was listening, watching and learning and his 2016 haul of 55 wickets at 29 backed up a good 2015 and demonstrated that (at 23) he had the body to stand up to the rigours of bowling through an English summer. That said, nobody expected him to come through so strongly as he did in 2017, a season in which he has risen to the challenge with vim and wit to take five fivefers and a season-leading 75 Division One wickets at 17.

As was said about Toby Roland-Jones and Chris Woakes, I suppose some might claim that Porter lacks that red zone pace that Test cricket can demand, but, like those two (and one might add Ryan Sidebottom and Graham Onions from recent years), Porter’s method of getting good batsmen out at less than searing pace may well work at the highest level, even in his mid to late 20s. He could hardly have made a more convincing case for international recognition than his extraordinary year as a lynchpin in Essex’s extraordinary year.

Simon Harmer (Essex) – County batsmen bruised by Harmer’s aggression and spin

South African cricket tends to produce slow bowlers rather than spin bowlers (think JP Duminy and Paul Harris), but Simon Harmer may be bucking the trend. With Keshav Maharaj showing potential that might keep him in the Test side for a decade or more, Harmer, despite some Test match success against India in 2015 on big turning wickets, signed for Essex as a Kolpak with expectations of success somewhat muted after a 2016 season in which no Essex spinner reached double figures in the wickets column.

Harmer had a steady start to the season, picking up wickets here and there, doing enough to stay in the side without suggesting that he was more than a journeyman overseas pro of the type that can give county cricket a bad name. That impression was demolished in a single match at Chelmsford in which he took 6-92 and 8-36 in direct competition with the (hitherto) best spinner in county cricket, Jeetan Patel, whose 4-138 represented his only chance to bowl on the same strip. That innings win sent Essex 14 points clear at the halfway mark of the season and people started to look back 25 years and speculate on whether it was time for Gooch and co to be joined on the Chelmsford Honours Board.

The Essex, and Harmer, talk became louder still just one week later when the 2016 champions, Middlesex, were swept aside by an innings in the day/nighter, Harmer bagging another 14 wickets haul (5-77 and 9-95). Since then, we’ve talked of little else at the top of the table and Harmer finished with a pennant and 72 scalps at 19, also chipping in with handy runs the way South African slow bowlers do.

At 28, Harmer has just entered the peak years of a spinner’s career, his action grooved, his variations under control, his confidence sky high – no wonder his one year deal has been extended to three already. He bowls and bats with an aggressive attitude and, with shades on, he even looks a bit like Graeme Swann, ripping it to get drift and revs. He might never take 28 wickets in 10 days cricket again, but he’ll take plenty in the seasons to come.

 

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