Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 30, 2018

Five County Cricketers of the Year – 2018

Following 2017’s inaugural list, 99.94 recognises five county cricketers of the year – in the style of a publication that has done something similar for 120 years longer.

Rory Burns – A man whose five years long hot streak proves he can meet a challenge

Left-handers seem to be given more licence by the gods, their sinister deals unknown to those of us who favour the right hand. Brian Lara and Shiv Chanderpaul had esoteric techniques and that’s before we get to Burns’ recent team-mate at The Oval, Graeme Smith. So maybe we should ditch discussion of the multiple moving parts Burns employs at the crease and watch the bat – and that, in an age when it is almost a sign of unorthodoxy, is straight.

Rory Burns finished the Championship season with 270 more runs than his nearest rival in Division One – James Hildreth, another who deals in that hard currency, rather than potential, style, or the mysterious “michaelvaughaness” that is always cited when a player averaging 33 is called up for the Test XI.

Ed Smith has said that Burns made an unanswerable case for a slot on England’s tour to Sri Lanka and those words are revealing. It was never obvious that Burns had the talent to go on to be a Surrey regular, never mind an England player – he made batting look as difficult as it is, the man at the other end usually looked more “in” and he wasn’t Kumar Sangakkara was he? But there are a few openers who have made a success out of limited resources, as one particular example will tell you whether you want to hear him or not.

When Surrey appointed Burns captain in Championship and 50 overs cricket, there was a sense of a changing of the guard – Burns was a generation younger than his predecessor, Gareth Batty, but a generation (well, a cricketing generation) older than the bright young things coming through from the academy. Few could have predicted just how successful he would be in leading his charges – of course, it’s always a breeze when you’re winning, but there’s a happy confidence evident at The Oval these days, decent blokes playing more than decent cricket.

Opening in the heat and dust of Galle, Kandy and Colombo is one of cricket’s sterner baptisms – and the bloke whose shoes he’s filling is quite an act to follow – but Rory Burns has seldom had things handed to him on a plate. He deserves the chance to take the next step.

So that’s what happened to Jay out of The Inbetweeners.

Olly Stone – Raw pace always gathers bowling laurels

My father told me that if you want to know how fast a bowler is, don’t watch the ball, watch the batsman. I first saw Olly Stone playing white ball cricket for Northamptonshire in a televised match and he didn’t look much at first glance. He didn’t have the heavyweight boxer’s build of his near contemporary, Patrick Cummins; he did not possess the balanced run up of Dale Steyn; nor did he have the innate menace that announced Sylvester Clarke’s threat.

But you looked at the batsmen and they were twitching, half-ducking, half-jumping and nowhere near getting into line – there was a touch of the fear that is evident in those grainy clips of Harold Larwood, another speedster who looked anything but.

This season, Stone has produced Larwoodesque numbers for Warwickshire – in seven matches, he has 43 wickets at an average of 12.2 and strike rate of 22.3. Okay, they are Division Two stats, but batsmen were unable to cope with his pace and – as anyone who watched The Ashes last winter can testify, if you can toss the ball to a bowler who can take wickets with velocity, you’re going to win cricket matches.

Injuries have set back Stone’s development and there’s still plenty to do in terms of grooving the action, making it repeatable leading to greater consistency and improved injury prevention. But it must not be at the expense of his pace – always a precious asset and one increasingly rare amongst Englishmen. Stone is an outlier and management cultures do not always deal well with outliers – Ed Smith knows a thing or two about that stuff and must use the quickest bowler he can pick with due care and attention.

Tom Bailey – Forging a link to the past

There will always be room in the English game for a tall man who hits the seam hard and gets at the batsman. It’s an old adage, but “You miss, I hit” (more prosaically, “You lose concentration, get greedy or give me less than a straight bat, I take your wicket”) is as good a tactic as any. It can take time for a bowler to learn that it really is enough – and that he should not apologise for it.

In a team that was relegated, Tom Bailey delivered on one of cricket’s toughest job descriptions – bowling behind a fragile batting line-up. 158, 144, 130, 109-9, 247, 161, 99 – Lancashire’s first innings scores in half their Championship matches: not much for an opening bowler to work with. His personal figures make for better reading. In Division One, only Simon Harmer bowled more than Bailey’s 440 overs, few bettered his average of 19.7 or his economy rate of 2.9 – and nobody took more than his 64 wickets.

He worked with Graham Onions in 12 matches, the old pro bagging 57 victims of his own at 22 and showing Bailey exactly what was needed to squeeze the maximum advantage from conditions. There will have been a few old stagers at Old Trafford enjoying watching a couple of Northern lads playing cricket in a very Northern style with names like Statham and Higgs coming to mind.

Tom Bailey might never play for England – or, perhaps he’ll get a Bicknellish handful of Tests – and that raises the question of whether it matters? Sure the domestic four day game has a role in producing Test players, but it also has a role in providing entertainment for its fans – of which there are many, if not always in the demographics that excite the boys in the colourful braces with their research and charts. Players like Bailey weave themselves into the culture of English first class cricket and provide links to a past that sits in the institutional memory of the game, even of the nation. Just because such nebulous stuff can’t be monetised or turned into KPIs doesn’t make it any less valuable.

Joe Denly – Completing his long pilgrimage back to international cricket

Amazingly, he is still only 32!

Denly’s England career lies both nine years in the past and possibly, incredibly really, two months in the future after his selection for the tour to Sri Lanka capped an extraordinary renaissance for a player whose youthful bright talent had dimmed to a flickering light as he went from Kent to Middlesex and then back to Kent.

What was it that turned the key in the lock and flared the flame again? I’d venture that his bowling has promoted a freedom in his batting, an example of the two skills not working against each other to exhaust body and mind, but in harmony, the ball complementing the bat. Always useful, but with legspin’s increasing value in white ball cricket where it can flummox even the sweetest timers of a cricket ball, Denly’s wrist spin has become a frontline option for his county – and his figures show just how effective a contributor he has become.

In Kent’s run to the final of the Royal London One Day Cup, Denly made nearly 500 runs at 70 at a tad under a run a ball; he also took 14 wickets, also just under a run a ball. In the Twenty20 Blast, he notched over 400 runs at a strike rate of 145 and took 20 wickets at an economy rate of well under 8 an over. In Kent’s promotion season, he topped the batting charts with 828 runs and chipped in with 23 wickets at 18.5. That’s what you want from an ever-present senior pro across three formats and 38 matches.

Whether he can translate that output into the international game remains to be seen, but we can be sure that he’ll be ready if the nod comes.

Lewis Gregory – Never undersells the fans

Cricket provides its spectators with a range of pleasure: the slow burn of a low-scoring first class match; the hopeless chase suddenly revived by the “big over”; the duel between a skilled bowler going through his variations while a batsman defends knowing his time will come, if only he is still at the crease. Players too can provoke the outpouring of love that saluted Alastair Cook’s last Test innings at The Oval or the visceral thrill of watching Michael Holding at the same ground, 42 years earlier. So… is there a player in county cricket more watchable than Somerset’s Lewis Gregory?

Three matches, one from each competition, illustrate that claim.

In the Royal London One Day Cup match at home to Middlesex, Gregory, captaining the side, came in with the score on 142-5 in the 28th over and left, four sixes later, with it 250-7 with 38 balls still available. Opening the bowling, he then knocked over Nick Gubbins and Eoin Morgan, Somerset running out comfortable winners.

In the T20 Blast (in which he scored over 300 runs at a strike rate of over 200!), his 60 off 24 balls lifted Somerset to 209-5, which proved too much for Nottinghamshire, limited to 190 all out, Gregory again doing a decent job with 2-29 off his full allocation.

In a Division One match against Yorkshire that both sides needed to win, a pair of half-centuries (scored at a strike rate of 140) twice took the game away from the bowling side and, when he had ball in hand, his match figures of 43-16-99-6 ensured that there was no way back for the Tykes.

Gregory is not (at 26) a great player, but he is a player capable of great performances that win cricket matches and empty bars. Picked for the the England Lions white ball squads for the matches against Pakistan A, if full international honours do not arrive, I suspect his brand of all-action cricket will prove very attractive to the franchise leagues around the world.


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