Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 29, 2019

Five County Cricketers of the Year – 2019

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

Dominic Sibley – Finding his feet

The transition from child star to well, adult, never mind star, is a difficult one in any walk of life. For every Michael Jackson, there’s an er… Michael Jackson I suppose, but you don’t need to see Britney in the barber’s or Miley on the wrecking ball to know that it can take a few years to work things out.

Dominic Sibley was a schoolboy when he scored a maiden century in his third first class match for Surrey, enough to make the most jaded of county cricket’s legion of denigrators to prick up their ears. He was branded “A Talent” (if not quite “An FEC”) a burden that seemed to grow heavy on his shoulders.

He struggled to find an identity at The Oval. I last saw him there bashing and biffing in the T20 before having a bit of a bowl, keen to contribute, but almost too keen, that “A Talent” label all but visible as it tarnished, Sibley trying to justify it almost minute-by-minute.

It was no real surprise when he set off up the M1 to Edgbaston, away from the eyes that had seen the debut double and wondered (consciously or subconsciously) why they hadn’t seen another.

In 2018, he made four centuries as Warwickshire gained promotion and has backed that form up in 2019, topping the Division One scoring charts by a distance with over 1300 including five centuries. And it wasn’t all about runs.

Sibley takes guard at the top of the order and then bats. And bats. And bats. For over 3000 balls, he did that in the Champo, with no other batsman facing more than 2005, scoring just the one six (this from  a man with the power to hit plenty). “A Talent” had arrived.

The brave new world of “No Fear” batting has put a World Cup on the ECB mantelpiece a mere 44 years after England hosted the first final, so job done. But that approach didn’t work in Tests for Jason Roy and now Jonny Bairstow has paid the price too. At 24, Sibley has passed through the kind of crisis of confidence and form that many teenage prodigies face and emerged as exactly the kind of batsman England need for 2020 and beyond. Whether he can continue that journey remains to be seen, but there’s plenty a bowler in the shires to attest to the width of his bat and the power of his concentration. Old fashioned virtues they may be, but Sibley’s timing may be as sweet as it was when compiling 242 against Yorkshire six long years ago.

Oh, the man who faced 2005 balls in Division One this season, second to Sibley? Sir Alastair Cook.

Darren Stevens – Him again?

I had people contacting me asking who this Darren Stevens was. “He can’t be a professional athlete – I’ve seen the photographs”.

I explained that he was indeed a professional athlete (and will be next year – at 44 – after Kent renewed his contract, like they had a choice). I continued, saying that he was a bits and pieces merchant all-rounder who knew his game and applied that nous mercilessly to score runs and take wickets. After 88 and 5-39 and 5-53 at Trent Bridge and 237 and 5-20 at Headingley in this month alone, a few records got the taverna treatment.

There’s more to it than that of course, Stevens being the kind of county pro you could find in any season since 1900 (maybe 1800 if we interpret county and pro liberally). Stevens just knows when and how to get into a game – as useful an instinct now as it was when the shepherds first bashed a few pieces of wood into Hampshire’s loamy soil.

Bowling, he’s there or thereabouts, a shorter, slower Glenn McGrath, but just about as demanding to face if there’s juice in the pitch, preying on batsmen whose concentration may need a little work after the biff-bash-bosh of T20. He keeps going too, fit enough to deal with the physical side, strong enough to deal with the mental side.

Batting, he blocks the good ones and hits the bad ones – hard. He senses when it’s his day too, and seeks to cash in, knowing the value (for the team and individually) of bowling with a few runs in the bank.

22 years on from his first appearance in county cricket, he appears to be improving – and anyone who is still getting better at anything, two decades or more since they started, is worthy of all the praise in the world.

Tom Abell – A season to remember

They say that England’s captains have a tough time because they don’t get experience in the domestic game. Perhaps Ed Smith should have a look at Somerset’s Tom Abell, who may not have the numbers to warrant a place as a batsman (or all-rounder) but, at 25, has delivered a season no Somerset fan will ever forget – in all three formats of the game.

His men got off to a lightning start in 2019, racing away in the County Championship and cruising to a win in the Royal London One Day Cup Final, the last at Lord’s, to put a trophy in the cabinet. Inevitably, a sticky patch would come and, after five wins and a draw, they ran into Jamie Porter, Aaron Beard, Peter Siddle and Simon Harmer, and were mugged in Chelmsford.

They won four of the next five, but fell short in the T20 Blast, before Kyle Abbott’s flood of wickets and September’s flood of rain scuppered their chance of an inaugural, romantic, hell I’ll say it, deserved(ish) pennant.

Abell played all 14 Champo matches, topping the batting averages and chipping in with 13 wickets as less than 25. And he played all the RLODC matches too, doing what he needed to do to get through the group stages and knockout matches. And he played all the Blast matches, second in the averages to Babar Azam, but scoring at a strike rate 28 higher than the Pakistani international. And he was captain in most of those matches, Lewis Gregory not available through England commitments and injury more than anyone might have anticipated.

Tom Abell is the kind of cricketer who might never play for England and, looking into the crystal ball, might never play for a franchise either, but should a player like that be squeezed to the margins of the game? The men with the Gantt charts and the powerpoints will make their case, but us cricket fans? We say no.

Ravi Bopara – Experience counts

When the Essex boy with the half-smile about the lips made three consecutive Test hundreds for England ten long years ago, his future looked assured. With Alastair Cook to mentor him, he’d bat at three for a decade and play plenty of white ball cricket too, his bustling liquorice allsorts with the ball a handy second string.

But the West Indies tourists were followed by the Australians and even that 2009 squad proved a different prospect for Ravi after the easy pickings of pummelling very cold Lionel Baker and co. In international cricket, he became a white ball specialist, but was culled after the World Cup 2015 debacle.

He had played 171 times in all for England and was soon playing lots of franchise cricket too, so why would he bother with Chelmsford’s, less say homely, environs? It seems the dinghy bijoux old ground has a pull that demands an escape velocity greater than Ravi can muster.

So the man who was born in East London found Essex to his tastes (as so many do) and at 34, he brought all that experience to bear, especially in limited overs cricket. He also wore that face that radiates calmness when he wins and complacency when he loses – in T20 this year, it was calmness.

In the run of five must-win games that Essex won to lift the trophy, Ravi made 219 runs off 125 balls, a strike rate of 175, always under pressure, for once out. He averaged nearly 40 in the Champo (second to Cook, natch) and chipped in 12 wickets in the Blast to go with an average 13 runs higher than any team-mate.

Ravi always looked like he felt the game came easy to him – remember those fielding lapses that spoke of a mind elsewhere? – but he’s now done the work and growing up to back up the insouciance with results. The man who would frustrate fans now delights us. Yes, it’s calmness not complacency for sure.

Dane Vilas – Barking out the orders

Another South African mercenary padding out his pension with a cruise round the Division Two grounds making two centuries and three fifties to average 34? What car did you say I would get?

When Lancashire asked their great Dane to bark out the orders in 2019, he’d already proved himself much more than that hackneyed cliché, but strong men have wilted when asked to lead out the Red Rose. With a (metaphorical – he wasn’t that good) glove on one hand and gauntlet on the other and a head full of welcome but tricky selection dilemmas, Vilas got almost every call right. (Okay, Liam Livingstone in the T20 vs Essex, I know).

If it was Lancashire’s riches with the ball that got them promoted, Vilas’s 1000+ runs at nearly 80 played a full part too. His daddy (and he likes a daddy) came at Colwyn Bay, where Glamorgan were marmalised for 266 en route to eight Lanky wins for the season, promotion secured by 66 points.

Vilas played 14 Champo matches, 12 Blast matches and 10 RLODC matches – sometimes those mercenaries earn their money.

This column concludes 99.94’s coverage of the 2019 county season. My thanks to readers who have stuck with the domestic game in tumultuous times on and off the field for English cricket and, especially, for those who take time to comment, their warmth and wisdom is much appreciated. And a huge h/t to Paul Campbell at The Guardian, who cheerfully bowls uphill into the wind, week after week, to bring these words to you.

 


Responses

  1. Nice article. And while I don’t disagree with your five, Simon Harmer was surely in the running?


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