County cricket talking points: the new format is delivering a thrilling season

Ball one: Fletcher sets Notts’ fans aquiver
In Group One, only five points separate Warwickshire, Durham, Worcestershire, Nottinghamshire and Essex (with Derbyshire not out of the picture either). Whatever the second phase of this strangest of County Championships brings us, the first phase has been a success beyond anyone’s expectations. Whether Warwickshire’s two wins and a draw to Worcestershire’s four draws should produce more than a couple of points advantage is moot, but I suspect everyone is just willing to see how the format plays out for now.

Nottinghamshire and Durham were the group’s big movers, with the long-suffering Steve Mullaney able to celebrate a win for the first time since – well, everyone has pretty much forgotten when Notts last won. Ben Slater and Joe Clarke’s 163-run partnership for the third wicket set the match up and then Derbyshire failed to match that total in either of their innings in what turned into an easy win – for all of the anxiety displayed by Notts’ fans en route.

While the recruitment policy at Trent Bridge has done little to endear Nottinghamshire to fans of other counties, few will begrudge Luke Fletcher the opportunity to raise a glass in victory. The burly seamer, who showed great courage and no little humour in recovering from a serious head injury in 2017, struck in his follow-through in an incident that prompted suggestions of bowlers wearing helmets at the time, took 7 for 60 in the match and is probably still telling people all about it now.

Ball two: Fielders can keep their hands in their pockets
When Tim Bresnan was eighth man out for Warwickshire on the first morning with just 30 on the tins, Durham were always more likely to be thwarted by the weather than their opponents – and so it proved in a comfortable innings win. Seven of those early wickets required no assistance from the fielders, indeed “bowled” and “lbw” accounted for more than half of the 20 dismissals Durham affected.

Watching some of the live streams (and they vary in quality as much as an over from a 14 year-old leg-spinner), the impression forms that county bowlers are inclined to bowl a little straighter and fuller than we’ve become accustomed to in Test cricket, where the beehive graphic can show a mere handful of deliveries going on to hit the stumps in an entire session. No doubt some of that inaccuracy will be down to the greater pace of the bowlers hitting harder pitches and carrying the ball above stump height, but there’s a suspicion that captains in the county game are far less reluctant to bargain runs on the onside for a shot at hitting middle and off. Bowl county lines and lengths to Test batsmen, and you might see 110 for 1 at lunch – but you might see 80 for 4 too.

Ball three: Lace tightens Gloucestershire grip on Group Two
In Group Two, Gloucestershire and Somerset lead the way with three wins out of four, leaving Hampshire’s international bowlers, the two London counties and poor old Leicestershire in their wake.

With earlier wins over Hampshire and Somerset, Gloucestershire started as favourites at home to Leicestershire, but looked anything but when conceding a first-innings deficit of 146, Sam Evans and Lewis Hill both posting three figures for the visitors. But Chris Dent’s men had already shown their mettle, the last four wickets adding 154 runs to establish that toehold.

After Ryan Higgins (the Darren Stevens of 2040) had bagged a fivefer, the hosts set off in pursuit of 348, a stiff, but gettable target and exactly the kind of denouement that first class cricket offers, perhaps uniquely in sport. Tom Lace and Ian Cockbain (with his grandfather, Bootle CC legend Ronnie, no doubt barking advice from the heavens) put together one of those partnerships that went from “no chance really” to “let’s just have a look after tea” to “it could be on, you know” to “let’s finish this off” as 224 runs were added before Lace fell three short of a first century for Gloucestershire. But Cockbain was not to be denied and, with a quick 33 from that man Higgins, they were home for a famous win.

Ball four: Smokin’ Roach
There was the prospect of guaranteed schadenfreude doing the rounds on cricket Twitter when Hampshire took guard at The Oval, both counties seen as big-money clubs with big-money players – whether that’s fair or not is an argument for another day.

What is beyond dispute is that Ollie Pope, last seen in England colours failing to come to terms with the demands of Indian spin, will learn plenty if he is in partnership with Hashim Amla for 61 overs, as he was in making 131, with the serene South African cruising to 215 as Surrey piled up a second successive score of 550+ at home.

If that’s one argument for expensive overseas pros, Kemar Roach provided another with a magnificent exhibition of fast swing bowling, for once taking the outside edge rather than regularly beating it, a technician at his peak. Roach’s 8 for 40 gave him 10 wickets in the match and rescued a Surrey season that was sliding through their fingers – and not for the first time in recent years.

Ball five: Sussex bowlers at home not at Hove?
Red Rose leads White Rose at the top of Group Three after a couple of tremendous wins for the rivals, who are set to meet on 27 May free on YouTube, but don’t tell the committees.

A quiz question first. What do the following have in common? Jofra Archer, Mitch Claydon, Chris Jordan, Tymal Mills, Ollie Robinson and Will Beer? The answer (apart from “that’s a damned fine attack”) is that they all appear to be under contract to Sussex in 2021 but none were available for the match against Lancashire. That left the new ball in the hands of teenagers Henry Crocombe and Jamie Atkins (both of whom gave good accounts of themselves) and spinning duties in the fingers of 20-year-old Irishman, Jack Carson. He has now taken two, three, six and seven wickets in his four matches this season, mixing off breaks with the kind of overspun deliveries that have brought Nathan Lyon and Ravichandran Ashwin over 800 Test scalps between them. This is real promise.

A fourth-innings chase of 253 is no gimme but, with the experience gap yawning, Lancashire’s old heads were always likely to best Sussex’s young strivers and so it proved, Keaton Jennings anchoring with an undefeated 91, while Alex Davies blitzed 11 boundaries to, Sehwaggishly, knock the first 100 down and Josh Bohannon biffing a few of his own to supply the other innings such a mid-sized chase requires.

Ball six: A match for the ages at Headingley
Yorkshire 206 and 247; Northamptonshire 234 and 218: Yorkshire won by one run. Sometimes you can just leave it there and let the numbers speak for themselves, the kind of scorecard that makes you think of Brian Close and Johnny Wardle, Colin Milburn and Sarfraz Nawaz.

If Yorkshire’s captain, the admirable Steve Patterson, hit the headlines with the wicket that secured the narrowest of wins, spare a thought for his victim, Wayne Parnell, whose two fivefers were responsible for getting his team into the position where he could bat for two and a half hours right up until that fateful ball.

David Willey, who, like his father Peter, represented Northamptonshire with distinction, must have had mixed feelings too. Since his move up the M1, Willey hasn’t always got into the championship side, Yorkshire seemingly unsure of whether to deploy him as a batsman who bowls or a bowler who bats. Against his old county, returns of 12 and 41 not out from No 9 and 3-43 and 3-39 may blur that question still further but, at 31 with only 74 first class matches played, he should have red ball in hand for a few more this summer.