With an Ashes series at the end of the summer to look forward to, early-season form in the Specsavers County Championship is being eagerly scanned for tips as to who might fill the various roles in the England side that appear up for grabs. With five totals of 500+ in the round, it was the batsmen who appeared most likely to shine. For the second round of fixtures, all 18 counties were in action and in the First Division it was Somerset who were quickest to make a statement, as they beat Nottinghamshire by an innings and 14 runs inside three days at Trent Bridge. The visitors chose to field first and bowled out the home outfit for 263, with Lewis Gregory the pick of the bowlers, taking six for 68. His superb castling of Samit Patel was much repeated on social media.
Three quick wickets appeared to have kept the hosts in the game, until a partnership of 223 between Tom Abell (101) and George Bartlett (making a career-best 133) brought the scores almost level. There were sufficient runs down the order to take Somerset up to 403 in reply, a lead of 140. Stuart Broad, who said on Twitter ‘Bowlers want the seam back on the ball, please!’, still managed to pick up five for 73 to show that he isn’t going to be giving up his position in the England side without a fight, after missing out on more of the winter Tests than he would have wanted. After Jack Brooks had picked up a couple of early wickets, it soon became the Jack Leach show, as the spinner ran through the Nottinghamshire line-up to finish with figures of six for 36 as they crumbled to 126 all out. With Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid also in the running, it appears that England might have a tough decision to make on who to pick as their first-choice spinner.
At Southampton, Yorkshire took a little longer to earn a result, but the outcome was even more emphatic. The visitors chose to bat first, and made it count. Gary Ballance led the way with a fine innings of 148, after his unbeaten 101 against Nottinghamshire in the first game of the season. With a first-class average of 48.23, some are wondering if it might be time to recall him to the England line-up, as he is without doubt one of the most effective batsmen on the county scene. Sceptics will point to a Test average of 20.26 since January 2016, after he had averaged 60.75 in his first eight Tests. Either way, Yorkshire piled on the runs and eventually declared on 554 for seven. The declaration came as a relief to Liam Dawson, who bowled a mammoth spell of 60 overs, taking three for 184.
In their reply, Hampshire’s Sam Northeast made 99, which was the top score out of their 302 all out, and unsurprisingly they were forced to follow on. In their second innings, things did not improve and the top order was swept away, with Ben Coad proving to be both miserly and penetrating. At one point his figures were 12-8-9-3. Dawson (92 – he also made 57 in the first innings to ensure his employers got full value for his services in this match!) and Keith Barker (64) tried to prevent the inevitable after their side had slumped to 59 for eight, and they put on 131 for the ninth wicket, but by then it was too late. All out for 208, they lost by an innings and 44 runs.
At Edgbaston, the game followed a similar pattern to the one at Southampton, with visitors Kent opting to bat first and making a first-innings total of 500-plus before declaring. Opener Zak Crawley set the tone with his innings of 108, but it was Ollie Robinson, with a career-best 143 (never having made more than 26 in his previous seven first-class innings), who took the game completely away from Warwickshire. When he was out, Heino Kuhn declared with the score on 504 for nine. Tom Milnes, on his return to first-class cricket for the first time since August 2017, failed to take a wicket.
Dominic Sibley, who took a little while to find his feet in the Midlands, led from the front and compiled an excellent 132 – it was his fifth century in his last five matches, and if he can sustain this sort of form he might also be one who can throw his name into the debate for the England opener’s slot, though others may note in the 48 games prior to this current run he had scored just three centuries. His runs weren’t enough, and despite a valiant last-wicket partnership of 73, the hosts were all out for 346 and had to follow on. Slumping to 49 for four in their second innings wasn’t what was required, and although they were able to escape an innings defeat, by the time they had erased the deficit they had lost seven wickets. Tim Ambrose (107) and Henry Brookes (a career high of 84) put on 144 for the eighth wicket, helping set a target of 123. Harry Podmore took five for 62. Kent then raced to their target, for the loss of two wickets.
The final match of the round pitted the champions of 2017 against the champions of 2018, with the holders hosting the deposed side at The Oval. Surrey chose to bat first, and the first day belonged to 20-year-old Will Jacks, who made a bristling, career-best 88, while Ryan Patel followed it up with a patient maiden century, finishing on 100 not out after six-and-a-quarter hours at the crease. For more than an hour of that, he was kept company by Nos 10 and 11 as they took the score up to 395 all out. Peter Siddle took six for 104, the best figures of his Championship career.
Skipper Ryan ten Doeschate scored 130 to help Essex up to 448 in reply. By close of play on the third day, Surrey had knocked off the deficit without loss. After two wickets in quick succession early on the final morning, Rory Burns and Ollie Pope steadied any nerves while giving more food for thought to the England selectors. Surrey eventually declared on 324 for six, with Simon Harmer taking five for 88, setting a target of 272, but the match ended as a draw one over later.
In the Second Division, Sussex were the first to secure a victory after they beat Durham by six wickets at Chester-le-Street early on the final day. The away side chose to field first, and found the hosts in resolute form. Skipper Cameron Bancroft batted for more than three hours for his 33 and set the tone. They were eventually all out for 224 on the second day after batting for 102.4 overs. It turned out to be enough to give them a narrow first-innings advantage, as Durham then dismissed Sussex for just 202. Things could have been even worse but for an unbeaten 98 from Luke Wells. In their second innings, Durham relied on Gareth Harte’s 74 not out to get them up to 189, but no one really had an answer to David Wiese, whose five for 43 was his best return for Sussex. Facing a target of 212, Stiaan van Zyl ensured there would be no alarms for Sussex, making an unbeaten 101 – the only century of the match – and his second of the summer after his 103 against Cardiff MCCU.
At Cardiff, there was little chance of anything other than a draw on a batter’s paradise of a wicket, where at the start of the last day the match aggregate was 1092 for 12, with four wickets falling on each of the first three days. Glamorgan’s batsmen got first use of the conditions, and Marnus Labuschagne (121 – on his UK debut), Bill Root (126) and Kiran Carlson (111) all made centuries before they declared on 570 for eight.
Northamptonshire openers Ricardo Vasconcelos (a career-best 184) and Robert Newton (105) put on 303 for the first wicket. Rob Keogh then became the sixth centurion of the match, making 150. Skipper/keeper Chris Cooke was the only one not to try his luck with the ball, though Nick Selman had to wait until the end – and picked up a wicket, doubtless asking if he could come on sooner than after more than 220 overs had been bowled. All out for 750, it was the second highest total in Northamptonshire’s history, and the highest anywhere in England since 2007; the innings also featured 61 extras, three other batsmen making half-centuries, including a career-best 53 for Nathan Buck. There was still time for Glamorgan to make 70 for one in their second innings before the match concluded in a draw with an aggregate total of 1390 runs for 19 wickets, an average of 73.15.
The runs weren’t shared evenly at Leicester, where visitors Worcestershire won by an innings and 18 runs. The away side were put in to bat, and took full advantage of the decision as they made 553 for six declared. Daryl Mitchell started things off with a score of 114, and he was followed by Hamish Rutherford, who hit 123 (the highest score in his Championship career), and Ben Cox, who made an unbeaten 100. The hosts couldn’t find anyone to make a similar contribution, and they replied with 302 and followed on. There was then a fine return to form from Charlie Morris, who took a career-best seven for 45 to rip through the home side, who were all out for 233.
Gloucestershire put Derbyshire in to bat at Bristol. Tom Lace, on loan from Middlesex, was the main obstacle, as he scored a career-best 83 in the visitors’ 291 all out. The wickets were shared around, but none fell to debutant Harry Hankins, younger brother of George and the first this summer to make his debut in a Championship game. It continued to be a tough game for the Hankins family, as the elder sibling was dismissed for a duck in the reply. Gareth Roderick top-scored with 98, and Harry made his first runs at this level (9) as the hosts compiled a total of 350. Derbyshire batted out the rest of the match, finishing on 388 for three, with Wayne Madsen scoring 204 not out, adding 278 for the fourth wicket with Alex Hughes (109 not out). Hankins remained wicketless.
Finally, at Lord’s, Lancashire won by seven wickets after they put Middlesex in to bat. Tom Bailey took five for 67 as the home side were bowled out for 265, after having been 126 for one. Cricket fans around the country were delighted when Haseeb Hameed made 117, his first century since August 2016, when he made two of them in the match against Yorkshire – a gap of 66 innings. Having once seemed to be a natural successor to Sir Alastair Cook, an in-form Hameed will be a great asset. It may only be one innings, but often that can be the switch that makes it happen again. Rob Jones backed him up with a score of 122, his second and higher century. All out for 427, the Red Rose led by 162 – and it could have been more were it not for Tim Murtagh, who took five for 69. He already has 17 wickets this summer. Glenn Maxwell was the surprise package in Middlesex’s second innings, taking a career-best five for 40 to help bowl out Middlesex for 200. Lancashire then lost three wickets in reaching the 39 runs required.
As it so often the case now, the fixture list has been reconfigured compared to the previous campaign, and for a month now the entire focus will be on the Royal London One-Day Cup, with no red-ball cricket from 14 April to 14 May. There has been much debate about having too much Championship cricket in April, but for six counties to have had just one game by the middle of May seems a shift too far in the opposite direction – as does the fact that the first floodlit match will take place on Wednesday, when those heading to Canterbury will be hoping it gets much warmer than it has been of late.