The New Season

After a thrilling climax to the 2016 Specsavers County Championship, the new season got under way with some splendid weather – at The Oval, some fans even enjoyed the cricket with their shirts off. Not something you would be able to say of every April cricket match in the past!

Because cricket’s rulers seem incapable of leaving things as they are, this season introduced a new format to the Championship. Division One has been reduced to eight teams, who each play one another home and away. Division Two, with ten teams, also has 14 matches, but each county plays only seven of their opponents at home and away, a formula that ensures any side who gets two games against the weaker teams and one against the stronger outfits will have an unfair advantage. But many feel that fewer games will enhance the quality of the cricket by giving players more time to recover and to practise. We wait to see if this proves to be the case; county members may just notice that they get fewer days’ cricket to watch.

As if that wasn’t enough of a change, the ECB had punished Durham by not only relegating them from Division One for going into debt, they also penalised them so they started the campaign on -50 points. At least they weren’t the only county starting the season in negative territory: Leicestershire were deducted 16 points for disciplinary problems.

The warm-up matches against the MCCU sides saw Lancashire bowl out Cambridge for 62 and 56 in what seemed a typically one-sided encounter that was over inside two days, but the students had some highlights in the 12 games. Loughborough made the highest ever score for an MCCU side – 553 – with Charlie Thurston (126), Nitish Kumar (141) and Sam Evans (114) all scoring centuries against Northamptonshire, the latter picking up a contract from Leicestershire a few days later. Meanwhile, off-spinner Luke Chapman took six for 78 for Cambridge against Nottinghamshire on his first-class debut.

Lancashire returned to the south-east to take on promoted Essex at Chelmsford and chose to bat first. At 160 for six, it looked to have been the wrong decision, but they battled their way to 319 all out, Dane Vilas top scoring with 74 on his debut. James Anderson and Kyle Jarvis blew away Essex’s top order, and the hosts could make only 159 in reply. Alex Davies compiled a career-best 140 not out, adding 183 with Vilas (92) for the third wicket, to help his side to declare on 317 for three, setting an unlikely target of 478. Essex began the final day on 89 for two, and Dan Lawrence batted the whole day, finishing on 141 not out after more than seven hours at the crease. It was a monumental effort that justifiably earned his side a draw.

At Headingley, Yorkshire were looking to rebound after missing out on the Championship pennant last year, and in Hampshire (reprieved from relegation because of Durham’s punishment) they appeared to have everything in their favour. However, unlike Lancashire, who lined up with both Anderson and Haseeb Hameed, Yorkshire were without their England stars. Hampshire chose to field first, and the decision was quickly vindicated as the hosts crumbled to 152 for seven, but a partnership of 106 between new skipper Gary Ballance (120) and Steven Patterson (37 not out) helped them up to 273. It suddenly seemed more than enough when Ben Coad, the young paceman who went into the game with just five career wickets, took six for 37 to skittle Hampshire for 141. Kyle Abbott bowled his side back into contention with a magnificent seven for 41 – his best figures for the county – to ensure the hosts made just 187, setting a target of 320. With seven of the top eight chipping in with scores of 30-plus, Hampshire moved on to a splendid four-wicket victory.

There were extraordinary goings-on at The Oval. It all seemed like the usual sort of batting paradise in Surrey’s innings, with new recruit Mark Stoneman making a fine 165 (the first Championship century of the summer and the highest score of the season to date), showing immediately how much Durham will miss him. Chris Wright took five for 113, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the home side from reaching 454.

Suddenly it became a totally different pitch, or so it appeared. After moving steadily to 30 without loss, there was a sudden and catastrophic collapse that left Warwickshire reeling on 48 for eight. Mark Footitt did all the damage, and finished with figures of six for 14. The left-armer may have missed his opportunity to play for England now, but he is certainly worth considering. All out for 91, Warwickshire were forced to follow on. Former England stars Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell added 103 for the third wicket, but it was Trott who went on to take the game into the final day. When he was finally dismissed for 151, the end wasn’t long in coming, and Surrey wrapped up victory by an innings and 1 run.

Glamorgan were trounced by an innings and 22 runs at Northampton inside two days. Having chosen to bat first, they were rolled over for 101, before the home side replied with 310 helped by a blistering 86 from Rory Kleinveldt in just 58 balls. Kleinveldt (with six in the match) and Ben Sanderson (with seven) once again gave the Glamorgan batsmen no respite, and bowled them out for 187 to bring a swift end to the visitors’ embarrassment.

Relegated Nottinghamshire won the East Midlands derby by an emphatic ten wickets at Grace Road. Stuart Broad had the honour of taking the first Championship wicket of the summer, bowling Paul Horton at the end of the first over of the match. Leicestershire found it difficult to cope with Broad and new recruit James Pattinson, both ending up with three wickets, as the hosts were all out for 251. Perhaps slightly more surprisingly, the same pair were the top scorers in the visitors’ innings, adding 122 for the eighth wicket after coming together with their side in difficulty at 167 for seven. Pattinson made a career-best 89 not out, while Broad chipped in with 52. Ben Raine polished off the tail to finish with career-best figures of six for 66 as Nottinghamshire were bowled out for 329. A first-innings lead of 78 didn’t seem decisive, but the home side found Pattinson still in devastating form, taking five for 29, and with Luke Fletcher picking up four for 35, they were soon all out for 81. The victory target was 4, and Greg Smith won it with a six.

There were further problems for the batsmen at Canterbury, too. Visitors Gloucestershire chose to field first, and will have been satisfied enough with bowling out the home side for 298, especially given that everyone made double figures, but no one went beyond Joe Denly’s 62. Opener Chris Dent made the top score of the match (67) in reply, but his team-mates couldn’t stay with him, and his side stumbled to 149 all out, with Mitchell Claydon taking four for 35. Liam Norwell picked up five for 59 to help bowl out Kent for 246, setting a tough target of 396 for victory. What followed was an embarrassing procession, as veteran Darren Stevens finished with six for 22 in nine overs, the 40-year-old’s 13th five-wicket haul. Gloucestershire tumbled to 37 for nine; had the last wicket fallen then it would have been their lowest score since 1924, but they scraped their way up to 61.

With five victories out of six games, it was a round of decisive outcomes, in stark contrast to the rash of draws that marred the early season in 2016.

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