Sunday, April 22, 2012

Close Encounters, Umbrellas and an Abandonment: Day Four, Yorkshire v Essex

Cheerful scenes at Headingley.
The public transport system of Sundays meant that I managed to miss Masters’ wicket of Sayers, but judging by his willingness to run in and bowl double the amount of overs that the other quick bowlers managed, it was a wicket that he deserved. The wicket brought to the crease Jonny Bairstow, and it was clear that he and captain Andrew Gale were going to go for the declaration.

Gale and Bairstow were positive. Bairstow cut Masters for 4 just before there was a rain delay. If a result was on the menu, the rain was the dish that looked the least appetising. Luckily for Yorkshire, it was only a shower, so Essex were back out with Tom Westley and Greg Smith bowling to a spread field with plenty of men on the boundary.

Smith bowled better in Yorkshire’s second innings than he did in the first. Having picked up the wicket of Joe Root, caught down the leg side, last night, he added the wicket of Jonny Bairstow too. Looking for quick runs, Bairstow went for a shorter ball and ended up pulling it to Adam Wheater at deep backward square leg.

Yorkshire’s attacking intent was clear. Throughout their mini partnership, Gale and Bairstow had pushed each other for twos, especially when the ball was heading in Charl Willoughby’s direction. In the same Smith over of the Bairstow wicket, Gale went for another six, but looked like he didn’t have enough timing on it. It was sailing to Willoughby at long off, but he somehow managed to drop it. In fact, it wasn’t even a drop. It just sailed through his hands.

About 45 minutes before the lunch break and after a Tymal Mills over, Gale decided he’d had enough. He clearly thought that there was something in the pitch, especially from the Kirkstall Lane End, for his bowlers to exploit and knew that a quick burst before lunch might see his side pick up a couple of quick wickets. There was also the weather to think about.

So, with his side 214-4 and with a lead of 261, Gale walked off. There were some murmurs in the stand, as many were confused about what was going on, but it soon became clear that Yorkshire had declared. Gale was not out on 48, but personal milestones clearly meant nothing compared to giving his side a chance at victory. Essex would require 262 in 74 overs or less and would want to show that their batting performance in the first innings was a minor hiccup.

Well, that was my hope anyway. Ryan Sidebottom and Ajmal Shahzad had different ideas, Shahzad especially. The battle of the first innings was definitely the one between Alviro Petersen and Shahzad coming in from the Kirkstall Lane End. Petersen was having a torrid time of it and it was no different in the second innings. Having managed to get off the mark, Petersen then managed to miss one that seemed fairly straight. The umpire had no hesitation in raising his finger and Essex once again found themselves losing an early wicket. 4-1 and there was still some time to go before lunch.

Tom Westley came in on a pair. Westley is a young player who, like Godleman and Jaik Mickleburgh last year, was fairly disappointing at the top of the order. With Alastair Cook returning for a couple of games in May, Westley will want to show that he deserves his chance at number three ahead of players like Mickleburgh and even Mark Pettini. He managed to get off his pair first ball and this innings played a bit better. He was hitting a lot of deliveries through the leg side and did play and miss a couple of times, but he managed to survive until the lunch break.

Godleman at the other end looked like he was also having trouble with Shahzad. Some deliveries were keeping a bit low. Petersen’s had kept a bit low, but he was also playing with his bat behind his pad, which is a huge danger in the early season conditions. Godleman seemed to be doing something similar and had survived a couple of LBW shouts until he was given out when he was on 2.

I got the camera out, Bernie got out. Sorry, Essex fans.
Like with the first innings, Godleman was not happy. The umpire took a long time to raise his finger and by this point, Shahzad’s eyes had nearly popped out of his head. For me, from where I was sat although with Essex tinted glasses, it looked a bit high. Still, the umpire’s decision is final and Godleman had to go and Essex were in a whole heap of trouble at 7-2.

Ravi Bopara once again found himself at the crease earlier than he would’ve hoped and, like in the evening session of the first innings, was having a lot fly past his outside edge. He played a lovely cover drive off Shahzad, but a lack of power combined with a wet outfield meant that it didn’t go to the boundary. Ravi played well this match and will surely be a welcome addition to the Essex middle order before England, perhaps, come knocking again.

Dry conditions over lunch meant that it looked like there may well be play for much of the afternoon session. During the lunch break Tim Bresnan was bowling on the outfield with Jason Gillespie as wicketkeeper. He hit the single stump plenty of times and must’ve spent the majority of the match sat in the dressing room eyeing up Petersen ahead of the summer.

When the players did come back out, the clouds were threatening behind the pavilion. Just after the first ball of a Sidebottom over, the heavens decided they’d open and the daily April apocalypse duly arrived. It forced Essex off at 26-2, with Westley on 12 and Bopara on 5.

After an afternoon session of several cups of tea, nearly bumping into both Graham Napier and Tim Bresnan and ending up awkwardly smiling at Charl Willoughby, the umpires emerged from the pavilion. They were joined by the ground staff out in the middle, but despite the sun coming out overhead, the weather that was threatening behind the pavilion meant that at 15:52, play was abandoned and the game was declared a draw.

Yorkshire will be thoroughly disappointed, especially after such a positive declaration. For Essex, the weather must have been of some relief and for them, it is back down to Chelmsford where they will face Northamptonshire on Thursday. There will be injury problames for Essex. Napier has just undergone his first round of physio for his calf injury, Phillips can hardly bend down and Bopara isn’t allowed to bowl. Essex will soon welcome back 18 year old Reece Topley from his England under 19 escapades, but with Napier gone, Smith and Chambers expensive, Mills only 19 and Willoughby having not bowled in a “proper” match since getting injured at Fenner’s earlier this month, the bowling attack is looking like it may well have to be the one man show of Dave Masters again.

Of course, the bowlers managed to fight back against Yorkshire, so it’ll once again be the batsmen under the microscope. Granted, it is April, Essex were playing at Headingley for the first time in, off the top of my head, three years and they came across a strong Yorkshire bowling line up, but if the side harbour serious promotion ambitions, then they can’t afford to keep losing early wickets. Even against Gloucestershire they did. Essex will be hoping that Alviro Petersen can soon begin to perform, but apart from his 156 against New Zealand, he’s been getting a string of low scores. With England presumably awaiting him this summer, if he keeps playing round straight ones, he’s going to be in for a rough time.

I wasn’t the only Essex fan in the ground. There was a lovely gentleman from Southend who I ended up chatting to during the rain delay. As we were leaving the ground after the abandonment of the match, he informed me that he was only doing the away games this year. He was all too happy to support the team, but this season he’d refused to buy membership and also refused to visit Chelmsford as he didn’t want to give the club a penny this year after the shambolic cancelling of the Southend Festival. There’s not really been a clear explanation as to why the festival has been cancelled, last year it drew in record crowds and, sadly, like with most issues that currently surround the club, the reasoning behind the decision has been kept very quiet indeed.

Still, I’ve enjoyed my hour and three days in Leeds. It’s been cold, it’s been wet and so much tea has been drunk that I was given a free one on the final day, but it’s been good fun and it was lovely to be watching the county I support in a different ground. It’s certainly an experience being an away fan at Headingley and it’s certainly one that I would thoroughly recommend. 

And if you're going to visit Headingley at this time of year, I recommend a snazzy blanket like mine. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sunburn, showers and Ravi Bopara: Day Three, Yorkshire v Essex

Ravi Bopara celebrates his century. He and Tymal Mills put on 48 for the final wicket.
"April is the cruellest month" said T.S. Eliot. Having been sat at fine leg at Headingley, getting sunburnt and battling the downpours, for the second day running, those words ring incredibly true.

They also ring true for the batsmen, not just from Yorkshire and Essex, but across the nation. Like yesterday, today was about one player and that player was Ravi Bopara. Out of Essex's total of 199, Ravi scored 117 and he finished not out. The next highest innings was from captain James Foster, who got 25 before edging Sidebottom to McGrath in the slips. Only Alviro Petersen and the extras got into double figures.

Bopara, having survived two separate hat-trick balls and looking incredibly uncomfortable and shifty at the crease yesterday evening, had to farm the strike to try and help Essex build a somewhat competitive total after being 42-5. Once Foster departed, David Masters came in ahead of Tim Phillips. Phillips had been missing for much of the afternoon session and hadn't bowled at all yesterday, so clearly something was up.

We soon found out that something was indeed up. When Masters was bowled by Shahzad for 1, Phillips came out to the crease walking gingerly and accompanied by Adam Wheater as a runner. 
Ravi and a batsman with a runner, it was a recipe for disaster...
Phillips can usually bat. He would, normally, be in before Dave Masters and his first-class batting average is in the low 20s. Today, however, he did not look right. He would leave his bat hanging outside off stump with absolutely minimal footwork, he couldn't bend his knees and he would only play a shot off his pads. He survived 43 balls for his 7, but there was pain etched on his face. It became clear later as he slowly made his way around the boundary and then tried to bend down to replace Tymal Mills' drink that he is suffering with a back injury.   
The wicket of Tim Phillips brought Maurice Chambers to the crease. To compound Maurice's miserable game, he was gone for a six ball duck, the fourth of Essex's torrid innings. It was also Ryan Sidebottom's 5th wicket, handing him figures of 5-30. Essex, at this point, were 151-9. Reaching 150 had looked a far cry yesterday evening, so it was a testament to Ravi Bopara who was displaying the sort of batting that most England fans, sadly, rarely see.

In came Tymal Mills. Mills' top first-class score is 8, which he got on debut against the touring Sri Lankan side. Bopara was a long way from a century and with Mills looking like a rabbit trapped in headlights, it was looking like Bopara may well be stranded.

However, Bopara farmed the strike well from the youngster. He did turn down a lot of singles, but all things considered, the amount he hit in boundaries probably made up for it. Mills scored only 2, but he batted for well over an hour and faced 41 deliveries for those two runs. At the other end, Bopara was playing some wonderful shots, including a cover drive for four. His century came about in generous circumstances, as Ajmal Shahzad gifted him a nice leg sided delivery for him to glance down to fine leg for four, a full delivery on his pads and then a ball with width.

The desperation to protect the youngster from strike soon proved the downfall for the 48 run partnership. Yorkshire were desperate for a wicket and Bopara was happy to oblige. He stormed down the pitch off the fifth ball of McGrath's over, looking for a single despite hitting the ball straight to the fielder. Mills ran, but Patterson was quicker and Essex finished 199 all out.

It's telling of the performance of Bopara and the tail that Essex fans were disappointed to miss out on a batting bonus point. To have reached 200, having been at least 5 down when they've reached 100, is something Essex have a knack of doing. It could've been much, much worse, especially if Bopara had managed to nick one yesterday evening, but a lot will be said about his innings and it will provide him with a lot of confidence before the English summer, should he be pencilled in to bat at 6.

Yorkshire had a lead of 47, something they may not have expected before the Essex innings. They reached tea 44-0, having nearly doubled their lead and Essex were desperate for a wicket. With Bopara unable to bowl due to a side injury, Phillips in the dressing room nursing a sore back, Napier out injured, Willoughby on as 12th man and a guy who's really a back up wicket keeper on the field, Essex were limited on their bowling options. Masters was ever his economical self, but Chambers was, once again, disappointing. He started off well enough, but as soon as he got straight driven for four by Joe Root, his head dropped and he was expensive. Meanwhile, Tymal Mills was hostile. He was brought on first change and soon began peppering the Yorkshire batsmen with aggressive, but accurate, bouncers. He was far, far less expensive this innings and could have picked up a wicket had James Foster had a short leg in straight away.

Tom Westley was brought on before Greg Smith, but when Smith was brought on, he was more controlled than he was in the first innings. He did, however, struggle to find the off stump, so it was no surprise that his wicket came from the leg side strangling of Root. This was my first time seeing Joe Root in the flesh, having missed his wicket in the first innings due to trains and sleeping, but he played well for his 67. Westley picked up the other wicket, that of the first innings hero of Phil Jaques. He was out LBW going for a sweep. Nice way to celebrate his new found Englishless.

If the weather forecast brings up rain tomorrow, then the most probable result is a draw. However, if not, then Yorkshire will probably be looking to attack tomorrow morning and try to declare with a 250-300 lead. If this happens, Essex will have to play far better than they did in the first innings. They will, like Jaques, Bopara, Root and Sayers, have to dig in and display patience. The performance against Gloucestershire, albeit in the first game, has shown that Godleman does seem to be in decent nick. Petersen will want to show that he can handle English conditions, even though he can't keep his hands out of his pockets for longer than the period of time it takes the ball to go past the bat. Bopara will take confidence from his century. Wheater can bat, as can Foster who can also hang around. The number three, Tom Westley, is surely aware that the ominous shadow of Alastair Cook hangs over his position, so he will want to prove himself.

Essex may not be able to pull off the remarkable tomorrow, but if they can leave Headingley with a draw and a vaguely decent showing in the second innings, then they can prepare for the visit of Northants on Thursday in a far better mood than if they leave with a heavy defeat.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"Is that your funeral outfit?": Day Two, Yorkshire v Essex

Tymal Mills (to the right of Westley and looking round) is the centre of Essex's attention on a day that ended in an all too familiar fashion for Essex.
Having traipsed across the Pennines yesterday to get nothing more than a £3 breakfast, it was a surprise that there was actually any play at all today, let alone the fact it started on time.

There was an injury blow to Essex before the start of play as Graham Napier, who has started the season very well, was ruled out with a calf injury. It's not just a blow to the county, but a blow to Napier himself, who has had many injury problems throughout his career. The injury meant that Tim Phillips came in for his first Championship match of the season. There was no place for Charl Willoughby, except seemingly as official Essex cheerleader. Yorkshire won the toss and they decided that they would bat first.

The woeful Essex batting performance (more of that later) will get the headlines, but it should not overshadow the performance of Tymal Mills. If you read this blog regularly, you'll know that I rate him a lot. It's not just because of Suffolk bias, although it certainly helps, it's because he's quick. Very quick.

Mills, 19, is a left-arm pace bowler, who has only played a handful of first-class games for Essex. He was quite expensive today, going at nearly 5 an over, but he made an impact and had a huge say in a Yorkshire collapse which saw them all out for 246. He started off from the Rugby Stand End, but was not at all happy. The poor weather was making the run ups muddy and no amount of sawdust could make him less concerned. As Tom Craddock, the legbreak bowler who wasn't in the squad today but is a graduate of Leeds MET, walked past, Mills informed him how delighted he was to be bowling from the Kirkstall Lane End. 

All the Essex bowlers were expensive today. Even the usually metronomic Dave Masters got tonked about before finally remembering that he's only going to beat them with naggingly accurate bowling, rather than attempting to bounce Phil Jaques at 78mph. Maurice Chambers and Greg Smith were especially disappointing today. Chambers picked up 2 wickets, but not before he'd been hit about by the Yorkshire top order. After his effort, Greg Smith later tweeted that he's had better birthdays. A golden duck and being smashed for 50 off 10 wicketless overs? Many happy returns.

Still, after Yorkshire had been 184-3, to get them all out for 246 was a decent effort from Essex. And Yorkshire, actually. McGrath, Rashid and Shahzad all played shots (or in McGrath's case, didn't) that were so inexplicably awful that they'd have to be rated 18 before being released at the cinema. Jaques played superbly on his return to the county and hardly put a foot wrong in his 126, before he decided he'd finally accept his invitation to the collapsing party and got out to Maurice Chambers. Westley also bowled and he picked up the key wicket of the Yorkshire captain, Andrew Gale, after he and Jaques put on a partnership of 86 for the third wicket.

Essex's batting had started well against Gloucestershire. It was almost too well. This was the side that, last season, regularly reached three figures with at least 5 wickets down. It seemed like Essex took one look at the Yorkshire scorecard and thought, "Sod this, anything they can do, we can do better."

Sidebottom and Shahzad started incredibly well. Both were getting angry and both deserved a wicket. The breakthrough came at the end of the 9th over. Sidebottom angrily appealed at the umpire as the freshly shaven Billy Godleman, having made a career best equalling score against Glouchestershire, was seemingly struck on the pad. After a slight hesitation, the umpire raised his finger and Godleman was on his way. He didn't seem too happy about it. He probably thought it hit bat first, but it's probably better he went off with his life spared, as Sidebottom was looking angry.

Westley came and went for a golden duck, again to Sidebottom. Down at the other end, overseas signing Alviro Petersen was being roughed up by Ajmal Shahzad. Shahzad was bowling well after an incredibly torrid 2011. Petersen managed to edge one through the slip cordon, prompting Shahzad to release a crude, high-pitched shriek that echoed round the ground.

It wasn't Shahzad who got his wicket though. Sidebottom was replaced by Anthony McGrath who, thankfully for Ravi Bopara, managed to release some pressure with some relatively friendly medium pacers. Shahzad was replaced by the older-than-you-think-he-is Steve Patterson, who unleashed an over that caused me to slump into my seat sobbing at fine leg.

First Petersen, who'd looked uncomfortable, scratchy and he didn't particularly like Britain's idea of April, departed. He was out LBW. In came Adam Wheater who, if this match were in Essex, would be the perfect player for this type of situation. He wasn't. He was gone for a four ball duck. Greg Smith walked to the crease. He walked straight back to the pavilion with the second golden duck of the innings.

42-5. Lovely.

If you've watched Ravi Bopara play in the whites for England, or for Essex in early April last year, then you'd have found most of his innings flash before your eyes. He, somehow, managed to survive to the close. He played watchfully. He survived many deliveries that went past the edge, managed to keep some edges down and did actually play a couple of good shots, including a leg sided flick and a cut for four. He and captain James Foster managed to survive until the close, leaving Essex on 72-5.

Essex will need these two to perform tomorrow. With no Napier and Phillips having gone missing for much of the afternoon session (he didn't bowl and Willoughby was on for much of it), Essex's tail is looking quite long. Masters can try and hit it, but apart from that, there's nothing of great substance. Essex only won one game away from home last season, and that was against Leicestershire. Before that, the last time they won away was in 2009 and that was against Derbyshire to seal promotion to Division One.

Unless the weather intervenes, or Essex pull off a magic batting performance against a strong Yorkshire bowling line up, Essex may well be facing their first defeat of the season and having to deal with the top order batting demons all over again.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Thunderstorms and a Day at Lord's: Day 1, Middlesex v Surrey

Surrey captain Rory Hamilton-Brown (on the right sitting on the step) shows his disappointment as play is suspended by bad light during the evening session.
On a day in which wickets tumbled across the country, I found myself at Lord's watching the first day of the London derby. Now, I come from a very rural background - I have to get ducks that try and bite me out of my local library and pheasants regularly turn up in my back garden. I am a Suffolk based Essex fan who only ever travels down to London to watch sport. I've been to Lord's around five times now, but as I left the tube at St John's Wood and began the walk down to the ground, I was filled with the same childlike excitement that I've had every time I visit. And it's in this mindset that I found myself in the lower tier of the Compton Stand watching Jon Lewis run in from the Nursery End to bowl to the Middlesex openers of Joe Denly and Sam Robson.

It was, ultimately, a frustrating day to be a cricket fan at the Home of Cricket. April showers threatened, rumbles of thunder were heard and there was even flashes of lightning in the distance behind the pavilion. With conditions like these, it's not really a surprise that Surrey decided to bowl first when they won the toss.

Middlesex began watchfully. There were a couple of LBW shouts, but Robson and Denly were playing OK. The pitch looked good and there was no devious bounce, meaning both were comfortable leaving the ball without the fear of doing a Michael Clarke/Shane Watson. Of the two, Robson looked more comfortable at the crease. Denly edged off Lewis through the vacant third slip area for a boundary, and then a couple of overs later, ended up nicking one behind to give Steve Davies a relatively easy catch.

Middlesex went into lunch 86-2, with Chris Rogers having been trapped LBW by Dernbach. They were playing steadily, especially when compared to the scores from around the country. Sam Robson had been playing well for his 40 and would be hoping to continue after the lunch break. Unfortunately, the weather decided to roll in.

It wasn't as grim as the CB40 final, but that's because Somerset can't lose here.
There was about an hour and a half delay, as the covers went on towards the end of lunch. During that time I'd had a look round the MCC Library, thanks to Liz, and then spent a small fortune on a cup of tea. An elderly chap nearby me struck up conversation with me, deciding to tell me about his knee cartilage, Steven Finn needing a mean streak and how he disliked the Rose Bowl being "built on a bloody great hill", how it was "a nightmare in the winter" and kept telling me that if this match had been there, we'd have been soaked because there's no shelter. Having been to Twenty20 Finals Day in 2010, I knew this all too well and was incredibly grateful to be sat in the lower tier of the Compton Stand.

Play restarted at around five to three. Unfortunately for Sam Robson, he couldn't capitalise on his good start and departed for 40, having been comprehensively bowled by Tim Linley for 40. Middlesex were 86-3 and continuing from the Pavilion End was Jade Dernbach.

In his second over after the delay, Dernbach could've had the Middlesex captain of Neil Dexter bowled, caught or LBW off the first three deliveries. On his fourth, he finally got his man. Dexter looked to leave, but instead ended up chopping it on to his leg stump to leave Middlesex 91-4 and Jade Dernbach to jump around in celebration. The wicketkeeper John Simpson came and went, as he was out LBW for a golden duck. Middlesex were reeling on 91-5 and Dernbach was on a hat-trick.

Jade Dernbach celebrates the golden duck of John Simpson, which left him on a hat-trick.
The South African-turned Englishman-turned Italian all-rounder of Gareth Berg came in to face the hat-trick ball. He survived and ended up getting off the mark with a single after a mistake at point. Dernbach then unleashed a scream reminiscent of Shan Yu in Mulan.

Surrey were bowling well in the seam friendly overhead conditions. Berg ended up being bowled for 11 by Tim Linley, who I apparently dubbed "The Inspector" when Surrey visited Chelmsford back in September last year, leaving Middlesex 108-6. Ollie Rayner was next in. Dawid Malan was good at protecting him from the strike, but when Rayner found himself facing Jon Lewis, he was eventually beaten and bowled on the off stump for 2. Middlesex went into tea on 142-7 relying on Tim Murtagh and the not out Dawid Malan to help them rebuild to a respectable total.

Tea saw me meet up with Liz and then join her in meeting some of the Test Match Sofa crew. They are a lovely and entertaining bunch, despite obviously being "nowhere near as funny as they think they are". It was probably for the best that the tea break was coming to an end when conversation turned to my favourite all-rounder, but the philosophy of "let's drink wine and watch cricket" is one that many people I know would approve of.

Cricket fans, especially county cricket fans, are a weird and patient bunch. In football, if you had an hour's delay for the floodlights going off in an evening kick off, you'd probably find that a lot of people wouldn't be very happy. The apocalypse looked like it'd missed Lord's midway through the afternoon session, but a huge cloud had gathered around the sun after tea and it wasn't long before the two umpires had come together and told the players that they were coming off. The hover cover came on, but the umpires and groundstaff could see that there was sunlight still to come on the horizon. It just needed the clouds to shift. A gentleman in the Grand Stand decided to shout "Get on with it!" having earlier told Jade Dernbach that a delivery was "Pitching miles outside leg". Both calls of frustration echoed round the near empty ground.

Bad light stops play.
When play eventually got started again, Tim Murtagh and Dawid Malan, who was playing very well, were proving a thorn in Surrey's side. They could not get the 8th wicket. The partnership was steadily growing, and with Surrey's over rate around -3, Hamilton-Brown decided to bring on Gareth Batty. Murtagh, possessed by the spirit of England's winter in UAE, went for a massive swipe across the line against Batty in his third over and was out plumb LBW. Middlesex were 182-8 and Surrey would be hoping to finish them off so they could bat in the morning.

It didn't go to plan. Malan continued his steady accumulation and he reached 50 with a single off Batty. He barely raised his bat in recognition. The single also brought up Middlesex's 200, something that had looked increasingly unlikely around the tea interval. At the other end, Chris Jordan, Surrey's most expensive bowler of the day, was being hit around. He was having no-ball problems and Middlesex capitalised on it, with both Malan and Toby Roland-Jones hitting him to the boundary for four. 

Roland-Jones could not survive until the close and nicked one into the slip cordon off Chris Jordan. Gareth Batty had a break from kick boxing with Steve Davies and just about clung onto the catch at first slip. Roland-Jones then walked off with the second slowest trudge I have ever seen at a cricket match, the first being James Anderson crawling off at Cardiff trying to hide his sheer disappointment at being 99 runs shy of a maiden Test century.

Corey Collymore and Dawid Malan survived until the close of play, leaving Middlesex on 225-9 and Malan on 62 not out. Surrey had let Middlesex off the hook in the evening session, perhaps the bad light interruption had impacted upon them, and Malan was showing that if you got in, survived the early tricky weather conditions and played patiently, then you would be able to build an innings. His anchorage of one end and his partnership with Tim Murtagh allowed Middlesex to rebuild to a fairly respectable first innings total, especially when compared to some of the scores from across the country.

A spectator's county cricket season would not be complete without a trip to Lord's. It would also not be complete without the typical British summer weather having a say in proceedings.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Mistaken Identity, Frostbite and Running Companions: Day 1 of Essex v Gloucestershire

Billy Godleman (right) is embraced by captain James Foster as he reaches Essex's first County Championship century of the season. 
Portman Road in an easterly wind had nothing on this. On Sunday, when I went to Cambridge to watch Essex play the university side, I got sunburnt. Today, I probably came close hyperthermia. And so, in this ridiculous weather of this green and pleasant land, begins another glorious season of county cricket.

Cloudy and overcast, Gloucestershire had no hesitation in electing to field first when they when the toss. Charl Willoughby, having only bowled 6 overs in Cambridge due to a tight groin, was ruled out for Essex. Alviro Petersen made his debut and added some much needed experience to the top order. There was no place for Jaik Mickleburgh, but Mark Pettini returned to the Essex fold after what has been a fairly turbulent two years for the former skipper.

Early wickets are Essex's forte and Petersen, having hit a couple of boundaries, decided to attempt to extinguish any early season optimism and depart with the score on 19. The majority of Essex's opening partnerships last season were nothing to shout home about, but Petersen, having arrived in the country on Tuesday can only improve. Petersen's departure brought Tom Westley to the crease, with him deciding to grab the initiative and bring Essex's run rate up to nearly four an over.

Westley departed for 33 and Pettini departed for 9 soon after. Essex were in the all too familiar position of being three wickets down in double figures. Then in came Adam Wheater. 

The only photo I have of Wheater is of the shot that got him out, but he played superbly. He thrives in conditions where Essex have their backs to the wall, having done something similar against the same opposition back in August last year. It can be risky, but he's an aggressive player. He smacked a huge six over the top of the hospitality suite and into the car park behind and reached his 50 off only 31 deliveries. It was greeted with a standing ovation, usually reserved for a century.

He may look really small, but he packs one heck of a punch and he really helped Essex seize the momentum of the morning. Three wickets went down, but Essex went into lunch 146-3,. Wheater departed soon after lunch for a very entertaining 56 off 42 deliveries. The 22 year old is certainly one to watch this season.

Greg Smith came in, got 34 off 33 and then went. Along the way in the 50 partnership, he and Godleman had managed to steer Essex to their first bonus points of the season, as they passed the 200 mark. Godleman at this point had passed 50 and was building an innings that another Essex left hander would be proud of.

At 210-5, Essex had a good platform to build upon and captain Foster and Godleman built on it. In around 33 overs, the two put on 94 (if you play for Essex, it's a good number apparently) for the 6th wicket. Godleman reached his century with a boundary off James Fuller, having got past the 94 he made against Cambridge.

Billy, or Bernard/Barry as the gentlemen sat behind me christened him, Godleman played well today. He barely offered a chance to the Gloucestershire fielders and played watchfully, anchoring one end and rotating the strike with some ease. He equalled his career best of 130 with this innings and whilst it is only the first day of the season and there are far more dangerous attacks out there, it will be a confidence boost to Godleman after a poor 2011. 

James Foster and Graham Napier both provided Godleman with support. Foster fell four short of what would've been a deserved half century. The delight for Godleman was evident as he embraced Godleman before allowing him to salute the crowd. When he departed, Napier began his innings by listening to my Fantasy Cricket inspired pep talk/shout of, "Don't get a duck!" as he walked out to the crease. He hit his first ball for four.

Once Napier departed, Godleman quickly followed and Essex went from 357-7 to 364 all out. Chambers bagged a duck and Masters was the last man out for 9. Tymal Mills was not out on 0. 

Essex will be slightly disappointed that they couldn't reach 400 and claim all 5 bonus points on offer. They had the platform, but the tail unfortunately didn't wag. However, to score at nearly four an over on the first day of the season, having been put into bat in conditions that looked likely to be bowler friendly, is, compared to previous seasons, a fairly good start. With Cook and Bopara set to return from Sri Lanka in the coming weeks and Shah and ten Doeschate due back from the IPL at some point in May, Essex's batting line up can only be made to look stronger.

Tomorrow, it's over to the bowlers. David Masters will be hoping for a repeat of his 6-75 he got at the Colchester Festival last year and Napier will be looking to bring in some of the form he showed against Cambridge after a winter of nursing an elbow injury. Maurice Chambers, Greg Smith and Tymal Mills make up the rest of the bowling attack, with Tom Westley likely to bowl a couple of overs of off spin. Should Essex have a good day in the field, it may well pave the way to a decent start to the 2012 season.

Alviro Petersen gains a friendly companion on a pre-Nando's run around the Chelmsford outfield.
It's been a long winter and there's only so much you can refresh the scorecards of the domestic section of the southern hemisphere on Cricinfo. County cricket, you're a strange but absolutely wonderful world, and it's fantastic to have you back.

County Cricket: Essex's 2012 Season Preview

Dust off the Playfair, dig out your sun cream (or woolly hat and scarves at the moment), find that cushion to make your sitting on the benches a far more comfortable experience and get a flask of tea ready. County cricket's back and it begins on Thursday 5th April.

With the pre-season done and the press day out of the way, I thought I'd give a season preview for the county that I support before it all kicks off. I'll probably look back at this in September and laugh.

As stated in a previous post, Essex's 2011 was one of, ultimately, mediocrity and disappointment. With investment in the squad, Essex will be hoping 2012 is a more successful one and, in terms of actions off the field, a less controversial one. So, in light of all this, here are my key players, players to watch out for and my hopes and expectations for the forthcoming season.

Key Players:

David Masters

It would be foolish to expect a repeat of his superb 2011 season, but Masters has shown himself to be a reliable and important spearhead of the Essex attack, especially in the first-class format of the game. He took 93 wickets last season, including a career best 8-10 against Leicestershire at Southend, and has started the new season terrorising the students who play for Cambridge MCCU.

He is the perfect team player. Whilst he's not got searing pace,  he'll run in all day for you and bowl on a nagging, accurate line and length with incredible economic figures. Foster stated in an interview with BBC Look East that Masters was the perfect bowler to keep to, and this shows because despite being a quick bowler, Foster regularly comes up to the stumps when he's bowling.

Every team needs a carthorse to do some of the hard work. Masters is the ideal one for Essex.

Alviro Petersen

His time here for the first half of the season will be crucial. With Ryan ten Doeschate and Owais Shah being a part of the Indian Premier League, and Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara on England duty, Essex will be relying on Alviro Petersen to bulk up the vulnerable young top order and help Essex have a good start to the season.

His form coming into the county season is mixed, but he will surely be buoyed by the 156 he got against the New Zealanders in the final Test at Wellington. He will need time to adapt to English conditions, but having arrived in Chelmsford on Tuesday, he's already asked where Nando's is, so his off the field settling in seems to be going well. The management staff will hope that he has a better time of it in Essex than his fellow countryman Lonwabo Tsotsobe.

Glamorgan were aggrieved with Petersen's decision to join Essex. He was initially going to play for them as a Kolpak player and give up international cricket, but having returned to the international set up, he wants to pursue his South African career. So instead of returning to Glamorgan, he's ended up at Chelmsford. It's going to make the match at the beginning of next month very interesting indeed.

James Foster

Heading into his second full season as captain after the resignation of Mark Pettini in a tricky 2010, Foster will hope that 2012 is a more successful one, both for himself as captain and as a player. To me, he is still one of the best glovemen in the country. He has quick reflexes and regularly pulls off excellent stumpings/catches.

Last season, there were issues with his, and the club's, on field behaviour and this led to a hefty fine. Foster himself was banned for two matches in the Twenty20 tournament after giving the umpires verbals for a decision he deemed poor in a match against Surrey. It was a frustrating tournament for everyone. On paper, Essex had a good side, but they just could not perform.

2011 was Foster's benefit year, so with that now out of the way, Foster will be able to focus more on the game rather than what's going on off field. He has got more experience of captaining now and will hope that this experience will make his task of juggling keeping, captaincy and lower order batting easier.

Graham Napier

It's been four years since Napier made headlines with his 152* against Sussex in the 2008 Twenty20 tournament, but 2012 marks a special year for Napier. 2012 has been named as his benefit year, so all eyes will be on him for different reasons. Injured for the majority of the 2010 season with a stress fracture in his back, Napier returned to the Essex team and again made headlines by hitting 16 sixes against Surrey in a County Championship match. He took 28 wickets at 24.64 in the County Championship last season and remains a big part of Essex's limited overs attack (despite only taking 12 wickets in the CB40 and 5 in the Twenty20).

Over the winter he was set to play for Central Districts in New Zealand's domestic Twenty20 tournament, the HRV Cup, but his winter was cut short early by an elbow injury. However, in the match between Essex and Cambridge MCCU, he was bowling with pace and managed to pick up 3 wickets.

His ability to hit big will be crucial in the limited overs cricket, but having already scored a century off 48 deliveries in the aforementioned Cambridge match, his lower order big hitting is just as useful in the four day format of the game.

Tim Phillips

Given the fast bowling pot that Essex have at the moment, it's easy to overlook the slower bowlers of the squad. However, Phillips will surely have something to say this season. He was a valuable resource in Essex's poor Twenty20 campaign. He was, in fact, the leading wicket taker in the country with 26 wickets at 13.23 in the 15 matches he played. In 2010 he played 16 matches for the county, picking up only 9 at 35.66. In the CB40, he was joint leading wicket taker for the county, taking 17 wickets at 22.35. 

Drought conditions in the south east mean that Chelmsford may well become a dust bowl over the summer. With Danish Kaneria now far away from the county, which is very much for the best, Phillips will hope that he can continue to noticeably improve and potentially become a potent part of Essex's 4-day attack.

Players to watch out for:

Reece Topley

Last year, Topley had to wear the junior version of the CB40 shirt because he was under-age. A tall, left arm medium-fast bowler, with the ability to swing the ball, Topley burst onto the scene for Essex against Kent back in April 2011. He took 7 wickets on debut and finished second in the list of leading wicket takers for Essex last season, with 34 wickets at an average of 23.55.

His name's been known since 2009 when he was clobbered on the side of the head by Kevin Pietersen at Loughborough. He, along with Ben Foakes, is currently in Australia with the England Under-19s for a Quadrangular Series involving Australia, New Zealand and India. When he returns to England, don't be surprised to see the 18 year old straight back into the Essex attack because 2012 may well be a big year for the Ipswich born Topley.

Tymal Mills

The rise of Tymal Mills is one that should warm the hardest of hearts. Having only taken up cricket when he was 14, Mills spent his winter rubbing elbows with the likes of Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow and Stuart Meaker in South Africa and Bangladesh with the England Performance Programme/England Lions squad. Not bad for someone who was playing club cricket on the village greens of Suffolk back in May.

He made his debut for Essex against the Sri Lankans in June 2011 and took the wicket of Paranavitina in the first innings. He finished the first class season with 7 wickets in the 4 matches he played and picked up 1 wicket against Somerset in the only CB40 match he played. He is a quick bowler. His accuracy is a bit off and he can be expensive, but it will come with more games that he plays. He, like Topley, is certainly one to watch out for in the coming season.

Adam Wheater

Last season marked some astonishing performances from the 22 year old, as he managed to get Essex out of tricky situations, most notably against Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire. He was named in the Potential England Performance Programme squad over the winter and also played first class cricket in Zimbabwe for Matabeleland Tuskers. He scored 642 runs in 11 innings at an average of 71.33, scoring a century and three half-centuries in the process. He also gained valuable wicketkeeping experience, something that it is difficult to get at Essex with James Foster behind the stumps.

Last year Wheater was the second highest run scorer for the county, scoring 804 at 42.31. If he can replicate this form this season, then it may well be a very good one for the youngster.

Tom Craddock

If not for his ballerina-esque bowling action, it's worth paying attention to Craddock. Plucked from the obscurity of the Unicorns CB40 side, Tom Craddock enjoyed a decent start to his Essex career. He played 8 first-class matches and picked up 22 wickets, double that of Tim Phillips.

Having impressed on trial, Craddock has signed a two year deal with the club. He will hope that he can build on his success in 2011 and become a big part of both the first-class and limited overs attack.

Pre-season antics:

Rather than spending money heading to warmer climes, Essex decided to stay at home for pre-season. They had three warm-up matches and then a university/first-class match against Cambridge MCCU and made use of a tent on the outfield to have outdoor nets.

The Essex players have also been playing cricket across the world, with Zimbabwe seemingly being a popular destination. Like said in the introduction, Essex have invested in the squad. Charl Willoughby has joined from Somerset, Greg Smith from Derbyshire, Alviro Petersen comes in as overseas player and Peter Siddle has been signed up for the Twenty20 tournament. There are rumours of Brendan Taylor also joining for the Twenty20, but Essex have said that this talk is 'premature'.

But the most notable, and heartbreaking, thing that happened in the pre-season is what took place at the Old Bailey back in January this year. The shadow of Mervyn Westfield's imprisonment for spot-fixing charges hangs over the club, with the court (and cricketing world) accusing the current players of sticking their heads in the sand over the entire issue and taking the wrong methods in going about reporting the corruption. When the sentence was given, the Twitterati descended on the Essex Twitter feed, because they decided that it would be the perfect day to advertise a job opportunity/the new kit coming in.

I don't really know what people were expecting from a Twitter feed run by someone probably sat in the portacabin next to the pavilion and who can only write whatever they're provided with, but it just goes to show the anger that was, and perhaps still is, directed at the club. It has taken Essex around two months to release any public statement about the spot-fixing trial, and that was just to say that the players wouldn't be talking about it.

There are questions still to be answered and as an Essex fan, but ultimately a cricket fan, I am of course disappointed with the response. But my major issue is with that of Kaneria, and it was at the time. If he was being investigated by the police, why was he still allowed to be at the club? If what the court says is true, that he "joked" about money and cricket in front of more experienced players, then how was this overlooked? With this incident happening in 2009, to me (with Essex tinted glasses, I'm sorry) it feels like an enormous sense of naivety. The Pakistani spot-fixing trial has set the precedent and corruption cannot be tolerated.

It's not a time to try and score points off the club and have little digs at it, because, frankly, I've always thought the cricketing world was more mature than that. Every club should learn from this. Every club should protect their players, but especially the youngsters, from the lure of an easy few quid. When the news broke about this, I nearly cried in the library and then went to a lecture, sat slumped in an Essex hoody. I felt a mixture of emotions, ranging from being ashamed to angry and, most of all, distraught. Spot-fixing is a serious issue and it has once again claimed a youngster trying to make a cricketing career. And that, is the biggest tragedy of all.

What could happen:

So, what can be expected this year? Well, I'm a terrible Mystic Meg, so I'm not going to bring out a crystal ball or anything like that. However, I will say that there feels like there's a sense of optimism round the club. Even I feel optimistic, which is a strange and foreign feeling to me. I'm even taking sunglasses down today despite the Arctic conditions.

The signing of Peter Siddle in the Twenty20 should draw in the crowds. Whilst he's not exactly the best Twenty20 player, a fired up Siddle running in from the Hayes Close/River End in front of a packed out Chelmsford crowd should get everyone rocking. Essex will hope that, like Tim Southee last year, he can add a bit of fireworks to the batting. Let's just hope they decide not to open the batting with him.

The CB40 campaign last year was ruined by the weather and the south west, mainly Somerset. This year, Essex won't be playing the habitual runners up in the group stages, but will instead have some tough fixtures against Twenty20 champions Leicestershire, the Netherlands (who claimed a few upsets last year), trips to the south west, Middlesex and Lancashire. Essex are known for being a decent one day outfit and have had some success in recent years in this limited overs format.

As stated many times, the 2011 season was an incredibly disappointing. But with the new arrivals at Chelmsford and a hotbed of youngsters, Essex will be hoping that things will click on the field and they can regain promotion to Division 1 and do well in the limited overs tournaments. Bring on the county season 2012.