Apr 212014
Dunn gets people talking

Essex 225 for 6 (Bopara 49, Dunn 3-53) v Surrey

Matthew Dunn removed Alastair Cook with a short ball, Surrey v Essex, County Championship, Division Two, The Oval, April 21, 2014

Matthew Dunn has had few opportunities since his debut but took his chance against Essex © Getty Images

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On an even day that saw further time lost to rain and bad light, a fine display from Matt Dunn added a new angle on this encounter. The draw remains the odds on result but, with a host of England talent on show, it was Dunn who dominated most of the talk on what can be marked down as a professional display from both sides.

During Surrey’s first match of the season against Glamorgan, Dunn drew a crowd on the outfield of the Oval during the first lunch interval as he went through his repertoire on a cut strip, meters away from the main pitch. As his run-up increased from one step to its full length, so did the number of onlookers, many using their phones to film his show of speed, as he continually rasped the baseball mitt of his coach.

It is a wonder how many times Dunn has gone through the motions alongside rather than in a Championship match. Since June 2011, when he became the first Surrey bowler for 56 years to take five wickets in an innings on debut against Derbyshire, he had only played three further times before now.

The talent has always been there; rarely will you have entered a discussion on Surrey’s prospective arsenal of first-class bowlers in the last three years without his name featuring somewhere near the top. From the mechanics of his action to the breadth of his shoulders, generating pace was never going to be an issue.

It is his consistency that has had Surrey thinking twice about exposing him to more four-day cricket. At stumps, bowling coach Stuart Barnes was keen to praise Dunn’s work behind the scenes as well as a worthwhile winter in Australia which gives Surrey’s attack a newer dimension.

With England selector Angus Fraser a clear presence in the media centre and the members pavilion, Dunn’s efforts will not have gone unnoticed.

Pace was always going to be the theme of the day, as Dunn and the returning Jade Dernbach were welcomed into the XI and, with a green track on offer, Graeme Smith won the toss and put Essex in to bat.

Even Chris Tremlett, who had lacked incisiveness and wickets in the defeat to Glamorgan seemed up for the fight when he was introduced to the attack after eight overs. He ran through the crease with greater purpose and got some encouraging bounce off the pitch.

A couple stung the knuckles of Jaik Mickleburgh, as the right hander’s trigger to push forward caused him some discomfort. Just five balls into Tremlett’s spell, Mickleburgh was surprised by a delivery which zipped up and, luckily, pierced the despairing grab of Jason Roy at third slip.

At the other end, Alastair Cook was off to a brisk start, using the pace of Stuart Meaker and Dernbach to work runs towards the short boundary towards the Archbishop Tenison’s School.

It was this boundary that took the first casualty of the day as Zafar Ansari, attempting to rectify is own fielding error, slid into the side fence and badly injured himself. After a few minutes, he was helped to his feet and taken to hospital with concussion. He returned later in the day to be assessed by Surrey’s medical team and remains a doubt for the rest of this match.

More than three overs after that break in play, Cook became the first wicket for Surrey and Dunn, when he misjudged a short ball, which caught the splice of his bat and eventually dropped into the hands of Steven Davies.

Upon Cook’s demise, Mickleburgh began to rebuild as the more active part of a second wicket partnership with Tom Westley. But when Mickleburgh fell to a fine outswinger from Dernbach that moved late, and Dunn found the edge of Westley then Greg Smith’s bat in the space of three balls, the match awoke to the prospect of bedlam.

Alas, it was not to be, as Ravi Bopara remained diligent yet typically laid back in defence. While runs did not flow freely, he used his finesse to dab the ball behind point on multiple occasions to keep the scoreboard ticking past 200 and a first batting point. Upon entering the forties, he took a brace of boundaries off Dernbach to move only to be strangled down the leg side by Jason Roy.

It was a deserved wicket for Roy, who was brought into the attack to fill-in the overs that Ansari would have bowled. Described by Barnes as “an enthusiastic bowler”, his extra bow is another positive to be taken from the day for Surrey.

Apr 212014
Onions makes his well rehearsed case

Durham 308 and 152 for 7 (Trego 3-46) lead Somerset 185 (Trego 48, Rushworth 4-52, Onions 4-65) by 275 runs

Graham Onions appeals for a wicket, Essex v England, 2nd day, Chelmsford, July 1, 2013

Graham Onions remains masterful in the conditions which greeted him at Chester-le-Street © Getty Images

This is a match report that could, to a large extent, have been written with the cut and paste keys.

As has so often been the case in recent times, this was a day’s play characterised by fine bowling from Graham Onions and featuring a visiting batting line-up struggling to cope with the moving ball on a helpful pitch. It was classic Durham; classic Onions. Pretty much like a band playing their greatest hits.

Quite what else James Whitaker, the national selector, expected when he came to Durham is unclear. He knows that Onions – and the largely unsung Chris Rushworth – is a tough proposition in these conditions and he surely cannot have expected him to gain more pace, learn new tricks or even have deteriorated after several years of outstandingly consistent cricket. If England select Onions, they know exactly what they will get.

That was a point made by Onions after play. Perhaps frustrated by the question – it is hardly the first time he has spoken on this subject – or the circumstances, he made little attempt to sugar-coat his feelings.

“He knows exactly what I’m about,” Onions said. “He saw me in Sri Lanka, as well, when I was there with the Lions.

“As a cricketer there is nothing more I can do. I am doing all I can to produce results and to play for England. But the bottom line is that I’ve done that for the last four or five years. I’ve just got to keep knocking on the door.”

The problem with games at Chester-le-Street, however, is that they do not replicate conditions found in international cricket. While it is true that not many county grounds in April will replicate the sort of surfaces found at Test level, in Durham that is taken to an extreme. So only one batting bonus point was conceded at home by Durham in the 2013 season and not once has an opposition team scored 300 in their first innings here in the last two years.

So while Rushworth and Onions, maintaining tight lines and generating movement, troubled batsmen throughout and made a strong batting line-up appear fragile, it is of limited use for Whitaker has he seeks to apply such skills to the demands of international cricket.

Yet many of the virtues of bowling remain the same whatever the surface. So Onions’ consistency, his stamina and his ability to extract movement both in the air and off the seam when conditions allow, would always render him a reliable performer for England. But he could play Test cricket for a decade and never find a surface like this. He could play Test cricket for a decade and never find a surface that offers such variable bounce in the first innings and he could play for a decade and not see the ball nip around to this extent.

Equally Keaton Jennings, Durham’s impressive opening batsman, has acquired a technique that seems ideally suited to these surfaces. Using his height, he prods half forward, is remarkably disciplined about not playing away from his body, and waits for the ball in one of his three or four scoring areas. It is the basis of a decent game and, in temperament at least, he has a great deal going for him. But sterner tests await on tracks that turn or against fast bowlers that will challenge that forward prod.

All that leaves Whitaker with a difficult choice to make. Onions’ case remains compelling but, with the younger men like Chris Jordan forcing their way into the reckoning, England may be reluctant to select a seamer who will be 32 before the end of the season. Unless Onions is able to unseat James Anderson or Stuart Broad – and that it is not completely impossible, as both will need rest – it is hard to see him winning a recall in anything other than a crisis.

That Somerset ended the day still in with a chance of victory – Yorkshire chased down a target of 339 here in April last year – was largely due to some sloppy batting in Durham’s second innings. While both Lewis Gregory and Peter Trego, who also produced a typically brave counter-attacking contribution with the bat, deserve credit for delivery the best part of 40 overs each over the first two days of the game, they enjoyed little support.

Somerset donated another 10 runs in no-balls – that is 40 in the match so far – and several Durham wickets fell as the result more of careless batting than fine bowling. Michael Richardson, for example, pulled a long-hop to mid-wicket, Scott Borthwick was brilliantly caught as he turned a half-volley off his legs and Jennings drove uncharacteristically loosely at one that turned out of a foot-hole.

Onions appeared unimpressed by his colleague’s batting. “If we’re honest, the application we showed with the bat could have been better,” he said. “The batters will be disappointed, I’m sure. We could have put them out of the game. But if we bowl well, as we did today, I’m sure we’ll win.”

Somerset’s situation is not helped by something of an injury crisis. With three first choice seamers – Steve Kirby, Alfonso Thomas and Craig Overton – unable to take part in this game due to injury, they could have done without Craig Meschede sustaining a side strain and Nick Compton suffering a neck spasm that forced him to bat at No. 8 in Somerset’s first innings. An injection appears to have brought little comfort and he was unable to take the field in the evening session. His involvement in the second innings, and in the next game, must be in doubt.

Compton was, therefore, unable to make much of an impression on Whitaker. He may have felt it was typical of his fortune that he was last man out, adjudged leg before to a ball he seemed to have hit really quite hard.

“We didn’t bowl very well at all on day one,” Dave Nosworthy, the Somerset director of cricket admitted. “And we didn’t start well with the bat, either. But we showed a lot of courage and character later on and by no means is this game over.”

Somerset will have to bat far better second time around, though. Marcus Trescothick does not look anything like the batsman he once was and, though the line-up is deep and contains several fine stroke makers, they are up against an expert in his own backyard. Durham’s lead of 275 may well be enough already.

Apr 202014
Will Smith very much alive and scoring

Hampshire 231 for 5 (Smith 70) vs Derbyshire

Will Smith portrait, 2014

Will Smith showed the qualities that made Hampshire snap him up © Getty Images

‘Will Smith is dead’ is one of the great hoaxes of the Internet. He has been misreported to have died in surgery in the United States and in a fall in New Zealand. There is barely a Twitter hoaxer alive who does not wake up one morning and think “Today, I will tell the world that Will Smith is dead.” There are even hoaxes that there have been hoaxes. Such are the trappings of fame.

Will Smith, the Hampshire version, shares a name with the American actor if not a bank balance. As he possesses a quieter intelligence, that is not likely to change. But if he was not reported dead at the end of last season, he was certainly presumed to be ailing. Durham had won the Championship but Smith, a former captain just the wrong side of 30, was judged surplus to requirements at the end of the season.

When Hampshire gave him a two-year contract, only a few days elapsed before he was asked if he wanted to be captain again. He said he did not, although all it will take is a crisis for him to be reconsidered.

He wanted to make his mark as a batsman, to improve his status late in his career, and his judicious 70 on a breezy and largely chilly Easter Day at Derby represented a solid start. It was not the sort of statement to attract an Internet hoaxer, in fact it will not always have held the attention of the Derbyshire faithful as they stared at the slate-grey skies for hope of light relief, and a hat-trick from nowhere, or Wes Durston, but it was the sort of innings to gain dressing room respect.

According to the Second Division table, which is still not as much embryonic as a gleam in the eye, this was top vs bottom: Hampshire lie top on accounts of having played two matches and winning one of them thanks in part to a hundred by Michael Carberry against Gloucestershire; Derbyshire are bottom, outdone by Alastair Cook at Chelmsford after routing Essex for a two-figure score in the first innings.

But in reality this is an important early-season joust between two likely promotion contenders, making it the sort of match on which to munch a sausage bap and contemplate the meaning of life, an appropriate Easter pursuit.

Derbyshire bowled wastefully in the morning, although that impression is also heightened by Carberry, who is an excellent leaver. He played well for 45 before leaving a little grumpily when Tony Palladino, in his first over against the breeze, had him lbw. “That’ll tarnish your England chances,” came a cry from the outer. It is best not to pause on an lbw at Derby: it deserves to be recognised as the ground where five-second bursts of spleen are always possible.

Adams’ inconsequential affair ended when he edged Mark Turner, the loosest of Derbyshire’s attack, to the keeper, before the afternoon gave way to an earnest battle between Smith and the Derbyshire seamers, a colourless landscape lit up by floodlights for much of the day. It was the sort of contest where you dreaded Iain O’Brien, the former New Zealand bowler, who was commentating for the BBC, inviting you to offer technical analysis from a press box square of the wicket and someway distant from the action.

In the Derbyshire club bookshop, a mid-afternoon refuge, there was an air of excitement at the sudden arrival of as many as 42 second-hand copies of The Harold Rhodes Affair – Rhodes’ own story of one of the great throwing storms in cricket history.

Rhodes, who has never entirely forgiven the events of half a century ago, was eventually judged to have had a hyper-extending arm but his England career was ruined. He would doubtless be judged innocent these days after extensive technological analysis judged his action to be within the 15-degree limit.

Quite why so many copies have suddenly become available was not made clear. Maybe Rhodes has cleared out his garage, always the sort of thing you attempt around Easter, unless you come to Derby, grab an extra layer of clothing out of the boot at lunchtime, and set your face into the wind to watch Will Smith prove that his heart if still beating.

Apr 202014
Ballance restates England credentials

Yorkshire 328 for 7 (Ballance 117*, Lees 90) v Northamptonshire

Gary Ballance looked comfortable in passing fifty, Yorkshire v Northamptonshire, County Championship, Division One, Headingley, 1st day, April 20, 2014

Gary Ballance ensured Yorkshire recovered from early problems, and kept his name in the selectors’ thoughts © Getty Images

Peter Moores may not personally have seen the best of Gary Ballance – the Yorkshire left-hander’s highest score in 12 innings against Lancashire, in all cricket, during the Moores’ tenure is 57 – but it is fair to assume he will not be going on that evidence alone when he gets to grips, alongside his fellow selectors, with deciding who merits a place in the first England sides of the new era.

Ballance, the Zimbabwe-born left-hander, made his Test debut in Australia, in the final rubber in Sydney, in circumstances that cannot have been easy, given the debacle that had been unfolding while he waited for his chance. He left for his first major tour in the form of his life, having made more than 1300 runs and six centuries in first-class cricket in 2013, and the start of the new season suggests he is none the worse for the experience, however uncomfortable it may have felt.

Ballance looked in supremely good touch, untroubled by the seamers or in the face of a lengthy attempt to tie him down and test his patience by the offspinner, James Middlebrook. He finished on an unbeaten 117, having hit 18 fours in addition to a six pulled into the Western Stand, somewhat disdainfully, off Azharullah, who formed half of a new-ball attack with Maurice Chambers that will not be the worst he comes up against.

He now has 20 first-class centuries from just 71 matches, which is an impressive statistic. Four of these have come in his last five matches on English soil. He finished 2013 with a hundred in each innings against Surrey at The Oval and began this season with another, against Leeds-Bradford MCCU. Jason Gillespie, the Yorkshire coach, says he has “a presence at the crease” and believes one of his strongest qualities is to “play the situation” in all forms of the game.

“He has a real awareness of his game and the game,” Gillespie said. “He has an understanding of the game and adaptability to different situations and he finds a way to score runs in any situation, in all forms of the game, which is what a good batsman does.”

It was the partnership of 156 between Ballance and Alex Lees that ultimately bent the day heavily in Yorkshire’s direction. Having chosen to bat first when Andrew Gale won the toss, reasoning that any difficulties they might face on a damp, cloudy morning would be outweighed by the quality of the batting surface, it was this partnership that justified the decision.

Earlier, they had been 21 for 2, after Adam Lyth and then Kane Williamson failed to make progress. Lyth nicked one that moved away late, Williamson, who had looked tentative, went leg before when only half forward to a ball from Andrew Hall, on as first change, that came back a little.

Gale, whose form this time last year gave cause for concern, looked scratchy again and fell for 13 after lunch, which brought Ballance to the crease at 57 for 3, at which point the bat-first decision began to look increasingly the right one as a Northants attack lacking David Willey, whose back problems mean he cannot bowl, began to toil.

Ballance moved to his half-century in only 63 balls with 44 of those runs in boundaries, three in the space of four balls in one over from Hall. By tea, his partnership with Lees had added 114.

Lees, last year’s revelation at the top of the order, made 90 before he became the third of six batsmen dismissed lbw, although it had not been his most fluent innings. Northants missed two chances to get rid of him in quick succession when he was dropped at first slip off Chambers on 50 and was then allowed another escape on 51, against Middlebrook, when he should have been stumped.

Ballance completed his hundred with a flick off his legs for a single off Steven Crook, at which point he had faced 143 deliveries.

Meanwhile, there is positive news of Joe Root, who appears to be moving swiftly towards a comeback following the broken thumb he suffered in March, forcing him to miss the World T20. Restricted until last week to catching practice with a tennis ball, the England batsman had graduated to a cricket ball when he took to the outfield with Yorkshire director of cricket Martyn Moxon during the lunch interval.

A return to action against Middlesex at Lord’s next Sunday is on the cards, provided he emerges unscathed from a Second XI friendly scheduled for this week.

His impending return means there is a debate looming for Messrs Gillespie and Moxon over who to leave out to make way for him Root. It would be harsh to omit Lyth, who made 85 and 54 at Taunton last week, albeit on a flat wicket, or Lees. The batsman most at risk, logically, is probably the captain, who therefore needs a score in the second innings.

Apr 202014
Jennings' patience trumps Overton's pace

Somerset 7 for 0 trail Durham 308 (Jennings 80, Gregory 4-59)
by 301 runsScorecard

Jamie Overton in his delivery stride, Yorkshire v Somerset, County Championship, Division One, Headingley, 1st day, May 7, 2013

Jamie Overton bowled with pace but little control and over-stepped eight times © Getty Images

It may be pace and big hitting that catches the eye, but it is so often patience and denial that proves more effective.

So it proved on the first day of this game at Chester-le-Street. While the bowling of Jamie Overton, a young man blessed with unusual pace, may be what lingers longest in the mind, it was the well organised batting of Keaton Jennings that proved decisive.

Put into bat on a track that is notoriously helpful for seamers, Durham achieved the second highest first innings score on the ground for two years. In 2013, six of the eight first innings total amounted to between 237 and 267 and only once did a side score above that. While the pitch may be drier than normal and carrying less grass cover, this is a total that might be considered about 40 above par.

So Somerset will be especially rueful that they donated 32 extras to the Durham total. That tally includes 30 in no-balls – each no-ball costs two runs in the Championship – with the first session accounting for 24 of them. As Somerset’s vice-captain James Hildreth said afterwards: “That amount of runs can be absolutely crucial in a game here at this time of season.”

While Somerset’s bowlers have some excuse – shorn of the injured pair of Alfonso Thomas and Steve Kirby, this is a youthful attack with its best years well ahead of it – it does seem shoddy to concede so many extras. Nor can it reflect especially well on the disciplines that should be instilled in training.

But the extras are only part of the story. Somerset also squandered the new ball – Mark Stoneman pulled a four and a six in the first over – and conceded 42 fours and two sixes in the innings with a surfeit of short and wide bowling that allowed Durham to score at almost five-an-over for the first hour and then, just as it seemed Somerset might claw their way back into the game, counter-attack with an eighth-wicket stand of 65 in 18 overs.

Durham, in turn, might reflect that they failed to make Somerset pay as heavily as they might have done. While their total is still more than competitive, it could have been far better against an attack that lost Craig Meschede to a side strain in the evening session and contains the sort of spinner in Johann Myburgh who seems to only bowl to improve the over-rate. Somerset were also without Craig Overton, who has a side strain.

But Durham lost several soft wickets. Stoneman flashed without foot movement, Scott Borthwick was drawn into feeling for one he should have left, Phil Mustard left a straight one and Michael Richardson poked to gully the delivery after sustaining a blow to the head off Overton, who was as rapid as he was unpredictable.

That Durham were able to post such a good total was largely due to Jennings. The former South Africa Uunder-19 captain is a left-handed batsman in the accumulative mould of Alastair Cook and, while his colleagues poked and prodded at balls they could have let pass, he left well, defended with a straight bat and waited for the short ball, the leg side ball or the over-pitched ball to put away. He rarely had to wait for long. It took a delivery that bounced more than normal to take his edge and end his innings.

Overton, by contrast, looked raw. Not only did he over-step eight times, but he bowled far too short, far too often and, like Tymal Mills at Essex, provided a reminder that pace without control is a mixed blessing. But, by generating such sharp pace from a run-up that faintly resembles Steve Harmison, when everything clicked, he looked a fearsome prospect and he also struck Jamie Harrison, a much-improved batsman, a blow on the head. Tough days like this should be part of the learning process and it is not surprising that James Whitaker, the national selector, took a keen interest in him throughout the day.

Somerset improved after lunch. Lewis Gregory bowled a particularly good spell to account for Jennings, with one that bounced, and Paul Collingwod, with one that kept low, to suggest there was still plenty in the surface if the ball was put in the right areas. But when Gareth Breese, as much a batsman as a bowler these days, helped Harrison plunder a tiring attack, Durham took the game away from Somerset. Had Breese, at third slip, held on to a tough chance offered by Marcus Trescothick in the final over of the day off the deserving Chris Rushworth, they would have capitalised further.

“Anything above 250 here will be competitive,” Jennings said afterwards. “Sooner or later you get a ball here that has your name on it. We have excellent new ball bowlers and if we out the ball in good areas tomorrow, that should prove a good total.”

“We were disappointed with how we bowled,” Hildreth said, “particularly in that first session. It is hugely frustrating when you see all those no-balls, because they are completely within our control and we have just given them extras. Durham are ahead at the moment.”

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