Intensity has been the most notable feature of the new championship season.With a quarter of the teams in Division One to be relegated, every result propels a team towards the title or the trap-door. Unlike in football, money is not at stake, at least not in the short term (memberships might decline long term for a county stuck in the second division), simply old-fashioned honour.
Thus the championship becomes ever more similar to Test cricket: attritional, too much so at times to be fun, but the nursery for international level. A complete contrast with its original purpose: into the Sixties only a few counties – Yorkshire, Surrey, perhaps a couple more – aimed to win the title, while the rest were content with taking the game around the counties and entertaining people.
The second feature of the first two rounds has been the low standard of batting. Outfields have been mid-season quick because of the dryness, and pitches are not what they used to be in April: the open invitation that the visiting county has to bowl first has eliminated the green seamer. Yet totals have been low, and Essex have made a strong start on their first division return by batting badly in only one innings of each game.
After Somerset had lost their opening game – against Essex – through such woeful batting that none of their players scored a fifty on a Taunton pitch where 280 would have been par, their coach, Matthew Maynard, wondered if the pre-season matches had been too easy. In their previous game, on the same pitch, Somerset had defeated Oxford MCCU by 506 runs.
Most counties have feasted on student bowling in late March and early April, then been taken aback by county attacks – sharpened up by quick bowlers of Kolpak and official overseas status.
Warwickshire seemed to be settling in when they made merry against Oxford in the Parks, only for their batting to disintegrate, apart from Jonathan Trott’s century in the second innings at the Kia Oval as Surrey made their early move for pole position. The first-class status of six universities sponsored by MCC is just as anomalous as it was when bestowed on Oxford and Cambridge after they had been shorn of athletes and national servicemen. Loughborough MCCU have competed admirably with counties this spring, but not the other five universities.
It is equally absurd that the first two games played by each of the six MCCUs should be first-class but, just after they have warmed up, no more. Thus Oxford’s game against Warwickshire was nominally first-class, yet not their next against Somerset. The England and Wales Cricket Board should award first-class status to Universities North and to Universities South, for every three-day game they play, and that is it.
So far, therefore, all the more emphasis in the championship has been on opening the innings, and setting the right tone, and making a platform not only for the other specialist batsmen but also – another increasing similarity with Test cricket – for the bowlers who make crucial contributions with the bat, as Yorkshire’s do when marshalled by Tim Bresnan.
Warwickshire are bottom of Division One largely as a result of their opening pair having a highest partnership of 10. Their vaunted middle order needs more protection from William Porterfield, who has found county cricket a step or two higher than first-class matches for Ireland: he has made only two centuries and averaged 26 for Warwickshire.
In Division Two, life has been grim for Glamorgan, who have taken less than 4½ days to lose twice, and for Leicestershire and Durham, who are still in the red. All of Leicestershire’s gains from last summer seem to have gone out of the window, along with their head coach, Andrew McDonald, and their opening batsman, Angus Robson, who should have been a pillar instead of moving to Sussex. Durham, in spite of their 48-point penalty, will not finish bottom at least.
In contrast, Northamptonshire continue on their merry way, the only county apart from Kent and Nottinghamshire to have won both of their opening games.
“My chubster line has caused a few giggles in the camp,” said their head coach David Ripley, after he had told The Daily Telegraph that “chubster” was the term for several of his players who were well-rounded cricketers. And an ample physique was anything but a handicap when they needed two off their last two balls to defeat Derbyshire, and Rory Kleinveldt ran down the pitch to strike the penultimate for six.