Each round of the County Championship offers up moments of excitement, intrigue, plot and sub plot as matches head towards final day conclusions, Some finish early of course, one side the easy victor, the other steamrollered to early defeat. Or the British weather can be relied to intervene. Others meander towards an inevitable shaking of hands just after tea on Day 4 with neither side believing that victory or defeat is within grasp. But then there are some, teasingly poised going into the final overs when all three, or even four results are possible. Edge of seat, white knucklers that like any good thriller have viewers transfixed to the last moment denouement, whether at the match itself, watching or listening on radio or video feed, or even via online ball by ball score update services. Cricbuzz belters or Cricinfo crackers.
The last round of the Championship served up plenty of these, as Day 4 fielders crowded beleaguered batters in the hunt for victory at Trent Bridge, Chelmsford, Taunton, Leeds and Worcester, whilst at Derby batters braced themselves hoping to bash, batter and baz their way to unlikely victory. Things got so tense there in fact that the umpires descended into hapless confusion about how many overs were actually left, in the end deciding that Derbyshire had to make 54 from just one over rather than three.
Yet for all this, only one match ended in victory as six were drawn, but if the next round serves up anything like the excitement of the last, county cricket fans, indeed all cricket fans, will be in for a treat. Talking points abounded wherever you chose to look.
At Trent Bridge we were treated to England’s senior bowling attack of Broad and Anderson, not terrifying batters in tandem this time, but in direct opposition with Jimmy desperately trying to remove his usual oppo in the match’s penultimate over. No sight of the Night Hawk here. More a case of night mule as Broad displayed commendable stubbornness to stonewall his England team mate and finish with 3 from no less than fifty balls, before another stone, England’s Olly saw off the match’s final five balls after Tom Hartley had removed Luke Fletcher LBW of the second ball of the over. Phew. Hopefully we will be seeing more of Broad, Anderson and Stone this summer, as we might too of Josh Bohannan whose 68 and 92 were scored in sprightly enough fashion to keep him forefront of mind for England watchers.
At Taunton, Somerset remained winless so far this season against Northants who had to thank their Australian skipper Sam Whiteman who batted through the final day to make 130 and ensure the draw. Whiteman, although Australian, was actually born in Yorkshire and showed all of that county’s renowned grit to see his team to safety as few others with the exception of Saif Zaib and Tom Taylor provided much support.
Essex were also denied a win against Surrey at Chelmsford, despite a last day victory charge. A draw had always looked the most likely result after only 6.4 overs had been possible due to rain on day 3, but none the less, it required Surrey to dig in after wickets had fallen regularly to leave them well short of the target and just 3 wickets in hand at the close. Two former England openers in Burns and Sibley fell cheaply before Ollie Pope, batting in his current England position of 3, steadied things somewhat. It was young Jamie Smith however, another in the Epsom production line of Surrey talent, who was in ‘boy on burning deck’ mode to see Surrey to the safe harbour of a draw. 39 off 126 balls is hardly Baz worthy, but did the job and he was well supported by Cameron Steel with an equally dogged 10 off 52 to evade the hunting Surrey pack.
The only win of this round of matches belonged to Warwickshire who eclipsed Hampshire by an innings and 84 runs despite losing all play on day 3. Chris Rushworth, another highly skilled county stalwart, did the damage with his 7/38 as only James Vince remained with the second of his two fine knocks that will, as ever, have admirers believing he has unfinished red ball business for England. Full credit to Warwickshire, but oddly, the only victory was perhaps the least exciting of all the games.
Division 2 may irrefutably be below Division 1, but it showcases some stunning global superstar talent. Look no further than New Road, Worcester for a start. With the World Test Championship Final and the Ashes around the corner, Sussex fielded no less than three figures likely to be central to those events in captain, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ollie Robinson and making his much-anticipated Championship debut Steve Smith. A comparatively low-key debut it turned out to be for Smith, eclipsed by Pujara’s majestic 136 and Ollie Robinson’s 14 match wickets, gathered evenly in each Worcester innings for a ridiculously frugal 8.4 apiece. Sussex it was who were desperately seeking final day victory under the watchful eye of the old Worcester cathedral, but they were thwarted by the brilliant Azhar Ali, whose 103 held Worcestershire together for long enough to deny Sussex and the rampant Robinson. That he had to watch the final overs play out from the pavilion, resting due to cramp, will most likely have England unpacking the cotton wool to wrap him in for the next few weeks.
There was considerable Ashes interest at Headingley too, where Marnus Labuschagne’s 65 and unbeaten 170 batted Glamorgan into an unassailable lead aided, it must be said, by long time England nearly man Sam Northeast. Michael Neser may not be in Ashes contention, but the Aussie had wrecked Yorkshire’s first innings with his 7/32 including a hattrick as Jonny Bairstow ran rapidly out of partners with his unbeaten 20 top score. He fared less well in the second innings with a duck, but another former England opener, Adam Lythe kept his side in the game with a fine and sprightly 170, but there was still plenty of last over drama as Jordan Thomson held firm with Yorkshire 9 down to frustrate Neser and Glamorgan.
All of which brings us to the daftness at Derby where Rish Patel, Lewis Hill, Chris Wright and Peter Hanscomb, who will feel unlucky not to have made the Ashes squad after his efforts in India, had seen Leicestershire to a lead of 53, giving Derbyshire what most people thought was three overs to make 54. Certainly, a draw was favourite, but 17.6 an over with 10 wickets in hand would have been enough for Derbyshire to have a shot at surely. A full twenty-minute delay ensued as the umpires finally realised that it was actually one over to be bowled.
Micky Arthur was in no doubt how Derbyshire would have tackled the challenge saying “We thought we had 18 balls there and we were going to give it a full crack but it was a bit harder off six!
“We were ringing the ECB from about eight overs left to get clarity on proceedings,” said Paul Nixon. “We always thought it was the over you’re in plus two that are taken off. The ECB make a lot of rule changes for the better of the game every year and I didn’t hear of that one”.
That the final over was then bowled at all, seems to be the epitome of English eccentricity and pointlessness. Games often finish far earlier with a shake of the hands, but not here. So, would Haider Ali look to blast as many runs as he could, fired up by the frustration of having a shot at victory whisked away by bureaucratic bungling? Not a bit of it. Perhaps Colin Ackermann’s wily off breaks were just too good. Either way a tame maiden is what we got. Chaotic, crazy and confused it may have been, yet in its way as entertaining as anything that transpired at Nottingham, Warwickshire or indeed Westminster.