Don Topley: Enforcing the follow-on is not fashionable, but it’s a great tactic

Alastair Cook has been in cracking form for Essex so far

Alastair Cook has been in cracking form for Essex so far

In his latest weekly column, DON TOPLEY takes a look at how the county cricket season is shaping up after the initial round of games.

With three rounds of the SpecSavers County Championship now completed it’s the turn of the Royal London 50 Over One Day Cup to take centre stage, with Essex opening their account on Sunday with the visit of rejuvenated Hampshire.

In the Championship, Essex have started their season well defeating Somerset, with Alastair Cook making a defining century. Salvaging two draws with two huge rear-guard actions and a little help from bad light at Lord’s this week has allowed the county to remain undefeated.

Dan Lawrence’s wonderful 141no saved Essex’s bacon on their first Championship game back in Division One against Lancashire. There was that surprising win down at ‘turning’ Taunton before heading for Lord’s.

The Champions, Middlesex, were disappointing not enforcing the follow-on last weekend. In batting again Middlesex took time out of the game which was needed in order to bowl Essex out.

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Following-on has become unfashionable as captains are concerned about their tiring bowlers who potentially face another day and a half in the field as opposed to batting again, which allows their bowlers to put their feet up for a while.

In fact the unusually dry weather – although cold – has not affected much county cricket which is terrific as most four day games have taken a natural conclusion.

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In contrast the surprise county so far, Hampshire, have defeated Yorkshire, threatened highly-fancied Middlesex and then nearly rumbled Yorkshire again with Root, Bairstow, Rashid and Willey back in their side.

Hampshire did make Yorkshire follow-on and spent two-and-a-half extremely demanding days in the field or 215 successive overs in the dirt – that’s how you win games.

Former England player Ballance became ‘a wall’ not to be overcome, as he raised his bat five times at The Ageas Bowl making a century in the first innings and a match-saving double century in the second innings – that’s form!

Essex’s overseas player, the big hearted international Kiwi fast bowler, Neil Wagner, has complimented our eight team First Division Championship cricket by confirming that it’s the highest standard of all the domestic cricket around the world. Wagner said: “It’s highest standard below Test Cricket.” It is widely regarded that Division Two, with ten participating counties is of a much lesser standard.

Nottinghamshire are the favourites for that title with their stunning international bowling line-up of Broad, Pattinson, Ball and Gurney dominating their three successive wins, with Kent and Northamptonshire performing nicely too.

With fewer championship games this season – 14 instead of last season’s 16 (against county members wishes) – together with the uncontested toss brought in last season (hence better batting wickets), counties do need to gamble more in going for the sought-after win.

With fewer games the table may be tighter – I am predicting that if you are third in the Division One table come August you may be still in relegation trouble as two from the eight teams go down: 25% of Division One get relegated! One championship victory will make a difference at either end.

During my own Essex career under captain/coach, Keith Fletcher, we won the Championship three times (1986, 1991, 1992). His philosophy was ‘win 8, lose 8, draw 8’ and you come barely mid-table. Win 12 and lose 12 you will win it.

Hence that’s why I was critical of Middlesex this week by batting again to set Essex a mammoth 451 or just three sessions to bowl Essex out.

Following on would have been a better option for a Middlesex win, but certainly more tiring.

I have found each of the four day games absorbing and every round has been a highly intense and competitive event.

I have had the pleasure of commentating for BBC Radio each week either BBC Radio 5Live Sports Extra or online for BBC Essex and BBC Solent.

The BBC provides an excellent service with every ball of every professional match available online, all around the world. Remarkably, over one million people clicked in to listen to just the first round of county championship games earlier this month!

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