Don Topley: Simon Harmer is missing the left arm fast men at Essex
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Cricket columnist Don Topley looks at how the First Division of the County Championship is shaping up after the first few matches of the season...
With five rounds of the Division One County Championship now completed, the eight counties in the First Division have a clear indication how their four-day season is progressing.
Essex, the county champions, have just won an important county fixture in Worcestershire and given themselves an extra day off by winning in three days.
Once again, the bowlers won a low scoring game, with Simon Harmer taking five wickets and outgoing Aussie overseas, Peter Siddle, claiming the other five.
Essex’s strength in depth is in their batting, which has not yet produced like it did last year and, most prominently includes Alastair Cook at the top of their order.
Cook will soon be away with England – he’s currently topping the Essex averages with a healthy 42 but has yet to score a century for his beloved county. Perhaps, he is saving that for England duty against Pakistan on Thursday week, at Lord’s!
Probably the major concern for new coach, Anthony McGrath, is that no Essex batsman has yet scored a century.
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Last summer, eight different batsmen raised their bat, which is an incredible statistic and was a significant contribution to their championship success.
McGrath will know how important scoring centuries is. Once the game has been set up by the batsmen, it is then the turn of the bowlers to clinically win the match.
Siddle, in his last game for Essex (before New Zealander Neil Wagner takes over), was chuffed to contribute to this latest Essex win by taking a splendid 5/37 off 18 overs.
I watched Siddle bowl in the adverse weather in the drawn-out affair v Hampshire and, for me, he was the pick of the Essex bowlers coming on first change after the youngsters, Jamie Porter and Sam Cook.
Siddle has been the senior bowler of an effective Essex attack and mentored his younger charges. The club will need to monitor the overs for Porter, who has just recovered recently from a stress fracture, and even the younger Cook. Perhaps they may rest them in some white ball cricket.
There is one significant difference currently in Essex cricket, in comparison to last year. It is one of the most effective tactics in our great game.
The tactic of bowling the right arm off-spinner into the rough of the left arm fast bowler’s foot-holes – a traditional tactic employed by John Lever/David Acfield and Mark Ilott/Peter Such.
Last year in nearly every championship fixture Essex fielded one, if not two, left arm pace bowlers from Neil Wagner or Mohammed Amir with young Paul Walter.
Those overseas bowlers were absolute quality, whereas Walter (who is still very inexperienced), often played not because of his runs and wickets, but the rough patches he created outside the off-stump for Harmer to exploit. It was so effective, but absent so far this year and it shows, despite last week’s win.
Surrey are without doubt the form county team having won two, drawn two and yet to be dominated. They play on excellent surfaces at the Oval, which is challenging to get the required 20 wickets a game. They currently have a game in hand too.
Hampshire’s form is in contrast. They possess a dynamic batting line-up on paper but perpetually struggle with their top order. The opening partnership has made 50 only twice in nine outings and they frequently have a deficit in their first innings – therefore always chasing the game. Serious finger injuries to Sam Northeast and Liam Dawson may have an effect too.
Yorkshire blow either very hot or cold. I commentated on their staggering win at Chelmsford recently when Yorkshire were bowled out for just 50 and went on to inflict the first championship defeat of Essex since 16th August 2016. What an incredible game it was! Nottinghamshire remain top, despite being thrashed by Lancashire this week.
Notts prefer to play away when the best bowling attack in the country can choose to bowl first. Lancashire needed that win at Trent Bridge otherwise they would have found themselves towards the bottom with lowly Worcestershire, who have found Division One brutally hard.
Somerset are the surprise team who have found an early season-winning formula, but I do not expect them to stay with the pace of the leaders.
Now for some 50-over white ball One Day Cup cricket!