Lancs’ batting woes

Lancashire have played a quarter of their Championship matches this season and although it is still certainly early there are some areas of concern. Although our record (one win, two draws, one loss) is not really dire on the face of it, both draws were losing draws. We were saved by bad light against Warwickshire (admittedly after putting up a good fight) and by rain against Sussex. The bowling has been decent so far; the problem has very much been the batting. The extent to which we have struggled with the bat is highlighted by a glance at the Division One table; we have just one batting point from four matches. That by itself has actually cost us a place; our record is better than that of Nottinghamshire, but they have managed ten batting points which is enough for them to sit in sixth whilst we are in seventh.

Paul Horton has batted well at the top of the order, but then the entire middle order has consistently struggled and the fact that we scored enough runs to beat Northamptonshire was down largely to the efforts of Jos Buttler and Tom Smith down the order. Luis Reece still has promise, but he is yet to do in the first division what he did in the second last year. Andrea Agathangelou was dropped after the first three matches, but at least against Sussex Karl Brown and Steven Croft did not fare any better. Possibly most worrying is that Ashwell Prince has done very little to follow up his century in the opening match. Even before the season started it was clear that we were going to be relying on him to stabilise an inexperienced batting order and our struggles are directly tied to his struggles.

There isn’t an easy fix to this. It is reasonable to expect that a batsman of the potential of Reece will find some form as the season goes on and the same will likely be true of Prince. Brown and Croft have only had one innings and so might improve, but at the same time there is a reason they did not play at the start of the season. The only real active step Glen Chapple and Mike Watkinson can take right now is to try to find an overseas batsman for the remainder of the season. Simon Katich did an excellent job last year in that role; right now we really need someone who can do that again. There are unfortunately no obvious options and the fact that we are five weeks into the season with no overseas signing suggests that most of the less-obvious ones are not interested either. So it looks like we will be spending most or all of the summer hoping our current batsmen remember how to bat. Our bowling is good enough and there is enough promise in the batsmen that this isn’t a disaster, but I worry it will mean a pretty nervous (not to mention frustrating) summer in the bottom half of the table.

There is some good news ahead of tomorrow’s match against Middlesex, however: Kyle Hogg has recovered from the injury that kept him out of the first four matches of the season. Although Jimmy Anderson is unavailable after playing against Scotland this weekend, it does mean a return to something close to our first choice attack against a Middlesex side whose batting has almost been as frail as ours. If we can bowl first we have a good chance to bowl them out cheaply and then we might be able to ease some of the pressure on our own middle order. Fingers crossed…

Lancashire draw with Worcestershire

In a way, Lancashire started the 2013 season the way they ended the 2012 season: with a rain affected draw. But it did look like a significant improvement over last season and in particular the batting looked better. Lancashire were on top for a lot of the match and by the end they were the only team that had a chance to win.

Although it was a good match overall for Lancs, it was far from being one way traffic and the bowling sometimes lacked penetration as it did last season. Glen Chapple made the slightly odd decision to bowl first and whilst it was certainly not a terrible decision there did not seem to be a huge amount in the wicket for the seamers. They did well to get wickets at regular intervals on the first day, but always seemed to be about a wicket ‘behind’. On the second morning Worcestershire put on nearly a hundred for the seventh wicket to get themselves up to a good score. Although the rest of the match went emphatically Lancashire’s way and suggested that the pitch was quite flat, this was disturbingly reminiscent of the big partnerships that destroyed Lancashire last season. That said, Chapple and Kyle Hogg did bowl very well on the last day and were unlucky to only take one wicket.

The worst that could be said about the batting was that no one went on to get a century. Both openers registered fifties, however, and so did both Ashwell Prince and Simon Katich in the middle order. Those two did brilliantly on the fourth morning to make sure Lancs got a fourth batting point as well. They will certainly have sterner tests as the year goes on, but they could not have asked for a much better start. The fact that Paul Horton and Luke Procter both had good scores was particularly heartening. It was expected that Prince would have a good year and certainly hoped that Katich would. But Horton and Procter both struggled last year (along with much of the batting) and it was not all clear how they would do this year. And, to be fair, it still really isn’t; It has only been one game. But if they can consistently give Lancashire a solid platform that will go a long way to alleviating the problems of last season.

Lancashire do not play in the County Championship next week; they have a three-day friendly across the Pennines before playing Kent at Old Trafford on the 24th. Yorkshire started the season by being bowled out for 96 against Sussex, so this should provide an opportunity to try to get the bowlers into a bit of better form.

Lancashire in 2012

After the euphoria of 2011, the comedown of 2012 could hardly be more pronounced. From Champions to relegated and with the added pain of Yorkshire going up, meaning no Roses cricket next year as well.

Listening to Lancashire all season, it felt almost like they never could quite ‘click’. They always seemed to be playing a little bit worse than they ought to be and when they improved it was short-lived. Fate did not help at all. Last season Lancashire only lost 200-odd overs to the weather. This year it was about nine times that much; over five full matches worth of time lost. In practice it completely ruined eight matches: against Somerset (twice), Notts, Sussex, Surrey (twice), Worcs and Durham. Not all looked like being Lancashire wins, of course (though the two against Somerset did), and when it didn’t rain Lancashire still lost more often than not. The result can certainly not be blamed on the weather, but it really did not help. The other bits of misfortune were injuries and the schedule. Tom Smith missed most of the season with a hamstring injury and showed at the end of the year just how much that hurt the team. Lancashire finally started hitting their stride and either won or came close to winning their three matches before the T20 break. But that month of pyjama cricket broke their momentum and form.

Still, it would be inaccurate and rather irresponsible to blame fate for Lancashire’s relegation. There were flaws with both the bowling and batting. The batting has looked quite poor as there were a number of dramatic collapses that seemed to all but put Lancashire out of matches. But whilst it is true that the batting was not great, it was probably not as bad as it first appears. The first thing to remember is that the conditions favoured bowlers all year. No team batted as well as one would otherwise expect and Lancashire’s total of 25 batting points was comfortably more than Durham and only one fewer than Nottinghamshire. The biggest problem for Lancashire seemed to be that there was a much greater reliance on one person this year: Ashwell Prince. Prince scored 1,008 run at an average of over 40 in 15 matches. But he had no support; the next highest tally was Steven Croft’s 666 runs at under thirty. The practical upshot was that sometimes the batting would fire and put Lancs in a good position and sometimes there would be an astonishing collapse.

Those collapses are quite memorable, of course, but the bowling was the much larger problem. The summer was so wet that the conditions very much favoured bowlers, but Lancs had a terrible time taking twenty wickets. In sixteen matches they took only twenty wickets only three times. It was very much the bowling that won the title last year, with three bowlers taking over fifty wickets in 2011 and Simon Kerrigan of course taking 24 in just four matches. Whilst it would be a lot to ask for a repeat performance, few of the bowlers even came close. The apparently ageless Glen Chapple took 42 over the course of the year (with a pair of five-fers, ten in one match and a bowling average of 24 over the course of the year) and Kerrigan still managed 44 on what tended to be fairly unhelpful pitches. But he did so with an average over 33 and the next highest wicket total was that of Luke Procter of all people with 25. This is not to say the bowling was uniformly terrible, but they did a terrible job of making the most of good starts. In the first match of the season, Sussex recovered from 13-3 to 300 all out thanks to a fourth wicket stand of 164 and unfortunately it was that which really set the tone for the season. Every match that was not badly rain affected had at least one century partnership for Lancashire’s opposition and usually they occurred after early collapses. Of particular import were Warwickshire’s stand of 224 after being 81-7, Worcestershire’s partnership of 127 after being 93-6 and of course Middlesex’s recovery to 446 after losing three wickets early. The first two probably cost Lancashire the match, and by extension their place in the first division, whilst the third all but broke the back of the season.

There will be some calls for change over the winter, I suspect, but I think restraint is important. There are changes we can make, but I think we only need a few. First is that we will need a replacement for Ashwell Prince, unless we can convince him to return. Whilst we have to back our batsmen to improve next year (we know they can play better than they did this year), they will be very much helped by having someone very good and reliable like Prince again. There aren’t a huge number of options due to the IPL and international commitments, of course, but there are a few who are in similar situations as Prince was and who we might be able to sign. But as I said above the bowling was the bigger problem. Ajmal Shahzad looked a decent addition (especially with Sajid Mahmood having a shocker of a season), but he did not actually come up with a lot of wickets. Kyle Hogg also had a poor season, Tom Smith was injured for much of the year and we seldom had chances to play both Keedy and Kerrigan. It’s probably fair to expect Hogg to have a better season next year. Shahzad and Mahmood are a lot more uncertain, but both are talented. I don’t think there is actually a lot we can do to improve the bowling from a personnel standpoint. There are no English players (and I’m assuming we use our overseas player for a batsman) who spring to mind who are all of available, affordable and a clear improvement to what we have. It’s not ideal, but I suspect we will have to make do with what we have. (And maybe hope we get Jimmy for more than just one match this time.) Really, it should be enough, though, especially in Division Two. I think in most cases one would expect it to have been enough in Division One.

I’m optimistic about Lancashire’s chances next season. Unless something goes very wrong in the winter (eg: Chappie retiring) we will probably be favourites to go straight back up. There are improvements to be made, but I think that sticking with the core of this squad will pay dividends.

LV=CC week two roundup

It was another very entertaining week of matches in the County Championship this week. Early season conditions favoured the bowlers, especially on the first day as over 70 wickets fell around the country. This went a long way to ensuring that all seven matches had positive results. The full results were:
Nottinghamshire beat Durham by 114 runs
Sussex beat Lancashire by ten wickets
Middlesex beat Surrey by three runs
Warwickshire beat Somerset by two wickets
Derbyshire beat Glamorgan by 130 runs
Gloucestershire beat Hampshire by 33 runs
Kent beat Northamptonshire by an innings and 120 runs

It was a poor start to Lancashire‘s title defence as they were bowled out for 124 on the first day. Whilst this was hardly unusual given the conditions around the country, it still looked like a very bad toss to lose. There was some hope: Lancs had some of the best bowlers in the country last year and they reduced Sussex to 15-3 in reply. Michael Yardy and Ed Joyce but on a stand of 164, however, which probably decided the match. It was an especially good innings by Yardy who not only steadied the ship for Sussex but counterattacked brilliantly. Lancashire have to rue the four catches they put down on the second morning however. Sussex had one other fairly big partnership: 43 for the ninth wicket to end Lancashire’s brief hopes of keeping the deficit relatively in check. Lancashire did not play terribly poorly; credit must go to Yardy and Steve Magoffin whose batting and bowling performances respectively were excellent. Lancs could do with a bit more batting practise, but their biggest area of concern will probably be the fielding. It probably did not decide the match, but they dropped far too many catches. In the end, they only barely avoided an innings defeat. Ashwell Prince’s 58 was the biggest score of the match for Lancs as they only set Sussex a target of one to win.

Notts continued a good start to the season by beating Durham despite being bowled out for 161 in their first innings. Both sets of bowlers made good use of the friendly conditions, however, and that 161 turned out to be good enough for a first innings lead of 32. I think it was not unreasonable to expect more of the same, but instead Notts built an unchaseable total around Michael Lumb’s 131. Given that only three other batsmen in the entire match passed fifty, it was a fantastic innings. Durham started the chase of 368 by collapsing to 30-5 and it was only some good lower order batting that saw them avoid humiliation.

Middlesex‘s derby against Surrey looked like it might be the best match of the round even on the second day and it did not disappoint. It started off as a bit of a slow-burner; batsmen had to play themselves in properly before trying to go on. The top order for both sides did so passably well, though both suffered collapses in the first innings (Surrey’s the more dramatic). Neither, however, resembled the implosions seen in many other matches. It was slow, low-scoring work and very pleasing to see unfold even as I listened to Lancashire’s match. The work of Dawid Malan for Middlesex and Steve Davies for Surrey in getting the only two fifties of the first innings was very impressive in light of the fairly low team totals. The second innings saw the return of the proper collapses, however. Middlesex had a first innings lead of 34, but only set Surrey a target of 141. They needed something special from their bowlers and Tim Murtagh and Toby Roland-Jones just about delivered. It was close though. Rory Hamilton-Brown almost got Surrey across the line after they had been reduced to 22-3 and 68-4. He could not find a partner though and even though he made the second highest score of the match with 63, his departure left Surrey 126-8 and the tail could not quite do enough.

Somerset won the toss against Warwickshire at Edgbaston and chose to bat. Seventeen point four overs later they were 44-5 with Trescothick, Nick Compton and James Hildreth making just 14 between them. Compton at least managed to make his five last 64 balls, which is fairly impressive. I did not think they were going to get to 100, before Philander decided to become an all-rounder and top-scored in the innings with 38. In the end, Warwickshire had to rely on their own tail to get the lead close to 100. Somerset had a chance to set a good total and although they lost their openers cheaply again, they got an excellent hundred (133) from Compton and 93 from Jos Buttler. The pair of them put on 167, but it was a mark of how little help they got from the rest of the batsmen that their joint contribution was over half of the total of 354 all out. With Somerset’s batting, it is probably fair to say that it should have been more. Jeetan Patel’s unbeaten 43 left them rueing that failure. Although Warwickshire had briefly been 190-3, they collapsed in just eight overs to 207-8 and Somerset had a real chance. I think, however, that the more deserving team won.

Derbyshire‘s match against Glamorgan was a case of one semi-competent batting innings winning a match. At the end of day one, Derbyshire had been bowled out for 130 and had reduced Glamorgan to 37-4. They would go on to bowl Glamorgan out for 95 before themselves collapsing (again) to 37-5. Eventually they found some semblance of batting in the lower-middle order, most notably an unbeaten 51 from David Wainwright, and could set Glamorgan over 200 to win. It was not objectively a lot, but in the context of the match all the safe money was on Derbyshire. The extent of Glamorgan’s collapse was still pretty surprising, however. They got off to a decent start and were at one point 92-3. Six overs later, they were all out for 102. Jonathan Clare did most of the damage for Derbyshire, but it was still a spectacular implosion.

Gloucestershire managed comfortably the best performance in the first innings of this round of matches in their trip to Hampshire. They put up 314 all out, thanks mostly to 114 from opener Chris Dent. Despite a solid 74 from Simon Katich, Hampshire’s reply never seemed to really get going and Will Gidman’s 5-48 ensured that they were bowled out 115 in arrears. Gloucs made enough of it, but I’m sure they would have liked to have done more. No one went past fifty in their second innings, and Hampshire were set a not unreasonable 290 to win. Hants’ top order didn’t bother to show up for that chase, however, and found themselves 72-6 at one point. Wicket-keeper Michael Bates and Chris Wood engineered a recovery, but when Will Gidman struck to remove Bates 13 short of the latter’s hundred, the match was all but up.

Kent had the biggest victory of the week over Northamptonshire. Northants won the toss, batted and were bowled out for 132. It was an interesting innings as there were no scores of note and the wickets were shared around the Kent bowlers. Northants possibly scented a comeback when Kent were 35-2, but solid contributions from Ben Harmison, Brendan Nash and Geraint Jones combined with an unbeaten 128 from Mike Powell meant that they trailed by a massive 236 after the first innings. Northants did not make much of an effort to make Kent bat again. Captain David Sales 42 was the highest of only three double-digit contributions to their 116 all out as Matt Coles took 6-51 to achieve the earliest finish (lunch on day three) of the week.

Victory for Notts coupled with defeats for Somerset and Surrey mean that Nottinghamshire now top the first division table with 38 points from two matches. In Division Two, Derbyshire are enjoying one of their best starts to a season in recent times; they sit atop the table with 39 points and two wins from two.

Nick Compton would be a dark horse at best for England’s vacant number six spot, but after two matches he leads the first division in both total runs and average. Jos Buttler’s good, but ultimately just insufficient, innings should also keep him in the selectors’ minds.

Return of the Prince

I didn’t mention yesterday as I was rather busy, but Lancashire signed Ashwell Prince as the overseas player for the upcoming season. I’m glad we finally nailed down a player and I think the choice was a very good one. Prince has a decent first class average and did very well the first two times he played for us. The most important thing for us was to sign a decent batsman though. Looking at last year’s Division 1 averages, of the players who played at least five matches the highest Lancastrian is Luke Procter at number 24. He had a good season, but still barely averaged over 40 from seven matches. Contrast this to the D1 bowling averages where the top three who bowled at least 150 overs are Simon Kerrigan, Kyle Hogg and Glen Chapple, all of whom averaged under 20. Our batting was definitely where we needed to improve, and I’m pretty confident that we have done that.

The only drawback is that Prince might still play for South Africa during the second half of the season. (At the very least I’d expect him to be in the squad.) I’m sure it’s easier to sign a player who wants to impress his county’s selectors ahead of an English tour, but it is still not optimal to sign someone who has a decent chance of missing four or five matches near the end of the season. Of course, if he is selected for South Africa on the back of a shedload of runs for us in the first half of the Championship I think it would probably be worth it. I’m not worried about the possibility of getting him too used to English conditions either. It probably won’t hurt him, but England’s bowlers are rather better than anything he’ll face even in the first Division. There was a lot of moaning about Phil Hughes playing for Middlesex in 2009 and all that happened was that England got a good look at how he played and preceded to use that against him rather effectively. I don’t think Prince, or the other South African that signed up to play county cricket (whose name escapes me and I’m too lazy to look up), will fare much better for South Africa.