Lancashire v Essex preview

Lancashire have their third home match in four games this week as they play Essex at Old Trafford starting on Tuesday. Both teams got their first win of the season last week and both in fairly dramatic fashion, so both will be looking to continue their momentum.

Lancashire will have two enforced changes from the attack that managed to defend 154 at Colwyn Bay last week. Jimmy Anderson will return to England duty ahead of next week’s first Test against New Zealand and Simon Kerrigan will be with the England Lions as they play a New Zealand XI starting on the ninth. I expect Wayne White will return to the side after he made a good start to his Lancashire career against Worcestershire and Stephen Parry looks likely to replace Kerrigan. Although this is an obviously weaker attack, it is still one capable of taking wickets. The main spearheads of Glen Chapple and Kyle Hogg will still be present and White certainly poses an attacking threat. Those three will be backed up by Parry, who has generally been playing in the shorter forms, and Luke Procter whose bowling has been getting more incisive. Although it has been a bit difficult to take wickets at Old Trafford so far this season, I don’t think this attack will struggle any more than the others have done.

Lancashire’s top six should be unchanged; although they had a poor match at Colwyn Bay, they have been very good in the other two matches and twice put Lancashire into winning positions. Lancashire bat very deep, as Hogg showed at Colwyn Bay, but the upper and middle order have generally done well enough that this has not been needed. Ashwell Prince and Simon Katich in particular have been excellent. The only criticism that could be levelled is that they have not scored particularly quickly. Whilst there is no one who would prefer a quick 200 all out to a slow 450-7, it has hampered Lancashire’s ability to get batting bonus points and meant that when it has rained there has not been enough time left to force a result. Getting runs on the board is paramount, but if Lancashire can do it a little bit quicker in this match they will be better off than they have been.

Lancashire will be disappointed to see that Alastair Cook will be bolstering the Essex ranks. The visitors’ batting has been suspect at times this year, but having Cook at the top of the order will relieve a lot of the pressure on the middle order and Graham Napier has shown in each of their last two matches that they can recover from a pretty dire position. But at the same time that means that they have been in dire positions a lot and the Lancashire bowlers will be eying up the Essex middle order very keenly. There are a lot of single figure scores there and a lot of very quick collapses in the last couple of matches. The key for Lancashire will not only be to get into that position of strength, but to actually finish Essex off from there.

Lancashire may have to fight the weather again as well as Essex. The forecast for the first day is excellent; there is very little chance of rain and the temperature is supposed to get all the way up to 20°C. From there, however, there is a distinct chance of rain on the second and third days and it is supposed to get much colder as well. Lancashire’s best chance to win is probably to bat first, then try to score a bit quicker than they have done and get a good total on the board before spending the rest of the match trying to put the Essex batsmen under pressure. It is a tough ask, as it always is when overs are lost due to weather, and they have to get through Alastair Cook. But if they can get past Cook and Napier then the rest of Essex’s batting is flimsy enough that Lancs should have a very good chance to win even with the rain.

It’s very close, but I think Lancashire will win with a draw being the next most likely outcome. That’s not to rule out Essex who did well to bowl a solid Hampshire batting order out fairly cheaply last week, but much like when Lancashire played Kent I think a lot more will have to go Essex’s way for them to get into a winning position then it would for Lancs to do the same.

Lancashire won by 14 runs

Lancashire finally have their first win of the 2013 and secured it in dramatic fashion at Colwyn Bay. The win moves Lancashire up to third in the second division table, behind Northamptonshire who have had an excellent start to the season and Hampshire who have had the better of the bonus points.

It was in some ways the worst match Lancashire have played this year; certainly the batting failed to match the standard set in the opening two matches at Old Trafford. Lancashire dominated those two matches, but were never firm favourites at any stage of the match. It was at best very close right up until the last wicket fell and twice Glamorgan looked to be cruising to victory. The first time was when Simon Katich was given out to leave Lancashire effectively 45-7 in their second innings and the second was when Glamorgan were 94-2, needing just sixty more to win.

There were several heroes for the Red Rose in coming from the dead to win the match, but the biggest plaudits have to go Glen Chapple. He actually had not had a great start to the season. In the first two matches and the first innings of this one he had taken only 5-203. But he always seems to come up with something big when we need him; in this case he brought himself on with the cause seemingly lost and took three wickets, including both well set batsmen, to set Lancashire on the way to victory. He bowled for the remainder of the innings and then also broke a mini-partnership that was tilting the match back in Glamorgan’s favour. It was a staggering effort.

Although it was Chapple who made the breakthroughs and gave Lancashire a chance it was Simon Kerrigan who finished off Glamorgan with a five wicket haul and nine in the match. It was reminiscent of some of the performances he had in 2011 and in particular the last-gasp win against Hampshire. Kyle Hogg only bowled one over of the run chase, but he was instrumental in giving Lancashire a chance as he scored 47 in the second innings to make the total just large enough to defend.

Ideally this win will serve as a bit of a kick start to Lancashire’s season; now that they have a win and a bit of belief they need to consistently bowl sides out cheaply and start winning matches like the first two where they really did outplay the opposition. This match was not only the first in which they bowled out the opposition twice, it was the first in which they had even come close. Admittedly the rain had intervened in the other two, but this was still the best bowling performance of the year. What will also give Lancashire some heart was that it was not all done on the back of James Anderson and that there was enough time left that even if it had rained it would not have ruined the match. In the meantime they have a few days to enjoy the high of a remarkable win!

Lancashire v Kent preview

After a week off in round two of the County Championship, Lancashire are back in action this week with another home match, this time against Kent. Although there were quite a few positives to be taken from the draw against Worcestershire, Lancs could really do with a win this week. It is early yet, but the last thing we want is to have to make a late push to ensure promotion and I would much rather we get into a position of strength early on. Lancashire did win the last meeting between the two sides, back in 2010.

James Anderson returns to Lancashire’s side this week for the first of two matches allowed by the ECB this year. Not only is it good news for Lancashire that he is being allowed more time than last year, it is probably good news for Anderson as well who will have more time to find his rhythm ahead of the Test summer. Lancashire named a squad of 13 with Anderson simply added to an otherwise unchanged squad from the last match. After Wayne White had a good start to his Lancs career, my guess is that Anderson’s inclusion in the playing XI will probably come at the expense of Kyle Hogg. Given that our batting was much stronger than our bowling against Worcs, however, I would prefer him to replace Steven Croft as an extra bowler. We already had Glen Chapple coming in at nine against Worcs, so there is plenty of batting depth. That’s not to say that Croft really did anything wrong, but I think the balance of the side will be better with the extra bowling option, especially as Kent put up a total of 619 runs for only twelve wickets in their only match (admittedly against Leicestershire). Otherwise, I would name an unchanged side.

Hopefully the Old Trafford pitch has a bit more in it for the seamers this time and hopefully the weather stays away. Both were large factors in the draw two weeks ago and between them made sure there could be no positive result. Unfortunately, there is currently a moderate chance of rain on day one and decent chances over parts of the next three days, so it may be difficult once again to get a result. It’s also supposed to be generally cloudy and quite chilly, so all-in-all not great conditions.

The toss will probably be of some importance; I don’t know how how the pitch looks, but with day one looking the driest of the four the best option is probably to bat and try to put up a big total early. Lancs are certainly capable of this and getting Anderson a chance to bowl with Kent under some scoreboard pressure is probably the best way to win the match. But Kent do have a strong looking batting order, so there certainly are no guarantees. I think a draw is probably the most likely result; Lancashire certainly can win, but I think they will need to breaks with the weather and toss to go their way to do so. Kent should certainly not be written off, but I think Lancashire are the better side and Kent would need a lot to go their way to have a decent shot at victory.

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.

England’s IPL policy should be stricter

I was glad to see yesterday that Hugh Morris has said that England will not be relaxing their stance on centrally contracted players in the IPL in the contracts that will be awarded the September. I did not think that they would, but it is still good to know that they are not going to cut into the Test season to provide a ‘window’ or field an under-strength team just to benefit the money-grubbing BCCI.

I actually think they could do with a stricter policy and not let players join the IPL at all. The ones who aren’t playing already are rested instead of playing in the County Championship, why should that not apply to all of the centrally contracted players? (Better still, they could improve the County Championship by having all the centrally contracted players take part, but either way the current set up makes no sense.) There is always the argument that playing careers are short and players need to go for the money right now, but not only are England players pretty well compensated already there is nothing them stopping them from playing in the IPL after they retire. Indeed, ageing former Test stars seem to be the foundation for many of the T20 leagues around the world; just look at Shane Warne. Amongst the counties, Notts are already doing this with their contracted players and I suspect more will follow. If they lose out on the players then they aren’t really losing much since the players are missing so much of the Championship with the IPL anyway. Especially if England backed them up by not having the centrally contracted players in the IPL then I doubt this would be a problem for the counties.

There is no reason an England player should be missing any of the English season to play in a foreign tournament. If they must participate in a T20 festival there are some, like the Big Bash League which run during the English winter and there’s no reason not to participate in those. But if the IPL want to have England players (which they probably don’t; I don’t see why they would really care) then they can stage their season earlier so that it does not conflict with the County Championship and the Test summer.

Lancs’ winter so far

Obviously the winter is just getting started; the County Championship ‘only’ ended about a month ago. But there have still been some moves of note from Lancashire, albeit few of them really done by the club.

The first is that Ajmal Shahzad did not stay with the club and instead went to Nottinghamshire. This is not a surprise, but it is a disappointment as it only adds to Lancashire’s need for bowling in depth. Sajid Mahmood was also released so Lancashire will need to either try to bring in a bowler (which will be difficult being in Division Two) or rely on someone like Oliver Newby, who had an excellent 2012 season with the second XI, to step up and be the full time third seamer. I would imagine that it will be the latter due to both the practical considerations of luring a bowler to a D2 side and the opportunity to see how someone like Newby gets on in the easier environment of the second tier.

Gary Keedy also left the club, going to Surrey. Whilst it is sad to see such a long time servant of the club go, it is certainly the best move for Keedy and probably the best move for Lancashire as well. Keedy did not get a lot of playing time this season because of the emergence of Simon Kerrigan and the scarcity of wickets on which two spinners could be played. It is likely that the same situation would have arisen again next year so it is hard to blame Keedy for wanting to leave. He will be missed, especially with regard to the tutelage he could give to Kerrigan, but with Stephen Parry also having a good season for the seconds it is at least not a major blow.

The good news, however, is that Glen Chapple will stay on as captain for another year. His ability to lead from the front has been invaluable and he was the only bowler to consistently perform last season. His steady hand at the tiller will give Lancashire a huge leg up on promotion next season.

New LVCC format

The ECB also announced today the revised format for County cricket from 2014 onward. It is actually a very good revision; sanity prevailed and the ECB scrapped the notion of a 14-match schedule and they have also got rid of the T20 block and changed the CB40 to the CB50 and added quarter-finals.

The most important decision was about the LV=CC and the ECB not only kept the current form intact, but they also set the schedule so that the first 14 matches start on Sunday. The ECB press release did not say why only the first 14 rounds (though my guess is that it’s because the T20 competition will be over after that) or on what day they will start in September instead. It’s a nice arrangement though. There will still be weekend cricket and there will be a regular schedule to go with it.

The CB40 is not only to become the CB50, it will also have rules exactly matching those of international cricket. Although I do prefer the forty over version as a fan, from the standpoint of the well-being of English cricket I think this is an overall good thing. Also good is that there will be a quarter-final round this year which has very much been lacking in the past. There will be eight group matches per side, so my guess is that Scotland and Holland will continue playing and there will be four groups of five.

The T20 competition is possibly the oddest one. Getting rid of the T20 block was a great idea for the spectators wanting to attend and it does not break up the LV=CC scheduling anymore which is a distinct improvment. It will be 14 matches though, which is too many (I thought the ten of this year worked very well) and I don’t know how that will work as far as the groups go. I suspect it will mean an unbalanced schedule of the type that was proposed for the LV=CC, but that would be flawed for the same reasons.

I’m quite happy with the revisions overall and I think they will make for an improved fixture list from 2014 onwards.

A suggestion for the ECB

Last night after watching the Orioles beat the Yankees in Game Two of the ALDS, I went to the Cricket Australia website and watched part of a Sheffield Shield match between South Australia and Tasmania. There was no commentary, no graphics and not even any sound. Between overs the camera panned to the scoreboard to keep viewers up-to-date. I don’t really have a horse in the Sheffield Shield, though I am slightly partial to South Australia (who are therefore on the wrong end of a hammering, of course), but I very much enjoyed watching. It’s not that far from summer here and certainly not the true depths of winter yet, but nonetheless it has been a month since the County Championship ended and about the same length of time since anyone played a Test. It was very nice to see proper, red ball cricket and there is always something delightful about domestic first-class matches regardless of the country.

But I do prefer the County Championship to the other first-class competitions and what would really be nice is if the ECB would stream matches in the same way. I know they already have fixed cameras at the grounds for their highlight pieces, so surely they could just have a live stream? I know Sky televise a couple of matches a season, but I would like to see the ECB work out a rights deal such that they could stream matches when Sky were not showing anything. I don’t know the costs, but I don’t expect it is too expensive to have just a single camera operator and although I would prefer it to be free I would actually pay a small amount to watch.

I suspect it is pretty low on the ECB’s radar and rightly so. But I would love to consistently be able to watch the County Championship live and especially Lancashire.

Well done the counties!

George Dobell reports in Cricinfo today that the counties are expected to reaffirm their commitment to Championship cricket and shun the farce of the T20 Champions League. This can only be a good thing. The Champions League is essentially an arm of the IPL and shares the same goals: to make money for the BCCI. The tournament has always been heavily weighted toward the Indian teams and very much against the English ones. The English teams would have better odds of winning the prize money at a casino. There was no reason for English teams to ever take part; for all the talk of it being allegedly an international tournament and the players benefiting from the supposedly higher level of play, the fact is still that it is a dressed up club competition. There is no reason to suggest that the actual standard is at all higher than it is in England just because there is more light and sound associated with it. It is the same fallacy that leads people to the mistaken impression that the IPL has some legitimacy.

There is also the longstanding problem that the Champions League conflicts with the end of the County Championship. This could be avoided if those in charge of the tournament bothered, but they don’t and that should be no surprise. The BCCI have made it very clear in the past that they care nothing for the County Championship and whilst I can understand that as it isn’t their competition, they have also shown their usual unwillingness to compromise on any matter. It is a stance we have seen all across the politics of cricket for years now. These past two years the ECB have scheduled the County Championship ridiculously early to allow the counties to play in the Champions League and it has really come back to hurt them. Quite rightly it is time that the ECB stopped catering to those who will not return the favour. If the BCCI ever decide that they want English teams in the tournament they can push it back by a week or two. Until then they can play their own weighted game without the counties.

Some other good things appear to be coming are an extended period of domestic T20 and a return to fifty over List A cricket. Although there are things I like about the T20 window, I’ve never been too fond of it as it really disrupts the momentum of the Championship and then there is far too long before the quarter-finals and Finals Day. A full season of T20 on weekends is a much better idea. With regard to fifty over cricket, I do understand the concerns of the counties and actually prefer listening to forty over matches. But I would rather have a fifty over competition to match that of international cricket.

I’m quite pleased about this news overall. After all the gloom of the Morgan Report last winter it seems that everyone has seen sense about the importance of a 16 match Championship and actually look to be making improvements to the structure rather than semi-random deletions. Common sense has been a rare beast in the governance of cricket recently; finally we are seeing a good example of it.

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.