4 weeks ago the county championship kicked off and now at the halfway point until the final round before the England games here is a rundown of what’s going on, who to keep an eye out for and how are the England mainstays and hopefuls faring.
At the moment there is a copious amount of runs scored by a lot of batsmen and the well documented race for 1000 by the end of May is well and truly on. David Bedingham (567 @ 113.4) leads the pack and is closely followed by Adam Lyth (515 @73.57) both of whom are only a good round away from us discussing the milestone as a genuine possibility. The next 2 are perhaps more exciting batsmen from an international point of view: Ricardo Vasconcelos (485 @ 80.83) is at 3 with the elegant left hander currently opening for Northants and doing a fine job of it whether he breaks into the Proteas team or the England setup remains to be seen. At number 4 is Derbyshires wonder boy Matt Critchley (483 @ 60.37) who has seriously boosted his test match stock over these 4 rounds with his superb batting efforts in the middle order and with the Stokes sized hole in the test side at the moment keep an eye on Critchley. Lewis Hill (481 @ 68.71) is fifth on the list but his batting exploits will be overshadowed by the lack of quality bowling in his county team right now.
Runs are good in terms of stats but wickets are far more fun to watch and the top wicket takers really are no surprise to anyone. Craig Overton (25 @ 14.60) leads the pack once again posting ridiculous figures and dominating the county circuit. Ryan Higgins (24 @ 16.75) is showcasing his class on what have been fairly docile wickets. Simon Harmer (21 @ 26.57) is inevitably up near the top of the charts and is only not top as most teams realise that deadbatting him is the way to go. Ollie Robinson (20 @ 14.35) is up there yet again despite having played one game less than his contemporaries and has put in arguably the bowling performance of the season claiming 9 wickets in an innings vs Glamorgan. Bryson Carse (19 @ 17.78) is someone else who you would imagine the England setup will be keeping a close eye on and his SR of just 27 is utterly ridiculous.
Out of the top 5 from each respective list you would imagine Critchley, Robinson and Overton are likely to play test cricket this summer. Critchley is an interesting one. His record prior to this season was ok but nothing special but now everything seems to have clicked into place. The technique and temperament for test cricket is clearly there and he has thrived on tracks which appear much more reflective of those which we see at international level. Critchley is certainly someone who must feel that with another solid 4 rounds a test debut vs the blackcaps isn’t out of the question. Ollie Robinson is almost guaranteed a test cap this summer and rightfully so being the best seamer in the country in the past few years. Relentlessly hitting the top of off and keeping batsmen on their toes Robinson is a handful and one would imagine he would have a great deal of success at international level with his accuracy and bounce making him reflective of bowlers of old. Overton is in a very similar mold to Robinson but maybe sacrifices that bit of consistency for that extra yard although he does achieve more movement through the air than his Sussex contemporary. What has been encouraging about Overton is not only is he leading Somerset's attack to great effect but he is also doing it on wickets where one does have to work to claim a pole. Overton looks quicker and more athletic and with an Ashes trip coming up he will back himself to once again be on the plane.
Of course being a sucker for elegance, grace and timing I quite simply could not brush over Haseeb Hameed. The story is well documented and I need not repeat it. Instead all I will say is: Hameed is a special talent merely watching him will let you know that. Hameed looks as if he was designed to bat at international level. Hameed doesn’t possess great power or a great hitting arch, instead he possesses the innate nature to know where the ball is going to be and he caresses the ball into the gaps you didn’t even realise were there. He plays the ball right underneath his flowing hair or he just doesn’t go near it at all. Hameed is mercurial, he’s wonderful to watch and he’s a proper, proper player. Hameed is also young and has time on his side so lets afford him this and give him the time to grow into, hopefully, the player we all know he can be.
The others whom I would recommend keeping an eye on are, Somersets elegant left hander Tom Lammonby, Hasan Azad at Leicestershire is always a good watch and so is Mason Crane at Hampshire. Seeing how the wonderfully talented Amar Virdi and Jack Carson develop is going to make for fascinating viewing with both having the ability to be international quality spinners. For the seamers there is no one new truly banging down the door but for an afternoon of fun look no further than Olly Stone at Warwickshire.
The suspected England hopefuls haven’t exactly had the greatest start to the season. James Vince strummed the most elegant double hundred you will likely ever see but has done nothing since barring a few dodgy calls. Garry Ballance is yet to assert himself as the titan of a man that he often is on the county circuit. Tom Westley has made two hundreds (one of them a double) but both have come against Worsterchire on flat wickets. Hasan Azad made a good start with an assured century against Surrey but much like James Vince has done nothing of note since. Tom Abell is yet to make any runs of note in a struggling Somerset batting order. Will Rhodes has been unable to carry on his tremendous form from last year into 2021. In essence no one else has done much to raise the eyebrows of the selectors.
The England seamers have had a great time of it recently. Olly Stone has put in some magnificent performances this season playing a key part in Warwickshires victory over Essex ending the eagles ridiculous unbeaten run. The afforementioned Robinson and Overton have also been in the wickets with both of them really pushing for that number 8 spot. Stuart Broad and Mark Wood have showcased their class yet again whilst neither Anderson or Archer have played a game yet. Saqib Mahmood has been the spearhead of Lancashires attack taking the new ball and with good reason with his extra pace and movement often hurrying batsmen.
What about actual England players themselves? Well Dominic Sibley is out of the contest until maybe the final 2 rounds. Zak Crawley has hardly flattered himself with a run a ball 60 being the only genuine highlight of his season so far (though I must say he is slowly rediscovering his form and the signs are encouraging). Rory Burns isn’t having a torrid time of it and whilst he is nowhere near the levels we have seen him at in this arena the progress is there and it is steady his spot is currently under no pressure. Dan Lawrence is yet to make a ton but has made good contributions with both bat and ball and after his fighting innings in India his spot at number 5 is looking very assured. The biggest encouragements have been Ollie Pope and James Bracey both of whom have made big and important runs. For the former it has been a welcomed return to form and for the latter it has made his claim for that number 3 spot even greater especially given Crawleys dry early season.
One final word but this is on the spinners. Before the season started a lot of focus was on the raggers of the ball and how they would fare on early season wickets and how we need to change the surfaces to accommodate them. It turns out that all we needed to do was bowl them. Matt Parkinson is a supremely talented cricketer and just bowling him is helping him grow. The same can be said for Dom Bess and Amar Virdi both of whom are bowling lots more than they traditionally would have. Jack Leach is continuing to show why he is the best spinner in the country whilst the likes of Liam Dawson and Danny Briggs are also just reminding the ECB that yeah they’re still here.
The Championship rages on to the quiet ambience of an empty stadium. The sound of bat on ball can be heard throughout thousands of streams and is often followed up by a shout of “no!”. The English summer is starting and things are heating up How things evolve between now and the test series at the start of June remains to be seen but one thing is for sure it’s going to be a few weeks of great cricket.