In the first of a series of articles closely following the various aspects of the domestic scene in England, this first instalment reviews the County Championship season so far, which players have caught the eye, and a look at how the battle for England's number six slot is shaping up ahead of the Sri Lanka series.
Champions Nottinghamshire were again the early pace setters in Division One and were the only side with a 100% winning record after their first three games. They looked highly unlikely to maintain an unbeaten record as early as their second game when they conceded a 193 run deficit at Headingley against the much fancied Yorkshire after both sides first innings. A classy 83 from the impressive Alex Hales as well as some valuable lower order resistance from Chris Read (86) and Steven Mullaney (83) offered Notts a glimmer of hope, yet Yorkshire were strong favourites in their pursuit of the 145 run target. That was to discount a plucky Notts attack that ran through the hosts dismissing them for 86. Champions find a way of winning and have a belief of attaining the win from unlikely situations.
Yorkshire will no doubt be in touching distance of the top spots when the prizes are handed out in September (despite a below par start) judging by the qualities demonstrated by some of their talented individuals early in the season. Adil Rashid, along with several other spinners throughout the country, has perhaps enjoyed more success than he may have anticipated during the month of April, where green and damp pitches are the norm and reserved for the dreams of the quicker men. As it is, the driest start to the season for a number of years has helped Rashid gain some purchase from his leggies, evident in the 11 wickets he picked up in a match against Worcester. The returning Ryan Sidebottom has brought undoubted quality and accuracy, at the time of writing he had already picked up 17 wickets at 18.35.
The batting may not have fired yet, but Jonathan Bairstow made his maiden first-class century and went on to score 205 in the latest Championship match (the second fixture against Notts) and shows that things are certainly heading in the right direction. It was the eighteenth time Bairstow had passed fifty and he finally converted one into a three figure score.
Durham, my personal favourites for the title this season, will have been delighted to have Graham Onions returning to the side, his 12 wickets in his first two games will not go unnoticed by the England selectors either. Exciting all-rounder Ben Stokes has proved a matchwinner already this season, yet his promotion in the batting order to number four has had mixed degrees of success. He spanked a ferocious 135 not out when Durham were pushing for a declaration against Hampshire, yet his other seven Championship innings have yielded just 110 runs.
The North-East club are still awaiting the return from injury of Paul Collingwood, who will add more experience and quality to the batting. In his absence Dale Benkenstein has proved his worth once again, with 458 runs in their first four matches, including two centuries and three fifties.
Lancashire and Warwickshire have already surprised one or two sides. Pre-season favourites Somerset, whose season is yet to really ignite, were thoroughly beaten in losing to both sides by an innings. Lancashire can field a strong looking XI, yet should they endure one or two injuries the lack of depth in the squad may hinder any hopes of pushing the top sides to the very end, as they have done in previous campaigns.
Warwickshire's impressive start owes much to two young players hoping to alert the England selectors to their credentials. Varun Chopra has always been a player of massive potential, yet has failed to deliver the necessary substance to his promise. Chopra, 23, made two double centuries in successive matches against Somerset and Worcestershire to indicate he may now be ready to take his game and performances onto the next level.
The England selectors are more aware of Chris Woakes' capabilities and he has not disappointed in the early stages of the season with all-round performances of high quality. He is currently the leading wicket-taker in the division with 22 (at 19.22) and is a more than useful player to have coming in at number eight as Somerset and Durham will testify to (Woakes made 129 and 70* against these sides).
Sussex, Worcester and Hampshire are currently occupying the bottom three positions, with the latter two sides yet to register a victory, although certainly in Worcester's case, they have managed to find themselves in excellent positions to get off the mark yet failed to take advantage.
In Division Two, Middlesex are currently the only team who have managed victories in all their outings in 2011 (although they are currently facing a serious challenge against Gloucester at Bristol to maintain that record). Their seam attack has much to do with their flying start, Steve Finn, Tim Murtagh, Gareth Berg and Toby Roland-Jones have all troubled sides at various times, so too the economical, if less threatening, West Indian Corey Collymore. The new overseas signing Chris Rogers is almost a certainty to be in the runs during this season, his starts are yet to be converted, but you get the feeling it is only a matter of time with him.
The 254-run partnership for the fifth wicket against Surrey between Neil Dexter (145) and wicket-keeper John Simpson (143) have been the only two centuries scored by Middlesex batsmen so far this season.
For me Gloucestershire have been the biggest surprise so far, and John Bracewell must be given credit for his young and inexperienced side registering two wins from their first three contests. Their overseas player, New Zealander Kane Williamson, has also only just arrived due to Visa complications. He is a player I have been most impressed with during his fledgling international career, and while it may take him some time for him to become accustomed to conditions over here, he brings a work ethic and a willingness to learn that will stand him in good stead. Hopes that New Zealand have unearthed another Martin Crowe may be premature but demonstrate how high a regard he is held in in his homeland.
Will Gidman, brother of skipper Alex, is proving a shrewd acquisition for his all-round performances. The experience of Alex, Chris Taylor and Jon Lewis cannot be understated in a squad where such a commodity is in short supply.
It looks like being a very tightly contested division, with every team capable of upsetting anyone. Surrey are the only side without a win, but you feel the wait will not continue for long. Tom Maynard has proved a revelation and Zander de Bruyn has ensured the runs have continued in the middle order despite the considerable hole left by the injured Mark Ramprakash in the opening games.
The Battle for the England Vacancy
With Eoin Morgan making little impression on the IPL, the eyes of the selectors will be firmly on the guys making runs during the packed domestic schedule in the early weeks of the season. The contenders prior to the season getting underway were Morgan, Essex's Ravi Bopara, James Hildreth of Somerset, with the likes of James Taylor, Andrew Gale and Craig Kieswetter having an outside chance of an opportunity.
It was a slow start for Bopara, a top score of 39 in his first six innings in the County Championship would not have been what he had in mind when he rejected overtures from Rajasthan Royals to state his claim for the England vacancy. It resulted in a frustrated outburst on Twitter bemoaning the Tiflex ball and the lack of a heavy roller as the main issues, when perhaps a closer look at his own form would have shown up the main problem. Things have since improved, his last Championship match was against Glamorgan, he made 61 in the first innings, then with Essex set a very testing target of 360, Bopara took lead role. Partnerships of 50 with Alastair Cook and 217 with Matt Walker took Essex over the line thanks to Bopara's brilliant 136 not out. He took that form into the next two Clydesdale Bank 40-over games, 50 off 39 balls against Notts and he was there at the end of another victory, this time against Lancashire with 75 not out. Another string to his bow, and advantage over his competitors is his medium pace bowling, he has already got through 108 overs this season proving a useful option. The Essex man may be catching the eye at just the right time, albeit in the second division.
James Hildreth was in sparkling form in 2010 that led to the opportunity of captaining the England Lions in the West Indies four-day tournament, again he excelled. So he must feel some frustration that this season has not yet gone to plan at a time when there is an opening in the national side. He has scored just 124 runs in seven Championship innings at an average of just over 20. His only score of any note came at Liverpool against Lancashire when he made 55. In the latest four-day game he was run out in the first innings without facing a ball, his luck is not for changing too soon. At the conclusion of the current game with Worcester, Hildreth will have a maximum of four first-class innings (either in two Championship games or one for Somerset and one for the England Lions against SL) to propel himself into the forefront of Andy Flower and Geoff Miller's mind ahead of the Sri Lankan series.
For James Taylor to stand chance of selection, it was imperative that he enjoyed an outstanding start to the season with Leicester, that has not quite materialised in the longer form, but his one-day form has been exceptional, scores of 69, 81*, 101, and 29, mean that an ODI call-up may come quicker than a Test one. He was part of the Lions side over the winter with Hildreth and was an important component in the middle order averaging in excess of 58, yet it is unlikely to be enough for the Test side, not yet anyway.
Of the other possibles, both Kieswetter and Gale have found some early form and both average well into the 40's, again it is probably not as blistering a beginning as they would have needed to gain selection. If form and sheer weight of runs is to hold any sway, then Varun Chopra has done all he possibly can with 523 runs already to his name, though those runs have come as an opening batsman, and Liam Dawson's promotion to the top of the order has so far worked favourably for him and Hampshire, in seven Championship innings he has passed 50 on five occasions, including one century.
So after a month of County cricket it seems the race is still between Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan, just as was expected.