Another round, another week to talk about Kevin Pietersen. While some will have already grown weary of the on-going discussion surrounding KP’s return to first-class cricket and possible England reappearance, this weekend sees his first game of the season at the Kia Oval, to which a large greeting party is predicted.
Just under 3,000 spectators watched the opening day at Glamorgan last week as Surrey, thanks to Kumar Sangakkara and Steve Davies, piled on the runs to finish the day 363/3. They were unable to take advantage of their first innings total of 563/7 declared though, as the hosts battled back to secure a draw. It was an underwhelming start to the season for Surrey, who with a squad boasting seven international players and dreams of promotion, were hampered by a gritty Glamorgan and unfavourable weather.
Essex in comparison, clinched victory over Kent to record their sixth consecutive Championship win. In a low-scoring duel decided by the clinical line-and-length-bowling of Jesse Ryder, David Masters and Greg Smith, and assistance of a temperamental pitch, Essex also at times demonstrated their desire to dig in, which has been missing from previous seasons.
This was best personified by Nightwatchman Jamie Porter, whose second innings 81-ball vigil helped blunt Kent’s attack. But on an Oval pitch that averaged 248 runs per innings last year, Essex will need to add consistency to that bloody-mindedness, while overcoming a weakened top order.
A little over 10 weeks stand between now and the opening Ashes Test. In that time Kevin Pietersen hopes to demonstrate to the England selectors that he is worthy of a recall. Having been cast out of the national side 15 months ago, his first significant dip back into first-class waters at Glamorgan was not the most impressive of auditions, recording just 19 runs in the first innings before a rejuvenated unbeaten 53 in the second. But back in front of a home audience, and as he closes in on the record for fastest Surrey player to 1,000 first-class runs – he requires two in this match to achieve the feat – we can expect him to bring the house down.
With two experienced campaigners away at the IPL, the star opener perennially on international duty and an upcoming batsman missing with a broken finger and Essex’s top-order batting looks rather depleted. Chuck in the absence of injured seamer Reece Topley and all-rounder Jesse Ryder is going to be key if Essex are to win. While Ryder’s batting hasn’t provided the wealth of runs expected – finishing 2014 with 650 in the Championship – his bowling does continue to claim wickets, as shown against Kent last weekend. He did during that match, however, provide a glimpse of the batting prowess he possesses – making 29 off 26 balls, including 26 runs by way of boundaries. A session of power-hitting could be the difference for Essex.
Surrey stick with the same players from their opening round fixture, with only Vikram Solanki missing from the squad. He didn’t feature though, and the starting line-up is unlikely to change, Stuart Meaker again making way. While Surrey were unable to take all 20 Glamorgan wickets, Meaker has gone through some difficult times in the last few years due to injuries, and with a requirement to bowl a different length compared to what he’s previously been used to, his form has suffered and seen his first XI opportunities limited.
Surrey squad: Gareth Batty (captain), Zafar Ansari, Rory Burns, Tom Curran, Steven Davies (wicketkeeper), Jade Dernbach, Matthew Dunn, Stuart Meaker, Kevin Pietersen, Jason Roy, Kumar Sangakkara, Gary Wilson
Youngster Kishen Velani has been drafted in for batsman Tom Westley, who broke a finger during practice earlier this week; the injury is likely to see Westley miss a number of weeks. It will be his 20-year-old replacement’s sixth first-class appearance, having debuted in 2013. Reece Topley is still a long-term absentee, as he continues his rehabilitation captaining Essex’s second XI.
Essex squad: James Foster (captain), Nick Browne, Dan Lawrence, Jaik Mickleburgh, Graham Napier, Monty Panesar, Mark Pettini, Jamie Porter, Jesse Ryder, Greg Smith, Kishen Velani
Weather and conditions
A damp, dark opening day gives way to better conditions for the rest of the match. While still overcast, a full four days play is expected.
Date: 26th – 29th April 2015
Ground: Kia Oval, London
Time: 11:00 am
Umpires: Martin Bodenham and Nick Cook
Odds (via Skybet): Surrey, 4/6, Essex 5/4