Opinion: Where has it all gone wrong for Warwickshire?

It is not long since Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell were key components of one of England’s most successful Test sides in post-war history. After two crushing defeats in Warwickshire’s first two matches, there is a real prospect that both could be playing in Division Two of the County Championship next season.

On Day Four at Edgbaston, Adil Rashid wrapped up Yorkshire’s win by an innings and 88 runs when he bowled Oliver Hannon-Dalby for 12, the only wicket left to take on the day.

Hannon-Dalby had added 36 for the final wicket with Jeetan Patel, and it was Warwickshire’s second-highest partnership of the match (Patel had previously shared a 53-run stand with Keith Barker in the first innings).

They had recovered from 77-7 in the first innings and 54-8 in the second innings. However bad it looks on the scorecard now, it could have been even worse. Add this to their innings-and-one-run defeat at the Oval in the opening game of the season, and they are in a truly dire state.

It may be premature to sound the alarm bells this early in the year, and there are mitigating factors to Warwickshire’s dismal start. Surrey and Yorkshire, the two sides who have beaten them, are both credible candidates for the title, and Mark Footitt is in the sort of form that might see him carrying drinks or even bowling for England later in the summer.

But with Surrey on their way to Edgbaston on Friday, if Warwickshire do not turn things around soon they could be facing an uncomfortable and unexpected fight for survival.

It would be churlish for Warwickshire to blame the absence of star man Chris Woakes for their early-season slip-ups. While Woakes is a fine all-rounder who would no doubt have been useful at the Oval and at Edgbaston, Surrey were without Jason Roy and almost half of Yorkshire’s side missed their encounter due to England layoffs.

‘No easy games’ is a common mantra among media-savvy county cricketers and their coaches, but the early results have shown that this year, nothing can be taken for granted. Essex, a team many people tipped to return to Division Two based on their limited bowling resources, sit at the right end of the table after a grafting draw against Lancashire and a win over Somerset.

Hampshire, who avoided the drop last year only in virtue of an ECB ruling, have upset Yorkshire and dominated Middlesex in their first two games. Shivnarine Chanderpaul looked timeless and peerless putting Lancashire in charge against Surrey, even before Kumar Sangakkara’s ageless intervention.

All this makes grim reading for Warwickshire, who will probably not see much of Woakes this season and will lose Patel to New Zealand when the Champions Trophy begins.

Woakes played five games in the Championship last season and stands first and second on the sides bowling and batting averages respectively. He is a vital player for Warwickshire’s hopes of survival.

As well as being the front-line spinner, Patel is a batsman with serious backbone: he made 49* out of his team’s dismal 115 all out at Edgbaston, which followed handy scores of 36 and 29 in his previous two innings.

Patel has only taken three wickets this season, though, which leads to the much bigger question for Warwickshire of how they are going to bowl teams out cheaply enough (twice) to win the games needed to stay in the division.

Hannon-Dalby’s bowling average in first-class cricket is nearing 40. Rikki Clarke is nearing 40 in a different way, and has one score above ten (12) in his four innings so far in the Championship.

Chris Wright bowled well at the Oval and Barker is one of English cricket’s most underrated all-rounders, but they cannot be expected to carry Warwickshire’s bowling attack on their shoulders. Division One batsmen will adapt to blunt and tire Wright and Barker and make hay off the other bowlers.

Over the course of the season, fatigue and increased injury risks will diminish their effectiveness as they take on more of the bowling load.

In the batting department, Warwickshire simply do not seem to have a core of players who can post imposing totals on a regular basis.

Trott was magnificently defiant in their losing cause at the Oval and Bell joined him with a characteristically stylish 50, but neither has made a contribution when the game was alive and Bell at times seems to have the same jaded, weary look as in the latter stages of his England career.

Tim Ambrose is in a horrific run of form and William Porterfield has been profligate after making four starts. In the first innings at Edgbaston, he sank to his knees in horror after driving a wide ball from Ben Coad straight to Gary Ballance. At the other end of the pitch, Alex Mellor rehearsed a straight drive of his own.

Mellor’s dismissal ten overs later was not as horrendous as Porterfield’s – Coad’s line was perfect, and Mellor had to play at it – but it was the latest in a series of low scores that calls his place in Warwickshire’s XI into question.

At 25, Mellor has played just eight first-class matches, and has one fifty in that time against Oxford MCCU. He showed more circumspection that his teammates against Yorkshire, but looked no more comfortable against the seamers after 40 deliveries than he did after one over.

He cannot realistically be described as a young player (Essex’s Nick Browne is four months older and has 12 first-class tons to his name) and he is struggling to protect Warwickshire’s vulnerable middle order.

This is not his fault exactly – Porterfield has been out first in half their partnerships this season – but when you consider the questions that hang over Warwickshire’s fate this season, Mellor is not likely to answer many of them.

Age is one of Warwickshire’s issues. Of the eleven men who played at Edgbaston, only three – Mellor, Hannon-Dalby and Sam Hain – are under 30. Hannon-Dalby is a much stronger bowler with a white ball in his hand and it is hard to see how a Championship-winning (or Championship-surviving) squad could be built around him.

Hain has long been touted as Warwickshire’s next big thing, and his straight drive is so beautiful that you half-expect his bat to sound a deep cello note rather than the more prosaic crack of leather on willow.

However, the 21-year-old endured a tough 2016, racking up four ducks in 15 games with an average of just 22. He is still young, but Haseeb Hameed and Dan Lawrence are younger. If you are a hotly-tipped county opener, life comes at you fast – just ask Sam Robson.

This season, Hain has just one duck to his name after four innings. Sadly for him, his three other scores are also single figures.

As the sole representative of the 18-24 age bracket in Warwickshire’s first team he may be entitled to some slack, but he is a long way from fulfilling his immense promise and might struggle to justify his place if he has a second lean year in a row.

If there is a future for Warwickshire in the top division, their senior players will need to recover form quickly. In the longer term, they will need support and relief from younger players.

Warwickshire do have them – not in the quantity or of the quality that Yorkshire do, perhaps – but players like Josh Poysden and Sunny Singh are largely untested in the four-day game. With Ashley Giles’ first picks offering such limited returns, perhaps now would be the time for the Bears to gamble on the cubs and let them show what they can do.

Nor could Warwickshire expect an easy return to the top flight in 2018. Division Two looks highly competitive this year, and with Durham presumably starting 2018 on 0 points rather than -48, next year could be even tougher.

If their academy cannot supply them with enough quality reinforcements to make up a competitive team, Warwickshire are also likely to have a difficult time recruiting Kolpaks as the ECB seek to stifle criticism by tightening the rules on Kolpak signings. In the medium to long term, Britain leaving the EU will also restrict the free movement of players with EU passports.

While it is not too early to speculate on Warwickshire’s relegation prospects, it is too early to discuss the team’s new management and coaching structure.

Giles was at the helm when Warwickshire last lifted the County Championship in 2012, and he needs time to develop his team from what is obviously an inauspicious starting point.

Giles was part of arguably the finest moment in recent English cricketing history – the 2005 Ashes – and arguably one of the lowest – the defeat to the Netherlands in the 2014 World T20.

Perhaps he was unlucky not to be given more time to shape the England side, but the fact remains that it was an undignified and, according to the ECB at least, unpardonable ignominy.

Giles was also a junior part of the Warwickshire squads that dominated the landscape of county cricket in the mid-1990s, and won the Championship as coach in 2012.

If he is to avoid being part of a disaster comparable to the 2014 World T20 as Warwickshire’s sport director, he will need to think and move very quickly indeed. The big question is whether he has the tools to pull off a great escape.

SSCC Preview: Glamorgan v Worcestershire

 

The good news for Glamorgan is that they retain a healthy lead over both Leicestershire and Durham in division two. They are even in front of Worcestershire, the team they will face in their first home game of the season. The bad news is that they are only in front of Leicestershire and Durham due to ECB sanctions, and Worcestershire have not even played in the County Championship yet.

If Glamorgan are going to remain four spaces away from the foot of the table, or even improve on that position, they will need to find rapid solutions to the problems that were exposed by fellow financial strugglers Northamptonshire in their bruising two-day innings defeat at Wantage Road.

Ben Sanderson took match figures of 7-21 in the match which started with Glamorgan being dismissed for 101 – a merciful recovery after their top order collapsed to 26-6. David Lloyd bagged a pair and Glamorgan’s top three made just 34 runs in the match between them.

They avoided the wooden spoon last season thanks to a dismal season for Derbyshire, but have been widely tipped to struggle this year and may well find themselves near the bottom of the 10-team division this time around.

Worcestershire, meanwhile, will consider themselves as having an outside chance of snatching a promotion spot if either of the favourites, Sussex and Nottinghamshire, have a poor run of form.

They came third last season and if the promotion/relegation arrangements had been as they usually are, would only have been ten points away from going up.

Worcestershire’s coach, Steve Rhodes, has heightened tensions ahead of the clash by publicly criticising Glamorgan for their reliance on Kolpak players, suggesting that they should be focusing on developing Welsh talent instead.

The merits of his opinions aside, it will be interesting to see whether this fires up his players, or motivates the opposition to put him in his place.

Key Men

While his teammates were tumbling like tenpins around him, Aneurin Donald emerged from Glamorgan’s first match with a modicum of dignity. While his returns were unremarkable on paper – 34 and 15 are not going to turn many heads – his effort in the first innings was the only thing that saved Glamorgan from enormous humiliation. Still only 20 and born in Swansea, Donald is already a key figure in the Glamorgan dressing room and a strong showing from him would prove the club’s commitment to bringing through local talent alongside their Kolpak signings.

Jack Shantry has become something of a cult figure in recent years due to his unconventional bowling action and uniquely slow pace for a professional seam bowler. At times, this cult status detracts from his stellar record in county cricket: he makes up for his lack of pace with prodigious swing, and he has proven himself more than capable with a bat in his hand as well.

Opta StatsWatch

Glamorgan have not lost to Worcestershire in their last four home meetings (W2 D2).

Worcestershire finished the previous campaign having won three of their final match four matches (L1).

Worcestershire’s Joe Clarke posted 194 runs in his last County Championship innings (v Derbyshire, September 2016); his highest first-class score.

Joe Leach (Worcestershire) took more Division Two wickets than anyone else last season (65).

Team News

Glamorgan fans will be pleased to see the return of Michael Hogan, while Marchant de Lange will make his home debut and Harry Podmore (on loan from Middlesex for the second season in a row) is also included.

Glamorgan squad: Jacques Ruldolph (c), Lukas Carey, Kiran Carlson, Chris Cooke, Marchant de Lange, Aneurin Donald, Michael Hogan, Colin Ingram, David Lloyd, Craig Meschede, Harry Podmore, Andrew Salter, Nick Selman

Apart from Moeen Ali, Steve Rhodes has a full-strength squad at his disposal for this encounter, and Australian bowler John Hastings is expected to make his debut for the Pears.

Worcestershire squad: Joe Leach (c), Ed Barnard, Joe Clarke, Ben Cox (wk), Brett D’Oliveira, Tom Fell, John Hastings, Tom Kohler-Cadmore, Daryl Mitchell, George Rhodes, Jack Shantry, Josh Tongue

Championship Form

Glamorgan: LLWLL

Worcestershire: WWLWL

Weather and conditions

Showers on Friday but otherwise dry and fine with mild temperatures. Last season, Worcestershire piled on 456-6 before reducing their hosts to 42-4, then rain came to the rescue.

Date: 14th-17th April 2017

Time: 11am

Ground: Swalec Stadium

Odds (SkyBet): Glamorgan 5/4, Worcestershire 8/13

SSCC Preview: Sussex v Kent

Two sides expected to challenge for the precious promotion spots will face off at Hove in Sussex’s first game of the season. While the hosts have been widely tipped in pre-season to finish on top at the end of the year, Kent announced their intentions in style with a 334-run drubbing of Gloucestershire at the Spitfire Ground.

Sussex drew ten of their matches last season as weather hit them hard, which undoubtedly hampered their push for Division One status. Nevertheless, they underperformed throughout the season and in many of the rain-affected games were lucky to escape with five points. For a team that a decade ago was celebrating their third title win in five years, it is a disappointing state to be in and 2017 is a key season for reviving their hopes.

They have recruited well, signing up David Wiese and Stiaan van Zyl on Kolpak deals, and they will feel right at home alongside one of the few South African Test players of recent years that county cricket has not tempted away from internationals, Vernon Philander. They also have Laurie Evans from Warwickshire, who is at something of a crossroads in his career. These are significant investments, from which the club will expect significant returns.

In any other season, Kent would be sampling the delights of the first division, but the ECB’s decision to promote just one team last year sees Kent scrapping it out in the lower tier once again.

They have brought in cult hero Will Gidman from Nottinghamshire, but have said goodbye to Fabian Cowdrey who asked for his contract to be terminated so he could pursue a music career (Please release me, anyone?). With a seamless blend of youth and experience throughout the order plus the star quality of Jason Gillespie at the start of the season, maybe it is his old teammates who will turn out to be the rock stars of 2017.

Key Men

Vernon Philander burst onto the scene by destroying Australia in 2011. Injuries have limited him to 43 Tests thus far but he has taken 161 Test wickets at a virtually identical average to Dale Steyn. He averages 21 in first-class cricket.

He can swing the ball both ways at pace and has a wealth of experience of county cricket. Early season, April, fresh sea breeze, clouds overhead. Give him the new ball and watch it fly.

While he may seem like an obvious pick after his performance against Gloucestershire, there really is no looking past Darren Stevens here. At 40, he is hardly an unknown quantity among the batsmen who will be facing him, but his control and swing are deadly in these early season conditions.

More than handy with the bat – his 50 was an important part of Kent’s first-innings total of 298 – Stevens’ performance is bound to factor heavily in his team’s success by the sea.

Team News

Injuries to Ollie Robinson, Matt Machan, and Luke Wells prevent Sussex from naming a full-strength squad for this encounter, but with van Zyl, Wiese, Evans and Philander all making their debuts, we can expect a stern test for the visiting team.

Sussex squad: Luke Wright (c), Jofra Archer, Danny Briggs, Ben Brown (wk), Laurie Evans, Harry Finch, Steve Magoffin, Chris Nash, Vernon Philander, Delray Rawlins, Ajmal Shahzad, Stiaan van Zyl, Stuart Whittingham, David Wiese

Wayne Parnell is ready to make a start to his second stint with Kent, and Adam Rouse once again will step up to deputise for Sam Billings (IPL) behind the stumps.

Kent squad: Sam Northeast (c), Daniel Bell-Drummond, Mitchell Claydon, Matt Coles, Joe Denly, Sean Dickson, Will Gidman, James Harris, Wayne Parnell, Adam Rouse (wk), Darren Stevens, James Tredwell, Joe Weatherley

Opta StatsWatch

Kent come into this game having gone unbeaten in five matches versus Sussex (W2 D3).

The last time these sides met in Sussex, the visitors came away with the victory by a margin of an innings and 127 runs (August/September 2016).

Kent have only lost once in their last seven outings (W4 D2).

Darren Stevens took match figures of 8/64 for Kent during their season opener against Gloucestershire; posting a half-century with the bat too.

Championship Form

Sussex: WLDDD

Kent: WDWDW

Weather and conditions

Dry, some clouds. Warmer than usual for this time of year. Last season, Kent thrashed Sussex by an innings and 127 runs. Time for revenge?

Date: 14th-17th April

Time: 11am

Ground: 1st Central County Ground

Odds (SkyBet): Sussex 8/11, Kent 11/10

 

SSCC Preview: Warwickshire v Yorkshire

 

Warwickshire started 2017 with a short sharp shock. By the time they had rubbed the sleep from their eyes, Surrey’s Mark Footitt had ripped out the roots of their batting and the game was all but over. There is something deeply unpleasant about being dismissed for under 100 in a first-class game. It is not how they planned to start their season.

Yorkshire were also toppled in their first match, albeit in different circumstances. Despite a second-innings batting collapse precipitated by some excellent bowling from Kyle Abbott, they would still have felt fairly confident about defending 320 on a pitch that was far from flat against a side they had skittled for 141 in the first innings.

Hampshire ground out a remarkable win to further dent the fearsome reputation of the team that has claimed the title in two of the past three seasons.

Another big talking point is the availability of England players. Warwickshire’s Chris Woakes is away at the IPL, and unlike in previous years they are blessed with the middle-order pair of Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell whose England careers are officially and apparently over respectively.

Yorkshire, however, are left to rue the continuing absence of both Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow. Bairstow’s unavailability in particular will rankle with Yorkshire fans because the ECB allowed him to enter the IPL auction.

Both sides need to put the events of the past week behind them quickly. The new Division One format means that a quarter of the teams will go down to the second tier, so this game is a crucial encounter that could define which if either of these teams can bounce back and make a success of their season.

A second consecutive loss could leave one of these clubs facing an uncomfortable and unexpected struggle to stay up.

Key Men

When Jonathan Trott was out lbw to Mark Footitt for a five-ball duck in the first innings and Footitt proceeded to send four of Trott’s teammates on their way without scoring, few would have predicted that Trott would head back to Edgbaston in the top five run-scorers in Division One.

Untroubled by time constraints, he amassed a dogged 151 which nearly helped his side avoid an innings defeat. His much-maligned mannerisms and unfashionable preference for patience over power remain valuable assets to his side this year.

There were times at Headingley when it looked like Gary Ballance was batting in a different country from his teammates, let alone on a different pitch.

He is just three runs short of Essex’s Dan Lawrence at the top of the Division One run-scorer’s chart and he appears to be relishing his new role as Yorkshire captain. While his former England teammates are watching on from the sidelines, Ballance has an opportunity to show to his fans, and to himself, that he is still one of the best batsmen around.

Team News

Warwickshire are unchanged from the team that travelled to the Oval – as before, Sunny Singh and Grant Thornton are expected to miss out to give the side that faced Surrey a chance to bounce back.

Warwickshire squad: Ian Bell (c), Tim Ambrose (wk), Keith Barker, Rikki Clarke, Sam Hain, Oliver Hannon-Dalby, Alex Mellor, Jeetan Patel, William Porterfield, Sunny Singh, Grant Thornton, Jonathan Trott, Chris Wright

Yorkshire are still without Ryan Sidebottom and Jack Brooks due to injury, while Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow are still being rested (somewhat controversially in Bairstow’s case) by the ECB. They will be boosted by the return of David Willey and Matthew Fisher from injury, and Adil Rashid is no longer in need of a rest according to the ECB.

Yorkshire squad: Gary Ballance (c), Tim Bresnan, Ben Coad, Matthew Fisher, Peter Handscomb, Andrew Hodd (wk), Jack Leaning, Alex Lees, Adam Lyth, Steven Patterson, Adil Rashid, Jared Warner, David Willey

Opta StatsWatch

Yorkshire have only lost once across their last 17 fixtures played against Warwickshire (W9 D7).

Three of the last four encounters at Edgbaston between these sides have been won by the visitors (D1).

William Porterfield needs 97 more runs to reach 6,000 in first-class cricket whilst Sam Hain is 74 away from reaching 2,000 first-class runs.

Gary Ballance was one of only three batsmen to record 50+ in both innings during the opening weekend of the 2017 County Championship campaign (Kent’s Joe Denly & Lancashire’s Dane Vilas).

Championship Form

Yorkshire: LLLWD

Warwickshire: LWLDD

Weather and conditions

There is a chance of showers on day one and four but there should be enough overs bowled to secure a result. Last season, snow affected the fixture in a high-scoring draw. Fortunately or unfortunately, nobody is dreaming of a white Easter in 2017.

Date: 14th-17th April 2017

Time: 11am

Ground: Edgbaston

Odds (SkyBet): Warwickshire 11/10, Yorkshire 8/11

 

SSCC Preview: Somerset v Essex

Somerset came so close last season. So close you could taste it. So close you could hear ‘Blackbird’. The song (not the bird) was killed by Toby Roland-Jones’ magnificent bowling at Lord’s in the final session of the 2016 season. It was replaced by the more appropriate, if less familiar, sound of Fred Astaire’s ‘So Near and Yet So Far’.

Now it is time for one of the three counties never to have claimed the title to – in the words of another Astaire classic – pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again. With a new captain in Tom Abell and experienced keeper Steven Davies signed on a three-year deal, there is a new buzz around the club as they open their account against newly-promoted Essex.

Essex, meanwhile, have shown already that they are not in the top flight to make up the numbers. In a cut-throat division where a quarter of the teams will face the drop, Essex travel to the west country with a vital draw under their belts. They batted all day against a strong Lancashire attack that included James Anderson, Kyle Jarvis and Stephen Parry to save the game and claim five points.

Both of these sides have a reputation for underperforming with talented squads, and the result of this game will depend on which side holds their nerve at the key moments. Somerset seamers Lewis Gregory and Craig Overton starred in the nail-biting Champion County match against Middlesex in the UAE – if they are to feature in that fixture next year, they will need to start with a big win against the new boys.

Key Men

Without wishing to heap more pressure on a young captain’s shoulders, Tom Abell will be hoping to start this season with a solid knock in front of the home fans. Widely tipped by journalists as a prospect for England, his overall record lags behind many of his rivals’ (he averages 31 after 32 first-class games) and while time is on his side at 23, as Geoffrey Chaucer wisely pointed out, it will tarry for no person. Abell may have higher ambitions than England, of course – namely, delivering Somerset’s first ever Championship title.

Alastair Cook is once again an FEC, but this time the F stands for ‘former’. While he has not been exactly a regular in the Essex side during his tenure as England captain, he has averaged over 75 in two of the past three seasons and remains a vital part of both England and Essex’s plans for the future. He was ruled out of Essex’s draw with Lancashire due to a hip injury but is expected to play a full part in the Somerset game.

Team News

Somerset have named a strong squad including both of the Overton twins. Dean Elgar returns to the top of the order and new signing Steven Davies makes his long-awaited debut for the club.

Somerset squad: Tom Abell (c), Steven Davies (wk), Dean Elgar, Lewis Gregory, Tim Groenewald, James Hildreth, Jack Leach, Craig Overton, Jamie Overton, Peter Trego, Marcus Trescothick, Roelof van der Merwe

The big news for Essex is that Alastair Cook is back. Adam Wheater remains as wicketkeeper despite his poor performance with the bat against Lancashire, which means that veteran gloveman James Foster is still frozen out.

Essex squad: Ryan ten Doeschate (c), Aaron Beard, Ravi Bopara, Nick Browne, Varun Chopra, Alastair Cook, Simon Harmer, Dan Lawrence, Jamie Porter, Neil Wagner, Tom Westley, Adam Wheater (wk), Ashar Zaidi

Opta StatsWatch

Somerset are currently unbeaten in their last four matches with Essex (W2 D2).

Essex have avoided defeat in their last five outings to Somerset (W2 D3).

Somerset come into this fixture having won three on the bounce; if they claim victory in this match, it’ll be the best such run since June 1995 (also four wins).

Marcus Trescothick’s 228* helped Somerset claim a 219 run victory over Essex when these sides last met (August 2010).

Championship Form

Somerset: WWWDD

Essex: DDLWW

Weather and conditions

Showers are predicted on Friday but there should be more than enough time to produce a result. Last season, Taunton’s reputation as a batting paradise was frequently challenged by some low totals and turning pitches – what have they prepared for 2017?

Date: 14th-17th April

Time: 11am

Ground: Cooper Associates County Ground

Odds (SkyBet): Somerset 4/6, Essex 6/5

SSCC Preview: Durham v Nottinghamshire

Fans of both sides would be forgiven for feeling a little bemused to find this encounter taking place in the second tier of English domestic cricket. Both are successful and talented teams who have produced major talent for the international set-up in recent years.

Durham were handed a huge points deduction by the ECB which meant that they, and not Hampshire, plummeted to division two at the end of 2016. To make matters worse, they also start this season on -48 points. Oh, and they have also lost two of their best players, Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick, to wealthy southern rivals Surrey. And Ben Stokes is in India. And they are banned from signing new players or claiming prize money until their ECB debt is paid off. And it’s cold in Durham.

Anyway, Durham still have a strong squad by Division Two standards at least and they have a long tradition of squeezing out wins and holding on for draws against the odds. Sir Ian Botham is now on their side as chairman, and if anybody in English cricket is synonymous with miracles, it is he.

Nottinghamshire, meanwhile, have started life in Division Two in style by trouncing local rivals Leicestershire by ten wickets in just over two days at Grace Road. While Stuart Broad naturally brought his immense talent to bear on the match, it was Australian fast bowler James Pattinson who stood out with 89* and match figures of 8-84. While Broad’s application to be allowed to feature against Durham has been rejected by the ECB, Pattinson is available until June and has made a highly promising start to his season.

Key Men

Graham Onions could be forgiven for thinking that there is some malevolent cricketing god whose sole motive is to thwart his career. Not only is he stuck on a meagre nine Test caps, now he and his side have been relegated for reasons beyond the players’ control. Nevertheless, he can console himself with the knowledge that he is also blessed with a cricketing angel who has given him immense talent that remains potent even at 34 years of age.

Alex Hales has been out of the spotlight for too long, and this makes him a dangerous player to bowl at. Questions about his form have usually met with a stinging retort on the pitch – his 107-ball 110 against the West Indies in his most recent ODI appearance is evidence of this trait. Somewhat unlucky to lose his Test spot after notching up five half-centuries in 11 Tests, Hales has moved down the order to try to force his way into the England team via a different door.

Team News

Durham are without Ben Stokes (IPL duty), but otherwise have posted a strong side in spite of the inestimable loss of Mark Stoneman and Scott Borthwick to Surrey over the winter. England Test star Keaton Jennings will be playing, as will the ferocious Mark Wood.

Durham squad: Paul Collingwood (c), Jack Burnham, Brydon Carse, Stephen Cook, Paul Coughlin, Keaton Jennings, Graham Onions, Stuart Poynter, Ryan Pringle, Michael Richardson, Chris Rushworth, Cameron Steel, Mark Wood

Nottinghamshire have made only one change from the squad that swept Leicestershire aside in their season opener. Stuart Broad is out, and is replaced by England teammate Jake Ball.

Nottinghamshire squad: Chris Read (c, wk), Jake Ball, Luke Fletcher, Harry Gurney, Alex Hales, Brett Hutton, Jake Libby, Michael Lumb, Samit Patel, James Pattinson, , Greg Smith, Rikki Wessels

Opta StatsWatch

Durham are unbeaten in their last four home matches against Nottinghamshire (W3 D1).

The North East club are currently enjoying a nine-game unbeaten streak at home (W3 D6).

Durham have avoided defeat in each of their last four season opener fixtures (W2 D2); last losing such a game to Nottinghamshire in their 2012 curtain-raiser.

Keaton Jennings (Durham) scored more runs in the County Championship last season than any other batsman (1548).

Championship Form

Durham: WWLDD

Nottinghamshire: WLLDL

Weather and conditions

Showers are likely on days one and three and temperatures in the northeast are likely to be lower over Easter than they have been recently. There will be at least patchy cloud cover for most of the match, so seamers will be in business.

Date: 14th-17th April 2017

Time: 11am

Ground: Emirates ICG

Odds (SkyBet): Durham 6/5, Nottinghamshire 4/6.

SSCC Preview: Hampshire v Middlesex

Hampshire could hardly have been given a harder start to their bid to retain Division One status after being granted an unlikely reprieve by the ECB at the end of last season. However, after grinding out an equally improbable win over Yorkshire inside three days at Headingley, perhaps a visit from the reigning champions has come at the right moment for a team riding high on confidence.

The most promising aspect of Hampshire’s Headingley heist was the fact that everybody contributed and looked in reasonable form. Michael Carberry made runs in reassuringly bullish fashion, while Jimmy Adams made a fighting 72 in the fourth-innings chase and Kolpak signing Rilee Rossouw chipped in an attractive 47.

James Vince also made runs but showed a few signs that he still has a penchant for injudicious driving as well. Yorkshire’s injury-hit pace attack just could not break Hampshire down, and young keeper Lewis McManus saw them through to victory.

Middlesex did not feature in the first round of fixtures, instead meting out a punishing 333-run defeat to the Cambridge MCCU side at Fenners.

A century for Dawid Malan and match figures of 6-23 from Ollie Rayner were the standout performances (Rayner also bashed an unbeaten 91 in Middlesex’s second innings), but there is only so much you can tell from a game that does not even have first-class status.

Middlesex’s players would have taken professional, if not personal, pleasure in following Hampshire’s victory over a side many predict will be challenging strongly to regain their crown this season. However, Middlesex will be approaching the Ageas Bowl with a little more caution after Hampshire proved their appetite and capacity for giant-killing.

Their next giants were last beaten in this competition by a Tom Fell-inspired Worcestershire in 2015 – will Middlesex stand tall in 2017?

Key Men

Middlesex have an array of hugely talented cricketers and will no doubt make a strong defence of their 2016 title, but if anybody stands out among the crowd it is Nick Gubbins. While headlines vaunt Haseeb Hameed and Keaton Jennings as the future of English cricket, Gubbins is building a very strong case for international consideration despite being a relatively old hand at 23. He contributed 125 and 93 in Middlesex’s title-winning match against Yorkshire at Lord’s, which shows he is not a man who will shy away from the big occasions.

Hampshire have been criticised for signing Abbott and Rossouw on Kolpak deals for 2017, but both showed signs against Yorkshire that they can make rich and valuable contributions to the tapestry of county cricket. Abbott in particular bowled with devastating skill, accuracy, and speed at Headingley, setting the stage for Hampshire’s terrific heist. Another game, another top-class line-up to challenge his credentials.

Team News

Hampshire’s motto after topping Yorkshire appears to be something along the lines of “if it ain’t broken…” and they have named an unchanged squad.

Hampshire squad: James Vince (c), Kyle Abbott, Jimmy Adams, Gareth Berg, Michael Carberry, Mason Crane, Liam Dawson, Fidel Edwards, Sean Ervine, Lewis McManus (wk), Rilee Rossouw, Brad Wheal

Middlesex have named a very strong squad, as they are only missing Nick Compton (recovering from an injection in his shoulder). Adam Voges is available to bat having arrived in the UK last weekend.

Middlesex squad: James Franklin (c), Stephen Eskinazi, Steven Finn, Nick Gubbins, Tom Helm, Ryan Higgins, Dawid Malan, Tim Murtagh, Ollie Rayner, Sam Robson, Toby Roland-Jones, John Simpson (wk), Adam Voges

Opta StatsWatch

Middlesex are unbeaten in their last five encounters with Hampshire (W2 D3).

Hampshire have only tasted defeat once in their last 13 home matches versus Middlesex (W5 D7).

Middlesex were the only side to go the entire 2016 campaign unbeaten (W6 D10).

Nick Gubbins reached 50 more often than any other batsman during the 2016 County Championship campaign (13 innings).

Championship Form

Hampshire: WLDDD

Middlesex: WDWDW

Weather and conditions

Forecasts suggest a dry and sunny Easter at the Ageas Bowl with some cloud cover on days one and two. Temperatures will be in the mid-teens. Expect the pitch to be a reasonable one for batting – last season Michael Carberry and Dawid Malan hit centuries in a rain-affected draw.

Date: 14th-17th April 2017

Time: 11am

Ground: The Ageas Bowl

Odds (SkyBet): Hampshire 6/5, Middlesex 4/6

Stuart Broad refused permission to play

The ECB have refused to let Stuart Broad take part in Nottinghamshire’s visit to the Emirates ICG on Friday, despite a request from the club’s coach Peter Moores and Stuart Broad himself. This move is the latest in a series of ECB judgements on player availability that have caused frustration for clubs and fans alike. 

Broad is highly unlikely to play any part in the upcoming Champions Trophy, which means that his next playing engagement with England will be the first Investec Test against South Africa at Lord’s on July 6. He is pencilled in to take part in more Specsavers County Championship matches this season, but the move by Andrew Strauss and the ECB to deny a senior cricketer’s request to play is bound to be controversial.

Allowing Broad to play would have been an alteration of his original rest schedule. However, Nottinghamshire argued that since Broad only bowled 21 overs in the straightforward victory over local rivals Leicestershire, he could take in the extra game without overburdening his body. While he is a bowler who benefits from match practice throughout the season, he has a history of injury problems and Andrew Strauss will have weighed his options carefully before making this decision.

Broad’s new ball partner for England, James Anderson, is going to be absent from Lancashire’s trip to the Oval on Friday, while Yorkshire’s Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow are unavailable for Yorkshire’s encounter with Warwickshire at Headingley. Both Broad and Anderson are expected to play in some more Championship games, while Root and Bairstow are scheduled to play at the Ageas Bowl when Yorkshire look to avenge their shock defeat last week.

While Root’s schedule is understandably hectic as England captain, Bairstow was part of the IPL auction and would have presumably been allowed to participate fully if he had been taken up by a franchise. Besides, Bairstow is only an automatic pick in the longest format of the game, and may not be involved in the Champions Trophy. Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes, both centrally-contracted players, are representing their teams without ECB interference in their timetable.

While Yorkshire fans in seasons past have consoled themselves with their team’s dominance on the field despite international call-ups, their side’s struggles in the early season have been made all the more frustrating by the double standards that have prevented their England stars from turning out to help. Joe Root was at Headingley on Sunday to watch his side’s defeat to Hampshire – might things have been different if he could have taken the field?

The ECB have a difficult job to balance their responsibility for the success of the England team, and their responsibility to ensure the County Championship produces attractive and competitive cricket that fans want to watch. The proof will come in attendances and interest in the county game – over a million people tuned in to hear BBC commentaries on the first round of the County Championship, and sales of NatWest T20 Blast tickets are promising – and in the England team’s performances this summer.

In the meantime, though, accusations of double standards from passionate fans will linger when their stars are stuck on the bench. In a way, that frustration too is a mark of how much county cricket still means to lovers of the game.

Leicestershire release Angus Robson

Leicestershire have released opening batsman Angus Robson from his contract by mutual consent. The 25-year-old’s deal was due to expire at the end of the season, but Leicestershire have agreed to a request from the player to allow him to look for another club at which to further his career.

While Robson endured a tough 2016 with the bat, he is an experienced member of the Leicestershire team and his loss will be a further blow to the club, who were hit with a 16 point deduction and a suspended £5,000 fine for disciplinary breaches before their comprehensive defeat by rivals Nottinghamshire this week.

Robson’s growth as a cricketer was a rare positive for Leicestershire during a torrid few seasons for the club as they went winless throughout the 2013 and 2014 seasons. In perhaps his most memorable performance, he scored 120 and 71 at Chelmsford to end their dreadful barren run. His other first-class century came in 2014 against the touring Indian side.

Primarily a red-ball cricketer, Robson leaves Leicestershire with nearly 3,000 first-class runs at an average of 31.52. Despite Leicestershire’s relative success in 2016, Robson had a lean year and only mustered 732 runs across the campaign.

Leicestershire have only finished outside the bottom three of the County Championship once in the past decade and it has been 14 years since they played in the top division. No other side has been stuck in the second division for this long, and while CEO Wasim Khan MBE has been widely praised for his handling of the club’s affairs, Leicestershire fans are now looking to him to end their drought on the field. While the points deduction makes promotion unlikely, they will be hoping to build on the four victories they managed in 2016.

It is not immediately apparent where Robson will be heading next, but Wasim Khan has expressed his confidence that Leicestershire have the strength and depth in their squad to cope with Robson’s absence.

Kent snap up South African Parnell

Kent have signed South African fast bowler Wayne Parnell to improve their pace attack, in a move that underlines their ambition to challenge strongly for promotion this season in a competitive second division.

Parnell, 27, is returning to Kent after an eight-year hiatus. During his previous spell at the club in 2009, he took 17 wickets and scored 183 runs in his five matches as Kent won Division Two. They were relegated in 2010 and have not graced the top flight with their presence ever since.

Parnell’s career has not really taken off in the way he might have hoped after making his international debut in 2009, but made a recent return to the South African Test side, picking up six wickets in an innings-win over Sri Lanka.

Parnell is only available for a short spell at the start of the season before returning to international duty. Nevertheless, he is a dangerous cricketer who could provide an injection of pace and aggression into this ambitious and promising Kent side.

There is a certain buzz around Kent at the start of this season, and it has not been flies on them. Jason Gillespie brought the attention of the cricketing world to the club when he stepped in to rescue them after Allan Donald had visa trouble that prevented him from taking over as coach, and they currently sit just one point off the top of the table after a devastating 6-22 from 40-year-old Darren Stevens destroyed Gloucestershire to seal an impressive start to 2017 at Canterbury.

Parnell went unsold in the IPL auction earlier in the year, but he will be looking to use his short stint in county cricket to push the South African selectors to give him more opportunities at Test level for the Proteas. He has played five Tests over seven years, with significant gaps in his appearances (2010, 2014 and 2017). With South Africa losing long-time reserve bowler Kyle Abbott to Hampshire in a Kolpak deal, Parnell might well feel that he has gone up a step in the pecking order.

Parnell’s second debut will come away at Sussex on Friday, before returning to Canterbury for their encounter with Derbyshire a week later.