The English county season will get underway over 4,000 miles from England’s shores, as the Marylebone Cricket Club take on Yorkshire in Abu Dhabi for the Champion County match.
The fixture, which has taken place in the UAE every year since 2010 and is played using a pink ball, pits the winner of last year’s LV County Championship against an invitational MCC XI. This year’s match will see England Test captain Alastair Cook return to competitive cricket after being dropped from the ODI team (and sacked as captain) last December.
Taking part in the Champion County match will give Cook a valuable opportunity to regain some confidence before England fly to the West Indies for a series that may well be crucial for his future as captain.
The game will be the concluding fixture of Yorkshire’s tour of the UAE, which also saw them claim the Emirates T20 title after beating holders Sussex in the final. The MCC team, boosted by the presence of dynamic Indian all-rounder Yuvraj Singh and the captain of Nepal, Paras Khadka, also took part in the competition, albeit with less success. In the semi-final (of the four-team event), Cook top-scored with 35 as the MCC failed to chase Sussex’s 165. He, and the rest of the MCC side, will be hoping to do much better in the first-class fixture.
The presence of the England captain, and the media attention he inevitably attracts, will add an extra layer of motivation for Yorkshire’s team of champions: recalled pace bowler Liam Plunkett has spoken of his desire to show Cook, and the world, that he deserves a place in England’s Test side.
The MCC will be captained by new Middlesex recruit Nick Compton, who left Somerset at the end of last season in an attempt to revive his chances of an England career closer to his London home. He will share an opening partnership with Alastair Cook, as he did for all of his nine Test matches; many have suggested that his chance of an England recall have gone, but if he were to score back-to-back centuries here, who knows?
For Yorkshire, Adil Rashid will be out to show that he is the spinner to bowl England to victory in the West Indies. Caribbean pitches are no longer the fast, bouncy tracks they used to be, and a quality spinner or two is absolutely essential. If he can exploit the favourable conditions in the UAE, he would surely put himself in line for a Test debut next month as well.
The MCC XI is packed with high-quality openers, with Worcestershire’s Daryl Mitchell and Hampshire’s Michael Carberry joining Cook and Compton in the team. Young Surrey all-rounder Zafar Ansari also opened in the County Championship last year, so there should be plenty of players capable of facing up to the new ball. They also have middle-order experience in the shape of James Hildreth, and exciting youthful talent in Kent keeper Sam Billings. In the bowling department, spin will be provided by Adam Riley, another player England are known to be looking at for future reference, and the Durham duo of Graham Onions and Chris Rushworth (who is playing in his third consecutive Champion County match) will join Surrey’s Matt Dunn to complete the MCC’s seam attack.
Lyth and Lees, the opening partnership that underpinned Yorkshire’s title-winning campaign of last year, will hope to pick up where they left off before the senior partner flies off to the Caribbean with England. Club captain Andrew Gale remains unavailable following his suspension for an on-field spat with Lancashire’s Ashwell Prince near the end of last season, and with Joe Root away with England, Lees may be given the armband instead. Jonny Bairstow, Adil Rashid, and Liam Plunkett will all be looking to prove their spots in England’s touring party were justified, and pushing on for a place in the final XI. Yorkshire have a wide pool of talented cricketers to choose from, and former Test pacers Tim Bresnan and Ryan Sidebottom may well join another man with England aspirations, Jack Brooks, in their final XI. The real challenge for Jason Gillespie will be fitting them all in alongside Will Rhodes, who is set to make his first-class debut.
MCC squad: Nick Compton (c), Zafar Ansari, Sam Billings (wk), Michael Carberry, Alastair Cook, Matt Dunn, James Hildreth, Daryl Mitchell, Graham Onions, Adam Riley, Chris Rushworth.
Yorkshire squad: Moin Ashraf, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Tim Bresnan, Jack Brooks, Kyle Carver, Ben Coad, Matthew Fisher, Andrew Hodd (wk), Jack Leaning, Alex Lees, Adam Lyth, Steven Patterson, Liam Plunkett, Richard Pyrah, Adil Rashid, Will Rhodes, Ryan Sidebottom.
MCC (in Champion County fixtures): WLLWL
Weather and conditions
A couple of showers are expected on the final day of the match, but mostly the weather will be hot and dry. Historically, spin has played a big part at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium, so Riley and Rashid should bowl plenty of overs.
Date: 22-25 March 2015
Time: 14:30 local (10:30 GMT)
Ground: Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium, Abu Dhabi.