The eagerly awaited Cheltenham festival starts this week with a four day Championship match against Essex. This is the first game of six at the festival in which there will be twelve continuous days cricket.
There’s something for all cricket lovers: all three formats are on view as well as matches involving England Lions and the A teams of Sri Lanka and Pakistan. It’s one of the summer’s most traditional of sporting events, played against the backdrop of the impressive buildings of Cheltenham College.
Essex visit Cheltenham in pole position in Division Two with 131 points and continue to look, as they have looked all season, favourites for the one promotion spot on offer. They have three wins from their nine games.
Gloucestershire occupy fifth spot on 105 points, with two wins from nine outings. Although the home county would claim to have promotion in their sights, it is more probable that their ambitions this season have begun to centre on white ball cricket.
Top place on the South group of the T20 Blast and improving form in the Royal London One- Day Cup, which they won last season, suggest that these ambitions may be more realistic than promotion in the Championship. This is particularly the case if it’s a valid proposition that counties tend to prioritise goals in their campaigns.
In their last Championship game, Gloucestershire drew with Leicestershire at the Fischer County Ground in a rain-affected match in which only two innings were possible. Leicestershire hit 334 and in reply Gloucestershire scored an impressive 403/2 with centuries from Chris Dent and Graeme van Buuren.
Essex, too, were among the runs against second-place Kent at Chelmsford. They recorded an easy ten-wicket win, with contributions both with bat and ball coming from throughout the side.
Gloucestershire are delighted with the progress of South African Graeme van Buuren. The 25 year old right hand top order batter and slow left arm bowler has an excellent first class record in South Africa, scoring over 3000 runs at an average of over 50 and taking 64 wickets at 25. His record in the Championship this season is even more impressive with 403 runs from his six visits to the crease at an average of 100.75 to add to his five wickets at 32.
In addition to the century at Leicester last week, van Buuren compiled a fine unbeaten 172 at New Road in the previous Championship match, which went a long way to recording a fine last day win against Worcestershire.
For Essex it has been an excellent first half to the season for 27-year-old right-hand batter Tom Westley. Like Essex teammates Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara before him, he has been coached at Chelmsford by Graham Gooch and has recently been talked of as emulating that illustrious trio by playing for England.
It is this recent coming to the fore of Wesley that conceals the fact that he has been around the Essex scene for long enough to have scored over six thousand first-class runs, in addition to nearly half that amount in the two white ball formats. This season, the Durham University graduate has scored over 700 runs at 58 with the red ball as well as nearly 500 in the shorter formats.
Gloucestershire welcome back seamer Josh Shaw who, in June, was recalled from his season-long loan from Yorkshire. He’s added to the squad which was on duty at Leicester last week.
Gloucestershire squad: Chris Dent, Michael Klinger, Gareth Roderick (c, w), Hamish Marshall, Graeme van Buuren, Kieran Noema-Barnett, Jack Taylor, Benny Howell, Josh Shaw, Craig Miles, Liam Norwell, David Payne
Essex have named a 13 man squad for the game.
Essex squad: Ryan ten Doeschate (c), Nick Browne, David Masters, Ashar Zaidi, Jamie Porter, Kishen Velani, Ravi Bopara, James Foster (w), Graham Napier, Dan Lawrence, Matt Quinn, Tom Westley
Weather and conditions
There are light rain showers forecast for the first day of the match but then it’s expected to be dry with sunny intervals for the remaining three days. In recent years pitches at Cheltenham have had pace and bounce and this, coupled with short boundaries and a fast outfield means matches often produce plenty of runs, while still offering the bowlers some encouragement.
Date: 13, 14, 15, 16 July 2016.
Ground: College Ground, Cheltenham
Umpires: Richard Illingworth and Billy Taylor.
Odds (SkyBet): Gloucestershire 11/8, Essex 4/7