As we progress through the season, the frontrunners in each Division are becoming clearer. Each county has played at least two games and overseas players should now be settled in.
In Division One, Surrey, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Warwickshire are setting the pace. Surrey completed their second win from two games with a three wicket defeat of struggling Somerset. Set 237 to score from a minimum of 90 overs, a century from opener, Ryan Patel broke the back of the chase and when he fell with the score on 172/4, Sam Curran joined Ben Foakes to take Surrey most of the way home. Three quick wickets fell to raise Somerset hopes, but Foakes remained resolute. Of slight concern for Surrey fans is the fact that despite top scoring with 80 in their first innings, Curran only bowled 10 overs in the game, having spent the last six months out with a stress fracture in his back. Jordan Clark, who finished with match figures of 7/118 and Reece Topley 6/117 worked hard to fill the gap.
Lancashire and Yorkshire started day four looking to take the wickets needed for victories against Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire respectively. While Lancashire completed the job with 23 balls to spare, Yorkshire fell short. Lancashire have a potent overseas signing in Hasan Ali, who took nine wickets in the game and overshadowed the returning Jimmy Anderson, who had to wait until the second innings to take his first wicket. Lancashire’s total of 556/7 declared in their first innings was thanks to a double century from Josh Bohanon (whose first class average of 43.2 should be attracting interest from the England selectors) and a century from Dane Vilas.
Yorkshire will be ruing the fact they did not declare their second innings earlier, on a Northampton pitch that had flattened out. They enjoyed a first innings lead of 92 and then reached 406/3 in their second innings, thanks to a maiden first class century from 21-year-old allrounder, George Hill. However, a target of 433 from a minimum of 120 overs seemed overly cautious and Northants held out with three wickets to spare. While Yorkshire have the resources to maintain a challenge in Division One, Northants are likely to come under pressure to avoid relegation. Overseas signing Will Young has settled in quickly with 129 runs in this his first game.
In Birmingham, Essex’s solid start to the season stalled. Choosing to bat first, they were dismissed for 168, Danny Briggs taking 4/31. Warwickshire’s reply was built around a superb 170 from Michael Burgess, matching the 178 in his only other innings of the season. Clearly the arrival at Edgbaston of Alex Davies has focussed his efforts, as his first class average for last season was just 28.9. Essex fared better in their second innings, reaching 323 but the target of 107 from a minimum of 85 overs was seen off by Dom Sibley and Davies, without the loss of a wicket.
At Canterbury, Daniel Bell-Drummond scored 149 in a Kent first innings total of 305. Keith Barker took 6/53. In reply, the Hampshire batters made up for their disappointing performance at the Oval last week, putting the Kent attack to the sword, amassing 652/6 declared. James Vince scored a century while Liam Dawson and Ben Brown both passed 150. This left Kent with a minimum of 120 overs to bat out. Ben Compton, who has made an eye-catching start to the season, and Jordan Cox held Hampshire up for 45 overs in a fourth wicket stand of 116, and evergreen Darren Stevens (45) tried to hold on with the tail, but Kyle Abbot finished off the last resistance with three wickets in a one over spell. Hampshire are having an inconsistent start to the season while Kent have suffered a draw and two losses.
With England in mind, Zak Crawley has made a slow start to the season, with 95 runs in four innings, including one half century.
In Division Two, three of the four games were completed within three days, with the winning teams each only having to bat once. Nottinghamshire and Middlesex were victorious against teams touted as promotion rivals. Middlesex made short work of Glamorgan, winning by an innings and 82 runs and Nottinghamshire defeated Durham by an innings and 141 runs. This is after Glamorgan beat Nottinghamshire in week two, so nothing is clear cut in this Division.
For Middlesex, Toby Roland-Jones demonstrated his all round cricketing abilities with a vital 65 runs alongside an eight wicket haul. He, with Shaheen Shah Afridi, Tim Murtagh, Tom Helm, Ethan Bamber and Blake Cullen give Middlesex a depth of riches in the bowling department and there is batting to back it up. Middlesex look a team that will be challenging hard for promotion come September, while Glamorgan do not seem to have the depth in their squad to be able to maintain promotion hopes.
Meanwhile up at Chester-le-Street, Nottinghamshire bounced back from their defeat last week, with the help of left arm spinner Liam Patterson-White, who took seven Durham wickets in the game. Asked to bat first, Sean Dickson was the only Durham batter to reach 50 and Liam Trevaskis had to be substituted because of concussion, having been struck twice on the helmet by James Pattinson, as they reached 230. Nottinghamshire then amassed 488/9 declared thanks to a double century from opener, Ben Slater and a maiden first class century from young all-rounder, Lyndon James. Matty Potts took 6/107. Durham were then bundled out in their second innings for 117 runs in just 33.5 overs. Nottinghamshire appear to have got their promotion bid back on track and remain favourites for the Division Two title, while Durham, like Glamorgan, need to find greater consistency.
At Worcester, the home side defeated Sussex, whose young team are currently propping up Division Two. Worcestershire’s first innings total of 491 was based on an unbeaten 169 from captain, Brett D’Oliveira. In reply, Cheteshwar Pujara continued his impressive start to the season with another century, but when Sussex were asked to follow on, they fell 34 runs short of requiring Worcestershire to bat again. Joe Leach was the pick of the Worcestershire bowlers with 6/88 in the game. Ed Pollock, better known for his prowess in the T20 format, has been getting them off to a fast start at the top of the order, having scored 194 runs from just 208 balls, in his three innings. Worcestershire will feel that they have a good chance of mounting a serious challenge for one of the top two spots, while Sussex are in a rebuilding phase.
In the only Division Two game to go into the fourth day, Derbyshire inflicted an innings defeat on Leicestershire. Leicestershire, who chose to bat first, were dismissed for 213. Derbyshire then posted a daunting first innings total of 531, the result of a second consecutive double century from Shan Masood, assisted by Mattie McKiernan (101) and Wayne Madsen (94). For Leicestershire, seamer Ed Barnes took his first ‘five-fer’ in Championship cricket. Leicestershire were unable to hold on in their second innings, finally all out in the afternoon session, for 250. Looking at the Derbyshire squad, taking 20 wickets would seem to be something they might struggle to achieve on a regular basis, even if Masood keeps guiding them to big scores. However, in this game, the obstinate resistance that the Leicestershire batters put up in the first two rounds melted and it might be a long season for their supporters.
It is interesting to note that, despite concerns of playing county cricket in April, with respect to the balance of conditions potentially being too much in favour of the bowlers, each captain who won the toss in the first division chose to bat, while two out of four did so in Division Two.
The good news is that all 18 teams will be involved in the next round of matches. Most involve teams at opposite ends of the tables, but the Hampshire, Lancashire clash in Division One and the Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire.