The 2023 County Championship sees a tweaking of the points allocation favouring teams with a more aggressive approach, matching the current mantra of the England red ball team. Batting points will not start until 250 with maximum points requiring a run rate of 4.09 per over and a draw will now be worth just five points, down from eight. The history of this latter change highlights the fortunes of the England team since 2020. COVID and the shortened format of the Bob Willis Trophy led to points for a draw being increased from five to eight in 2020 “to help mitigate against the impact of weather in a shortened competition”, according to the ECB. The following season, following England’s 3-1 defeat to India, Joe Root called for draws to be made more appealing in order for batters and bowlers to develop the skills needed for Test cricket and the eight points for a draw was retained. Under Brendan McCullum and Ben Stokes clearly the ethos at the top is now very different, better fitting the mindset of the modern cricketer and the 2020 changes have been reversed
Nevertheless, the weather patterns enjoyed by the UK in early April will have an input, although the rain cleared in time for most matches to get underway at some point on the opening day of the season, with temperatures high enough for beanie hats not to be standard issue. Taunton was the only ground to fail to dry up in time, with all counties this year being involved in week one. Timetabling remains something of a dark art with some counties getting a “week off” next week, presumably to recover from the one match played so far. As we said – a mystery!
In Division One the top two teams from last year’s competition met at Old Trafford. Surrey were asked to bat first and when Dom Sibley (35) was the fourth wicket down with the score on 77, Lancashire could feel reasonably content. However partnerships started to be put together, built around the batting of Ben Foakes (76), Jordan Smith (54) and Cameron Steele with an unbeaten 141. Surrey fell just short of maximum batting points, ending on 442 off 113 overs. Tom Bailey was the pick of the Lancashire bowlers, with 4/86. In reply, Lancashire’s batters were rather profligate with their shot choices and reached 291, Keaton Jennings making 76 and Colin de Grandhomme 67 not out. Australian Sean Abbott took 5/50. Second time around Foakes again starred with the bat, making 103 not out off just 95 balls, alongside a half century from Rory Burns. They declared on 292/6, leaving Lancashire a target of 444 with a potential 107 overs to bat out. They safely negotiated 11 overs at the end of day three and then a century from Josh Bohannon helped guide them to safety on day four. Surrey will come out of the game as the stronger team, but Lancashire were able to get back on track as the match progressed.
The first win of the summer was secured by Hampshire against newly promoted Nottinghamshire down at Southampton. Nottinghamshire were one of only two teams to elect to bat first and they came up against the reliable seam bowling of Pakistan’s Mohammed Abbas, who has now been with Hampshire since 2021. His 6/49 restricted the visitors to 185, Tom Moores top-scoring with 49 not out. Hampshire edged past this score, finishing on 231 thanks to lower order runs and a half century from Championship debutant Fletcha Middleton. The Nottinghamshire second innings started briskly with Ben Duckett reaching 51 from 58 balls, but three wickets in the space of eight balls delivered by Kyle Abbott reduced the score to 86/4. They finally limped to 177, setting Hampshire a target of 132. This was reached for the loss of just two wickets, thanks to 65 from Middleton and 54 not out from Nick Gubbins, two balls after tea on day three. Hampshire ended only one point behind Lancashire last summer, recording the most wins and undoubtedly they will be challenging again this year.
The other promoted team Middlesex, also had a bruising introduction to Division One. Winning the toss they asked Essex to bat first at Lords and Sir Alastair Cook walked out for his twentieth season of county cricket. However it was another England player, Dan Lawrence who starred for the visitors, making 105. Matt Critchley also contributed a half century and Essex finished on 266 after lunch on day two. Toby Roland-Jones, this year’s Middlesex captain, took 7/61. In reply Middlesex were immediately in trouble at 4/4, thanks to three wickets from Jamie Porter and one from Sam Cook. They mounted something of a recovery thanks to half centuries from John Simpson and the returning Ryan Higgins, but conceded a 96 run first innings deficit. The Essex second innings started at the beginning of day three and the Middlesex bowlers fought to keep themselves in the contest. A number of the Essex batters got starts but only Critchley reached 50. They were bowled out for 211, setting Middlesex a target of 308 to win. Tim Murtagh ended with 4/44. By the end of the third day Middlesex had lost five wickets for just 77 runs. Higgins (41) and Luke Hollman (63) provided some resistance on the final day, but Essex eventually won by 97 runs, Jamie Porter finishing with match figures of 9/69. Essex will be strong contenders again this year, while Middlesex should have the resources to win some games and stay up.
There was a delayed start at Canterbury due to heavy overnight rain, but when they got going after lunch on day one it was Northamptonshire who were asked to bat first. They were soon in trouble as the Kent seamers tore into the top order, Ricardo Vasconcelos the only batter to put up resistance. He was the seventh man out for 39 and Northamptonshire ended day one on 89/7, only 26 overs being bowled. The innings was soon wrapped up on day two, finishing on 117, Matt Quinn taking 4/25 and Grant Stewart 3/6. England selectors will have been pleased to see Zak Crawley make 91 as Kent then posted 222 in reply, Northamptonshire’s overseas signing Chris Tremain taking 5/44 and Jack White 4/57. Northamptonshire then made a better fist of their second innings on the back of an unbeaten century from Rob Keogh, reaching 331 and leaving Worcestershire needing to make 227 from 52 overs. Kent were three down for 66, but Ben Compton (114) and Jack Leaning (67) took them home with 19 overs to spare. Kent and Northamptonshire finished fifth and sixth respectively last year and while they may aspire to greater things, this is still a commendable target for two of the smaller counties.
Warwickshire will not want to have to repeat their last gasp heroics to avoid relegation this season. Their game at Taunton did not start until midday on day two and having elected to bat first the home team were soon in trouble at 136/7. However, Warwickshire were unable to press home the advantage and Lewis Gregory (65) and Josh Davey (42) put together 105 runs for the eighth wicket. A further 27 not out from Jack Leach took Somerset to 284. Wickets were shared between the Warwickshire seamers, new boy Ed Barnard ending with 3/54. Alex Davies (118) and Sam Hain (119) then led Warwickshire to a first innings lead of 108, Jack Leach taking 4/119. A result looked unlikely but when Sean Dickson and Cameron Bancroft were both out for ducks, Somerset found themselves 2/2, still trailing by 106. Tom Lammonby stood firm and with contributions from the middle order he was able to see the home side to safety, Somerset finishing on 180/6 when they shook hands. Warwickshire have made some good signings and will be looking to finish significantly higher up the table than in 2022, while Somerset’s inconsistency might mean they have to wait a bit longer for their first Championship title.
Clearly the biggest shock of the opening week was the downing of Division Two favourites Yorkshire by Leicestershire, who were winless in 2022. Yorkshire made a strong start when, having been put into bat, centuries from 20-year-old Finlay Bean and Dawid Malan saw them to 517 from just 102 overs. They then reduced Leicestershire to 64/3 before Peter Handscomb (112) and Colin Ackerman (67) showed their experience, putting on 121 for the fourth wicket. Rehan Ahmed also demonstrated his all-rounder credentials with 85 and Chris Wright chipped in with 66 not out to take Leicestershire’s first innings total to 415, narrowly missing out on a fourth batting bonus. The Yorkshire batters then went to work again and by the end of day three were 220/4, leading by 322. They batted a further seven overs on the morning of day four, adding 66 runs and setting Leicestershire a target of 389 from a minimum of 87 overs. Rishi Patel (41) and Sol Budinger (125) made a solid start, putting on 80 for the first wicket, off 17.4 overs. Patel was the first to go and Louis Hill then fell cheaply, both wickets claimed by Dom Bess, but Ackerman and Budinger took the total on to 201. When Ackerman was the third man out for 72 the equation was 188 from 38.1 overs. Handscomb joined Patel and together they brought the target down to 120 from 21.2 overs. Ben Coad removed Patel and then Bess dismissed Wiaan Mulder and Ahmed cheaply. Matt Milnes removed Michael Finan and Yorkshire were favourites again. 62 runs were needed off 9.1 overs with three wickets in hand. Handscomb was still there, but it was Wright who won the game for Leicestershire, scoring 40 off 32 balls and seeing them home with seven balls to spare. Handscomb was undefeated on 68. This result highlights the competitive nature of Division Two, where there will be no easy games and many of the teams have realistic chances of ending in the top two.
Gloucestershire’s efforts to bounce straight back to Division One started in Cardiff where Glamorgan won a useful toss and chose to bowl first. Unfortunately a short, sharp shower and a failure of the hover cover led to the loss of all but four balls of the morning’s play. When the game restarted the overhead conditions resulted in plenty of lateral movement and despite a resolute half century from Marcus Harris, Glamorgan’s Timm van der Gugten won the battle against the middle order, taking 5/26 as Gloucestershire were dismissed for 165. Van der Gugten then donned the pads to see out the one over Glamorgan had left to bat on day one. On the morning of day two the ball was still beating the bat regularly, with Gloucestershire also utilising the left arm spin of Zafar Gohar. At 35/3 Glamorgan were on the back foot, but Eddie Byrom and Kiran Carlson steadied the ship and took the score to 195, before Byrom was dismissed for 81. Carlson went on to score a century and Billy Root also reached three figures, Glamorgan finally being dismissed for 404 on the morning of day three. At this stage the pitch had calmed down and batting was much more comfortable when the Gloucestershire second innings started. Marcus Harris (148) and Chris Dent (78) put on 161 for the first wicket, but a fight back by the Glamorgan bowlers after tea was squandered on day 4 as Gloucestershire moved on from an overnight score of 373/5 to 481/7 at lunch. They declared on 569/7, Graeme van Buuren having made 110 not out, setting Glamorgan a target of 331 from a minimum of 46 overs. Wickets from Tom Price, who finished the match with 6/77 and Zafar Gohar put Glamorgan on the back foot at 38/3, but while there was turn it was slow and Eddie Byrom and Root were able to see things through until they shook hands with nine overs remaining. Both teams will be hoping to be in the mix at the end of the season, although Glamorgan will need their bowlers to pose more of a threat to back up the soon-to-be-arriving Michael Neser, than they did in the Gloucestershire second innings.
Durham and Sussex met at Hove and the talented Durham line up made a solid start, when asked to bat after a delayed start. Michael Jones (87) and Alex Lees (79) put on 142 at nearly five-an-over for the first wicket, but Sussex’s overseas signing, Nathan McAndrew took 5/85 to help Sussex fight back and the Durham innings finished on 376. Sussex’s skipper, Cheteshwar Pujara then demonstrated his contempt for Division Two bowling making 115, a figure only marginally greater than his overall average last year. Contributions from down the order left Sussex on 335, trailing by 41. When Durham came out to bat second time around, on the morning of day three, Fynn Hudson-Prentice (4/27) had replaced George Garton as a concussion substitute and alongside young Henry Crocombe (4/47) they took control of the game for Sussex. Durham were dismissed for just 189, Ollie Robinson posting a half century and Sussex were left with a target of 231 when they went out to bat at the beginning of the final session of day three. By the end of the day they had reached 172/5 and it was all set up for a nervy finish. Tom Haines top-scored with 64, but it was Oli Carter’s 33 not out that saw them home on the final morning. Matt Kuhnemann was the main threat finishing with 4/70. Sussex have a talented group of young players and it will be interesting to see how much they have learned after their struggles in the last couple of seasons. This is certainly a good start, while Durham’s inability to close out games matches their experiences of 2022.
At Derby visitors Worcestershire elected to field first and it was Billy Godleman (70) and 39-year-old Wayne Madsen (87) who held the Derbyshire innings together, alongside some useful late order runs from Zak Chappell (46). They ended on 321, Worcestershire’s new signing Matthew Waite taking 4/50. In reply, it was Waite again who led the way for Worcestershire, this time with the bat as he completed an unbeaten century, Brett D’Oliveira and Jack Haynes contributing half centuries in a total of 473. The 400 came up in the 112th over so it meant only three batting points. Chappell, having moved over from Nottinghamshire in the off season, took 5/69 for Derbyshire. When Derbyshire came to bat second time around they had reached 269/6 by the end of day three, leading by 117. Young Pakistan batter Haider Ali (65) and Billy Godleman (86) put on an opening stand of 134 and Leus du Ploy was left stranded on 95 when the last wicket fell with the score on 343. Josh Tongue and Joe Leach each took three wickets. Worcestershire then reached the target of 192 for the loss of just two wickets, Jake Libby with an undefeated century. Both sides have the ability to score runs, but it is going to need wins and the taking of twenty wickets to mount a challenge for a top spot and Derbyshire struggled with that last year.
Looking at whether “Bazball” has rubbed off on the counties we have compared run rates for the first innings of their first matches this season with last. Clearly it is early days but there has been a small increase in average run rates across the 18 counties, from 3.25 to 3.54 (9%). We wait to see if this trend continues. In the meantime, we look forward to round two next week.