County cricket talking points: Notts and Darren Stevens shine in gloom

Ball One: Notts go pop
If you’ve been reading the current edition of Tatler, you will have noticed the headline: “Exclusive: Stuart Broad is bowled over by new fiancée Mollie King in their first ever shoot and interview.” For non-subscribers (and there must be one or two reading this), you can buy a copy and read pages and pages about the “famously private” pair. It was less Posh and Becks and more Bosh and Decks in the day job for Broad as Nottinghamshire’s return to form continued with a third successive win (innings, innings and 310 runs the margins) – enough to go top of Group One by nine points.

The Bosh was provided by Ben Duckett – unlikely to feature in the pages of the socialites’ bible, but back in the cricket press with 177 not out – and captain Steve Mullaney’s 88 off 73 balls, as the charge to maximum batting points concluded successfully.

The Decks was the superb use made of the pitch and atmospherics by Luke Fletcher (the cult hero is more privately famous than famously private), who, like his county, is going through a golden spell in the gloomy weather. Fletcher’s 7-37 blew away Worcestershire’s first-innings for 80 and his 3-20 second time round gave the old (well, not that old in in this week of all weeks) warhorse a maiden ten-fer in the match. And Broad? His performance – 28.5–8–59–5 – shows he’s not just a socialite’s favourite.

Ball two: Siddle in the middle
Essex, who have played a game more than Notts, lie second in Group One, having squeezed 12 points out of a rain-affected draw with Warwickshire. Their star man was another veteran who runs in, puts it there or thereabouts and asks questions of batsmen’s techniques and mentality ball after ball. Peter Siddle’s first innings figures of 21–5–38–6 helped secure precious bonus points and underlined just how many ways in which the champions can bowl sides out.

It also raised a perennial question: what exactly is the relevance to England’s international ambitions of a retired Australian seamer doing what he’s done for 15 years at a chilly Chelmsford? I’d suggest three answers. That current England opener, Dom Sibley, returning after a spell out injured, batted over a session in such circumstances augurs well for his return to the Test XI. It also showed two batsmen with England hopes (Rob Yates b Siddle 0 and Sam Hain LBW b Siddle 10) what it takes to make runs when conditions are against you. My third answer is somewhat briefer: so what?

Ball three: Abell canes Dent
Just a point separates West Country rivals, Gloucestershire and Somerset, at the top of Group Two (though Chris Dent’s men have a game in hand).

With not much more than the equivalent of a day’s play possible, the draw was always on the cards, but Somerset will be the happier of the sides, taking 13 points back to Taunton, leaving the hosts with 10. Depth of batting was key to that haul, Tom Abell playing a captain’s knock to anchor the innings with a near-seven hour 132* (I wonder if he said: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”) but required to wait until Lewis Gregory joined him to find a reliable partner. His 57 was a fine effort from the all-rounder, who finds himself down at nine these days, if required to bat at all.

Gloucestershire were in trouble at 27-6 with the inevitable Craig Overton claiming four wickets between the showers, but moral victories don’t registered in the points column and Gloucestershire stay top.

Ball four: Not plain sailing in London
It took plenty of will to play as much cricket as they did at The Oval, with the cold and rain threatening the players’ wellbeing and the winds threatening the groundstaff charged with anchoring covers that turn into sails once caught in the howling gales. But the London rivals got it on and provided plenty of entertainment for anyone brave enough to watch on from the exposed seating.

It was a strange match in which longish stands were punctuated by clattering collapses. Were you to be told that Surrey’s opening pair twice built a platform of 135 runs before surrendering a wicket and handing things over to a middle order packed with stroke makers, you might expect to read of a third 550+ score for Rory Burns’ men in 2021. Not so – a tweetworthy collapse from 135-0 to 142-6, as Middlesex’s change bowlers got among them, turned thoughts of 500+ into 200-.

Middlesex’s batting, as brittle as a poppadom this season, needed John Simpson’s 68 to hold the first-innings deficit at 30 and, after some positive play from the home side, Burns underlining his blossoming form with a century, they set off in pursuit of 290 in what proved to be 56.3 overs. It was on for a while too, as Nick Gubbins batted fluently for 124 and Peter Handscomb, hitherto in shocking form and haircut, found the middle of the bat at last en route to 70.

So all that endeavour, laudable though it was, produced a draw that does neither side any favours. With three matches left, both may have to win them all to progress as they wish, but even that may not be enough.

Ball five: Rainy days and Mondays
Lancashire leapfrogged Yorkshire to the top of Group Three with the eight points awarded for a draw after just 34.3 overs were possible at Wantage Road. Northamptonshire, with four matches to play, are not out of it, but will have to play well and add at least a couple more wins to the two they have if they are to split the Roses counties at the end of the stage.

The impact of weather on a 10-match group stage is beginning to emerge as a flaw in a format that has (so far at least) been largely welcomed by fans – albeit, fans might have welcomed a five- or 105-match format as long as we were given some cricket to watch. The all-play-all home and away format is obviously the fairest and that has been the case since the two divisional structure was introduced. But, with just 10 matches in the group stage, the notorious English spring weather lurks ready to throw a spanner into the wheel and derail the meritocracy.

Though it’s hardly an ideal solution (for such an answer does not exist), nine matches per round with every county getting the same week off, would be more equitable were the three groups to be retained in 2022. Four days per week of county cricket (with time off the field when waiting to bat, during inevitable rain delays and due to early finishes) just doesn’t sound that onerous for professional full-time athletes – especially if they’re not training to within an inch of their capacity on the three days per week without matches. And players are being rotated and rested anyway, so I’m not sure that we would notice a big difference in terms of quality.

Ball six: No country for young men
Darren Stevens’ extraordinary innings for Kent against Glamorgan was not the most remarkable sporting performance by an athlete of his vintage this week – 50-year-old Phil Mickelson pipped him on Sunday night at the US PGA Championship. Mickelson would have been impressed by the trajectory of Stevens’ 15 sixes in a knock of 190 that shattered plenty of records – as you would when making 160 out of a stand of 166 for the ninth wicket, Miguel Cummins cast in the Ridley Jacobs role.

Despite admirable declarations by captains Chris Cooke and Sam Billings, the weather overcame even the mighty Wisden Cricketer of the Year 2021, a draw winning out as it did in all but one of this round of matches.

As a postscript (and quite a funny one) Stevens wasn’t satisfied with his batting pyrotechnics and, with ball in hand, won an LBW decision against Marnus Labuschagne, much to the Australian’s somewhat justifiable displeasure. Labuschagne is probably the most successful of a growing number of batsmen who have adopted Steven Smith’s technique of shuffling on to and, indeed, past his off stump by the time ball hits bat or pad. Many have wondered about the secret of Smith’s success – perhaps DRS might have something to do with it, as I suspect Labuschagne, with three out of five dismissals this season leg before, is discovering, finger by finger by finger.