Sunday, 20 September 2015

Building a dynasty

Sunday, 20 September 2015
Normally on this blog the focus is on the international game, but today I'm turning my attention to county cricket. As a Yorkshire supporter, naturally I've been delighted with the course of the past two seasons as they have become the standout side and have - this year especially - won the County Championship in a dominant fashion. What's more is that it feels like it could just carry on and on, the team looking to have the right blend of youth and experience, and the right mentality and hunger, to rule the county scene over the coming years.

This year's Championship victory has been even more impressive than the last. Several players that were so crucial to the win last year have only played a limited role this time round; the effect of Yorkshire's win last year being to propel several further into the England reckoning. Adam Lyth - last year's PCA Player of the Year after scoring 1489 runs - has featured in only six matches for Yorkshire this year, his form also having taken a hit when available. Adil Rashid has also featured just six times - another blow to lose someone of his all round talents. Jonny Bairstow has featured only eight times through international call-ups, whilst injuries also restricted Ryan Sidebottom to nine games and saw him absent from the early stages of the season. Form with the bat has also at times been an issue - where 2014's win was often founded on a strong opening partnership between Lyth and Lees, this year Lees hasn't always found the same form he did in the previous campaign, and in general runs at the top haven't been as easy to come by.

But there's always been a player to step up at the key time. Jonny Bairstow may have only played eight matches in this campaign so far (with one match still to come), but his form has been nothing short of sensational. 1071 runs at an average over 100, with five centuries and five fifties. His runs often came at key moments: against Middlesex at Headingley where he was the only one to pass twenty, making 125*; 219* in Durham, a record partnership with Tim Bresnan (169*) that took Yorkshire from 191/6 to 557/6 declared; and 108 out of 213 at Edgbaston, to name just a few telling contributions. Of course, he wasn't the only one to step up. Jack Leaning made most of his runs in the early stages of the season, a time when bowlers often rule and batsmen struggle. Tim Bresnan has had his best season with the bat yet, with two centuries and an average over fifty, taking extra all-round responsibility in the absence of Rashid. And at crucial moments, players would deliver. Take Maxwell and Rashid against Durham at Scarborough - a low scoring game with first innings scores of 162 and 156. Yorkshire fell to 79/5 in their second innings, but the two then shared a 248 run stand as Yorkshire won by 183 runs. From then, Yorkshire were pretty much uncatchable.

It's the bowlers, though, who deserve the most praise. You need only look at the results to see the impact they've had. Worcestershire all out for 100, Hampshire for 143, Warwickshire 69, Durham 156, Somerset 110 and 155. In the match where Yorkshire claimed the title, Middlesex were three down inside the first over (though in an extraordinary match, they did pull off a stunning win). Bowlers have run rampant throughout the summer. When talking on Sky the other day, Brooks said that whoever had the ball in his hand was the leader of the attack - and with performances like we've seen it's not hard to believe it. Sidebottom, at 37 years old, has taken 40 wickets from nine games at an average of 17.07, while Brooks leads the wicket chart with 59 scalps. Both Bresnan and Patterson have hit the 40 mark too. Yorkshire have the luxury of rotation as well - when not on international duty, Plunkett can fit in, and the 17 year old Matthew Fisher is also well trusted to do a job. Young all rounder Will Rhodes can also come on and pick up a few. With spin, when Rashid is unavailable, James Middlebrook has been called upon - coming out of near-retirement to return to the club where he began, and taking a more than useful 17 wickets at an average just under 26. There are always options.

It's a victory founded in part on the strength of the Yorkshire academy, more than ever looking like a production line of budding England players. But more than anything, it's founded in spotting talent and backing it all the way. Players have come from outside the system and flourished - like Plunkett, who has rebuilt himself and is a regular name around the England sides once more, and players like Jack Brooks and Gary Ballance further examples. Young players are given responsibility - Alex Lees filling in at times as captain, only 22 years old; and other youngsters like Leaning (21) and Rhodes (20) backed to do a job with the bat. With the international experience of regulars like Sidebottom and Bresnan; overseas stars like Pujara, Maxwell, Finch (and in the previous year, Kane Williamson); and players regularly in the England side like Root, Ballance, Bairstow (among others) - it must be a brilliant environment for a young player learning their game to be in. Jason Gillespie, Martyn Moxon, and the rest of the staff and players have created a culture of success and a winning mentality, and the players are thriving.

There's still room for improvement. The success of the Championship is yet to transfer to the shortest form, something both Yorkshire and Gillespie are desperate to make more of a statement in. Though they reached the semi-finals of the fifty overs tournament this year, they put in a disappointing performance in losing to eventual winners Gloucestershire; whilst in the Twenty20 Cup they failed to progress past the group stage. Over the winter, Gillespie shall be coaching in the Big Bash and hoping to expand his Twenty20 knowledge, whilst David Willey has already been signed for Yorkshire next year - a definite statement about Yorkshire's desire for a limited overs trophy. It looks a signing to benefit both sides - Willey surely to benefit from playing in the first division and alongside another highly successful left-armer in Sidebottom, whilst his Twenty20 knowledge and fierce competitiveness will bolster the Yorkshire line-up across all competitions. He will have to fight to feature in the Championship, but competition for places has only served Yorkshire and their players well so far.

But at the moment in the longest form, it's hard to see Yorkshire's dominance being broken. In the past two years, they have lost just two matches, both coming at Lord's: where an inspired Chris Rogers chased down a total well over 400, and when dramatically bowled out for 134 after securing the title on the first day. Since Gillespie took over in 2012, they've lost just the four games. And this year, they've been more dominant than ever before - a record total of points with a game still to go. Other teams have been left to battle it for second. Next year, Yorkshire will be hoping to be the first team to make it three titles in a row since the 1960's. They will be the favourites to do so, too. Long may the success continue.

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