Friday, 15 April 2016

A lot to play for

Friday, 15 April 2016
April always comes with showers, and of course the start of the county season, and then probably some more showers. For any team and player there is always a lot to play for, titles to be chased across all three formats, and promotion and relegation perhaps even more significant with the move away from the 16-game championship after this season. And for some, there may be an added incentive: the prospect of a place in England's test side.

As has often been the case over these past few years, England's test eleven is far from settled at the beginning of an English summer. Though the past year may have seen an Ashes victory and success in South Africa during the winter, there are still several spots in the side yet to be truly sewn up, particularly so with the batting. Perhaps the most obvious among those would be the opening spot. It's the place surely everyone is tired of talking about, but the talk will only continue until someone comes in and truly makes it his own.

Alex Hales has not done that yet, but after just four tests, does probably deserve more of a chance before time is called on him too. Yet whilst Hales is resting, others will be looking to lay down a marker. Ben Duckett has already hit the ground running with 282* in the opening match of the season, and other young batsmen like Tom Abell, Daniel Bell-Drummond, and Alex Lees will be hoping to make an impression too. It may yet be too soon for those four, but a good season would certainly put them in the selectors' thoughts. Adam Lyth and Sam Robson are men who will be hungry for a second chance, and it's not out of the question for Nick Compton to return to the opening position either - one of the county game's most consistent batsmen and one of the more successful men to have taken on the position since Strauss's retirement. It's not a done deal just yet.

Compton though is still yet to secure his own place in the team. He had a mixed time with the bat in South Africa: a strong start, with 85 in the first test and two more scores in the forties; before somewhat fading in the latter half. The familiar issue around his scoring rate seemed to come up again on his return, and might easily have affected his performance - even the coach Bayliss was reported to say he would prefer a more attacking player in the role. Compton is well capable of steadying the ship when needed, but he might need to find that extra gear in his innings to keep his place in this attacking new England side. Either way, batsmen like Gary Ballance and Ian Bell already look to be pressing hard for a return to the team, and others like James Vince are hoping to break through.

Sadly, there is one place we already know that needs filling. James Taylor might not quite have nailed down his spot in the order, but with tours to India and Bangladesh coming the following winter, would certainly have been a big part of England's plans with his ability against spin bowling. This year might have been his breakthrough year in the test side, but now we're just left to wonder what if. It's a desperately sad situation, but at the same time we're lucky it wasn't even sadder.

Looking at the bowlers, it looks like a matter of fitness as much as anything. Mark Wood and Steven Finn were the definite leaders for the third bowler slot, but both had to miss chunks of the winter through injury. Finn though should be making a full appearance in these early championship games, and providing he returns to the sort of form he showed in South Africa, has to be the favourite for that spot in the team. But April is hunting time for pace bowlers, and brings a chance for the chasing pack to stake their claims too. Chris Jordan and Liam Plunkett featured heavily in the recent World Twenty20, whilst Chris Woakes was the man who replaced James Anderson when injured in South Africa. Mark Footitt has also been around the England setup for a while now without making the jump to the team, and by moving to Surrey hopes to further his international ambitions. Depending on conditions, fitness, and form, there's always a chance.

There's a lot for many to fight for, with those battling to keep their places being chased by a pack battling to take their spots. I always love the start of the county season, the reassuring feel that cricket has returned, and also the anticipation of what lies ahead both internationally and domestically. Even if the rain starts to fall as soon as that first ball is bowled.

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