By Ned Vessey
While most eyes were probably on the start of the IPL on April 9th, the more venerable and less glitzy County Championship was already well underway. After 2020’s interim Bob Willis Trophy, England’s four-day competition is back once more this year in a new three-group format.
Players from the eighteen first-class counties braved chilly conditions, and in some cases even snow, to produce an intriguing first round of fixtures.
One of the best parts of the new competition format is that it has allowed for match-ups that we haven’t seen for some time due to the nature of the traditional two-division structure. As a result, there was a freshness to many of the matches, quite literally in the case of Yorkshire vs Glamorgan which was halted at points as Headingley was draped in snow.
Aside from this novelty factor, the match had plenty of talking points. England’s Dom Bess went wicketless across both innings, although bowling off-spin in near-zero conditions should be seen as an achievement in itself.
His national captain, Joe Root, made insubstantial scores in both his innings and was outshone by younger brother Billy, who hit an unbeaten 110* for Glamorgan. There was a hundred for ex-England opener Adam Lyth too, as Yorkshire managed to hold Glamorgan to a draw.
Hundreds for former England players was something of a recurring theme throughout this first round of fixtures, with Sam Robson (165) and James Vince (231) making big scores for Middlesex and Hampshire respectively.
Vince’s eye-catching knock in an emphatic victory, Leicestershire was a timely reminder of his talents and with England’s middle order struggling over the winter expect cries for a Vince recall if he continues making runs.
Robson has been out of the England frame for much longer than Vince, but his century was the standout of the first day as Middlesex took on Somerset in the most dramatic match of the opening round. With Somerset 89-9 in their first innings, well adrift of Middlesex’s 313, it looked as though the West Country side’s season was not off to the best of starts.
However, a last-wicket partnership between de Lange and England fan favourite Jack Leach gave Somerset hope. Leach shone with the ball in Middlesex’s second innings as they were skittled for 143. Leach’s batting heroics were not required again as Abell, Bartlett and Gregory ensured Somerset chased down the target of 285.
Somerset look to have a strong case in their search for a first title, but they will have to contend with a strong Essex outfit. The winners of the Bob Willis Trophy and 2019’s Championship racked up the runs against Worcestershire, with captain Tom Westley leading from the front with a double-hundred.
However, with Worcestershire batting 177 overs in their reply, a draw was looking inevitable and so honours were shared. Both sides, however, will be heartened by early-season runs for their batsmen.
It was a similar story as Kent took on Northamptonshire in a high-scoring draw, the highlight of which was a hundred by the 44-year-old Darren Stevens. Meanwhile, another experienced player, Dane Vilas, made a big hundred for Lancashire as they drew with Sussex.
There were a couple of wickets for Ollie Robinson, who may well make an England debut at some point this summer.
Warwickshire’s encounter with Derbyshire also resulted in a draw, although this was in part down to some poor weather. Warwickshire’s new-ball pair Norwell and Hannon-Dalby took seven wickets each across the match, while their teammate and incumbent England opener Dom Sibley made 29 and 0* in his two innings – not the start of season returns he might have hoped for.
Two of Sibley’s teammates on the India tour, Ben Foakes and Rory Burns, both made runs for Surrey, albeit in a losing cause against Gloucestershire. Burns showed touches of the form which deserted him in India, hitting a solid 74, alongside a century for Foakes. Neither innings proved enough, however, as Gloucestershire chased down 229 with ease thanks to innings from Dent and van Buuren.
The final fixture of the opening round saw Nottinghamshire take on Durham. There were signs of early-season promise for the latter, with Bedingham and Eckersley both making hundreds before a solid second innings from Nottinghamshire ensured the game drifted to a draw.
The first County Championship round highlighted some things we already knew – that Essex, Somerset and Hampshire already look very strong. It also, however, threw up some points of intrigue. If the likes of Vince, Burns and even Robson continue on the promising signs they showed in these games, then selection for the first Test against India could prove very interesting indeed.
Image: Its No Game via Flickr