County cricket: Surrey leapfrog Hampshire in two-horse title race | County Championship

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Ball one: Saif makes Northamptonshire safe

Surrey leapfrogged Hampshire to lead Division One by eight points with two matches to play. The gap comprises the reward for their draw with Northamptonshire, their fifth of the season compared to their pursuers’ one. Both sides will have a keen eye on the progress of each others’ matches in the final two rounds, as a little of Ben Stokes’ disdain for the draw may have to be adopted if their rivals look likely to be on their way to a win.

Cricket is a situational game, its challenges ebb and flow in their criticality during a match and across a season. The oft-used simile of the two-innings format being akin to a slabby novel is a cliche because it’s true.

After Northants’ Emilio Gay and Rob Keogh had traded first-innings centuries with Hashim Amla and a back-with-a-bang Tom Curran, Saif Zaib walked to the crease with his team’s lead just 32, four down in the second innings. A draw would all but secure Northants’ status in Division One for 2023 but Surrey’s pack of seamers had the scent of blood in their nostrils. The one-time boy wonder (and he really was, playing for his county at 15 years of age) made a century, secured the draw his county required and, just maybe, heard the faintest echo of cheers borne on the wind all the way from Southampton. It was the fifth of the five centuries in the match, made when the pitch was at its most accommodating, but, and this is what matters, he delivered when his team needed it most.

Ball two: Penalties an own goal for Championship?

Lancashire were deducted six points for issues related to player behaviour. Not for the first time, cricket’s penchant for suspending sentences only to activate them at the sharp end of a campaign interfered unnecessarily with a developing narrative.

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The nuts and bolts do not concern this column, but the time for sanctioning offences committed in 2021 (the punishment for which was activated by misbehaviour in June and July 2022) is not mid-September 2022. Of course, Lancashire knew they had to tread carefully, but that’s not the issue – justice needs to be swift as well as impartial.

The pennant was already merely a distant dream for the Red Rose, but their red-ball season could drift away if they are not careful, with Essex now pressing them for the podium spot, now just four points off third place.

Ball three: Snater turns the tide and avoids the tie

Whose heart isn’t set racing by the prospect of a tie? Even to read of such a possibility after the event can send a frisson of excitement down the spine. I guess trainspotters feel the same about an engine with a particularly rare wheel configuration pulling into their local station. The incomprehension of the rest of the world simply enhances our own slightly guilty and definitely nerdish pleasure.

After some late-order heroics from Ben “Betsy” Coad (whose 69 from No 9 proved to be the top score in the match), Essex needed 162 for the victory. Steve Patterson, in his farewell season after 17 years of running in for the White Rose, had a fivefer in the bag, but Shane Snater was on strike, nine down with the scores level. Into the leg side it went, Snater had 65 not out from No 8 and Essex had the 20 points they were looking for. Just the three days required, but a rollercoaster of a match in Essex’s rollercoaster of a season.

Ball four: a draw at Edgbaston helps neither county

Relegation haunted Edgbaston as Warwickshire faced fellow strugglers Somerset in a match that ebbed and flowed, ultimately producing a draw that merely confirmed that Division Two cricket in 2023 remains a threat for the two sides who fought to a standstill in Birmingham.

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Somerset fans have become familiar this season with scoreboards reading 82-7 and the like, but half-centuries from Lewis Gregory and Sajid Khan got the visitors up to 219, a score that looked a lot better when the home side could muster just 196 in reply.

George Bartlett’s 111 gave skipper Tom Abell the opportunity to declare and, having spent four hours in the middle himself, he knew the state of the pitch. He set Warwickshire 364 for the win.

Despite the radio commentators’ attempts to inject tension into the match and a flurry of late wickets, the draw that was always the most likely result once Somerset’s batters and not Warwickshire’s openers emerged from the pavilion at the start of the fourth day, duly arrived. Whether Abell got the call right (Warwickshire were six down in the 64th over when hands were shaken) can only be judged when the season ends.

Ball five: Stoneman shows how to play the conditions

Monday morning in St John’s Wood had an urgency about it. Streams of oldish men, sandwiches and binoculars in bags, gaits not quite fluent any more, emerged from the tube station and headed for the ground. It was a decent crowd for the promotion battle, but not the demographic that sets the heart rates of marketing men aflutter.

It’s not easy batting at 10.30am in September and Glamorgan’s batters set off with the attitude that there was one coming soon with their name on it so best to play a few shots, one-a-ball for some. They were 70-5 with barely an hour played and it took some typically smart play from Chris Cooke and effective late-order biffing from Ajaz Patel to get up past 200.

The home side played conditions much better, Mark Stoneman’s century setting up late middle-order runs and a lead of 176. Despite an opening stand of 123 between David Lloyd and Eddie Byrom, the visitors collapsed to 220 all out, Middlesex’s seamers sharing 20 wickets in the match.

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It was disappointing stuff from the visitors, particularly as the points conceded surrendered their promotion slot to their opponents. Whether the first morning betrayed a fear of the conditions having been invited to bat, or whether it was simply a positive mindset taken too far, it set the tone for a match in which the result felt foretold after its first hour.

Ball six: Potts is cooking with gas

Matthew Potts showed great heart to come roaring back for his county having been left out by England and seen his replacement and rival, Ollie Robinson, prove he had the conditioning to go with his undoubted skill. The Durham pacer got back to the day job and ran through Leicestershire twice with 6-52 and 7-52 as the visitors won easily.

Potts’ attitude was his biggest asset in his nascent Test career and running in hard for 39 overs in Division Two shows it’s not just for the cameras. In a sport in which players can appear to carp continually about workloads and play can slow to an almost farcical pace, Potts looks like he doesn’t want to be anywhere else for the top of his mark, ready to bowl another over.

This article is from The 99.94 Cricket Blog
Follow Gary Naylor on Twitter



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