May 3, 2013

Derbyshire in need of positive pickup

The opening four matches have been a chastening experience and while it is too early to think of the "R" word, the signs are far from encouraging

To use a football analogy, Derbyshire's first three fixtures of the Championship season were akin to Derby County gaining promotion to the Premiership and playing Manchester United and Arsenal away, followed by Chelsea at home.

The games against Warwickshire, Middlesex and Nottinghamshire were a chastening experience. While the bowlers showed they could take wickets at this level, they came at far greater cost, with our main men, Tony Palladino and Tim Groenewald, tidy but not penetrative. Meanwhile the batting has struggled, the side being prone to losing wickets in clusters, where 60 for 2 becomes 70 for 5 or similar in no time.

A young side needed its share of breaks, but losing the toss each time has done them few favours on largely bowler-friendly pitches. We did better in the first innings against Yorkshire, thanks to Chesney Hughes having a grand day out, but another appalling slide on the last afternoon, where the last seven wickets went down for just 24 runs, suggests that a season of struggle lies ahead.

Wayne Madsen at No. 3 gives us a more robust middle-order, but we lack an experienced player to replace him at the top. "Barnacle" Billy Godleman battled his way into the record books at Lord's, but has otherwise struggled for form. In reserve we only have Paul Borrington, who has struggled to establish himself at first-class level and Ben Slater, who has talent and guts but little experience.

The loose, languid style of Chesney Hughes didn't appear to fit with early season wickets and new balls, but he batted for nine hours in the first innings at Headingley and must have been stunned to be on the losing side after scoring an unbeaten 270. The innings was indicative of a player whose talent has never been in doubt but who appears to have found a mentor in Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

England-qualified, Hughes has immense power but needs to improve his footwork against the spinners. Give him any width and he'll slaughter any bowler though and with an improved defence he has a bright future. That near-record innings will give him increased confidence and the understanding that he has surely cemented a place in the batting order, after failing to do so last year.

I remain optimistic that the side can compete in Division One, but we desperately need contributions from the top six to support Madsen and the impeccable Chanderpaul. As they did last summer, our lower order has contributed well, with Palladino leading the way, but reaching three figures with five or six men down leaves you, as Chuck Berry once said, with no particular place to go.

Wes Durston has been leg-before too many times for comfort, Ross Whiteley hasn't got going at all and Dan Redfern has looked good in cameos but failed to go on to something substantial. For wins to come, we somehow have to get more runs on the board.

As for the bowling, the attack perhaps lacks variety and there is an argument for the greater pace of Mark Turner to be given increased opportunities. Mark Footitt may also come into the reckoning after good second team displays and if he could stay fit for a lengthy period his hostile, though sometimes erratic, left-arm bowling would be a useful weapon. We appear to have lost Palladino for several weeks through injury, so there is a definite opportunity for someone.

We need to take 20 wickets with available resources, then knock off the runs with a side where only three players currently looks like scoring runs. As a friend said to me the other day, after seeing how Yorkshire chased down 338 to beat Durham, the only way we would do that is if Chanderpaul got 250.

Joking apart, the more vocal and volatile supporters need to be patient and remember that the club's plan is a long term one. If it transpires that last year's promotion came too soon for a young side, they will learn from the experience and regroup accordingly. It is too early to think of the "R" word but the signs are far from encouraging, especially after the last afternoon debacle of Headingley

We can only hope that the experience of batting alongside Chanderpaul will start rubbing off at some point. It has been an education for supporters to see how a genuinely great batsman handles early season movement, playing the ball very late and with soft hands, unworried by bowler reputation and conditions. He will already be well aware of his importance to the side and we could do without too many decisions like the one that saw him given out caught behind off his thigh pad against Nottinghamshire.

It promises to be a long and difficult summer and things really can only get better. A little more luck wouldn't go amiss, but there's a lot of work to be done.

Steve Dolman has been a Derbyshire fan since 1967 and writes the award-winning Peakfan blog