June 11, 2013

Questions of the high order for Notts

The concern over the top three will become more vociferous should they continue to fail, but when the rest of the team keeps digging in and doing the business with the ball, Notts look good to continue their fine form

I enter through the back door to get into the fan's forum on day two of the County Championship game against Surrey. Late as usual, I arrive just in time to see an old lady take to her feet, glaring at Notts coach Mick Newell. "Why can't our openers bat?" she asks, bluntly.

Fair point, I think to myself, as Newell begins to explain how the openers need to find a bit of form, how they haven't got it quite right so far this season, before adding that we actually haven't been blessed with 200-run opening partnerships since the days of Gallian and Bicknell.

It is a growing concern, that aside from an excellent knock of 81 from Ed Cowan against Sussex and Michael Lumb's superb 135 last week against Yorkshire, the top three have just three scores of over 50 between them in the previous eight County Championship innings.

Alex Hales' form is obviously the standout blip in the team. On a wicket that saw 1,120 runs in Scarborough, Hales was out for a duck in the first innings, and just 5 in the second. He is currently averaging 11.83 in 12 innings in the County Championship, and there are growing calls from some fans to push Hales down the order to find some form. I'm backing him to do so soon - he has been proven to do it in the past, and it was good to see Cowan saying Hales has the backing of the dressing room to come good soon.

But while Hales still has a way to come, there are a few players who have really kick-started their season in recent weeks.

Where better to start than Samit Patel, whose magnificent innings of 157 against Sussex was complemented with a couple of wickets and extremely tight bowling on the fourth day to secure the draw for Notts. That game was Patel's finest this season, and though he has scored higher this season (256 against Durham MCCU), his first innings knock came at a crucial time - Notts had lost their first three wickets cheaply, and Chris Jordan was ripping through the batting order as if they weren't there.

And while Patel may not have a great average when it comes to bowling this season, the wickets he's taken have been vital - he's claimed Luke Wells on 59, Gary Wilson on 49, and Gareth Batty on 41 in recent weeks, showing he is certainly the first option to throw the ball to when the seamers are struggling with batsmen who are staying put.

Another allrounder who has continued to shine is Paul Franks. I made a point in my previous blog on how he has lingered in the second XI for large parts of the season, but since the England boys have departed he has been one of Notts' star men. He's shown his class with the ball and added a superb 78 against Sussex meaning he is now averaging above the likes of Chris Read and Hales. As Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann look set to be gone for the most part of the season, Franks and Harry Gurney have really stepped up to the mark - a special mention should also be inserted here for Gurney, who, against Sussex, took Notts' first hat-trick since 2006.

Finally, the mercurial talent of Ajmal Shahzad has finally flourished over the past month. I think it's fair to say he has faced some murmurs of unease in the stands of Trent Bridge since his signing in the winter. I've even heard someone describe him as the "Balotelli of cricket", which, despite making me laugh, is hugely unfair. But no-one can criticise his efforts in the opening parts of the season, and though he didn't start convincingly, he's shown in recent weeks the class that Notts brought him into the club for. He's taken three wickets in each of the last three innings, and hit an excellent 56 against Sussex, including a hundred partnership with Patel, which suggests he is also finding form with the bat.

So, many reasons to be cheerful as a Notts fan currently. Unlucky to not claim the win against table-toppers Sussex, a good draw against Yorkshire on a flat pitch, five wins from five in the YB40 and coping well in the absence of the England stars. Questions will become more vociferous should the top order continue to fail, but when the rest of the team keeps digging in and doing the business with the ball, Notts look good to continue their fine form.

Andrew Butler is a radio producer and freelance sportswriter. He tweets here