May 8, 2014

Eventful start promises season to remember

Some grumble that the only team that can be Yorkshire is Team England... although Middlesex have managed it too

The 2014 county season is already looking like a classic: anything can happen and, after four matches, just about everything already has.

Yorkshire began with a trip to Taunton, where the pitch won, as it usually does there. Somerset put Yorkshire in with the hope of getting a declaration, it seemed. Twice bitten, thrice shy, and we didn't oblige them this time. I think I might have disgraced myself and invaded the pitch if we had. Instead, I spent four pleasant days in the early summer sun watching batsmen enjoy themselves.

I will expect more from my cricket as the season progresses, but for the time being that would suffice. In any case, I had already seen some cricket with bite, a day at Trent Bridge watching a lively Nottinghamshire team in the field, on their way to a win against battling Lancashire. This game was played on a proper pitch, with something there for anyone good enough to find it.

Yorkshire showed their teeth in the next game, an easy win against Northamptonshire, who fielded and bowled infinitely better than Somerset had, but whose batting looked as thin in reality as it does on paper. Our own four-pronged pace attack looked very strong, given just a little help from the conditions, and the out-cricket was keen and purposeful.

After a pleasant day at Northop Hall, watching Yorkshire's 2nd XI against their Lancashire counterparts, I travelled down to London more worried about the Tube strike than anything Middlesex might do.

For two days my confidence seemed justified. In seamer-friendly conditions our quick bowlers had out-gunned Middlesex's useful trio, and a first-innings lead of 55 had appeared crucial.

This impression was reinforced by a strong batting performance, finished off by Gary Ballance's century in ever-improving conditions. Then came Chris Rogers, and the rest is history: 472 for 3. As one fellow spectator remarked, it was possibly the best run chase ever by a team who can't bat! Flat pitch, though. Taunton flat.

A trip to the home of the County Champions was probably the last thing Yorkshire needed after this setback, but the game at Chester-le-Street had its surprises, too, not least the poor bowling of Durham on day one.

I opted to watch this first day on TV, the first time the Sky cameras had been at a Yorkshire first-class game, I think. It was disconcerting to hear a commentary team with a strong Lancashire bias - three of them - tipping Yorkshire for the title this year.

A skilful batting performance by Yorkshire, on a pitch that provided movement, if no pace or bounce, was followed by a mixed performance in the field. And where was Ray Julian when we needed him?

"These two? They're nobbut bean counters," said one disgruntled Yorkshireman, as yet another impassioned Ryan Sidebottom appeal fell on deaf ears.

We had gone into the Durham game without Joe Root and Gary Ballance, both required by England, even though the ODI against Scotland (Scotland!) was not until two days after the county match finished. There are those who think the ECB is treating the county game with contempt.

After the winter's disasters, the ECB should be looking to get county supporters on their side, one would have thought. Our loyalty to England should not be taken for granted, though we (some of us) rejoice to see our own special players perform, and perform well, on the international stage.

"The only team that can beat Yorkshire is Team England," said another supporter, within my hearing. I am not making these up, I promise. He was not referring to a match between the two teams, I am sure you will understand.

The frightening thing is, that a case can be made for half the Yorkshire side to play for England. I believe Liam Plunkett is the fastest and one of the best bowlers in England. He also brings decent lower-order batting, and fielding of the highest class, in any position. A mature player, now, at the height of his powers and in the form of his life. If they don't pick him, they're crazy.

Adil Rashid continues to enthral Yorkshire supporters with his brilliant, fearless batting. There are encouraging signs that he is beginning to rediscover his legspin magic, too. He wouldn't have to be very good to be the best English spinner, would he? Actually, the best I have seen this season so far is veteran Yorkshireman, James Middlebrook, now playing for Northamptonshire.

There are some Yorkshiremen who are one-eyed in their cricket watching (can you believe that?) but I hope I have the objectivity to recognise merit in opponents. This season, in addition to Middlebrook, I have been impressed by Chris Jones, Somerset's wristy opening batsman, and by David Murphy, a proper wicketkeeper who plays for Northamptonshire.

Along with Plunkett, Harry Gurney of Notts is the fastest bowler I have seen, and he seems to put the ball in good areas more often than not. It was good to see Steven Finn produce a decent performance, too. There seemed little wrong with his run up or action, if not quite top pace. Durham's Mark Stoneman seems to get a century every time he plays against us, and he is an attractive, compact, clean-striking left-hander, but a man the pundits never mention. Born in Newcastle, Northumberland, not in New South Wales, that's his problem.

Next up, it's Warwickshire at Headingley. There's a half-marathon being run around the streets of Leeds on day one. Last time that happened I abandoned my attempts to get to the ground and went home. Assuming I can get there this time, there is a mouth-watering contest in prospect. There are some good teams in Division One. What we need now are some decent pitches for them to play on.

Dave Morton, now retired, grew up worshipping the great Yorkshire team of the 1950s