Sussex primed for season curtain-raiser
In this day and age, it's not a simple process discerning one English season from the next. The international schedule crowds it at both ends, unseasonal snowfalls add a chilly confusion to practice sessions, while lately the IPL's megabucks have provided a new and pervasive aroma.
Some things, however, remain reassuringly familiar. The changing of the clocks inform cricketers up and down the land that it's time to dust off the whites and start dreaming of new beginnings, while on Thursday, the 145th edition of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack hits the bookshops, as if to underpin the sense that summer is just around the corner.
Thursday also marks the start of the season's traditional curtain-raiser - MCC versus Champion County at Lord's. It is a fixture that seems as old and familiar as the Almanack itself, although in fact it dates back only as far as 1970, and for 13 seasons from 1991 it wasn't played at all. In 2004, however, it was revived to mark Sussex's first Championship win in their 164-year history, and it is Sussex once again who will get the season underway, after securing their third title of the decade in an excruciating finale last season.
Although intended as a friendly fixture, the match still retains first-class status, and the teams are so jam-packed with cricketers with points to prove that it is sure to be a worthy first foray of the summer. One man who will be missing is Andrew Flintoff, who had been earmarked to make his competitive comeback for MCC after a fourth bout of ankle surgery, but who will now be held back until Lancashire's return to The Oval next week - the scene of their glorious but ultimately futile tilt at the title last summer.
MCC do, however, have four players with international experience in their ranks, as well as a wealth of up-and-coming players who could yet feature in another packed international summer. Their captain is Ed Joyce, who was a World Cup opening batsman this time last year, but has been on the outside looking in ever since. He recognises the opportunity that such a showcase fixture presents.
"It is an honour to be asked to captain the MCC team," said Joyce, "and it's a match I'm greatly looking forward to. With the spotlight on this game, it's a chance for all of the guys to get some early-season form and make the England selectors sit up and take notice. There will be a lot of determined cricketers at Lord's, and you can expect a very competitive match as a result."
Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara are two other MCC batsmen with points to prove. Bopara edged Shah out of the reckoning in the Sri Lanka Tests before Christmas, but endured a horrific run of form that culminated in three consecutive ducks at Colombo and Galle. Shah might have expected to claim his place for the New Zealand series that followed, but instead he was left to stew on the sidelines as Andrew Strauss jumped the queue to slot into the middle order.
On the bowling front, Graham Onions has earned a regular mention in international dispatches, not least since his Durham team-mate, Ottis Gibson, joined the England set-up as bowling coach. Middlesex's Steven Finn, only 19 years old but already 6ft 8in, has an early opportunity to demonstrate his maturity and splice-rattling attributes, while Yorkshire's legspinner Adil Rashid, the PCA Young Cricketer of the Year, completes a youthful attack.
Sussex have plenty of high-profile names of their own, not least their wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, who was ruthlessly axed from England's Test team following a string of missed chances in the Sri Lanka Test series. His opposite number, James Foster, is another who knows what it is to be tried and discarded by England, but Prior's determination will have been heightened by the success of his former team-mate and rival, Tim Ambrose.
Eleven months ago on the same ground, Prior launched his Test career with a breathless debut hundred against West Indies. Tomorrow's fixture may not be quite such a high-profile encounter, but for each of the 22 players on show, it's a priceless opportunity to seize some early-season momentum.
"It's a great honour to be playing at Lord's in what I am sure will be four great days of cricket," said Sussex's manager, Mark Robinson. "We are really excited about the forthcoming season and feel that this is the ideal warm-up ahead of our first game of the season at the Rose Bowl in a week's time where we will begin our title defence."
MCC (from) Ed Joyce (capt, Middlesex), Ravi Bopara (Essex), Michael Carberry (Hampshire), James Foster (Essex), Steven Finn (Middlesex), Arun Harinath (Loughborough UCCE & Surrey), Steven Kirby (Gloucestershire), Graham Onions (Durham), Adil Rashid (Yorkshire), Charlie Shreck (Nottinghamshire), Owais Shah (Middlesex), James Tredwell (Kent).
Sussex squad (from) Chris Adams (captain), Rageb Aga, Will Beer, Ryan Harris, Andrew Hodd, Carl Hopkinson, Jason Lewry, Chris Liddle, Robin Martin-Jenkins, Chris Nash, Matt Prior (wk), Luke Wright, Michael Yardy.