September 25, 2009

And the winner is...

A former bludgeoner, two former England keepers, a stocky allrounder, a fingerspinner, and a future KP, in our awards for the season

It was the summer in which Durham replaced Sussex as the team to beat, Champions League dollar signs came to county cricket and Mark Ramprakash earned talk of a Test recall. But what of the rest? Countyscape hands out a few awards…

Most poignant trip down memory lane
Marcus Trescothick's England days may be behind him, but there may be no more brutal plunderer of county attacks in the game today. If Mark Ramprakash operates with the scalpel, Trescothick used the bludgeon to score 1817 championship runs at 75, with eight hundreds, 281 fours and nine sixes. His clean hitting on Twenty20 finals day - over the top from a standing position - might have been designed to teach England's one-day middle order a lesson. Graham Gooch in his pomp was scarcely more daunting.

Best retort
Chris Read was the England wicketkeeper who wasn't supposed to be able to bat. And in fairness to the former coach Duncan Fletcher, a Test average of under 19 from 23 innings did not exactly make a watertight case. But this summer Read has been a revelation, and his first-innings 88 for Nottinghamshire against Sussex this week took his championship tally this season to 1120 runs at almost 75. Can we really say his England career is over forever?

Best retort II (and speaking of former England keepers)
Let's hear it for Geraint Jones, who resolutely refused to fade into retirement after it became clear England would not be turning to him again. The irritation was that Jones' keeping was getting better just as his batting was fading at international level, but now - given his chance at No. 3 in Kent's championship line-up - he has responded with aplomb, averaging over 50 and scoring five hundreds. And, as anyone on the county circuit will tell you, it could not have happened to a nicer man.

Most heartening reinvention
Anyone who watched Somerset in 2008 will have noticed Justin Langer's obvious irritation every time Ian Blackwell failed to swoop like a bird of prey in the outfield. Hell, he probably compiled an entire dossier on the subject. But Blackwell's renaissance at Durham has been one of the features of the summer: a batting average of 41 and a bowling average of 21, plus a startling economy-rate of 2.20, better than anyone in Division One to have bowled 50 overs or more, bar Jimmy Anderson. Success comes in all shapes and sizes.

Most unlikely hundred
Adam Shantry, a left-arm seamer with Glamorgan, had been scoring for fun for Penarth in the South Wales Cricket League Premier Division. But runs in county cricket had always proved harder to come by. Going into the championship match against Leicestershire at Colwyn Bay in August, Shantry's highest first-class score had been 38 not out, for Northamptonshire against Somerset back in 2003. Now, batting at No. 10, Shantry scored 100, adding 197 for the ninth wicket with Robert Croft - only six short of a club record that had stood for 80 years.

Biggest pat on the back for fingerspin
We keep hearing it's dead, in which case long live conventional fingerspin. There have been times in his career when James Tredwell looked as if he might have peaked with the England A captaincy in 2004, but a championship haul - going into Kent's final game against Gloucestershire - of 66 wickets at 26 has changed that. With Robert Croft claiming 54 wickets and Shaun Udal 37, offbreaks have had a good summer.

One for the future
Matt Prior can rest easy for the time being. Well, until February at least. Because that's when Somerset's South African-born keeper-batsman Craig Kieswetter qualifies for England. And Trescothick has already placed a whopping great price on his head by comparing him to Kevin Pietersen. The glovework may require some work, but 1242 championship runs at 59 and a strike-rate of 68 - faster even than Trescothick - point to a rare talent. And he's hit 29 sixes - six more than anyone in Division One. Watch this space.

So what if a few more people watch the 40-over game? Isn't that because it takes place in the school-holiday months? Fifty-over cricket was played at the wrong time of year in any case: April and May in England are not conducive to pinch-hitting

Strangest stat
Congratulations to Durham for winning eight games going into the final round of matches, and commiserations to Worcestershire - the definitive yo-yo club, and now in the process of losing too many of their best players - for winning none. But the seven teams in between in Division One went into the last round of matches having won either two or three games out of 15. As this column has pointed out before, safety-first cricket will not breed players capable of competing consistently in Tests.

Longest transition period
Surrey's budget is the envy of most of the 17 other counties, but it's not entirely clear when they're going to emerge from the other side of a slump that, paradoxically, began when they won Division Two in 2006. Their reliance on the old guard to gain promotion that summer cost the younger generation a season's worth of experience. Now they seem unsure whether to stick or twist: 27 players have been used in championship cricket this season, yet they entered the final round of matches heading for their joint-worst finish ever.

Worst decision
To scrap 50-over cricket. So what if a few more people watch the 40-over game? Isn't that because it takes place in the school-holiday months? Fifty-over cricket was played at the wrong time of year in any case: April and May in England are not conducive to pinch-hitting. But the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater - a metaphor that will not prevent England's one-day team struggling at the deep end now that their domestic cricketers no longer play a format still in use at international level.

Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail. His fourth book, What Are The Butchers For? And Other Splendid Cricket Quotations, is published in October 2009 by A&C Black

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