April 8, 2010

Out to impress

As another English county season springs into life, who are the players worth following over the next six months?

Winter has barely left the UK, but the county season begins tomorrow with the opening round of Championship matches. The domestic game is currently in a state of flux, with major changes on the horizon, but for the players it remains their route to higher honours. Cricinfo takes a look at 11 names to keep an eye on this summer

Arul Suppiah Somerset
As a batsman there are few better places to ply your trade than Taunton, and although Suppiah passed 1200 runs in the Championship he slipped under the radar alongside Marcus Trescothick, Justin Langer and Craig Kieswetter. However, he caught the eye of a number of good judges with his solid technique and sound temperament. Now he has to do it all over again, and not just on his home ground, where he scored his three hundreds. Runs away from home will show that he is really developing, and with Langer having retired there is the need for someone to fill that gap. Suppiah's left-arm spin is also useful and he can expect plenty of overs as the season progresses.

James Vince Hampshire
The growth of Twenty20 has meant young players are entering the game without fear of failure, and this is most apparent among the batsmen. Laps, sweeps, switches, paddles and scoops are not just for the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Vince has the full range of strokes and showed them off when he was given a chance in Hampshire's Pro40 team last summer. It was the crispness and confidence of his striking that really impressed as he made 93 against Essex and 55 against Hampshire. His winter was spent with England Under-19s, but after John Crawley's retirement there is a chance for Vince to establish himself at the senior level.

Tom Westley Essex
Essex are committed to bringing through their own young cricketers, and with Graham Gooch heavily involved they have had success in the batting department. Both Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara benefited heavily and the next to come through the system could be Westley. He had limited opportunities last season with seven Championship matches, but in the final match of the summer, against Derbyshire, he hit 132, full of powerful strokes out of the Gooch manual. With Bopara back in the England reckoning and Cook set to be on national duty from late May this could be the time for Westley to take a major role in the Essex line up.

James Taylor Leicestershire
The challenge for Taylor is to avoid the second-season syndrome that hits many young players after a prolific first full campaign. In 2009, Taylor made 1184 runs in the Championship with some eye-catching one-day knocks, which earned him the Cricket Writers' Club Young Player of the Year award and a place with the England Lions. The man himself doesn't hold many concerns about the new season - "I'm sure the bowlers will have a few new ideas, but I've been working hard" - but this year comes with expectation. In an interesting prelude to the summer he responded to his first-innings duck for MCC in Abu Dhabi with a battling 39 as his team-mates collapsed. With Leicestershire's thin resources, it could be a familiar position for him.

Ben Stokes Durham
Durham are rightly proud of their ability to produce homegrown talent (although they still have a strong overseas contingent), but so far that has really been restricted to the pace-bowling department. This could be the season that another area starts to flourish, as Geoff Cook has shown faith in his squad by not signing an overseas player for the Championship. That means opportunities for the likes of Stokes, an 18-year-old allrounder who was handed his first professional deal for this season. He shone at the Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand and notched up a maiden first-class fifty in Abu Dhabi, while his bowling already shows the happy knack of breaking partnerships.

Steven Croft Lancashire
Do a search on YouTube for Croft and you'll catch a glimpse of an extraordinary piece of fielding from last year's Twenty20 Cup, when he clung on to a stunner to remove Michael Vaughan. But the 25-year-old is also pretty handy with bat and ball. Already he has steered Lancashire to a number of one-day victories, while his wicket-to-wicket medium pace can prove hard to score off. With no Mal Loye or Faf du Plessis this season, Lancashire need a young batsman to stand up and now is the time for Croft to show he can hold down a position in the top six.

James Foster Essex
England's revolving-door policy for Twenty20 wicketkeepers has continued with the selection of Craig Kieswetter ahead of Matt Prior. Foster, the man who had the gloves for the previous tournament, less than a year ago, has already been discarded back to the county scene, despite his outstanding glovework. He remains the best keeper on the domestic scene and refuses to dwell on his international disappointment. "I don't want to sound bitter. No matter what team you are in coaching staff and selectors make decisions and go with what they think is right," he told Cricinfo. "Unfortunately I wasn't in their plans and you have to accept that". All he can do is churn out performances for Essex, and the county will need a big season from him with bat and gloves if they are to survive relegation.

Scott Borthwick Durham
English cricket tends to get very excited when it sees a young legspinner. Ian Salisbury and Chris Schofield were plucked out as great hopes before failing to develop, and the handling of Adil Rashid, who has spent two winters carrying drinks, is starting to raise eyebrows. The next leggie to come under the spotlight could be Borthwick, who is breaking the Durham trend of generating young pace bowlers. His chances are likely to be limited in the early season (and he shouldn't be built up too much after his eight wickets against MCC) but the county have already shown they don't mind throwing him in at the deep end. He bats a bit, as well, which is always handy these days. Please, though, give him time. Lots of it.

Chris Tremlett Surrey
It all looked so promising for Tremlett when he gave Sachin Tendulkar a working over at Trent Bridge in 2007. Finally, had the quiet fast bowler cracked it? Sadly not. He disappeared off the England radar a few months later and last season also out of the Hampshire set-up after another in a long list of injuries. His move to The Oval could be a final chance to make the most of his career. It won't be easy playing home games on a flat pitch, but Tremlett needs to show he has the stamina and stomach for the hard work.

Chris Woakes Warwickshire
Alongside Steven Finn, Woakes is the young buck among England's upcoming pace bowlers. Woakes, for one, will be delighted to hear that the Edgbaston groundsman has been asked to leave more grass on Championship pitches because they were depressing to bowl quick on last summer (so Woakes' return of 37 wickets at 36.59 was better than it may appear). Woakes, though, has been on the England radar for a few years: he impressed at Under-19 level and produced some useful spells on the Lions tour of UAE.

Luke Fletcher Nottinghamshire
One of a batch of new seamers to spend time with the Performance Squad in South Africa, having been handed a category C contract - his team-mate Andy Carter was another - Fletcher was rewarded for his 29 wickets at 27.58 with a chance in the Nottinghamshire first team as they suffered a long injury list. One's man loss is another's gain and Fletcher shone with his nippy pace. It wasn't just with the ball that he impressed - he made 92 against Hampshire to show all-round potential. With Stuart Broad unlikely to be around and Ryan Sidebottom still in the England frame, Fletcher should have plenty more chances to enhance his reputation.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo