Friday, 23 March 2018

Critchley to the fore as pre-season portents are positive

It has been an encouraging winter for Derbyshire players.

Luis Reece went to Bangladesh and did pretty well with bat and ball, Hardus Viljoen has been in the wickets around the globe and new overseas player Duanne Olivier has taken plenty too, earning himself a recall to the South African national squad for all his hard work.

Will Davis appears to be fitter and stronger and, all things considered, we are on the verge of April in pretty good shape.

Perhaps the best news is that of Matt Critchley.

He has looked 'the business' as a cricketer since he first emerged on the scene and it was patently obvious that he could handle a bat from his maiden century. He has an obvious panache when batting and a desire to dominate the bowling that is refreshing. Yes, it can infuriate when it goes awry, but that is part of the development process.

He wasn't a part of the first choice side at the start of last summer, but when opportunity knocked he was ready to grasp it. A brilliant century at Chesterfield followed, and then, when given a chance to move up the order in T20 cricket, he took that too, with a series of innings that transformed an erstwhile too pedestrian Powerplay into something that was quite special.

I have said this so many times in recent summers. Yes, there is a core of experienced players in the Derbyshire squad, but chances are there to get into the side. What they all have to do, when they come, is be ready. Score runs and take wickets in the seconds to stake a claim, then translate that into the senior game. That is what Alex Hughes has done, so too Will Davis. Luis Reece emerged from being a peripheral player at Lancashire to a key member of the side now, winning a personal battle for an opening berth with Ben Slater in so doing.

Slater can make it, because there is no doubt he has the talent. He has reeled off some stunning innings in the RLODC, but now needs to show he can do that in the longer form of the game. His busy style will always get runs, but this is the year when he needs to show that he can maintain concentration when ticking the scoreboard over is less easy. While a breezy forty can make you a star in short formats, it leaves question marks in the longer game that he needs to answer this year.

I think he can do it.

Back to Critchley, and once again, given a chance at an elevated level, the series between North and South, he took it with a brilliant 64 from just 37 balls. He hits a ball so crisply that he has the world at his feet, IF he continues to work and listen to the right people. A strong winter in Australia could turn out to be the making of him.

The jury may still be out on whether he can be an all-rounder, or, like Kim Barnett, be a batsman who can bowl some useful overs, but he is young enough to develop still further and is amply justifying the decision to give him a four-year contract, which runs to the end of 2020.

He has confirmed a place in the starting line-up for me and, barring injury, five of the top six to play against Middlesex should be Godleman, Reece, Madsen, Hughes and Critchley. Either Gary Wilson or Ben Slater will join them and I don't expect Wilson to get it 'just because' he is vice-captain. As Daryn Smit suggested Harvey Hosein was given opportunity last year, when he was short of runs, I expect a pragmatic approach to selection from the senior players once more.

It will be fascinating to watch how it unfolds and I look forward to it immensely.

Not long now folks...

Friday, 16 March 2018

Seventh year of profit - and the spinner quest

That's seven successive years that Derbyshire County Cricket Club has recorded a profit, after the announcement of one of £83,050 was made yesterday.

It confirms a high level of fiscal management at the club and they are to be applauded for continuing to run a viable business in sport. With so many clubs running at a loss, Derbyshire's ability, year in and year out, to provide a good quality side that doesn't cast them into penury is to be warmly applauded.

The off-field activity will continue, of course and a Little Mix concert at the ground this summer will bring in a lot of money. If they can get The Killers, First Aid Kit or Springsteen there, I will be first in line for tickets...

A brief clip on Twitter yesterday confirmed that the county's search for a Mitchell Santner replacement will not see them change tack from their strategic quest for a spinner, though Kim Barnett said that such a player was unlikely to be an all rounder.

Given that spinners of quality are pretty rare, finding another one who can bat to a good standard slips into 'needle in haystack' material. That comment would seem to rule out Shakib Al Hasan, who makes so much from T20 that county cricket is of little consequence.

An email I got yesterday suggested Ravi Ashwin, but his IPL contract largely precludes any other overseas work. Since India are touring in mid/late summer, you can rule them out anyway. I have no idea if Pakistan will bring a new spinner with them, but Yasir Shah seems well-established yet pulled up few trees at Kent last year. Fourteen wickets at 38 is barely an argument for recruitment.

Even less so is Nathan Lyon's record at Worcestershire. Well as he bowled in the winter for Australia, six wickets at 67 each last summer is hardly the stuff of myth and legend.

It will be tough. There was a time when Sunil Narine would have been courted by counties, but he has again been reported for his bowling action. Unless you went for the left-field Jomel Warrican, whose figures against England Lions this winter suggested he is the new Hedley Verity, there's nothing in the Caribbean. I'd also question why someone who appears to be that good wasn't a shoo-in for their Test side, to be honest.

So, as I have said before, I suspect the search may be to a tried and tested, as well as successful hunting ground of South Africa. Keshav Maharaj would be my favoured pick, but he can bat, so again, Barnett's comment would appear to exclude him.

Again left-field, but a fascinating call would be Tabraiz Shamsi. For those who don't know him, this left-arm chinaman bowler has an excellent first-class record and a lot of wickets.

With Jeevan Mendis, one of the latter two would be my choice from here. They offer the prospect of wickets, without which they may as well leave spin with Critchley, Madsen and Qadri.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

They didn't make it...

The news of Mitchell Santner needing to cancel his Derbyshire deal because of imminent knee surgery was disappointing.

Yet he was far from being the first such casualty in the club's history.

The first one that I was aware of, as a teenager, was when Dennis Lillee was offered the then sizeable sum of £6000 to be our overseas player in 1973, having taken the cricket world by storm over the previous two years. There was a suggestion of income from other sources too, which would have made him one of the best paid players in the county game at the time.

The deal looked likely, but the player took cold feet and then picked up a stress fracture in his back that ruled him out for the following twelve months. The thought of Lillee roaring in from the pavilion end at Chesterfield still holds appeal and would have been quite something for the Derbyshire faithful. Just as it was when Harold Rhodes, Alan Ward, Michael Holding, Ian Bishop and Devon Malcolm did the same over the years.

Then there was Saeed Anwar, a wonderfully pugnacious opening batsman from Pakistan, one of the best that country has ever produced. He was set to be our overseas player in 1998, then the Pakistan national board started to throw other commitments into the mix and it soon became clear that we would see very little of him. Attention switched to Australia's Michael Slater and Anwar never wore Derbyshire colours. Slater, in turn, was only a qualified success, wonderful to watch when he got going, but doing so too rarely for the requirements of the role.

Nathan Astle? In November 2002, one of the most exciting players in the world game signed a contract for the 2003 season and our appetites were whetted at the prospect of the scorer of the then fastest Test double century was coming to God's own county.

Alas, in January 2003, the New Zealander pulled out of the deal with a knee injury that required surgery. Sounds familiar, that one, doesn't it?

Moving on, we picked up the undoubted talents of Jacques Rudolph for the 2006 season, then were frustrated again when a shoulder injury that later required surgery ruled him out of the deal. He was replaced by Australian Travis Birt, another qualified success who was astonishingly preferred to Michael di Venuto for the following year, when he was a major disappointment. The rationale was the uncertainty over Diva's back injury, but he went on to score many more runs in the English game elsewhere.

Birt could hit a ball a country mile, but the frequency with which he did so proved increasingly erratic and he was far from a success at the county. Rudolph, of course went on to score thousands of runs around the globe in a classic case of what might have been.

There will be others I have missed, as well as some we have never been aware of. I have also overlooked those who may well have done a good job, bar for early injury setback. Travis Friend was one such player, a lively fast medium bowler and hard-hitting batsman from Zimbabwe who never got the chance to show his true worth for us with a succession of injuries. He retired early from the game and now has a successful career as a commercial pilot.

So the Santner loss is not a new one and will doubtless be seen again, seeing the physical demands of the first-class game.

Let's just hope that we enjoy better success with the replacement than some of those that preceded him.

I am fairly confident that offers will already be with agents around the world.

We must await developments...

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

You put your John Wright in..but Santner's out...

Mixed news for Derbyshire supporters this week, with the excellent news of yesterday, which announced the return of John Wright and Dominic Cork to T20 coaching duties, soured somewhat by today's news that Mitchell Santner won't now be coming.

Santner faces knee surgery and around nine months out of the game, which is a cruel blow for him and the club. It was quite a coup to sign the world-ranked number one T20 bowler and it was met with universal acclaim. Alas, it is not to be, at least for now. Shades of Dennis Lillee back in the day, for those old enough to remember.

I'll come back to Santner and where we go now shortly, but the John Wright news made for a fine Tuesday. He and Dominic Cork made a huge difference last year, when our T20 performances were more disciplined and packed with common sense than we had previously known.

We gave away fewer extras, which was a help, but also used the 120 balls in a more canny fashion, running hard, aiming to score off every ball and pacing run chases to perfection on enough occasions to suggest that we finally had the format sussed. We also had the controlling spin of Madsen, Critchley and Imran Tahir.

Tahir proved an excellent asset and one wonders whether we might have done still better with a fully fit Hardus Viljoen and a more effective second overseas than Matt Henry proved to be.

Santner looked set to be the first piece of a further improved T20 jigsaw for this year, but his injury means that we must go back to the drawing board. Do we sign another player for the joint T20/back end of season role, or do we split it? There's also the second overseas player to sort too, so midway through March we have work to do.

I am sure that as I write there are enquiries being made and agents being contacted, but the truth is that there aren't too many spinning all rounders of Santner's quality, especially if one discounts the summer's Pakistan and Indian tourists.

As I have mentioned before, Jeevan Mendis may be one option, as could be Keshav Maharaj, though the latter has played little one-day cricket for South Africa. He is a good player though, and can handle a bat pretty well too. After that, if we are looking at a like for like replacement, I am struggling, which is why splitting the role may be a preferred option. That approach might even see Tahir return for the short format, though at 39, and based on this winter's performances, time appears to be catching up on him.

As always your thoughts are appreciated on a disappointing but unforeseen situation. It is now down to the senior personnel at Derbyshire to come up with the goods with plan B.

I am sure they will.

Postscript: I would have brought the John Wright news to you last night, but am now working compressed shifts at work, which see me working 8am to 8pm on a Monday and Tuesday, then 8 till 6 on a Wednesday.

Long hours, but it gives me the rest of the week off to do family stuff, as well as freeing time for some cricket trips as the summer goes on...

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Derbyshire v Somerset at Buxton, 1968 by John Stone

It is always nice to hear from fellow supporters and lovely this week to get an email from John Stone his memories of a special game at Buxton, in 1968, when Derbyshire played Somerset.

I didn't see this game as Dad would have been working, but it is lovely to read John's recollections.

If anyone else would care to share their memories of the club and a game that was special to them, please get in touch through the usual email address.


One of the joys of following Derbyshire in decades past was the opportunity to watch first-class cricket at the various county outposts. Queens Park in Chesterfield was my favourite (still is) but there was also Ilkeston, Burton, Heanor, Darley Dale (just once) and, of course, Buxton. The famous snow-disrupted game against Lancashire there in 1975 is often talked of but my personal favourite first-class match at Buxton was a few years earlier in August 1968. Pre-dating the John Player League, the three day Championship game against Somerset that year was played over Saturday, Sunday and Monday and produced the most dramatic county match finish I have ever personally witnessed.

Starring for the visitors in the game was the former England fast bowler, Fred Rumsey (who was later to join Derbyshire) along with the 49 years old Australian all rounder, Bill Alley. By then Bill was within a month of his retirement. He later became a distinguished test match umpire. Not noticed by me at the time was another Australian in the Somerset ranks. The 20 year old Greg Chappell had a fairly undistinguished game, but little did I know then that, within a few years, he would be widely recognised as the world’s best batsman.

At the time I was 16 years old. My enjoyment of the summer holidays was being slightly spoiled by a certain trepidation as the date of my O Level results approached. I missed the Saturday play at Buxton as I had just recently established myself in the Darley Dale second eleven playing in what was then the Notts Derby Border League. I was a little taken aback to learn later that evening that, somewhat out of character for a side not particularly renowned for its batting, Derbyshire had clocked up 400 for 4 declared on the opening day (Mike Page 117, Derek Morgan 103 not out, Ian Buxton 85 not out).

Hitching a lift to Buxton with my uncle on the Sunday I watched the highly respected Derbyshire seam attack work its way through the Somerset batting. Brian Jackson (4 for 41) and Harold Rhodes (3 for 26) were a formidable pair at county level and together they were instrumental in reducing the visitors to 179 all out. Following on that evening Somerset made a better fist of things second time round as the Derbyshire attack wilted in the sunshine. The one second innings wicket to fall before stumps involved a fine catch by wicketkeeper Bob Taylor - one of my two boyhood heroes (Kevin Hector was the other). Close of play – Somerset 59 for 1 – still 162 runs in arrears.

Monday morning arrived and I faced a transportation problem. I was at a loose end and keen to witness for myself what seemed to be a certain Derbyshire victory. Unfortunately it was work for everyone else. So I duly set off on the 17-mile journey to Buxton, helmetless of course in those days, on my second-hand bike (bought from a mate for £3) on the A515 – widely recognised now as the second most dangerous road in the country. (What were my parents thinking of at the time!)

Arriving safely at my destination, I was quietly confident as Rhodes – this time assisted by Edwin Smith – got amongst the wickets again. Credit due to Somerset though who fought tooth and nail to make Derbyshire bat again. The last wicket fell shortly before the tea interval leaving Derbyshire 76 to win. Surely a formality one assumed on a wicket which had behaved well throughout the game so far.

Enter Fred Rumsey. Bowling like a train from the pavilion end, belching steam and aggression, Rumsey suddenly discovered life in the previously benign pitch. His run was so long that it started within a whisker of the bottom pavilion step. Rumsey removed both Derbyshire openers for a single run between them and then sent Mike Page off to hospital when a steeply rising delivery hit him plumb on the nose (no helmets of course). John Harvey was Page’s replacement and, perhaps anticipating a repeat of Page’s fate, he was undone by a Rumsey express which did not bounce at all. Instead, it shot along the ground and cannoned into the bottom of his stumps. Suddenly 76 seemed a big score. Derbyshire 39 for 5 with Page seemingly out of action.

Fortunately for the home supporters, Peter Eyre was a little more adhesive than most, but seeing Taylor and Smith both depart cheaply, Eyre was in dire need of a partner. Harold Rhodes (no great batsman) was due to come in next but there were gasps all round the ground when in strode Mike Page – recalled from hospital and unmistakable because of the substantial dressing and plaster taped across his nose.

We all bit our nails as the Derbyshire pair dug in. Eyre briefly relieved the tension when he swept Langford for a huge six over the trees at square leg towards Park Road but was immediately out LBW to the same bowler with Derbyshire still six short. Rhodes did enter the fray now but was content to leave matters to Page who nurdled a single here and there to see the home side home by two wickets.

Page returned to the pavilion, warmly applauded by the small third day crowd who, as the game concluded, had gathered in front of the pavilion. The naturally disappointed Somerset players were also generous with their congratulations. By now Page’s makeshift dressing had loosened and blood was seeping from his wound as he acknowledged the applause. He had scored just 11 not out but, in the context of the game and his injury, Page’s achievement probably rivalled his first innings century.

In all the excitement, I had failed to notice the gathering gloom and I set off for home on my bike half expecting to get a soaking. In the event, it just about stayed fine but within a few minutes of me arriving back exhausted, the heavens finally opened. Another close shave on a day I would never forget.  

John Stone

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Nash resignation should rightly cause concern

The resignation of Andy Nash, the former Somerset chairman, from the ECB Board made the news this week.

Nash cited standards of corporate governance that 'fell well short of acceptable' and his explanation of his departure should send shock waves through supporters of clubs that do not have a Test ground as their headquarters.

The Times revealed that those counties with international grounds who didn't host a Test each year would get half a million pounds as a 'sweetener', something that happened without the approval, or apparently knowledge, of the ECB Board. Mr Nash felt that it was a clear indication to promote eight counties, those with Test grounds, as 'first, among equals'.

And which counties are hosting the proposed new T20? That's right, those with Test grounds.

Two years ago on this blog, I wrote that the decision to back plans for a new T20 competition was wrong. It was a decision backed by Derbyshire and other counties on the promise of patronage for grass roots cricket and  an annual share of a pie that 'promised' to be sumptuous.

I didn't buy it then and don't buy it now. Despite the worthy efforts of then county chairman Chris Grant to convince me in a lengthy interview, I have continued to feel that an eight-team T20 competition was merely an appetiser for an eight-team county championship in which the game is played on grounds of international standard, though likely in front of crowds no greater than today. It struck me as a classic case of turkeys voting for Christmas.

As I have written before on this blog, there is little wrong with county cricket as it is. Yes, we lost the Ashes, but we will win them back in this country and the answer to occasional itinerant travails remains simple. Offer more warm up matches on tour and see players actually prepared for conditions outside of a domestic season. Likewise, schedule county cricket around weekends and you will see more people attend games than when they are on from Monday to Thursday. Call me Sherlock if you will, but it is some way removed from rocket science that a cricket match will attract more supporters when people are off work than when they are busy. Sadly, it is something that years of highly-paid administrators at the ECB and its forerunners have failed to grasp.

I am some way from being content with the integrity of those in the corridors of power to do what is best for the game. Rather, they will continue to feather their nests and do what is right for them and theirs. Thus we see Yorkshire come out of this rather well, with international match allocation and hosting a T20 side, despite debts of £20 million and rising suggesting poor management.

We also see Somerset miss out, despite a letter being sent to them by Colin Graves, the ECB Chairman, suggesting they'd be alright if they backed this new competition, the inference being that they would host one of these new teams.

It didn't happen and was never likely to. Two years ago again, I wrote that the eight Test grounds would host this new competition and it needed no crystal ball or sixth sense to understand that. Whether I attend as much cricket as I would wish today or not, I follow the game avidly, as I have done for over fifty summers, and I know how the game operates.

I am totally supportive of the excellent cricket writer, George Dobell, who at times seems to stand alone against the ECB and their half-baked plans. Of course, the 'suits' have assured them that they can make this new competition work and can attract thousands upon thousands to it, people who have never shown any interest in cricket whatsoever. They are getting paid a lot of money, so are hardly going to say 'sorry, we can't do it'.

I genuinely feel that there should be an independent inquiry into the running of the ECB and what I feel is its maladministration of OUR game. It is not theirs, it is that of everyone who follows and supports a county cricket club and they have a right to see it being better served than at present.

Make sure that your voice is heard and, like me, hope that every trophy is won by a non-Test ground county, just like Essex did last year. If anyone feels that the greater needs of English cricket would be better served without the heritage and talents, past and present, of the likes of Essex, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Northamptonshire, Worcestershire, Sussex, Kent, Leicestershire, Durham and Derbyshire, they should be ashamed.

While accepting there are some decent people in the ECB, you will struggle to convince me that the role of others is anything but Machiavellian...

Mr Nash showed himself to be a man of great integrity.

May his resignation be a catalyst for change in the running of our game.

Postscript - as I posted this piece, I read that there will be no more compensation payments to Test-hosting counties. Likewise, all board members will step down in May, if they have affiliation to counties.

Perhaps, at last, a step in the right direction.

We shall see.

Friday, 9 March 2018

A week closer...

After the days of unbelievable snow that we had up here (around 12-15 inches fell) I drove to work earlier this week in the first Spring sunshine. There is a definite difference in the light and the temperatures are gradually getting warmer  - not that I'd be wearing my sleeveless sweater just yet...

There have been some good signings announced this week. Kent picked up the South African batsman Heino Kuhn and Leicestershire announced the signing of Mohammad Nabi of Afghanistan. Both will be shrewd bits of business and I think Nabi, a player I mentioned on the blog a few weeks back as an excellent T20 'gun for hire', will do a solid job for our neighbours. Meanwhile Ross Taylor has been signed by our Nottingham neighbours for the first half of the season.

It may be that Kuhn isn't the last of a lengthy list of South Africans to sign Kolpak deals, because Morne Morkel, Farhaan Behardien, Stephen Cook, Wayne Parnell and Aaron Phangiso have all missed out on central contracts for this year. Morkel has already announced his retirement from international cricket, but the middle three may all think that Kolpak deals are options for them. Behardien is a player I have always liked, while Cook had a stint at Durham last year with mixed success. Parnell is a player I thought would hit the heights when he emerged as a precocious schoolboy talent, but he has never quite hit the top level with consistency.

As for Derbyshire, we still don't know if John Wright is returning (if he is, it hasn't been announced) and we still have a T20 berth to fill.The players will be moving outside in the near future and gearing up for the first game, against Leeds/Bradford MCCU in just over a month's time.

I have finalised my early season trips and can 'exclusively reveal' that I will be there for the season opener against Middlesex in April, as well as the RLODC games against Durham and Leicestershire in May. I will also be making a trip to The Riverside, for the first couple of days of the Durham game in June, weather permitting and have time set aside for September, just in case we make a decent fist of the four-day game and the 'p' word is a possibility.

None for the T20, I'm afraid, as family holidays in July and August take precedence and I cannot justify a 700-mile round trip for three hours of cricket. If I happen to be down there it is a different matter, of course, and I will view keenly any games on Sky, assuming that they don't just show Lancashire every week...

In between times I will be working on my season preview, as well as announcing details of this year's Fantasy League, which I hope will see plenty of you involved.

Last year saw a record number of participants and I hope that you will all be back for an exciting summer of cricket - and blogging!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

T20 signing complexity

With Derbyshire having already announced the signing of Duanne Olivier and Mitchell Santner for the two halves of the season, Santner being one of our permitted two overseas players for the Vitality Blast, the search is presumably ongoing for the other player.

How difficult is recruitment for counties these days!  Before signing Olivier, we had to wait to see who was picked up for the IPL, while any signing for the second half of the season has to await any expressions of interest and subsequent engagement for the Caribbean Premier League.

The Vitality Blast starts on Friday July 6 at the 3aaa County Ground, with the CPL starting on August 8. Thus, any player picked up for the latter will perforce miss at least the last four group games in this country, which is when it gets down to the nitty gritty, of course.

I had previously suggested that Martin Guptill or Andre Russell would be good options for Derbyshire, with Colin Munro another option. Yet the first two named earned two of the top paying $160K slots in the Caribbean, suggesting that they won't need a stint here to keep them in beer money. Munro went for $40K and just about every player you could think of as a viable option seems to be involved, as you can see here

I've never been a fan of 'revolving door' overseas players, which was seen at its least effective when we signed Dilshan and Amla. Fine players both, legends in their own country, yet adjusting to English wickets proved problematic for them in whistle stop visits to the county.

Maybe there's another South African in mind, but for continuity they may at least consider a return, even to cover those last few games, for Jeevan Mendis.

He has had a good winter, which recently saw a return to national colours for T20 games against Bangladesh, where he did well. We all know his limitations with the bat from last season, but on wickets that will be closer to what he is used to, he can make a difference in the closing overs, as a hard hitting batsman who can clear the ropes. His cameo against Glamorgan was a key factor in our win there last summer, while his unbeaten 44 from just 23 balls carried us over the line against Warwickshire in the RLODC.

As a bowler, a partnership with Mitchell Santner (and Matt Critchley) would give us good control and additional depth to already long batting. Taking 30 wickets in an overseas stint that began in April was a good stint for a leggie, and I would be happy to see him return for a format in which he has done well around the globe.

And certainly in what would appear to be a very limited market. They will pick up someone good, for sure, but I hope this shows that it is some way removed from phoning an agent and quickly doing a deal.

As always, I welcome your thoughts on a potential T20 side that would then be along these lines:


Sunday, 25 February 2018

Olivier and Santner catch eye over weekend

Were further justification needed as to why Derbyshire chose Duanne Olivier and Mitchell Santner for the main overseas berths, it came over the weekend.

Yesterday, playing for South Africa A against Australia, Olivier took four wickets in the second innings, to go with two in the first, as Australia ended up winners of the tour match by five wickets.

I got the impression, from afar, that the tourists attempted to nullify a perceived threat by hitting him out of the attack, his twelve overs going for 74 runs. Yet he got regular wickets, including that of Usman Khawaja for the second time in the match, as well as captain Steve Smith and would appear to be a sound, quite possibly inspired capture by the county.

Fast forward 24 hours and Mitchell Santner produced a fine all-round display to win the game against England for New Zealand when it looked to be slipping away from them.

Earlier he had taken the wickets of Jason Roy and Ben Stokes, but with overs running out, Santner, after a sedate start launched Adil Rashid for successive sixes over mid-wicket, took another from Tom Curran and finished the game with a fourth from Chris Woakes, finishing with an unbeaten 45 from 27 balls.

It was a very impressive effort and one that will further whet the appetite of Derbyshire supporters, ahead of the fast-approaching season.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Olivier signing poses couple of questions

As we all tick off another winter weekend, I am sure that many of you, like me, are looking forward to next week. Because then, after all the rain, cold and wind, all the dark nights and sometimes darker mornings, we can say, probably with smiles on our faces, that the cricket starts 'next month'.

It has been a good couple of weeks for the Derbyshire fan. First the signing of Mitchell Santner, for the T20 and second half of the summer, followed by the announcement of South African seamer Duanne Olivier for the first half, including the Royal London One-Day Cup.

I've a comment on the former if you bear with me, but first, Olivier, who took 2-37 against Australia for South Africa 'A' yesterday.

I have been a little surprised at the press pieces on him from the club, which refer to him as 'fierce, quick' and 'able to take wickets with raw pace'. I have seen such pieces on the web and they refer, I think, to his earlier days when he first came onto the scene, but they give a false impression, for those who haven't seen much of him, of our new bowler.

He doesn't LOOK fast. Like all the best of his kind, he will have a quicker ball, just as he has plenty of other variants, and his bouncer is lively enough to stop a batsman dropping onto the front foot with impunity. Yet those press pieces suggest that we are getting someone of similar pace to Hardus Viljoen, and he is not. I have also spoken to a couple of South African friends, who have both seen him and occasionally played against him, and their assertion is that he is fast medium. And 'a real handful, when he gets his rhythm right'.

My own thoughts, for what it is worth, is that he will be north of Tony Palladino and Ravi Rampaul in pace, while considerably south of Hardus Viljoen and Will Davis. The bottom line is that we have signed a very fine bowler who will enjoy our early season wickets, but don't expect to see him blast sides out in the manner of a Michael Holding. You can expect a bowler who is fit enough to maintain decent speed for long spells, however, which in itself is a pretty fine virtue. If you think Charl Langeveldt, rather than Nantie 'Wayward' Hayward, you won't be too far away.

Which brings me to my second point. Who do I expect to take the new ball, with such a galaxy of talent available?

While there is a school of thought that gives the cherry to the two quickest bowlers, for me we go with Viljoen and Olivier. There will be opportunities for Davis to do so, and I would like to think that like many young bowlers of the past he will benefit from coming on after the bigger names. Just as the young Harold Rhodes did, when first change for Gladwin and Jackson, or Paul Newman and Dominic Cork did when coming on after any combo of Holding, Malcolm, Mortensen and Bishop.

He will also learn, I hope, the importance of really using the new ball. Ones that zip through to the keeper, wide outside off stump, or go well over a batsman's head when pitched short are, to quote Cliff Gladwin 'a bloody waste of a new ball'. I would be surprised if we saw much of that this year, given the quality of the attack.

I also think this signing will benefit Ravi Rampaul, a very skilled bowler who could now slip under the radar. He will be quite happy to bowl first change, but after a winter of rest he will arrive in Derby as not the most high-profile member of the attack. There's the new overseas, the strapping, fast Kolpak, the young tearaway quick...and Rampaul. But discount him at your peril, because he will take wickets and be a key bowler.

There have been points made this week about our batting perhaps being light of one top player, but for me it is simple. Crucially, compared to last year, our attack looks capable of twenty wickets. Again using a 1950s analogy, as long as the batting gets enough runs for the bowlers to go to work, they will have done their job. You can't always make 400, but if you can graft to 250 on bowler-friendly pitches and then support the bowlers in the field, it is job done.

I expect both Wayne Madsen and Billy Godleman to be around the thousand mark this summer, as they usually are. I also see Alex Hughes and Matt Critchley building on their positive strides of 2017, while Luis Reece will do the same. It is a big summer for Ben Slater, who needs to turn more of his four-day knocks from fancy forties to solid centuries, while Gary Wilson needs to confirm he can consistently offer more than game-changing one-day cameos. For me, they fight for the sixth batting place in the championship, unless we go with only three seamers.

A word then about the wicket-keeping role and its importance. Batting at seven, either Daryn Smit or Harvey Hosein need to score more runs than last year, but also nurse a lengthy-looking tail.

I expect Smit to start the summer, at least, and to do much better with the bat than last year. He barely had a pre-season, when he was signed late, and spent the opening weeks recovering from shoulder surgery, but I think we will see him at his best this summer. A winter of work against the Dukes ball will serve him well and we all know how good he is behind the stumps.

Harvey will need to push him hard, score heavily in the seconds and make himself a strong option, even as a batting specialist. If he can combine his illustrated ability to stay in with a greater one of scoring more runs as he does so, his chance will come. Like most of you, I'm less than convinced of many runs from 8 to 11, but they have other fields to conquer and a keeper who can farm the strike and keep the score ticking over will be worth his weight in gold.

Which brings me back to my point on Mitchell Santner, before I close. In the week, Kim Barnett said that New Zealand cricket wanted to see him in the top six of the order and that Billy Godleman was happy to give him that opportunity. Mark Neve asked what people thought of that, so I am happy to reply.

Yes, give him the chance. Sometimes deals are dependent on specific things and if this was a 'breaker' in Santner playing here, then the opportunity should be given. Yet like all opportunities in life, it has to be taken. If he is batting six, it would drop Matt Critchley to seven, with the 'keeper at eight. It offers depth and greater solidity, but Santner will need to show himself as being capable of playing a long innings. That he can bat is undeniable, but he needs to produce the statistics to back up that assertion and turn a mid-twenties average into something north of thirty.

At this stage, all things considered, you can put me down as a 'cautiously optimistic' about the season's prospects.

Just as long as key personnel spend more time on the pitch than Fran Clarkson's physio table, we'll be a threat.