Start delayed due to snow is what the description should have read. As the County Season got off and running on Friday morning, rain turned to snow down at Hove! Meanwhile, hoodies were worn under whites at Trent Bridge, as the good old British weather made a mockery of England’s supposed ‘summer sport’. Any cricketers not seen donning beanies and balaclavas were considered even more bonkers than the weather gods who ordained such weather. Nevertheless, a quick flick through Harry Thompson’s book, Penguins Stopped Play, should reassure those county pros and spectators that the favourite sport of Lily Allen, Daniel Radcliffe, and John Major, can and must always be played, whatever the weather!
When the temperature does eventually return to a level where flicking through the papers to read the rapidly diminishing reports on the county season becomes possible without the threat of frostbitten fingers, here are some names to be looking out for.
After a horribly difficult last 12 months, where Hamilton-Brown lost his best friend Tom Maynard, the former Surrey captain is back at the County Ground in Hove. Hamilton-Brown will be hoping that an environment with more “care and love” than his former city home will enable him to fulfil his undoubted potential.
Sussex fans will remember the conclusion of his previous spell at the club was graced with a magnificent 171 at almost a run a ball against Yorkshire. Despite having played just 6 first class matches for Sussex before that game, Hamilton-Brown was subsequently persuaded to leave the cosy home of Hove, and lead Chris Adams’ glamorous project at the Oval. He had successes along the way; the county’s victory in the Final of the CB40 Trophy in 2011 was vindication for the hard work and talent of an exciting young side. Yet such responsibility was perhaps too great a weight, too early, on the young shoulders of their Millfield-educated skipper.
An attacking batsman, who is capable of bowling some useful off-spin and is a mobile athlete in the field, there is no reason why Hamilton-Brown cannot push for England recognition in the shorter format of the game. He is likely to open the batting in Twenty20 cricket with Chris Nash, and will probably bat at number 4 or 5 in the first class game behind skipper Ed Joyce, Nash, and talented youngster Luke Wells.
His first class average, at a pinch under 35, does not do justice to his ability, and he will be challenged, under the guidance of coaches Mark Robinson and Mark Davis, to tighten up his game. He has, for example, a particular tendency to play one or two too many loose shots early on in his innings. Master that, and happiness could return for him at the Martlets, which has built an excellent reputation for looking after its players, and rebuilding the careers of underachievers. Ed Joyce, James Anyon, and Mushtaq Ahmed are just a few examples of those who have benefited from the family atmosphere, and commitment to hard work and team ethics.
Sussex have notched up 7 trophies in the last decade. The addition of a fit and firing Hamilton-Brown could launch the county to further silverwear, and Hamilton-Brown himself on to international honours.
One batsman looking to profit from the loss Maynard and Surrey’s ex-skipper is youngster Dominic Sibley. Just 17 years old, Sibley has just received his first county contract, and will combine his studies at Whitgift School with his promising cricket career.
As a 15 year old, Sibley become the youngest man in recent memory to score a Surrey Premier League double hundred, notching up 200 of his Ashtead team’s 306 against a Weybridge side whose attack included former England bowler Jimmy Ormond. Sibley followed this up last summer with another double ton for Surrey U17’s against Kent U17’s, and has notched up an astonishing 7 age-group centuries for Surrey’s youth side.
Age group recognition for England was an inevitable reward, and Sibley continued to impress this winter, carrying his bat in England U19’s second test match against South Africa at Boland Park, for his unbeaten 112. He is unlikely to begin the season in a starting spot, but expect to see him push for a run out in the Surrey side once his AS levels are completed later in the summer. The result could start the process of redefining the phrase, ‘playing like a schoolboy’, into something altogether more positive!
Another name to have been burdened with the ‘next Ian Botham/Freddie Flintoff’ tag, Stokes has been brought right back down to earth this winter. Once regarded as the answer to Engand’s lower middle order options, with the added bonus of being able to bowl at real pace, Stokes’ stock has fallen dramatically since he first burst onto the scene by cracking a mesmerising 150 not out in a CB40 game against Warwickshire in 2011. Sent home early from the England Lions’ tour of Australia this winter, with Kent bowler Matt Coles, due to ‘persistent late night drinking’, the Durham allrounder was criticised by ECB Performance Director David Parsons for ignoring “the instructions given to (him) around (his) match preparation and recovery”.
Despite this blip, it has not detracted from Stokes’ undoubted potential to reach the top of the game. He has 6 First-Class centuries for Durham and an average of over 37; as well as having taken 65 wickets at under 30, with an impressive Strike Rate of just 44.1.
At just 21 years old, the Christchurch born youngster clearly still has as much to learn off the pitch as on it. Yet he has the raw ingredients to be of real value to both Durham and England. As his hundred against Durham UCCE on Friday showed, where he came in with his side in trouble at 126/4, he has that much sought after ability to change a game, and rapidly. If he has started this season as he means to go, expect his stock to rise once again, as rapidly as it has fallen.
Azeem Rafiq was once best known around the county circuit as the boy who Yorkshire selected for a Twenty20 group game against Nottinghamshire in 2008, and whose ineligibility, due to the Tykes failure to register the young spinner, resulted in Yorkshire being thrown out of the competition at the Quarter Final stage.
Yet this unfortunate story distracts from the great strides Rafiq has made since, to the extent that his selection is now taken for granted, and was a major player for last season’s Division Two runners up. Last time out, the Pakistani born youngster took 24 championship wickets at 24, in just 10 games, while he added some valuable runs down the order, making 2 half centuries and averaging nearly 30.
Rafiq also became the first cricketer of Asian origin to take up the Yorkshire captaincy role, when he stood in for the injured Andrew Gale in limited-over cricket, and recorded 5 wins from his 6 games in charge in the CB40.
As another of Yorkshire’s spin prodigies Adil Rashid has drifted down the pecking order, Rafiq has stepped up to the mark. He has an impressive level of maturity for his young years, and matched with boundless energy, and a strong element of aggression and resilience, it will be fascinating to see how he kicks on in Division One this season.