It’s 4:30pm on August 17th and England have just completed a turnaround against all odds on a scale akin to the Miracle of Midway. One noticeable factor of the England celebrations, as James Anderson collects his man of the series award, is the wealth of new faces. After India appeared to have conquered their overseas demons at Lords in the second test, England have recorded three thumping victories to snatch the series 3-1 and relieve pressure on themselves and their beleaguered captain.
The bulk of this successful England side were plying their trade in county cricket last season, and some as early as the start of this summer. Gary Ballance and Moeen Ali have risen to prominence and helped to allay any fears that England’s batting line up lacks the experience and mental toughness to excel in the highest form of the game. While Sam Robson has endured some technical struggles during the recent test series, his 100 against Sri Lanka surely shows that he has the ability to succeed sooner rather than later.
County cricket has also created an apparent free flowing uber-talented batsman-wicketkeeper in Jos Buttler. The way in which Buttler played in his first two test innings, scoring contrasting fifties and allowing himself to play the situation before him, bodes well for this young England Test outfit.
The seam bowling attack has also benefitted from picking players based on their county form, with both Chris Jordan and Liam Plunkett impressing at various points during the summer. When you add in Ben Stokes and Chris Woakes’ selection it is clear to see that county cricket is doing something right in preparing players to be ready for the 5-day game.
Much maligned, County cricket is again proving it’s absolute worth. Often lambasted for being both self-serving and simultaneously pointless, the county game has often had to fight just to prove it deserves to exist. Many believe that the county game is full of greedy chairman and old stoic members who have little or no interest in ‘Team England’. Over the past summer it has been clear to see that County cricket is still able to produce both compelling cricket, beautiful in it’s own right, but also prepare players for tougher international challenges.
During the past few years, players who perform in county cricket are often not selected in England squads; just ask Graeme Onions, James Taylor or Samit Patel. There has often been a prevailing opinion that many in the England set up are untouchable and disengaged from the county game.
However, with the loss of a whole raft of senior players during the winter and this summer, including multiple Ashes winners Graeme Swann, Matt Prior and Jonathan Trott, England have been left with no choice but to look towards the county game to provide the players for their ‘New Era’
Since this forced change of policies the selectors have been rewarded with a plethora of sterling performances across the board. Stokes’ hundred at Perth was a rare bright spot on a torrid Ashes tour, as was the composure shown by Ballance during his debut at Sydney, who impressed immensely despite making scores of just 18 and 7.
Ballance has perhaps been the biggest success to come from the new wave of County graduates. After his eight tests, he is currently averaging in excess of 60 and has made at least a half-century in 6 of his 13 innings thus far. As expected, his technique has undergone levels of scrutiny he would never had endured at county level but despite his large trigger movement Ballance has taken to Test cricket at a speed not seen since Andrew Strauss in 2004.
The selection of Moeen Ali as a number six batsmen and the leading spinner surprised many observers, but not those who follow the county game. Moeen has been supremely successful for Worcestershire over the past few seasons and certainly deserves his chance. His defiant century against Sri Lanka proved that he is capable of reigning in his aggressive nature and despite some struggles against the short ball later in the summer; he has the ability to come good again with the bat. But, it is with the ball in hand that Moeen has surprised so many; he ended the India Test Series with 19 wickets at an average of 23. He has bowled his off-spin with deceptive flight and has benefitted from India’s devil may care attitude when facing him and this has allowed England to pursue their four seam bowler policy.
Much has been made of the gap between the two divisions within County Championship cricket, but Moeen has played predominantly in Division Two and it appears to have done him no harm. Although the divisions appear to represent a gap between the have and have not’s of county cricket, it has raised the standard of the competition. As someone who cannot remember a time when there was only one division, I am a strong advocate of the Two division model, due to the competition it provides and the hand it has in upping the talents within the very best counties; I would not be opposed to a three-tier Championship.
While players such as Ballance and Moeen have endured successful starts to their Test career; Robson has had a more turbulent ride so far. Robson has been subjected to numerous debates on his technique, and his propensity to waft outside off stump early in his innings is a worry, particularly for a Test opening batsmen. Although, you could be forgiven for thinking that Robson is the first batsmen to suffer from this problem with the level of criticism leveled at him. It is worth remembering that the slips are there for a reason – a lot of players edge the ball there! It also worth mentioning that two of England greatest batsmen from the last decade, Kevin Pietersen and Marcus Trescothick, did not possess textbook techniques.
Liam Plunkett is a bowler who was last selected in a test over 6 years ago, but he is perhaps the biggest beneficiary from county cricket in the current line up. His form had dipped severely at Durham as he found himself increasingly a fringe player at his home county; down on pace and confidence. But with a move to Yorkshire, Plunkett has found himself a part of a bowling attack that has mounted a challenge for the Championship for the last two seasons and he has been brilliantly handled by skipper Andrew Gale. The Yorkshire captain has used him in short spells, allowing Plunkett to bowl quickly and with real purpose throughout the day; an idea mimicked by Cook throughout the summer.
This trend towards county performers being the outstanding players for the national side has continued during the embarrassing one-day defeats to India. Realistically only three England players have retained or had their reputation enhanced during the three matches. James Tredwell has been consistently economical while also attacking the batsmen, a skill he has replicated quietly for England for a few years now. Moeen also impressed in his first ODI on home soil, scoring a breezy 50 to light up a damp squib of an England innings. Finally, Alex Hales scored a brace of 40’s in his first two innings to confirm that he can play at this level. These three players have all played vast amounts of county cricket during the last two seasons and it is no coincidence that they have replicated their county form on a grander stage.
The ECB has taken a lot of flack about their set up and management recently due to the Pietersen saga and the Ashes fallout in general – and rightly so – but they have finally shown some faith in the county game in their ‘New Era’ squad selections. Of course many will say they had no choice because of the amount of senior players that are absent but this successful Test side has a lot to thank County cricket for. This summer has been a triumph for the domestic game, as it had proved that it is still capable of producing players ready to excel at the highest level.