County cricket: Middlesex and Hampshire set pace in One-Day Cup | Royal London Cup

Ball one: Malan’s good year at Middlesex continues

Middlesex went three for three last week to leap to the top of Group A in the Royal London Cup. The best win of the hat-trick was their last-over thriller against Somerset at Taunton.

After Matt Renshaw and the precocious James Rew had both scored centuries for the home side, Middlesex knew they needed their big guns to fire. When in-form captain Steve Eskinazi joined fellow opener Mark Stoneman back in the hutch during the fourth over, much rested on South African Test batter Pieter Malan, who has contributed throughout the campaign. He made a century and there were twin 70s from Sam Robson and Max Holden, who was out with 26 needed from 25 balls, but with only three wickets in hand.

This is the delight of 50-over cricket – like a novel or box set, the weight of its climax is enhanced by the investment of time taken to reach it. Enter Martin Andersson – a villain in last week’s column, a hero in this one. The all-rounder scored 20 of the runs required, leaving just the winningsingle for the last pair to get. Max Harris obliged and the crowd went home disappointed, but royally entertained.

Ball two: Hill’s bowlers reach new heights

Leicestershire won both of their matches to go level on points with Middlesex, with the two games following a similar pattern. Batting first at Grace Road, the home side set a target (a gettable 270 for Somerset, a tougher 339 for Warwickshire) and then bowled and fielded as a unit to cruise home comfortably.

Cricket has long talked of a batting order but, in one-day cricket with its emphasis on giving a captain options, should we also talk about a bowling order too? In the first win, Beuran Hendricks, Chris Wright, Wiaan Mulder, Roman Walker and Tom Scriven each took a wicket at under a run a ball; in the second win, the same thing happened, except Walker went at eights, Louis Kimber helping him out by sending down a few overs.

None of these players would be considered a gun bowler, but sometimes it’s about the chemistry in an attack – and the captain’s role (in this case Lewis Hill, going through a rough patch of personal form) in keeping the pot bubbling.

Ball three: Albert already a prince of finishers

Three tight wins ensured that Hampshire boast the only 100% record in the country and top Group B. It took an old-school, low-scoring squeaker at home to second-place Lancashire to preserve the egg in the L column.

After Rob Jones had done what he does – dug in and rescued a poor start – Lancashire posted a target of sorts, recovering from seven for three to 183 all out. That looked a lot better than the numbers suggest when Hampshire were 67 for five, but Toby Albert backed up his match-winning 84 not out from No 7 in the previous match against Derbyshire with 65 not out to marshal the lower order to the win with 10 balls in hand.

Racking up 139 undefeated runs, all under pressure without even a six to ease it, is finishing worthy of Michael Bevan – and praise doesn’t come much higher than that.

Ball four: Shutt opens door to selection quandary

Yorkshire are handily placed in third with a game in hand after their win over Glamorgan. For the second match in a row, the White Rose fielded two off-spinners, Dom Bess and Jack Shutt, who are both 25 years old, with Shutt outbowling his England colleague on both occasions. It will be interesting to see if Yorkshire continue with this balance in the attack. Bess offers a lot more with the bat and has the experience a young side with a new skipper in Johnny Tattersall needs, but wickets and economy rates are the currency of the white-ball game. It is not the worst selection headache to have.

Jack Shutt celebrates after taking another wicket for Yorkshire.
Jack Shutt celebrates after taking another wicket for Yorkshire. Photograph: Allan McKenzie/Rex/Shutterstock

Ball five: batter of the week – Che revolutionises batting

“He is the last of a species, driven to extinction by the twin assaults of power-hitting bats and Twenty20 cricket.” I wrote that about VVS Laxman 12 years ago and, you’re right, I still miss him.

Cheteshwar Pujara has little of VVS’s languid beauty at the crease but, like the man from Hyderabad, his game seems ill-suited to India’s Age of Pant: at 34 years of age, he has played 172 white-ball matches; 10 years his junior, Rishabh Pant has played 284. Pujara? One-day cricket? Nah.

But this week alone, he struck seven sixes, making 107 in a losing chase at Edgbaston and 174 setting up what proved to be an insurmountable target at home to Surrey. While the usual Royal London Cup caveats apply – Surrey’s attack was particularly weakened – it’s always good to see an overseas pro adapting his game and giving everything for his county. Like Geoff Boycott’s 146 in the Gillette Cup final of 1965, we might look back at that 174 and wonder if it actually happened – well, it did.

Ball six: bowler of the week – Benkenstein is monstrous

One of the hardest and best paid jobs in world cricket is being the bowler who comes on after the powerplay and takes wickets. Probably the most influential player in England’s white-ball renaissance is Adil Rashid, whose wickets so often prove critical in arresting an innings heading towards 350+.

Luc Benkenstein (son of Dale) is also a leg-spinner and, at 17 (half Rashid’s age) he has been given a chance by Essex with Simon Harmer otherwise engaged. Introduced in the 22nd over with Sam Northeast and Kiran Carlson well set for defending champions Glamorgan, the chase under control, Benkenstein snared both of them in a spell of 5-29 in seven overs – and there was no way back from there.

It was only his third senior match purveying cricket’s hardest skill and many a young spinner undergoes significant trials exploring their physical and psychological limits. But it’s a start for the kid and exactly the kind of exposure that this tournament – which has been neglected by the ECB and much of the media, but embraced by counties, players and fans – is offering. As was once said about a teenage footballer 20 years ago: “Remember the name.”

This article is from The 99.94 Cricket Blog
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