Test stars aligned for county duty
Excitement may be at less than fever pitch but this is a remarkable day in the County Championship. This round of matches is to be blessed with more current Test players than you can shake a stick at.
Almost all of those who are centrally contracted and who took part in England's winter tours will be lining up for their counties. In some cases reintroductions to their colleagues may be essential. "Good Lord, you've changed, how long has it been, when's your benefit?" an old club pro may say to one of the returning internationals.
Time was when Test players in county sides were two a penny – which is about what they got paid – but there should be a real sense of anticipation about seeing England's two leading fast bowlers, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, in opposition for Lancashire and Nottinghamshire respectively.
Graeme Swann is also returning for Notts, as is England's opening batsman Alastair Cook, for Essex. With Ian Bell desperately trying to regain form for the early First Division leaders, Warwickshire, who play Durham, and England's Test captain, Andrew Strauss, in a similar need for runs when Middlesex play Worcestershire at Lord's tomorrow, it is a litany of talent of which the Championship sees too little.
If there are reasons for that, which have helped to ensure England's miraculous rise to the top of the world rankings, it is still a poorer competition for their absence.
Broad has not bowled in a match since the first Test against Sri Lanka in Galle in March when he was forced to return home with a calf strain. This has probably worked in England's favour: he would otherwise be plying his trade by now in the Indian Premier League.
That is where Kevin Pietersen has been operating so auspiciously for Delhi Daredevils. Meanwhile, Eoin Morgan is twiddling his thumbs at Kolkata Knight Riders, where he has yet to play in a match this season. They are the only two centrally contracted players not appearing in the Championship this week.
It is a stone cold, and probably raining, certainty, that Broad and Anderson will be looking forward to returning to the fray much more than Cook, Bell and Strauss, or any other batsmen. In an utter transformation of normal convention this much-interrupted season so far has been one for the bowlers.
Of the bonus points available in both divisions 71 have been won for batting and 150 for bowling. In total last season 754 were awarded for bowling, 690 for batting. This is a gross imbalance, although it is hard to feel much sympathy for batsmen who have had it all their own way for the best part of 120 years, except perhaps in damp Mays.
Alan Richardson, the veteran Worcestershire seamer who has duly filled his boots, almost (but not quite) feels sorry for his foes. "I don't think it's ever too easy because it's hard work being a bowler," he said yesterday. "But I like to see a good challenge between bat and ball, and it's just a little bit too much in our favour. But there is pressure because you're expected to deliver. "
It is no coincidence that the yeoman Richardson, 36, has taken 19 wickets in his three Championship matches so far, though it is equally heartening that this is one fewer than Matt Coles of Kent, who is 15 years his junior.
Dougie Brown, assistant coach of Warwickshire, who have been accruing batting points that could prove crucial, pointed out the significance of small margins. "When Warwickshire were in their 1990s prime we used to reckon that a first-innings lead of 80 put you in control of the game. With four-day cricket that has probably become 100 to 120, but in these conditions at the moment 50, even 30 can be vital."
* Ajmal Shahzad's Yorkshire career is over after the England bowler was made available to rival counties yesterday. It is just over a year since the 26-year-old last played for his country.
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