County Cricket 2017 – Ones to Watch, No. 5-1

After weeks of anticipation, this year’s ‘Ones to Watch’ series is complete. Inevitably, all five are young players. However, each of them is at very different stages of their young careers.
5) Tom Abell:
While most cricket fans will be eagerly waiting until Joe Root’s reign gets underway this July, those down at Taunton will be keeping their eye on another new captain. After falling agonizingly short of a first Championship title last year, it was a bold move by Somerset to replace an experienced captain with a 23-year-old.
Somerset have broken the trend by awarding the captaincy to someone so young, as most Counties tend to opt for experience over anything else. The vastly experienced Ian Bell led a talented Warwickshire side last year who narrowly avoided relegation. Somerset have had a good winter in recruiting Steven Davies from Surrey, securing Dean Elgar as an overseas, and retaining the services of the popular Chris Rogers, on this occasion on a coaching basis rather than playing.
Tom Abell will have a lot on his plate this season and Somerset have all the makings of Championship winning side. The ‘nearly men’ of county cricket will not want to pass up another opportunity for silverware as they have done over the last decade, especially with Marcus Trescothick coming to the end of his career. However, a 23-year-old leading his county to their first ever Championship title is just the story Somerset deserve for all their years of hardship.
4) Reece Topley:
Reece Topley is England’s forgotten man. Initially part of England’s white-ball revolution in 2015, he now finds himself back at square one to regain his place in the side. An injury prone fast bowler is a terrible thing and the left-armer will be hoping his long-term injury problems are a one off.
Topley can forget about England and the Champions Trophy for the time being and focus on taking wickets for Hampshire again. After recently signing a new contract, regaining his place for his County will not be as straightforward as he would have hoped. Hampshire have recruited well over the winter and their fast-bowling department is well stocked with Fidel Edwards, Kyle Abbott, and youngster Brad Wheal completing the wily attack.
Nevertheless, Topley will no doubt be part of Hampshire plans for white-ball cricket. Many think that England’s Champions Trophy chances is hampered by a missing link in their bowling attack. Even though it is too late for Topley to be a part of that tournament now, his extra pace and skill could be a viable asset by the time the 2019 World Cup is held.
3) Ben Duckett:
When Ben Duckett is old and grey, he will look back on 2016 with mixed emotions. The English summer where he scored over 2,000 runs and became the first man to pick up both PCA awards in its 47-year history was just about perfect. Duckett continued that momentum into the tour of Bangladesh as he scored two fifties in three ODI innings followed by a maiden Test fifty opening the batting with Alastair Cook.
However, the Northants’ opener showed enough frailties in his first two Test matches to be demoted to number four ahead of the series against India to make way for Haseeb Hameed, a more natural opener in the selectors’ eyes. The move to number did nothing to hide Duckett’s weaknesses as the India spinners, Ravi Ashwin especially, made his approach of standing outside leg stump look foolish.
After losing his place in England’s Test side just two matches into the series against India, the 22-year-old has had time to rest and reflect. No doubt he will have revisited his technique against off-spin and perhaps if Duckett’s first winter tour was anywhere but the sub-continent, he may still be part of England’s Test side given his love for pace on the ball.
Ben Duckett is a far better player than what he showed against India. And despite the odd County turning to their off-spinner on a green top in April when he opens the batting for Northants, he will be better for the experience. He is unlikely to play a part in England’s Champions Trophy campaign but could make a late case against Ireland next month to jump ahead of Jonny Bairstow or Sam Billings if anyone were to become injured. Regardless of the time and place, we certainly haven’t seen the last of Ben Duckett in England colors.
2) Liam Livingstone:
Liam Livingstone is the most talked about County batsman at the moment as a strong 2016 and an impressive winter with the Lions has left him on the brink of an international call-up. This time last year Livingstone was preparing to start his first season in the Lancashire first team as Ashley Giles took a punt on the youngster. The gamble paid off as Livingstone repaid Giles with over 800 Championship runs and consistent contributions in white-ball cricket, including Lancashire’s fastest ever t20 fifty.
Now, Livingstone is looking to follow team-mate Haseeb Hameed into the England set-up. Most likely the 23-year-old’s first cap will be in white-ball cricket. However, his efforts against Sri Lanka A this winter where he scored two First-Class hundreds in the same match has earnt him the right to be considered for selection in the Test arena, also.
It is very easy to get carried away when someone of Livingstone’s talent and swagger emerges. The Lancashire batsman has earned high praise from Andy Flower, stating that Livingstone hits the ball as hard as he has ever seen. But the 23-year-old will need another solid season in Division One before he is seriously considered to be part of England’s set up full-time. Everyone will be expecting big things from Livingstone this season, it will be fascinating to see how he handles the added expectation and pressure.
1)    Mason Crane:
Many young English players who spend their winter playing grade cricket in Australia can only dream of the heights reached by Mason Crane this winter. Whisper it quietly, but England may have a future world-class spinner on their hands. Crane’s winter numbers are pretty impressive. Taking his wickets at an average of just 20 for his grade side – including 8-wicket hauls in two games – earned him a historic selection for New South Wales as he became the side’s first overseas player since Imran Khan – 32 years ago.
Crane must be credited for improving so much during the winter as many would have seen him part of England’s winter tours. Indeed, Crane would not have changed the result in any way. But he and England both would have gained far more long-term benefits from the leg-spinner bowling to the likes of Virat Kohli.
Before Crane can expect an England call-up, he first needs a strong county season. However, as a young leg spinner, more than just his wicket tally needs to be considered. Nevertheless, a strong season could earn Crane a trip back to Australia this winter, this time part of England’s squad for the Ashes. Whether that will still be too soon for the 20-year-old, only time will tell.

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