The County Championship came to a thrilling conclusion last week with drama in both divisions. A tight race for promotion in Division Two culminated in Nottinghamshire and champions Worcestershire just edging out Northants. A controversial finish to the season at the bottom end of Division One saw Somerset survive amidst allegations of a raked and unacceptable pitch at ‘Ciderabad’ while Middlesex protest a two-point run-rate penalty that ultimately resulted in their relegation by just the single point. Given this run-rate penalty occurred during the abandoned game at the Oval (where a crossbow bolt was fired on the field) Angus Fraser and Co. believe it should not have stood, but it is unlikely to be overturned and the Londoners will join fellow Test ground heavyweights Warwickshire in the second tier next season.
Of course the undoubted highlight of the season came courtesy of the upstarts of the East, Essex’s Division One triumph coming in their first season back in the top flight. An unbeaten season and collecting five more victories than any other team, Chris Silverwood blended experienced campaigners and promising young talent to create a truly irresistible unit that took the Chelmsford-based side to their first title in 25 years.
Country-wide there were star performers in all facets, be it Kolpak signings paying immediate dividends after winter defections from international cricket, older stars showing class is permanent or young guns making a name for themselves for which England honours surely await. Here is our County Championship Team of the Season:
1. Mark Stoneman, Surrey
1,156 runs, average 60.84, four centuries
Stoneman rightly earned an England call-up after a wonderful run of early season form and he has parlayed a solid if unspectacular start to his Test career into a deserved spot alongside Alastair Cook at the top of his country’s batting lineup for the Ashes.
Of course, Stoneman had been a prolific runscorer for several seasons at Durham but departed in the winter to the Oval alongside Scott Borthwick. It was the latter who was expected to thrive on the flat pitches of London but he somewhat struggled, and it was Stoneman who excelled, collecting a fifth successive 1000 run season. It is worrying it took a move to a Test hosting ground to garner any recognition from the England selectors for the consistent left-hander: a first Lions call earlier in the summer was long overdue. Now Stoneman will set about securing his England place in Australia, and the opener has no glaring weakness for the Aussies to expose. Runs will be expected and Stoneman’s strong recent county form suggests he could provide them.
2. Daryl Mitchell, Worcestershire
1,266 runs, average 55.04, seven centuries
Mitchell responded superbly in his first season after being shorn of captaincy duties, leading Worcestershire’s batting lineup as they claimed the Division Two title. Mitchell’s experience will be invaluable in their Division One quest next year as he continues to shepherd the likes of Joe Clarke and Brett D’Oliveira.
The right-hander is the type of player who cashes in when set. Seven centuries and three fifties are atypical statistics but show the way Mitchell plays, never throwing his wicket away when opportunity to compile a ton abounds. Strong both sides of the wicket and in defence or attack, Mitchell’s England prospects are probably limited by his age (33) but he is the ideal county opener. Worcestershire have built their team well but now face a survival battle in Division One: Mitchell will hope to continue his consistent run-making efforts to help them do so.
3. Luke Wells, Sussex
1,292 runs, average 64.60, four centuries
Few would suggest Wells as an England contender but the tall left-hander finished as the leading run-scorer among English players across the County Championship. Wells has been a bastion at three for a number of years for Sussex, possessing terrific temperament and patience outside off stump.
A severe knee injury meant Wells missed the opening salvos of the 2017 season but he returned with a blockbuster 258 against Durham, showing winter white-ball development in accelerating to the highest score of the summer across all English cricket. Sussex’s opening issues were rectified somewhat by moving Wells to the top of the order for the second half of the season and he responded superbly, often the sole survivor of the all-too-common batting collapses that ultimately plunged the south-coasters to a disappointing fourth place. Wells is a key leader in the Sussex dressing room and took on the responsibility of captaining the side in Ben Brown’s absence at the tail-end of a tumultuous season where Luke Wright and Chris Nash also took on the role in Championship cricket. At 26, Wells is coming into his prime and if he continues in this vein an England nod may not be too distant, particularly given their persistent top-order troubles.
4. Kumar Sangakkara, Surrey
1,491 runs, average 106.50, eight centuries
Simply put, Sangakkara was the best batsman in county cricket this year. The veteran Sri Lankan showed how special a cricketer he has been with a record-setting final season. He makes the team as the sole overseas player permitted.
Displaying his full array of shots in a number of virtuoso innings’, Sangakkara was outstanding throughout for a Surrey team who would have been disappointed to draw so many games. On an admittedly favourable Oval track, Sangakkara scored a ton every other innings and a further two fifties. In a season where he missed time with injury and CPL commitments, a truly extraordinary campaign showed just how big a loss the great man is. Kumar Sangakkara will be sorely missed.
5. Gary Ballance, Yorkshire
951 runs, average 67.93, three centuries
An odd season for the South African-born Yorkshire captain. Ballance compiled the sixth most runs in Division One despite missing portions of the year due to England duty and injury. A red-hot start to the season earned another England recall where once again Ballance’s technical faults were exposed and an injury lead to his departure from the team. That was expected to be that with regards to his international career particularly when his return to Yorkshire did not bring consistent runs, but Ballance has somehow found his way onto the plane to Australia alongside his best mate, England Captain Joe Root (make of that what you will.)
Ballance should be recognised for his early-season efforts and there is no doubt he is a good county cricketer: I, unfortunately, anticipate another Test failure Down Under this winter, which will hopefully condemn Ballance to this level.
6. Alex Davies (wk), Lancashire
916 runs, average 39.82, three centuries, 48 dismissals
Davies has opened for most of the year at Lancashire but I fit him in the lower middle order as my keeper for the team of the season. His average may be relatively modest but as an opener he has been excellent, outscoring the oft-discussed Haseeb Hameed by a considerable margin.
Davies has been rock solid as a keeper, finishing with the third most dismissals in Division One and forcing Kolpak Dane Vilas and Jos Buttler to be content with roles as specialist batsmen or (in the latter’s case particularly) out of the team entirely. Davies, 23, should go with the Lions to Australia as the primary keeper and whether he bats at the top or lower down, the talented gloveman should impress. Lancashire’s signing of Keaton Jennings leaves an extremely exciting young top order for 2018 of Hameed, Davies, Jennings and Liam Livingstone; all should push for international honours.
7. Darren Stevens, Kent
707 runs, average 41.59, one century; 62 wickets, average 18.08
Stevens is getting better with age and enjoyed a career year in an up-and-down Kent side. His dibbly-dobblers have befuddled many a batsman in his time at Canterbury but this was a wicket-taking season that even he could not have anticipated at 41 years-old.
Stevens’ big hitting ability has been better exemplified in limited-overs cricket recently but this was a good year in the red-ball game, averaging above 40 and scoring at a strike rate of close to 80, often transforming the game’s situation with quick runs. In a season where the next leading wicket-taker finished with roughly half of his wickets, Stevens has taken on responsibility in a faltering Kent bowling attack which handicapped any real promotion hopes. On this form, any suggestions of retirement are badly misplaced
8. Jofra Archer, Sussex
61 wickets, average 25.30; 638 runs, average 45.57
There may not be a better all-round cricketer not playing international cricket than Jofra Archer. The Bajan’s second Sussex season was outstanding, achieving the 60 wicket, 600 run double at just 22.
An outstanding fielder to boot, Archer has lead the Sussex attack in Steve Magoffin’s absence through injury in impressive fashion. Off an easy run-up, Archer generates pace and bounce with many a batsman falling foul of an ill-advised leave to his hooping inswinger during his long spells up the slope at Hove. His batting is developing: he hit more sixes than any other player in Championship Cricket but he is not just a slogger, with gorgeous drives down the ground and through the offside. He wants to evolve into a number six in the red-ball game and even higher in white-ball cricket but has batted most often at nine or 10 this year, so to collect the runs he has is a real achievement. His international desires lie with England rather than his native Windies; Archer has five years until he is even eligible but the fact he is already being discussed is tribute to just how special a cricketer this young man could be.
9. Joe Leach (c), Worcestershire
69 wickets, average 19.39; 347 runs, average 20.41
Leach captains this side after leading Worcestershire superbly to the Division Two title in his first season as captain. The inspirational all-rounder led the division in wickets for the second consecutive season, showing his ability as one of the best red-ball bowlers in the country should not be doubted.
His captaincy has been outstanding. Using the young talent Worcestershire possess well, the likes of all-rounder Ed Barnard and quick bowler Josh Tongue have particularly enjoyed breakout seasons with 47 wickets apiece. Leach uses himself better than most bowling captains who either over or under bowl themselves, enabling Tongue and Barnard to establish themselves in their roles while he leads the attack as an opening bowler. He has also managed the three overseas signings superbly, with Nathan Lyon, John Hastings and Ravichandran Ashwin all providing impact in their short tenures with the team, testament to an intelligent and effective captain. One of the more underrated cricketers in the country, Leach has proved Worcestershire’s coaches right after anointing him captain at the end of last season, avoiding any conflict with previous captain Daryl Mitchell. A top-class performer.
10. Simon Harmer, Essex
72 wickets, average 19.19
The South African offspinner opted for a winter Kolpak move after Keshav Maharaj’s emergence meant international prospects were severely limited. Rather unheralded at the time, Harmer’s signing was the best business of the winter as he evolved into the most dangerous spinner in the country in his debut season of County Cricket.
Harmer’s back-to-back 14 wicket match hauls against Warwickshire and Middlesex showed how difficult a spinner he is to play on deteriorating tracks, with nine for 95 and eight for 36 two outstanding fourth-innings performances. Good line and lengths are crucial for effectiveness as an off-spinner and Harmer displayed that while he also added vital lower order runs, and Essex rightly rewarded him with a longer contract during the season. With 21 more wickets than any other spinner, Harmer’s shrewd signing is a big reason why Essex triumphed in Division One.
11. Jamie Porter, Essex
75 wickets, average 16.83
Porter conjures images of Glenn McGrath with his right-arm medium-fast seamers and has wreaked havoc in Division One, finishing as the leading wicket-taker.
Leading the Essex pace attack, Porter is consistent and produces terrific movement off the seam. Accuracy is perhaps his strongest trait: though modest in pace, Porter ties down the batsman and forces them to chase slightly wider deliveries, inevitably nicking off to James Foster and the rest of the Essex slip cordon. Unlucky, perhaps, that England are well stocked with fast bowlers and the lack of real pace or bounce likely confines Porter to the Lions tour. However, a shoo-in for Young Player of the Season and running Sangakkara close for Player of the Year, Jamie Porter was exceptional in Essex’s title-winning campaign.
Rory Burns, Nick Browne, Joe Denly, Dan Lawrence, Paul Collingwood, Samit Patel, Ryan Ten Doeschate (c), Ben Foakes (wk), Kyle Abbott, Craig Overton, Jack Leach.