County Championship 2014: 5 Talking Points from Round 4 of Fixtures
The fourth round of the 2014 County Championship concluded on Monday, with strong victories for Middlesex, Lancashire, Warwickshire, Somerset and Worcestershire headlining the latest round of matches.
Middlesex's incredible win pushes the county into second place on the Division One points table, just three points behind Sussex who suffered a heavy defeat to Somerset. Meanwhile, Lancashire's triumph elevates them away from the bottom of the Division One placings.
Individually, Chris Rogers (241 not out in the second innings against Yorkshire), Gary Ballance (130 in the second innings against Middlesex), James Anderson (10-wicket match against Northamptonshire) and Saeed Ajmal (eight wickets against Derbyshire) all need to be recognised among the finest performers of the week.
However, on this occasion, our focus lies elsewhere, as we pay particular attention to a collection of players looking to rise into the England Test ranks, the major controversy of the week and a man ready to command the international stage for his country.
Those prominent talking points are presented across the following slides.
James Vince Is in Contention for England Call-Up
England's Test team appears ready for a shake-up following the side's disastrous winter in Australia, and no batsman is pushing harder for a national call-up than Hampshire's James Vince.
After compiling a sparkling 144 against Gloucestershire (which was followed by an unbeaten 58 in the second innings to drive his side to victory), the 23-year-old stamped his claims again in Round 4, racing to 159 from just 185 balls in Hampshire's rain-hit match against Surrey this week.
With 441 runs already this season, Vince currently sits atop the County Championship run-scoring charts and will undoubtedly be among the leading contenders to replace Kevin Pietersen when England's Test team is announced for Sri Lanka's visit in June.
Furthermore, after an impressive campaign in 2013 that saw the right-hander compile 1,101 runs at an average of 61.16, Vince's continued emergence on the county circuit in 2014 means he has the advantage of sustained form—a valuable commodity amid England's current uncertainty at national level.
The Fast-Bowler War Is On
Following Mitchell Johnson's savage assaults on both England and South Africa this winter, it appears certain that Australia's rivals will begin searching for their own lethal weapon in 2014.
In that regard, Steven Finn and Chris Jordan will be at the head of England's list for the third-seamer position alongside James Anderson and Stuart Broad this summer.
Finn appears to have recaptured some of the form that propelled him to prominence a couple of seasons ago, claiming hauls of 4/50 and 4/89 against a Joe Root-led Yorkshire this week.
Those scalps come on the back of 15 wickets across his previous three innings with the ball, providing hope that the tall right-armer could emerge from his comical trip around Australia to add extra bite to England's attack this summer.
Jordan, meanwhile, has carried forward his promising showings in England's recent limited-overs campaigns into the beginning of the county season.
The 25-year-old claimed an impressive 5/76 against Somerset this week in an otherwise miserable match for Sussex, propelling the right-armer to a total of 11 wickets for the season from just two matches.
Both men, of course, will be competing against the more miserly Graham Onions and, to a lesser extent, Tim Bresnan.
But with raw pace being back in vogue thanks to Johnson, the prospect of Finn or Jordan claiming a place in England's line-up appears increasingly likely this summer.
Jos Buttler Is Creeping Closer to Test Selection
During his short career thus far, Jos Buttler has been known exclusively for his exploits in the coloured clothing shown above, rather than the whites of the first-class arena.
Yet, through both favourable circumstances and some promising glimpses, that could be set to change for Buttler.
Against Northamptonshire this week, the talented 'keeper-batsman played a match-defining innings in difficult conditions to push Lancashire from desperate trouble to a resounding victory at the County Ground.
Alongside Tom Smith, Buttler produced a robust 72 to steer his side from a potential second-innings disaster at 130-5 to an eventual total of 284, doing so with a blend of patience and characteristically thumping strokes.
James Anderson then did the rest for the visitors with 5/41 to secure 10 wickets for the match.
While one innings isn't enough to convince England's selectors of his first-class batting ability, Matt Prior's lingering Achilles heel injury and Jonny Bairstow's struggles with the gloves in Australia mean Buttler is edging closer to Test selection, regardless of his inexperience in the game's longer formats.
Additionally, the combative nature of Buttler's play is likely to resonate with England's hierarchy following the meek showings put forward by the team in Australia during the winter.
Nottinghamshire Were Lucky to Escape Points Penalty for Poor Pitch
Warwickshire needed little more than half of the allotted time to overcome Nottinghamshire this week, with the pitch at Trent Bridge coming under intense scrutiny for its volatile nature.
In just over two days of play, 40 wickets fell, with only Ian Bell able to provide meaningful resistance on a surface that provided plenty of assistance for the seamers.
However, Notts escaped a points deduction for an alarmingly poor surface, as an ECB pitch panel chaired by pitch liaison officer Tony Pigott concluded that the prepared surface didn't infringe upon regulations.
According to ESPN Cricinfo, Pigott said:
It was not a case of letting anyone off the hook. There are a range of verdicts we can reach and taking into account all the evidence available and having interviewed everyone concerned we reached the conclusion that the pitch is below average. Therefore there is no points deduction.
Despite Pigott's statement, it's reasonable to conclude that the outcome would have been vastly different if a player from either side had been injured as a result of the dicey pitch, and Notts therefore can consider themselves lucky that only stumps—and not limbs—were the victims at Trent Bridge.
Ian Bell Is Now the Pre-eminent English Batsman
It had often been Jonathan Trott or Kevin Pietersen who had previously held together England's line-up for so long.
Yet, if there was any doubt as to who would lead the charge in England's middle order from this summer onwards, it has been settled by Ian Bell's sumptuous early-season form for Warwickshire.
Playing a lone hand for his side on the questionable Nottinghamshire surface, Bell caressed his way to his second century of the season after his commanding 189 against Sussex, oozing class in a 148-ball exhibition of fluid batting while his teammates struggled around him.
It must be acknowledged that Bell's innings certainly wasn't flawless—he was close to being caught twice before reaching 20 and was lucky to escape an lbw decision when on 78—but his capacity to continually score freely in the early-season conditions offering assistance to the seamers is a cut above all others in the English game.
One has also gained a sense that Bell has clearly recognised the added responsibility set to fall on his shoulders over the coming months. Despite being assured of England selection, the 32-year-old seemingly owns an insatiable appetite for both runs and redemption in the wake of England's humiliation in Australia.
All this evidence suggests that Bell is set to become the pre-eminent figure in England's batting line-up for the summer ahead.