A number of established sides have struggled this season in Division 1 of the County Championship. Last season’s champions Middlesex were surprisingly relegated on the final day. Yorkshire, who won the title in 2014 and 2015, only narrowly avoided a similar fate while Warwickshire, perennial stalwarts and champions in 2012 endured a woeful season and finished bottom.
Poor batting was mostly to blame for the travails of these three sides. At Middlesex, former Nick Compton looked a shadow of the player who forced his way into the England side in 2012. Nick Gubbins, averaging 61 during the title winning season, was injured for much of this term while Sam Robson and current England number five incumbent Dawid Malan did not manage to average more than 40. None of the England hopefuls at Yorkshire, Adam Lyth, Alex Lees and Jack Leaning could muster over 600 runs. Meanwhile, Warwickshire’s young batsmen such as Sam Hain struggled, they lost their consistent opener Ian Westwood to retirement and Ian Bell, a once great England batsman, averaged a paltry 25.
Indeed, the general dearth of batting quality pervaded the entire division as nobody, bar perhaps Mark Stoneman who is the latest to be tried as an England opener, provided much reason to believe that they could harden the soft underbelly of the English batting. It is noticeable that only three batsmen passed the traditional milestone of 1000 runs in a season, an accepted barometer of international class consistency. Only two of them were English, Stoneman and his Surrey opening partner Rory Burns.12 Englishmen, by contrast, surpassed the same milestone last season and 11 did so in 2015.
It could be that this season represented a mere seasonal trough standing in singular contrast to the peaks of previous years. That said, concerns regarding the modern batsman resurface at times like this. Some talk of the flimsy technical and defensive technique of modern batsman, his lack of patience and his predilection towards expansive and aggressive stroke play during an age in which short form cricket is becoming increasingly prominent.
In Australia, the current incumbents plucked recently from the county conveyor belt may prove to be exceptions to a general rule that has developed in recent years. Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow represent all too rare recent examples of batsmen who have shown promise at county level and have become world class international batsmen. However, since the formidable England batting line up of 2009 to 2013 disintegrated, over a dozen batsmen have been found deficient.
Stoneman, Malan and Vince may succeed against expectation that has been worn down after so many have fallen short of the required standard. If they do indeed crumble under the Australian barrage, to whom will England turn from the County game? There are patently talented players joining the conveyor belt. Burns at Surrey has scored over 1000 runs for the last four seasons. Liam Livingstone and Haseeb Hameed show promise at Lancashire as does Nick Browne at Essex while others from the second division who are often overlooked might also flourish if given a chance. However, the stock pond of the national side is still rather sparsely populated of consistently excellent and compelling contenders. For their counties and their country’s sake, this needs to change.