Sunday, 26 March 2017

The return of Fantasy Cricket

In answer to several emails, yes I am going to be running Fantasy Cricket again this year.

Yes, I will almost certainly start with a flourish and then peter out around June as I forget that I have substitutes and don't swap out of form players, but it is a service I am happy to provide for all of you who follow the blog - near and far.

The link is on the left hand side of the blog, cunningly titled 'Fantasy Cricket' and you can log in from there.

The PIN is 8031395 and the league name is 'Peakfan Blog Trophy 2017'

Last year David Aust won, after a strong challenge from several others. Come to think of it, he won the year before, too.

Surely it can't be a hat trick?

You have just under two weeks to hone your team and for what it is worth, here's my tip for success...

Don't pick Imran Tahir.

Yet...

Friday, 24 March 2017

A week to go!

It's nearly here, folks.

Just over a week until Derbyshire play their first pre-season friendly (weather permitting) and we have made it through another long, dark, wet but exciting winter.

I can't recall one that had more to offer than that just past and the standard of recruitment has been extremely high. It needed to be, because we were out of our depth at times last year, as much through inexperience as anything. We have some very talented young players at the club and what they needed more than anything was some senior professionals of good standing to work and play alongside.

Derbyshire's cricket board and specifically Kim Barnett has delivered in spades.

Earlier this week we read that Billy Godleman is learning a lot from Kim Barnett and I can understand that. There is much to learn from a man who, for all the issues at the club in that era, was an outstanding cricketer and captain. Tapping into his knowledge and gaining the benefit of his experience will be priceless to a man who is still learning the ropes in that area. Likewise, as an opening batsman he could have few better mentors, were one needed.

Much as Barnett learned from Phil Russell, Guy Willatt and senior professionals like John Hampshire and David Steele, so Billy can learn from Kim and two men with senior captaincy experience in Gary Wilson and Daryn Smit. With Wayne Madsen also in the ranks, there is now a solid core to the Derbyshire team where there was once a soft underbelly.

I don't think for a minute that we will be unbeatable this summer, but I don't expect us to fold easily either. Teams that beat Derbyshire should and will know they have been in a game.

Speaking of Daryn Smit, as we were, he tweeted his farewell to Durban earlier today, ahead of his flight to England and the splendour of God's Own County. It must have been an emotional departure but I am sure that he and his wife will get the warmest of welcomes at their new home.

Derbyshire has long since been regarded as a happy and welcoming club and I have no doubts that both will soon settle in to the area, the club and a new circle of friends.

Doubtless they will soon be joined by Jeevan Mendis and his family as the final components of the squad gather for pre-season practice and matches.

I don't recall being this excited ahead of a season for some years. Every April brings the promise of something new, something hopefully better, but this year genuinely does offer supporters grounds for optimism. Quite frankly, after the winter work that has been put in, the plans that are in place and the people who have come into roles on and off the pitch, anything less than major improvement is unacceptable.

There are good players at our club and for me we have a very good blend of talented youth and reliable seniors. For all that it is nice to see a side made up of primarily local players take the field, it is less so to watch them get hammered into the ground. Nor does it do them any favours.

Another week and it is time to let them loose.

On that thought, enjoy your weekend.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The question mark in team selection

Over the course of the winter, I have been asked many times for my thoughts on team selection for the coming summer. Whether T20, fifty overs or four-day cricket, I have given my eleven, quite happily, when asked.

However, it s nowhere near that straight forward.

It is all very well basing a notional team on reputation and first-class average, but if that is all it went by, young players would never break into a first-class side. Rather it is based on form, attitude, state of mind and potential.

As David commented below my last piece, he and I were only one player apart in our notional one-day side (great minds, and all that...) but neither of us, no more than anyone else outside the club, know how the winter has gone for a fine array of young talent.

One assumes that a hard winter in the gym and nets has seen younger players develop their games, both mentally and technically. Just a couple of weeks ago I watched a video of Charlie Mcdonnell batting in the nets with a stump and looking pretty impressive. Truth be told, I would envy such timing with a willow in my hands, let alone something considerably smaller.

No one yet has mentioned him in notional first choice sides, yet his potential is considerable. It may be that he has developed better than others over the winter and in the eyes of those that matter has leapfrogged a few more senior rivals for a place in the batting line-up. The same goes for Greg Cork, for who this summer is so important.

Greg is a very useful left-arm seamer who swings it at reasonable pace and is also a batsman with an excellent technique. Perhaps this summer is last chance saloon at this level, because Luis Reece, a player of similar skills, has come across from Lancashire with good reputation. Yet that may be the catalyst for Greg to burst forth and prosper. We just don't know, but can only hope.

Then there's Ben Cotton and Tom Taylor. The emergence of Will Davis, last season's form for Tom Milnes and the signing of Hardus Viljoen would appear to have pushed them further down the pecking order. Yet it may not be so.

Taylor suffered a stress fracture of the back last summer and has doubtless amended his action as a result. That may be to his detriment, or he may emerge as an even better prospect than the one who did well two summers back. A frustrating tendency to bowl a bad ball an over needs work, as does his showing obvious frustration when things are going badly. Yet these are things he may have worked on, along with a trudge back to his bowling mark that at times has cost us in over rate. That he is a talent is undeniable and this may be his breakthrough year.

The same goes for Cotton, a genial giant who has so far shown an excellent ability in bowling the lines and lengths to keep batsmen quiet, yet less so in getting them out when they don't have to play the forcing shots. Again, maybe this is something he has improved and he looks impressive and a handful in the net footage we have been shown. I hope that he doesn't become a casualty of the signing of Matt Henry, because Cotts is a very good T20 bowler in his own right.

Then there's Alex Hughes.

Unless John Wright comes over from India and has Martin Guptill in his suitcase, I see Alex as the T20 captain. He did well on limited opportunity last summer and, as an intelligent lad who thinks about his game, he sets good fields and doesn't fall into the trap of changing bowlers to a formula.

He did a good job batting three last summer, but will, I think, need to use T20 and the RLODC to break into the first choice four-day side. He is another of sound technique, a good range of shots and the ability to add crucial runs in the closing overs of a one-day game. He is like a greyhound between the wickets, is a fine fielder in the key positions and can bowl a tight spell and get good players out. He also remains the only player I have seen bowl an over with cotton wool stuffed up his nose after a nose bleed...

I like Alex and he is a busy cricketer, my kind of player. Like all the others, he may not appear in many notional first choice elevens on paper, but discount him - and them - at your peril.

If they have the right attitude, work at their game and take the opportunities when they come, they will force a way into the side. Players pick up injuries, lose form or need a rest and the challenge for all is to step in and make themselves impossible to drop.

That's why I think Tom Wood has a lot to offer and why I 'banged the drum' about him last summer. Here is a lad who went away to Australia to work on his game, scored a load of runs and put himself in the shop window with the Unicorns on his return.

He scored runs again, was given a second team chance at Derbyshire and was top scorer for them last summer. While his forte appears to be the shorter forms, a double century and century in a handful of longer-form innings confirmed his versatility.

What critics of our winter signings miss is the value of the likes of Hardus Viljoen, Daryn Smit and Imran Tahir to these young players. If they can help them add another ten per cent to their game with advice on technique and mindset, their long-term value to the club will be far in excess of their feats on the cricket field.

And of course, if these players are scoring heavily and taking wickets in the second team but still not forcing a way through, they will need to be patient. The only way that will happen is if we are doing well, something we all hope for.

Time will tell.

Friday, 17 March 2017

T20 side has good possibilities

There have been a few requests for my T20 team in recent days and I have to admit that I find this harder than the four-day equivalent.

I had mentally pencilled in an overseas batsman at the top of the order and so have had to revise my plans in that area. Paul asked me last night whether I was disappointed with the signing of Matt Henry and the answer is no. You can't be disappointed with the signing of a highly-rated fast bowler of international standard. Surprised, perhaps, but I fully understand the rationale and am hardly going to set my T20 credentials against those of John Wright...

For what it is worth, here is my suggestion for a T20 eleven.

Reece
Wood
Thakor
Smit
Madsen
Wilson
Hughes (captain)
Critchley
Henry
Viljoen
Tahir

I'd love to find a place for Ben Cotton and Tom Milnes, while I think that Ben Slater has something to offer in the format too. The debate over the respective merits of Gary Wilson and Harvey Hosein will rumble on for a long time, but I think this team has potential.

There is no obvious six-hitter at the top, no Wes 'n' Ches of years gone by, but we must remember that they weren't built for speed and what they gained in slapping to the fence they sometimes missed out on between the wickets. Remember too that you can score ten an over without clearing the boundary.

Luis Reece is a really clean striker of a ball and a left-right combo at the top would do no harm. At the talks I did in Lancashire over the winter, a good few people told me that they were astonished to see Reece released and that they rated him highly. He is the only left-hander in the side, strange after last year when we had Chesney, Rutherford and Neesham, enabling us to have that combination through the middle order.

Meanwhile Tom Wood is a naturally fast scorer who could prove a surprise package as a relative unknown at this level. Don't overlook his excellent batting last summer and some breathtaking knocks for the Unicorns, as well as our second team. Anyone who can score, for example, 67 from 35 balls against a Nottinghamshire attack of  Ball, Christian, Mullaney, Carter, Wood and Gurney has plenty to offer. Tom can bat and, just as David Warner did, could find a way into four-day cricket through success in the shorter formats.

Shiv Thakor scores quickly anyway, Gary Wilson offers quick running and boundary clearing ability, while Wayne Madsen's role could be fluid, he and Smit ensuring that someone gets through to the end. The latter has a reputation as a finisher back home, but could equally open or slot in anywhere down the order. I'll confess to being a fan of your best batsman being in early and on that basis there is also a case for Wayne going in at three.

Alex Hughes is a steady seven and can score quick at the death, while Critchley, Henry and Viljoen are all capable of clearing the fence in the closing overs, which would make all the difference. We bat long and don't discount their talents.

Bowling?

Count 'em. There's nine bowlers there, including two quicks, three leggies and a left-armer.An attack for all surfaces and I can't think there will be many turning tracks away from home against a side with that most dangerous of short format bowlers. We could easily bowl two fast bowlers and three leg-spinners, which would open a few eyes!

As I say, it is tough to select a side and a batting order. Actually it is impossible, without knowing who is in form at the time and there are plenty of options outside that eleven who may impress John when he arrives in this country.

I'm sure you all have your ideas too, so let me see them.

What is sure is that we have a squad that can challenge. No rash promises, but wouldn't it be great to emerge from the group stages for the first time in many years?

With a canny coach in John Wright and plenty of mobility in the field, there is every possibility we can do so.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Matt Henry signs as T20 specialist

The name of Matt Henry may not have been high on most people's list, when thoughts turned to our T20 specialist for this year. Most were, to be fair, thinking of a top order 'biffer', or perhaps someone, moving into fantasy land, like Mitchell Starc or Trent Boult.

Yet Henry is one of those 'under the radar' cricketers, a player not yet established as a member of the New Zealand side but who has proved a popular overseas signing in the IPL, playing for Chennai and being signed up by Kings XI Punjab for this year's competition.

At 25 he is still some way from his peak, but bowls in the steady top 80s in the speed stakes and is both a handy batsman (with an impressive strike rate of 166) and an excellent fielder. His career has been interrupted by injury and he has suffered the perennial problem of the young fast bowler in a stress fracture to the back.

Jimmy Neesham had the same issue, but recovered well to perform creditably for us last summer and it is hoped that Henry does the same. Last year he played for Worcestershire, where he did OK without pulling up any trees. He will, I am sure, have learned from that spell, as he will from his forthcoming IPL stint.

Crucially John Wright, the man tasked with dragging our T20 skills up by the bootlaces, rates him highly and it would appear that part of our strategy this year is to have two fast bowlers and two leggies bowling, as Matt Critchley will surely play in a tournament where he enjoyed success last year. Shiv Thakor is another fine bowler in the format and we will, I think, also see Ben Cotton and Alex Hughes in the line-up for T20, both with proven records in the format.

I can't fault the logic of the signing and if our international trio can take down a top order, sides rarely recover from 15-3 to win games. There may be a question mark over our batting, but I can see potential in a line-up that I will offer for comment another day. Certainly, the presence of a top order hitter is no guarantee of success. Even Martin Guptill fails on occasion and the engagement of Loots Bosman was only a qualified success; that of Tillakaratne Dilshan a dismal failure.

Henry has been in good form of late, taking plenty of wickets in domestic cricket, swinging the ball and bowling fast and full. While his path to the national side is blocked by the talented Trent Boult and Tim Southee, a good spell in the IPL, followed by a solid county stint, will keep him at the forefront of the selectors' minds.

A solid signing then and perhaps a player who might just catch opponents by surprise - as well as impressing both New Zealand selectors and Derbyshire supporters.

 We'll see what he can do in due course. Have a look at this taster below, showing his domestic wickets from a couple of winters back.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The Ramsbottom view of Daryn Smit

Derbyshire are getting 'one of the world's nice guys and an outstanding cricketer' in Daryn Smit (pictured, taking slip catch) according to Ramsbottom Cricket Club's Director of Cricket, Andy Dalby.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Andy earlier today and he was effusive in his praise for Daryn, who has joined the club on a two-year contract.

'Daryn and his wife Sarah have become close personal friends', he said 'and the loss to our club and to the community is massive. They both threw themselves into the club and, while we all wish them well, they will be sorely missed'.

So what is Daryn like?

'A genuine guy who has time for everyone - senior players, kids, parents, the lot - with none of the edges that you sometimes get from a highly-talented sportsman. It wasn't just his performances that made a difference, astonishing as they have been, but the way in which he almost single-handed brought together the club and everyone in it. He is a very special man.'

It sounds like we have picked up Wayne Madsen mark 2 and Andy was quick to draw parallels between the two.

'Daryn and Wayne are good friends and in fact we were set to offer Wayne professional terms a few years ago. Then he was offered a deal by Derbyshire and the rest is history. He had got a lot of runs in the Central Lancashire League and was very much like Daryn in his approach to the game and in his interaction with those around him.'

It is quite clear that there is a sizeable hole to be filled by the club, but Andy, like many others on Twitter today, was only surprised that the offer took so long.

'We were amazed that no one came in for him before', he said, 'as the stats he has returned here have been phenomenal. Every other club looked at the upcoming game against Ramsbottom and knew they were in for a tough match. When he scored 200 last year for the Derbyshire second team we were resigned to losing him, but then the months went by and we were hoping to have another season from him.'

So what can Derbyshire supporters expect from the new signing? Andy's response is quick.

'He is a very good bowler, turns it and is very accurate. He bowled in the Champions League T20, has got his share of first-class wickets and was a real handful for most league batsmen. But he's an even better wicket-keeper, probably as good as I have seen, and doesn't miss anything. Mind you, his batting is better still! He is just a run machine and goes in every game with the same mindset. You very rarely see him give it away and he is an exemplary professional. If you want someone to dig in, he will do that. If you need quick runs, he is a tremendous finisher of an innings'.

Are there any particular memories you have of him on the field?

'There are probably too many to put down on paper. However, perhaps my fondest memory was a game against Lowerhouse in 2015.

He won us that game single-handed, when we had no right to do so. At something like 50-5 we dug in and batted around Daz, knocking off a  competitive 190-odd on a bowler friendly surface. Daz carried his bat for 90 odd not out! 
 
They had a bowling pro, so it was a real battle and a great spectacle!'

How does he rank among the club's greats of the past? Again, Andy's response was unequivocal.

'When you look back at the greats who have played here, comparisons are difficult. We have had Michael Clarke, Ian Chappell, Seymour Nurse, Clive Rice, Peter Philpott, Brad Hodge - some of the legends of the game. Yet the figures that Daryn has produced dwarf them all.

If you were to try and encapsulate everything you hoped for in a professional cricketer into one player, then you have it in Daryn Smit. He has the talent, the attitude, the personality and the sheer professionalism that you would want. I don't expect to see anyone better. As good, maybe - but it would be hard to beat his contribution to our club'.

So how do you replace him?

'Well, we've got an offer on the table for someone and again, the measure of the man is that Daryn has helped in that regard too. He was concerned at leaving us at short notice, but he goes with our blessing and best wishes.

We all intend to come to see him when we can through the season, so it might just put a few more on the gate at Derbyshire games!'

I look forward to meeting up with Andy and the Ramsbottom boys in the months ahead and I will continue to look out for their results - just as they will have one eye on the Acre Bottom scoreboard and another on wherever Derbyshire are playing this summer.

Derbyshire worth a flutter?

Whisper it quietly, but I reckon that if we get the rub of the green this summer, Derbyshire could well be in the promotion mix.

Last season, to put not too fine a point on it, we struggled. The batting was in and out, the bowling lacking a pace and spin option. Winter recruitment has addressed all of those issues and I now look at the squad and ponder on who to leave out.

I could easily change the team each time I undertake the exercise, but how's this for a notional first choice four-day side at the start of the season? Alongside it is the one that took the field for last year's season opener at Bristol.

Godleman       Hughes (C)
Slater              Slater
Thakor            Rutherford
Madsen           Madsen
Smit                Broom
Mendis           Durston
Wilson           Thakor
Reece             Poynton
Palladino        Fletcher
Viljoen           Cotton 
Davis             Carter

For me, that's a considerably stronger side and there's a lot of very good players outside of it. Opportunities for the likes of Hosein, Hughes, Wood, Mcdonnell, Cotton, Taylor and Critchley, in particular, will come. Yet the side above has a strong mixture of experienced professionals and talented youth.

There is length in the batting and tremendous options for Billy Godleman in the field. We have two genuine fast bowlers, two right arm seamers and a left arm option, two leg-spinners and a part-time off spinner. Hey, there's even a back-up wicket-keeper...

Yes, it would be good to see more of the youngsters in the side, but they need to earn a place on merit and performances in the seconds. I am sure they will know that opportunities are there if they justify a place, while those in the side will be equally aware that their place is dependent on sustained standards. With the players now given the lead on selection and tactics, there are no more excuses and no coach to blame if it goes wrong.

The balance of the side will change a little with the arrival of Imran Tahir, nowhere close to Jeevan Mendis as a batsman and fielder, but teams will know that they have been in a scrap against this Derbyshire side.

With that all-important luck in its many forms, we should challenge and at the very least be much-improved.

The return of Kim Barnett to the fold may turn out to be  a defining moment for our club and he can be proud of his winter's work.

It's up to the players now.

Smit deal an inspired signing

Last September, in a post entitled 'Smit double century as Seconds draw' I suggested that South African Daryn Smit would be a worthy addition to the Derbyshire staff, after three innings in which he scored 269 runs for once out.

Today we learned that he has signed a two-year deal with the county, one that could be both shrewd and very important to our prospects for the season ahead.

Smit may not have played international cricket, but his increasingly impressive statistics back home suggest a man who could easily have done so. A lack of a regular place early in his career hindered his development, but in recent winters in South Africa's top tier he has averaged between forty and fifty-plus, the hallmark of a very good player.

Then there are his extraordinary statistics for Ramsbottom in the Lancashire League, where he has been professional for three seasons:

2016 - batting average 86 and 69 wickets at 8.1
2015 - batting average 98 and 65 wickets at 7.75
2014 - batting average 61 and 88 wickets at 7.2

Cynics will say 'that's only league cricket' and no, I don't expect Smit to replicate such statistics in the county game. I do, however, see him as a very important cog in a batting line-up that misfired too often last year.

I have played with and against some very good professionals over the years, some of who struggled with the weight of responsibility, the sense of expectation and the need to be a leader and mentor every time they went on the pitch. Everyone on the opposition ups their game when the pro comes in, while his own team look to the paid man to win them matches. Smit has done that many times and to be hailed as a club's 'greatest-ever professional', when many great names have trod that sward before, is some accolade.

His ability to bat anywhere from three to six in the order will be important, but we have also recruited a man with a successful record as captain and a reputation for taking his responsibilities seriously. The articles in South African newspapers since his retirement from the game there was announced all refer to his being missed as both a leader and a man, no mean testimonial for anyone.

With two excellent wicket-keepers on the staff, Smit may not be seen too often behind the stumps, but he is a more than handy option should they need to switch things around. Were Gary Wilson away with Ireland and Harvey Hosein injured or out of touch, there's a plan C available, one that would enable the fielding of an extra batsman or bowler and avoid a panicked search around other counties. Given that several good judges had him as a strong contender to replace Mark Boucher as South African keeper, he is unlikely to let us down, if required.

Likewise, with two leg-spinners on the staff we may not see him turn his arm over too regularly, but he is a very handy option, if only to offer a little variation if things aren't going our way. With over a hundred first-class wickets, he is some way from an occasional bowler and has won first-class matches with inspired last-day spells.

What we have, most definitely, is a man who gets his head down, works hard and will sell his wicket dearly, unless in the pursuit of a win, when his selfless reputation precedes him. His experience on northern English wickets will stand him in good stead and he will be well aware of how those wickets change as the summer goes on. They will doubtless enjoy him on Radio Derby too, as his occasional commentary work back home has gained plenty of admirers for an articulate man who has earned the nickname 'Speech'.

Derbyshire has had wonderful service from South Africans over the years. Eddie Barlow, Peter Kirsten, Adrian Kuiper, Daryll Cullinan, Charl Langeveldt  - each left a major impression on the local cricketing landscape. That's not including Wayne Madsen, another who swapped Durban for Derbyshire and has gone on to be one of our greatest cricketing sons. Come to think of it, Wayne was 'plucked' from the Lancashire League too, so there's a pretty decent precedent in the acquisition of Daryn Smit.

There'll be a lot of South African accents in Derbyshire colours this year. Wayne Madsen, Daryn Smit, Hardus Viljoen, Imran Tahir; that's a solid and impressive core to any side and each will be keen to impress and make the major contribution. Don't bet against the new guy being very firmly in the mix.

Welcome to Derbyshire, Daryn.

Let the good times roll...

Derbyshire sign Daryn Smit!

As regular readers will know, today's news that we have engaged South African Daryn Smit on a two-year deal very much meets with my approval.

I have been suggesting that he was well worth taking on since last September, when he scored an unbeaten double century for the second team. His weight of runs over three seasons in the Lancashire League and his high scoring back home in South Africa mean that he is thoroughly deserving of the opportunity, one that I am sure that he will take with both hands.

More from me later, but we may just have made a key signing for the coming season.

Excellent news to start the day!

Monday, 13 March 2017

New deal for Harvey Hosein

The good times keep coming for Derbyshire supporters, with today's news of Harvey Hosein's contract extension to the end of 2019 a welcome pre-season boost.

I have little doubt that Harvey will be a very special cricketer. At the ripe old age of 20, he already looks an outstanding wicket-keeper and an extremely well-organised batsman. All things being equal, he will enjoy a long career with the club and will be a major contributor to a future that looks bright.

As I have said since last season, however, it is unrealistic to expect a young player of such tender years to maintain form and fitness over a six-month period and there will be a point at which he needs a breather. That is where Gary Wilson comes in and Harvey has an excellent mentor in the more experienced Irish international.

He showed at the end of last summer, when he finished with an average of over a hundred, that he has an excellent technique and there could be a scenario where both play, one as a batsman. If the batting fires this year, there are plenty of candidates for such roles, however and Wilson, the vice-captain, will doubtless start as first choice.

His international call ups will see him miss a fair bit of cricket as the summer progresses, so Harvey will not lack opportunity.

I have every confidence that he will take it - like most balls that come his way - with both hands.