In 2014, the County Championship was a season plagued by Yorkshire. With Lyth and Lees at the top of the order, Williamson, Bairstow, Ballance, Rashid, Gale, Leaning, Pyrah, Finch, Root and Hodd vying for middle order spots when available, and with Rashid, Plunkett, Brooks, Sidebottom, Patterson and Bresnan completing the bowling tasks, it was one of the strongest County squads in a generation.
Things have changed this season. Kane Williamson is playing IPL, Adam Lyth, Jonny Bairstow, Gary Ballance, Joe Root, Adil Rashid, and Liam Plunkett are touring with England, and the overall cricketscape in England has changed.
It’s opened things back up. Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Middlesex, among others, have decent shots at the title.
So I’ve compiled my top five players to watch this season. Not all are new players, and not all are being trumpeted as future English representatives, but all are shaping up nicely for a big season.
Sam Hain (Warwickshire)
Since 2010, there have been four First Class double hundreds scored for Warwickshire. Three of them have come from Varun Chopra, the current captain, and the other came from Sam Hain.
Scored against Northants, with the bowlers including Neil Wagner, Andrew Hall, David Willey and Azharullah, Hain flayed the opposition to all ends of the Edgbaston ground. He brought up his 200 in 326 balls, and led Warwicks to 573. They won by an innings.
Rikki Clarke considers him one of the two most talented Warwickshire youngsters (alongside Laurie Evans), and I can’t disagree. He played 12 First Class matches last year – his debut season – and scored over 800 runs at over 50.
It’s a bright future ahead for the Hong Kong-born, Australian-raised 19 year-old, and 2015 seems likely to be the season he cements those expectations.
Will Rhodes (Yorkshire)
W Rhodes, an all-rounder, playing for Yorkshire. It was meant to be.
Still just 20 years of age, Rhodes has represented Yorkshire in limited overs cricket since 2013. It wasn’t until March this year, however, that he made his debut in the First Class format. The match – MCC v the Champion Club at Abu Dhabi – saw Rhodes make 61 and take three wickets against a remarkably strong MCC side.
A left-handed batsman, and right-armed seam bowler, Rhodes has so far built up a very strong record in Yorkshire 2nds and England U-19 matches, and has managed to prepare a massive reputation for himself. Given that he came into the first County match of the 2015 season without a Championship match behind him, the pressure and expectation might overtake his ability.
But hopefully Rhodes shows the same gumption and determination that Wilfred did, and manages to carve the same niche into the history of Yorkshire cricket.
Angus Robson (Leicestershire)
Sam Robson, out of the English Test XI just two months and five days after he made it in, has been one of the more interesting political stories of Anglo-Australian cricket the last few years.
In Division Two, playing for the unfortunate Leicester, Robson’s brother Angus has been working his way into a good cricketing rhythm himself.
He first broke into the first team in 2013, in the midst of a winless season. He played just three games.
In 2014 (another victory-less season for them), he found a slot in the order for himself. He scored over 1000 Championship runs (the only Leicester player to manage it), and made a century against the Indians.
Looking towards 2015, if Leicester are to break their duck, Robson could prove crucial. 83 in the first innings against Glamorgan suggests that it will be another positive season for the 23 year-old.
Shiv Thakor (Derbyshire)
Shiv Thakor has been earmarked for stardom for a very long time.
He even played for Leicestershire under-9s.
Unfortunately, he’s been guilty of brilliant performances, without really showing consistency. That, combined with injury problems – and pressure to play through injuries during the 2013 season – has led to him failing to really secure a spot on the County circuit.
His recent move to Derbyshire could change matters. In a new environment – in a team that is capable of winning matches, and with a brilliant managerial system around him – he should flourish.
It’s amazing to think Thakor is still only 21, so long has the all-rounder been there-or-thereabouts for Leicester. A not out 60 to go with 1/14 and 2/24 against Cambridge MCCU suggest his form could see him pushing the run and wicket charts this season.
Reece Topley (Essex)
Reece Topley. There isn’t much to say.
We all know how good and how talented he is.
But we also all know how injury prone he is.
At 21, with 118 First Class wickets to his name, the left-arm quick has proven himself as an exceptionally good cricketer. At 6ft 7in, Topley is (not surprisingly) capable of threatening bounce and working the angles well.
He has a very good bowling mind, and tapped into the Chaminda Vaas vault of knowledge when Essex played Northants in 2011.
He shows the signs of someone dedicated to improving himself and making the grade with more than just talent.
If he can get out on the park in one piece, he will have a big season ahead of him. Even English selection might await.