It’s time to look at the challengers for the title and with just 12 points covering the top 5, this could be one of the closest championship races for many years. Seven teams (covered by 28 points) are still realistically in the hunt.
I predicted 8th and relegation but big wins over Sussex and Surrey leave them comfortably above the bottom two. The emergence of Joe Denly and return to form of Rob Key have been the major factors in their batting, although 8 of their team have made hundreds so far this season. Yasir Arafat has been the major wicket taker with 26 (at 30) with contributions from Ryan McLaren and Simon Cook with 19 and 15 respectively. They still have to play Worcester twice, which should see them move further away from the bottom two, but could see them drawn into the relegation battle.
I predicted top and currently 6th, Hants have been the big disappointment of the season to date. It could have been even worse as they have hung on to draw a couple of games (against Yorkshire and Kent) that they really should have lost. The weakness has been with the batting. All-rounders Nic Pothas and Dimitri Mascarenhas top the averages, but no-one has reached 500 runs yet. Only Pothas and Mike Brown have scored hundreds to date. The bowling has been hugely reliant on Aussie duo Shane Warne (33 wickets at 27) and Stuart Clark (24 at 25) although Chris Tremlett has shown a return to form in the last couple of matches. A collective kick up the backside could still see them challenging for honours. However, injury to one or both of their Aussies could see a very uncomfortable second half of the season.
I predicted 2nd and currently 5th, but closing the gap to the top quickly. It’s a measure of how close the league is that if Lancs had beaten Durham two matches ago, Paul Wiseman facing 92 ball for 7 runs to secure the draw for Durham, they would currently be top. Their batting hasn’t been great this season with only Stuart Law reaching 500 runs so far, although 6 players have centuries to their names. It is with slow bowling that Lancs have made their mark, with Muttiah Muralitheran taking 31 wickets at less than 15, ably supported by Gary Keedy (17 at 21). Two Roses encounters in the second half of the season could have a huge bearing on the outcome of the Championship.
I predicted 7th and a possible struggle. They are currently 4th, just 9 points off the top, although they have slipped somewhat after a flying start. They have also played three matches against the bottom two, so may find the second half of the season more challenging. No-one has reached 500 runs yet, despite Alex Loudon and Jim Troughton both having three centuries to their names. Topping the batting averages is wicket-keeper Tim Ambrose, with Kumar Sangakkara just behind. The bowling has been less potent, with Dale Steyn being the only bowler with more than 20 wickets (23 at 25). The Bears second half of the season last time round nearly saw them drawn into the relegation battle. They are much better placed to challenge at the top end of the table this time round, but need more potency in their bowling attack.
I predicted 6th and they are 3rd, despite losing more players to England than anyone else. Their batting is heavily reliant on Mike DiVenuto, with 822 runs at 75, and Dale Benkenstein with 537 at 60. No-one else has more than 350 runs for the season or hit a century. Steve Harmison’s self imposed exile from the World Cup helped get them off to a flyer and he has 24 wickets at 14. Graham Onions has 26 wickets (at 31) and there have also been useful contributions from Ottis Gibson (19 at 33) and Mark Davies (15 at 21) while Harmison and Liam Plunkett have been on England duty. If they are to continue their challenge, they need a greater contribution from the rest of the batsmen in the team.
I predicted 3rd and they are currently 2nd, although they have played a game more than everyone else. An appalling start to the season saw them beaten twice in the first three matches by an innings and then concede a huge score to Surrey in a game that they held on to draw. Murray Goodwin, Chris Adams and Richard Montgomerie have been the main sources of runs and the only three century makers to date. Like Hants, their bowling is reliant on their overseas players with Pakistani duo Rana Naved and Mushtaq Ahmed taking 70 wickets between them. Second mainly on the contribution of just five players, this could go either way, If the rest of the team fire, then they will run away with the title again. However, if injury strikes, then they could find the second half of the season a struggle.
I predicted 4th, and currently top after a flying start to the season from the momentum of the turbulent winter. Three wins in their first four games (a winning draw in the other), the challenge has slowed somewhat since although they have been on top in most games (the loss to Durham being the obvious exception). Joe Sayers and Jacques Rudolph are both well over 500 runs and 8 players have centuries to their names, including Jason Gillespie and Tim Bresnan who have 19 and 20 wickets (at 25) respectively. With Matthew Hoggard getting 17 wickets in his four games and Darren Gough and Adil Rashid taking 23 and 21 respectively, they have a balanced attack and strength in depth. An indication of this is that Gough is 15th in the batting averages, but his batting average (20) is still higher than his bowling average (18). This time last year they were winless and bottom. In the year from 20:20 to 20:20 they have been the pick of the championship. They need to keep the momentum going though to see off the closing pack.