The five county cricketers of the year

Rob Yates, Warwickshire: the aura breaker

It is a strange thing to say about a young opener who scored four centuries in the County Championship and added another in the Bob Willis Trophy final, but Rob Yates spent much of the season under the radar. Now he has two trophies under his arm.

The 22-year-old has enjoyed a breakout season, making scores against the new ball that allow others to come in and play around him. It is not a gig that guarantees big numbers – and his averages of 38 this season and 32 across his career at strike rates well below 50 will have the stats badgers chuntering – but centuries such as his 132 not out, which set up the pennant-securing win over Somerset, or his 120 not out earlier in the season, which helped Warwickshire hunt down 256 and defeat Essex, are much more than mere padding. That chase against Essex shattered the aura of the reigning champions (they had enjoyed a 21-match undefeated run until then). They never recovered, with Warwickshire the ultimate beneficiaries.

Yates is enrolling for his final year of his BA in English Language at Birmingham University, but he may need to suspend his studies if England come calling. He is well on the way to mastering the syntax of batting; he might soon be writing stories on the Test stage.

Tom Haines, Sussex: the boy on the burning deck

Another 22 year-old opening batsman, but one whose team endured the opposite season to Yates’, finishing 18th in the Championship. There is, of course, significant mitigation, Sussex usually fielding eight or nine teenagers in their XIs, kids who often competed for sessions but could not maintain that level across four long days against seasoned professionals.

It is all the more admirable then that Haines topped the run-scoring charts, the diminutive opener having scored over 100 more than Jake Libby in second place. Very few of those 1,176 runs were scored without scoreboard pressure and they were usually accumulated in a match his team were losing. He accepted captaincy duties, showing a willingness to take responsibility and front up to a membership grumbling about decisions taken well above Haines’ pay grade. As an illustration of his dedication to his task, having led in the field as Middlesex piled up 676-5 declared, he batted nearly for six hours for 156, then more than four hours for 87 following on – guts they call it.

In some ways, this recognition for Haines also nods in the direction of his comrades who learned much in a very hard school: Ali Orr, Danial Ibrahim, Jack Carson. Archie Lenham, Jamie Atkins and Henry Crocombe have all demonstrated plenty of what it takes to succeed and, if the nucleus of this team plays Championship cricket through next season too, I doubt they will finish bottom again.

Kiran Carlson, Glamorgan: the young leader

Another batsman whose cricketing development has been shared with studying, Glamorgan protégé Kiran Carlson has grown into a leading light in the only other county to join Warwickshire and Kent in landing a trophy this season.

In the Championship, his output has begun to match his talent with over 900 runs at almost 50, including two centuries in a match against a Sussex attack that included Ollie Robinson and George Garton. But it was in the Royal London One-Day Cup final that Carlson showed what he can become.

Having pulled off a heist in the semi-final against a strong and experienced Essex XI, his 82 off 59 balls showcased the astonishing bat speed which allowed him to score at a rate none could match on a sluggish pitch. But the 23-year-old then took charge of defending a total shy of 300, a livewire captain who appeared to be all over the field, getting his men in tight on the singles, caging the batsmen and giving the impression – as the best one day captains always do – that he had 13 fielders at his disposal.

He didn’t hold back in the celebrations either; try telling him and 40-year-old Michael Hogan that it was only a “development” competition. Shame on the ECB for diminishing their oldest one-day competition with such a description.

Glamorgan captain Kiran Carlson lifts the Royal London Cup.
Glamorgan captain Kiran Carlson lifts the Royal London Cup. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/ECB/Getty Images

Matt Critchley, Derbyshire: the hard worker

The all-rounder played all 14 Championship matches, making 1,000 runs at 43, taking 32 wickets at 38. He played all 12 Blast matches, taking 12 wickets at 26 going at just over a run a ball and made over 250 runs at 28 too. He also captained his county in the shortest format when Billy Godleman’s lack of runs led to him losing his place.

Playing cricket for Derbyshire can be a thankless task, but Critchley embraced his opportunities and showed no signs of burnout. For some players, playing to stay fit and fresh is a better option than being rested for weeks at a time.

Like the other cricketers in this column, Critchley is unlikely to play for England in the immediate future, but the international game is full of unpredictable developments, so who knows. Nevertheless, he is a fine county player who is already attracting attention from employers with deeper pockets than his current county. Nobody would blame him were he to accept an offer from Glamorgan, for example, but it would be lovely to see him shoulder all this work one more time in 2022 for one of county cricket’s less glamorous clubs.

Luke Fletcher, Nottinghamshire: the cliché

The clichés can pile up around Luke Fletcher – the forearms looking like they were forged in a smithy, the backside as if built down a mine, the sense of enjoying something that is as much a pastime as a profession radiating from the big man’s face. But you don’t bowl almost 500 overs across three formats without being a dedicated pro.

The cliché does hold up when placing Fletcher in the long line of English seamers who run in hard, present the seam upright to a grassyish surface and get a little movement this way and a little movement that way, the mix leavened with the odd splice slammer to keep the batsman honest. Ironically, the best practitioner of this ancient art was an Australian, Glenn McGrath, with whom the big Notts’ man shares a method.

Fletcher topped the Championship wickets table with 66 victims at less than 15, ahead of three more of his type: Chris Rushworth, Sam Cook and Tim Murtagh. I doubt that franchise cricket will come calling for these bowlers and I suspect England will always have men a little faster, a little younger or a little closer to the template of what an England bowler should look like. Some would suggest that Fletcher and co’s wickets are an indictment of English pitches or the domestic structure or perhaps 21st century batting. Others, present writer included, prefer to salute old-fashioned skills honed to perfection, backed up by nous and the one sledge in cricket worth shouting: “Play that!”

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