Surrey 70 for 4 trail Lancashire 274 (Salt 56, Clark 4-47, Abbott 4-71) by 204 runs
The BBC’s radio coverage from The Oval started with birdsong. After the first eight rounds of the LV= Insurance County Championship season were played with the Dukes ball, Sunday heralded the arrival of the Kookaburra.
The idea behind its introduction for these two rounds was simple: England’s Test team have struggled to take wickets away from home, particularly in Australia. The use of a Kookaburra ball in the Championship was mooted by Andrew Strauss’ High Performance Review last summer, with the ambition of promoting English spinners, and seamers with “extreme skill”.
“The Dukes ball has a reputation for more movement for more overs, compared to the Kookaburra ball which is used in many other countries,” the review said. “This extra movement may also limit the need for extreme skill development of seam bowlers, but also limit opportunities for spinners due to the success of seamers domestically.”
The identity of the bowlers who took wickets on the opening day of Surrey’s fixture against Lancashire did not necessarily square with the review’s ambitions. Of the 14 wickets to fall – which would doubtless have been more with a more pronounced seam on the ball – only three were taken by bowlers under the age of 30: one each for Sam Curran, returning to first-class cricket after an absence of almost a year, Tom Lawes and Jack Blatherwick.
There were only three overs of spin, from which Will Jacks conceded 25 runs. “Take him off!” shouted a Surrey supporter in the JM Finn Stand. “Leave him on!” replied a travelling Lancashire fan. But Jacks will doubtless play a role in the second innings, as will Jack Morley – Lancashire’s 22-year-old left-arm spinner, preferred to Tom Hartley to play his first Championship game of the season.
“If you compare it to the Duke, it’s probably a little bit more consistent in terms of swing up top, and then today it probably went a little bit softer than what I’m used to back home. I would have liked to have come over here and bowled with the Duke every game,” Abbott joked.
“As long as there’s a vision towards exposing younger players to different conditions, I think that can only be a win [for English cricket]. Obviously the hard job at international level is winning games away. If this helps young English bowlers, then I think that can only be an advantage and a plus.”
After Curran had Luke Wells poking to slip, Abbott struck with his first ball, pinning Josh Bohannon lbw. His nip-backer accounted for Keaton Jennings, returning from a hamstring lay-off, and he found some extra bounce from a length to have Dane Vilas caught at second slip after a counterattacking stand with Daryl Mitchell.
In response, Will Williams – another skilled practitioner with the Kookaburra from his days in the Plunket Shield – removed Surrey’s openers, before Tom Bailey had Tom Latham driving to second slip. Surrey recovered but Blatherwick, who had Jamie Smith dropped at slip by Mitchell, induced a drag-on from Ben Foakes in the final over of the day.
Lancashire are broadly supportive of the trial, and Salt said that Abbott – and his compatriot Daniel Worrall – had provided a template for Lancashire’s bowlers to follow, regularly hitting a good length and using the crease to create different angles. “I like it. It’s just a bit different – it keeps things fresh,” he said.
“It wasn’t too different – maybe that’s down to the fact there was a little bit more grass left on than we’d normally have playing here. It did go a bit soft at times. I don’t think it stayed as hard for as long as the Dukes does but that brings different challenges into the game.” Music to the ears of the ball’s proponents, then.
But the introduction of the Kookaburra has not been universally popular across the country and the crux of the debate is familiar: does the Championship exist primarily to prepare players for England’s Test team, or as a sporting competition in its own right? The 4000 fans basking in the south London sunshine on Sunday would lean towards the latter, though the truth probably lies somewhere in between the two.
The Championship is a loss-making venture sustained by income from the ECB; most of that income is thanks to a lucrative broadcast deal underpinned by Test cricket, which itself relies on the Championship for a production line of players. “They are the ultimate odd couple,” Rob Key wrote in an autobiography published before he became England’s managing director. “Worlds apart, but unable to get divorced because they are so utterly reliant on each other.”
The long-term aim of the pilot is to understand what impact the Kookaburra will have on the Championship as a whole which, according to the review, “will then inform whether to implement a longer-term change within domestic cricket.” It is too soon to draw any conclusions – but a compelling first day suggests there is reason to be chirpy.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98