Chris Waters: Yorkshire capable of mounting serious challenge on all fronts

New Zealand's Kane Williamson: Key role ahead.
New Zealand's Kane Williamson: Key role ahead.
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THE BEST-LAID plans of mice and men.

A few days ago, Yorkshire’s strength in depth was such that coach Andrew Gale and captain Gary Ballance could have been forgiven for praying for a spate of injuries.

Apart from pace bowlers Ben Coad (hip) and James Wainman (side), there was a clean bill of health at Emerald Headingley, and a selection headache for the two men in charge.

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But the loss of four key players this week – England’s Liam Plunkett and David Willey to the Indian Premier League, Matthew Fisher to a side injury, and then Steve Patterson to a broken finger in training – has further reduced the number of pace men. Coad has sufficiently recovered to be named in a 12-man squad to face Essex today, although Fisher could be out for up to six weeks.

However, when you can still call on such as Jack Brooks, Tim Bresnan, Matthew Waite, Josh Shaw and Jared Warner, it highlights the pace bowling strength that Yorkshire have, a power that will only increase when Australian Billy Stanlake joins for the Vitality T20 Blast later in the year.

Although options are not quite so thick in the batting department, the availability of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow for the fourth and fifth matches, away to Essex and Surrey, allied to that of Cheteshwar Pujara and Kane Williamson, who will dovetail as overseas batsmen for most of the season, gives Yorkshire the look of a seriously good side – one capable, in fact, of challenging on all fronts.

Even accounting for recent disruptions, Yorkshire have a stronger look than they did last year, when the foundations, perhaps, were not quite so solid.

Pujara and Williamson are precisely the sort of “over-my-dead-body” batsmen that the club are looking for in Championship cricket, where runs have been at a premium of late, while Stanlake provides the type of X-factor that Yorkshire have perhaps not had in T20 since his fellow countryman, Mitchell Starc, played for the club in 2012.

Although competition will again be strong throughout the country, with some excellent sides in Division One of the Championship, Yorkshire appear to have most bases covered.

They would have all of them covered if leg-spinner Adil Rashid had not chosen to give up red-ball this year, meaning that we might see more spin from batsmen the likes of Jack Leaning and Adam Lyth, although Rashid’s presence in one-day cricket, complemented by the likes of Azeem Rafiq and Karl Carver, ensures that Yorkshire have variety aplenty in the white-ball formats.

As ever, optimism abounds at this time of year, when every club dreams of lifting silverware.

But Yorkshire’s players seem quietly determined to put right what went wrong last summer, when the club flirted with Championship relegation, and they have the look of a group in a different “headspace” – relaxed and with their feet firmly on the ground.

Billy Stanlake celebrates taking his first wicket for Australia. Picture: David Neilson/www.photosport.nz

Billy Stanlake celebrates taking his first wicket for Australia. Picture: David Neilson/www.photosport.nz

For that, Gale, his fellow coaches and Ballance must take credit, for there were some harsh words spoken at the end of last summer, and a general acceptance that Championship performances had not been good enough.

Indeed, if there was an air of subconscious complacency last year, after back-to-back Championships and a third-placed finish, it is not evident now, with last season bringing the club back down to earth and reminding everyone that talent, alone, is never sufficient.

The batting, as usual, will be vitally important.

Not since 2014 have Yorkshire had consistent runs from their top order, so better returns are long overdue.

If Yorkshire can get back to grinding out big first innings totals, they have the bowling attack to help close out a third title in five seasons.

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If Yorkshire can get back to grinding out big first innings totals, they have the bowling attack to help close out a third title in five seasons.

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The only certainty in sport is that nothing is certain, but it would be a surprise if last year’s experience does not result in a more competitive challenge this time around.

In one-day cricket, Yorkshire have looked strong in recent times but not had a trophy to show for their efforts. It is now 16 years since they won one-day silverware, but one senses they are getting closer all the time.

Yorkshire have reached the semi-finals of both the 50-over tournament and the T20 in recent years, and last season they played some exhilirating T20 cricket on occasions, particularly with the bat in hand.

However, as England found out in last year’s Champions Trophy, you can play exhilirating cricket but still come away empty-handed, so it is a case of jumping those all-important final hurdles.

All in all, the squad looks strong and palpably hungry, while the captain/coach partnership of Gale and Ballance will have learned much from its first season together.

Notwithstanding this week’s events, there is plenty of competition for places, which can only help to drive high standards.

Yes, optimism abounds at this time of year. In Yorkshire’s case, it seems eminently justified.

Cheteshwar Pujara. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

Cheteshwar Pujara. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

England's Adil Rashid celebrates with Jos Buttler after taking a wicket against India at Headingley on Tuesday. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA

Adil Rashid considering Test return for England