Yorkshire v Middlesex: Gary Ballance returns to try and boost struggling batting line-up
THIRTY-EIGHT points off second place, 23 points above second-bottom.
Yorkshire could finish as high as runners-up or they could even be relegated going into the last four games of the County Championship season.
Barring a miracle, the title has gone; Yorkshire are 74 points behind leaders Essex, whose only serious rival now is Lancashire.
For the first time in several years, Yorkshire go into the final straight with no realistic chance of winning silverware, their season having fallen away with three defeats in their last four games.
The latest of those, against Essex at Scarborough, marked the nadir of Yorkshire’s campaign. Beaten inside two days for the first time since 2003, they were bowled out for 113 and 150, which summed up why many people’s pre-season title favourites have been unable to live up to that tag.
Put simply, Yorkshire’s batting has been a constant Achilles heel; their total of 14 batting points is not just the lowest in Division One, but also the lowest in the country.
Only Gary Ballance (815 runs at 101) has batted anything like, with Jack Leaning (30.22) the only other recognised batsman averaging over 30.
Ballance missed the match against Essex with a broken finger, but he is now back to shore up the line-up for the rest of the season. Shaun Marsh, the Australian batsman who took part in the club’s T20 campaign, will make his Championship debut against Middlesex and will also play in next week’s match against Surrey at The Oval before returning home for the Australian season.
Marsh will open alongside Adam Lyth, although that could change as Lyth’s wife is due to give birth. Alex Lees, Lyth’s regular opening partner, could slot in further down the order after some strong performances in the second team, with the fact that neither Lyth nor Lees are averaging 25 in this year’s Championship prompting Yorkshire to shake things up.
As the hosts prepare to take on a Middlesex side who are only one place and three points above them, perhaps the most realistic target for Yorkshire now is a top-three finish.
Hampshire, in third, are only 14 points above them, with the 38-point gap to second-placed Lancashire a difficult one, although not unbridgeable.
Yorkshire are only one place above Somerset, who occupy the last of the two relegation spots, but it would be a surprise if Yorkshire are relegated – not least because Somerset and bottom club Warwickshire would have to put together a serious run.
For Martyn Moxon, Yorkshire’s director of cricket, it is all about the well-worn mantra of “focusing on the processes and letting the outcome take care of itself”.
“We’re not so much looking to the end result as getting the process of our batting right,” he said.
“We’ve had a bit of time off (Yorkshire have not played since August 17), and we’ve been concentrating on getting back to the mentality of batting for long periods and scoring big runs.
“If we do that, then we’ve got a good chance of winning games which, then, will give us a good chance of finishing in the top-three, or whatever. But the target really is to make sure that the mindset is right and to start playing to our capabilities.”
Moxon is convinced that mindset is the problem rather than any lack of talent, with Yorkshire’s top-order players having all delivered in the past. Although the issue has been ongoing, he is backing them to finish the season strongly.
“They’re all capable of scoring big runs, but we’ve gone away from the method of scoring big runs and haven’t had the mindset to execute the process,” he said.
“With the modern player, there’s perhaps a desire to dominate the bowling, and there’s a fine line between being dominant and being careless.
“We’ve got to get back on the right side of that line, and the lads have been working really hard in the last couple of weeks. The way they’ve practised has been excellent, and I’ve been really pleased with our preparation.”
Should Yorkshire finish third, they would equal what they achieved last season, and it would be the fifth year in a row in which they had managed a top-three finish in Division One. There remains much to play for and, on paper, no reason why they should not maintain that impressive record.
“We’ve played nothing like we’re capable of and yet we’re still only 14 points off third place,” reflected Moxon. “It’s a bit crazy this year, and Essex have played fantastically well.
“Although the game has changed in one-day cricket considerably over the years, the template to win four-day cricket matches has not. It’s all about getting big totals and bowling the opposition out twice.”