Your Hip-Hop infused County Championship preview: Eight players to watch in 2017

Oh, another one of those ‘X Players to Watch’ preview things that everyone does? Yes. It’s at times like this that I feel as though I am incapable of original thought, believe me.

Anyway, I’m getting pretty keyed up for the start of the new County Championship season and thought it would be interesting to pick out a player from each Division One team that is at a pivotal point in their career. These are those eight players.

Tom Abell (Somerset)

2016: 13 matches, 538 runs @ 25.61, HS 135

If he was a rapper… Young Jeezy

Following the retirement of veteran skipper Chris Rogers, Somerset have made the bold move of appointing 23-year-old Tom Abell as their Championship captain for 2017.

Inheriting a team that came so agonisingly close to the title last season, Abell has plenty of resources at his disposal in his first campaign at the helm. Despite his obvious lack of experience, the young batsman is surrounded by old stagers (Marcus Trescothick could quite easily be his dad) who should provide guidance when necessary.

Much like Tudor monarch Edward VI (well, maybe not that much like him), Abell has been handed the keys to a powerful machine at a tender age. Having staked their future on his leadership, Somerset will be hoping that – unlike the young king – Abell’s reign won’t descend into armed rebellion and epochal arguments over the language of prayer books any time soon.

Please do keep reading for more analogies of a similarly tortuous nature.

Gary Ballance (Yorkshire)

2016: 13 matches, 780 runs @ 33.91, HS 132

If he was a rapper… Meek Mill

Deemed surplus to requirements by the England selectors after a run of low scores against Pakistan and Bangladesh last year, 2017 can be a year of restoration for Gary Ballance.

Handed the Yorkshire captaincy following the retirement – and subsequent appointment as coach – of Andrew Gale, Ballance has an opportunity to demonstrate great skill, maturity and leadership in his new role. Skippering a team desperate to get back to winning ways after missing out on a hat-trick of titles last season, Ballance has the ideal stage upon which to remind the national selectors of his talents.

Free from concerns over his international form, this could be the year Ballance returns to the kind of form (1,251 runs at 62.55) that originally put him in the England frame in 2013.

Varun Chopra (Essex)

2016: 14 matches, 694 runs @ 34.70, HS 107

If he was a rapper… Nas

After seven seasons and 5,821 Championship runs wearing the badge of Warwickshire, Varun Chopra is – as the Allman Brothers once sang – going back to where it all began.

After a disappointing 2016 season in which Chopra lost both the Warwickshire captaincy and his place in the side, this summer represents an opportunity for the 29-year-old to re-establish himself as one of the county game’s most reliable batsmen.

Likely to feature at number three behind Nick Browne and Alastair Cook (surely one of the division’s strongest opening partnerships), Chopra looks set to become a mainstay of a talented Essex top order. Given that it’s now been several seasons since he reached 1,000 first-class runs in a season, that milestone must surely be the aim for Chopra as the fluent right-hander seeks to rekindle his best form.

Mason Crane (Hampshire)

2016: 12 matches, 31 wickets @ 45.45, BBM 6/89

If he was a rapper… Chance The Rapper

Since the retirement of Graeme Swann in 2013, the English game has had a habit of producing good spinners without ever quite finding a great one. Simon Kerrigan, Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Zafar Ansari, Liam Dawson and others have been tried to varying levels of success, but none have established themselves as the world-class spinner the national side requires. Whisper it, but there is talk that the leg-spinning Mason Crane might turn out to be just what England are looking for.

Just 20 years old, Crane comes into the 2017 season after a winter spent in Australia where he spectacularly managed to force himself into the New South Wales team for a Sheffield Shield match against South Australia. He also recently starred for the South in the ECB’s North v South series in Abu Dhabi, claiming six wickets in the two games he played out in the desert.

Given the seniority of Liam Dawson, Hampshire’s other front-line spinner, Crane’s place in the Hampshire team is far from guaranteed. However, if he continues at his current rate of development it will soon be impossible for his talents to be overlooked.

Sam Curran (Surrey)

2016: 9 matches, 27 wickets @ 27.85, BBM 7/113

If he was a rapper… Vince Staples

Disclaimer: there are two Currans. I sometimes struggle to tell them apart. I just hope I’ve written about the one I think I’ve written about.

Although it was Tom Curran that was called up as cover on England’s recent ODI tour of the West Indies, it was arguably Sam – the younger of the Currans – who had the more impressive year in 2016.

Born in 1998 (WTF, seriously?), Curran is just 18 years old and rapidly developing into one of the county scene’s most promising young players. An impressive left-arm seam bowler and – with a first-class average over 30 – a useful batsman, Curran has established himself as an important part of an excellent Surrey bowling attack. 2016 was a season of moments for Curran as he found his feet as a professional player, with 7/58 against Durham and a fantastic all-round display versus Lancashire at The Oval being particular highlights.

Surrey will be hoping the younger Curran can turn those moments into consistently high-quality performances in 2017 as the team look to harness the strength of their squad to compete for honours in all formats.

Sam Hain (Warwickshire)

2016: 15 matches, 455 runs @ 22.75, HS 135

If he was a rapper… Kid Cudi

Sam Hain enjoyed a fine 2014 season (823 runs at 51.43) before slipping back in 2016, although his undoubted ability still shone through in a series of excellent performances in white-ball cricket.

At 21, Hain is practically the only young face in one of the division’s older dressing rooms and has come to represent Warwickshire’s future. A candidate to take over the captaincy when Ian Bell eventually decides to call it a day, there is some pressure on Hain to return to his form of 2014 and unequivocally prove that he is capable of consistently heavy run-scoring at this level.

Newly-appointed coach Ashley Giles certainly has a job on his hands if he is to rebuild an ageing squad over the coming seasons. As part of that process, Giles – who has spoken about Hain in glowing terms – will need the young batsman to step up and become a cornerstone of Warwickshire’s evolution. That process starts now.

Haseeb Hameed (Lancashire)

2016: 16 matches, 1198 runs @ 49.91, HS 122

If he was a rapper… Tyler, the Creator

2016 was a special year for the Bolton Wall. After breaking into the Lancashire side at the end of the 2015 season, Haseeb Hameed – comfortably the most promising young talent in English cricket – seized on his opportunity by scoring 1,198 runs at an average of just under 50 in his first full campaign.

Called up to the England squad for the tours of Bangladesh and India, Hameed impressed with 219 runs at 43.80 (including a superbly determined 82 at Rajkot) before a hand injury brought a premature end to his winter. Given that it is now more than likely that Hameed will be a fixture at the top of the order in Test cricket, Lancashire will be relieved that the Champions Trophy means they can keep him until England’s series against South Africa in early July.

With time to contribute to the first four or five of Lancashire’s Championship fixtures, it will be interesting to see what Hameed has learned from his winter with England. Still just 20 years old, 2017 could be the year Baby Boycott underlines his class at both county and Test level.

Toby Roland-Jones (Middlesex)

2016: 15 matches, 54 wickets @ 28.22, BBM 10/127

If he was a rapper… MF Doom

Toby Roland-Jones is kind of like Chucky from the Child’s Play movies: he doesn’t look too threatening at first glance, but his special brand of pace, trickery and economy permeates the nightmares of batsmen across the land.

Roland-Jones finished last season in style, taking a hat-trick of Yorkshire wickets at Lord’s to seal Middlesex’s first title since 1993. After a productive winter spent with the England Lions (including fine performances in the North v South series), the 29-year-old Roland-Jones will be looking to continue the upward trend of his seasonal wicket haul (43 in 2014, 48 in 2015 and 54 in 2016) as he seeks to help Middlesex defend their crown.

Of course, as his first-class average of 22.51 bears out, Roland-Jones is also a more than capable batsman. With one century and eight fifties to his name at a strike rate of 59.72, Roland-Jones’ aggressive batting is just another string to the bow of a player who could well be in the frame for England selection sooner rather than later.


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