County Diary: Ollie Pope and Sam Billings eye comebacks as Blast looms large

Surrey have suffered more than most with injuries this season, but they have some good news at last with England batsman Ollie Pope due to return ahead of schedule following surgery on his left shoulder.

The 21-year-old is now netting outdoors and Surrey anticipate he will play the last four Championship games beginning with Hampshire’s visit to the Oval from August 18-21, as well as their final few Blast fixtures.

Pope, whose prolific form last season resulted in a Test call, dislocated his shoulder on April 23, two days before Sam Billings suffered a similar injury in the field for Kent. It is fair to say that Kent have coped better with the absence, Ollie Robinson proving a very worthy deputy in the batsman/keeper role.

The likelihood is that either Billings – who has has been back in the nets this week – or Robinson, 20, will end the campaign as a specialist batsman, something unlikely to faze the perky youngster who won the Surrey game with a six this week. “I have always been a top order batter,” Robinson said. “I have opened in the second team and in club cricket, so I’ll do whatever I’m asked.”

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Joe Denly has timed his return to form perfectly ahead of the Ashes, following up his unbeaten 167 against Nottinghamshire with a fluent 88 at the Oval this week.

But he has admitted that his brief IPL jaunt – in which he made a golden duck and didn’t bowl in his only game for Kolkata Knight Riders – represented a missed opportunity to take time off after a non-stop winter.

“It was a long time in India sitting on my backside, carrying drinks in the IPL”, he told the Kent Messenger. “The IPL is… hard to turn down [but] in hindsight, with the winter I had, I could have maybe had that off and had a bit of time to refresh and re-charge the batteries.”

It is easily forgotten that Denly is the man in possession of England’s number three spot in Tests, and despite eventually omitting him from the World Cup squad, selector Ed Smith remains a useful advocate.

Smith will use the upcoming England Lions game at Canterbury as a chance to watch other top-three candidates, including Dom Sibley and Denly’s ex-teammate and friend Sam Northeast, but don’t bet against Denly being in the squad come the Ireland Test on July 24.

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Once the highlight of the summer, fixtures against touring sides often provide more hassle than benefit for counties these days. For Sussex, then, it was a relief that their four-day game against Australia A at Arundel proved a useful exercise: Delray Rawlins found some batting form before the Blast with a fluent 69, and their fringe seamers got overs under their belts.

But one could only pity those involved who were denied Wednesday off by a matter of minutes. Sussex were bowled out on the stroke of close on Tuesday evening, but rather than staying to let the tourists knock off the ten runs required, were forced to come back the next day.

In front of over a dozen hardened spectators, who dutifully pitched up on the grass banks defying rational thought, Marcus Harris smacked three boundaries off Aaron Thomason’s first and final over within three minutes of the start of play – game over, with a victory for Australia A, but not for common sense.

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You wouldn’t know it amid the understandable focus on the World Cup, but the Vitality Blast returns next Thursday, with an opening round of games featuring the holders against the favourites at Trent Bridge, and AB de Villiers’ debut in county cricket against Essex at Lord’s.

Players and coaches have voiced their frustrations that there is so little time to train before those games – Middlesex, for example, have just one day off between a Championship game in Cardiff and their T20 opener – but recognise there is little to be done at this stage.

The Blast’s return means the gradual arrival of overseas players and teams begin to work out how committed their stars will be to the cause. Lancashire, then, will be delighted that James Faulkner looks unlikely to schedule any mid-tournament holidays to Europe as some short-term signings have in recent years. He has warmed up for the Blast by playing for the Seconds in the glorious surrounds of Solihull, where he smoked a 41-ball 73 against Warwickshire, and is even playing in an ongoing Second XI Championship game at Aigburth.

Mercenaries at the other Old Trafford are par for the course, but clearly not at Lancashire – perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could take a leaf out of Glen Chapple’s book.

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The Blast’s imminent return naturally means a new full set of kits, which was completed by Hampshire’s launch of their now-standard yellow number in an event at the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth.

That means that seven of the 18 counties will sport yellow this year; the competition will feature more of that colour than the encore of a Coldplay gig. A further four teams will wear light blue, while five don some variant of navy, black, or maroon.

All that means only Lancashire (red with navy trim) and Middlesex (pink) will not have at least some kind of kit clash this season. Of course, the response that we are more than used to both teams playing in all-white holds some merit, but try explaining which team in yellow-with-blue-trim is which to a friend who isn’t a committed cricket fan to understand the problem.

The ICC has recently woken up to the fact teams in the same shade of blue is off-putting to casual viewers and change strips have become standard fare in world tournaments. From next year, might counties consider a ‘home’ and an ‘away’ kit for one-day cricket, rather than a 50-over and a 20-over shirt?

What’s certain is that no such clashes will exist in the Hundred – The Times reported in May that the ECB hopes to secure a single kit supplier for the tournament, and the eight new teams will likely be given their own unique colour scheme.

Additional reporting: Richard Hobson

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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