Ten wickets divide South and North but crowds avoid county cricket’s Dubai jaunt

The locals appear to have little interest in English cricket’s experiment in the UAE but the players are fighting for their futures – and South’s 10-wicket win over North will have given Andrew Strauss much to ponder

At times since he became the England director of cricket in 2015, it has seemed Andrew Strauss would do anything to remedy a World Cup record he this week described as “awful”. So, for reasons of climate and provision, he has brought an eclectic mix of 26 players to Dubai and split them down the middle based on the latitude of their counties. In the first game, things could barely have got off to a more sedate start, as the Southerners sauntered to the simplest of victories by 10 wickets with 99 balls to spare.

If initial interest is limited, the players are certainly taking it seriously because the management are treating it like a formal trial, an assessment of their suitability and readiness for international cricket; all week, silent judgments have been made on fitness, organisation and attitude.

Each player has a different point to prove, from Steven Finn and his 102 ODI wickets looking to secure a place in the Champions Trophy squad, to Graeme White’s attempts to prove he is more than a player only deemed worthy of a white-ball contract at Northamptonshire. The coaches, particularly Trevor Bayliss, whose knowledge of county cricket and its players is rudimentary, are appreciative of the opportunity to meet the next generation.

The plan is for the event to happen for the next three years, although it may not always be as useful: the availability of England’s top brass – Paul Farbrace is coaching the South, Ottis Gibson the North, and all the selectors and Bayliss are in situ – will not always be so great. England are due to end their gruelling winter in New Zealand next year.

The costs of the project are high (deep into six figures) and Strauss sprinkled some added motivation by ensuring those who do not win do not make any money. Unlike a Lions trip, there is no tour fee, just prize money split between the winners of each game and the tour. “Why are you talking to them?” asked one North player of a colleague breaking the hitherto well-held North-South divide over breakfast at the hotel.

Still, as the game began, no one was in the Dubai International Cricket Stadium who did not have to be. Having won the toss and lost their three key batsmen – Ben Duckett, the captain, Keaton Jennings, and Liam Livingstone – without significant contributions, the North were thrashed; like the crowd, they had not turned up.

Mark Wood made his latest injury comeback and came through unscathed if wicketless but they had little else to recommend them. Even a sprightly knock from Worcestershire’s Joe Clarke, a player inked into the selectors’ mid- to long-term plans, was tainted by a witless shot to Tom Curran, just as he needed to guide his team to a defendable total. Alas, his reverse-lap was fooled by a slower ball, and a short while after the North were all out for 202, which they failed to defend subsequently scrappily, both when bowling and fielding.

Many more boxes were ticked by the South, for whom Curran, who seems cemented ahead of his younger brother Sam in the pecking order, bowled with zip and guile, and Liam Dawson furthered his Champions Trophy hopes.

His left-arm orthodox proved virtually unhittable when bowling his 10 overs straight, picking up the wickets of Tim Bresnan and Paul Coughlin. Dawson’s Hampshire colleague Mason Crane, fresh from his spell with New South Wales, found life tougher, having been slapped about during Clarke and Bresnan’s stand of 62, but still picked up two wickets.

A strong case could be made for Dawid Malan being the best uncapped white-ball player in England and his calm, authoritative century made from 92 balls potted with belligerent strokeplay and intelligent rotation of the strike backed that up. When long-on came up, he bashed Livingstone, who has swapped from leg-breaks to off over the winter, over the fielder’s head. He pulled hard from midwicket to mid-on and his only shaky patch came when twice cutting through the hands of point off Wood when moving into the 70s. If the selectors are serious about this event mattering, Malan, who made an England T20 squad last summer but was not picked, should have hopped up the queue.

Malan’s partner Daniel Bell-Drummond had reached 92 full of deft wrist work by the time the left-hander plonked Jack Leaning down the ground to put the North out of their misery and end an innings that had seen light droplets of rain fall throughout. Even in the desert, county cricket cannot escape the wet stuff.

Contributor

Will Macpherson at Dubai International Cricket Stadium

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