• Matthew Whiley

2021 County Championship: Players To Watch

There's light at the end of the tunnel.

After a long, dark, cold winter, we're into March, and the first tentative signs of spring are slowly bursting through. Outdoor temperatures are creeping up into double figures, crocuses and daffodils are beginning to flower, and over the coming weeks, farmers' fields will be steadily populated by newly-arrived calves and lambs.

There are many reasons to be cheerful about the arrival of spring, and for many, including myself, one of the biggest is the start of the cricket season. That most quintessential of English institutions, the County Championship, gets underway in just 37 days, so in celebration, this week's post takes a look at four young players who could make quite the impression in 2021.

Amar Virdi (Surrey)

Surrey's productive academy has, in recent years, churned out many a promising young pace bowler, with the Curran brothers being the most prominent examples. The development of spinner Virdi, however, could yet prove to be an even bigger achievement for the Brown Caps.

Instantly recognisable on the field thanks to a magnificent beard, the 22-year-old has been able to exploit the spin-friendly surfaces at the Oval with his excellent off-breaks. His best deliveries bamboozle the right-hander by turning back into their pads to either pin them leg before wicket or clatter into their stumps. Left-handers aren't immune either, as he can spin the ball away just enough to tempt them into a drive that sees the ball flashed straight to slip.

Virdi debuted for Surrey in May 2017 in an away game against Essex, and made an immediate impression with a return of three wickets, including that of former England wicketkeeper James Foster, before claiming 39 victims in 2018 as Surrey cantered to the Division One title. His best bowling analysis came in 2019, when he returned to the side following an injury lay-off with a phenomenal 14-139 against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge.

England are very much aware of Virdi's abilities. Having been a member of the Lions for three years, he was picked as a member of the 30-man squad ahead of last year's first Test against the West Indies. Despite not making the final eleven at any point last summer, he remains firmly in the mind of Chris Silverwood and his staff, and is a reserve for the ongoing series in India.

Should he carry the fine form he has shown over the past few years into 2021, there is a very real chance he may find himself accompanying the likes of Jack Leach and Dom Bess on a plane down under for this upcoming winter's Ashes series.

Dan Mousley (Warwickshire)

If Warwickshire supporters have spent this winter despondent about the retirement of the legendary Ian Bell, then the club may just have something to cheer them up. Batsman Mousley has demonstrated enormous promise in his short career to date, and as a fan of Aston Villa, the similarities that the 19-year-old bears to Bell come in more forms than just his cricketing ability.

While it may not often be a shot seen in the first-class game, left-hander Mousley can profit through exquisite use of the sweep in shorter formats, comfortably dispatching spinners square of the wicket in either direction. In the first innings of Bell's final game before retirement against Glamorgan last year, Mousley showed off an impressive ability to build a partnership too, as he and Bell rescued Warwickshire from 23-3 with a stand of 70.

A quirk of Mousley's fledgling career is that while every single one of his three T20s so far have been played at Edgbaston, he has not yet represented the county in a home first-class game. Although he clearly enjoys home comforts, notching T20 scores of 40 and 58* last summer, unfamiliar surroundings clearly do not fluster him, as he flourished in the two Bob Willis Trophy games he played last year. He made a career-best 71 in Cardiff in that aforementioned Glamorgan game, which was his maiden half-century, and also hit 47 away to Worcestershire.

England are in the process of incorporating Mousley into the international fold, and he has seized the opportunity with both hands so far. He was England's highest run-scorer with 241 in five innings at the U19 World Cup in South Africa last February, including a magnificent 111 opening the batting against Sri Lanka, as England finished ninth at the tournament. He also scored 51* from 44 at number seven as the Three Lions narrowly lost to Australia in the group stages.

Full international honours may be a little while off yet, but with the retirement of Bell, there is a sizeable gap in the Warwickshire batting order for the upcoming campaign. Mousley undoubtedly has the talent to fill that gap, and it will be fascinating to see if he can nail it down in 2021.

Harry Brook (Yorkshire)

Owner of one of the most splendid middle names ever seen, Harry Cherrington Brook is the latest in a long line of talented batsmen to come out of the Headingley academy, joining the current England Test captain as a member of that particular club. Following in the footsteps of someone like Joe Root heaps pressure on any young shoulders, but be in no doubt: Brook's numbers last season went a long way to proving that he has what it takes to succeed at the highest level.

The 22-year-old's bullish style means he has no trouble finding the boundary and has proven usefully versatile for Yorkshire, with a career first-class strike rate of 60.44, and a T20 one of 145.93, showing a confident stroke maker who is comfortable in all formats. After initially being tried as an opener in the County Championship and experiencing a somewhat mercurial start to his career, he has begun to establish himself as a mainstay of the county's top to middle order. His tender age means he has all the time in the world to pile on the runs for the White Rose, while putting any past struggles down to teething problems.

Raised just nine miles from Headingley, Brook made his first-class debut five years ago, against Pakistan A. That day didn't go to plan, as he was dismissed for a first-ball duck, but he would return to the Yorkshire first team just under a year later, at Lord's of all places. A maiden first-class hundred arrived in May 2018, and despite some struggles in the interim, his 258 runs at 43.00 last summer showing that a solution to coax out his not-inconsiderable talent may have finally been found.

Much like Mousley, Brook has also cut his teeth in the international arena by being England's leading run-scorer at an U19 World Cup. In Brook's case, that came in the 2018 edition of the event in New Zealand, where he skippered the side and hit 239 runs across five games. His 102 not out against Bangladesh in the group stages made him only the second England captain, after a certain Sir Alastair Cook, to score a century at that particular tournament.

Confidence is one of the key aspects of any batsman's game, and after Brook enjoyed his most consistent season yet in the truncated 2020 campaign, belief will be high that, after much polishing, Yorkshire have found another diamond in the rough. If Brook can replicate last year's average over the full-length season this time around, higher recognition may not be too far away.

Tom Lammonby (Somerset)

Scoring a century in a domestic final less than two months after making your first-class debut sounds like little more than a dream, but that is exactly the scenario that all-rounder Lammonby found himself in last summer. The 20-year-old has played just six first-class games to date, but his performances in those games have sparked a great deal of interest in his abilities.

Lammonby's combative style does not initially seem to fit the mould of a first-class opener, which is seen to be steady while wearing down the new ball, but he has smashed apart that particular archetype. His attacking tactics have seen him excel in T20, a format in which he has hit 209 runs at a strike rate of 159.5 in 18 games, but his first-class game has also profited, and his stunning 459 runs at 51.00 saw him finish third in last season's Bob Willis Trophy run-scoring charts. His left-arm pace also offers a more than useful bowling option, and he sent down 12 overs last summer, conceding a tidy 3.16 runs per over and snaring two wickets.

Like his Somerset teammates Lewis Gregory, Craig Overton, and Ben Green, Lammonby hails from Devon, and he joined Somerset in 2018 following two years with his home county. He made his debut for Somerset's first XI in a T20 against Kent at Canterbury in 2019, before his first-class bow came with the opening game of last summer's Bob Willis Trophy against Glamorgan, which set in motion a brilliant run of form. He maintains a particularly impressive statistic of a 100% century conversion rate, turning all three of his fifties in first-class cricket into hundreds.

International recognition has been limited, but Lammonby can consider himself particularly unlucky in that regard. He was initially selected for the 2018 U19 World Cup, but after breaking his hand in training after arriving in New Zealand, he was forced to return home. However, his talents have not gone completely unnoticed, and although he remains uncapped at senior level for England, he has played in two U19 Test matches, a single T20, and a handful of ODIs. His most recent international appearances were those two appearances in the longest format on a tour of Bangladesh in February 2019, where he hit 55 runs in four innings and took a single wicket.

In recent years, it has very much been a case of 'always the bridesmaid, never the bride' for Somerset, as they have finished runners-up in the County Championship/Bob Willis Trophy in four of the last five seasons. However, with the continuing development of a talent like Lammonby, coupled with proven quality elsewhere in the squad, fans of the Taunton outfit can consider the future extremely bright, and maybe, just maybe, they might be able to spot that elusive County Championship trophy on the horizon as well.

Thus my thoughts conclude here, and now the only thing we can do is wait. As outfields are mowed and heavy rollers come out of hibernation up and down the country, hopefully this summer signals a brighter time to look forward to in more ways than just the return of cricket.

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Signing off,