Essex v Yorkshire - Andrew Gale’s men facing key double-header in race for the title

IT was entirely understandable that after successive relegation fights in his first two seasons as Yorkshire first-team coach that Andrew Gale was not going to go around shouting from the rooftops proclaiming that his side were going to challenge for the County Championship this year.

High drama: Yorkshire's Duanne Olivier celebrates as he takes the final wicket of Surrey's Gareth Batty to seal victory. Picture: SWPix

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Yorkshire finished only two points above the relegation zone in 2017 and, although they finished 25 clear of it last summer, safety was only mathematically secured in the final game of the season, with the club winning two of their last three fixtures.

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With just the additions of pace bowler Duanne Olivier and batsman Will Fraine heading into the summer, and with no overseas batsman to shore up the ranks, scant optimism attended Yorkshire’s prospects of reversing that trend in 2019.

However, a young and emerging team – bolstered by a bowler of proven Test class in Olivier – always had the look of potential dark horses, and the fact is that third-placed Yorkshire head into tomorrow’s match against Essex at Chelmsford very much in the title mix with six games left, lying 21 points behind their second-placed opponents and 36 adrift of leaders Somerset, whom they meet at Emerald Headingley a week today.

With just four games left after that, at home to Nottinghamshire and Kent and away to Somerset and Warwickshire, it almost goes without saying that this quickfire double-header against the top-two will go a long way towards determining whether Yorkshire are still in that title mix in a fortnight’s time or whether the potential dark horses have effectively bolted.

It is surely why, despite their protestations that they are not yet good enough to challenge and have not even spoken about winning trophies, that Yorkshire signed left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj on a short-term contract encompassing the Essex and Somerset fixtures plus last week’s match against Surrey at Scarborough.

If they were not challenging for the Championship, it makes one wonder why they bothered to sign him in the first place, for with only one club relegated this season, and with Yorkshire seemingly in no danger of that, they could have saved money and given more experience to one of their existing spinners – Josh Poysden, say, or James Logan.

No, the race for the Championship is most definitely afoot and, although it may well prove a step too far for Yorkshire this time, they have the look of a side determined to give it a damn good go, one buoyed by a dramatic win at Scarborough when Olivier took the last Surrey wicket with just 10 balls of the contest left.

When something as memorable and, indeed, unusual as that happens, the thought occurs that it could prove the season’s defining moment, the one that everyone looks back to as decisive.

Afterwards, Gale reiterated that Yorkshire are “probably not a Championship-winning team”, continuing to play down any suggestion to the contrary. He pointed out, quite rightly, that Somerset are playing extremely well – so well, in fact, that they could yet take the equation out of their rivals’ hands altogether – and yet the fire in Gale’s eyes was clear after he had watched his men defeat the defending champions in a way that spoke volumes.

First things first, Yorkshire head down to Chelmsford where they famously beat Essex last year despite being bowled out for 50 in their first innings. Jonny Bairstow turned the game with a quickfire half-century in the second innings and young Harry Brook contributed a maiden hundred to a famous win, completed by Steve Patterson’s career-best 6-40.

The hosts are on a good run this time – they have won five of their last six games – and, in Simon Harmer, the South African off-spinner, possess arguably the Championship’s most dangerous bowler. Harmer is the country’s leading wicket-taker with 49 at an average of 17.24, with Yorkshire hoping that Maharaj can fight fire with fire.

“Essex are a very good team,” said Gale. “They’re experienced, they’re very good on their own patch and they’ve got a great spinner who’s tearing it up. It will be tough, but we go down there full of confidence. We outplayed them for the vast majority of the game at Headingley last month, which was weather-affected.”

Gale has been pleased with Maharaj, who bowled well on debut at Scarborough. The 29-year-old South African returned 3-75 from 23.4 overs in the first innings and 3-69 from 33 overs in the second.

“We knew what we were getting from Kesh because he played for Lancashire last year and we were really impressed with him,” said Gale. “He can do both jobs for us (provide wickets and control), and we’ve felt throughout the season that we needed a spinner who could do that.

“James Logan (the 21-year-old left-arm spinner who played in the previous game) was a bit unlucky, I guess. But we needed someone with a bit more experience in that position to probably give the seam bowlers a rest at the right times, because with the schedule as it is there’s some tired bodies in there.”