Yorkshire CCC 2016: Top-order failings to blame for inability to retain title

NEARLY, but not quite.

Yorkshire's Ryan Sidebottom appeals to the slip corden to tighten up after chances go to ground during Yorkshire's match with Somerset (Picture: SWPix.com)

This was the story of Yorkshire’s 2016 season.

Going into the last five weeks, Yorkshire were on course to complete the treble.

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But defeat in the T20 semi-finals to Durham was followed by defeat in the One-Day Cup semi-finals to Surrey, and Yorkshire missed out on a hat-trick of Championships when they lost to Middlesex in their final match.

Yorkshire's Tim Bresnan celebrates his century against Middlesex (Picture: SWPix.com)

It says much for the strides that Yorkshire have taken in recent years that a season without silverware was a disappointment.

Prior to winning the Championship in 2014, they had gone the longest of the 18 first-class counties without winning a trophy or topping a league.

Yet the revival that started with Championship promotion in 2012, and which continued with a runners-up finish the following year, has changed expectations.

As well as Yorkshire did to put themselves in contention for all three trophies, they will look back on this summer with some frustration and more than a pang of what might have been.

Yorkshire's Jack Brooks celebrates with Azeem Rafiq and Adam Lyth after dismissing Nottinghamshire's Jake Libby first ball. (Picture: SWPix.com)

In the County Championship, in which they again started as favourites despite the drain on their resources from England call-ups, the thing that most let them down was their top-order batting.

Put simply, it was not consistent enough and heaped too much pressure on the rest of the line-up.

As first-team coach Jason Gillespie lamented after his side lost to eventual champions Middlesex at Lord’s, to finish in third place: “We found ourselves, every second innings that we played all summer, 60-3 or worse.

“The strength of our middle order throughout the season was able to bail us out on a number of occasions, but we were exposed when the middle and bottom order weren’t able to do that.”

Yorkshire's Tim Bresnan celebrates his century against Middlesex (Picture: SWPix.com)

For Yorkshire, the biggest challenge batting-wise was always going to be how to replace the runs of Jonny Bairstow.

After Bairstow’s breakthrough Test hundred in Cape Town last January, it was inevitable that Yorkshire would see little of him going forward.

Last year, Bairstow hit 1,108 runs in nine Championship games at 92.33.

He did not exactly fare too badly this year either, topping the averages with 533 runs at 88.83, but he played in only four Championship fixtures, while Joe Root (240 runs at 80) was restricted to just two appearances.

Yorkshire's Jack Brooks celebrates with Azeem Rafiq and Adam Lyth after dismissing Nottinghamshire's Jake Libby first ball. (Picture: SWPix.com)

Yorkshire tried hard to get round this problem, signing three overseas batsmen at various stages in the form of Kane Williamson, Travis Head and Jake Lehmann.

But a combination of a packed schedule and, in Williamson’s case, fatigue restricted them to just a handful of appearances, highlighting again how the cricket calendar from the international game downwards is wrecked beyond repair.

If Yorkshire were to succeed with the bat, they had to rely on their home-grown players, and openers Adam Lyth and Alex Lees both had 1,000-run seasons and averaged 40.

Lyth top-scored for Yorkshire in all three competitions and came of age as a 50-over player, scoring outstanding hundreds against Northants and Lancashire on successive days in June.

But Gary Ballance will be disappointed with a return of 780 runs in 13 Championship games at 33.91, as will Andrew Gale (525 runs in 15 matches at 21) and Jack Leaning (233 runs in nine appearances at 17.92).

Last year, Gale topped 1,000 runs and Leaning was a richly-deserving winner of the Cricket Writers’ Club ‘Young Player of the Year’, highlighting how both men have a great deal to offer, while Ballance’s track record speaks for itself.

Not for the first time, Yorkshire were indebted to Tim Bresnan for his batting contributions – not least when he kept them in title contention with a brilliant century at Lord’s last week.

Bresnan scored 722 runs in 11 games at 48.13, while Liam Plunkett chipped in with 449 from eight appearances at 44.9.

Five bowlers took 30-plus wickets in the Championship: Jack Brooks 60 at 25.01, Steve Patterson 39 at 29.38, Adil Rashid 32 at 33.84, Ryan Sidebottom 31 at 21.19, and Tim Bresnan 31 at 30.12.

But just as they missed Bairstow with the bat, so Yorkshire missed Sidebottom with the ball; the left-armer was sidelined for three months with a football-related injury before returning to bowl with typical venom.

A word on Brooks...

A third successive 60-wicket summer spoke volumes for his efforts, while he also chipped in with 250 runs at 27.77 from the No 10 position.

It was a splendid performance by ‘The Headband Warrior’, whose wicket tally would surely have been greater still had he not missed two games through injury.

In limited-overs cricket, Yorkshire recovered extremely well from a dire start in the T20, which saw them bottom of the North Group at the halfway stage.

Leaning made good strides as a T20 player, David Willey brought firepower with bat and ball, while the returning Azeem Rafiq was another big plus.

Under Alex Lees, who equipped himself well in his first full season as one-day captain, Yorkshire showed enough to suggest that limited-overs silverware is not far away.

It will certainly be a big priority for whoever replaces Gillespie, with the Australian returning home after five years at the Headingley helm.

Under Gillespie, Yorkshire lost only seven of 80 Championship matches, with three of those defeats coming in the last nine fixtures.

More than that, Gillespie has been a great ambassador for Yorkshire, and, in his own right, as influential a figure in the county’s cricket as was his great friend Darren Lehmann.

At times last summer, it felt like no county was going to put their head above the parapet and win the Championship. There was no standout team – certainly not in the way that Yorkshire stood out in 2014 and 2015 – and the title could easily have gone another way.

But Middlesex got there in the end and, on balance, they deserved it – not least for a brilliant win against Yorkshire at Scarborough in July.

The attacking nature of that performance saw Yorkshire beaten at their own game, and it felt as though a baton had been handed over.

Still, Yorkshire hung in there and never gave up, but defeat to Somerset in their penultimate match – their first Championship reverse at Headingley for almost three and a half years – was followed by defeat at Lord’s for a third successive summer.

Afterwards, an emotional Gale – who had so wanted to mark his benefit season by emulating Brian Close’s achievement of leading Yorkshire to a hat-trick of titles – said that he would reflect on his position as captain.

A first-rate leader of men, there will be many who hope that he elects to carry on.