WITH just 16 points separating the top five in Division One of the LV= County Championship, this season’s title race is shaping up to be the most open in years.
It is also likely to go the distance, especially with the final round of games in September seeing two of the main protagonists, Yorkshire and Somerset, go head-to-head at Headingley.
From a White Rose perspective, therefore, the experience of Ryan Sidebottom – who has won two of his three Championship titles on the final day of a season –may yet prove to be a major factor in the favour of the county.
Certainly, the 36-year-old, set to return tomorrow against Warwickshire at Edgbaston after a little over three weeks out with a hamstring injury, is desperate to claim a fourth winners’ medal to further justify his decision to return to his native county in 2012.
“I came back to this club to win things,” said Sidebottom, who lifted the trophy for the first time in 2001 when with Yorkshire before claiming further success with Nottinghamshire in 2005 and 2010.
“I didn’t come back to just finish my career off with a bit of a knees-up. That definitely wasn’t my thinking.”
This week’s draw at Arundel – which saw Jonny Bairstow hit an unbeaten 161 and Jack Leaning 99 on a dreadfully slow pitch – against Sussex was enough to nudge Yorkshire up to joint top of the table, level on 118 points with Nottinghamshire.
Somerset sit five points adrift in third place, one point ahead of Middlesex while tomorrow’s opponents Warwickshire, who welcomed Jonathan Trott back into the fold in Thursday’s Twenty20 win over Northamptonshire but are yet to decide when the England international should return to Championship cricket, moved on to 102 points courtesy of a resounding triumph at Northampton.
The concertinaed nature of the upper echelons of the top flight table is in contrast to a year ago when the title race was all about just two counties, as Durham came from behind to triumph after overhauling what had looked an imperious Yorkshire lead.
Sidebottom admits the manner in which the north-east county came through at the death was a huge disappointment.
The former England international also admits, however, that lessons were learned as Yorkshire finished 23.5 points adrift in second place.
“Everyone has a bit of a look at the table but you really can’t read too much into it,” said Sidebottom, who has taken 16 wickets in this season’s County Championship at an average of 21.5.
“Last year, we maybe fell into that trap a bit. We were top of the table and had a decent lead. People kept saying, ‘Yorkshire should win’. Maybe we looked at the table and then lost our way a little bit.
“Maybe we were a bit immature in that we didn’t execute the simple plans that had worked well for us all season.
“We lost that big game to Durham (at Scarborough in August), they then went on a great run and that is what I mean when I say how things can change really quickly.”
On the current title race, Sidebottom added: “No team has really hit the kind of form you want to win the Championship.
“Because everyone is beating each other, the table seems to fluctuate on a regular basis and, again, it will come down to who is the most consistent when it comes down to the crunch.
“I have been fortunate to win three championships in my career and two of those were on the final day. That shows that you must keep going to the very end. Things can change so fast in this competition. Win two or three games in a row and that is 70 points, throwing you right up there and maybe giving you a bit of a lead.
“The key is not to get frustrated. Consistency is everything. Put some runs on the board and give the bowlers chance to take 20 wickets.”
Sidebottom’s return after missing the last three matches – which were all drawn – is welcome. It comes, though, as Tim Bresnan steps down to rest a niggling elbow injury.
Adil Rashid, however, is back in the squad after missing the trip to Arundel due to his wife having been due to give birth, meaning Azeem Rafiq drops out.
Andrew Hodd is also added to the squad along with teenage slow left armer Karl Karver.
For Sidebottom, his own return brings to an end a frustrating period on the sidelines. He added: “When you play as long as I have, you are always going to pick up injuries.
“That is part and parcel of any sport. I am not a good watcher of cricket if injured. I get bored really easily and hate watching, knowing I can’t take part.
“Even though I am a little bit older now, I still get jealous when the guys are out there and taking wickets. That is something that is in my make-up, I just want to be out there and performing for the team.
“Having said that, I do enjoy watching the brand of cricket we play that we have been playing these last couple of years.
“What some time out of the side does do, though, is allow you to reflect and the way I see it is I am going to be a new player coming back into the team fresh after four weeks off.”