Warwickshire 299 (Bell 70, Ambrose 81, Wiese 4-50) lead Sussex 194 for 6 (Stone 6-52) by 105 runs
It generally pays to apply some scepticism to large hauls taken at this time of year. English pitches in April can flatter bowlers who might, on the surfaces prevalent in international cricket, look relatively toothless.
But Olly Stone‘s career-best haul against Sussex was a bit different. This haul was largely in spite of the surface – which was, inevitably in the circumstances, not especially quick – and not due as much to a ball that nibbled or swung much, but a ball that was propelled at unusual pace.
The wicket of Luke Wright was especially eye-catching. Wright, an experienced international player, attempted to duck a well-directed short ball but could only manage to fend it off his face and to the keeper. It was the sort of dismissal that will have England coach Trevor Bayliss, watching the highlights in Australia, salivating. He has wanted such fire-power for some time.
Taken in isolation, some of the other wickets might appear to owe something to fortune. Stiaan van Zyl, for example, edged his attempted upper cut to a short, wide delivery, while Michael Burgess’ impressive innings ended when he edged another attempted cut.
But pace can provoke such errors. And, as Stone hurried and harried the batsmen, it became apparent that he rushed them as few can in English cricket at present. After a winter in which England’s lack of pace became painfully apparent – they have not won any of their most recent 13 Tests away from home – his success is timely.
Stone has long been well thought off by the England management. He represented England U19, he has been on fast bowling programmes and he was invited to bowl at the Ashes squad during the recent Australia tour, when he was in the country playing club cricket. His success does not come out of the blue.
But there had been doubts over his fitness. This was only his second Championship match since a potentially career ending injury sustained in June 2016 (he damaged his anterior cruciate ligament when celebrating the wicket of Moeen Ali in a T20 game against Worcestershire) and to respond so dramatically – he has taken all six wickets to fall so far – was hugely encouraging.
It took Stone only two deliveries to make the breakthrough. Phil Salt, who until then had looked comfortable, was undone by some late swing as he attempted to turn a fall delivery into the leg side only to see it take his leading edge and send a catch to point. Luke Wells wafted at one that may have left him a fraction and Harry Finch attempted to hook one that bounced more than he expected, took the top-edge and looped to short-leg. In conditions where the ball stopped swinging pretty early – Warwickshire’s bowlers felt the wet outfield was the cause – he continued to pitch the ball up, went round the wicket to the left handers and used the short ball sparingly but effectively. Four of the wickets came from shortish deliveries; Sussex’s top five were all dismissed in his first spell.
Is talk of an England call-up premature? Maybe. Certainly Stone will have to back this performance up a couple of times before the first Test squad is picked in just over a month. But at a time when there is an acceptance that a new formula is required by England, Stone has skills that render him one to be watched.
There are other options, of course. There’s Jamie Overton at Somerset. There’s Zak Chappell at Leicestershire. There’s the Toms – Barber and Helm – at Middlesex and a few more (George Garton, Josh Tongue, Stuart Meaker, Mark Wood etc) besides. But some of them aren’t playing and some of them aren’t taking wickets. A good few weeks here could catapult any of them into the mix. Stone’s early impression is not irrelevant.
If nothing else, though, this performance – on his home, Championship debut – marked a heartening step forward. He has endured a long wait since that miserable day when he sustained the injury. There were, he admits, a few dark moments when he wondered if he would ever make it back. Few would begrudge him this success.
It might also serve as a reminder of the value of the ‘smaller’ counties. Stone, like Ben Duckett, developed through the Northants youth system. While the likes of Northants and Leicestershire (where Chappell is developing nicely) may not have excelled in Championship cricket of late, so long as they continue to produce players, they serve a valuable function.
Earlier Warwickshire went within one run of gaining a third batting bonus point before Ishant Sharma punished Tim Ambrose’s attempt to flick one into the leg side. Still the thenth-wicket stand of 77 had taken Warwickshire’s total far above what seemed likely when they sank to 147 for six mid-way through day two. It is just a shame that the rain that robbed us of the first four sessions of the match returned for much of the third and looks certain to have the final word.