Lesser-spotted Kookaburra announces change to Championship mood music

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Surrey 70 for 4 courses Lancashire 274 (Salt 56, Clark 4-47, Abbott 4-71) by 204 runs

BBC radio coverage from The Oval began with birdsong. After the first eight rounds of the LV= Insurance County Championship season were played with the Dukes ball, Sunday marked the arrival of the Kookaburra.

The idea behind the introduction for these two rounds was simple: the England Test team have struggled to take wickets away from home, especially in Australia. The use of a Kookaburra ball in the championship was floated last summer by Andrew Strauss’ High Performance Review, with the ambition to promote English spinners and sewing machines of “extreme skill”.

“The Dukes ball has a reputation for having more movement for more overs, compared to the Kookaburra ball used in many other countries,” the review said. “This extra movement may also limit seam bowlers’ need for extreme skill development, but also limit spinners’ opportunities due to the success of sewing machines domestically.”

The identities of the bowlers who took wickets on the opening day of Surrey’s fixture against Lancashire did not necessarily match the aspirations of the review. Of the 14 wickets to fall – which would undoubtedly have been more with a more pronounced seam on the ball – only three were taken by bowlers under the age of 30: each for Sam Curran, who returned to first-class cricket after an absence of nearly a year, Tom Lawes and Jack Blatherwick.

There were only three overs with spin, of which Will Jacks conceded 25 runs. “Turn him off!” shouted a Surrey supporter in the JM Finn Stand. “Let it on!” replied a traveling Lancashire fan. But Jacks will undoubtedly have a part in the second innings, as will Jack Morley – the 22-year-old Lancashire left arm spinner, who is preferred to Tom Hartley to play his first Championship game of the season.

The best bowler on the show was the one most familiar with the red Kookaburra. Sean Abbott has taken nearly 200 Sheffield Shield wickets for New South Wales and is a highly skilled, international quality sewing machine; he removed four of the top six when Surrey, the only team nationwide to bowl in winning the toss, bowled out Lancashire for 274 on a green-tinted oval delivery.

“If you compare it to the Duke, it’s probably a bit more consistent in terms of swing up top, and today was probably a bit softer than what I’m used to at home. I would have loved to come here and bowl every game with the Duke, joked Abbott.

“As long as there is a vision to expose younger players to different conditions, I think that can only be a win [for English cricket]. It is clear that the hard work at the international level is winning matches. If this helps young English bowlers then I think it can only be an advantage and a plus.”

After Curran poked Luke Wells into slipping, Abbott hit with his first pitch, pinning Josh Bohannon lbw. His nip backer accounted for Keaton Jennings, returning from a hamstring layoff, and he found some extra bounce from a length to catch Dane Vilas at second slip after counterattacking with Daryl Mitchell.

Mitchell later fell over, beaten by Lawes, and Jordan Clark struck twice before tea as George Balderson fell behind and Tom Bailey made a pull to halfway. Phil Salt, who scored a hundred on his first-class return two weeks ago, made a characteristically snappy 56 from No. 6 before pushing Abbott after tea and Clark then mopping the tail.

In response, Will Williams – another skilled practitioner with the Kookaburra from his days in the Plunket Shield – removed Surrey’s openers, before Tom Bailey had Tom Latham drive to second slip. Surrey recovered but Blatherwick, who had dropped Jamie Smith by Mitchell, caused a drag from Ben Foakes in the day’s final.

Lancashire broadly supports the process, and Salt said Abbott – and his compatriot Daniel Worrall – had provided a template for Lancashire’s bowlers to follow, regularly hitting good lengths and using the crease to create different angles. “I like it. It’s just a little bit different — it keeps things fresh,” he said.

“It wasn’t much different – maybe that’s due to there being a bit more grass left than we would normally play here. It went a little soft at times. I don’t think it stayed that hard.” just as long as the Dukes, but that brings other challenges.” Music to the ears of prom proponents.

But the introduction of the Kookaburra has not been universally popular across the country and the crux of the debate is well known: does the Championship exist primarily to prepare players for England’s Test team, or as a sporting competition in its own right? The 4,000 fans basking in the South London sun on Sunday would lean towards the latter, although the truth probably lies somewhere in between the two.

The Championship is a loss-making business backed by ECB revenue; most of that income comes from a lucrative broadcasting deal backed by Test cricket, which itself relies on the championship for a production line of players. “They are the ultimate oddball couple,” wrote Rob Key in an autobiography published before he became England’s general manager. “Worlds apart, but unable to separate because they are so utterly dependent on each other.”

The pilot’s long-term aim is to understand what impact the Kookaburra will have on the championship as a whole, which the review says will “go on to inform whether a longer-term change needs to be made within domestic cricket.” It’s too early to jump to conclusions, but a riveting first day suggests there’s cause for glee.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98

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