Ben Jones looks at how the Welsh Fire performed on draft-day, and how their squad is shaping up.
Squad: Ollie Pope, Kieron Pollard, Jonny Bairstow, Jhye Richardson, Tom Banton, Jake Ball, Ben Duckett, Ian Cockbain, Qais Ahmad, Josh Cobb, Liam Plunkett, David Payne, Ryan Higgins, Matt Critchley, David Lloyd
Draft Activity: Kieron Pollard (100k), Jhye Richardson (80k), Jake Ball (60k), Ian Cockbain (48k), Josh Cobb (40k), Matt Critchley (24k), David Lloyd (24k)
With seven players to bring in, Welsh Fire were the second busiest team on Monday lunchtime. The headline move of the day, perhaps for any team, was the arrival of Kieron Pollard. Arguably the greatest T20 player ever in terms of weight of trophies, Pollard brings vast experience, as well as formidable hitting power. Joining him were two seam bowlers in the shape of Jhye Richardson (new ball quick from Western Australia, very much in fashion) and Jake Ball (Blast 2020 leading wicket-taker) give their attack some oomph, while Blast experience was the order of the day further down the draft with Ian Cockbain and Josh Cobb well-sought after domestic players.
Fire have exploited their home ground nicely with the way they’ve built their squad. The famously short straight boundaries in Cardiff make spin a treacherous business, and so they have gone pace-heavy with their attack: expect Qais Ahmad to be matched with Josh Cobb as the two spinners in a six man attack, turning the ball in opposite directions for match-ups. Equally, Critchley is a very useful option for when conditions are more favourable to spin, so in terms of flexibility and balance, Fire have set up well.
Yet their strength is absolutely their batting. As and when they face spin themselves, Fire should be well placed. Ollie Pope, Jonny Bairstow, and to a lesser extent Tom Banton are all hard hitting and effective against spin bowling, while Ben Duckett (striking at 153 against spin for the last two years) offers a left-handed option in there as well. Pollard himself is a huge strength. Since the start of last year he’s the quickest scorer in T20 cricket, striking at a remarkable 199 in that form of the game. Pollard’s role is unlikely to change as the format shortens, and Fire supporters will be hoping neither does his effectiveness. He may be advised to spend a portion of his 100k on an assistant to go and fish his sixes out of the Taff.
While batting depth is likely to matter less in Hundred cricket than T20, a simple factor of its length, Fire’s line-up bats all the way down. Plunkett at No.9 is good boundary clearing depth throughout the side, and while he may only face a handful of deliveries across the season, batsmen often speak of the psychological benefits that come with knowing there’s plenty of batting below you. With players like Banton and Bairstow at the top – players who are keen to start at 100mph – this could prove useful.
While Fire have done well to build their attack around their home conditions, they are still underpowered in terms of quality. Richardson is a very exciting young bowler, but he has had significant injury issues – those watching him unable to throw the ball in from the boundary during the BBL can attest to that. Ball is a very attacking quick and his strike rate of 14 over the last few seasons shows just how effective he can be, but an economy rate of 9.1rpo is a concern. Liam Plunkett has been a brilliant white ball bowler in recent times but he will be 36 by the time the first ball is bowled – his recent Blast season (7 wickets in 6 matches, but with an economy of just 7.1rpo) offers proof that he still has the physical attributes, but when fast bowlers reach this stage of a career nerves do start to jangle. At the other end of the spectrum, Qais Ahmad, only 20 years old, is at the stage of his development where batsmen are still relatively flummoxed by his variations, and Fire will be very eager for that to remain the case – a lot rests on his young shoulders.
Availability will be a concern, on top this. While Ollie Pope can be reasonably expected to stay with the Test team throughout the summer, playing in Welsh red only during the allocated window, the availability of Jonny Bairstow is less certain. If Ben Foakes continues his excellence when given the opportunity to play Test cricket, then Bairstow may fall more straightforwardly back to third choice keeper, and be allowed to stay with Fire throughout. If that happens, then it’s a huge boost – if not, it’s a blow to their strong suit.
Likely XI: Banton +, Bairstow, Duckett, Pollard, Cockbain, Cobb, Higgins, Richardson, Plunkett, Qais, Ball
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.