Staffordshire’s head of cricket Dave Cartledge will cast his eye over new and familiar faces when the county return to action this weekend.
The coronavirus pandemic has seen all three of the National Counties Cricket Association competitions scrapped, but teams have been encouraged to arrange friendlies.
Staffs make their summer bow against Warwickshire at the Edgbaston Foundation Sports Ground on Sunday in two Twenty20 encounters.
It will be the first time the players have taken part in a game since September’s Championship final against Berkshire at Banbury, which resulted in an agonising one-wicket defeat.
Staffordshire have named a 14-man squad for the games, which features some usual suspects, as well as up-and-coming young players.
Cartledge says it’s an ideal chance for players to impress as he turns his attention to formulating plans for the 2021 campaign.
“It’s been a while since we played,” said Cartledge. “I think we’ve got a good side and we’ll look to play everyone at some stage.
“It is never a bad time when there’s a county game to score some runs or take some wickets.
“Everyone is in the hat. For some it will be a new experience, while for others it will be routine because they’ve played for a long time.”
Walsall batsman Amit John is among the new names in the fold, along with Porthill Park spinner Harry Bailey, Longton seamer Alex Coates and Leek paceman Rory Haydon.
John, in particular, has been in impressive form for Walsall so far this summer.
He averages north of 70 in the Birmingham League and scored an unbeaten 135 in the first match of the season to see his side to victory over Harborne.
“Amit is a top-order batsman and he’s got a fair few runs already this year,” added Cartledge.
“We have had him in the development side before, but it was on a wet wicket at Audley against a Lancashire side who were not the worst, so it wasn’t a true test.
“It will be good to see him and he’s probably better now. It’s not quite a fair test in T20 cricket, but it can’t be bad to see him in action.
“We have experience in Peter Wilshaw, Alex Mellor and Michael Hill, so the youngsters can come in and learn from them.”
Another fresh face is left-arm spinner Toby Bulcock, who signed for Staffordshire over the winter from Cumberland.
The 29-year-old took 342 wickets in all competitions for Cumberland and has a reputation as a match-winner on the minor counties circuit.
“It’s an opportunity for Toby to come in, meet some people and send a few overs down,” explained Cartledge.
“He’s always keen to play cricket and he’s probably the best spinner in minor counties cricket at the moment.
“I’ve seen a bit of Rory Haydon this year and he’s done well. It will be good to see him, Alex Coates and Harry Bailey in action.
“We are not afraid to bring people in and have a look, while also keeping a balanced side.
“In my eight years there have been quite a few changes and we’ve done very well. It’s not as if we are bottom of t he section and need drastic changes.
“We’ve been pretty successful, albeit not in T20 cricket, but in the other two disciplines, and I would say that’s going to continue for the foreseeable future. We’re good at three-day and 50-over cricket, so we’ve got to look at T20s now.
“When we start next year, if we can win all three, that would be great.”
Warwickshire have a first-team game against Worcestershire at the same time, but Cartledge is still expecting to face a strong Bears XI.
And from a Staffs perspective, he will also have to pick a captain for the day following Sam Kelsall’s resignation as skipper – without taking charge of a game – earlier this month.
“They will put a strong side out,” said Cartledge, who has guided Staffs to two Championship titles and the one-day final during his tenure.
“Their batting has struggled in the County Championship, so they might make some changes and we’ll see people drop down.
“The T20 Blast is also around the corner, and with 26 pros – or something like that – the 11 they put out will be very good.”
Sunday’s match is behind closed doors and no spectators or family are permitted to attend.
Staffordshire (from): Zen Malik (Blythe), Amit John (Walsall), James Middleton (Walsall), Matthew Morris (Moddershall & Oulton), Peter Wilshaw (Meakins), Michael Hill (Meakins), Alex Mellor (Leek), Matthew Coxon (Stone SP), Spencer Byatt (Little Stoke), Toby Bulcock (Middlesbrough), Grant Thornton (Berkswell), Harry Bailey (Porthill Park), Alex Coates (Longton), Rory Haydon (Leek).