In Praise of the Doldrums

Northamptonshire v Kent, County Championship, County Ground, 23-24th May 2016

Leicestershire v Sri Lanka, Grace Road, 20th May 2016

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All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

The doldrums (as in “Northamptonshire cricket is in the doldrums) are not generally thought of as a good place to be.  The maritime doldrums, though (an area of low pressure that results in sailing ships becoming becalmed), are not all that bad, provided the crew are aware of where they are and have enough to drink (unlike the unfortunates in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’).  The warmth of the sun, a slight breeze and no danger of going anywhere in particular … I can think of many worse places to be.

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In that sense, Wantage Road has been in the doldrums this season.  This week’s was the third Championship match I’ve seen, the third to be drawn and the third where at no time did there seem any serious prospect of a result (even without the intervention of the rain).  The scores made there so far have been 487-7, 324, 470, 229-1, 396, 498 and 131-2.  Northants’ lowest score has been 470, there have been two double centuries, three centuries and three nineties.  It would be no surprise if the ground went the whole season without seeing any result other than a draw. This state of affairs is generally blamed on the state of the pitch.

In spite of the bemoaning in the press I am not convinced that anyone at Wantage Road is really that bothered.  The Members (though they might join in with the moaning – any excuse!) want, above all, to watch as many days of cricket as they possibly can, preferably on sunny days.  There is no great incentive for a County like Northants to look for wins to chase promotion; to stand a chance of staying up they would need to recruit a class of player they cannot afford and there is no other substantial financial advantage to being in Division One.  A respectable, high scoring, performance in the Championship will do, while they put most of their efforts into making money and achieving a flicker of glory in the T20 competition.

The batsmen, needless to say, will have no complaints about a nice average at the end of the season and the chance for a little low-risk showboating (there were eight sixes in the Northants innings of 498 I saw, spreading over most of the second and third days).  The only ones who have cause for complaint are the bowlers, particularly the poor old “typically English” seamers, who have been identified (once again) as the cause of everything that is wrong with English cricket, and against whom the abolition of the toss has been aimed.

The bowler most often cited in this connection is (along with Jesse Ryder) Darren Stevens, who, in the absence of Matt Coles (suspended for throwing the ball at someone “in a dangerous fashion”) opened the bowling for Kent with Mitchell Claydon.  He took one wicket (Duckett slapped him straight to point, followed by a heart-rending dumbshow of existential dissent against an indifferent universe), before giving the pitch up as a bad job and retiring to his tent.

This left the burden of bowling to the effortful Claydon and three youngsters, Haggett, Hunn (perhaps known as “Beastly” or “UOK”) and Imran Quyam, a left-arm spinner making his debut (his name makes one think of the Rubaiyat, but I’m afraid his colleagues seemed to be referring to him as “Quim”).  He bowled  41.2 overs without any sign of raggedness or complaint and well deserved the two last-minute tail-end wickets which touched his figures up to 3-158.

The oldest hands at Wantage Road (and I imagine there are a few left) may feel they have been here before.  In his book “A Typhoon Called Tyson“, the Typhoon recalled that “when I first came to the midland county, the pitches had so little pace and were so good that quite often visiting sides had to be content with one innings matches, and a titanic struggle for first innings points.  In one season alone, we had thirteen draws, most of them at home”.  In time, though, the policy changed and “the Northamptonshire policy-makers … began to cater for their strong suit, spin-bowlers.  The groundsman was ordered to prepare spinning wickets by scraping off the grass and leaving the wicket bare on a slow-bowlers’ length. … We never bothered to play a second fast bowler … Quite often the opening partner of the current England quick bowler was a spinner …”.

I did suggest, earlier in the season, that I thought Northants’ best chance of winning matches would be to play Panesar and at least one of their other spinners (they have White, Keogh or Saif Zaib to choose from).  Panesar was given forty overs in the first innings and, in the second, was given the new ball, so it might be back to the days of George Tribe later in the season (assuming, as I say, that they do want to win matches).

An alternative view was offered by the old Northants seamer who stiffly makes his rounds of the ground at most games, a little like the Ancient Mariner, though, unlike him, he is stopped by roughly one in three, who was asked what a Northants side of his vintage would have made of the pitch.  He shrugged indifferently and pointed out that his side had Sarfraz and Bedi and could have pointed out that a Kent side from the same period would have had Underwood and Julien. It isn’t better pitches that are needed, he implied, but better bowlers.

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The other day of cricket I saw last week was the first day of Sri Lanka’s tour match against Leicestershire (or their 2nd XI).  As our side contained three spinners, it will not have given the Sri Lankans much of an idea of what they will be facing in the Tests, but it did give them an opportunity to acclimatise to English conditions, which they achieved by sitting outside in the teeth of a cold wind, wrapped in high-visibility jackets.

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The day’s major talking point was the high-visibility security, which – while not approaching the Presidential levels that accompanied a visit from the ECB hierarchy a few years ago – did seem absurdly disproportionate to the tiny crowd and the feeble level of threat we seemed likely to pose.  But then this is a team who were quite recently attacked within machine-guns, and it is one of the many side-effects of terrorism that we can no longer always laugh easily at absurd things.

In the event, the security men had to protect the Sri Lankans not from gun-toting jihadis but only a gaggle of adult autograph hunters.  I don’t know whether any of the team are fans of Coleridge, but, if so, the line “Unhand me! Grey-beard loon!” may have occurred to them more than once in the course of the afternoon.

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