There comes a point in every season when it starts to curdle. In a hot Summer (which, in our case, we have not had), hot for too long, the grass scorches, flowers wilt and go to seed, rivers choke, tempers fray ; a feeling of satiety, and beyond satiety, excess. Too much heat, too much lager, too much sun, too much fun, just too much ; too much ice-cream, too many chips, too many runs, too many sixes, too much cricket.
The feeling will pass (has passed) : a palate-cleansing visit to an outground, a nip in the air, the first leaves of Autumn creeping on to the outfield, will makes the passing season seem precious again, but, while it lasts, the spell is broken and I see cricket through the eyes of one who cannot see the point. What does it matter if those three little sticks get knocked down? What is so clever about hitting that ball so far? What is the point?
I usually reach this point at about this time, and it’s often at a 50 over game : this year, I pushed my luck by watching three in the space of six days. I witnessed two (I believe) record-breaking innings and more sixes than you could have seen in an average season forty years ago, and, with the exception of one multi-faceted gem, my overwhelming feeling was one of futility, satiety, just too much.
England Lions v Sri Lanka A, Wantage Road, 21st July
Lions fixtures attract unpredictable crowds. I once, for instance, saw Joe Root play one of the best innings I’ve seen, against a strong New Zealand side, in front of a crowd of about 20 at Grace Road ; a few months later, he was playing much the same innings with tens of thousands all ROOOOTing loudly for him. Perhaps because it was a one-day match, perhaps even because it was a day-night match, or perhaps just because it was free, there was an unusually good turnout at Wantage Road for the visit of a poor Sri Lanka A (I’m not sure I want to see Sri Lanka B).
There were quite a few children there (who, as children will, seemed more interested in their own games than the one on the pitch). There were clean-cut young men with a certain swagger, a lot of Jack Wills and Abercrombie and Fitch and yah-ing (and these can’t all have been friends and team-mates of the players). Mr.and Mrs. Percival Bell-Drummond were there, as always, dressed as if for a garden party at Buckingham Palace. The Northamptonshire loyalists had turned out specifically to see Ben Duckett, and then there were a few “passionate England fans”.
On my way in, I passed a couple of elderly regulars, packing their kit up into their old carrier bags and shuffling off, like tramps moved on by the police. One said to the other “imagine having that in your ear all afternoon“. In their usual roost behind the bowler’s arm sat a fat man in a replica shirt bawling into his ‘phone in an estuarine accent “so he said the £40 million was all down to Brexit, so I put the ‘phone down on him“. I didn’t wait to find out whether he did keep it up all afternoon, but I imagine what followed was his idea of a good time.
The first ten overs (the “powerplay”) followed the usual formula. Bell-Drummond played well enough, placing the ball accurately through the gaping holes Sri Lanka were forced to leave in the outfield, most memorably with the sort of bottom-handed gouge that now rivals the traditional cover drive. He is a good player, but this, against some moderate pace bowling, was like playing tennis with no net. Fortuitously, he was stumped for 52 soon after the powerplay had ended and the spinners (Sri Lanka employed four) had come on. This brought the man whom the crowd (including me) had come to see to the crease, to much applause.
This was the second time this season I have seen Ben Duckett play a one-day innings of any length. I have consulted his “waggon wheel” to confirm my memory of it, and there it is, like some exquisite tropical fish, with a fan tail of straight drives and two feathery fins square of the wicket, composed of dismissal-defying cuts, sweeps and reverse sweeps, mostly from turning balls in front of his stumps. Of his eight fours, four were behind square on the off side, as well as two scoop-cum-ramps back over his head off a returning paceman. Once or twice he missed or mis-hit, but, with the luck of the brave, he survived, only to fall to a tame caught-and-bowled, for 61 (which seemed a bit like Al Capone being done for tax evasion).
Duckett is not, as both the Northamptonshire police and Brett D’Oliveira will attest, always innocent of displays of gratuitous bravado, but the beauty of his innings was that the match situation enabled him to put his undoubted virtuosity at the service of the needs of the team, to avoid getting bogged down in the slough of the middle overs. It seemed, as the best batting does, successful against the odds, even if only the narrow ones of some better than inept bowling on a wicket that was taking a little turn.
It was at the same time modern and reminiscent of Jack Hobbs in his fleet-footed pre-War prime, when his party trick was to skip out to leg and cut the ball to the boundary off middle-stump (for which he, like Duckett, was often berated by sober critics for showing off). It was also, unlike those that followed, an innings that he could have played with a Herbert Sutcliffe Autograph. What followed was Dawid Malan’s innings (with Sam Billings in a supporting role).
The facts are that Malan scored 185* off 126 balls, with 8 sixes and 16 fours, the most memorable of which were struck off the front foot back over the bowler’s head. It is a style of batting that would have been entirely familiar to “Buns” Thornton in the 1870s, and would have been warmed the heart of that redoubtable proponent of Golden Age batting, E.H.D. Sewell. The difference is that dear old “Buns”, unlike Malan, would not have been armed with a G&M Maxi F4.5 (or similar) and would have expected to perish somewhere in the outfield before he had reached 50.
The crowd, who did not seem to have been drinking too heavily, seemed rather blasé about this record-breaking innings, though there were a few murmurs of “Yah, gun bat” from the Jack Wills crew, and the children were distracted from their games when they had to scatter to avoid being brained by one of Malan’s sixes. I found it as entertaining a sporting spectacle as someone taking a twelve-bore to a farrowing shed, and was not too sorry when I had to leave before Sri Lanka began their hopeless attempt to overhaul England’s total of 393-5, as the clouds that were to curtail the evening began to loom.
Leicestershire v Yorkshire, Royal London Cup, Grace Road, 24th July 2016
This Sunday had been designated as Superhero Day. Other than Charlie Fox (who was dressed as Superman), only about ten people had come in costume, but there was something appropriate about the theme, in so far as superhero films represent something essentially infantile, but hyper-inflated by technology and hype.
Yorkshire’s innings started entertainingly enough, with Adam Lyth run out in the first over for 2 (he consoled himself by buying a bacon cob from the burger van), and Alex Lees (upright as always) making 32.
After that, Travis Head (who sounds like a permed AOR one-hit wonder from 1978, but is actually an Australian), and Jack Leaning played essentially the same innings as Malan, only this time in stereo. Again the statistics tell the whole story : Head made 175 off 139 balls (4 sixes and 18 fours) and Leaning 131* off 110, with 5 sixes and 7 fours. Yorkshire finished on 376-3. A few years ago these figures would have been extraordinary, but today are anything but.
In the interval Charlie Fox raced a bear, representing a local charity, and various groups of (mainly Muslim) schoolgirls played organised games in the outfield.
It was all very inclusive, and accessible, and sweet, but it seemed, as we settled down on the pop side after the break, that it had not met with universal approval. Two women wearing niqab walked by. “It’s a disgrace. Shouldn’t be allowed” was one loudly voiced opinion from a group of Yorkshire supporters. Shortly afterwards, I heard a woman (whom I did not recognise) complaining to a steward. The only part of her complaint I could hear was “It’s just horrible”.
Another, larger, male steward was summoned and spoke to a well-dressed man, who received the news that he was being asked to leave impassively, as though being thrown out of the ground were an unavoidable, minor irritant of the cricket-watching life, on a par with rain, or bad light. He drained his pint and handed the glass to the steward (without even asking for the £1 deposit back). “I’ll just get me things” said his wife, and off they went.
The fact that their side was taking a drubbing did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of Leicestershire’s Ultras. Early season favourites “Jamie Vardy’s Having a Party” and “We Want Our Country Back” had been mothballed, but any tentative chant of “York-sheer” was met with “Flat Caps and Whippets” and “You Haven’t Even Got a Football Team“. There was some mirthful stuff about burkas, and AIDS ; it wasn’t “racist” (apart from anything else it’s a multiracial group), not even “offensive”, because none of it made any sense.
A woman with short, bleached hair walked past, accompanied by what might have been her grand-children, on the way to the ice-cream parlour. An imagined resemblance to Annie Lennox was spotted, and, on her way back, she was met with a loud chorus of “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”. She looked embarrassed, the man in front of me was literally crying with laughter, and I’d had enough.
We spent the rest of the afternoon on the far side of the ground, a long way from the action, but pleasantly sunlit, as Leicestershire went through the motions of a reply before subsiding, chiefly to Adil Rashid and Aseem Rafiq, after 33 overs. “Leicestershire La La La“sounded quite soothing from over there.
Leicestershire v Lancashire, Grace Road, Royal London Cup, 26th July
I’m not quite sure why I turned up for this one. In the morning, I had to see a woman about a dog,
so only caught Lancashire’s reply to Leicestershire’s 307, which struggled to get going against a makeshift attack devoid of conventional straight-up-and-down pace (Neil Dexter’s medium pace claimed 4-22, and even Paul Horton took a wicket). If I had stayed to the end, I would have seen Leicestershire win by 131 runs (their first 50-over victory for two years), though their interest in this competition (small as it was) ended some time ago.
One source of the batsmen’s discomfort was the debut of Dieter Klein, the German-South African who bowls briskly off five paces, and still has the element of surprise. At one point, he fielded a firmly struck cover drive off his own bowling and was back at his mark before the batsmen had decided whether to run or not. If nothing else (and he did take 2-38), he offers a one-man solution to slow over rates.
I was also intrigued by the appearance of a half familiar bearded figure, a cross between Bob Dylan and a Renaissance Christ, acting as a substitute fielder for Leicestershire.
Who was this apparition? Well, that’s a story for next time.