Leicestershire v Derbyshire, Grace Road, LVCC, 4-7 August 2016
Those of us who follow cricket, in particular County cricket, are often accused of “living in the past“, or painting a “rose-tinted“, “sepia” picture of it (though what – in the age of Instagram filters – could be more modern?). There is some truth in this (though I would argue that nostalgia, in the sense of homesickness and a consciousness of loss, is about the most profound experience the game has to offer), but what we are equally prone to do is to live in the future, and a rosy future at that.
As soon as a season’s fixtures are published, in the depths of Winter, we map out dream itineraries, new grounds to visit, old faces to re-encounter ; we dream of warm Springs, high Summers, poignant Autumns. A new face in the side sparks hope ; a few decent strokes and we are watching the next Gower, a hint of real pace from a debutant and he is giving the Aussies hell at the Gabba. Needless to say, we are usually disappointed, but not for long, as there is always another season, and new new faces to look forward to.
What we do not often do, between looking back and looking forward, is to live in the present, but there is always one moment, one day in the season, when we would not wish to be anywhere else in time. For many, I imagine, it would come at a Test, or at the moment of some personal triumph, but for me, this year, it came on the fourth day of what turned out to be a drawn game between Leicestershire and Derbyshire at Grace Road.
It helps that, for the first time since I began writing this blog in 2009, Leicestershire still have a realistic chance of being promoted at this stage of the season. Unfortunately, due to the number of drawn games this year, so do five other Counties, but it does mean that, for once, thoughts at Grace Road have not yet begun to turn to the hope of better things next year.
I joined the game shortly before lunch on the third day, with Derbyshire about a hundred short of Leicestershire’s first innings total of 380, with eight wickets down. This soon became nine and the Foxes must have been content to postpone their lunches in the expectation of polishing off the young debutant off-spinner, Callum Parkinson. Unfortunately Parkinson (who, through rose-tinted spectacles, is clearly the new Graeme Swann) proved to be a wolf in rabbit’s clothing, and had no difficulty in holding them off until hunger drove them into the pavilion.
Over lunch it seemed to dawn on Leicestershire that this might be the precise moment when promotion slipped away from them, because they re-emerged with the seeming plan of trying to bully the youngster out. “Let’s give him a nice easy game lads, lots of half volleys” came a voice from behind the stumps (which must have puzzled the lad, as this was pretty much what they had been doing for the previous half hour). “He’s only 19” bellowed Charlie Shreck from the boundary, menacingly, like the Great Long Legged Scissor Man. “Better than being 39“, retorted a nearby Derbyshire supporter, piquantly (the bowler pondered this melancholy truth in silence).
Parkinson was left stranded on 48*, having put on 73 for the last wicket to bring his side to within 18 of Leicestershire’s total. For the second time in the match, Leicestershire’s prospects looked bleak when Ned Eckersley came in at number 7, with the score at 103-5 (in their first innings, they had been 138-5 before he scored his first century).
Edmund “Ned” Eckersley has been weaving in and out of this chronicle since he made his first appearance as a triallist in 2011 (as “the man with no squad number” and an impressive portfolio of nicknames). In 2013 he scored over a thousand runs at an average of over 50, and was neck and neck with a certain Moeen Ali as the leading run scorer in Division 2. His highlight that season was scoring two centuries in the match against Worcestershire, many of them off the innocuous looking off-spin of the same Moeen.
After that, through the lean years, he seemed miscast as senior batsman and rock of the side at number three. He became introverted and crabbed, weighed down with responsibility, and began to exhibit Trott-like symptoms, such as obsessive crease-scratching. The runs dried up, his average declined (27 in 2014, 25.74 last year). He was said to crave a return to his native Smoke, he wrote a piece for the Cricketer and tried some work experience as a journalist. So far this season he has been sidelined with a broken finger (perhaps sustained through excessive typing).
Eckersley has a whiff of Bohemia about him : unusually for a modern cricketer, he would look more at home in the Cafe Royale than Nandos. My first mention in “Wisden” singled out a description of his beard, on its first appearance, as “scrubby” and “rabbinical”. Since then, it has been through an Assyrian phase, and a crypto-hipster one, before settling on an unstyled long hair and beard combo which makes him look, with the white-rimmed shades Leicestershire currently sport, like a Greenwich Village folksinger who has just discovered LSD and is about to go psychedelic, or, perhaps, Robert Powell in the role of Jesus of Nazareth.
Being moved down to number 7, with six experienced batsmen above him, does seem to have allowed him to play as he would he choose to, freed from constraint. Early on he was watchful and fastidious in his choice of strokes ; as the danger receded, his top hand took over and was given free rein in the covers. By early afternoon he was approaching his second century, and Leicestershire were in a position where a declaration might have tempted Derbyshire into a hazardous run-chase. But Eckersley was allowed to bat on (it didn’t help that he was, through no fault of his own, stalled for 15 minutes on 99) and that moment passed.
Derbyshire were listing badly at 5-2,, but Madsen and Thakor righted the vessel and the two sides shook hands on a draw. I thought they did so a little prematurely, but then I noticed a barbie was already smouldering behind the pavilion (perhaps set up by the families of the Australian contingent, who sometimes turn sunny days at Grace Road into a scene from Home and Away). No doubt Eckersley, whose 27th birthday was the next day, would be offered the choicest cuts, but I hope they kept a sausage or two for young Parkinson.
Eckersley was allowed to lead the sides off the field : there is a wonderful photograph of that moment by Ed Melia, which suggests what made it, for me, the day of the season (you can see it here). Aside from its formal qualities, it seems to capture the precise moment when a player’s career is at its absolute zenith, neither promising nor declining, looking neither forward or back, the moment, perhaps never to be repeated, when he would not wish to be anywhere else.
Ripeness is all.
Northamptonshire v Leicestershire, County Ground, LVCC, 13-16 August 2016
I suggested, at the start of the season, that Northamptonshire’s strategy in the Championship seemed to be, bearing in mind that they have a reasonable batting side, but apparently weaker bowling, to prepare dead pitches, opt for high-scoring draws and hope to “nick one on the break” towards the end, when sides in contention for promotion might be inclined to make sporting declarations. That has proved accurate, the only game at Wantage Road that has not been drawn being the slightly freakish defeat by Worcestershire. This game was another that would have gone into its second week, had it not been for a sporting declaration : the surprise was that it came from Northants, and not Leicestershire.
In their first innings, Leicestershire compiled 519, with three centuries, including a third in three innings for Eckersley (which I missed, not being there on the Sunday). On the Monday, Northamptonshire had reached 397-7 (Newton 202*) when, to the surprise of all, they declared. On the Tuesday, to the surprise of most (but not me), Leicestershire batted on to set Northants a notional target of 405 in 51 overs.
The shadow-boxing on the Tuesday had the unfortunate effect of casting doubt on the validity of 18 year-old slow left armer Saif Zaib’s figures of 5-148 off a very long 26 overs. In fact, though some of his wickets did come off silly hoicks, he could easily have had five legitimate ones, if there had been more close catchers in place. It also, unfortunately, ruined Eckersley’s chances of equally C.B. Fry’s record of six centuries in succession, as he was caught at long on for 1, off a ball by – of all people – wicket-keeper David Murphy. He might have preferred to bat the day out.
Those who enjoy living in the past had an opportunity to re-enact it on the Monday, when various members of the side who won the Gillette Cup in 1976 were having a re-union (and those, like Mushtaq, who could not attend were there in spirit, on a big screen). Sarfraz Nawaz, looking only a little less like Omar Sharif than he did in his heyday, was cornered in the car park by the same men, I suspect, who, as boys, had cornered him there forty years ago. I don’t suppose they sang “Forty Years On”, though parts of it would have been appropriate.
Leicestershire will play the current leaders, Essex, at Grace Road this coming week, without their bowling talisman and leading wicket-taker, Clint McKay, who pulled up lame towards the end of Northamptonshire’s first innings (the chief reason they did not declare earlier). Defeat would make promotion for Leicestershire improbable, and though I would not underestimate the acumen of our Australian management team, they might – assuming they really want us to be promoted – find themselves looking back in regret at a few of the dies that they have declined to carpere over the course of the season.
On the other hand, though, young Zak Chappell looked about ready to bowl again, and, anyway, there’s always next year …