The Business End of a Squeaky Bum

Leicestershire v Essex, Grace Road, County Championship, Thursday 25th August 2016

 

 

There are various ways of approaching the end of a season. Cardus, amongst other Paterian elegancies, wrote of it “August finds the game, like the sun itself, on the wane.  Now the sands are running out every evening as the match moves towards its close in yellow light; autumnal colours darken play at this time of the year; cricketers are getting weary in limb, and even the spirit has lost the first rapture.”  Football managers prefer the more prosaic term”business end“, or even the regrettably graphic “squeaky bum time“.

Cardus was able to contemplate the pathos of the dying fall in peace because he was writing about the period between the wars when there was only one Division, and the Counties knew their place.  Yorkshire would usually be Champions (12 times between 1919 and 1939), and always finished in the top five.  The other five of the “Big Six” – Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Middlesex and Kent – would finish in the top half of the table (only once, three, three, six times and twice respectively did they fail to do so) : Northamptonshire, Glamorgan, Leicestershire, Somerset and Worcestershire would occupy the lowest rungs of the ladder.

After the War, as the rules regarding qualification were relaxed, the ancien regime began to totter, and, after the introduction of overseas players, mere anarchy was loosed upon the Championship : Yorkshire frequently finished in the bottom five, and even Leicestershire won the title four times***. This situation could not be allowed to continue, and the tendency, since the introduction of two divisions, has been for a gradual slide towards the segregation of the “Big Six” (with Warwickshire replacing Kent) in Division 1 (plus Durham and one or two anomalies, such as Somerset and Sussex) from the lesser Counties, who are confined to the lower Division.  Such is progress.

The two main arguments in favour of this division are as outlined (by no means for the first time – they have been around since the nineteenth century) by Roy Webber in 1958.* The first is that it would “be of benefit in finding a better strain of county cricketer” ; the second is that it “would undoubtedly keep interest high right through to the end of the season … I imagine that we would have “house full” signs if, say, Worcestershire and Leicestershire were playing each other in the last match of the season with promotion to Division One at stake”. The first is an argument for another time, but I am doubtful whether the second has worked out quite as Webber anticipated.

Relegation, it is true, is feared by the bigger counties (particularly by their coaches, who usually get the sack). On the other hand, they can reasonably count on being promoted again, if not at the first attempt, then the second. For the smaller clubs, the brief elation of promotion is usually followed by a season of humiliation and immediate relegation (as Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and – although they managed to hang on for a second season – Worcestershire have recently found out). Mike Newell (the coach of Nottinghamshire, who look likely to be relegated) may be worried about his future, but those of the smaller counties still in contention for promotion may equally be feeling some ambivalence about theirs.

Although it is also not impossible that the scenario envisaged by Webber (of a climactic do-or-die shoot out) might happen (Essex and Kent, who, at the time of writing, are first and second, play each other in the last round of matches), the complexity of the points scoring system and the glacial speed at which things happen in Championship cricket militate against it. It is more likely, that Essex -say – will be promoted if they take two bonus points from their last match, unless Sussex take maximum points from theirs (and, of course, if the rain doesn’t make the decision for them).

All of which is a preamble to my account of last week’s game against Essex, and some attempt to compensate for the fact that I missed most of it, due to family commitments. Essex began the match in first place, Leicestershire in second. If Leicestershire had won, they would have been in serious contention for promotion ; if they drew, it would still have been possible ; if, as actually happened, they lost by an innings within three days, then that hope would be reduced to a mere “mathematical possibility”.

There have been various points throughout the season, which I have previously noted, where Leicestershire have failed to press home their advantage (not enforcing the follow on at home against Northants being the most glaring), but the final, fatal, one seems to have occurred on the second day. Leicestershire made 238 (thanks, largely, to Cosgrove, who has been huge this season). Our secret weapon, our midget submarine, our V2, Dieter Klein, soon had Essex “reeling” at 68-5 (his four wickets included Alistair Cook, yorked for 4), but, in the absence of Clint McKay (or a spinner) to deliver a knock-out blow, they soon stopped reeling, and pulled themselves together enough to make 368-8  by the close of play.

The weather for the third day looked promising, with heavy showers forecast all afternoon, but, in the event, it proved to be the kind of day – low cloud, some overnight rain to freshen the pitch – on which you would least fancy your chances against the side with three of the top six wicket-takers in Division 2 (Napier, Porter and Bopara), and the leader in the bowling averages (the – unfortunately – evergreen ex-Fox David Masters).**

But we tried, we really did. With the score on 53-2, and some light drizzle in the air, Mark Cosgrove gave a masterclass in time wasting, apparently suffering, at the same time, an attack of restless leg syndrome that compelled him to wander out to square leg between every ball, and some kind of obsessive syndrome that meant he had to remove every speck of dirt from the wicket before he could face the next delivery. We in the stands did our bit : we opened umbrellas, looked mournfully to the skies, shook our heads, held out our palms, took shelter from the rain (one of the player’s mothers gave a particularly convincing performance, I thought). We won a brief respite of half an hour or so, but it was no use and – as I have said – the innings defeat arrived shortly after tea.

So that is it, I suppose. There are still three games to play : Leicestershire could finish anywhere between second and, not impossibly, last in the table, but I now feel I can return to my contemplation of the dying fall in peace.  There was little drama, no displays of wild emotion, no-one burst into tears (of joy or despair), and there were no squeaky bums in evidence (though, thanks to the wet seats, there were – topically – a few soggy bottoms).

I was, by the way, impressed by what I saw of Alastair Cook ; not on the pitch (where his contribution this season has been significant for Essex), but by his friendly relationship with the visiting supporters, and his patient dealings with various autograph-hunters and selfie-seekers, some senescent, some juvenile : one young Indian boy (wearing a Union Jack t-shirt) seemed particularly overjoyed to have had a picture taken with him.

Late on in the afternoon he had evidently been called away on some important business (which turned out to be about the tour to Bangladesh).  He had just packed away his kit in his (quite modest) 4×4, and started his engine, when a steward approached with a Mother and child in tow. He turned the engine off again, dismounted, and submitted good-humouredly to another lengthy photo-session.  He didn’t really have to do this, and (however awkward his press conferences might be), I was impressed.

* ‘The County Cricket Championship’ : Sportsman’s Book Club, 1958.

** Precisely the sort of “typically English seamers“, of course, that the ECB is determined to discourage. We shall endure.

*** Wishful thinking. Actually three times.

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13 thoughts on “The Business End of a Squeaky Bum

  1. Four title wins? We should be so lucky. Playfair and Wisden only record 3.

    Disappointed that the Foxes missed out on promotion this season, though with only one side going up this year, the odds were always against us.

    At least we’re likely to have Notts for company next year! 🙂

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  2. Like you, Nick, I’ve always found Cook’s interviews and press conferences hard going. I think he’s improved over the last year or two (goodness knows he’s done enough of them), but for someone with his background he’s always appeared surprisingly inarticulate. However, I think this is essentially down to social discomfort more than anything else – I sense that he’s a background dweller by nature, happiest doing what he does best, scoring runs.

    In this I’ve always been an admirer, and I don’t think that some of the anti-Cook sentiment peddled by a minority of people on Twitter is very representative of the English cricket public as a whole. He may look limited at times (and in some ways he is), but you simply can’t dismiss the number of runs he’s scored. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. As it is, nobody tried as an opening partner for him over recent years can even establish themselves in the side, let alone achieve a fraction of what he has.

    Cricketers are generally nice people. I recently talked to three young Somerset first-team players (one of whom I’d met before) on a club ground, and was struck by how friendly and lacking in ‘attitude’ they seemed in comparison with a lot of lads their age (and in saying that I’m showing my age). They had just won a match, and life was good, but then life is always pretty good if you’re getting paid to do something you’d happily do for nothing. Young professional rugby union players (with whom I also have exchanges from time to time) are much the same – predominantly well brought up and aware of their good fortune in life, regardless of the pressures of their existence (which are, of course, considerable).

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    • Yes, I’m always struck by how polite and respectful the younger players are when I meet them, though I have an uneasy suspicion that this is because if they see you watching a 2nd XI match they assume you must either be someone’s Dad or some kind of scout for another county.
      One of the advantages of not having a Sky subscription is that I generally miss the press conferences, though I very rarely find that player interviews or the “player quotes” that pad out most match reports add anything to my understanding of the game. I wish they didn’t have to do them.
      I imagine the cynics would say that Cook’s apparent niceness is for PR purposes, but it struck me as genuine. He certainly seemed more relaxed and less guarded than he ever does when dealing with the media.

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  3. Well I did it. Enjoyed my first County Championship game that is, if “enjoyed” is the right word after being skittled out for 135 on a pitch that looked to me like a green algae was creeping in from all directions. I even took your advice and pitched up on the roof balcony for the first time. A great view of the action is indeed to be had up there, along with the breeze which I believe was genuine and not artificially created by all those ruffling Playfairs when Jofra Archer was bowling. Quite a good sized crowd I thought (300 ish?) – certainly more than the 30 or so die-hards I expected to be there from those lamenting the death of the county game in the press. Ah well, the weather was glorious once the dampness had departed so I topped up my tan after lunch,..

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  4. Hi, Charlie. Glad you made it, though it’s a pity you didn’t see Leicestershire at their best, to put it mildly. It is a puzzle why they prepared that pitch when Sussex’s strongest suit is their seam bowling. There was a good crowd (I was there too) – the “handful of diehards” cliché is irritating. The biggest factors in the size of the midweek crowd are the weather forecast, the state of the game and how many visiting supporters are there. If you want to see a small crowd (which I don’t suppose you do) try a 4th day when the forecast is for rain.
    Hope you feel inclined to visit again, and that you get to see a better performance next time!

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  5. I managed to book a cheeky day off work and figured the first day would be the one to go for, and I just got lucky on the weather. I suspect the Glamorgan game will be a little more autumnal, but I have it on good authority (from Claire in the Meet restaurant no less) that I must come as the Welsh visiting fans are all lovely, so I might try and head over to at least one day of that game also, and say farewell to the season.

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    • As I remember well, booking days off to watch cricket is a risky business, but (if there’s no rain) you can usually guarantee some play on days 1&2 and there’s usually more of an air of optimism on day 1. Leicestershire might even beat Glamorgan – they’re a very poor side at the moment. I imagine Claire thinks everyone is lovely – she certainly does a lot to raise the spirits and is an adornment to the club!

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