Leicestershire v Loughborough MCCU, Grace Road, 28-30 March 2017
Northamptonshire v Loughborough MCCU, County Ground, Northampton, 3 April 2017
The first day of a new season is (if you are lucky) a little like the first week of a new school year. I don’t mean that it is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of foreboding and a crushing sense of futility in the face of inevitable failure. No, I mean that it is nice to be back, to see your old friends and colleagues again, to note what has changed and what has not, and to ease yourself back into the old routines before the serious business of the year begins.
It helps, I think, to be returning after a good, long, break, and I must admit that I have been paying little attention to cricket over the Winter (apart from a couple of hours of TMS and the tinnitus of Twitter). The old, re-discovered, routines, the relief of allowing yourself to become absorbed by small narratives again, afford the pleasures of both familiarity and freshness, as if you have, by chance, re-encountered a once-favourite, half-forgotten book or piece of music.
By August, you might be planning a circuitous route around the ground to avoid those dreadful bores X and Y ; in March you are relieved to find that they are still alive. Quirks of the game, such as leaving the pitch for bad light and then returning half an hour later when the light has not visibly improved
can be irksome in August, charming in April. Showers falling, glimpsed through the windows of the Fox Bar, stir memories of Springs past, and, in March, there are, of course, still hopes of sunnier days to come.
Even the collapse of Leicestershire’s top order, unanticipated but at once instantly familiar, prompts bittersweet remembrance of times gone by.
There are even some pleasant new routines, such as the unfurling of the parasols (however swiftly repurposed as umbrellas)
In comparing the start of the season to the beginning of the school year, I am, of course, picturing myself in the role, not of a pupil, but of a rather elderly master (Mr. Chips, perhaps) who has, in his time, seen an awful lot of boys (that is to say, players) come and go, and it is not a trick of the mind that they come and go rather more quickly than they used to. There is no-one left at Grace Road from the Leicestershire squad at the time I began to write this blog in April 2009 (Ned Eckersley, who made his debut in 2011, is the longest serving) and only four of them (Buck, Cobb, Greg Smith and Allenby) are still playing first-class cricket.
The illusion is that we spectators (who return year after year) stand still while the players pass by, but the truth is that we are passing each other on opposite sides of an escalator ; ours is moving too, slowly, almost imperceptibly, but inexorably. Players who have passed by us do, however, sometimes pass by again in different guises, and I was pleased to see James Middlebrook (Semper Eadem) make his debut as an Umpire, alongside the apparently changeless Steve O’Shaughnessy.
A glance at the new scoreboard above (underneath which, palimpsestically, lies the old electronic scoreboard, and underneath that the old manual scoreboard), or the final scorecard (Leicestershire 194 and 113-3 ; Loughborough 278) might induce a certain pessimism about Leicestershire’s prospects for the season, but that would be premature (not wrong, necessarily, but a little too early).
Leicestershire have been preparing for the new season in South Africa, which might help explain why the first five wickets were all clean bowled, all apparently surprised to discover that balls may deviate in line in England on a misty March morning (Cosgrove was visibly baffled, as if a sleight-of-hand artiste had surreptitiously contrived to remove his braces). The Skip had, however, regained his composure by the second innings and Ned Eckersley combined responsibility and fluency to pleasing effect, but apart from those two, Dexter, and the much-heralded but, as yet, unseen Colin Ackermann*, the batting reserves look a little low. In particular, if the openers Horton and Robson were to prove consistently fallible, it is hard to see who would replace them.
On the other hand (and this is a significant advance), we do seem to have assembled a numerically formidable battery of seam bowlers. In addition to Clint McKay (who should have enough fuel left to be good for another 50 wickets) and Ben Raine (always hostile, in one way or another), we have Charlie Shreck (who seemed to be preparing for his expected translation into a coaching role by offering the students plenty of unsolicited advice about their batting technique) and Dieter Klein (who, used in small doses, should surprise a lot of batsmen, as he surprised Alastair Cook last season).
We also have the reliable Richard Jones (lately of Warwickshire), two young stinkers in Gavin Griffiths (who bowled well against Loughborough) and Will Fazakerley, and, of course, Zak Chappell, who, as long-time readers will know, has been my Tip for the Top for a couple of years now. He did not bowl exceptionally well against Loughborough, but, crucially, he did look fit, and ready to bowl at full pace without having to worry about his legs giving way. Given a full season’s bowling, he should have put on a little more speed, acquired some guile and a taste for blood, and become the formidable bowler he is capable of being.
Other than that we have James Burke (on loan from Surrey), who just about qualifies as an all-rounder, and Tom Wells, a genuine all-rounder who may yet surprise me by adapting his game to the four-day format (against Loughborough he made 20 off four balls then slog-hooked one straight to backward square leg, but bowled surprisingly well). As spinners, we have Rob Sayer, a steady off-spinner who relies as much on drift and swerve as spin, Callum Parkinson (half-inched from Derbyshire in dubious circumstances), and James Sykes, who may, I am afraid, have to find another outlet for his undoubted ability to make the ball turn.
The problem in selecting a side from this lot does seem to revolve around the difficulty of exploiting the strength in pace bowling without leaving an unconscionably long tail. For what it’s worth (assuming we have prepared a seaming wicket) my first choice side would be : Horton, Robson, Ackermann, Cosgrove, Dexter, Eckersley, Aadil Ali, Raine, Chappell, Klein, McKay. I suspect, though, we may see more of Shreck and Jones than Chappell or Klein, and Lewis Hill keeping wicket, with Eckersley playing as a specialist batsman.
As for Prospects for the Season, the best I can do is that Leicestershire will be the most unpredictable side in Division 2. If you would like to know what is most likely to happen (but won’t, quite), then consult the odds being offered by the bookies. They are in agreement that Nottinghamshire and Sussex (the two “big clubs”, presumed to have the most money) should be promoted, with Kent and Worcestershire (the sides with the young talent) their main competition. Derbyshire (who looked thoroughly depressed last season) and Glamorgan (who were on the verge of degenerating into a rabble) will struggle, with the severely handicapped Durham, the anonymous but well-organised Gloucestershire, Northants (who have a plan) and Leicestershire somewhere in the middle.
My visit to Wantage Road (I caught one day of Loughborough’s visit there) established, beyond too much doubt, what Northamptonshire’s plan is going to be, and that is the same as last season’s : prepare pitches that ought to be reported to the coroner rather than the pitch inspector, pile up some high scoring draws, then nick a couple of games on the break at the end of the season by preparing a few turners. In three days at Grace Road (with only brief interruptions for rain or bad light) 585 runs were scored for the loss of 23 wickets (the highest score being an admirably painstaking 305 minute 80 by Hasan Azad). A week later, at Wantage Road, three days involving the same side resulted in 1173 runs being scored, for the loss of 15 wickets, with six centuries (three of them fine innings by Loughborough’s Thurston, Kumar and Leicestershire Academy product Sam Evans). So, if you feel short-changed if a match ends early, you know where to head this season …
* Apparently no relation to Hylton Ackermann (whom I watched at Wantage Road in the ’60s) and H.D. Ackermann (Leicestershire’s main source of runs in the middle years of last decade) or even Jan, the guitarist with Focus, (though he does have a Dutch passport).