Leicestershire v Durham, County Championship, Grace Road, 6-7 August 2017
Leicestershire v Yorkshire, T20 Blast, Grace Road, 12 August 2017
In my last post, I pictured the stand-alone Championship fixture against Durham, beckoning from the horizon like an oasis in the cricket-desert of mid-Summer. In the event, it turned out to be something of a mirage, or, at best, a roadside burger van that had run out of sauce. The most memorable moment of my two days at Grace Road was witnessing the ‘Leicester Mercury’’s roving reporter insisting on having gravy, instead of custard, on his eve pudding. Having nothing to do but watch cricket all day undoubtedly permits the full expression of one’s eccentricities, but I sometimes cannot help wondering whether that is entirely a good thing.
The match was, as anyone who had read the weather forecast would have known, a priori doomed (as predicted, days three and four were washed out). The same could be said of Durham’s season (even more so than Leicestershire’s) : having been relegated, by order of the ECB, a further imposition of a 36-point penalty means that their chances of promotion are negligible. In addition to having Stokes, Wood and Jennings on loan to England, they have been compelled to release Stoneman and Borthwick (along with Jennings, their leading run-scorers last season). Hoping, at best, to regroup, and find some replacements for their missing stars, they have struggled to the extent that only Leicestershire lie below them in the table.
This might go some way towards explaining their tactics, which seemed to disregard the issue of points altogether, as irrelevant to their situation (or perhaps they simply hadn’t read the weather forecast). If they were in contention for promotion, they would, having chosen to bat, have been well-advised to move smartly enough along to gain maximum batting points, declare, and hope to bowl Leicestershire out, if not twice, then quickly enough to bag three bowling points.
As it was, their openers, Cameron Steel and the New Zealander Tom Latham, batted serenely through the first two sessions, and gave every indication of carrying on in that vein until the rains came. In the event, Latham, who had been the more energetic of the two, tired late on the first day and departed with the score on 234. Steel, however, carried on until, shortly after he reached his double-century, a switch was thrown and Durham began to hit out (not, I think, Steel’s strong point), before declaring, unnecessarily late, on 525-8.
Steel has come to the North-East by a circuitous route (born in California, childhood in Australia, Millfield, Middlesex, Somerset and Durham University). He is clearly run-hungry and risk-averse enough to make a significant score against some undemanding bowling on a predictable pitch, but whether he is capable of doing so regularly is hard to say. He might turn out to be the new Andrew Strauss, or he might find himself relegated to the 2nd XI when Jennings returns. If he turns out to be any good, of course, I suppose he will end up at Surrey.
Leicestershire, weakened further by injuries, gave the impression that they would rather be anywhere other than Grace Road. In the field they were all but silent : Ben Raine, their usual cheerleader and irritant, who has now been out since June, prowled the boundary, looking as though he’d like a few words with someone he suspected of pinching his wallet. Perhaps he might be positioned on the dressing-room balcony, where he could offer encouragement through a loud hailer (though I imagine the ECB might take a dim view of that).
At the beginning of the season, I wondered how Leicestershire would find room in the side for all the seam bowlers we seemed to have acquired. Having lost Shreck (retired in disgust), Burke (returned to Surrey, now released from the game), Jones, Raine and Chappell (long-term injuries), and with McKay and Pillans also nursing ailments, the flagging Klein, who is not suited to being a stock bowler, and the tireless Griffiths (who is), were unexpectedly reinforced by, of all people, Ajmal Shahzad, who has, apparently been released by his third county, Sussex. It must seem a very long time to him since he was playing for England.
With the clouds already beginning to gather, Leicestershire went through the motions of a match-saving reply, with Harry Dearden making 30 from 109 balls. While I was watching him bat, Geoffrey Boycott was on the radio, asking whether there is anyone in county cricket capable of batting two hours to make 30. I’m not sure Dearden is quite what he had in mind.
A happy feature of the game was that Neil Dexter, who has been out of the side “for personal reasons” was back on the pitch. When Durham came to throw the bat, it was mostly at his bowling, and he picked up 5-71. The gods of cricket, so often accused of cruelty, can also be kind, sometimes.
Part of the reason for Leicestershire’s distracted air against Durham might have been that the game had come as something of a distraction from their T20 campaign, which, although I have not been following it too closely, has been more successful than their efforts in the Championship. They won their first four games, all away from Grace Road, then lost the next four at home, in dismal weather, mostly narrowly, or in vaguely farcical circumstances. The previous evening they had defeated Northamptonshire at Wantage Road.
It was something of a revelation to see them in action in a different context, rather like seeing one’s work colleagues, freed from workaday constraints, out for a night on the town. Colin Ackermann, whose batting is usually the soul of restraint, gaily flicked the ball over his shoulder, with the air of Maureen from Accounts tripping the light fantastic in fishnets and a feather boa.
In fact, the afternoon was, to a T20 novice, a revelation in a number of respects. Grace Road had been transformed into a cross between a holiday camp and an airport food court. I didn’t notice any eve pudding and gravy on offer, but most sane culinary tastes were catered for : beer and balti, the Spice Bazaar, a burger van, a hog roast and an ice cream van, and, for the more traditional fan, lashings of delicious lager. Various antic young people patrolled the perimeter on stilts, others fired T-shirts advertising Pepsi Max into the crowd from small bazookas (perhaps they should try firing MCC cravats into the pavilion at Lord’s).
Slightly to my surprise, the Yorkshire supporters were heavily outnumbered by Leicestershire fans. It must have helped that Leicester City had played at home the previous evening, whereas most of Yorkshire’s football clubs were playing that afternoon. Another factor may have been that Yorkshire had played and beaten Lancashire the previous evening and some of their supporters may have been in no fit state to make the journey.
Once the match started, I was struck by how negative the tactics were, given that the game is sold on the basis that it consists of all-out attack. It resembled a kind of asymmetrical warfare, whereby a weaker side (Leicestershire) can overcome a stronger enemy (Yorkshire) whom they would have little hope of defeating in an open battle (or a four-day game) by successfully harrying and frustrating them.
Yorkshire batted first, and, though Kohler-Cadmore (who began the season playing for Worcestershire) made the highest score of the day (75 out of a total of 182-5), their innings never quite got going, and none of their more fluent scorers were able to flow. Leicestershire used seven bowlers (3 seamers, 3 spinners, 1 medium pace), swapping them at the end of almost every over. I could see nothing obviously innovative about the bowling, or indeed the batting, just a lot of niggling and nibbling, gouging and scuffing and general frustration.
An effect of Leicestershire’s predominance in the crowd was that, although the small children enjoyed the boundaries (marked by a quick burst of what sounded like “Club hits of 1992”), the real appreciation among the aficionados was reserved for the bowling of a “dot ball”. In this respect Gavin Griffiths, bowling exactly the kind of good honest fast-medium stuff he’d been peddling to so little effect against Durham earlier in the week, was the hero of the hour, as half of his 18 deliveries resulted in no score. If anyone had succeeded in bowling a maiden (no-one did, though Adil Ali nearly managed it with his occasional off-spin), I imagine the expression of collective joy would have been on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
When Leicestershire came to bat, the game was as good as settled in the second over, in which off-spinner Azeem Rafiq served up an entire over of delicious tripe, which have-boots-will-travel Austro-Kiwi Luke Ronchi, pausing only to stuff a napkin down the front of his shirt, tucked into to the tune of (I think) 22 runs. Leicestershire were well ahead of the required run-rate (scoring at over ten an over) until the mid-way stage when, with their three big-hitters gone, Colin Ackerman was left to shepherd the potentially wayward flock home. Renouncing his earlier flamboyance, he seemed to be, with the help of a succession of short-lived assistants, trying to get them in singles, finally overtaking Yorkshire’s total with two balls to spare.
I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. The weather was fine, the crowd in amiable mood, I had a delicious chicken curry for lunch and – crucially – Leicestershire won. It was even over in time for me to catch the last bus home.
I would not say, however, that it has done anything to assuage my anxieties about the future of County cricket. As, say, a once-a-fortnight Saturday afternoon diversion, T20 has its attractions, but if it were ever to become the only form of cricket available, I think that would be the end of my interest in the game.
I also wonder about the future of the new city-based competition. T-shirts and face-painting will only go so far to attract the new child-centred audience it is intended to attract, and some further tweaking of the rules may be required to ensure a regular supply of the boundaries they have been promised. The dot-ball enthusiasts, on the other hand, are only enthusiastic because it is Leicestershire delivering them : some amorphous regional entity based in Nottingham is unlikely to attract this faction either.
Still, at the time of writing, Leicestershire are hopeful of qualifying for the quarter-finals and, if they do, I am very tempted to watch them. Just call me a glory hunter.