Leicestershire (429-9 dec.) v Sussex (438-8 dec. & 241/4 dec.), County Championship, Grace Road, 20-23 April 2018
Leicestershire’s first home match of the new Championship season was chiefly remarkable for its lack of incident.
It ended in a draw at the end of the fourth day, with minimal interruption by rain or bad light, with both sides having made 400 in their first innings before declaring, and Sussex having batted out the last day, with no serious prospect of any result other than a draw.
This was remarkable in the context of what has been occurring elsewhere in the first two rounds of the Championship : of the 30 games played so far, 27 have resulted in wins (most within three, or even two, days), one was washed out (because of the drains in Leeds) and only two have ended in draws (the other, also involving Sussex, was rain-affected). Much of the credit for Grace Road being such an oasis of calm in this sea of tumult (if you can have an oasis in a sea) must go to the ground staff for producing a pitch that was far from dead (as the slow rate of scoring attests), but not unnecessarily lively.
It was also remarkable in the context of Leicestershire’s recent performances, in which dramatic turnarounds in fortune (in the wrong direction) have become a wearisomely predictable feature. If, in cartoons, you can spot a rake lying on the ground, it is a safe bet that someone will step on it : if Leicestershire make a reasonable start, a calamitous collapse is sure to follow ; if we score some telling blows against the top order, the tail is sure to wag gaily. Although there was a little of the latter, it was something a relief to make it to the end of a fourth day with no truly unpleasant shocks to the system.
The first session of a new season always compels close attention, if only because it is the last time when anything is possible. Sussex had chosen to bat, a little surprisingly, given that the early morning had been overcast and there looked to be moisture in the wicket. Leicestershire’s selection (Chappell and Klein had been omitted in favour of Griffiths) hinted at the strategy they seem to have adopted of ‘bowling dry’ (which might be Nixon’s idea, or something Carberry picked up from his spell with England).
Last season, Zak fired away fast and furiously with the new ball to an attacking field, which could be thrilling to watch, but could also result in the opposition having 50 on the board by the end of the first half hour. Mohammad Abbas (or, as his sweater described him ‘Abass’ – perhaps our kit manufacturers have strong views on the correct transliteration of Urdu) and Griffiths set the tone for the day by bowling with scrupulous accuracy (and hostility, in Abbas’s case) to an astutely set field. Luke Wells was the first wicket to fall, with the first bowling change in the ninth over, caught behind off Raine, when he had made 2, and the score was 23. Fellow-opener Salt, who had been a little more productive, was out in the same way two runs later (I suppose Zak could have peppered him with bouncers, but we are in no position to throw away an early advantage for the sake of a cheap pun).
The same pattern persisted until the early afternoon, with all the bowlers (save Raine) bowling almost as many maidens as not. Every time a bowling change was made a wicket fell (as with the field placings, I prefer to put this down to Carberry’s astuteness, rather than beginner’s luck). Parkinson removed van Zyl with his second ball (which was to prove his last wicket, though he bowled another 50 overs), with the score on 115-4. The bowling remained as dry as a kookaburra’s khyber, but the gap between wickets was lengthening.
As the afternoon wore on, the heat increased, the ball softened, and Leicestershire must have felt that they were in danger of losing this war of attrition. Carberry had six front-line bowlers at his disposal (all-rounder Ateeq Javid had replaced Eckersley (‘niggle’)), and he tried them all in turn, like a man with too many pockets searching for a misplaced bus ticket. Ben Brown and Luke Wright became a little expansive, and tea and the new ball seemed a long way off. In the evening session, fortified by the new ball (and one of Mr. Stew’s excellent teas), Abbas had Brown caught behind, and Raine, who sometimes seems able to take wickets through sheer force of will, took two in two balls to leave Sussex on 254-7 at the close of play.
Anyone unfamiliar with Leicestershire (and a few hopeful souls who are all too familiar) would have been expecting, when play resumed the next morning, that, with only one recognised batsman left, the Sussex tail would be neatly and bloodlessly docked. But, I am afraid, Leicestershire reverted to type and the same two batsmen, Michael Burgess and Ishant Sharma, were still at the crease in mid-afternoon, with Burgess approaching his century and the total approaching 400. What makes this more galling (and may have added a couple of inches in height to his celebratory air-punching) is that Burgess was released by Leicestershire in 2016 .
As soon as he had made his century, Sussex declared on 438-8, the skies darkened and a shower of rain arrived to freshen up the wicket like a quick squirt of Trumper’s Extract of Limes. On the resumption, Paul Horton, who may be in for a very long (or very short) season, was trapped lbw by Sharma without scoring, to be replaced by Colin Ackermann, who had inherited the vexed position of no. 3, in the absence of the niggled Eckerlsey.
Ackermann is, by the standards of the modern cricketer, of medium height and build, with an unremarkable haircut and no visible tattoos, and rather looks as though he should be walking to the crease in a business suit, carrying an attaché case containing a packed lunch and a copy of ‘The Times’. Although he made two centuries last season (including a heroic one in the legendary day-night match at Northampton), he has sometimes given the impression that he only feels contractually obliged to make 30. Carberry (again a study in concentration) was, like his opening partner, snared by Sharma shortly before the close for 32, but, by then, he and Ackermann had deftly sidestepped the obvious rakes to finish on 112-2.
The Sunday had something of ‘while the cats are away, the mice will play’ about it. Last season, Sussex had come to the game armed with the near Test-quality bowling of Philander, Archer and Jordan. With Archer and Jordan away at the IPL (and Garton apparently injured), the Leicestershire batsmen must have felt like Wyatt Earp taking on a Clanton gang who had left their six-shooters back at the ranch : of the bowlers, only Sharma offered any real threat, and the pitch, by now slightly sluggish and lacking in bounce, offered him little assistance.
I even felt sufficiently confident that there would be no ‘unexpected‘ collapses to leave at 3.00, secure in the knowledge that there would be a fourth day worth returning for. Cosgrove (who has now, including the warm-up matches, made fifties in eight out of his last ten innings) made 64 to escort Ackermann into safe waters, like a sturdy tugboat escorting a stately liner out from the harbour. With Dexter and Raine in supporting roles, Ackermann made 186, one short of his career best, which he achieved over our Winter in South Africa. He may yet be discovered to have a superhero outfit lurking under that business suit.
Leicestershire’s total of 422-9 (for once, we had the luxury of declaring) was enough to put the match beyond Sussex and – barring a really surprising turn of events – ourselves. There might have been a brief quickening of the pulse when Abbas bowled opener Salt with the score on 27, and a flutter when van Styl followed shortly before lunch, but the tone for the day had been set by opener Luke Wells, who took 70 minutes to add to his overnight score, in the face of some more Martini-dry Leicestershire bowling. He later sped up sufficiently to complete an undefeated century.
Wells is not a player I have ever given much thought to, beyond knowing that he was one of the Wells brothers’ son (Alan, apparently). A tall left-hander, he employed a limited range of shots with great efficiency, though he hinted at a wider range when he went after Callum Parkinson in the late afternoon, presumably anxious to get his hundred before the shaking of hands. I thought he reminded me of someone, and Brian Carpenter correctly suggested it might be Alastair Cook : he might well be the kind of previously underestimated player Ed Smith is hoping to discover when he gets to work with his magic moneyballs.
I also note from Cricinfo that Wells is ‘the most sledged cricketer in England’, so it was good to hear that Leicestershire did not allow themselves to be audibly provoked by his frustrating adhesion. It was also to their credit that they continued to bowl and field as if it mattered, long past the point when it did, with only Griffiths betraying a hint of dampness. The drawback to his having a ‘repeatable action’ is that he can become locked into an extended groove, an admirable quality if auditioning for the Famous Flames, but less so in a seamer.
Our next fixture begins on Friday, against Derbyshire, who may prove to be another rake concealed in the long grass. With Archer and Jordan absent, April was the right time to play Sussex, but it may be a cruel month to play Derby, whose strength looks to lie in their imported seam attack of Viljoen, Rampaul and Olivier. It would be reasonable to expect at least one of them to have broken down by mid-season, but, for the moment, they all appear to be fit, and all too capable of causing some unwanted alarms and surprises. Mohammad Abbas will also have been replaced by Varun Aaron, who is, by reputation, more fire than earth.
As a statistical footnote, Sussex fielded six players with monosyllabic surnames : Wells, Salt, Finch, Wright, Brown and Beer (all names from a village war memorial), and eight if you include van Zyl and Wiese. I wonder if, perhaps, this might be a record?