Reasons to be Rueful

Leicestershire (427 & 186) v Middlesex (233 & 383-9), Grace Road, County Championship, 20-23 June 2018

Middlesex won by 1 wicket

I have never been very sympathetic to the perpetual complaints from cricketers that there is too much cricket. I have no doubt that accountants feel that there is too much accountancy, and that, if they only had to work alternate weeks, they would approach their spreadsheets with greater freshness and enthusiasm. I am, however, beginning to see their point.

It is not so much that there is too much cricket, but that the cricket of the type that I want to watch is condensed into too short a space of time, with too long a period when there is only the type that I don’t much want to watch. I will shortly be withdrawing to the backwaters to watch Second XI cricket for six or seven weeks, while the professionals (or most of them) are occupied with the most intense part of their season, the “Vitality Blast” (not some dubious herbal remedy for erectile dysfunction, but the new name for the T20 competition).

Leicestershire aren’t helping. No sooner have I reported on a defeat, than I find they have won. No sooner have I have reported on a victory, than I find they have lost. As soon as I began to write about their defeat by Middlesex, I found they had beaten Derbyshire in three days (a match I would have attended, had it not been a day-night fixture – £40 (including the train fare) being too high a price to pay for half a day’s cricket).

After two days, Leicestershire had been in a winning position against Middlesex too, and still contrived to lose : it was the second time this season that they have been in a position to enforce the follow on, but lost. The natural cliché in these circumstances is that Leicestershire “must be rueing those eight dropped catches” (I only counted six, but Captain Horton, who was responsible for a couple of them, thought there were eight), but, although they looked a little sheepish as they left the field, they clearly didn’t waste much time feeling rueful, preferring to make amends by beating Derbyshire.

Leicestershire’s supporters, though, may be forgiven a smidgeon of ruefulness. On the one hand, we have now played all but three of the Counties in our division, and competed on at least equal terms with all of them. For two days we were the superior side against a team who had won the Championship in 2016. But one more wicket against Middlesex and a second innings total of 147 against Durham would have meant that we would now have been leading the table, with promotion a realistic prospect. The time for ruefulness may come at the end of the season.

The game seemed haunted by a spectre that only occasionally showed itself – ‘the one that kept low’. I was a little surprised that Middlesex opted to have a toss, and that Leicestershire, having won it, chose to bat. The first morning was the only part of the game that was played under cloud, before the heatwave set in, and Middlesex’s bowling included Finn, Harris and Murtagh. The decision may have been influenced by the fact that the same pitch had been used the previous day for a one-day game against India A, when the odd one had appeared to keep low, and the suspicion that the demons of lowness would emerge on what would effectively be the fifth day of use.

The same fear, I think, underlay the decision not to enforce the follow on, and dictated the general tone of straight-batted watchfulness adopted by both sides’ batsmen. Unexpectedly, although the bounce was a little low at times on the last day, it was mostly an even and predictable lowness that could easily be catered for. A win of the toss does not abolish chance, as Mallarmé perhaps meant to write.

The bulk of Leicestershire’s total of 427 came from an epically watchful, but refined, unbeaten innings of 197 by Colin Ackermann, who came to the wicket early and was only denied a deserved double century when his last escort, Mohammad Abbas, to his evident remorse, was not quite able to keep him company to the end of his journey. He had earlier received useful support from Dexter, Raine, and, to his obvious pride, Gavin Griffiths, who had batted for close to two hours for his career-best 40.

With the exception of Murtagh, who bowled 11 maidens and took five wickets, and lacking Roland-Jones, the Middlesex bowling was surprisingly ineffectual. Finn looked, frankly, bored, and took longer to traipse back to the start of his shortened run-up than he used to when he came in off 20 paces. It has always been something of a mystery to me why Murtagh had to wait for Ireland’s recent elevation to play Test cricket : perhaps it is because, however often he outperforms Finn, he does not look, to the naked eye, as much like our idea of what a Test match bowler ought to be.

The only part of what seemed like a very long match that I missed was the last hour on the second day. Unfortunately, this was the most dramatic passage of the game, as Middlesex collapsed from 200-3 to 233 all out, with Chappell taking another three wickets to add to an early rearrangement of Eskinazi’s stumps that had the batsman looking back, seemingly unable to comprehend what could have happened. Having taken three early wickets, Leicestershire had been frustrated by Dawid Malan, Paul Stirling (an Irishman whose full red beard makes him look as if he is auditioning for the role of a leprechaun on a fruit machine), and Australian utility player Hilton Cartwright ; they were also frustrated by their own inability to take catches (Gavin Griffiths, off whose bowling two were missed, seemed to be suffering the torments of the damned).

Overnight, Middlesex were, apparently, told a few home truths by their coach. It might have been that which accounted for Leicestershire’s low second innings total of 186, though the batsmen’s fear of the pitch (and the Ones That Keep Low) seemed a factor as well. Paul Horton (whose shirt, in a nod to his Australian roots, now reads ‘Hoon’) was bowled fifth ball by a delivery from Harris that was suspected of keeping low. Ackermann carried on where he had left off, making three to bring up his double century, before, again, being bowled by Harris. Harry Dearden, meanwhile, retreated into his tortoise-shell, making six in a little short of an hour and a half, before being caught behind.

Mark Cosgrove, who has been uncharacteristically unproductive recently, was LBW to an occasional off-break from Max Holden (Cosgrove always reacts to being given out as if he has been the victim of a baffling conjuring trick, but this time his surprise seemed genuine). Neil Dexter, in a rare display of absent-mindedness, strolled out of his crease to a delivery from Murtagh, and was stumped by a lob from behind the stumps : he, too, looked surprised. Raine (aggressively) and Chappell (more diffidently) combined, with some useful assistance from Griffiths, to take the total to 186.

In itself, this was a disappointing total, but raised hopes that Middlesex might find batting equally hard in pursuit of a fourth innings target of 381 on a pitch that was expected to disintegrate at any minute. On the subject of the pitch, Sam Robson, at one point, had plonked himself down a few seats away from me to fiddle with the strapping on his finger. His view was that ‘one or two are doing a bit’, which might have been laconic Australian understatement, but was probably an accurate statement of fact. When Malan was caught behind in the dying minutes of the day, to leave Middlesex on 79-3, the Foxes could head off into the still sultry evening, bright-eyed, bushy-brushed, and incautiously optimistic.

As final days on which the batting side overhaul a total of 381, with one wicket and five overs remaining, go, the last day was undramatic (after the Glamorgan game, we at Grace Road have grown blasé about dramatic finishes). The pitch, like an attack dog that rolls over to have its tummy tickled, failed to live up to its reputation. There were no de Lange-style heroics, only a couple of surprising twists, and there was nothing obvious that Leicestershire could have done to achieve a different result.

Until mid-afternoon, the worst prospect was that Middlesex would hold on for a draw (throughout the day, the likelihood of the four results shuffled their order like the teams in a World Cup qualifying group graphic). Steven ‘Vladimir’ Askenazi and the useful utility player Cartwright had made slow but sure progress to 197-5, with the former himself on 97. The seam bowling had been parsimonious, but suggested little prospect of producing five wickets. Some of the more vocal elements in the crowd had been agitating loudly for the introduction of the spinner Parkinson, and when Captain Hoon took their advice, the results were immediate. The batsmen (Cartwright seemingly more at fault) made the mistake of underestimating Ben Raine by running for a misfield by him, and(shying, for once, at the stumps rather than the batsman), Raine ran Askenazi out.

At tea, Middlesex required 105 from 33 overs, with four wickets remaining. With Horton apparently reluctant to bowl Parkinson (perhaps haunted by thoughts of the pasting he had taken against Glamorgan), a last throw of the dice was required. Chappell had not bowled all day, but, during the interval, the bowling coach, Matt Mason, went on to the pitch to torment him with a giant elastic band and a small beach ball. Chappell seemed to be trying to convey, through a dumb show of grimacing and wincing, that he did not think he was fit to bowl, whereas Mason, an Australian, who, as P. G. Wodehouse said in another context, looks as if he might kill rats with his teeth and gargle with broken glass, remained unmoved.

Chappell, manfully, if reluctantly, bowled the first three overs after tea, all wicketless, still wincing and grimacing, before he left the field, leaving the three seamers to bowl with creditable accuracy to two batsmen, the contrite Cartwright and James Harris, who, with commendable restraint, blocked the straight balls and pushed away the occasional wider delivery, to stay slightly above the required run rate of four an over. The game seemed to be leaking away slowly, but inexorably, like some valuable oil through a very small crack in an amphora.

Mark Cosgrove, though not obviously injured, had not returned to the field after tea, his place at second slip being taken by Ateeq Javid, who had taken two memorable catches against Northamptonshire. With Harris on 23, having already been put down once, he flashed hard at a wide delivery from Raine. Ateeq did well to get a hand to it, but … it went to earth, and with it, perhaps, the game. Hopes were briefly raised when the One that Kept Low at last showed itself and removed Cartwight, LBW to Raine. With Finn caught behind down the leg side, Harris and last man Murtagh required seven to win, which, until the final flourish of a boundary, they got in singles.

Oddly, the crowd had seemed more excited by the prospect of seeing a tie (which no-one seemed to have seen before), rather than either side winning, which is, I suppose, an indication of how much progress we have made this season. If a side hasn’t won for two years, then a victory is a cause for wild elation, a narrow defeat for despair : a side who expect to win more they lose can accept defeat with greater equanimity. Nevertheless, that dropped catch, that one wicket, those missing points, may come to be a cause of more than the usual ruefulness when the Autumn leaves are falling.

IMG_20180623_180045

So, as the currently popular saying goes, I am not getting carried away just yet.

Leicestershire (177) v India A (458-4), Grace Road, 19 June

India A won by 281 runs

England Lions (207) v India A (309-6), Grace Road, 26 June

India A won by 102 runs

 

The Middlesex game was preceded and followed by two 50-over games featuring India A. One was against a weakened Leicestershire 2nd XI, featuring four Academy players (at least two of whom I’d never heard of, and one who I only knew because he plays for my club), the other against the England Lions. At times it would have been difficult to tell which was which.

Against Leicestershire, India made what was (for about an hour) the second highest List A total in history (until it was superseded by England later that afternoon). Leicestershire were, clearly, in no position to chase this (they opened with Harry Dearden), and, in the  circumstances, did well to make 177.

Against the Lions, India looked on course to match even their previous total, with the score in the 34th over on 207-1, but the Lions bowlers (who had been made to look very ordinary) got a slight grip, the lower order fell away, and they finished on a more modest 309-6. The Lions, inevitably, did not refuse to get carried away, and lost three early wickets. Kohler-Cadmore and Hain were both bowled, charging fast bowlers in an attempt to hit them into the car park (a trick, which, like limbo dancing with a flaming sambuca on your head, has the potential to make you look very silly, if it doesn’t come off).

In other circumstances, Livingstone might have matched the six-hitting feats of the Indians, but, in these, he had to exercise unnatural restraint, and the Lions only just managed to exceed Leicestershire’s total. Liam Dawson was both the highest scorer and the most economical bowler, which will not have told the England selectors anything that they wanted to hear.

It is hard to say whether the Indian batsmen are quite as good as they were made to look, but, if so, Agarwal (not, I think, the one who played for Oxford a few years ago), Shubman Gil, Vihari and Prithvi Shaw are names to bear in mind. The fast bowling and fielding (under the eye of Rahul Dravid) were tigerish too, which has not always been the case with Indian sides. Most of these names were quite unknown to me, but evidently not so to that half of the crowd who were supporting India (the other half being the inevitable parties of schoolchildren), who, I deduce, would have known them mainly for their recent exploits in the IPL.

Judging by the amount of hair-swishing and giggling going on near the boundary, the younger Indian players are clearly teenage heart-throbs in a way that English players rarely are (Liam Dawson, for instance, failed to provoke the same excitement). A particular favourite appeared to be Rishabh Pant, a 20-year old wicket-keeper/batsman, widely touted as the next M.S. Dhoni. Unfortunately, he made very small scores in both games, so we were only treated to a brief glimpse of Pant.

(Ed. – Am I allowed to say this ‘in the current climate’? Please check.)

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