The End of the Tunnel

Leicestershire CCC (308 & 189) v Northamptonshire CCC (357 & 142-3), County Championship, Grace Road, 10-13 September 2019

Leicestershire lost by 7 wickets

PTDC0814

Keeping the flag flying

The cliché that comes to mind, as Leicestershire’s season approaches its end, is the one about light at the end of the tunnel. Watching their progress has certainly too often resembled stumbling through the deep gloom of an abandoned railway tunnel, although – to be fair – with less danger of being run into by a manic cyclist, or bitten by a rat. As always, at the end of a season, the optimist will glimpse some points of light, some hope that next year might be better than this : the pessimist may feel that the main cause for optimism is that we will not have to witness another Leicestershire defeat for the next six months.

The brightest point of light in the season past, by some measure, has been the form of Hassan Azad, who, at the time of writing, has made more runs than any other English batsman* (and, according to one keen statistician, occupied the crease for longer). Given that he was only offered a contract at the start of the season, at the age of 25, this is remarkable. However, batsmen who have remarkable first seasons tend to attract attention, with plans being devised to counter them, and, in spite of the fact that he made 86 in the first innings, I thought there were worrying signs that Northamptonshire had discovered a key to snuffing his light out.

Although the precise configuration of the field varied, Northants’ strategy, in the first innings, was to offer Hassan the chance to play his two favourite scoring strokes – the clip off his hips and the off-side steer – but only through narrow channels through a phalanx of slips and gullies (on both leg and off sides). For close to four hours, he found those channels with what football commentators describe as ‘slide-rule precision’ (a metaphor that has survived the obsolescence of the technology), miscalculating only once, when he was dropped at leg gully by Dougie Bracewell.

Azad field

We’ve got you surrounded!

Bracewell, summoned from New Zealand as a last minute replacement for Kemar Roach, appeared still to be recovering from the flight, the waywardness of his bowling a temptation even to Hassan, let alone the now conspicuously in-form Cosgrove. Bracewell’s beard and general swarthiness do, however, mean that he fits in well with Northants’ battery of brisk-to-medium pacers (Sanderson, Proctor, Hutton and the newly arrived Berg), who would not look out of place crewing a pirate ship on the Spanish main.

Leicestershire’s innings followed the overly familiar script. Paul Horton lasted two balls and Ackermann (it being Cosgrove’s turns to make the runs) patted Berg’s first ball to point. When Cosgrove and Azad had taken the score to 150-2, Cosgrove, to his apparent astonishment, was bowled by Sanderson, and Hassan, to the astonishment of everyone, was bowled shortly afterwards by Proctor. Dexter, who seems to be fading out of the game like a ghost, was only visible for one ball. 183-5.

At this point there was a welcome variation in the script. George Rhodes, a recent acquisition from Worcestershire, was described by Paul Nixon as having been signed to ‘add a bit of grit to the middle order’, which, as he correctly diagnosed, has been lacking it recently. Watched by his father Steve, he displayed the requisite grit by batting for a little over four hours to make an unbeaten 61 ; the lower order chipped in to take the total to 308.

If Rhodes represented a pinprick of light (it was good that he made a career best score on his debut, less encouraging that 61 is his career best), a brighter flare was the debut of Alex Evans. An academy product and student at Loughborough, currently rather gangling, with a long run and a whirling action, he followed a nervously loose first over with the early wickets of Newton and Wakely.  If nothing else, it was a delight to see someone whose wickets seemed to bring him so much pleasure.

There followed one of those long, balmily soporific, afternoons when nothing much seems to happen and thoughts, along with early Autumn leaves, start to drift, that, in some ways, epitomise the pleasures of watching County cricket. Unfortunately, when I awoke from my reverie (or doze), the nothing that had happened was Leicestershire not taking the wickets of Keogh or Rossington, the pair having put on a stand of 148 to take the score from 156-4 to 304-5, and the game away from Leicestershire’s loose grasp. To their credit, the bowlers restricted the final total to 357, encouragingly short of my prediction of 400. I don’t believe, though, that a single Leicestershire supporter would, if attached to a lie-detector, have predicted a home victory.

Leicestershire’s second innings was the same again, only with the unwelcome subtraction of runs from Hassan Azad. This time, Northants, rather than offering opportunities for risky runs, blocked up his channels completely by inserting a fine leg and third man, and invaded his personal space with a silly point and a short leg. Blocked in, like a badger in his sett, and with no opportunities for risk-free runs, he stopped scoring altogether, making a solitary run from the first ten overs. In the twelfth over, a ball from Berg leaped up at him a little and he edged to slip.

Northants also seemed to have an idea that he might be vulnerable to the short ball, and he received a few from over the wicket (as a left-hander). As Charlie Shreck discovered to his cost, attempting to intimidate Hassan can have unwelcome consequences, but they succeeded in hitting him twice, once on the shoulder, turning his back on the ball, and once on the helmet, ducking into one that kept a little low (luckily he came through the concussion protocol, because we would have had difficulty finding a like-for-like replacement). I hope none of the other Counties were taking notes (or reading this), or he (and we) may have a testing time next season.

PTDC0825

Come out with your hands on your head!

After that … well you could, if you felt so inclined, write it yourself. Horton lasted half as long as he had in the first innings.  Cosgrove looked certain of a big score before – to his horrified amazement – being given out LBW for 8. Ackermann (it being his turn) made a cultured and responsible 60, there was a stand of 51 between Dexter and Parkinson that ensured the game would stretch to a fourth day, and there was a slight twitch of the tail – 187 all out. Dexter’s 42 earned him an appreciative but subdued response : if, as seems possible, that was his last first-class innings, the end was in keeping with what has been a fine, but, I think, sometimes under-appreciated career.

The Umpires distinguished themselves in this innings by equalling the world record for LBWs given (eight). One consequence of the introduction of DRS has been to demonstrate how difficult it is for even experienced Umpires to adjudicate accurately on LBWs from 22 yards away, so, from the boundary and a variety of oblique angles, I could not argue with their decisions, but, equally, I do wonder whether all of them would have survived close scrutiny. Only Cosgrove expressed much surprise at having been given out, but no more so than he usually does when he has been bowled.

On the last day, Leicestershire did not suggest much awareness that they were defending a target of 141, as opposed to 341. Slow left-armer Callum Parkinson, who is inexorably turning into a white ball specialist, was given a longer spell than usual, and bowled economically – but that seemed rather beside the point. With Mohammad Abbas absent, and unreplaced, the best chance of bowling Northants out might have been the wild debutant Evans : encouragingly he took a wicket in his two overs – less encouragingly, he was ruled out from the next game with a strain. Cannily, the Umpires delayed lunch until Northants had won, prompting Wakely and noted trencherman Richard Levi (who had earlier struck an interesting fashion note by wearing a cap on top of his sunhat) to polish the innings off.

As I write, Northamptonshire have won again against Durham, and look very likely to be promoted (while Leicestershire are feebly attempting to stave off the inevitable in Cardiff **). I am pleased for Northants (if nothing else, with Nottinghamshire relegated, it means that I will have some Division One cricket within reasonable travelling distance), but it does prompt the question of why they can do it and we cannot – given that there is no obvious reason why they should have better resources, and indeed, like us, have had their best players (Duckett and Gleason) filched by richer counties.

One factor might be that, when Northants recruit from other Counties, they find players who are in the prime of their careers, rather than at the end, or the beginning, as Leicestershire tend to do. They have also made canny use of the loan system to supplement a small squad. However, the major difference seems to come down to intangibles, such as momentum and team spirit : strict rationalists may consider both to be phooey, but – like a fragment of the True Cross – it doesn’t half put a spring in the step of sides who believe that they possess them. I would have thought the one thing that Paul Nixon could be relied upon to instil in his sides would be spirit, but, it appears, we haven’t had that kind of spirit here since 1998.

* He has since been overtaken by Sibley.

** They failed.

PTDC0817

Look, I told you – light!

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