Since before Christmas, the BBC has, with monotonous regularity, been broadcasting a self-advertisement, publicising its coverage of sport in 2020, under the slogan ‘Raise the game’. In it, a bumptious voice informs us that ‘you can’t stop the future – it’s already here’, a future that includes the Olympics, the European Championship finals and ‘The Hundred’. Apart from being a piece of bombastic pseudo-profundity worthy of ‘Doctor Who’, this has, thanks to Coronavirus, proven to be a little premature, given that it is by no means certain that the first two events, at least, will be taking place. Not only is ‘the future’ not ‘already here’, it may not be arriving any time soon. So, I am more hesitant than usual about offering my predictions concerning the new cricket season.
A few weeks ago, I pointed out that the virus should pose no threat to Championship matches at Grace Road, given that our crowds are rarely large enough to constitute a ‘large public gathering’. At the time, this struck me as rather droll : it seems less amusing now, given that the world and his dog have now made the same feeble joke, and the ECB are, at this moment, mulling over our fate. I would hope that they will consider the risk low enough for the Championship to continue, but I am not holding my breath (not, incidentally, a reliable test for coronavirus). We would be even more seriously affected if any of the Test matches, or – perish the thought – ‘The Hundred’, had to be called off, given that we find ourselves even more at the financial mercy of the ECB than usual.
Over the Winter, we have secured a loan of £1.75 million from Leicester City Council, which should come in handy, particularly to increase our wage bill by half again (at least) to meet the ECB’s new ‘salary collar’ of £1.5 million, as will, of course, the money we are meant to be getting for supporting ‘The Hundred’. The catch with this loan is that it is secured by the ECB, who will be presented with the perfect opportunity to close us down if we cannot repay it. We find ourselves rather in the position of the owners of a small trattoria hoping that the local mob’s prostitution racket is doing good business, in case they decide to withdraw their ‘protection’ (*taps nose* – capisce?).
Turning to this year’s schedule, we discover the usual baffling dog’s breakfast. My spirits rose sharply towards the end of last year when Leicestershire announced that not only would annual membership (excluding T20) be reduced to £99, but, as significantly from my point of view, we would be restoring our reciprocal agreement with Northamptonshire (in addition to the ones we already had with Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Derbyshire). When the fixtures were announced, I happily busied myself with filling my newly acquired diary with the dates at Wantage Road.
Not unpredictably, however, given that Northamptonshire’s cheapest season ticket costs £175 (excluding T20 and RL50), the offer was soon withdrawn, and I had to go back and, crossly, cross them all out again. More gratuitously, the agreement with Notts (which has been in place for as long as I have been a member) was reduced to three fixtures. It surely cannot be beyond human wit to devise some scheme that would allow those of us who would like to watch Championship games at neighbouring grounds, if our own team aren’t playing (a small, but, I’d like to think, not entirely insignificant group), at a reduced price. As compensation, though, free parking at Grace Road has been restored (not much of a compensation for me, as I don’t drive).
Peering through the thicket of crossings-out, brackets and question marks, the general outline of the season appears to be much the same as in recent seasons : a slightly thin April (though mainly because Leicestershire have two Championship games away from home), a busy May, a thin June and a thinner July, scattered with 50-over games and a flurry of activity in between the two, when Leicestershire have two home four-day games in eleven days. August is a parched wasteland, with only the last of the 50-over matches and a game in the women’s version of ‘The Hundred’, featuring the ‘Trent Rockets’ on a Thursday afternoon (which might attract a large paying audience, but only if it doesn’t clash with a display of synchronised nose-blowing in the Lee Circle car park). Cricket is due to return in September, for those of us who have managed to survive the Summer.
Moving on to Leicestershire’s prospects, one piece of good news, which may have been facilitated by that loan from the Council, is the late announcement that we have secured the services of Janaman ‘The Man’ Malan (having previously been told that we would not be able to afford an overseas player this season), for both white ball competitions and (potentially) three Championship matches. I haven’t seen him play, but – apart from bringing joy to fans of internal rhyme – he sounds like pretty hot stuff. I suppose this is the cricketing equivalent of the advice fashion magazines like to give that it is better to buy ‘one really good piece’ than a lot of cheaper items.
Moving on to the rest of the squad, I am faced with the annual struggle to say something optimistic that does not rely too heavily on the words ‘decent’, ‘handy’ and ‘useful’. We do, at least, seem to have five decent and useful seam bowlers (Wright, Taylor, Griffiths, Davis and Klein), plus Ben Mike (whose only notable performance last year came, frustratingly, when he was on loan to Warwickshire, but probably has enough talent to be poached by a larger County), plus Alex Evans, who should be available when his term ends at Loughborough. So, a handy supporting cast, but rather, in the absence of Mohammad Abbas, lacking a ‘spearhead’ : a spear without a spearhead would, I suppose, be more like a broom handle, and I am afraid, although they will have their days, that may represent the approximate level of threat posed by our attack to good batsmen on unhelpful pitches.
And so, with some trepidation, to the batting. It would be expecting a lot of Hassan Azad to repeat his performance in his debut season, when he made a thousand runs at an average of 54, but we shall all have to pray to our respective gods that the falling-off (if any) is not too steep. Unless he has some failure of nerve, he should always be difficult to get out, but his range of preferred scoring shots is so limited that it should not be too difficult to put him (in the fashionable phrase) into lockdown, by employing unconventional fields, as Northants demonstrated last year. We shall have to hope that no-one else has thought of this, or we could be struggling.
Colin Ackermann, who is yet to average 40, resembles a thoroughbred who looks good in the paddock, is often placed, but rarely wins a race. Paul Horton (37) and Mark Cosgrove (rising 36), punters’ favourites in years past, must now both have one hoof in the stud farm. We can expect hard-nosed captaincy from Horton, and Cosgrove is never less than entertaining, but we cannot rely on too many runs from them. To extend the analogy, an unkind wag might suggest that Harry Dearden should be giving rides on Blackpool beach, but I prefer to think that he is yet to find his niche. He is, after all, only 23 in May, and his sprightly performances in last year’s 50-over cup suggest that his talents may be hidden, rather than non-existent. Our only other specialist batsman is Sam Evans.
Either Harry Swindells or Lewis Hill will keep wicket : Hill was plainly out of sorts and out of form last season, and I should expect Swindells to be given his chance in the Championship, with Hill returning for limited overs cricket. To fill the unsightly gap between the end of the batting and the beginning of the tail, we have George Rhodes, who was impressively dogged in the three games he played for us at the end of last season, and should be capable of delaying our collapses. A season-long fit Tom Taylor, who is not only the most dangerous of our seamers, but can make useful runs, would be a great help, but then so would a revived W.G. Grace or all the royalties from the ‘Harry Potter’ series, both of which we are about as likely to get.
The spin option, which is generally given as much priority as the vegetarian option at a Golden Egg in 1974, is likely to be Ackermann in the first half of the season, while Parkinson, who is mutating into a T20 specialist who bats a bit, may re-emerge in September. Our only wholly new acquisition is a young off-spinner called Tom Bowley, who, like Alex Evans, is still at Loughborough. I haven’t consciously seen him bowl, although he appears to sport a towering quiff which makes him look like a member of the Stray Cats. I expect that Jack Birkenshaw will have marched him off to the barber’s for a trim before he is allowed to make his debut.
You might be able to detect that I am not taking our chances in the Championship too seriously, but then neither are the club, who seem to have decided to concentrate our limited resources on white ball cricket, which, I would grudgingly concede, makes sense. Apart from the presence of Malan (and one player of international quality can make a crucial difference), we have the advantage in the RL50 that we are the only County not have lost any players to ‘The Hundred’, and, in some cases, will be playing virtual 2nd XIs. A trophy would be expecting too much, but qualification for the knock-out stages should not be. I am no expert on T20, but having a ‘gun bat’ to add to our collection of blunderbusses and air rifles will obviously improve our firepower.
At present, I have to say, all of this seems a little beside the point. It now seems even less probable that the season will start on time than it did when I began this piece, and, if it does eventually revive, any cricket, even the meagre fare that was served up last year, will feel like a return to the Golden Age. The financial consequences of an abandoned season might well prove terminal for the club, but not abandoning it may prove terminal for some of our members (including – not impossibly – me, though I would be one of the less obvious candidates).
Perhaps I need to get my ‘Winter well’ in early this year.