In the Circumstances

As regular readers (if any) will know, one of my perennial complaints is that the English season does not have a proper starting point (at least since the translation of the MCC v Champion County fixture to Dubai), but tends to peter in, to the point where it can be difficult to say whether it has started or not.  In recent years, Leicestershire’s first fixture has usually been against Loughborough MCCU, a game that sometimes has first-class status, sometimes not, but that is sometimes preceded by an intra-squad game, or a friendly game against some other side unlucky enough not to be taking their pre-season in a warmer climate.  In a year when it initially seemed unlikely that the season would be starting at all, it would be churlish of me to make the same complaint, and, I concede, inaccurate : the season began on 8th July in Southampton ; some people’s season will have begun the following Saturday ; my season began on Saturday 18th, in Whitby.

It would not feel like an English season if it did not begin in a state of muddle, bedevilled and bedraggled by rain, and, as I observed of Terence Prittie’s account of the first season after the war, the sure sign that some kind of normality has returned is not that one experiences some huge flood of emotion, but that one forgets to be grateful that anything is happening at all and resumes the everyday grumbling that makes up a large part of any cricket-follower’s usual discourse.  The feeling of gratitude and relief lasted throughout the first morning of the Test, as I listened to Jon Agnew and Phil Tufnell wittering pleasantly while it rained.  A lengthy and indirectly COVID-related telephone call caused me to miss the commentary on the knee-taking, the silence, something (I think) involving Major Tom, and presumably the Jerusalem (a very heavy weight of significance with which to freight such a frail vessel as a game of cricket), but quite soon after the start of play I had returned to my habitual carping about the state of TMS.  I freely admit that is churlish in the extreme, but at the same time, perversely reassuring.

I had originally had some idea about trying to write about the game based on the radio commentary, but after about twenty minutes of closing my eyes and attempting to visualise what was occurring on the pitch I was forced to abandon this futile ambition.  It is true that I came away with some vivid mental images : Jon Agnew flying his light aircraft with his pet dog in the passenger seat ; Isa Guha sprinting to the Post Office to collect some World Cup tickets for her Dad ; Alison Mitchell caught up in some imbroglio involving a pigeon in her bedroom.  These would all have been diverting enough anecdotes if related at a dinner party (which TMS increasingly resembles) ; the trouble being that they came not during an interruption for rain (or a sanitiser break), but in the middle of overs (a not untypical slice of commentary being ‘Bengali cookery uses a lot of fish, as Broad comes in to bowl to Holder)’. 

Now, I am not expecting pretty waitresses and walking sticks, but I would like to have some idea of what the players look like, beyond a brief assessment of their height (Holder, Gabriel and Cornwall, I gathered, are tall ; Dowrich and Blackwood are short ;  beyond that, only that Joseph is ‘wiry’).  This is particularly important, given how few of the West Indians play regularly in English cricket.  The presumption seems to be that the listener will know what they look like from having seen them on the television, but if the listener had a Sky subscription they would probably be a viewer instead.  It cannot help that the radio commentators have (as I understand it) to switch between TV and radio commentary. 

Watching a few of the highlights packages on the TV made the strangeness of the situation more evident than it had been listening to the radio : TMS, if they had chosen to, could (thanks to ‘the hum’) have just about have brought off the illusion that normality had resumed entirely ; the empty stands visible on the TV pointed up the post-apocalyptic aspect of the thing (even to one used to watching cricket at Grace Road).  No doubt, the situation felt even stranger to those actively involved.  Cricket’s elite (players, broadcasters, senior officials) are sometimes accused on living in ‘a bubble’ : to find themselves occluded for weeks in an almost literal bubble, unable to leave, is a scenario that might have appealed to Luis Bunuel.

It goes without saying, of course, that I am grateful that the series took place, and particularly to the West Indies for making it possible.  Not only was the cricket diverting, the participants’ pioneer efforts have made it possible for the lower levels of the game to resume in due course, and, of course, the revenue generated makes it more likely that there will be professional cricket for me to watch if ever the old normal returns.  I am also, in spite of my complaints, grateful for the continued existence of TMS, which at least gives me a chance to complain about something that does not really matter at all, after months of complaining about things that are only too serious.  (The nadir, while I am carping, came when Michael Vaughan seemed not only to have never heard of A.N. ‘Monkey’ Hornby, but to find the very idea of his existence absurd. O my …)

While I would never have foreseen seeing my first live game of the season at Whitby (not a ground or, indeed, a town I have visited before), there are many worse places to do so.  If my first game had been at one of my usual haunts, I imagine that I would have felt more intensely conscious of the peculiarity of the situation : at a strange ground I was less aware of the strangeness of it all. In any case, compared to the febrile atmosphere in the rest of the town, the cricket ground was a haven of normality.  It was not so much that anyone in town was doing anything that they would not normally do at the seaside (drink, eat fish and chips, sunbathe, argue), as that they seemed to be attempting to cram about four months’ worth of each into a weekend.

The ground itself is pleasant, if not outstandingly beautiful, overshadowed on one side by the Towbar Express Stadium (home of Whitby Town FC), although it stands close enough to the sea for those with a nose for it to sense its proximity.  The only obvious signs of the times were some (presumably obsolete) notices that the ground had not yet opened, and a polite request to leave my contact details. I took a while to quite adjust, at first seeing the figures in white as trees walking, but, as I began to grasp the argument of the game (in progress when I arrived), my sight was restored.  Whitby, I gathered from listening to other spectators, were bowling ; Great Ayton 2nd XI batting, and making reasonable progress when I arrived, with two finger spinners operating in tandem, but the return (presumably) of a brisk opening bowler and a run out provoked a collapse, shored up slightly by a last wicket stand, finishing on 168 (reassuring to be able to bring these comfy old clichés out of the wardrobe after so many months).

Not feeling that I could justify spending all day of a family holiday watching cricket, I left shortly after Whitby had begun their reply.  Some of the home crowd seemed pessimistic about their prospects, and they started badly, losing two cheap wickets, though apparently they later recovered to win with overs to spare.  As I left, Charlie (a keen-looking youngster) and Marshy (a burly older man with a shaved head) were opening the bowling, as I imagine any number of Charlies and Marshies were all over the country, in what, in other circumstances, would have been similarly unremarkable games. It was hardly Cardus’s ‘vision of all the cricket fields in England’ from the Mound Stand on Midsummer morning, but it almost did the trick of making me feel that if normality had not yet returned, it was not impossible that it might one day do so.

On the way to the ground I had over-trustingly relied on directions from Google Maps, which had led me through streets of boarding houses (not aided by what seems to be a Whitby custom of streets changing their names half way along their length).  On the way back I followed my nose, which led me along the clifftop, in late-afternoon marine sunshine and a stiff breeze which felt strong enough to blow any lurking coronaviruses harmlessly off into the aether.  Later that evening, a rainbow added colour to an already luminous sunset : the rainbow is another sign that has been over-freighted with symbolic weight recently, but it felt hopeful, as well as beautiful.

Trying to find if any cricket is being played in Leicestershire has been rather like the heyday of rave culture, when would-be ravers would (I’m told) drive hopefully around the M25, waiting to be tipped-off about that night’s location.  The Saturday after Whitby I eventually tracked down a friendly at Kibworth, against Oakham.  Normality in cricket (which, given the quality in Leicestershire recently, is an odd thing to be hankering after) normally involves rain, and this was a lively, but sporadic, on-off affair, which was terminated after 31 overs with Kibworth on 179-2.  A slightly melancholy note was struck by the sight of Rob Taylor, who has fetched up at Oakham, whom I remember, what seems like only last week, as a lively teenage opening bowler, bowling off about five paces and not being treated with a great deal of respect. Time waits for no man, or virus.

All of this had felt like a preamble, or overture, to the start of the season proper, on the 1st August (which was rather late for me, or anyone else), with the first games in the truncated quasi-leagues for both Leicestershire and Market Harborough (my home club).   I felt that watching both had the quality of the subtler sort of surrealism, where everything is at first sight normal, but some details are sufficiently skewed for the experience to be subtly disorientating.  I spent most of Harborough’s game with a couple of old cricket-watching companions, catching up with the news since the end of last season (most of it, I am afraid, bad).  So there was little opportunity to forget about the circumstances, even for an afternoon.

In other circumstances, I would have felt heartened, even mildly elated, about the club’s prospects for the season.  To put this into context, Harborough have only won one game in the last two years, and have suffered successive relegations.  Last season, I tended to make alternative plans for the second half of the afternoon, given that, if Harborough batted first, the game was unlikely to last past 3’o’clock.  After a promising start (we seem to have acquired a hostile opening bowler), the pattern of the game began to revert to type when the change bowlers came on.  Uppingham’s Eddie Tucker (who finished on 153) had officials consulting the regulations to see whether regularly propelling the notorious vector of disease into the road and neighbouring gardens constituted a health hazard (beyond the obvious risk of concussion).  Uppingham finished on 277-6 from their 40 overs, without even the prospect of a decent tea to encourage the home side.

Not unusually, Harborough began well (we tend to top load our batting), but, most unusually, having apparently also acquired some useful middle-order batsmen, they continued well, Uppingham visibly anxious as a fairly ignominious defeat became decreasingly inconceivable.  In the end, it was not quite to be, Harborough falling 31 runs short, but this August could prove to be a short, but (in the circumstances) merry season.

Watching Harborough caused me to miss the first day of Leicestershire’s game against Lancashire, which was being live-streamed (with some admirably cricket-orientated commentary).  Were I truly conscientious, I could have reported on the game in the same way that I usually report the live home games, except that, to employ the Woodcock/Gibson distinction, this was ‘the cricket’ without ‘the day at the cricket’ (how, I suppose, most of its audience usually watches cricket anyway).  It reminded me of one of those ‘What is wrong with this picture?’ puzzles that you used to find in children’s magazines, which offered a picture that, at first sight, appeared perfectly realistic, but, on closer inspection, was revealed to contain a number of incongruities and impossibilities.

The first thing wrong with the picture was that Leicestershire and Lancashire were playing at Worcester (instantly recognisable by the cathedral), another that the artist had erased all the spectators.  There seemed to be no cakes on sale in the Ladies’ Pavilion, and Leicestershire seemed to be using one of the cafes as a changing room.  A four-day game was being played in August.  Most incongruous of all, Leicestershire were much the better of the two sides, and completed a thrilling run chase against the odds to take 22 points.

It should be noted that Lancashire were seriously depleted (all but one of their bowlers would normally be in the 2nd XI), and that 172 of Leicestershire’s first innings total of 409-8 dec. were made by Ben Slater, now of Nottinghamshire (another deliberate mistake).  However, Leicestershire looked to be a well-balanced and competitive side : Hassan Azad continued as he had left off ; Callum Parkinson looked a much better bowler than he sometimes has in real life ; Colin Ackermann made a fine start as four-day Captain, and close observation revealed the detail of his abilities as a batsman.  The unlikely hero of the heroic final hour (when Leicestershire chased down 150 in 17 overs) was Harry Dearden, who had made a stereotypical duck in the first innings, but at the crucial moment in the second burst out of his tortoise-shell to hit 33 from 18 balls, including three sixes (to add to the two he had hit in his previous 37 games).  At this rate we will be losing him to the IPL.

The game supported the theory that, if everyone is fit and in form, Leicestershire are only a couple of high quality players away from being a successful side : it is a lot easier to keep everyone fit and in form over a month than a full season, so we may find ourselves achieving some success in an anomalous competition which, in a sense, does not matter very much, while thinking wistfully of what might have been.  I would love to say, incidentally, that the last hour was so enthralling that I forgot about the current difficulties entirely, but I am afraid that I was called away to deal with a ‘phone call involving an indirectly Covid-related crisis, so missed it completely.  

So, not such a bad start, in the circumstances.

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