Deviation, Repetition, Desperation

Leicestershire v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Grace Road, 5-8 September 2017

IMG_20170914_071103

As anyone who is likely to be interested will know by now, Leicestershire coach Pierre de Bruyn has left the club, by what the official website, amongst other periphrases, described as “mutual consent”. And, as every commentator observed, this came as no surprise.

Peering through the thicket of euphemism, the problem appears to have been the inability of de Bruyn and Captain Mark Cosgrove to work together. Matters seem to have come to a head on the last morning against Kent. Promotion outsiders Kent were keen to contrive a result : Cosgrove was agreeable, but de Bruyn was not (given Cosgrove’s apparent reluctance to declare last season under the old regime, there is a certain irony about this), leading to the Captain’s otherwise puzzling six-ball 24. There followed, one may infer, a “him or me” ultimatum to the Committee from Cosgrove, followed by de Bruyn “mutually consenting” to pack his bags and biltong and seek pastures new.

De Bruyn was in an unenviable position from the start. An inexperienced coach, with a respectable, but unspectacular, playing record, he took charge of a club with a group of experienced players, brought together by the previous coach, who might have been expecting to be left to play out the remainder of their careers in a convivial atmosphere, and had been doing with some degree of success. To make matters worse, the core of this group were Australian, as had been the previous Coach, Andrew MacDonald, and de Bruyn is, of course, South African. “Intense” is the word most frequently applied to describe De Bruyn, whereas the previous atmosphere at the club might best be described as “relaxed”.  His previous experience as coach of the Namibia Under-19s will not have been the ideal preparation.

The coach did little to ingratiate himself before the season started, publicly upbraiding his senior players for having a “culture of underperformance”, naming and shaming Paul Horton, Mark Pettini and Angus Robson (younger, but, perhaps as an Australian, cut a fair amount of slack). Robson “mutually consented” to leave immediately, Pettini seems to have vanished into thin air, and Horton is currently averaging 26.52, which is worse than the “underperforming” 34.92 he managed last year. De Bruyn’s approach might have been vindicated had his “culture of performance” improved performances, but, some success in limited overs cricket aside, results have been poor, and the only player to have had an unequivocally successful season has been Mark Cosgrove.

This is not the first time de Bruyn has been involved in similar situations, albeit it on the other side of the divide. He was one of a group of senior players (including H.D. Ackerman and Andrew Hall) released by Dolphins in 2010, to make room for younger, home-grown talent. Before that, having been released by Titans, he claimed that he and Alfonso Thomas had been “chased away from the Titans like dogs”, and criticised coach Richard Pybus as “one-dimensional” and “a very boring coach”, who relied on “yoga and other nonsense”, claiming that “the players get so drained from this that on completion one does not know where you are”. While playing for Easterns, he was once suspended for “acts of misconduct and using crude and abusive language”. He is clearly something of a stormy petrel, and I should be a little concerned if he alighted anywhere near my club.

Anyone unaware of the weekend’s events might have wondered, on arriving at the ground on the first day, why Cosgrove and Clint McKay (the Australian seamer who acts as one-day Captain and the skipper’s mate, in the full Australian sense) seemed to be in such cheerful moods. Graeme Welch and John Sadler, the ex-Derbyshire duo who have taken over as interim coaches, looked pretty chipper too. Otherwise, there seemed few grounds for optimism. After rain overnight, and more in the morning, it came as a surprise that play began shortly after lunch. With Leicestershire forced to bat on a moist, green-tinged pitch under low cloud, the only people who seemed less comfortable in the conditions than the batsmen were the spectators.

Had Kenneth Williams been seated behind the bowler’s arm (an improbable scenario, I admit), he could have been taken the opportunity to shout “deviation!” after almost every delivery, as the visitors’ four seamers achieved exaggerated movement, both in the air and off the pitch. A Leicestershire supporter might have added a weary sigh of “repetition”, as both openers (Dearden and Carberry) were dismissed, having mustered 3 runs between them.

Leave the gate open

(You may be surprised to learn that Carberry is playing for Leicestershire : he has been having a poor season for Hampshire and has been loaned to us, supposedly for the remainder of the season, though there is credible talk (or incredible talk from a credible source) that he may be offered a contract and even the Captaincy. If that comes as a surprise to you, that surprise is shared by most Leicestershire supporters and, I imagine, by Carberry himself.)

The rest of the first innings was an unwelcome repetition of too many this season. After a poor start, Cosgrove made 92, with some support from Ackermann or Eckersley (the former here), and an effort, at least, from Lewis Hill, before the innings closed on 222. But let us go back to Cosgrove for a minute : he has made the bulk of the runs so often that I have become accustomed to taking him for granted, but the weekend’s hint that he might not always be with us made me concentrate, for once, on his batting.

In a game of word association, the first word that might occur in connection with Cosgrove is “fat”. There have been times in his career when he has been overweight, but he currently looks as fit as a man with his constitution is ever likely to be : he is, though, an unusual, top-heavy, shape, as though his torso were too large for his legs. Certainly no-one who remembers Colin Milburn in his prime (or has seen Richard Levi recently) would say that Cosgrove bats like a fat man. He is capable of the fat man’s pull (legs apart, power coming from the belly), but inside this fat batsman there is clearly a thin one trying to get out, perhaps even that epitome of the “elegant left-hander”, Frank Woolley. His favoured off-side strokes may be hit with great force, but are executed with all the delicacy and precision of a Japanese calligrapher. He is always determined to make runs, but, in this match, that determination seemed to amount almost to desperation.

The second afternoon of the game seemed to belong to another game entirely, or another season. The sun shone, a soft breeze blew, the ale left over from the weekend beer festival was being sold off cheaply, and was eventually given away to the Members (although only in half-pints). It was the last of the Summer ale, and felt like the last day of a Summer that had never quite arrived. Unfortunately, it was also the afternoon when Gloucestershire batted.

Gloucestershire are a star-free side but, unlike Leicestershire, they make the most of their talents. Their highest score was 63 (by the same James Bracey who had made an impression on Charlie Shreck and others for Loughborough MCCU earlier in the season), but there were two other fifties and no score of fewer than 22 by the top seven. The demons in the pitch had taken the afternoon off (perhaps in the beer tent), and the bowlers were unable to summon up any of their own. Clint McKay bowled at little more than medium pace : he has the best economy rate of any bowler in the Division, but he can no longer be relied upon to take 50 wickets a season. Gloucestershire continued their innings into the third morning, when they finished on 368.

Leicestershire’s second innings was a repetition of their first, except that the conditions were even worse, and they made fewer runs. The only hope of avoiding defeat was for Cosgrove and Eckersley, who put on a fourth-wicket partnership of 79

IMG_20170914_071315

to hang on for grim life until the game was finally extinguished by rain or bad light. As so often this season, the sky was dark and the floodlights on by lunchtime. The batsmen were clearly have difficulties seeing the ball, and Cosgrove raged hard against this dying of the light, and in favour of coming off the pitch. Unfortunately this was in the hearing of the Umpires, who, in spite of endless fiddling about with light meters, seemed determined to stay on at all costs.

Eckersley fell to a swooping delivery from the normally innocuous medium-pacer Noema-Barnett. Cosgrove desperately chased a wide one from the strapping, rapid Norwell, and was given out by Umpire Nigel Cowley, a decision which seemed to be more in response to his uninvited views about the light than an honest opinion about whether he had made contact (had there been any daylight, there would have been about an inch of it between bat and ball). Sitting by the players’ entrance to the pavilion, I wondered at quite how eloquent an Australian of Scouse heritage can be while using but a single word.

There were, I think, fifteen spectators in the ground (plus Ben Raine’s Dad’s golden retriever) on the last day, which began with Leicestershire nine runs ahead, with three wickets remaining. I suppose we were hoping it would rain. However, Nigel Cowley, who has been a useful player and decent Umpire in his time, but only has one match to go before he retires, seemed keen for the match to end as soon as possible. Gloucestershire, having hit lucky with Cosgrove, acted as though they had come across a faulty cash dispenser, and appealed frantically and continuously for anything. McKay was caught behind, having made as much contact with the ball as Cosgrove. Opinions differed about last man Klein’s dismissal : it looked to me like a bump ball, whereas my companion thought it had come off his boot. The whole thing, even including a brief interruption for rain and Gloucestershire’s formality of a reply, was over in less than an hour.

Liam Norwell, who admittedly bowled well, finished with 8-43 : I doubt he will ever take as many as easily again. This gave him 10 wickets in the match, for the second time this season against Leicestershire, placing him slightly ahead of Jofra Archer, who has taken 18, and James Pattinson (16). In addition to having been (forgivably) beaten twice by Nottinghamshire and Sussex, who are strong bowling sides, we have now lost twice to Gloucestershire, on paper a weaker team, by an innings and by 10 wickets. At least we can look forward a tight finish to the return fixture against Northants, I suppose (though not, I hope, in the middle of the night this time).

It isn’t always the hope that kills you, you know.  Sometimes it’s the repetition.

IMG_20170914_071633

 

Advertisements

Heart Rot and Purple Haze

Kent v Leicestershire, County Championship, Canterbury, 30th August 2017

Leicestershire v West Indies, Grace Road, 2nd September 2017

You’re very optimistic” the gate-woman at the St. Lawrence Ground observed, laughingly, as she trousered my £20 note in return for a ticket which is now, I imagine, something of a collector’s item (I am reasonably confident that I was the only purchaser). As a general character assessment “fatalistic” might be nearer the mark, but I suspect that she intended it as a euphemism for “silly”, given the prospects for play (and no doubt I am).

According to ‘The Cricket Paper’,

This three-day county game in leafy Canterbury must have felt like pure joy to those nostalgic followers of championship cricket

and I suppose it must, if they happened to have been there on one of those three days. On Monday, Leicestershire’s bristly nemesis Darren Stevens had threatened to take all ten of our wickets (he finished with 8-75), before Lewis Hill and Callum Parkinson broke the record for a tenth wicket partnership set by George Geary and Alec Skelding in 1925. On Tuesday, Neil Dexter (who still has time to become the new Darren Stevens) snaffled another five wickets, and, on the Thursday, Mark Cosgrove (for motives that have been much speculated-upon) hit 24 off the first five balls of an over from Matt Coles, before edging to the wicket-keeper off the sixth.

It was one of Leicestershire’s more encouraging performances, there was an innings I should like to have seen from Sam Northeast, and the weather (for two and a half days) was blissful. Unfortunately, the only day on which I could be there was the Wednesday. It started to rain shortly before the start of play (having, briefly, been fine enough in the morning to lure me in), gently at first, then heavily enough for the day and ground to have been abandoned by lunchtime. This not only spoilt my day, but the match, which was hastened to its all-but-inevitable, drawn, conclusion by the return of the rain on the afternoon of the fourth day.

Canterbury, like Worcester and Hove, has the reputation of being one of the more conventionally romantic of the Counties’ headquarters : with a little imagination, I could sense that it was somewhere I should enjoy watching cricket, if there were any cricket to be seen. The majority of the ground is ringed by low banks of seating, and enough trees to justify the soubriquet “leafy”, interspersed with some medium-rise buildings, none of them offensive. The inevitable “redevelopment” – some retirement flats and a branch of Sainsbury’s – struck me as unobtrusive, though whether I would think so if I remembered the ground in its heyday I don’t know.

IMG_20170830_103440 (2)IMG_20170830_123440

Another new development, The Lime Tree Cafe, though not a patch, in culinary terms, on our own dear Meet, offered a snug vantage point from which to observe the rain (or cricket, where applicable).IMG_20170830_105553 (2)

A few of the younger Leicestershire players had taken refuge there too, giving off the vague impression of children keeping out of the way while the grown-ups argued.  Thanks to the rain, I had plenty of opportunity to inspect both the interior and exterior of the Frank Woolley Stand, a two storey concrete structure which is, perhaps, best described as “venerable” or “imposing” rather than “elegant” in the style of its dedicatee. I think it is somewhere I should only choose to sit to escape from the elements (excessive sun, wind or rain), but then so many days at the cricket are afflicted by one of those three. The leaking roof, I thought, only enhanced its discreet charms, but I suspect it will be “redeveloped” as soon as funds allow.

IMG_20170830_123654IMG_20170830_124615

 

The ground’s best-known feature, the lime tree which used to grow inside the boundary, apparently died of “heart rot”, an ailment I imagine as a feeling of profound discouragement brought on by prolonged soaking. Though very wet by the time I returned to the city centre, I think I managed to escape a dose and, having taken a liking to both Canterbury and its cricket ground, I hope we will meet again (though, at present, I don’t know when), preferably on some sunnier day.

This has been quite the season for novelties (or things that, Miranda-like, are new to me), and there was another in the shape of the format for the tour match against the West Indies. It was intended to be a two-day game, with one innings a side ; the first innings to be limited to 100 overs, the second not. The novel twist was that the West Indies were allowed 15 players, Leicestershire only 11. The Leicestershire side, with the exceptions of Ned Eckersley (who was captaining) and Harry Dearden, were the squad members who had not played against Kent, with debuts for teenagers Sam Evans and Harry Swindells, and tentative returns from injury for Zak Chappell (who has, again, spent most of the Summer playing as a batsman for the 2nd XI), and Richard Jones (who has not been seen since April).

The intention was presumably to provide the tourists with some practice between Tests and when, as expected, they won the toss, they chose to bat. Until lunch, however, Leicestershire’s bowlers were uncooperative enough to make a game of it, reducing them, at one point, to 64-5. There had been a September dew in the early morning, and, perhaps, Klein and Chappell were a little sharper than they had been expecting : Klein often surprises batsmen who haven’t faced him before ; Zak was bowling at a little below full pace and, perhaps as a result, was more economical than usual (his first nine overs cost only eighteen runs).

Brathwaite and Hope (K.) were trapped lbw by Klein and Chappell, by balls that swung and dipped in respectively, for single-figure scores ; neither Chase nor Blackwood reached double figures either. I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing Hope (S.) bat, given the records he had set at Headingley, but statistics mean nothing when you play down the wrong line, as he did to a delivery from Richard Jones, edging the ball on to his stumps having made a 28 that had hinted at better things. It was two players who had not made much impression at Headingley, Kieran Powell and the wicket-keeper Dowrich, who returned the game to its expected course, with an initially circumspect sixth wicket partnership of 127.

The exception to that circumspection was provided by a single stroke from Powell which impressed itself on the mind like a clap of thunder on a cloudless day, but might well have impressed itself for different reasons. Zak Chappell had been afflicted by one of his usual trials, a slight tickle down the legside that just evaded the leaping ‘keeper and crashed into the sightscreen. His next delivery, predictably, was a textbook bouncer, which Powell chose not to evade, but hooked off the tip of his nose. The ball travelled horizontally at almost precisely 90 degrees to the wicket, at a tall man’s head height, over a boundary which was as short as I have seen at Grace Road, and had rebounded off the Meet with alarming force before anyone in the vicinity had moved a muscle. It must have passed over the heads of those sitting on the benches in front of the Meet, but if someone, as is usually the case, had been making their way to the ice-cream parlour, lavatories or bar, and the ball had hit them on the head, it might easily have killed them. Fortunately, one of the few things at Grace Road which is more robust than it used to be is the glass in the Meet’s windows (once notoriously frangible, and prone to producing showers of broken glass).

Talking of sore heads, the club, perhaps suspecting that the West Indies would not provide enough of an attraction in themselves, had chosen to combine the match with a real ale festival. I am not sure of the precise distinction between craft beer and real ale, except that the former is fashionable and comes in bottles, whereas the latter is less fashionable and comes on draught. Craft beer is, reputedly, drunk by hipsters with sculpted beards, and real ale is, supposedly, drunk by old hippies with untamed beards (as the names of some of the ales, among them “Tangerine Dream” and “Purple Haze” would suggest). The ale-fanciers made up slightly more of a fair-sized crowd the West Indies supporters, many of whom I recognised from the visit of their women’s team in July.

IMG_20170902_153953 (2)IMG_20170902_103541 (2)IMG_20170902_170102 (2)

Powell’s thunderbolt aside, the afternoon was balmy, and meandered on its way in relaxed fashion, until, as tea approached, West Indies stood on 161-7. With only the tail to come, the crowd could have anticipated seeing the Windies bowl before the close of play, but that would be to forget the unusual playing conditions. One or two hardened topers (and I am not speaking from personal experience here, you understand) might have felt that they had been overdoing the “Spin Me Round” (one of Roxy Music’s more underrated tracks) as a number nine, with the frankly improbable name of Shimron Odilon Hetmyer, raised the ghost of old-tyme calypso cricket with a gaily-struck unbeaten 128, featuring 17 fours and 5 sixes (mostly hit too high to be a danger to life and limb). This Hetmyer, you see, normally bats at three, and may have glimpsed, and grasped, an opportunity to supplant the faltering Hope (K.), by laying into a tiring attack.

I didn’t bother turning up for the second day. The forecast was dubious, and I suspected that the West Indians would be less keen on bowling practice in chilly conditions. I believe that the match was abandoned because of bad light shortly before lunch (in spite of the floodlights), though I trust that the beer festival was allowed to continue for rather longer.

(Talking of trimmed and unkempt beards, I feel I would be failing in my duty if I did not report on the latest developments with respect to Ned Eckersley’s grooming. For most of the season he has favoured a long, off-centre-parted style, resembling Richard le Gallienne after a couple of months on a tramp steamer, but, for this game, both hair and beard had been severely cropped (perhaps in acknowledgement of the responsibilities of Captaincy).)

Beer and Balti and Eve Pudding and Gravy

Leicestershire v Durham, County Championship, Grace Road, 6-7 August 2017

Leicestershire v Yorkshire, T20 Blast, Grace Road, 12 August 2017

In my last post, I pictured the stand-alone Championship fixture against Durham, beckoning from the horizon like an oasis in the cricket-desert of mid-Summer. In the event, it turned out to be something of a mirage, or, at best, a roadside burger van that had run out of sauce. The most memorable moment of my two days at Grace Road was witnessing the ‘Leicester Mercury’’s roving reporter insisting on having gravy, instead of custard, on his eve pudding. Having nothing to do but watch cricket all day undoubtedly permits the full expression of one’s eccentricities, but I sometimes cannot help wondering whether that is entirely a good thing.

The match was, as anyone who had read the weather forecast would have known, a priori doomed (as predicted, days three and four were washed out). The same could be said of Durham’s season (even more so than Leicestershire’s) : having been relegated, by order of the ECB, a further imposition of a 36-point penalty means that their chances of promotion are negligible. In addition to having Stokes, Wood and Jennings on loan to England, they have been compelled to release Stoneman and Borthwick (along with Jennings, their leading run-scorers last season). Hoping, at best, to regroup, and find some replacements for their missing stars, they have struggled to the extent that only Leicestershire lie below them in the table.

This might go some way towards explaining their tactics, which seemed to disregard the issue of points altogether, as irrelevant to their situation (or perhaps they simply hadn’t read the weather forecast). If they were in contention for promotion, they would, having chosen to bat, have been well-advised to move smartly enough along to gain maximum batting points, declare, and hope to bowl Leicestershire out, if not twice, then quickly enough to bag three bowling points.

As it was, their openers, Cameron Steel and the New Zealander Tom Latham, batted serenely through the first two sessions, and gave every indication of carrying on in that vein until the rains came. In the event, Latham, who had been the more energetic of the two, tired late on the first day and departed with the score on 234. Steel, however, carried on until, shortly after he reached his double-century, a switch was thrown and Durham began to hit out (not, I think, Steel’s strong point), before declaring, unnecessarily late, on 525-8.

Steel has come to the North-East by a circuitous route (born in California, childhood in Australia, Millfield, Middlesex, Somerset and Durham University). He is clearly run-hungry and risk-averse enough to make a significant score against some undemanding bowling on a predictable pitch, but whether he is capable of doing so regularly is hard to say. He might turn out to be the new Andrew Strauss, or he might find himself relegated to the 2nd XI when Jennings returns. If he turns out to be any good, of course, I suppose he will end up at Surrey.

Leicestershire, weakened further by injuries, gave the impression that they would rather be anywhere other than Grace Road. In the field they were all but silent : Ben Raine, their usual cheerleader and irritant, who has now been out since June, prowled the boundary, looking as though he’d like a few words with someone he suspected of pinching his wallet. Perhaps he might be positioned on the dressing-room balcony, where he could offer encouragement through a loud hailer (though I imagine the ECB might take a dim view of that).

At the beginning of the season, I wondered how Leicestershire would find room in the side for all the seam bowlers we seemed to have acquired. Having lost Shreck (retired in disgust), Burke (returned to Surrey, now released from the game), Jones, Raine and Chappell (long-term injuries), and with McKay and Pillans also nursing ailments, the flagging Klein, who is not suited to being a stock bowler, and the tireless Griffiths (who is), were unexpectedly reinforced by, of all people, Ajmal Shahzad, who has, apparently been released by his third county, Sussex. It must seem a very long time to him since he was playing for England.

With the clouds already beginning to gather, Leicestershire went through the motions of a match-saving reply, with Harry Dearden making 30 from 109 balls. While I was watching him bat, Geoffrey Boycott was on the radio, asking whether there is anyone in county cricket capable of batting two hours to make 30.   I’m not sure Dearden is quite what he had in mind.

A happy feature of the game was that Neil Dexter, who has been out of the side “for personal reasons” was back on the pitch. When Durham came to throw the bat, it was mostly at his bowling, and he picked up 5-71. The gods of cricket, so often accused of cruelty, can also be kind, sometimes.

Part of the reason for Leicestershire’s distracted air against Durham might have been that the game had come as something of a distraction from their T20 campaign, which, although I have not been following it too closely, has been more successful than their efforts in the Championship. They won their first four games, all away from Grace Road, then lost the next four at home, in dismal weather, mostly narrowly, or in vaguely farcical circumstances. The previous evening they had defeated Northamptonshire at Wantage Road.

It was something of a revelation to see them in action in a different context, rather like seeing one’s work colleagues, freed from workaday constraints, out for a night on the town.  Colin Ackermann, whose batting is usually the soul of restraint, gaily flicked the ball over his shoulder, with the air of Maureen from Accounts tripping the light fantastic in fishnets and a feather boa.

In fact, the afternoon was, to a T20 novice, a revelation in a number of respects. Grace Road had been transformed into a cross between a holiday camp and an airport food court. I didn’t notice any eve pudding and gravy on offer, but most sane culinary tastes were catered for : beer and balti, the Spice Bazaar, a burger van, a hog roast and an ice cream van, and, for the more traditional fan, lashings of delicious lager. Various antic young people patrolled the perimeter on stilts, others fired T-shirts advertising Pepsi Max into the crowd from small bazookas (perhaps they should try firing MCC cravats into the pavilion at Lord’s).

Slightly to my surprise, the Yorkshire supporters were heavily outnumbered by Leicestershire fans. It must have helped that Leicester City had played at home the previous evening, whereas most of Yorkshire’s football clubs were playing that afternoon. Another factor may have been that Yorkshire had played and beaten Lancashire the previous evening and some of their supporters may have been in no fit state to make the journey.

Once the match started, I was struck by how negative the tactics were, given that the game is sold on the basis that it consists of all-out attack. It resembled a kind of asymmetrical warfare, whereby a weaker side (Leicestershire) can overcome a stronger enemy (Yorkshire) whom they would have little hope of defeating in an open battle (or a four-day game) by successfully harrying and frustrating them.

Yorkshire batted first, and, though Kohler-Cadmore (who began the season playing for Worcestershire) made the highest score of the day (75 out of a total of 182-5), their innings never quite got going, and none of their more fluent scorers were able to flow. Leicestershire used seven bowlers (3 seamers, 3 spinners, 1 medium pace), swapping them at the end of almost every over. I could see nothing obviously innovative about the bowling, or indeed the batting, just a lot of niggling and nibbling, gouging and scuffing and general frustration.

An effect of Leicestershire’s predominance in the crowd was that, although the small children enjoyed the boundaries (marked by a quick burst of what sounded like “Club hits of 1992”), the real appreciation among the aficionados was reserved for the bowling of a “dot ball”. In this respect Gavin Griffiths, bowling exactly the kind of good honest fast-medium stuff he’d been peddling to so little effect against Durham earlier in the week, was the hero of the hour, as half of his 18 deliveries resulted in no score. If anyone had succeeded in bowling a maiden (no-one did, though Adil Ali nearly managed it with his occasional off-spin), I imagine the expression of collective joy would have been on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When Leicestershire came to bat, the game was as good as settled in the second over, in which off-spinner Azeem Rafiq served up an entire over of delicious tripe, which have-boots-will-travel Austro-Kiwi Luke Ronchi, pausing only to stuff a napkin down the front of his shirt, tucked into to the tune of (I think) 22 runs. Leicestershire were well ahead of the required run-rate (scoring at over ten an over) until the mid-way stage when, with their three big-hitters gone, Colin Ackerman was left to shepherd the potentially wayward flock home. Renouncing his earlier flamboyance, he seemed to be, with the help of a succession of short-lived assistants, trying to get them in singles, finally overtaking Yorkshire’s total with two balls to spare.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. The weather was fine, the crowd in amiable mood, I had a delicious chicken curry for lunch and – crucially – Leicestershire won. It was even over in time for me to catch the last bus home.

I would not say, however, that it has done anything to assuage my anxieties about the future of County cricket.  As, say, a once-a-fortnight Saturday afternoon diversion, T20 has its attractions, but if it were ever to become the only form of cricket available, I think that would be the end of my interest in the game.

I also wonder about the future of the new city-based competition.  T-shirts and face-painting will only go so far to attract the new child-centred audience it is intended to attract, and some further tweaking of the rules may be required to ensure a regular supply of the boundaries they have been promised.  The dot-ball enthusiasts, on the other hand, are only enthusiastic because it is Leicestershire delivering them : some amorphous regional entity based in Nottingham is unlikely to attract this faction either.

Still, at the time of writing, Leicestershire are hopeful of qualifying for the quarter-finals and, if they do, I am very tempted to watch them.  Just call me a glory hunter.

 

Scribbling in the Margins

 Derbyshire v Durham, Queen’s Park, Chesterfield, County Championship, 3rd July 2017 and various minor games

“Something is pushing them to the side of their own lives …”

How have the last few weeks been for you?

Perhaps your schedule has been packed : the Tests against South Africa, the first half of the T20 Blast and, of course, the Women’s World Cup, whose final seems, for some, to have become an event akin to the death of Diana Spencer or the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in 2012. For you, perhaps, this High Summer of cricket looks set to continue until the end of August (more Tests, more floodlit T20s, more telly) before it fades away around the August Bank Holiday, with only the coda of a one day series against the West Indies (absurdly late!) to bridge the gap before England tour Australia.

Alternatively, if you don’t enjoy T20, don’t have a Sky subscription and aren’t an enthusiast for the women’s game, you may feel that your season dried up prematurely in about the middle of June, and that you are currently stranded in a mid-Summer desert, with only the oasis of a single round of Championship games this weekend to sustain you. Your season will only resume when the nights are encroaching on the days and there is an Autumnal nip in the air, that is if you have not already been lured away by the raucous siren songs of the football season.

I suppose this is one thing that I meant when I talked about disintegration (or diversity) : the cricketing public is no longer a single, monocultural, entity that follows the same seasonal narrative, but has fragmented into multicultural groupings, each with their own narratives, conversing mostly amongst themselves, and suspicious of, or in denial about, the existence of the others. Those forms of the game that the ECB wishes to see thrive (the international game, women’s cricket, T20) occupy the centre ground, and those that they do not are pushed to the sidelines, or – to use a word that has occurred a lot to me lately – marginalised.

This marginalisation can be both temporal (the Championship being pushed to the beginning and end of the season) and physical. The last Championship game I attended (for a day) was the game between Derbyshire and Durham at Chesterfield, which began on 3rd July, when matches were also being played at Cheltenham, Beckenham and Scarborough. As a long-standing advocate for outgrounds, I would normally applaud this outbreak of diversity, but it was hard not to feel some sense of displacement and relegation to the margins (the Women’s World Cup having requisitioned Derbyshire and Gloucestershire’s usual homes for the duration).

I have written about my visits to Queen’s Park, Chesterfield several times before and would still award it first prize in the small-to-medium-sized County grounds category, but a little of the old magic seemed to be missing. Perhaps because it was still term-time, the miniature railway that runs through Queen’s Park along one side of the ground was confined to the sidings (without even a miniature replacement bus service), the sound of children’s voices from the playground were diminished and the fish-and-chip van that is usually such an olfactory ornament to the ground was nowhere to be seen, or smelt. I was sad to see that the ghost sign for the Picture Post has been painted over.

This feeling (of being marginal people, in the shadows) did not stem from the size of the crowd. I would say it was as large as for the better attended games in the WWC at Grace Road, but we are not the story, and our place in that is as footnotes, marginalia.

The cricket (which is rarely the point of these flying visits) was a reminder that it can be quite relaxing to watch a batting side gently collapsing after a promising start (Derbyshire) and mildly amusing to see a wagging tail frustrate the bowlers (Durham’s), provided that neither of them are the side you support. Durham (who have, in the most literal sense, been relegated to the margins of Division 2 by the ECB) won the game, and have now overcome their 36-point handicap to overtake Leicestershire. Hamidullah Qadri, who has emerged into the foreground this season (and taken his place in the narrative), was playing, but his innings only lasted four balls, and I did not see him bowl.

Derbyshire (in the shape of their 2nd XI) featured in both of the other days of County cricket I have watched in the last seven weeks. One of these was at Belper Meadows, which retains its crown as my favourite ground in the Small Grounds category, though a little of its appeal depends on the quality of the light, which was generally subdued, though it had its moments.  The field of what I think is maize*, which adjoins one side of the ground, had grown higher than I have seen it before and must be close to being harvested (I feel this must have some metaphorical relevance, but nothing springs to mind).

Hamidullah Qadri was playing in this game too : he bowled a long spell of robotically accurate off-spin and took a wicket. Also playing was Harvey Hosein, another young player who made a dramatic first-class debut for Derbyshire, equalling their record for the most dismissals by a wicket-keeper, but has since been relegated to the margins of the 2nd XI by the arrival of Gary Wilson from Surrey and Daryn Smit from Kolpakia. Even aside from his wicket-keeping (which seemed competent, though he struggled a little with Qadri), his batting (he made 85* at Belper and a century at Kibworth) ought to make him an attractive target (if Derbyshire don’t want him) for any County looking to strengthen their middle order. I can think of one, not very far from Derbyshire.

Hosein, though not Qadri, also played against Leicestershire’s 2nd XI at Kibworth. This game, which, on a third day of cloud and drizzle,

IMG_20170719_145911

 

seemed mostly to consist of declaration bowling against a side who had no real incentive to declare, made me wonder seriously if I might not be able to find some better use for my time. If you look hard enough, and know where to look (and the real refuseniks do), there are always games to be had somewhere : Academy games at Uppingham, 2nd XI T20 double-headers, age-group sides. Though these all have their merits, convincing myself that I really want to watch them does feel uneasily like hunting frantically for a half-drunk bottle of creme-de-menthe left over from Christmas, and claiming that this is because I have a real taste for the stuff, rather than some kind of addiction.

Nonetheless, I set off for Leicester Grammar School last Monday with the earnest intention of watching a 2nd XI T20 against Northants. As the bus approached Great Glen, however, it was raining quite hard, and I decided, with what that felt uneasily like relief, to stay on the bus and proceed on to Leicester, where I had a cup of coffee and visited a museum instead. Watching 2nd XI cricket can be a wonderful way of discovering some of this country’s genuine diversity : this season I have stumbled across Europe’s largest Gurdwara in Smethwick, some gypsy horses on the way to Desborough, and a Japanese water-garden in Milton Keynes :

but, although watching cricket can provide a pretext for visiting places that it would not otherwise have occurred to you to visit, it is not a necessary one. So, over the last fortnight, I have visited Leamington Spa and Cheltenham, without the faintest sniff of leather or willow, and enjoyed the break.

As you may have discovered in bed sometimes, I suppose you can only be pushed so far towards the edge before you fall out altogether.

*Apparently it’s sweetcorn (but, see the further correction in the comments).

Ecstatic, Bewildered or Indifferent

England v Pakistan, Australia v Pakistan, India v South Africa, West Indies v Pakistan, Sri Lanka v Pakistan (all Women’s World Cup, Grace Road, 27th June to 15th July 2017)

Leicester’s New Walk Art Gallery and Museum has, in its permanent collection, a painting by Stanley Spencer accompanies it contains the phrase “the girls ecstatic, the old men bewildered or indifferent”. This phrase stuck in my mind, when I visited a few weeks ago, because I thought it might come in handy when describing the crowd for the Women’s World Cup, which has been occupying Grace Road, and much of my attention, for the past three weeks.

In the event, that wasn’t quite how it was, but there are certainly those who have been left baffled by, and indifferent to it, and not all of them old or men. The usual suspects, the Leicestershire members who watch Championship (and often one-day) cricket at Grace Road were, with very few exceptions, conspicuously absent. Where they have been is unclear. There were a happy few (a very few, though not very happy) at the day-night game at Northampton, and, no doubt, some will have made their way to the Sussex game at Arundel. Some will have been biding their time and waiting for the T20 season to begin (though, because of the World Cup, the Foxes’ first four games are all away from home).

Some, though, particularly those who are not interested in T20, will simply have given up on watching live professional cricket altogether. To re-iterate, between the end of the Sussex game on 12th June and the beginning of the Gloucestershire game on 5th September, there is only one non-T20 game involving Leicestershire at Grace Road (the Championship game against Durham beginning 8th August). If what you want to watch is Championship, or even one-day, cricket, and are at all averse to being cold and wet, Membership represents increasingly poor value and, some, I know, have, as I say, simply given it up as a bad job.

That is one reason why the attitude of some goes beyond indifference to active hostility. Another is the perception that the club is more interested in pandering to the ECB and its various visions than in producing a successful Leicestershire team (this season’s woeful results have not helped in this respect). There is, too, a suspicion that the women’s game is, to use a retro term, more hype than substance, that it is being promoted by powerful forces for reasons that have little to do with its intrinsic merits.

In fact, about the only thing about women’s cricket that can be irksome (the matches themselves are usually enjoyable to watch) is the uncritical and breathlessly enthusiastic tone that some commentators feel obliged to adopt when writing about it, rather like a 14-year-old E.W. Swanton reporting on a House Match.

I am inexpert at estimating the size of crowds, but both ‘The Times’ newspaper (and, a more reliable source, Clare in the Meet) informed me that 1,000 tickets had been sold in advance, and 2,000 given away to parties of schoolchildren for my first game, between England and Pakistan. Of the five games I saw, there were, perhaps, 2,000 paying customers for the weekend game between India and South Africa (mostly India supporters), and perhaps 200-300, free or paying, for the other three (the parties of children tend to melt away at going-home-time, leaving a breathless hush in the Meet, and, by the end of the Pakistan-West Indies game, the crowd was in close to single figures).

As to who these paying customers were, they were not noticeably young nor female, nor seemed interested, specifically, in women’s cricket, but pretty much, I imagine, the same types who would turn out to support the mens’ teams of their respective countries.


The general aim seemed to be to create a sort of stadium rock experience, with elements borrowed from the 2012 Olympics. As always with an ECB event, there were a large number of security staff, augmented by “Cricketeers”, whose job, rather like Butlins’ Redcoats, or the Mouseketeers, was to ensure that the crowd had a good time, all of the time.

Inevitably, there was face painting, and a gospel choir.

IMG_20170708_135339

Grace Road had made some attempt to accommodate a feminine audience, by providing a pop-up prosecco van, and warning against wearing high heels in the Maurice Burrows stand (they must have had problems with this in the past)

Even Wasim Khan (I think it was him, anyway) joined in the fun, by performing a juggling act with hats.

IMG_20170627_143806

There were all the elements that, I imagine, are familiar to the T20 regulars, but less so to me. Any lull in the action was filled by a randomly chosen burst of music : the only ones I recognised were AC/DC’s Thunderstruck (which went down well with the Australians) and bizarrely, given its lyrical content, Primal Scream’s Rocks ; my daughter, who accompanied me to one game, described the others as Some Random Shit, though I’m not sure whether that was the name of the genre or the artiste.

The music was played to mark any significant event, such as a wicket or a boundary, which were also marked by some contraption that resembled multicoloured ectoplasm leaping into the air from a box. While the schoolchildren were present this was greeted by a noise like 2,000 pocket air raid sirens going off, presumably in response to the music, the ectoplasm and the urgings of the Cricketeers, rather than any understanding of what had happened on the pitch, given that the boundaries had been brought in so far in front of the stand where most of the children were corralled that they would have needed telescopes to see it

IMG_20170705_145235

In fact, I was struck by how few opportunities there seemed to be, for the children in particular, to get at all close to the players. Usually at Grace Road, because the players have lunch and tea in the Charles Palmer suite, anyone who wants to ask for autographs or take a photograph of themselves with them has plenty of chances to buttonhole them, and even the bigger stars (such as Cook or Broad) are usually happy to comply. During the WWC, the players mostly sat between the usual and the actual boundary in a sort of beach bar arrangement, with benches and parasols, and the security staff strongly discouraged any attempt to make contact with them (the mob eventually managed to descend on India’s regal Captain, Mithali Raj, as she made the short journey back to the dressing room).

IMG_20170708_162732

One player whom it was possible to observe at close quarters was the South African Marizanne Kapp, who, much to the consternation of the security staff, dashed off the pitch several times through the Fox Bar to the ladies’ lavatories. The South Africans seemed to have taken the odd decision to ban smiling and encourage glaring in their pictures in the (very useful) programme, with the result that they looked like a group of prison warders with some of their more dangerous charges. Kapp, in particular, looked rather as though she was about to be interviewed by Piers Morgan about how it was that she had come to poison five husbands, so it was a relief to find that she is actually perfectly pleasant-looking.

 

The first match followed the same pattern as the one day game between the same sides at Grace Road last year : England batted first and knocked up a large score, which Pakistan made only a token effort to chase. In fact this was the pattern of the first four of the World Cup games I saw. England, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies made 377-7, 290-8, 273-9 and 285-4 respectively, with Pakistan (India against South Africa) making 107-3 (against a DLS target of 215), 131 all out, 158 all out and 117-3 (against a DLS target of 137).

There have been changes in the women’s game since I saw my first one-day game, which must have been in about 2004, mostly in the direction of increased athleticism. The seam bowling has increased in pace, though not, I’d say, very dramatically. The fielding is more athletic, though unlike the men, they have not taken to the sliding stop and flip back (which now seems obligatory, even when completely unnecessary). There are still a plethora of overthrows and comedy run outs, though this might be because the side I saw the most of were Pakistan, who rather specialised in them.

The biggest change, though, has been the advent of the “power hitter” – the player who can get her foot to the pitch of the ball and hit it back over the bowler’s head. The sides who batted first and won collectively hit 27 sixes, 18 of them by four players : Sciver of England (4), Villani of Australia (4), Lee of South Africa (7) and Dottin of the West Indies (3). The sides who batted second and lost only managed 2. India are a slightly different case, in that their chief power hitters, Mandhana and Kaur, were out cheaply, but Pakistan, a small side, were simply unable to compete. As their Captain, Sana Mir, plaintively admitted after the England game : “We knew that it was impossible for us to chase. We are not so powerful like them, and we have no big hitters”.

The South Africans, a strenuously athletic side, rather rubbed this in, having overpowered India, by warming down on the pitch afterwards, while the Indians had a sit down under their parasols, and Mithali Raj, presumably, finished reading her famous book.

It occurs to me that watching the women’s game now is rather what it must have been like watching the men’s game in the earliest days of the modern era (in the 1870s and 1880s) : predominantly medium pace bowling and spin, well-pitched up, with the batsmen playing off the front foot with a straight bat (though I’m not sure that Nat Sciver would recognise any real sense of kinship with the likes of “Buns” Thornton). The West Indian ‘keeper, Merissa Aguileira, added a further antiquarian touch by fielding without pads, and Sciver headed further back into the past by reviving the “draw”, a stroke that was last in fashion when W.G. Grace was beardless.

During the course of the competition I became quite attached to Pakistan, who were based in Leicester (why not India, whom I would have expected to attract larger crowds, I don’t know). I might have become equally attached to India, who, though a better side, also seemed better suited to the longer forms (now virtually defunct in the women’s game). I remember a young Mithali Raj playing in what must have been one of her earliest Tests at Grace Road. Her style was to play five immaculate forward defensives, followed by an elegant cover drive and a gently strolled single. She is now a very grand personage, who looks as though she ought to be led to the wicket, riding side-saddle on a white Arabian stallion : she can adapt her style a little to the one-day game, but, you feel, actual power-hitting is a little beneath her.

Pakistan had begun their tournament promisingly (in a match I did not see) by losing narrowly to South Africa, and they began quite promisingly against England.  They opened, unusually, with two seam bowlers, who restricted England’s scoring in the power play and removed dangerwoman Tammy Beaumont.  Perhaps conscious that it was an area that required improvement, they were fielding like tigers (or perhaps, given their size, ocelots).

After the change bowlers came on, unfortunately, it all fell to pieces.  I was shielded from the worst of the carnage because, in an attempt to get away from the squealing, I was seated behind the ectoplasm machines, which, in a rather literal expression of the hype getting in the way of the cricket, obscured my view as Sciver hit boundary after boundary.

IMG_20170627_134352

I did see one fielder deal with a steepling catch on the boundary by moving backwards, rather than forward to meet it, with the result that the ball bounced over her head for four.

When Pakistan batted, as I have said, they seemed to be hoping to bat through to the inevitable rain without too much embarrassment.  As Sanva Mir played out another maiden, a neighbour stood up and announced, in what seemed to be a pre-prepared speech, “What a terrible advertisement for the women’s game“, to which his wife replied “Leave the poor duck alone – she’s doing her best“.

The Australia game, though less dramatic, was much the same.  Pakistan’s reply of 131 in their 50 overs took me back to the early days of the Gillette Cup, with left-arm spinner Jess Jonassen returning the Langfordesque figures of 10-6-12-1.  Australia, incidentally, were very Australian, but then so are England these days.

My hopes of seeing a Pakistan victory rose slightly for the match against the West Indies, who had had an erratic tournament, having been bowled out for 48 by South Africa in their first game at Grace Road.  They fell when, yet again, after a promising start, the West Indians smacked 285-4 off them in steady drizzle.  It was a sign of my new-found devotion that I hung around through a couple of hours of steady rain, with, by the end, about ten West Indians and a couple of Pakistanis, in the hope that Pakistan could throw caution to the wind and reach the revised target of 137 in 24 overs which, even in the face of some very ordinary bowling, they could not.

So to the last game, against Sri Lanka, when surely, surely, I thought, victory would be theirs against a side who were ranked below them, had not won, and looked, if anything, even smaller and less athletic.  They even, in restricting their opponents to 222, took several of those high, high boundary catches that had previously confounded them.

And so, I found myself, not for the first time this season (with 10 overs remaining, 46 runs required and 2 wickets to fall) sitting in front of the pavilion in cold, wet conditions, floodlights barely illuminating the gloom, accompanied by a small group of fanatics, desperately willing my side to achieve the highly unlikely.

IMG_20170715_180602

The ninth wicket stand, which took them to between 16 runs of the target, was between Asmavia Iqbal and Diana Baig, the seamers who had been two of Pakistan’s heroines in the tournament, with some economical bowling in the opening overs.  Baig had first caught my eye by emerging from a gap in the ectoplasm to take a leaping catch in the opening game

IMG_20170627_134901

but, although she was described by the programme as an all-rounder, her batting average in internationals before this innings was 0.2.   She poked out a gallant 11, before being caught in the covers, which brought no. 11 Sadia Yousuf to the crease.

All that was required was for her to keep the bowlers at bay, while Asmavia, who had the bit between her teeth, hit the paltry runs remaining, but she was, of course, bowled first ball.

And I had even missed my bus for them. Ah well, the fundamental things remain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diversity and Disintegration

Nottinghamshire v Leicestershire, Trent Bridge, 19th June 2017

Northamptonshire v Leicestershire, County Ground, Northampton, 26th & 29th June 2017

It is odd, or not, how certain words seem to spring to mind repeatedly at certain times, in connection with cricket, and more generally. A few weeks ago, you may remember, that word was drift : more recently it has been superseded by disintegration. On the simplest level, my season has, until now, consisted of an orderly succession of four-day Championship games at Grace Road (interrupted, it is true, by the one-day cup, which, I suppose, had its own integrity), but, as we have approached midsummer and mid-season, with only one more home four-day match before the end of August, it has disintegrated, or, to use a phrase which claims more positive connotations, diversified (and like love and marriage, I believe, you cannot have diversity without disintegration, or vice-versa).

In the last fortnight I have seen the following : a semi-final of the Leicestershire League Cup ; the first day of Leicestershire’s Championship match at Trent Bridge ; Day 2 of a Leicestershire 2nd XI game and Day 3 of a Northamptonshire one ; a 2nd XI club game at Harborough ; the afternoon of the first day of Leicestershire’s day-night game at Wantage Road ; a Women’s World Cup game at Grace Road and the fourth, concluding, day and night at Northampton. In every one of them there was something out of the ordinary : a village side containing ten “Asians” coming within a few runs of beating the mighty Kibworth ; Samit Patel ; a leg-spinner taking ten wickets, including that of his identical twin ; a four-hour walk around a reservoir to a ground with a small Greek temple-cum-mausoleum, the match played to the accompaniment of peacocks and Spitfires ;

PTDC0789

an 11-year old playing an innings of Tayloresque precocity* ; a century before high tea by an apparently reinvigorated Duckett ; an eau-de-nil prosecco bar in a horsebox, and finally, almost, but not, excruciatingly, quite, the extraordinary thing itself.

I intend to return to these happy scenes of diversity on another occasion, but for the moment I will attempt to disentangle the less glittering strand, what, at one time, appeared likely to be the disintegration of Leicestershire’s season, and the disintegration of the team into its constituent parts.

I always approach Trent Bridge hopeful of an enjoyable day, but will doing so less this season because, as part of what sometimes feels like a concerted plan to prevent me watching first-class cricket, Nottinghamshire no longer have a reciprocal agreement with Leicestershire (if you are interested in the economics, an off-peak return to Nottingham costs £19.50 and entry to the ground is £17.00, so I shan’t be visiting too often). On the other hand, my expectations of a favourable result for Leicestershire could hardly have been lower, particularly when I saw that Pattinson, Broad and Ball were available for selection, and that a small heatwave was forecast that made rain an improbable escape route.

My expectations fell further when I saw Leicestershire’s team selection. The gloves had been removed from Eckersley (perhaps due to his Ancient Mariner-style attitude to byes against Sussex), which meant that, with Lewis Hill at no. 7, there was room for only four front-line bowlers, all seamers (and none of them Zak Chappell, who was out with what the OWS described as “a groin”). Pettini was still at no. 6 and there was no sign of Aadil Ali. Choosing to bowl first cannot, in the circumstances, have been a popular decision with the bowlers, and suggested that the Captain had about as much faith in his batting against Pattinson and his posse as I did.

As the temperature rose, my hopes evaporated when Ben Raine, who had just returned from injury, pulled up at the start of his fourth over and returned to the pavilion with his head in his hands (it was his side, not his head, that was ailing, but he also seemed to be experiencing considerable mental anguish). The remaining three seamers (Klein, McKay and Griffiths) cannot have been feeling too chilled either at the prospect of sharing out Raine’s overs on a day when any strenuous activity seemed likely to result in dramatic weight loss by (in spite of which Mark Cosgrove chose to bring himself on early).

In the event, Leicestershire’s bowlers acquitted themselves well by, at the end of the first day, restricting Notts to only 345-4. McKay, who seems to have mislaid his ability to take wickets, but is still treated warily by sensible batsmen, bowled 28.4 overs for 78 runs, and Griffiths, who is a grafter, if nothing else, stuck uncomplainingly to his task. Dieter Klein, who usually aims, like Byron’s tiger, to kill with his first spring, showed hyena-like persistence and was rewarded with 6-142 off his 31 overs. Colin Ackermann offered some welcome relief, if little threat, with 31 overs of his dutiful, minimalist, offspin.

The bulk of Nottinghamshire’s 548 runs were provided by Samit Patel, whose 247 suggested an experienced camel making its progress across the Sahara, not conventionally beautiful, but serene in its natural habitat and self-assured in its mastery of conditions in which most would wilt. Richard Rae described the crowd as “impressively sizeable” and, to be fair, there were some very big lads in the sun-trap of the Hound Road stand, many of whom decided to strip down to their smalls ; for most of us, though, it was a day for flitting between sun and shade, and feeling thankful that we were not in the field.

(These photographs may suggest an attempt at a blue period, or a strong subconscious urge for cool, but, in fact, I had been forced to revert to an old pocket camera and had forgotten to alter the settings. I rather like the effect.)

In the following days, I was not surprised to learn (from afar) that Nottinghamshire had declared on 548, nor that Leicestershire had been bowled out twice, by a piquant statistical quirk, for 134, nor that Pattinson had returned match figures of 8-71, nor that this was Leicestershire’s heaviest innings defeat for 85 years.

I was, though, surprised to learn that Pierre de Bruyn had reacted to the defeat by signing Arun Harinath and Matt Pillans on a short-term loan from Surrey, which seemed to be a frank admission of panic. Harinath is a decent enough opener and might have been a useful acquisition at the start of the season, but to sign him now, with two games to go before the start of the T20 campaign, means that Harry Dearden, who has finally shown signs of establishing himself in the side after a baptism of ice, will now be relegated to the 2nd XI until at least the end of August. Pillans I had, frankly, never heard of, though I was interested to note that he is one of the seven bowlers currently registered in England whom Playfair considers genuinely fast.**

Both, predictably, went straight into the side for the match against Northants at Wantage Road, Harinath replacing Dearden and Pillans the unhappy Raine (Dexter was in for Pettini and Sayer for Griffiths). My expectations of this match were low too, not so much, this time, with respect to Leicestershire’s prospects, but in the sense that I was not expecting to be able to watch very much of it, the ECB having decreed that this round of games should be day-night affairs, played with a bubblegum pink ball. (I think I have made my views on this topic clear quite often enough already, so will not bore you by repeating them.)

The first afternoon, the only part of the match I was expecting to see, was pleasant enough, though somnolent, as though we were starting play three hours late because we had all overslept. It divided into roughly two halves (before and after what I have seen variously referred to as lunch, dinner and tea). In the first half, Ben Duckett smashed (for once that word seems unavoidable) 112 runs from 102 balls, 84 of them coming in fours. He seemed to have, correctly, I think, identified that his problems this season have stemmed from half-heartedness and over-elaboration, and, while eschewing some of his more experimental strokes, concentrated on hitting any vaguely hittable delivery very hard in the direction of the boundary. Four of his fours came off the first over by Pillans, leaving me to wonder if that F in ‘Playfair’ might not stand for “Filth”, rather than “Fast” (though after that he bowled well). When Duckett did go, just in time for tea (or whatever)***, he was caught at short fine leg, off another insufficiently full-blooded lap-slog-sweep.

The second half seemed to consist mostly of Max Holden blocking deliveries from Rob Sayer. Holden is a highly-regarded 19-year-old batsman, on loan from Middlesex, who is described by Cricinfo as having “a strong work ethic” ; Sayer an off-break bowler whose forte is containment. It was a hard to say who was on top in this encounter : Holden seemed to be holding out against a more attacking bowler than Sayer, and Sayer bowling to contain a more aggressive batsman than Holden, who was still inching his way towards a second first-class century, which he was not quite to achieve, when I, without too much regret, left to catch the last bus.

IMG_20170626_155717

It was a pleasant evening and there was a small shoal of lads, wearing what used to be called bermuda shorts, arriving as I left, making a bee-line for the bar and the burger stand, which was, unfortunately, shut, as were all the other sources of nourishment. I also spotted a father and son arriving, providing some vindication of the day-night concept, and some compensation for the slightly larger numbers leaving the ground as they arrived.

I followed the evening session, and the next two days and nights of the game from elsewhere, and none of it came as any great surprise. As soon as I had left, Leicestershire (mainly in the person of Dieter Klein, who took another six wickets) had sprung into life, reducing Northants from 211-3 to 261 all out (whether this had anything to do with the pink ball under lights I cannot say). On the Tuesday, Leicestershire had recovered from 87-7 to 157 all out, thanks mainly to a rearguard action by Lewis Hill and the mysterious Pillans. On Wednesday, which was mostly washed out, the game continued until shortly before ten o’clock, and I congratulated myself, as I prepared for bed, on not being at Wantage Road at that time on a cold, damp evening, a prospect which struck me as being about as attractive as spending the evening in a storm drain.

So it is fair to say that when I arrived at 2.00 on Thursday I was not expecting the unexpected. Northamptonshire had declared to set Leicestershire 393 to win, which would have been their highest-ever winning fourth innings total. In fact, I was expecting that Leicestershire would have lost, perhaps ignominiously, well in time for me to catch the last bus home. I was not expecting still to be there at close to nine o’clock, with Leicestershire’s two last men in and only 2 runs required to win. But that is what happened, on an evening which had such a hallucinatory quality that I am not quite certain, in retrospect, that it actually happened.

I had, in fact, been hovering on the point of quitting the ground, as expected, at six o’clock, when Leicestershire had made roughly 200 for 3. Cosgrove had gone, but Ackerman and Eckersley were still in and the lure of witnessing the extraordinary, unexpected thing , the small, nagging, voice of faith, was enough to persuade me to turn around and join a fellow-Fox, who had kindly offered me a lift home, in front of the pavilion.

I shan’t relate the events of the evening blow-by-blow, but it was largely thanks to Colin Ackermann, who batted for a couple of minutes short of five hours for his 105, that we found ourselves, peering through the gloaming, on 357-7, with victory, rationally, more probable than not. There had been several points in the innings where the expected had threatened to reassert its unlovely self, and it loomed into view again when first Ackermann

and then McKay were dismissed, leaving the last two batsmen, Dieter Klein and the Horatian Pillans, 25 short of victory. Pillans, as the stronger of two, expertly farmed the strike and counter-attacked until, having made 56, only those two, final, paltry, excruciating, runs were required, at which point … well, the memory is too fresh and painful to dwell on, but, as you probably know, we lost.

IMG_20170629_204907

We could be heroes , just for one evening

I don’t suppose it was quite what the ECB had in mind when they instituted day-night cricket (perhaps beautiful young urban professionals sipping prosecco as the sun sets radiantly over the Oval), but it certainly contributed to the heroic quality of the evening that it was played out in front of, at most, about fifty spectators, the hardest of the hardcore, in dank conditions, long after any source of food, drink or public transport had vanished (if it were not for the presumed “heritage” of the leading participants, I might describe it as being a bit like the Siege of Mafeking). On the other hand, I am not sure I would wish to see the experiment repeated : better to leave that evening lingering as a solitary, shining, memory.

IMG_20170629_183342

What effect this will have on the team remains to be seen. It has been said that team spirit is “an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory” ; we shall have to hope that it can also be glimpsed in the aftermath of certain kinds of defeat. But, even if Matthew Pillans picks up a bit of a niggle and has to go straight back to Surrey, never to play for us again, his name will live long in Leicestershire folklore, and the tale of how he almost beat Northamptonshire will grow in the telling, whenever two or more Foxes are gathered together round a campfire, spinning yarns of yore.

* I don’t want to jinx the lad, but his initials are VS.

** The others are Mohammed Amir, Mark Wood, Tymal Mills, Hardus Viljoen, Brydon Carse and Matt Dixon (the last two, in case you’ve never heard of them either, are signed to Durham and Essex respectively).

***The caterers seemed to have got round the problem of which meals the players were meant to be eating by providing an all-you-can-eat buffet. Probably wise to get in the queue early, given the appetites of some of the Northamptonshire staff.

Festivals of Insignificance

England Lions v South Africa A, Northampton, 3 June 2017

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, 9-12 June 2017

It has sometimes occurred to me that the ideal reader of this blog has not yet been born. This is not because, like Friedrich Nietzsche or Martin Peters, I imagine myself to be ahead of my time, but because, I hope, it may serve as a record of a way of life that, I suspect, will have long since ceased to exist. There may still be a game played with bats and balls ; it may be called cricket ; but I do not expect that the County game or the longer forms generally will have survived. So, if anyone out there in the future is interested in knowing what it felt like to watch cricket in the Summer of 2017, it felt, to me, like this.

IMG_20170603_125351

Anything in the paper?

I am not yet convinced that 2017 will prove to be a memorable date in English history, and I doubt whether anyone will be able to relate what I have written about cricket to the any event that might make it so. Contemporary accounts of cricket in – say – the Summers of 1914 or 1939 have acquired a retrospective poignancy, in that you would rarely be able to tell from reading them what was about to happen, and we assume from this that the crowds did not know what that would be. It might equally be that they knew, or suspected, perfectly well, but hoped to find in cricket a zone of exclusion, where the horrors could temporarily be forgotten, or, at least, not decently alluded to. (As I have often said, a large part of the appeal of sport is that it offers us the opportunity to lose ourselves in something that, ultimately, doesn’t matter at all.)

So, for the benefit of my readers in 2117, the Lions’ match against South Africa A took place 12 days after an Islamist suicide bomber had killed 23 people (including himself) at a concert in Manchester, mainly attended by young women and girls, and on the day when, in the evening, a group of three terrorists killed eight people in London by driving a van at them and then attacking them with knives. I have seen some fine pieces, written in the aftermath of these events, which have managed to connect them to games of cricket, but, for my part, the only connection I feel is that the game was not quite absorbing enough to mask a deep, dull, sense of disquiet. In the Briggs and Forrester Family Stand, I could connect nothing with nothing.

IMG_20170603_135458

My ability to concentrate on the game was not aided by the fact that Northamptonshire had chosen it for a Community Day (our old friend the Family Fun Day under another name), with the result that the crowd consisted largely of parents with young children, who, as usual, were more interested in their own games (more fidget spinners* and simple fidgets than spinners ) than anything occurring on the pitch. In the circumstances, earnestly studying the cricket felt like being a Professor of Zoology visiting a safari park on a Bank Holiday, as if I were rather missing the point.

It also didn’t help that, although the Lions’ opponents were billed as South Africa A, it would not be hard to assemble at least one better XI from South Africans currently playing County cricket, under various flags. Only two of them made much of an impression (the opening bowler Duanne Olivier and off-breaking all-rounder Aiden Markram), and I imagine you can expect to see those two appearing at a County ground near you soon enough.

Another crypto-South African, Dawid Malan, opened the batting with Ben Duckett. In the corresponding fixture against Sri Lanka A last year, Duckett, in what I hope does not turn out to have been his brief pomp, made an inventive 62 and I grew so bored by Malan hitting sixes that I was moved to compare him to “Buns” Thornton. This time Duckett made only 2, before he was caught at mid-wicket off another indeterminate stroke. Last year his strokes could be hard to describe because he was busy inventing exciting new hybrids ; this year he seems unsure himself quite which one he is intending to play.

Bell-Drummond and Vince (two players seemingly stuck in development hell) also departed cheaply, leaving Malan (a restrained 84, until he inexplicably leaped out half way down the wicket and was stumped) and Liam Livingstone (129 off 83 balls) to push the game beyond plausible reach (the final total was 349-7). Given how many openers England have tried recently, it is hard to see why Malan has been ignored : perhaps an almost 30-year old South African is not the kind of player they would ideally wish to be seen employing. Livingstone, whose innings was equally appealing to the Mums, Dads, kiddiz, and even old miseries like me, has the curious quality of batting, in a long-levered style, like a man much taller than his Playfair-billed height of 6’1” (I was quite surprised when I checked). He would fit into England’s one-day line-up well, if they can find the space for him.

South Africa’s reply began brightly, but was half-hearted in the face of some economical, if not overly incisive, bowling, and petered out on a paltry 205. The bowler who impressed most was George Garton, a hostile left-armer from Sussex, who has now played almost as often for the Lions as he has first-class games for Sussex. I did not stay to the end, drifting away at about the same time as most of the families had tired of the entertainment, but returned home in reasonably good spirits (not, of course, to survive long into the evening).

IMG_20170603_150457

There are blue skies just around the corner

Leicestershire’s game against Kent began on the morning after the General Election, which you – O gentle retrospect – may have to look up in a book, if you still have such things (it was the first of the year). The campaign had been as long drawn out, painful and unedifying to observe as a man with chronic constipation attempting a crap, and had culminated in a result which should have pleased no-one. It might have been a hangover from that, the weather (overcast, with a chill wind and rain threatening) or pessimism about Leicestershire’s prospects, but I thought I detected at least a mild whiff of what the Argentinians call bronca abroad (a sort of sullen anger).

IMG_20170611_172023

I was generally successful in evading the election through the course of the four days, although the combination of free wi-fi and a smart ‘phone sometimes led me to log into Twitter, releasing a thousand “hot takes” to buzz around my ears like angry wasps after my sandwiches. The only time I heard anyone allude to it directly was when a man read out from his ‘phone : “Theresa May will be going to the Palace this afternoon”. If I were Neville Cardus, I would claim that, with the ready wit that comes naturally to Leicestershire supporters, someone responded “I thought the football season had finished” but, in fact, everyone roundly ignored it.

Looking at the scores (Leicestershire 340 and 175 ; Sussex 284 and 234-5), you might suppose that this game was a good advertisement for 4-day cricket : from a neutral’s perspective (or that of the substantial contingent who had swapped good old Sussex-by-the-Sea for Leicester-by-the-Soar) you would be right. The outcome was not quite certain until the last afternoon, there was a mid-game reversal of fortune and one outstanding performance from a new starlet, in the person of Jofra Archer. But Leicestershire supporters are already far too familiar with this storyline to be much beguiled by it.

Leicestershire’s 340 had been hard-won, in the face of a near-international attack comprising Philander, Jordan, Archer, Briggs and David Wiese. (Leaving aside its effect on South African cricket, I am generally agnostic about the recent influx of South Africans, but Wiese does seem a gratuitous signing, given that Garton (who had impressed me for the Lions) was relegated to twelfth man, and Sussex also have Whittingham, Robinson, Ajmal Shahzad and part-timer Tymal Mills on their books).

Now that Horton and Dearden have passed through their early season pain barrier, they have emerged as a moderately reassuring opening partnership : in the first innings Dearden only made 8, but managed to stick around until the 18th over in doing so. Horton contributed 71, Cosgrove (whose excellence I take too much for granted) 128, and Zak Chappell, who seems to have found his feet as a batsman (almost literally so, in that he sometimes plays like someone who has not quite come to terms with being exceptionally tall), a handy 44.

When Sussex were reduced to 156-7, or even 201-9 (thanks mainly to Clint McKay, who has previously been economical this season without taking many wickets), a naive observer would have thought that the advantage lay with Leicestershire. A seasoned observer (and there are some pretty highly-seasoned, not to mention well-pickled, ones in and around the Fox Bar) would not have been surprised when Philander and Briggs (who batted just under two hours for his 27) elongated the score to 284, with a last wicket stand of 83, nor that Leicestershire’s reply soon subsided to 107-7, before a late rally enabled them to go into the last day with a lead of 232.

I have to say that no real blame attaches to Leicestershire’s batsmen, even against an attack depleted by Philander twisting his ankle during a display of over-athletic fielding, and Wiese unable to bowl because of some unspecified ailment. Jofra Archer, a slim 22-year-old with a nonchalant approach to the wicket but an explosive shoulder action, took 6-70 to go with the 5-65 he had taken in the first innings and would have troubled anyone. The last time I saw him (at Grace Road last September) I was impressed by his ability to swing the ball at speed ; this time his chief weapon was the delivery that rose sharply from just short of a length. He looked a better bowler than either Jordan or Philander, or, for that matter, any of the Lions’ pace bowlers ; he is, apparently, waiting to be approached before deciding whether he is English or West Indian, and, if I were Trevor Bayliss, I’d be approaching him pretty sharpish.

IMG_20170609_162619

Excuse me, Jofra, could I have a word?

The last morning proceeded to a Sussex win with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, if little of the jollity. The only batsmen to play a significant innings, Luke Wells, was dropped by the wicket-keeper off Chappell, and it does not help in defending a total of 232 to concede 43 extras, including 35 byes and leg-byes. Having said that, I would resist the temptation to remove the gloves from Eckersley, as I suspect his main problem as a ‘keeper, apart from Chappell’s high-speed unpredictability, is lack of match practice.

So, six games played, three draws and three defeats. The top five now seem solid and the four pace bowlers who played here (McKay, Raine, Chappell and Klein) would be my choices. I would be tempted to replace Pettini (who seems to be reverting to last season’s four-day form) with Adil Ali, who is champing at the bit for another bite at four-day cricket, and Tom Wells, who made some useful runs, but was only trusted to bowl four overs, with one of our three spinners (probably Sayer, though they all have their virtues). I still look forward to seeing Chappell, who is very much having to learn his craft in public, run through a side, as he is surely capable of doing, and I remain hopeful that a victory will come before the end of the season (or, preferably, sooner). I should only be pleasantly astonished if it came against a Pattinson-less Nottinghamshire next week.

And, of course, at least puzzling over all this gives me something to worry about that doesn’t really matter at all.

*A toy, very popular in 2017, for some reason.