A new post on ‘Deep Waters, Long Shadows‘ : Imitations of Imitations
(Which has nothing to do with cricket …)
A new post on ‘Deep Waters, Long Shadows‘ : Imitations of Imitations
(Which has nothing to do with cricket …)
“Another century by Arthur Mitchell made our second fixture with Middlesex memorable, but something else made it more memorable still, George Macaulay reappeared in our side after a long absence. Rheumatism had been crippling him, but he fought against it gallantly, and I shall always picture him making that speedy, resolute run to the crease, and his fighting face as he watched for the result of his medium pace bowling that fizzed the ball like a boy’s top.
It was the first time I had played on the same side as “Mac”. His savage appeals for lbw echo in my ears to this day : poignantly, I may confess, because he had a fatal illness during the war, during which, like the Essex fast bowler, Kenneth Farnes – ill-fated too – he became an airman.
A rough diamond and a demon at the same time – that was George Macaulay, England cricketer in his glittering prime, but always the Yorkshire “Tyke” through and through.” (Len Hutton)
Five cricketers who represented England died on active service in World War 2. Best remembered is Hedley Verity, who died as a result of wounds sustained in action in Caserta, Italy in 1943. Geoffrey Legge, who died in a flying accident in 1940, was an amateur who had played for England on tours to South Africa and New Zealand. Maurice Turnball, another amateur, was a double international who also played Rugby Union for Wales, and was killed shortly after the Normandy landings of 1944. The others were two of the most intriguing, but somehow elusive, characters of the inter-war generation : George Macaulay, who played for Yorkshire between 1920 and 1935, and won eight England caps, and Ken Farnes, who appeared for Cambridge University and Essex from 1930 to 1939, and was capped eighteen times.
Neither played a leading role in the story of English cricket between the wars, but they hover around the edges of a lot of narratives. Macaulay has never had a biography, though the blogger Old Ebor has recently done much to remedy that in a series of posts. Ken Farnes both wrote a memoir (‘Tours and Tests‘ ) and has had one written about him (‘Ken Farnes : Diary of an Essex Master‘, by David Thurlow) (neither of which I have managed to read).
Death can make strange bed-fellows (as a glance at any page of newspaper obituaries will reveal). Macaulay and Farnes may have been at different poles in terms of temperament, but they had some things in common. Both were serving as Pilot Officers at the time of their deaths : Farnes was killed when his plane crashed during a night-flying exercise over Chipping Norden in Oxfordshire on 20th October 1941 ; Macaulay is reported to have died of pneumonia at the naval base at Sullom Voe in the Shetland Islands on 7th December 1940. Both, one imagines, died in darkness.
Though Farnes played as an amateur and Macaulay as a professional, neither fitted the stereotype of the toffee-nosed dilettante or horny-handed son of toil (by the 1920s, few players did). Farnes grew up in Leytonstone, Essex, the son of the Company Accountant for Truman’s Brewery and was educated at the Royal Liberty School in Gidea Park (a Grammar School that had been established in 1921). Macaulay’s Mother (his Father died when he was young) owned a hotel in Thirsk and sent him to board at Barnard Castle (a recently established minor public school). Both had spells working in banks : Farnes unhappily, Macaulay more successfully (his chucking-in of a promising career in banking, at the age of 23, to play professional cricket seems to have been an early example of his life-long propensity to queer his own pitch).
Macaulay was primarily a bowler, though precisely what kind of bowler he was is hard to picture, belonging, as he did, to a type that is now largely extinct. He is usually described as bowling off-spin, though he began as an out-and-out paceman. In his prime he seems to have bowled seam with the new ball, then switched to medium pace off-breaks. On drying wickets he could be devastating, and returned some startling figures, particularly against the weaker counties. Despite this, he seems to have been more memorable for his character than his bowling.
Macaulay flits in and out of Neville Cardus’s accounts of the Roses matches (which I discussed in my last post) like some kind of evil spirit :
“Moving bitterly along as though a battleaxe and not a cricket ball were in his grip … the image of lean enmity … bowling like a fury crowned with snakes … his left hand wore a bandage, which somehow added to his customary aspect of lean, joyless antagonism … consistently agile and hostile … again did Macaulay make a ghoulish catch … antagonistic … his third ball was blocked by Iddon ; Macaulay pounced on it and threatened to run Iddon out ; Iddon was a foot behind the crease … Macaulay fielded with a ghoulish brilliance and threw the ball in and narrowly missed striking Hopwood in the small of the back …”
(To avert any suspicion of Lancastrian bias, Cardus’s Yorkshire equivalent, J.M. Kilburn, described him as “antagonism personified” and “malevolent”.)
The most startling description occurs in ‘Express Deliveries’, by Bill Bowes, his Yorkshire team-mate in the latter stages of his career :
“George Macaulay was devilish. From a few feet away he was devilishly good-looking, too – but, coming closer, you saw lines and wrinkles which should not have marred the face of a man of his years. His wit, always devilish, had a razor edge which sometimes cut deep into his victims.”
These recurrent descriptions of him as “devilish” or “demonic”, coupled with the references to his dark good looks and wit, make him sound like some flannelled Byron, scornful, cynical, defiant, with, perhaps, a touch of Heathcliff (on his first meeting with Jack Hobbs, his reaction was the Heathcliffean “I’ve heard about this Master. Well I’ll show him who’s the Master!”).
Bowes goes on to say :
“As a bowler there was no harder trier in the world, but he expected no less from his fieldsmen, and when he sent them into suicidal positions they had to choose between their fear of sudden death by decapitation or Macaulay’s tongue. They preferred sudden death, but never experienced it – at least not from Macaulay’s bowling.”
and recounts an anecdote to illustrate Macaulay’s sense of humour. Bowes was fielding at mid-off to Macaulay’s bowling. A half-volley was driven off the meat of the bat, hit him on the forehead and briefly knocked him out.
“I saw stars and after spinning round sank gracefully to the turf. When I sat up I saw Arthur Booth convulsed with laughter as he chased after the ball. As he bent to pick it up, having tears – the unsympathetic sort – in his eyes, he accidentally kicked the ball over the boundary. Mac also found my discomfiture amusing.”
The bowler was so amused that he was still convulsed with laughter when he came to deliver the next ball, so much so that it slipped from his fingers and trickled towards the batsman, who hit it for four.
“Mac was still laughing. “It’s all very well laughing,” remarked Bill Reeves, “but supposing it had been an inch or two lower – it might have hit him in the glasses and blinded him.” Mac came to earth with a bump. He suddenly remembered that it ought to have been a catch … The laugh vanished. His eyes narrowed. His jaw became taut. “Hit him in the glasses!” he said feelingly, “it ought to have killed him! And sither,” he shouted to Arthur Booth, “get that grin off thi face, an’ get fieldin’ them.”
None of the other illustrations of his wit (though everyone remarks on it) seem much more amusing. For instance, Herbert Sutcliffe, in ‘For England and Yorkshire’, writes “If I had kept a record of Macaulay’s “cracks” on and off the field there would have been a most amusing book to be written. Macaulay has a readier wit than anyone I have ever known …” but offers, as an example :
“Another story has to do with a game in which he was the victim of some indifferent slip-fielding. Catch after catch was dropped off him. Macaulay, exasperated beyond anything, at length cried out: ‘I’m going to make a present of a set of slips to Madame Tussaud’s.’”
The two most flattering descriptions of his character came from R.C. Robertson-Glasgow and Dudley Carew (both, admittedly, written soon after his death, in the days when it was considered unseemly to speak ill of the recently deceased). After admitting that “he could be subtle or violent”, “Crusoe” goes on to say :
“As a man he was an original ; fiercely independent, witty, argumentative, swift to joy and anger. He had pleasure in cracking a convention or cursing an enemy ; an enemy, I mean, in the sense of someone or something which stood in the way of what he had set his heart to achieve. That hostile object might be great or small, human or inanimate. A batsman was being obstinate at the wicket, and Macaulay would rake his own armoury for every new weapon to surprise, lever, trick or blast the enemy away. A cricket-bag came between him and his blazer hanging on a peg ; and he’d kick it and tell it a truth or two, then laugh. He was a glorious opponent ; a great cricketer ; and a companion in a thousand.”
Carew wrote of the Yorkshire team of the 1920s that they “sailed under colours that had something suspiciously like the skull-and-crossbones about them … They gave no quarter and asked for none, and, if at times their tactics verged on the questionable, the character they brought to their buccaneering almost redeemed its lack of scruple. [They were] not so much a team as a kind of commando unit” and identified Macaulay as a prime mover in this :
“Macaulay … was capable of using a turning pitch, and the whole, spare body of the man would stiffen like a pointing dog when a ball did something unexpected. Round the wicket Macaulay would go then and bowl his off-breaks to a short-leg field – and magnificently hostile and aggressive his attack would be. The whole man was highly strung, not nervous exactly, for he had too tough a kernel for that, but impatient and abrupt with repressed energy. He did not suffer fools gladly, and could be devastating with a glance and an unacademic phrase, but he was a grand friend and a man who could do things other than play cricket. He had a passion for gramophone records, possessing a fine singing voice, and knew the Gilbert and Sullivan operas backwards – and he had other curious and unexpected accomplishments.
No one seeing Macaulay bowl could mistake him for a man of lazy tolerance and insufficient guts. He seemed to project not only the ball but his whole combatant nature down the pitch ; there was a threat in the very way he picked the ball up, and what a field he was to his own bowling!
I remember one instance of it which was the more shattering for the contrast the violence of the act made with the surroundings. It was in the Parks at Oxford on one of those days which make May a summer month. …. there was no particular crisis in the game, and one of the Oxford batsman, Hill-Wood, I think it was, played forward quietly. It was a gentle stroke in keeping with the ground and the afternoon, and the batsman must have followed it up a step or two. The peace was shattered with a violent abruptness. Macaulay, leaping down the pitch with agility and concentrated, vindictive presence of mind, seized on the ball, hurled it at the wicket, knocked the middle stump out of the ground, and yelled an appeal that sounded like an expletive.”
In his account of this incident Bowes adds that Macaulay, as a “send-off”, added “You can laugh that one off in the pavilion!” (Hills-Wood, or whoever it was, had earlier provoked him by laughing).
A final witness for the defence is Macaulay’s team-mate and friend Herbert Sutcliffe, who described him (while he was still alive) as “one of the game’s most remarkable personalities. When he is all out, he gives so much of himself to his task that, at times, his opponents have misunderstood his actions after the ball has been delivered. I can assure all Yorkshire’s opponents that our great bowler never has any ill-feeling in his work. He is a militant type of bowler and all the better for that ; but he is quite harmless. Meet him off the field and you will soon discover what a charming fellow he can be, and what a sharp-pointed wit he has.”
(In other words, he was all right when you got to know him.)
The feeling remains that there is some mystery about Macaulay that goes beyond his behaviour on the field. He is not the only bowler to have thrown the ball dangerously near batsmen in a bid to run them out, have a few words with them on their way back to the pavilion, speak harshly to fieldsmen who have dropped catches off his bowling, or use bad language (judging by scattered references to his “cussing”, a few expletives have been deleted in his reported dialogue). The same could be said of Steve Kirby, or even James Anderson, and neither would merit the description “devilish”, “demonic” or “ghoulish”. For the moment, we must leave him decently cloaked in euphemism.
If Macaulay was the demon of inter-war cricket, Kenneth Farnes was its angel, although of the exterminating rather than the ineffectual variety. No-one seems to have had a bad word to say about him. Hutton describes him as “tall, strong, handsome, and brainy”, Carew as “one of the nicest, gentlest and most modest of men”, Gideon Haigh as “a gentle and charming man hard to rouse to aggression”. Robertson-Glasgow, having paid tribute to his “generous nature and his quiet but humorous talk”, has this to say : “his temperament, except when aroused by some strong party antagonism, was easy and serene. In the blood fights of cricket he excelled, and then his rivals faded from comparison”.
Farnes was (according to Carew) “England’s best, not to say only, fast bowler when Larwood’s greatness was ended by injury”. 6’5” and exceptionally fit (he was interested in “physical culture”, and had a party trick of rippling his abdominal muscles)
“he had, although so different in style, the same penetrative power, the same ability to make batsmen play the involuntary, reflex stroke. But, and it is a considerable but, only on occasions. He was like some engine of fabulous gear which only on rare occasions could wind itself up to its full might. In these moments of inspiration he was a devastating force with that great height, that long, accelerating run-up, and his arm coming over high. The good length ball would get up abominably, and the slips lived in a perpetual state of expectation.”
One of those “rare occasions” was the Varsity Match of 1933, when Farnes, bowling for Cambridge, gave an English crowd their first opportunity to observe ‘bodyline’ in action. On the truncated first day, bowling to a field that included four short-legs, he failed to take a wicket, but did hit David Walker, the Oxford opener, in the ribs (‘The Times’, unimpressed, dismissed his opening spell as “an arrant waste of time”). On the second day, employing the same tactics, he had Viv Jenkins caught down the leg-side and struck the fast bowler Richard Tindall a nasty blow, then yorked him next ball ; the Oxford no.11 Oldfield was bowled first ball by a delivery that had deflected off his jaw. On the last day, Farnes “ripped through Oxford’s top order”, hitting the opener Townsend in the neck, with the result that he collapsed on to his stumps.
E.W. Swanton later reminisced “I can still hear the ball thudding around Pieter van der Bijl’s ribs and Pieter giving great groans. You could hear him in the Tavern.” Farnes admitted, amiably “My bowling relied to a certain extent on intimidation”, but that he could see “little reason not to try to use a method that had proved successful on an MCC tour”. (This exhibition did something to change English opinions about the legitimacy of fast leg theory.)
A year earlier, playing for Essex at Scarborough (when it is likely that his path crossed with Macaulay’s), his intimidatory tactics had met with less success. On the first day, Essex had made 325, and, according to Herbert Sutcliffe, had seemed unusually unconcerned at being bounced by Bill Bowes. In the evening session, according to Sutcliffe
“It was deemed inadvisable for us to open with the usual pair, and our skipper sent in Arthur Mitchell and Verity to face the bowling. I don’t think I shall ever forget the pasting Arthur, who took most of the bowling, got from Nichols and Farnes – Farnes in particular. They bowled well enough to get three or four wickets, but Mitchell, who, as I have told you before, is a rare fighter, set his teeth into his work and he stayed”.
The next morning, “Ticker” (who could never be accused of a lack of physical courage)having been prised from the crease, along with Verity and a second nightwatchman, Maurice Leland joined Sutcliffe, and, in response to another assault from Farnes, they went on the offensive. According to Sutcliffe
“We let it go and it came off for us. Over a hundred runs were taken off half a dozen overs … of course it was a sheer “blind”. On another day Farnes would have had our wickets before we had got going – reckless efforts such as those only come off once in fifty times.”
That evening, Bill Bowes recalled
“I saw Farnes in the Spa Ballroom … he was not dancing but was sitting lonely and miserable in the foyer. I sat beside him. ‘Now, Ken’ I asked, what do you think of county cricket?’ He looked away. ‘I shall never make a bowler’ he said slowly. ‘Did you see how they hit me?’ And in his great disappointment he took out his handkerchief and cried.”
In spite of this setback, Farnes went on to have many good days, particularly, as Robertson-Glasgow says, in the “blood fights of cricket”. He took ten wickets on his debut against Australia in 1934, 6-96 at the MCG in 1936, and made two memorable appearances for the Gentlemen against the Players. In 1936, he bowled Gimblett, Hardstaff and Hammond in quick succession to reduce the Players to 36-4, and, in 1938, he took 8-34 and 3-60 to secure the Gents their second win since the First War. He also knocked Bill Edrich out : as Edrich remembered it
“ I tried to play back, a defensive back stroke while turning my head and lifting my hands. The next thing I knew someone was saying smoothly ‘Have some water, there’s no hurry’”.
After graduation, Farnes worked as a schoolmaster at Worksop College and was only available to play in the school holidays. Like Macaulay, he was a man of “curious and unexpected accomplishments”, whose mind was rarely entirely on cricket. His obituary in ‘Wisden’ noted that his interests included painting and music ; Gideon Haigh, in his suggestive essay ‘Fast Action Hero’, traces his increasing preoccupation with poetry and esoteric philosophies (as I have previously observed in relation to Tyson and Snow, fast bowlers are often the most poetical of creatures). Among his interests, according to Haigh, were the orientalist poet James Elroy Flecker, the Irish novelist George Moore, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and J.W. Dunne.
Dunne was an extraordinary character, who began as a pioneer in aeronautical engineering, made some important advances in the art of fly-fishing, before devoting himself to speculation about the nature of time. Inspired by his experiences of what he took to be pre-cognitive dreams, he developed a theory of “serial time”. His theories, first and most famously, expressed in ‘An Experiment in Time’, met with a muted reception from philosophers and scientists, but found a more receptive audience with imaginative writers, most obviously J.B. Priestley, but also his friend H.G. Wells, Tolkien and Lewis, Borges, Nabokov and, apparently, Ken Farnes.
Farnes was inclined to what Haigh refers to as ‘a kind of muted mysticism’ which made him capable, even, of experiencing a mild epiphany while fielding at Leyton :
“It was there too that a day’s fielding in the late summer heat brought about in me an amazing evening’s contentment. I cannot explain the reason – just positive well-being really. I had not done well myself, for Kent had thumped our bowling, but it was just the end of the season and I still remember the glow of pure contentment that I felt that evening.”
In his diary he recorded five objectives for the tour of South Africa in 1938-9, none of which related to his bowling, but included :
“To remain conscious of my inner, natural, more realised self instead of being overcome by successive and accumulative environments experienced on tour.”
(Ben Duckett might usefully have done something similar before touring Australia.)
He also admitted to feeling ‘detached’, ‘disgruntled with myself’ and aspired to ‘a subjugation of self’ that would enable him to achieve ‘the required metaphysical state’. Haigh goes on to say
“As well as an expression of patriotism, then, Farnes’s enlistment in the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of war smacks of a continuation of a search for fulfilment, for a transcendent cause or duty . In ‘Gitanjali’, Tagore asks : ‘On the day when death knock at thy door what wilt thou offer him?’. Farnes, perhaps, wished it to be more than wickets.”
He appears to be hinting that Farnes had some sort of death wish, or, at least, a highly developed desire to ‘slip the surly bonds of earth’. He volunteered to train for a role as a night-flyer, at a time when night-fighters, heavily-armoured but cumbersome planes designed to combat enemy bombers, and with a poor safety record, were in their infancy. Within a month of returning from training in Canada, he crashed his, while apparently attempting a landing, and was killed.
Ten months earlier George Macaulay had met his end at Sullom Voe
The young Len Hutton had been present at the end of Macaulay’s career, in 1934.
“The other happening in the Maidstone match was the unexpected dropping out of George Macaulay after the opening day. He had been stricken during Sunday by a recurrence of the serious illness which kept him out of cricket for so long : and, as it sadly proved, although nobody knew until later, this was for him really the beginning of the end. Adverse fate never ceased to haunt him thereafter.”
Macaulay had always seemed susceptible to self-sabotage. In making him ‘Bowler of the Year’ in its 1924 edition, ‘Wisden’ ended by noting “His fault is that he is apt to become depressed and upset when things go wrong’, and this accusation, together with the perception that he was something of a wet track bully, dogged him throughout his career. Not just depressed, of course, but angry. His precise role in the notorious game against Middlesex at Bramall Lane in 1924, which led to Middlesex temporarily suspending fixtures between the two counties, is not clear, though it seems to have involved abusing the Umpires and the opposition, as well as inciting crowd trouble. It led to Lord Hawke pronouncing that “he had only himself to blame” for being left out of the side that toured Australia that Winter.
Macaulay’s performances declined as the decade progressed. He had a resurgence in form towards the end of his career, which saw him recalled to play for England in 1933, but he was increasingly prone to injuries and plagued by rheumatism (like Maurice Leland’s lumbago, this sounds a vaguely comical complaint, but it clearly caused him a good deal of pain). His benefit in 1931 raised only £1,633 (less than any of his Yorkshire contemporaries, suggesting that he was not a particular favourite with the crowds). In line with the protocol instituted by Lord Hawke, when he discovered that most of his old professionals had spent the proceeds of their benefits on drinking themselves to death, the capital from this was invested and the player received only the interest on it.
Macaulay had originally been a joint partner in Herbert Sutcliffe’s very profitable sports equipment business, but had quickly tired of it and allowed Sutcliffe to buy him out. After retiring from cricket, he set up a business selling a patent rheumatism cure that he claimed had helped him with his own complaint. When this failed, he opened a sports shop on his own account. When this failed too he was forced to declare for bankruptcy, in 1937.
During his bankruptcy hearing he went down fighting : he complained bitterly that his businesses would not have failed if he had received the proceeds of his benefit, was forced to deny that he spent his time “drinking in public houses”, and had to admit that he had never kept any accounts. In a last show of wit, he claimed that his rheumatism cure had been a failure because it was too successful, and managed to alienate the Official Receiver in the same way that he had once irritated Umpires, batsmen, his team-mates and Lord Hawke :
Macaulay : May I speak, Sir?
The Official Receiver : If you get across with people it is not going to do you any good in life. Don’t say anything which is going to spoil your future.
Some good advice, which had come too late. His arguments were rejected and he was declared bankrupt ; his offer to amend his will (and that of his wife) so that the proceeds of his benefit would be paid to his creditors after his death was accepted. Reluctantly, in spite of his rheumatism, he returned to playing cricket professionally, for Ebbw in Wales, and later in the Lancashire League.
When I originally thought of writing this piece, it seemed to me, as I have said, that there was some mystery about Macaulay, and something unexplained about what had driven him to what must have been a cold and lonely death in mid-Winter at Sullom Voe. His motives for joining up seemed quixotic : 41 at the outbreak of war, he would have been under no obligation to do so. In fact, with professional cricket suspended for the duration, and his businesses failed, it may simply have been the need to make a living. He must also have been hoping for a posting slightly nearer home.
Oddly, and in a way that might have interested J.W. Dunne, between beginning writing this piece and reaching the end, a solution to the mystery of Macaulay’s last days has been offered by ‘Old Ebor’. Macaulay, he has discovered, did not die of pneumonia, but of ‘cardiac arrest brought on by alcoholic toxaemia’. He had, apparently, been drinking heavily over a period of ten days and had been admitted to the sick quarters in a comatose condition, where he died ; the medical officer who signed his death certificate was of the opinion that he had been a chronic alcoholic for ten years.
‘Old Ebor”s researches show that Macaulay’s role was that of ‘Messing Officer’, which would have meant that he was in charge of the squadron’s supply of alcohol. One pictures him, cold, in pain, oppressed by darkness, and, as Hutton said, “adverse fate“, drinking his way through the lot, in a final act of je m’en foutisme. He must have begun on about his birthday, on the 7th December, and may have been planning to have finished it off at Christmas.
These facts emerged when his unfortunate wife, Edith, who had already signed away what should have been her inheritance to pay her husband’s debts, applied for a military pension but was refused, on the grounds that he had not died on active service. His creditors, presumably, received the lump sum from his benefit on his death. As a grim, subsiduary, irony, the measure that Hawke had paternalistically intended to discourage his players from drinking themselves to death seems to have helped to drive one of them to do precisely that.
I call this a solution, but it is no solution, and, perhaps, there is no mystery, beyond the everyday mysteries of the human heart, and the futility of biography. The bottle may have been Macaulay’s chosen means of self-destruction, but the demons that drove him to rage against the surly bonds that Farnes yearned to rise above remain as unknowable as they did at the beginning. I doubt whether either, for all Macaulay’s wit and Farnes’s philosophy, ever quite knew themselves.
Gideon Haigh’s essay on Farnes was published in ‘Silent Revolutions’ (Aurum, 2007) and is available online here – Fast Action Hero
‘Old Ebor”s posts about Macaulay begin here
Books quoted from include :
Express Deliveries / Bill Bowes. (Sportsman’s Book Club, 1958)
To the Wicket / Dudley Carew (Chapman & Hall, 1950)
For Yorkshire and England / Herbert Sutcliffe (Edward Arnold, 1935)
Cricket Prints / R.C. Robertson-Glasgow (Sportsman’s Book Club, 1951)
The Roses Matches 1919-1939 / Neville Cardus (Souvenir, 1982)
(The title is borrowed from Harold Brodkey’s ‘This Wild Darkness : the Story of my Death’.)
The Roses Matches 1919-1939, by Neville Cardus. (Souvenir Press, 1982)
I am unsure, when writing about Neville Cardus, how much knowledge I may presume. Although I am willing to be contradicted, my suspicion is that he is, for younger readers, more of a name than a substantial presence, and, perhaps, more slighted than read. The terms most often prompted by his name would probably be “lyrical” or “rhapsodic”. He stands accused of “fine writing” (as opposed to crude writing, or lousy writing, of which there is currently no great shortage) ; worse still, he is suspected of nostalgia.
Puritans of all kinds, from “Ticker” Mitchell to the Leavises, have long found his writing objectionable, and the sophisticated taste used to prefer Robertson-Glasgow, in the same way that it preferred Keaton to Chaplin, or MacNeice to Auden. The reaction set in in earnest soon after his death in 1975, since when it has been obligatory for anyone who fancies themselves as a bit of an iconoclast to have, at least, a side-swipe at him.
Derek Birley (who, I think, sees Cardus as some kind of class traitor) devoted a chapter of ‘The Willow Wand’ to taking a single phrase of his, never meant entirely seriously*, and misinterpreting it. Mike Marquese, in the first sentence of ‘Anyone but England’, refers to him as “that self-made snob Neville Cardus”, which is so gratuitous that he could have achieved the same effect by replacing “snob” with “wanker” or “prick”. More recently there was this outburst by Daniel Norcross, in which he implies that Cardus’s writing is “twee” and like – of all people’s – Lytton Strachey’s (Strachey’s shtick was to debunk revered figures from the nineteenth century, whereas Cardus is usually seen as having been too reverent of them).
A shilling life will give you all the facts of his life (or, failing that, the excellent Wikipedia page)**. He was born in Rusholme, Manchester in 1888 (or 1889), the illegitimate son of a woman who, alongside her sister, supplemented her income from taking in washing by being what Cardus described as a “kind of genteel courtesan” (if he were writing for ‘the Guardian’ today I suppose he would be obliged to describe them as “sex workers”, which seems like a terrible comedown for poor Ada and Beatrice). He rarely attended school and left for good in 1901 (today he would probably have been taken into “care“). After an arduous course of self-education, he obtained a post as Assistant Cricket Professional at Shrewsbury School, then doubled up as the Headmaster’s secretary. When this came to an end, he managed to inveigle himself into the offices of the ‘Manchester Guardian’, initially as a kind of unpaid “intern“.
He was employed as its cricket correspondent, under the pseudonym “Cricketer“, between 1919 (when he was 29, or possibly 30) and 1939. He had originally no intention of writing about cricket professionally, his ambition (fulfilled in 1927) being to become the paper’s music correspondent, but was invited to do so as a way of recovering from some form of nervous collapse (described by him as a “breakdown“), while working as a junior reporter (those aspiring to write about cricket nowadays may envy his ease of entry into the profession).
During this period he published four collections of essays : ‘A Cricketer’s Book’, ‘Days in the Sun’, ‘The Summer Game’ and ‘Good Days’, and an account of the tour to Australia of 1936-7. Having spent the war in Australia, where he wrote his best-selling ‘Autobiography’, he returned to live in London (at the National Liberal Club) and become a full-time music critic. Although he did not abandon writing about cricket altogether, “Cricketer” was retired. He published one new collection (of retrospective pieces he had written for ‘Playfair Cricket Monthly’), as well as further autobiographical writings and a number of new collections, recycling previously published pieces, some already collected, some new.
This habit of recycling older material means that reading Cardus can induce a sense of deja vu (a little like listening to a band such as the Smiths, who produced four or five albums, but whose work has been posthumously recombined in different configurations). He was also, by his own admission, uninhibited about repeating himself, if he felt a point was worth repeating, and always solicitous to ensure that his readers should not have missed out on any of his choicer bon mots. What he rarely recycled, however, were the match reports that he written for the MG (by his own estimation, he wrote 8,000 words a week, or nearly two million in twenty years), so I was interested to come across this collection of reports on the Roses matches of 1919-39, compiled after his death by his “cricket wife”, protegee and literary executor, Margaret Hughes.
In his introduction, John Arlott writes “He created a style of reporting the game ; and then virtually re-created it in the years of his maturity”. Cardus himself, in his ‘Autobiography’ endorsed this view that there were, as it were, two Carduses (in the way that there are meant to be “two Wittgensteins”).
“It was with very conscious art that I entered into my first and “yellow” period as a writer on cricket … I overwrote, no doubt … My first books, ‘Days in the Sun’ and ‘A Cricketer’s Book’are obviously the “literary efforts” of one who is keeping his eye not so much on the ball as on his pen and style … My later writings … were, as far as I could make them, based first on observation … and even then it was humour and irony that guided the choice. None the less nearly all my critics persisted, whenever I produced another book on cricket, with their old labels about my “lyrical muse”, my “rhapsodies in green”, my “heroics”.”
This was first published in 1947, but is still the case today. It is true that Cardus’s most memorable essays belongs to his earlier period. If I ever feel disenchanted by cricket (which, it will come as no surprise to regular readers, I sometimes do) I return to pieces such as ‘The Summer Game’ and ‘On a Fresh Cricket Season’ to remind myself how watching cricket can sometimes be, and how it ought to feel. To read these is to share the sense of release that Cardus experienced when he first began writing about cricket ; release, apart from his mental affliction, from the physical confines of the Guardian’s “Corridor“, and from overwork and poverty (he notes that his new job brought him an increase in pay to £5.00 a week).
Writing about cricket, though, meant not only a release, but the hope of returning to the happiest days of his childhood and youth, when he had watched the great Lancashire players of the Golden Age (a notion he did much to create) playing at Old Trafford. His most lyrical pieces about individuals in this earliest period are about them, and, turning to his journalism between the wars, we find it, too, haunted by the ghosts of MacLaren, Tyldelsey, Spooner and Brearley. His style also harks back to the previous century : in his more high-flown pieces he writes in the vein of Pater, in his more comical aspect (often when writing about Yorkshiremen) he is Dickensian.
It was his misfortune that the cricket he found when he returned was not cricket as he had remembered it (he is not insensible to the possibility that it never had been). The Roses matches of the inter-war period were notoriously dour affairs (their notoriety partly due to Cardus himself), in which winning the points available for a first innings lead was regarded as victory enough. Both sides could count on easily defeating the majority of the other Counties, so felt free to pursue these matches as a kind of private, fraternal, feud.***
A glance at the table of contents indicates the blissful regularity of these fixtures. Every year for twenty years the Roses matches coincided with the Whit and August Bank Holidays (as opposed to today, when the County schedule each new season bears no resemblance to the last). Every game began on the Saturday, continued on the Bank Holiday Monday and finished on the Tuesday. The Mondays could attract huge crowds (he mentions that there were 45,000 at Old Trafford in 1926), the other days rather fewer (only 2,000 on the – admittedly rain-affected – first day at Bradford in 1929).
The next thing that strikes me is the sheer length of the pieces, which generally run to about two thousand words. Presumably, he had Sunday to write about Saturday’s play, but the others must have been written to tight deadlines. Cardus was naturally prone to prolixity (and resented being edited – in his later years he referred to the ‘Guardian’’s sub-editors’ room as “the Abattoir”), but even he had sometimes to resort to padding (in the early years some unnecessarily long quotations from Shakespeare make an appearance towards the end of his pieces). Nonetheless, to write this much so quickly and so well, and for it to remain readable, is an achievement that I could never hope to emulate.
The pieces fall into roughly two periods : those from 1919 to 1929 or -30 and those of the 1930s. The first corresponds roughly to his “lyrical” period, but there is surprisingly little lyricism, or even much enthusiasm about them. The leading characters were survivors from the pre-war period : Wilfred Rhodes and Emmott Robinson for Yorkshire (Robinson had not made his debut until 1919, at the age of 35, but he belonged to the pre-war generation) and Harry Makepeace of Lancashire, together with newer players such as James and Ernest Tyledsley, who tended to bring out the Dickensian in Cardus, but did not make much appeal to his “un-English aestheticism”.
What is notable, for the period, is the absence of moralism (Cardus was an interesting example of someone who was, by conventional standards, almost entirely amoral but also almost entirely benign). The Yorkshire sides of the 1920s were notorious for their bad behaviour : sharp practice, abuse of the opposition, even (as against Middlesex at Sheffield in 1924) insinuations of physical violence on the field (Dudley Carew claimed that they sometimes seemed to be “playing under the skull and crossbones”). Of this, there is no hint in Cardus, certainly no disapproval.
The Yorkshire crowds, too, were known for their hostility (particularly those at Bramall Lane), for barracking both the opposition and their own players and, when especially frustrated or bored, pelting them with orange peel, cinders and other detritus. But again, there is no disapproval from Cardus ; his reports come most to life when he is relishing their partisan vehemence and only become critical when they seem subdued. He is sometimes accused of being excessively “pastoral”, but he was really the laureate of the old North at its dirtiest, as in this description of Bradford (which he didn’t much like) in 1923 :
“ ‘Cricket in hell,’ said a South of England man today, as he saw the Bradford field for the first time … From noon till evening the place has been like some vast underworld, discordant, ugly, uncomfortable. Even before noon the ground was full and the gates locked. Some 26,000 souls were inside making writhing congested ranks, and surely torment was their lot, what with the sun and the heavy air. Outside the unlovely field gloomy chimneys sent out smoke that curled into the summer sky sulkily … The crowd had little of the fluid humour of a Sheffield crowd: it was dull and seemingly a little stupid from its own bulk and unwieldiness. As the day passed on, the crowd broke bounds and overflowed on to the playing piece. Mounted police were called in to drive the derelicts back, and then we saw the green edge of the field littered with rubbish – it was as though a dank tide had gone out, leaving behind its scum.”
This may be “lyrical”, but it can hardly be accused of being “pastoral” or “twee”.
In fact, although the writing sometimes flares into life (for instance when he describes Ted MacDonald bowling to a young Herbert Sutcliffe), and there are many nice phrases (many of which he gives us another chance to read), the first half of this book can be a little dull. Cardus was very aware that, for his readers (‘the Manchester Guardian’ was very much a local paper in those days), the Roses Match was the most important of the season, and would be relying on him to provide a detailed narrative of what had occurred. To begin with, he did so lengthily and conscientiously, which would have been interesting at the time, if he were the only source of information, but is less so today. At times he even resorts to statistics.
Even during this first period, Cardus sometimes has difficulty in suppressing his frustration at what he is watching. As early as 1920 he is describing “a day of spineless cricket” at Bradford. At Old Trafford in 1921 he notes that the game was “living, like too many institutions in these days, quite definitely on its past”. At Old Trafford in 1925 the cricket was “futile and hardly worth discussing”. At Bradford in 1926 he complains of “lethal dullness” and the “worst exhibition” he has ever seen by a Lancashire side. By 1928, “the dregs of disillusion were slightly to be tasted in our mouth”. He is, however, still capable of relishing these contests, in a half-ironical way, as exhibitions of character, and seems to be writing as a frustrated, but still hopeful, romantic, rather than one who is decidedly disenchanted.
By the turn of the decade, however, the tone of his writing changed, as he entered his forties, and became actively satirical. The pre-war generation were fading away and being replaced by a new one that did little to fire his admiration (it did not help that Lancashire were now much the weaker side, and – Eddie Paynter aside – he hardly has a good word to say about them). As for Yorkshire, he is strangely unimpressed by Hedley Verity, left cold by Maurice Leland, only respectful of Hutton and has grown disillusioned with Herbert Sutcliffe, with whom, like Hammond, he had a complex relationship, mixed of respect for his ability with a dislike of what he thought he represented (for want of a better word, modernity).****
Sometimes his satirical intent is wittily expressed. The pitch at Old Trafford in 1930 was prepared “under the most modern anaesthetics”, and “humour certainly came in by reason of the contrast between what the crowd was hoping to see and what they were actually getting. The afternoon’s charm and pleasantry were increased by a wind which caused dust and grit to get into the eyes and mouth”. An innings by Gibb was as “post-war as a petrol station”. There is something like this on every page, much of it occasioned by the obdurate Arthur “Ticker” Mitchell, who became his muse, much as Frank Woolley had been in his greenery-yallery youth. “When Mitchell was smothering the ball with his legs I felt a screen ought to have concealed him from from the public gaze” ; “at ten minutes to one, Mitchell’s score [he had opened] moved uneasily in its sleep and went from eight to ten” ; “Mitchell reverted to type and ceased perceptible action”.
As the decade progressed he became quite startlingly scathing. “The Lancashire and Yorkshire match is becoming an eyesore and a nuisance ; it is a pity we cannot somehow get rid of it.” “The Yorkshire tail played stupid, nit-witted cricket.” “As to Lancashire and Yorkshire, I am tired of their annual exhibition of ‘dourness’, or – to give it the proper name – its solid witless tedium.” “Saturday’s stupefied assemblage … watched the dreary action in silence, as though at the unveiling of the Cenotaph.” “The Lancashire and Yorkshire match is a dreary fraud, and nothing less.” “As soon as the game was over the weather brightened, like the rest of us.” “Cricket at Leeds is like cricket in a penal settlement.” And (cruellest of all) “the occasion might as well have been Lancashire v Northamptonshire”.
By June 1938, it is clear that a crisis was approaching. This is the opening paragraph of his report from Bradford
“Once again a Lancashire and Yorkshire match has been a public nuisance and a bore. I have seldom suffered tedium as dreadful as this. And on top of it all discomfort and shabbiness. The accommodation for the press at Bradford is inadequate, not to say inhumane ; galley slaves are better off than the tortured souls who this afternoon have tried to make a truthful record of an event which ought really to have been forgotten at once. If the good fairies granted me one wish I should ask for freedom to stay away from all Lancashire and Yorkshire cricket matches for the remainder of my days. I never expected to endure tribulation such as Saturday’s – not at any rate in this world. The cricket caused aches of boredom ; the environment in which it was played suited the stunted drabness of it … Whitsun in the North – stupid sport and a crowd silent and dejected. The Lancashire and Yorkshire match should be played in camera, with the players the only spectators : they deserve no better fate.”
By the time of the last Roses match he covered, from 5-8 August 1939, he must have known that the good fairies, in the shape of Adolf Hitler and the Wehrmacht, were about to grant him his wish. On his last day, recapturing that early elation of release, he signed off with “I have seldom seen a day of grander cricket”. As far as I know, he never covered a Roses match again, or not under the compulsion of employment.
Although this would not be the book I should recommend as an introduction to Cardus, Margaret Hughes did us a great service by collecting these pieces. If nothing else, they confirm that it is easier to write entertainingly about poor cricket than good cricket, which, to one who tries to write about Leicestershire, is a source of comfort. For another, very few of these frank expressions of disenchantment were included in the pieces Cardus himself chose to preserve.
It is said that, if women could remember childbirth, they would never have another child, and it is possible that, if we could remember how awful many of the games of cricket we have watched were at the time, we would never watch another one. So, when next season approaches, I shan’t be re-reading my own accounts from last year, but turning to Cardus’s ‘On a Fresh Cricket Season‘.
“Nothing can go wrong with him on this blessed morning …”
* Cardus’s ‘Autobiography‘ is the only one of his books that seems to be unambiguously in print. This gives you not only the facts, but a certain amount of fantasy. ‘His Own Man‘, by Christopher Brookes tries to distinguish between the two.
** There is a certain style of self-ironising, provocative, pretentiousness that Cardus often employs which seems to be peculiarly Mancunian. You can also see it in the work of Factory Records and Les Dawson, amongst others (the title of Dawson’s unpublished ‘”serious” novel, ‘An Echo of Shadows‘ could have served equally as the title for a Durutti Column LP or a piece from Cardus’s “lyrical” period). As a Yorkshireman, Birley perhaps misinterprets this.
*** Of the 1233 matches Lancashire and Yorkshire played between the wars, they won 585 and lost only 126. There were only two seasons when Lancashire finished lower than sixth ; Yorkshire never finished lower than fifth, and were first or second 14 times.
**** He has this to say, for instance : “Sometimes Sutcliffe’s cricket, so eternal and complacent and English middle class, reminds me of the Albert Hall“. Perhaps this is what Marquese meant by “snobbery“.
Northamptonshire (194 & 270) v Nottinghamshire (151 & 189), County Ground Northampton, 19-22 September 2017
Leicestershire (128 & 270) v Northamptonshire (202 & 197-4), Grace Road, 25-28 September 2017
I have never been good at endings, but then neither is cricket. The satisfactory conclusion, all ends tied up and justice done, seems trite. Last minute twists are corny or unbelievable. The true-to-life ending (inconclusive, ambiguous or abrupt) satisfies no-one. Perhaps the best we can hope for is an ending that seems, in retrospect, to have been inevitable.
You may remember I was a Member at Northamptonshire last season. This season, as most of their home games coincided with Leicestershire’s, I chose to put loyalty before pleasure and follow the Foxes (an often weary and reluctant hound), so can offer no first-hand account of how they came to play the last two games of their season with the real prospect of promotion before them.
It has been said of Northants that they “continue to defy predictions”, and they have certainly defied mine at the start of the season, that they would “struggle to pull off the same trick twice”. They may have failed to pull off quite the same tricks in white ball cricket, but in the Championship they have abandoned their old trick of preparing dead pitches and playing for the bonus points, and found the better one of winning the matches they did not lose (in the end, they won nine, lost three and drew only twice).
Their small squad (sixteen registered at the start of the season) has featured a core of locally produced players in the prime of their careers, one exceptional, if erratic talent (Duckett), two experienced seamers sourced from the Minor Counties, two refugees from Grace Road who never fulfilled their promise there, a shifting cast of loanees and triallists, and two South Africans who, from a distance, look as though they ought to be packing down for the Bagford Vipers, one a T20 specialist, the other whose Test career was interrupted by a suspension for smoking marijuana.
This does not sound like an obvious recipe for success ; the best explanation I can offer is that they appear to be an exceptionally happy team, led by a Captain who enjoys a good relationship with his Coach and who “play without fear”. A poor cliché, no doubt, but the truth of it is striking if you have spent the rest of the season watching another side who appear to enjoy none of those advantages.
Whatever their secret, they appear to be in that happy state that teams and individuals sometimes attain (however briefly) where they succeed in everything they attempt, and their victories in these, their last two games, always seemed inevitable, even when a glance at the scorecard might suggest otherwise. It also felt, however, somehow inevitable that they would not be promoted (although even that might prove to be a blessing in light disguise).
Their rivals for promotion, and their opponents in their first game, Nottinghamshire looked a different side from the one that had obliterated Leicestershire twice early in the season. That is because they were a completely different side. The early season Notts had boasted a Test-quality attack featuring Pattinson, Broad and Ball, supported by a slimline Luke Fletcher. The pace bowling against Northants consisted of Mullaney, Luke Wood and Brett Hutton (all, accurately, described by Playfair as medium-pacers) and Harry Gurney, who, in this game, looked less like an international bowler than his one-time rival at Grace Road, Nathan Buck.
Also missing were batsmen Alex Hales (otherwise occupied), Michael Lumb, Brendan Taylor and Greg Smith (all of whom seem to have packed it in mid-season). In their place were an assortment of players I have often watched playing 2nd XI cricket, and Cheteshwar Pujara, who, on this showing, looked as though he ought to be doing so (fine player though he has shown himself to be in other contexts).
Being asked to bat first at 10.30 in late September is to have drawn the short straw (not that, for the home side, there is much likelihood of being offered the option of a long one). Duckett, who opened with Robbie Newton, will have been aware of the need to bat responsibly ; a responsibility that chafed like a stiff collar on a younger brother under orders to behave himself at his sister’s wedding. Off the third ball he received he almost forgot, then restrained, himself, with the unhappy effect that he offered a simple catch to the bowler. I think this is the fourth time this season in as many innings that I have seen him caught somewhere near, but not behind, the wicket, playing a half-checked shot : he would be better advised to, as the hashtag has it, #gohardorgohome, as he did to such effect, one way or the other, last season.
Luke Wood had removed both openers with the score on only 12. Wood is an all-rounder who sticks in the mind (I remember him playing for the England Under-19s at this ground some years ago) because of his platinum blond hair (currently worn in a sort of 1920s short back-and-sides), and his very long run up, perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing on the County circuit. With his bony face, which seems to belong under an outsize cloth cap, he would be an excellent choice for the lead in ‘The Harold Larwood Story’, provided that the camera cut away as he reached his delivery stride, as his left-arm medium-pacers do not fulfil the promise of their lengthy preamble. Nonetheless, he bowled (and later batted) very well in the conditions (though not as effectively as Broad or Ball, let alone Pattinson, might have done).
In this situation some other Counties (mentioning no names) would have collapsed, but as the last of the mist and dew evaporated and the sun shone (this match often seemed to be played in a sort of over-saturated Technicolor),
Richard Levi came to the wicket, and the possibility of prudent retrenchment, let alone retreat, vanished. There is a fine line between batting forcefully and slogging, which Levi bestrides (mostly on the right side) like a hog roast-fuelled colossus ; it is possible that he could play in some other way, but no-one, surely, would want him to. The scorecard records that he made only 35 from 30 balls (with 7 fours), but his innings restored the psychological balance of the match to the home side’s advantage. An only slightly more subdued innings of 43 by Rory Kleinveldt, in which he received uncharacteristically dutiful support from one-time Grace Road starlets Cobb and Buck, allowed them to reach a first-innings total of 194.
For another side, or in another season, 194 would not have sounded enough, but between tea and the close of play Kleinveldt reassured the home supporters that it would prove to be so by taking four wickets (Buck, again playing a supporting role, took one) to leave Notts on 80-5. Kleinveldt is at an opposite pole from Wood, in the sense that his perfunctory lumber to the wicket – like an out of condition no. 8 arriving late at a ruck – does nothing to warn of the purposeful violence of the delivery that is to follow.
The second day was the kind of rare, enchanted day when good players are permitted, fleetingly, to be great. Kleinveldt demolished the rest of the Nottinghamshire batting as simply as a wall of toy bricks with a coconut (he took 9-65), then Levi did the same to the bowling, scoring 115 off 104 balls, from a total of 270. Kleinveldt took advantage of this temporary suspension of reality to strike 48 from 41 and took two more wickets when Nottinghamshire batted again.
I missed the half day of play that was possible on Day 3, when the spell was, apparently, temporarily broken and Nottinghamshire were able to come within 207 runs of the required total, with three wickets remaining. It is possible that I have the opposite effect on Northants to the one I have on Leicestershire, who never perform well when I am watching them (or when I am not, recently).
Rationally, the game was evenly balanced at the start of Day 4, but it seemed to me a formality that Northants would win, and, indeed, it was all over bar the victory song by lunchtime (the game’s not over these days until the substantial lads have sung). The visitors’ last hope lay with Samit Patel, so majestic in his element against Leicestershire at Trent Bridge, but here something of a grounded albatross, and Chris Read, (who, like his counterpart David Murphy, is about to retire), when they came together on 152-7. Towards the end of one over Gleeson had made a great show of positioning two men on the boundary for the hook. Patel duly took note. In the following over, when Patel came to face, with the same field in place, Sanderson bowled him the kind of bouncer that is designed to be hit, not hit, and Patel sheepishly hit it into the waiting pouch of perpetual substitute Saif Zaib. When a trick that cornball comes off for you, you know the spirits are with you.
And so to Grace Road, for the last time, where it seemed, for once, as though things might get interesting. The precise mathematics of the situation no longer matter (I heard several different analyses, all different, all delivered with the same authority), but the gist of it was that Northants would be promoted if they won, provided that Nottinghamshire lost to Sussex at Hove. My impression is that there were few present (with the exception, one would hope, of the Leicestershire players) who did not want Northamptonshire to win. Apart from the overtly pro-Northants contingent (there in greater numbers than usual), there are some Leicestershire supporters who (like me) also have some attachment to Northants, and a larger number who have a strong antipathy to Nottinghamshire, and would be only too delighted to see them fall at the last hurdle in their promotion chase (and, preferably, be taken out to the paddock and shot).
The first day was entirely washed out. This had the potential to make the remaining three days more interesting, in that it might fall to Mark Cosgrove to decide whether to offer Northants a sporting declaration, which might, in turn, stymie Nottinghamshire (thus earning him the grateful thanks of two Counties, and the opprobrium of disinterested, high-minded, observers). This intriguing mirage had vanished within half an hour of the start of play on Tuesday, by which time Leicestershire had lost their first seven wickets for 26 runs. None of those seven batsmen had made double figures, with young Sam Evans (on his debut) top-scoring with eight. Northants’ official website tweeted excitably that there were “unbelievable scenes at Grace Road”, but, as the weary sighing of the regulars confirmed, they were, in fact, all too believable.
In mitigation for this debacle, I should acknowledge that, for the first half hour, conditions were hazardous for batting : there is an argument that play should not begin as early as 10.30 in the last week of September, and a stronger one that Championship matches should be played in the Summer rather than late Autumn (but I grow weary of makingit). However, the conditions were hardly worse than those that had faced Northants on the first morning against Notts and, as we have seen, they managed to make a reasonable fist of it.
If they had required any encouragement to take heart, they might have taken it from the sight of the enchanter Kleinveldt limping off at the start of his second over (his great frame apparently buckling under the weight of something or other), leaving the seam bowling in the hands of Sanderson and Gleeson (suppliers by appointment of furniture polish and saddle soap). Once the moisture had burnt off a little, it was certainly possible to make runs, as a visibly irked Raine and Chappell proved by putting on 88 for the eighth wicket. The innings closed on 128, with Gleeson and Sanderson, bowling virtually unchanged, having taken five wickets each (reaping the reward for simply bowling a consistently good line and length, a skill that is often underestimated, because it is not generally appreciated how fiendishly difficult it is to do).
The only questions that remained (it being perfectly obvious that Northants were going to win) was whether Nottinghamshire were going to oblige by losing, and how many batting points Northants needed to accumulate. At this point the signs from Hove were hopeful, and the consensus seemed to be that Northants would easily have time to make 400 and still have time to bowl Leicestershire out again. By the time they had reached 90 without loss (thanks mostly to Luke Proctor, who has shrewdly been borrowed from Lancashire), and then 168-2, as the evening grew dark, that seemed a formality, and I took the liberty of sloping off into the gloaming in search of a bus.
Inevitably, Northamptonshire’s last eight wickets fell for 34 runs. Instinctively, I attributed this to the fact that it was the one hour of play I did not see, but, more rationally, it might have been because the last hour in late September can sometimes be as inhospitable to batsmen as the first. Ben Raine took five wickets and Callum Parkinson three. Even the “indefatigable” Raine may eventually grow fatigued by shoring up a losing side, and we will do well to dissuade him from returning to his native Durham (who may now be ruing turning their nose up at him in their fat years).
Leicestershire’s second innings began less calamitously than their first. There was a minor outbreak of applause (at least semi-ironic, I’m afraid) when Carberry reached double figures, and an even more minor one when he returned to the pavilion for 16. In fact, they batted quite well and, as Cosgrove and Aadil Ali constructed a moderately substantial fourth wicket partnership (with Sanderson and Gleeson seen off and no Kleinveldt to come), it seemed once again as though Leicestershire might have a part in deciding the question of promotion. It was at about this point, though, that the bad news was confirmed from Hove that Nottinghamshire had avoided the follow-on, and thus defeat, and the game visibly wilted and died before our eyes.
Overnight rain meant that no play was possible on the morning of the fourth day. In the afternoon, for the record, Northamptonshire made the 197 they needed to win for the loss of four wickets, and the season passed away, peacefully, in its sleep at around tea-time. It had been a bright afternoon, though a cold wind seemed to be impatient for the beginning of Winter. The man who makes the announcements over the Tannoy used it to announce that he was retiring (at least I think that is what he said – it wasn’t very clear). The inhabitants of the Stench and Benno (who I think must have been smoking some of the seasonal toadstools growing at the Bennett End
were claiming loudly and improbably that they weren’t going home because they were having a lovely time, and singing “Halleluia – it’s Raine-ing Ben”, which has the kind of nice, fuzzy, logic to it that only makes sense to the epically stoned.
The Northants team sang their victory song again and threw their shirts over the balcony to their travelling supporters, who, perhaps shrewdly, did not seem too disheartened by the loss of promotion.
Leicestershire, needless to say, were not singing (they only sing when they’re winning), although, perhaps, if they commissioned some sort of dismal, discordant, defeat-dirge to sing, it might discourage them from losing quite so often. Only Stench and Benno seemed interested in their shirts.
After one last look around, I left without too much regret, an indifferent end to an indifferent season. But then, as I said at the beginning, I’m afraid that I have never been very good at endings.
Leicestershire v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Grace Road, 5-8 September 2017
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.
(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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).)
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.