A few weeks ago, I happened to be in the ‘Piazza [or Campo] dei Miracoli’ in Pisa, when something made me think of the County Championship. What could have reminded me of a competition that is said to be built on inadequate foundations, is not self-supporting, would never have been designed in the same way if it were being set up today, and would have collapsed long ago if a lot of time and money had not been put into keeping it artificially intact? But, perhaps, you are ahead of me :
Given that the Leaning Tower, however misconceived, is widely regarded as being one of the Wonders of the World, this would be a cheering comparison, were it not for the fact that it is under the care of the Opera della Primaziale Pisana (O₽A), rather than the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). Left to their own devices, the ECB would have “rationalised” the tower by straightening it out, or allowed it to collapse, to be replaced by a more “vibrant” structure, better suited to the needs of the 21st Century.
I also couldn’t help feeling, as a County member, that I am in a similar position to those tourists who have themselves photographed apparently preventing the tower collapsing, which, with respect to the Championship, we know to be an unconvincing optical illusion.
But enough about my holidays, and on to the prospects for the season.
‘Prospects for the season’ used to imply a consideration of how a chosen side were likely to perform, with the preferred tone being guarded optimism. Now the more pressing questions seem to be what the prospects are of being able to see very much cricket in the coming season, and whether there are likely to be many more seasons after that. In both cases, my feelings are of qualified pessimism.
To take the first question first : Leicestershire have two home Championship games in April, one in May, one in June (by which time it might have stopped snowing), one in August and two in September, which is a slightly more even distribution than last season. There are, though, none between the Middlesex game, which starts on 20th June and the Kent game, beginning 19th August. I have complained about this so often now that I am beginning to bore myself, but there does now seem some faint possibility that the situation may be addressed, given how many have blamed the distribution of fixtures for England’s loss of the Ashes (which is all that a lot of people seem to care about).
On a brighter note, there are various other attractions at Grace Road : a pre-season friendly, a University match, three 50 over games (and one – praise the Lord! – at Oakham), three tourist matches, an England Lions game and a women’s one-dayer. I might even make the Sunday T20 against Nottinghamshire, which promises to be a lively affair, at least off the pitch.
We have revived our reciprocal agreement with Nottinghamshire, so I hope to make at least one trip to Trent Bridge. In fact, I can only see three weeks during the season when there are no games I can plausibly watch ; I really shouldn’t complain, although all three of those are in July and August and, however attractive some of the grounds, I can envisage my attention wandering as I enter my eighth successive week of watching 2nd XI cricket. As with most things, so with cricket – the real enemy is not anger (if you are still angry you still care), but boredom and indifference.
To turn from the short-range forecast to the medium-term, there have been a few encouraging indications recently that the turkeys (in the shape of the Counties) might be reconsidering their votes for Christmas : the problem here being that eight of those turkeys have reasonable hopes of being invited to the Christmas dinner, and the others can see no source of nutrition other than the farmer.
Speaking of which, in a less well-reported development, in November, the club held an SGM to vote on the ECB’s proposed new rules, under which five of the seven Board members currently elected by the Members would be replaced by five nominated by ‘the Nominations Panel’. This is seen by some as meaning the end of Leicestershire as a Members’ Club, and the imposition of a kind of direct rule by the ECB. I could not attend the meeting, but according to a letter sent out to Members, ‘most of those attending … were clearly unhappy’, and no vote was taken. There are two ‘consultation meetings’ scheduled for the Summer and ‘at some point the SGM will be reconvened and a reviewed/revised resolution put to the vote’. If, as I think quite likely, the Members continue to reject the new rules, we have been warned that ‘the makeup of a Board of Directors could impact on funding received by County Cricket Clubs in the future’. So we can’t say that we haven’t been warned.
And so, at last, on to the cricket.
This season Leicestershire will have a new coach, Paul Nixon, and a new Captain, in the shape of Michael Carberry, who has been appointed as such for all formats on a two-year contract. It is fair to say that one of these appointments has been greeted with more enthusiasm than the other.
Nixon has been the Foxes’ Prince over the Water since his retirement in 2011 (the large mural featuring his picture and the quote ‘once a Fox always a Fox’ that appeared on the side of the pavilion last season can hardly have increased his predecessor’s sense of job security). His coaching experience has been limited, but successful (his Jamaica Tallawahs have twice won the Caribbean Premier League), and his enthusiasm, energy and commitment are unquestionable : these may not be sufficient qualifications for a successful coach, but should be enough to instil some of those qualities into a side who have too often given the impression of listlessness and apathy. Whatever the results, his presence at the ground should help to lift the spirits of the crowd, who have had good reason to feel listless and apathetic themselves recently.
I know I am not the only one to find Carberry’s appointment puzzling. In his day, he was, of course, a ‘class act‘, and an exceptionally unlucky cricketer. Class, alas, (however the saying goes) is not permanent ; he is now 37 years old and will be almost 39 when he finishes his contract. In his four matches on loan at the end of last season he scored 59 runs in eight innings (and made another low score in the non first-class Tour Game). The most hopeful interpretation is that he had been expecting to retire at the end of the season before the call to Grace Road came, and had not bothered to keep in any sort of form. If those who signed him have some reason to believe that he has it in him to return to something of his former self, his signing as a batsman makes sense.
More puzzling, though, is the offer of the captaincy – particularly if, as I believe is the case, Mark Cosgrove was reluctant to relinquish it. I am not aware (though I am willing to be contradicted) that Carberry has any previous experience of captaincy. Our recent policy of bringing in experienced players, but inexperienced Captains, from outside to captain the side has not, to put it mildly, brought any great success : Sarwan was hopeless ; Hoggard (though a great man) was predictably eccentric ; Cosgrove might just have been growing into the role when he was relieved of it. If Carberry is struggling with his own form, a potentially mutinous and free-scoring Cosgrove walking out to replace him will be the last thing he needs to see as he returns to the pavilion.
It is also curious that Carberry was appointed between the dismissal of de Bruyn and the appointment of Nixon. Given the problems we had last season, it would be helpful to be sure that the Captain and Coach will have a harmonious working relationship. But I’m sure that they will.
Moving on to the rest of the side, it is hard to avoid too-frequent recourse to those fine old cricketing half-euphemisms ‘decent‘ and ‘useful’, not to mention liberal applications of ‘if‘ and ‘potentially‘.
The lack of a ‘strong and stable’ opening partnership has long been a weakness, making it doubly unfortunate when we contrived to lose our most successful opener of recent times, Angus Robson. Given that Harry (‘the Tottington Tortoise’) Dearden is predicted to miss the early part of the season through injury, and the other younger candidate, Sam Evans, will not be available until his term at Loughborough finishes, Carberry is likely to find himself opening with Paul Horton, another who must have glimpsed ‘time’s winged chariot’ in his wing mirror, hurrying a little too near for comfort.
The middle order is potentially a little more than useful and decent. Mark Cosgrove was our only significantly successful batsman last year, and we must hope that the loss of the captaincy has not diminished his enthusiasm. Last season, Colin Ackermann and Ned Eckersley responded to Pierre de Bruyn’s challenge that ‘We can’t be accepting batsmen averaging in the mid-20s any more‘ by averaging 32.52 and 29.83 respectively : both (Ackermann in particular) will know that they can do better. Provided Neil Dexter is in the right frame of mind, he still has much to contribute with bat and ball, and might still, as I expected, prove the most astute of our recent late-career signings.
Ben Raine, fitness permitting, will continue to be Ben Raine (though not a spectacular bowler, he was our leading wicket-taker last season and topped the bowling averages). Lewis Hill proved me wrong by establishing himself as our first-choice wicket-keeper, and shamed some of our specialist batsmen with his run-making. If we play a specialist spinner, it is likely to be Callum Parkinson (brother of the, I suspect, soon-to-be better-known Matt) : he is potentially pretty useful, given more overs than he is likely to get on helpful surfaces..
Long-time readers will know my opinion of Zak Chappell : he is a potential England player in the sense that a glass of water is potential steam, even if he has not yet reached much above 30 degrees C. Over the Winter, he has benefited from the clamour to find an English bowler who can bowl at 90 mph (which he can certainly do) by being sent on a development course and being chosen to play for the North against the South. In the coming season, he will be working with a new bowling coach, Matt Mason, who will, one hopes, enable him to work out what kind of bowler he really wants to be. What he needs, though is unlikely to want or get, is to bowl enough to learn his craft (he is still desperately inexperienced, even in club cricket). This season is unlikely to make or (I hope) break him, but we should have a better idea of where his career is heading by the end of it (even if, as I fear, that takes him away from Grace Road).
Our two new overseas signings, Mohammad Abbas and Sohail Khan look, on paper, to be shrewd acquisitions. Mohammad Abbas is due to play in the first fixture (when he will, presumably, be acclimatising to English conditions), returning after the end of the Test series, when, provided he doesn’t develop some ailment and go home, he should be acclimatised enough to take some wickets in the second half of the season. Sohail, though he’s no Darren Stevens, sounds as though he should be well-suited to England in April and May.
[No sooner had I written this than I discovered that Sohail had dropped out through injury and been replaced by Varun Aaron, the Indian speedster best known for breaking Stuart Broad’s nose. With him bowling in tandem with Zak, there should be some nervous batsmen at Grace Road, not to mention nervous wicket-keepers, fourth slips and St. John Ambulance ladies.]
Looking past the first team, we find ourselves getting deep into the realms of the decent and useful. Dieter Klein, newly a German international, is a dangerous bowler, if not overbowled. I hope to see something of the elusive Richard Jones before he comes to the end of his contract. Mark Pettini, whom I am a little surprised to see is still on the staff (given that he seemed to go AWOL half way through last season), may have a couple of his occasional fine innings left in him, but, like Tom Wells, Aadil Ali, Rob Sayer and new acquisition Ateeq Javid, he is likely to contribute more to the white ball effort (which – especially given that it was always Nixon’s forte – is probably our best hope for success, if not trophies).
Of our other new acquisitions, Tom Taylor from Derbyshire is, as his name seems to imply, an honest-as-the-day-is-long county seamer, who, along with Gavin Griffiths, may have some donkey work to do. I can’t say too much about our two academy products, Sam Evans and wicket-keeper Harry Swindells, except that they look … potentially decent and useful. The player who would have been my One to Watch, Will Fazakerley, has frustrated me by retiring at the age of 19, preserving his – in its way – perfect record of ‘Matches – 1 Innings 2 – Runs 0 – Average 0.00’. He might want to consider appearing on ‘Pointless’.
As I so rarely watch it, I cannot comment on our T20 prospects, though we have signed Mohammad Nabi, of Afghanistan, who is trailed as ‘the best all-rounder in the world’. I suppose it is a sign of how cricket has disintegrated that not only have I never seen him play, I have never heard of him. Nonetheless, I wish him and the team all the best in my absence.
One reason for early season cheer is that it does not seem possible that we can have a worse start than last year. Provided we behave ourselves in the game against Loughborough, we should start the campaign on no points, rather than minus points. Although our first game is against Sussex (probably the most plausible challengers to Middlesex and Warwickshire for promotion), they will be without our prime nemesis in the last two seasons, Jofra Archer, who will be absent, together with Chris Jordan, on IPL ‘duty’. We then have two home fixtures against fellow-stragglers Derbyshire and Glamorgan, and an away trip to Durham, who have continued to shed quality players like an HGV with an unsecured load. There must, surely, be a chance of a win in there somewhere.
Spring pipe-dreams aside, I’d say it will take something more miraculous than anything I saw in Pisa for us to be promoted this year : a cheerful team, a couple of wins, not finishing last in the Championship, and some kind of showing with the snow-white rambler is probably the most (and least) we can hope for. But that, together, of course, with some decent weather and some more virtuoso displays of the ways of a man with a chicken by Mr. Stew, should be enough to assure the Foxes of my continuing support …