The Field of Miracles

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 :

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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 …

 

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As I Walked Out One March Morning

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The Way to Wantage Road

Leicestershire v Loughborough MCCU, Grace Road, 28-30 March 2017

Northamptonshire v Loughborough MCCU, County Ground, Northampton, 3 April 2017

The first day of a new season is (if you are lucky) a little like the first week of a new school year.  I don’t mean that it is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of foreboding and a crushing sense of futility in the face of inevitable failure. No, I mean that it is nice to be back, to see your old friends and colleagues again, to note what has changed and what has not, and to ease yourself back into the old routines before the serious business of the year begins.

It helps, I think, to be returning after a good, long, break, and I must admit that I have been paying little attention to cricket over the Winter (apart from a couple of hours of TMS and the tinnitus of Twitter).  The old, re-discovered, routines, the relief of allowing yourself to become absorbed by small narratives again, afford the pleasures of both familiarity and freshness, as if you have, by chance, re-encountered a once-favourite, half-forgotten book or piece of music.

By August, you might be planning a circuitous route around the ground to avoid those dreadful bores X and Y ; in March you are relieved to find that they are still alive.   Quirks of the game, such as leaving the pitch for bad light and then returning half an hour later when the light has not visibly improved

can be irksome in August, charming in April.  Showers falling, glimpsed through the windows of the Fox Bar, stir memories of Springs past, and, in March, there are, of course, still hopes of sunnier days to come.

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Even the collapse of Leicestershire’s top order, unanticipated but at once instantly familiar, prompts bittersweet remembrance of times gone by.

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There are even some pleasant new routines, such as the unfurling of the parasols (however swiftly repurposed as umbrellas)

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In comparing the start of the season to the beginning of the school year, I am, of course, picturing myself in the role, not of a pupil, but of a rather elderly master (Mr. Chips, perhaps) who has, in his time, seen an awful lot of boys (that is to say, players) come and go, and it is not a trick of the mind that they come and go rather more quickly than they used to.  There is no-one left at Grace Road from the Leicestershire squad at the time I began to write this blog in April 2009 (Ned Eckersley, who made his debut in 2011, is the longest serving) and only four of them (Buck, Cobb, Greg Smith and Allenby) are still playing first-class cricket.

The illusion is that we spectators (who return year after year) stand still while the players pass by, but the truth is that we are passing each other on opposite sides of an escalator ; ours is moving too, slowly, almost imperceptibly, but inexorably.  Players who have passed by us do, however, sometimes pass by again in different guises, and I was pleased to see James Middlebrook (Semper Eadem) make his debut as an Umpire, alongside the apparently changeless Steve O’Shaughnessy.

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A glance at the new scoreboard above (underneath which, palimpsestically, lies the old electronic scoreboard, and underneath that the old manual scoreboard), or the final scorecard (Leicestershire 194 and 113-3 ; Loughborough 278) might induce a certain pessimism about Leicestershire’s prospects for the season, but that would be premature (not wrong, necessarily, but a little too early).

Leicestershire have been preparing for the new season in South Africa, which might help explain why the first five wickets were all clean bowled, all apparently surprised to discover that balls may deviate in line in England on a misty March morning (Cosgrove was visibly baffled, as if a sleight-of-hand artiste had surreptitiously contrived to remove his braces).  The Skip had, however, regained his composure by the second innings and Ned Eckersley combined responsibility and fluency to pleasing effect, but apart from those two, Dexter, and the much-heralded but, as yet, unseen Colin Ackermann*, the batting reserves look a little low. In particular, if the openers Horton and Robson were to prove consistently fallible, it is hard to see who would replace them.

On the other hand (and this is a significant advance), we do seem to have assembled a numerically formidable battery of seam bowlers.  In addition to Clint McKay (who should have enough fuel left to be good for another 50 wickets) and Ben Raine (always hostile, in one way or another), we have Charlie Shreck (who seemed to be preparing for his expected translation into a coaching role by offering the students plenty of unsolicited advice about their batting technique) and Dieter Klein (who, used in small doses, should surprise a lot of batsmen, as he surprised Alastair Cook last season).

We also have the reliable Richard Jones (lately of Warwickshire), two young stinkers in Gavin Griffiths (who bowled well against Loughborough) and Will Fazakerley, and, of course, Zak Chappell, who, as long-time readers will know, has been my Tip for the Top for a couple of years now.  He did not bowl exceptionally well against Loughborough, but, crucially, he did look fit, and ready to bowl at full pace without having to worry about his legs giving way.  Given a full season’s bowling, he should have put on a little more speed, acquired some guile and a taste for blood, and become the formidable bowler he is capable of being.

Other than that we have James Burke (on loan from Surrey), who just about qualifies as an all-rounder, and Tom Wells, a genuine all-rounder who may yet surprise me by adapting his game to the four-day format (against Loughborough he made 20 off four balls then slog-hooked one straight to backward square leg, but bowled surprisingly well).  As spinners, we have Rob Sayer, a steady off-spinner who relies as much on drift and swerve as spin, Callum Parkinson (half-inched from Derbyshire in dubious circumstances), and James Sykes, who may, I am afraid, have to find another outlet for his undoubted ability to make the ball turn.

The problem in selecting a side from this lot does seem to revolve around the difficulty of exploiting the strength in pace bowling without leaving an unconscionably long tail.  For what it’s worth (assuming we have prepared a seaming wicket) my first choice side would be : Horton, Robson, Ackermann, Cosgrove, Dexter, Eckersley, Aadil Ali, Raine, Chappell, Klein, McKay.  I suspect, though, we may see more of Shreck and Jones than Chappell or Klein, and Lewis Hill keeping wicket, with Eckersley playing as a specialist batsman.

As for Prospects for the Season, the best I can do is that Leicestershire will be the most unpredictable side in Division 2.  If you would like to know what is most likely to happen (but won’t, quite), then consult the odds being offered by the bookies.  They are in agreement that Nottinghamshire and Sussex (the two “big clubs”, presumed to have the most money) should be promoted, with Kent and Worcestershire (the sides with the young talent) their main competition.  Derbyshire (who looked thoroughly depressed last season) and Glamorgan (who were on the verge of degenerating into a rabble) will struggle, with the severely handicapped Durham, the anonymous but well-organised Gloucestershire, Northants (who have a plan) and Leicestershire somewhere in the middle.

My visit to Wantage Road (I caught one day of Loughborough’s visit there) established, beyond too much doubt, what Northamptonshire’s plan is going to be, and that is the same as last season’s : prepare pitches that ought to be reported to the coroner rather than the pitch inspector, pile up some high scoring draws, then nick a couple of games on the break at the end of the season by preparing a few turners.  In three days at Grace Road (with only brief interruptions for rain or bad light) 585 runs were scored for the loss of 23 wickets (the highest score being an admirably painstaking 305 minute 80 by Hasan Azad).  A week later, at Wantage Road, three days involving the same side resulted in 1173 runs being scored, for the loss of 15 wickets, with six centuries (three of them fine innings by Loughborough’s Thurston, Kumar and Leicestershire Academy product Sam Evans).  So, if you feel short-changed if a match ends early, you know where to head this season …

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Calling it a day …

* Apparently no relation to Hylton Ackermann (whom I watched at Wantage Road in the ’60s) and H.D. Ackermann (Leicestershire’s main source of runs in the middle years of last decade) or even Jan, the guitarist with Focus, (though he does have a Dutch passport).

 

 

An Occasional, Seasonal, Dream

Trigger warning : if you are one of those who believes that other people’s dreams are always and inherently boring, then look away now …
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Every year, at about the same time, I notice that the daffodils that grow perennially in the flowerbeds that border my patio have begun to poke their tips through the topsoil. In fact, I can be more precise. In 2014, I first noticed them on the 2nd of November, in 2015 on 11th November, and this year, on my return from a short holiday in Spain, on 27th November. And, every year, I think that they have come too early.

It may be that I am over-sensitive to the probability of “climate change” (although I am not sure whether this “small data” supports that) : I think, though, my reluctance to see these green shoots too early has more to do with not feeling ready, with the last leaves still clinging bravely to the trees, to think about the Spring quite yet. These shoots, I feel, should be nudging hopefully against an eiderdown of snow, not snuggled under a blanket of fallen leaves.

I felt much the same way when, while in Spain, I was visited prematurely by a recurrent dream that usually saves its first appearance for the darkest nights of Winter, the dream of the forgotten cricket ground.

The most commonly reported dreams involving sport, I’m told, fall into two categories. One includes those where the dreamer finds themselves called upon to play, (often at a higher level than they are used to), and finds that they can perform either much better than they can in real life, or only embarrassingly badly. I have occasionally had dreams of this kind, in which I find that I am incapable of bowling, (the aspect of the game I used to have some slight talent for), in more than slow motion, or, alternatively, that I have been magically transformed into a high-class batsman (which, in real life, was far from the case). But these “performance anxiety” dreams are commonplace enough, easily explicable, and do not concern us here.

The second kind are those dreams involving well-known sporting personalities. These are, apparently, common too, but I seem largely immune to them, in the same way that I don’t think that I have never dreamed about meeting the Queen (or any other member of the Royal Family)*. The only memorable exception was one in which I watched James Taylor compete in a game of wheelchair football, using one of those little carts that amputees seemed to use in continental Europe between the wars (you sometimes see them in films by Luis Bunuel, for instance). I remember feeling in something of a quandary, at the time, as to whether I should expose him as able-bodied. But, vivid as this dream was, it can be explained rationally, in that I had recently watched wheelchair football (or rugby) on the television, and Taylor “warming up” by playing (non-wheelchair) football in the outfield. My subconscious had simply reassembled those elements, and added a dash of continental spice.

My recurrent dream falls into neither of those categories. What is striking about it, apart from the regularity of its occurrence, (at least once a year, as I have said, usually in January or February), is that it is always exactly the same in every particular, so that I can now relive it (or re-dream it) perfectly without even being asleep.

It always begins, on a Saturday afternoon, in the rain (not heavy rain, but steady drizzle), and I am standing outside the British Heart Foundation shop in Market Harborough (I accept this will mean little to you if you are not familiar with Market Harborough, but bear with me). I am feeling at a loose end, perhaps because the football season has ended. I then remember that the cricket season has started and it suddenly hits me that there might be a game on at the forgotten ground (I call it that because, in my dream, I appear to have forgotten its existence). I feel some sense of relief, but more of self-reproach (as well I might, given how often I seem to have forgotten it).

I then set off for the ground. One of the few verifiable aspects of this ground is its physical location, which is here :

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– a slightly sunken area of Welland Park which, in reality, contains a rose garden (there is no cricket pitch, and, as far as I know, never has been).

I approach the ground by a long passageway that leads between two tall hedges, (at this point followers of the good Dr. Freud may be adjusting their pince-nezs thoughtfully), and arrive at a narrow turnstile. I now remember that I have forgotten to renew my membership (more self-reproach) and will have to pay to get in. In the corner of the ground nearest the turnstile is a portakabin, which acts as a club shop and office. I think of renewing my membership there, but realise I don’t have enough money on me.

I am now standing on a terrace. This terrace is, in a way that would be impossible to construct physically, simultaneously an old-fashioned terrace and a roofed “scratching shed” of the type that you still find at the smaller football grounds. It is, though, as steeply raked as the seating in a Roman amphitheatre (the obvious trigger for this dream is that I had, that day, visited such a one in Malaga).

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The pitch itself is oblong, like a football pitch, (although they are clearly playing cricket on it), only sunk into the ground like an empty swimming pool. On the far right hand side there is a pavilion of sorts : on the other sides there are grassy banks, ringed with tall hedges. It continues to rain, and the light is poor, but the game continues. Everything is very indistinct, and I can remember nothing of the match. And that is it.

The ground certainly has elements in common with various grounds that I have visited. The long passageway has something in common with Rothwell Corinthians FC, and, perhaps, Tunbridge Wells. The portakabin is very like ones I have seen at Stamford and Belper. I have spent many an afternoon in many a scratching shed. There are still banked terraces at Scarborough (wood) and the smaller of the two grounds at Wardown Park in Luton (stone).

The curious thing, though, is that the dream-ground predates my visits to most of these, resulting in a faint, untraceable sense of deja vu, a sense of having been there before, when I do visit.

This dream, especially its persistence, frustrates me by its sheer banality. It is, at least, useful, in that it reminds me that the season is on its way, and that I need to remember to renew my membership, but I receive quite enough letters and e-mails reminding me to do that already. I would prefer it, on the whole, if the subconscious mind, which seems to offer others (or so I read) access to vast archetypal images and lurid psycho-sexual dramatics, did not settle, so bathetically, in my case, for behaving like a pop-up reminder of a meeting on Microsoft Office.

Thank you for bearing with me. Perhaps the simple act of writing about the dream-ground will somehow exorcise it. If not, I should welcome any suggestions as to :

a) Which actually existing ground I might be dreaming about (preferably one that was demolished in about 1942 – a hint of the supernatural would, I feel, add a touch of distinction)

or

b) Any symbolic interpretation, the more fanciful the better, but preferably of an encouraging nature.

Anyone who prefers to suggest that my dream means that I spend far too much of my time watching sport of only moderate quality in the East Midlands needn’t bother. I knows it.

 * With the possible exception of Camilla Parker-Bowles (but it was very dark in that dream, and there was an awful lot going on).

Cricket, Proper and Improper

Nottinghamshire v Yorkshire, Trent Bridge, County Championship, 3rd May 2016

Northamptonshire v Derbyshire, County Ground, County Championship, 4th May 2016

I’m sure you’ve heard the distinction made before between “the cricket” and “a day at the cricket” (John Woodcock said that, whereas he wrote about the first, Alan Gibson wrote about the second).  “Good day at the cricket?” is not the same question as “Cricket good today?”.

On Tuesday, for instance, when I went to Trent Bridge to watch Notts play Yorkshire, the cricket was good, right enough.  In fact, as George Dobell wrote on Cricinfo, it was “a perfect advert for Championship cricket”.  I can’t speak for those who were there on the other three days, but, as a “day at the cricket“, the third day was little short of purgatorial.

It was a match  with everything : quality players (seven on each side with international experience (and two more, Lees and Ball,

Jake Ball

likely to join them), Hales and Broad starring for Notts,  Ballance, Root, Bairstow and Plunkett for Yorkshire) ; context (the current Champions taking on one of their most plausible challengers and historic rivals) ; narrative – an even contest where the advantage changed hands by the hour, both sides capable of winning as they went into the last session and the result in doubt to the last ball – yes, all of that.

Anyone who was following the game on TV, or online, must have wished they could be at the ground to see it.  Anyone who turns to the relevant page of Wisden in years to come will wish they had been there.  It must even have looked good from the warmth of the pressbox.  As a game, it made for great reading, and, for those with the ability to concentrate exclusively on what went on between the wickets (the cameraman’s view), great viewing.

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It even began well ; at the start of play I was in the middle tier of the Radcliffe Road Stand and down to one layer, but by lunch a leaden pall of grey cloud had covered the sun and the cooling breeze had turned into a nasty, insidious little north-westerly wind that seemed to be trying to insinuate itself into any gap in the spectators’ layers of insulation.

Not everyone would agree, of course.  Most of those who had begun in the Radcliffe Road (Middle or Lower) stuck it out there all day and were probably rooted to the same spot for all four days.

Radcliffe Road

Without wishing to stereotype the Yorkshire crowd too much, they must have been sustained (in addition to a proper cap and muffler and frequent recourse to the thermos) by the fact that the afternoon session was proper cricket.  After the loss of two quick wickets, Alex Hales and Michael Lumb (two notorious sloggers, of course) dug in good and proper against some relentlessly accurate seam bowling from, in particular, Jack Brooks and Steven Patterson

Hales forward defensive

The first 20 overs yielded 32 runs, which must have puzzled anyone whose previous experience of cricket was of the 20 over variety.

It was an afternoon for the purist, a day for the connoisseur, and, if it had only been a little warmer, it would have been a day for me.  As it was, I took what turned out to be a brief abandonment for bad light and drizzle as a sign that I should make my excuses (“sorry – I’m not from Yorkshire“) and scuttle off back to the warmth of the Railway Station and Leicestershire.

The Trent Bridge match vindicates one of the arguments of those who favour a Two Division Championship.  There were no easy, devalued, runs against two attacks with four near Test-quality seamers (Willey, Brooks, Patterson and Plunkett on the one side ; Ball, Broad, Gurney and Bird on the other).  The drawback is that the concentration of the top bowlers in the First Division (Brooks and Willey were lured from Northamptonshire, Broad and Gurney from Leicestershire) threatens to leave the Second Division as an environment stripped of its apex predators, in which some fairly unfit-to-survive batsmen can graze and thrive.

Wednesday at Wantage Road was, I suppose, in the wider scheme of things, a nothing match between two nothing-in-particular teams.  Derbyshire have been de-fanged by the loss of Footitt to Surrey (their opening bowlers were those old partners-in-crime Fletcher and Carter, last seen at Radlett https://newcrimsonrambler.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/304/) . Northants’ bowling, with Ollie Stone sidelined, might as well have left its dentures in a glass at the side of the bed.  The first three days had seen a glut of runs, elongated by rain, and the chances of a result were slim or none when I arrived, but so too – oh the relief! – were the chances of bad weather.

Slim left town shortly after lunch, by which time Derbyshire had reached 100 for no wicket and – armed with a copy of Alan Gibson’s ‘Growing Up With Cricket’, which I had found in the Supporters’ Club bookshop, and a delicious vanilla cone from that Queen of its Species, the Gallone’s ice-cream van

Note gardener’s thumbnail

I settled down, high in the new stands on the Eastern side, far from the action but catching most of the warmth and light, to bask like a sand lizard, secure in the knowledge that the players wouldn’t be allowed to come off the pitch until 5.00.

Shortly before tea, when both openers (Chesney Hughes and Billy Godleman) were making stately progress towards their centuries, all Hell broke loose (or as much Hell as about a hundred elderly people can raise).  I hadn’t caught what had happened (I may have been absorbed in my book, I might have dozed off), so I asked my nearest neighbours (about ten yards away) what all the fuss was about, but they hadn’t seen it either.  Eventually it transpired that Jake Libby (on loan from Nottinghamshire) had claimed a catch on the boundary, but the batsman (Godleman) was doubting his word and refusing to go.

In a televised match the incident would have replayed and analysed endlessly and inconclusively, in an Ashes Test it would have led to a week-long Twitter war between pro- and anti- Spirit of Cricket factions.  As there were no cameras here, and the Umpires seemed to feel unqualified  to make a decision without their assistance, it led to a ten minute argument out in the middle, to the accompaniment of slow handclapping and cries of “disgraceful” from those in the crowd who had been nearer to the incident than they had.

In the event, the Spirit of Cricket was to have her revenge on Godleman.  On 94, with time running out, he looked to reach his 100 by aiming a majestic heave at one of the aggrieved Libby’s strictly occasional off-spinners, but succeeded only in wrecking his own wicket.  He returned to the pavilion to the accompaniment of what the official web site politely described as “catcalls“.

At ten to five, as I was making my way to the exit, the final sign that the Muse of Comedy had taken over came with the solemn announcement that Josh Cobb would be taking over the gloves from Ben Duckett*.  Duckett would be bowling.  Chesney Hughes (who had already reached his hundred) prodded forward respectfully to his second delivery, the ball spiralled gently into the lap of first slip, who juggled and dropped it like an electric eel, at which point they shook hands (grudgingly) and called it a day.

“Proper cricket” be damned.  I haven’t had so much fun in ages.

*(I maligned Duckett in an earlier post by describing him as a “rotten wicket-keeper”, by the way.  He ‘kept very well in this match.)

In LE2 did Wasim Khan a Stately Pleasure Dome Decree : Works in Progress

Leicestershire v Kent, County Championship, Grace Road, 24-27 April 2016

I never realised, until I retired, quite how many shades of Cuprinol there are.  Seasoned Oak and Deep Russet, of course, but then there’s Seagrass, Forget-me-not, Gated Forest, Mellow Moss, Mediterranean Glaze and many, many more.  It’s a whole new world to me, and I often find myself browsing the shelves in Homebase as avidly I once flicked through the racks of LPs in record shops.  I have, you see, decided to take up gardening.

It’s not that I’ve done nothing to the garden before, of course, but that was merely in the way of keeping what was already there under control – mowing the lawn, pruning the roses, weeding the flowerbeds – and it was something of a chore, to be fitted in around work and more enjoyable leisure time pursuits.  Now I have the time and a little money to be more creative, to have a “vision” of how I would like the garden to be and to attempt to put it into practice.

I say “the garden” but I am starting with a more manageable “space”, to wit the patio (the back garden will have to remain a “forgotten wilderness of boredom” for the time being).  I have cleared the ivy that was clogging one fence, cut down a holly bush that had grown up under another and was threatening to demolish it, and removed last year’s (still living) Christmas tree.  I have introduced sackloads of decorative white stone chippings and planters in every shape and material, to be filled with bulbs and seeds that will, in time, I hope, result in a sweetly fragrant riot of colour.  And I have of course, applied Cuprinol to the fences (Woodland Green only at the moment, though I am toying with the idea of adding some White Daisy or Arabian Sand to create an effect of Andalusian stripes).

The problem with all this is that unless you share my “vision” (i.e. have some idea of how it’s meant to look when it’s finished) it all looks rather bare and, frankly, a bit of a mess at present.  Another is that what I am working towards is somewhere that will be a  delight to sit in when the Summer comes, but only if we happen to have a heatwave and need to take refuge from the heat.

The root of the problem here is that word “patio“.  Originally a patio was an uncovered but shaded courtyard garden in the South of Spain, perfected by the Moorish rulers of Al-Andalus.  It would, typically, feature exquisite geometric tiling, delicately perfumed flowers and topiary, ingenious running water features and served both to remind believers of the pleasures of the heavenly gardens to come and provide refuge from the fierce Andalusian sun.

Needless to say, most English patios are not like this at all, but the word is a reminder of the reluctance of the English to embrace our – at best – temperate climate, a land of holly and ivy and mistletoe, and our urge to hanker always after something warmer, something more delicate, something more exotic, even if it means employing that contradiction in terms, a patio heater.

I mention all this because, after spending a few days at Grace Road this week, it appears to me that Leicestershire’s new go-ahead Chief Executive Wasim Khan has been spending a lot of time in Homebase as well recently, and, like me, has a vision for the ground that will be lovely when it’s finished, and when Summer comes.

He began last season by painting the roof of the dear old Meet, which still seemed to be stained with soot from its days at Aylestone Road, a delicate shade of Cambridge Blue (or Seagrass, as the Cuprinol colour chart describes it); you can just about make it out in the background here, beneath some skies that might have interested Turner (J.M.W., not Ken)

Grace Road

The venerable George Geary Stand has been given a coat of Mediterranean Glaze, and white canopies or parasols put up over two of the exposed stands (smaller than those over the Mound Stand at Lord’s, but larger than the ones you can buy in Homebase, for your patio)

Grace Road

The white pavilions seem to hover and billow like an encampment of the Great Khan himself.  Imagine retreating beneath their shade on a hot afternoon, in a geographically eclectic Orientalist fantasy, to sip Pimms to the accompaniment of a drowsy afternoon raga! Or, if you prefer, retreating from the rain on a wet Friday evening to sink five pints of Red Fox Bitter to the accompaniment of Stench’s airhorn!

As you can also see (somewhere through the murk), we now have floodlights installed, which loom over the ground, but do not currently illuminate it (thanks to some obscure administrative mix-up we cannot use them for Championship matches) and the Maurice Burrows Stand has been spruced up (though not yet opened to the public).

This, though, is only the beginning.  The Milligan Road wall has been demolished and the turnstiles shut, areas of seating are roped off and one of the new floodlights is positioned in what is now the outfield.  The plan seems to be to shift everything – the poor old George Geary, the boundary and all – inwards, to make room for – the last time I heard – some flats.  At the moment it is all a little disconcerting, but then, as I said earlier, we Men of Vision must expect to be misunderstood, and I have every faith it will look nice when it’s finished.

In developing a cricket team, as in building a garden, there is a slow, ecologically sound way and a quick and easy one.  The first is to plant your own seeds and bulbs and nurture them to maturity, the second to buy your plants in fully formed from elsewhere.  Since the turn of the decade Leicestershire have been pursuing the first approach, relying on young, locally produced talent (Broad, Taylor, Cobb, Smith, Thakor, Buck, Gurney et al.) and a fat lot of good it’s done us too.

To shift the metaphor to vegetable gardening, it’s as though we have been growing our own delicious organic lettuces, tomatoes and peas, only to find that, just as they were ripening, our bigger and richer neighbours have jumped over the garden fence and pinched them.  Having had enough of this, our recent recruitment policy has been the equivalent of saying “Sod it – let’s send out for a takeaway“.  In this scenario Horton, Pettini and Dexter are a pretty solid chicken tikka, pilau rice and naan bread meal deal, with Cosgrove, McKay, Shreck and O’Brien, I suppose, a four-pack of cold beer in the fridge.

From 2013-14 Leicestershire had no effective on-field leadership, effectively no overseas player (even when he was somewhere in the vicinity of the ground, Ronnie Sarwan created a double absence) and, at times, fielded seven or eight players under the age of 25.  It is hardly surprising, in the circumstances, that we never won a match.

The new side has a pretty hard-nosed, (metaphorically) hairy-arsed (though, no doubt warm-hearted) South Australian core of Cosgrove, McKay and Coach Andrew McDonald, and are an experienced and battle-hardened crew all round (eight of this week’s side were over thirty).

I make no predictions as to where they’ll finish this season, but anyone expecting them to roll over without a fight, as they too often did in the recent past, is in for a nasty shock.  They have already brushed Glamorgan aside by an innings and would have been odds-on to beat Kent this week, had the game not been endlessly interrupted by 57 varieties of Winter, and might have won anyway had it not been for a circumspect century by Daniel Bell-Drummond.

This side may be hard to beat, but nothing (apart from a “mystery” spinner) wins matches like a bowler of genuine pace and Leicestershire appear to think they have might have found one in the one young, home-grown member of the side, Zak Chappell.  Zak is a young-looking 19 (he looks young even to my daughter), who has so far managed to evade the England age group set-ups (I’m told he was a late developer at cricket).

He made his first-class debut last season, making 96 from no. 10 (he can bat too, in a “long-levered” way).  Before this match I had seen him bat for Harborough and bowl for the Seconds, when he always seemed to be stepping gingerly and bowling within himself (he has already been bedevilled by injuries), but, although I’ve been told that he is potentially genuinely quick (on the one occasion he was allowed to bowl for Harborough he took seven wickets in four overs), until Monday I’d never seen him do so.

His moment came when, late on in Kent’s first innings, he was given the second new ball.  He had been told to concentrate on bowling fast and that is what he did, with a fluency in his approach and delivery I’d not seen before.

Zak 1

There was a little spraying, but he had a difficult chance dropped in the gully, induced a mistimed flat-batted slap to mid-wicket and, finally, smashed the last man’s stumps with a straight full one.  They might bristle at the suggestion, but there was something almost touching about the way McKay and Shreck, positioned at mid-off and -on, offered advice and arm-round-the-shoulder encouragement to the young tyro, and how he was encouraged to lead the side off the field.

Zak 2

When Kent batted again, he came on in about the tenth over and carried on where he had left off, hurrying the top-order, but, after two balls of his second over, he seemed to pull up lame, in the way that racehorses do, and almost as distressingly (though he was led off the pitch by the physio for treatment rather than taken away to be destroyed ).

Even the least poetic of men (Lord Emsworth, for instance, or “Ticker” Mitchell), can sometimes reveal a softer side when it comes to nurturing vulnerable young blooms, and, no doubt, business considerations aside, the hard-nosed Leicestershire leadership must be hoping fervently that Zak’s Springtime promise has not been nipped in the bud by this cruel late frost.

Young rose

 

Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Season

Nottinghamshire v Leicestershire, Trent Bridge, 1st April 2016 & Warwickshire v Worcestershire, 5th April 2016 (both pre-season friendlies)

Some lines that have often come to mind, as I have looked around at my companions while watching County cricket, are Larkin’s “I know this is paradise / Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives” (from ‘High Windows’).  Not, as for Larkin, unlimited, guilt-free sexual congress (far from it), but the ability, after too many years tethered to a workplace, to watch cricket every Summer’s day for the rest of their lives.

I now find that I have, not unexpectedly, if a little prematurely, attained that paradise, having retired (or, strictly speaking, having been retired, like David Beckham’s football shirt).  Having reached it, though, I am slightly wary that it will turn out to be something of a fool’s paradise.  Part of the attraction of a day at the cricket for me has always been the feeling that I am on holiday, and, recently in particular, that I am on holiday when I ought to be at work, and now, of course, I have no work.

I can assuage this feeling a little by assiduously catching up on the gardening (or, for that matter, by writing this) on the days when I am not at the cricket, and suspect it is probably wise to build up slowly from two or three days a week, but, no doubt, by the end of the season, I shall have attained full badgerhood, and will find myself eagerly scanning the internet for news of one last Notts Academy game at Wellbeck Colliery before the Autumn sets in.

One sign that I haven’t yet fully transitioned is that I’ve passed up the opportunity to watch all but two days of this season’s pre-season friendlies, one at Trent Bridge and one at Edgbaston (the real hardcore will have already put in a solid three weeks cocooned in Gore-Tex and fleece by the time the County Championship begins next week).

Trent Bridge is a venue that I have often visited and have often written about in glowing terms.  Of all the Test-hosting grounds I’ve visited it best pulls off the difficult trick of being both grand and homely, of combining the traditional and the contemporary and of feeling as well-suited to County cricket as the bigger occasions.  It has about the best place I know to watch cricket on a fine day (the Radcliffe Road stand) and one of the best on a cold one – the interior of the Pavilion, which is cosy without being stuffy and has a sense of history, without allowing that history to become too much of a weight.

Trent Bridge Pavilion

(While there, I managed inadvertently to photograph, and later made the acquaintance of, Tony Hutton, a stalwart of the Northern circuit and one of the authors of the excellent blog “Cricket History of Calderdale and Kirklees“, which I would advise you to seek out and follow.  He is not the Rastafarian in the foreground, by the way.)

Edgbaston is as near to my home as Nottingham, but I had never been there before Tuesday, and I’m not sure I’m in any great hurry to go back, unless, perhaps, it was for a Test Match.  Whereas Trent Bridge seems to belong to Nottinghamshire CCC, who allow it to be used for Tests, Edgbaston makes no bones about primarily a Test Match stadium, with the Birmingham Bears a close second and Warwickshire a poor third.

Its architect seems to have been a man with one big idea – that you can never have too much reinforced concrete – and that, if you don’t like naked concrete, you can always paint it bright blue.

Edgbaston

Whereas Trent Bridge has kept its venerable pavilion and built the ground in harmony around it, Edgbaston seems to have erased any trace of its past, except for its “iconic” score box and, perhaps, this bear, clinging for dear life to its ragged staff to avoid getting swept away by the Winds of Change howling around the ground.

Bear and Ragged Staff

They are, I’m told, in the process of developing the ground (presumably to make it even bigger and more packed with reinforced concrete) and, perhaps as a result of this, the concourse around the ground is currently an extraordinary shantytown of tumbledown bars and fast food outlets, weedy waste ground and, in an unusual touch, a small evangelical church around the back of the R.E.S. Wyatt Stand.  In fact, the whole place is such a mixture of brutalism and edgelands that I wouldn’t have been too surprised to have spotted some earnest young man with a beard and tattoos tapping out a Tumblr about it.

But this is, I confess, a superficial impression, formed in unpropitious circumstances.  County cricket supporters are hardy organisms who, like lichen, can thrive in apparently inhospitable terrain and, if I became used to the ground, I’m sure I could, in time, carve out some homely niche for myself there.   In fact, when the sun came out briefly in the late afternoon I could picture the particular concrete terrace I was sitting in as the surrounds of a seaside lido, and the executive boxes as beach huts, the Members picking their way gingerly down to the pitch in their swimming costumes, shoes and towels in hand.  But that would have to be much later in the Summer, when Gore-Tex and fleece are but a distant memory.

As is usually the case in these games, the cricket itself was fairly negligible (their main purpose seems to be to reacclimatise the players to the English weather after their earlier pre-season warm-ups in Barbados or Dubai).  Both Bell and Trott (whom I had been wanting to see) were out before I arrived at Edgbaston, and it is no news that batsmen of the quality of James Taylor (seen here sizing up the opposition),

Taylor and Wells

Sam Hain or even Laurie Evans are not likely to be troubled by the second string attacks of Second Division Counties. The regulations allowed them to retire when they reached around 55 and they all seized the opportunity with some alacrity.  We should all be so lucky, eh readers?

A feature of Trent Bridge is that the doors to the pavilion have small portholes cut into them, to allow the gatemen to see when a player needs to be let back in.  I thought I would try to record the view through one, but all I seem to have photographed is air and light.

Window at Trent Bridge

How did that Larkin poem end again?

………………………… and immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:

The sun-comprehending glass,

And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows

Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

 

 

 

A Bit of a Blur

Some memorable happenings this month – the General Election, the Pietersen Fiasco VI (at least) – but, at the same time, eminently forgettable. What I’d like to remember (the memorandum) is the blossom, which had been as vivid and luxuriant as I can remember.  But how to record it?  Here are some photographs taken from the upper deck of the X3 bus to Leicester (on my way to watch the cricket, so not completely irrelevant).  The point, I suppose, where impressionism blurs into pure abstraction. Fleeting impressions of a fleeting thing.

 

May Blossom 2015

May blossom 2015

May 2015