Glad to be Alive

And then I woke up, and it was all a dream …

Leicestershire (390-3 dec. & 245-0) drew with Loughborough MCCU (152), Grace Road, 2-4th April 2020

I seem to find it harder each year to find something new to say at the start of the season, but then, perhaps, novelty is beside the point.  There, is, of course, the promise of a new start, a clean slate, a blank piece of paper on which any story could be written, but the essence of it lies in the rediscovery of the familiar, of finding that those familiar scenes are still there.  Winter has passed, Spring has returned, as it sometimes felt during the Winter that it might not, and, with it, the cricket.

The first game at Grace Road seldom lives up to our wintry day-dreams of the platonic spring day, if only because it is always against Loughborough University, and the ground is only half-awake.  We enter not through the usual, welcoming, gates, but through a gap in the wall at the end of a bottle-strewn alley, but the first sight of the ground, even if it is yet to cast off its winter weeds, its parasols unfurled, still feels like a release : in our minds’ eyes, we see it, not under grey skies and sparsely populated, but bathed in mid-summer light and humming with life.  It is not the first day itself, but the sure and certain knowledge of the six months still to come that makes us feel newly glad to be alive.

Given the age of many of our members, and most of those who turned up for the first day, ‘glad to be alive’ is not an idle figure of speech : it is always a relief to find that familiar faces have survived the Winter.  Although the general bonhomie may not survive far into the season, its beginning is celebrated with handshakes, backslapping and even the occasional hug, as friends, reunited, congregate in convivial groups, or share their winter-news over a drink in the bar.  I am afraid that we sometimes take these pleasures and liberties, however small in themselves, too much for granted, and the start of the season makes us feel it.

Leicestershire, as is the convention in these games, batted, and the first ball of the season was faced by Paul Horton, who has now been relieved, or possibly relieved himself, of the captaincy.  Unfortunately, perhaps due to the dim light, or the remnants of dew in the pitch, he played down the wrong line to a full, straight, delivery and was bowled.  This was less unpropitious than it might seem, given that the bowler was Alex Evans, who is contracted to Leicestershire and will be available to strengthen the bowling later in the season.

After taking a few overs to acclimatise (Evans’ first three overs were all maidens), the incoming Colin Ackermann then played the hare to opener Hassan Azad’s tortoise, scoring freely on the off-side, in particular, to reach his fifty shortly before lunch, by, rather gratuitously, lofting Leicestershire academician Don Butchart, who had been brought on for the last over, over long on and into the, mercifully underpopulated, car park.  Azad, who had not departed from his trusted techniques of patient accumulation, had then made 17.

During the lunch hour, I dropped into the office (buzzing with anticipation) to renew my membership (excellent value at £99, given the number of days of cricket, particularly in the coming two months, it will entitle me to see), then dropped into the Meet, busy despite its limited menu, and picked up my ‘Playfair’ from the Friends of Grace Road shop, providing its usual reassurance, so little does it change, that, whatever else may be wrong in the world, the cricket season will inevitably return in the Spring.

Shortly after lunch, in a stroke that might have been an act of deliberate self-sacrifice, Ackermann chipped a half volley from Evans straight to cover point.  The manner in which the next man in, Mark Cosgrove, emerged from the pavilion suggested that he felt in the form of his life, but also that he was feeling the cold.  The first two deliveries he ostentatiously left alone, the third tested his powers of abstinence too far, and he was dropped at second slip (the edge was audible to all in the ground, except, if his body language were to be believed, the batsman himself).

After reaching twenty more by luck than judgement, Cosgrove’s co-ordination seemed to return, if not his self-control, and three good balls were stroked, with his usual incongruous delicacy, through the covers for four.  The next ball must have hit some foreign object on the pitch, or perhaps he was unsighted by light reflected off a car windscreen, because it removed his off stump.  He appeared as incredulous at this turn of events as ever, though, given the cold, less reluctant to leave the field.  Cosgrove is no longer quite the batsman he was, but he is still a joy to watch, and we are lucky to have the prospect of at least one last full season in which to watch him.

Harry Dearden came to the crease shortly before 2.15, with the total on 129-3, and Hassan Azad three short of his half-century.  Dearden, who does not have the credit at the bank that Ackermann and Cosgrove enjoy, is in no position to spurn a chance to make a substantial score, and, reverting to his earliest manner, scored at a rate that made his partner look like a chancer : by tea, the pair had crept surreptitiously to 210-3.  With the evening chill creeping in, I crept off too at 5.00, by which time the score was approaching 300, in the stealthy manner of a game of grandmother’s footsteps.  Unfortunately, my departure coincided with the rush hour, and I spent the journey home pressed against a window by a large man with little conception of personal space and a nasty cough.

I arrived a little late for the second day, having stopped off at my favourite Café Roma (cash only!) for a macchiato and a brace of cannoli.  The warmer weather had brought some of the more elderly element of Leicester’s café society out, and we were packed together cosily, like anchovies in a tin.  As I was not expecting any dramatic developments at Grace Road, I passed some time strolling through the crowded lanes, browsing aimlessly.  How pleasant it can be to wander at will through a crowded city, when the weather is fine and the mood relaxed!

When I finally arrived at the ground, Azad and Dearden were, as I had suspected, still at the crease.  The scoring rate had increased slightly, but only in the manner of an elderly and overworked donkey goaded into a jog-trot.  By lunch, the score had advanced to 390 : Azad had made his century at some point in the morning, and  Dearden was closing in on his (assuming the game was first class, his maiden century).  The students must have been wondering whether their turn to bat would ever come, like a younger brother in the back garden.

There had, incidentally, been an amusing incident just before lunch.  You may remember that, in the corresponding fixture a few years ago, when Hassan Azad was still playing for Loughborough, Charlie Shreck, frustrated by his obdurate batting and Loughborough’s failure to declare, had directed a few unfriendly remarks at him (‘The Times’ alleged that he had threatened to kill him).  Umpire O’Shaughnessy reported the incident, Shreck was suspended and Leicestershire were subjected to a points deduction.  Alex Evans (who obviously knows Azad) pantomimed a repetition of the incident : the batsman seemed highly amused, Umpire O’Shaughnessy, perhaps, less so.

To the surprise of most, it emerged that Leicestershire had declared at lunch.  Although I can see why they would have wanted the bowlers to have a run out, it did seem hard on Dearden, who was left on 94*.  It is true that he had every opportunity to make his century over the previous six hours, but we will have to hope that the disappointment will not have the same effect on his psyche as it did on Graeme Hick’s, in similar circumstances.  It was noticeable that he spent his time in the field with hands in pockets, and dropped a couple of catches (though not, perhaps, ones he would normally have caught).

The Leicestershire bowlers did not have the time to put in quite as many overs as they had hoped, although Wright, Griffiths and Taylor (apparently now fit) all claimed three wickets, and Mike (a little loose) one.  Only Joe Kendall, of the batsmen, made more than a start, falling two short of his fifty while trying to reverse sweep a full delivery from Taylor off his stumps.  The innings ended shortly after 5.30, with the score on 152, leaving Azad and Horton to play out the remaining overs (Horton surviving a couple of persuasive shouts). 

If it had not been for the balmy weather, and the general feeling that we were glad just to be there, Leicestershire’s tactics on the Saturday morning might have attracted adverse comment.  Azad was only marginally more fluent than he had been in the first innings, and Horton defended his wicket as if it were his life, against some tired bowling of moderate quality.  In the second hour, Evans, knowing the chink in Azad’s armour, posted two short legs and a leg slip, and bowled short from around the wicket.  Clearly discomfited, Azad fended one delivery just over one of the short legs, another just wide, and then, attempting a pull, deflected the ball hard on to his helmet.  Although he was able to leave the field unaided, he appeared disorientated.

After lunch, Tom Taylor, who had replaced Azad, livened proceedings with some firmly driven boundaries until, bending to tie a loose shoelace, he appeared to put his back out, and had to be helped from the field.  Surprisingly, it was Harry Dearden who replaced him.  As the afternoon wore on, it was clear that he was not inclined to miss another chance of a maiden hundred, and, reverting to his one-day style, hit the bowling to all (or most) parts of the ground.  Justifiably suspicious that Ackermann might be inclined to shake hands on a draw at 5.00, he accelerated further as that hour approached, passing his hundred at 4.50, to wild, and only half-ironical, applause from the few spectators who remained.  The end of play was postponed to 5.10 to allow Horton to catch up and make his century as well.  

There were some worrying pieces of news in the aftermath of the game.  Taylor has apparently suffered a recurrence of the back problem that kept him out for most of last season, and Hassan Azad will have to miss at least the first two Championship games under the concussion protocol.  Alex Evans had been reported to the ECB by Steve O’Shaughnessy, and it is possible that any suspension will mean that he will be unavailable for Leicestershire when term is finished (as it only affects first-class fixtures).  The report in ‘The Times’, which alleged that Evans had kneed Azad in the groin, and threatened to tear him limb from limb and dump the pieces in the Soar, cannot have helped matters.

One or two of the members were also a little perturbed by newspaper reports of a new flu-like virus that had emerged in China in the last weeks of March, apparently caused by someone in Wuhan Province thinking that it would be a good idea to eat a bat.  But I’m sure that it will take more than that to spoil the prospect of a new cricket season.

And then I woke up …

The Casual Knack of Living

Later, sleepless at night, the brain spinning

With cracked images, they won’t forget

The confusion and the oily dead,

Nor yet the casual knack of living.”

(‘Survivors’)

In the course of a season, I have the habit of accumulating second hand books, found at those grounds that still offer some for sale (the Friends of Grace Road have a good selection, as does the Supporters’ Club  bookshop at the County Ground, Northampton).  I might leaf through them during the occasional longueur during the game (for these have been known, even at Grace Road), or a break for rain, but generally I stow them away, like a squirrel burying nuts in the Autumn, with the intention of returning to them in the Winter ; quite often, like that squirrel, I neglect to do so. This Winter, like a squirrel gratefully unearthing a long and deeply buried acorn during a lean period, I discovered that I owned two unread books by Alan Ross.

That might imply that I own a lot of books by Ross which I have read, but, in fact, I have read very little of his work, having tended to think of him primarily as an editor (both of the ‘London Magazine’ and the anthology ‘The Cricketer’s Companion’).  In spite of that, I find that I have previously described his writing as ‘elegant’, an impression, in so far as it more than a convenient cliché, that I may have formed from having read his biography of Ranji (some years ago), from his ubiquitous photographic portrait, tanned, suave and half-goateed,

or, perhaps, some ancient memory of reading his pieces about cricket in ‘The Observer’, whose Cricket Correspondent he was from 1953 to 1982.

The first book has the spine-title ‘Cape Summer’, hinting at why I have not read more : most take the form of tour books (or books-of-a-series), of which I have a not unfounded suspicion ; even Arlott, who turned out a number of them, could be said to have written his ‘with his left hand’ ; some less distinguished practitioners of the once-commonplace genre appear to have written theirs with their foot.

Although it is ‘Cape Summer’ (an account of England’s 1956-7 tour of South Africa) that appears on the spine (perhaps to lure readers of the straightforward travel books that precede it in Ross’s bibliography), the first half of the book concerns Australia’s tour to England in 1956, which is best remembered, if at all, for Jim Laker’s having taken 19 wickets in the third test in Manchester. In a very wet Summer, in which four of the five Tests were, to some extent, affected by rain, England won the series 2-1, to retain the Ashes they had won in Australia the previous year.

As with most books-of-a-series, Ross reproduces the reports that he wrote about the five Tests as they originally appeared in ‘The Observer’ (‘revising a phrase here and there, for stylistic reasons only, but neither a mood nor comment’).  I would have guessed that he had employed his editorial skills to iron out a few kinks and wrinkles in the texture of his prose, which is as smooth as a pair of cashmere combinations (from somewhere exclusive in Jermyn Street, no doubt), but he appears to have been gifted with an internal autocorrect which enabled him to eliminate any obtrusive vulgarities as he wrote.  (The first sentence of the book is ‘As I write, in an Autumn that has assumed the better manners of summer …’, and he was a very mannerly writer.)

Ross had first made a small name as a poet, taking as his principal subject his wartime experiences serving on destroyers escorting the arctic convoys, and, like Arlott, his cricket-writing is poetic in the sense that he has a gift for precise observation, rather than employing high-flown diction.  In a poem, he describes a fly that has landed on the paper he is writing on : ‘as if carving a joint / It carefully sharpens its legs’.  In a match report, Harvey, Craig and McDonald ‘brought off magnificent one-handed pick-ups. Thus do Cossack riders at brisk canters swoop from the saddle to snatch handkerchiefs from the sawdust’. 

With television still in its youth in 1956, the presumption was that it was the writer’s responsibility to paint a verbal picture for readers who would not have seen the game, whereas contemporary writers (and, worse, radio commentators) tend, at least subconsciously, to assume that the reader is able to see the match, and be in search of analysis and opinion rather than description.  As a result, I find that I now have a clearer mental image of how the young Cowdrey batted than – say – Dominic Sibley.

In an introduction, Ross explains his ambition to do what match reports alone cannot do and ‘elaborate about … scene or social background … convey a feeling of movement, or the personal discovery of place … a sense of a journey … those marginal impressions that make a summer of cricket what it is’, and my lasting impression of the book (perhaps more apparent in retrospect) is of a vision of England in the nineteen-fifties that contradicts the received view of it as stultifying and repressed, always in ‘monochrome’, dozily waiting to be woken into technicolour by the arrival of the Beatles.  Ross’s England is certainly relieved from the strains of war and austerity, but various, both traditional-pastoral and optimistically modern (there is an enthusiastic portrait of the rebuilt Coventry, which reads oddly now), and offering plenty of scope for stylish hedonism for those with a little money (Ross had married Jennifer Fry, the chocolate heiress, in 1949).

Between games Ross motors between grounds, at a time before mass car ownership or motorways, when motoring was an activity that could still be undertaken for pleasure (it is not until page 100 that he reveals he is driving a convertible, but I think that might have been assumed) :

‘Making my way out on the Buxton road, the evening was as clear as a bell.  A week earlier I had been sitting in the warm, riverside darkness of the Trout at Wolvercott, fireflies cruising the banks, and the crowned lion on the island thrusting through the poppies at the marauding peacock.  In hot sun, the hood down, I drove out of Oxford northwards through Warwick and Lichfield, skirting the sunken and smoking areas of the Potteries …’

and on until shadowing the Australians’ itinerary has shown him, as he says, ‘more of my own country than in all the other summers put together’.  A striking thing about these landscapes (and, as his allusions to Claude and Poussin suggest, he was a connoisseur of them) is that they are largely unpeopled : the few human beings who do stray into view are as voiceless as figures in a landscape.  Most travelogues depend for their colour (or ‘social background’) on chance meetings with interesting characters, or overheard conversations ; Ross’s is an interior, if not introspective, monologue voiced over exterior views.

His points of reference, when describing the cricket, sometimes glance backwards to the war : (at Headingley) ‘a cold wind blows up at us as sharply as over the bridge of a destroyer’ ; ‘One felt the bridge telegraph ringing down for more speed, and Lindwall hurled down several at Cowdrey.  The pitch softened them like a head sea …’ ; ‘far from forming the spearhead, they [Tyson and Statham] had ambled up like Base majors just in time for the champagnes of victory’ – allusions, which eleven years after the war had ended, will have been familiar to many of his readers.

Fewer of them will have had first-hand experience of quite the way of life implied by his other points of reference, which are those of a more intellectually sophisticated, less brutish, James Bond (Ross’s friend Ian Fleming later awarded him a cameo appearance (promoted to ‘Commander Ross’) in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, in which he was fed to crocodiles). 

‘Rain had toned up the pitch, acting on the close-cropped, fawn stubble rather in the manner of an after-shaving lotion’ (probably from Trumper’s, and exotic for 1956) ; Graveney’s batting ‘disseminated an air of the Burlington Arcade’ ; ‘a gentleman in white waiter’s jacket who looked as if he ought to have been dispensing Martinis rather than delicately brushing the wicket’ ; ‘fifty-nine runs, as reviving as a Bloody Mary to the appetite, came in the forty-five minutes play’ ; ‘A lot rested on winning the toss first – a simple roulette gamble, but the wheel stuck in mid-spin for a while …’ ; ‘Cowdrey and Richardson … played with such ease of attitude that they might have been club members reclining in favourite chairs, whisky and cigars to hand’ ; ‘one has become accustomed now, at about the aperitif hour, to this ritual procession to the Test match wickets …’ (I would have put the aperitif hour at not earlier than 5 o’clock, but Ross appears to be referring to the scheduled start of play).

The cricket, however vividly and scrupulously observed, features in the narrative only as a part of a civilised, and, apparently, enviable life, and reading the first half of the book offers an opportunity to take a cheap holiday in someone else’s happiness.  One might have expected (and Ross might have been hoping) that this post-war idyll would continue when he followed the England touring team to South Africa the following Winter, but, from the outset, his pursuit of pleasure is undercut by a creeping sense of unease.

The voyage out takes in a (largely) pre-tourist Las Palmas (‘the seedy and depressed-looking port’), passing Dakar two days later, encountering dolphins who are ‘unhindered by the hangovers and accidie of shipboard life’.  In a portent of changing times, he notes oil tankers diverted from their normal route by the Suez crisis (which, as readers of ‘The Observer’ would have been aware, had flared up between the two series).  He arrives at Cape Town twelve days after leaving the Canaries: ‘it has been an overcast and heavy trip, on which all bar records for the line have been broken. One felt oneself gingerly all over every morning and assessed the damage’ … ‘We tie up, and within the dusty howl of the wind, the heat is like an oven’. 

Ominously, before the first Test, ‘Hot Steam, a much-fancied runner in the Johannesburg Summer Handicap, broke a leg and was destroyed an hour after I had backed it.  Its owner-trainer suffered a simultaneous heart attack, as well might I have, as well might I.’ 

As in his account of the Summer, the narrative between Tests is mostly taken up by journeying, though the distances involved are greater : he travels from Cape Town to Pretoria by train, a distance of 999 miles, taking twenty-seven hours, mostly through semi-desert, but, luckily, the catering is well up to standard (‘Meals are six-course and admirable and the bar in the Observation Car sells you almost anything, including sherry at 9d. a glass, and gin at 1/-‘).  The African landscapes are more spectacular, and less unpeopled, glimpses of the native population adding colour to the flora and fauna :

‘The encircling mountains give off a bluish powder, low stony ridges lying like recumbent sphinxes under the afternoon glare.  Beneath occasional eucalyptus, groups of Africans are stretched out asleep.  I lunch on sweet melon, Cape Lobster and Chicken Maryland …’.

Although his natural inclination is to enjoy the sybaritic lifestyle available to English visitors, while painting picturesque word-pictures of the scenery, he cannot ignore the figures at the margins of the picture :

‘The Africans again are conspicuous by their absence, more noticeable sprawling at the roadside on the outskirts waiting for buses to their locations than in the heart of the capital.  They are, or have become, an unobtrusive people.’

Having quoted at length from an editorial in ‘Africa South’, probably by the soon-to-exiled Ronald Segal, written at the time of the ‘treason’ trials (his inverted commas) which coincided with Christmas and the Johannesburg Test, he concludes, with a hint of reluctance :

‘One can no more avoid, if one is a sentient human being, being involved in what goes on day to day than one can avoid being involved in the weather.  One may lunch in the Rand Club, play tennis in the afternoon, bridge in the evenings, and discuss over endless whiskies anything under the sun, but the shadow remains, the issue returns.  Moral problems have a way of refusing to be shelved.’

Although the shadow can never quite be lifted, it can be lightened by good food, drink and other pleasures, even cricket : as he says of the fourth Test (a South African victory) ‘a thrilling Test match has miraculously squeezed some of the poison out of South African life’.

His most memorable journey was a drive of nine hundred miles from Johannesburg to Cape Town, in his new car (a Nash Rambler), as the ‘speedometer needle dances between eighty and ninety’, embarked upon having stayed up all night (‘suddenly it was not worth going to bed at all’) to celebrate England’s victory in the first Test : he observes that ‘its charm, for those of a contemplative nature, is that, for the first eight hundred miles, there is precisely nothing to see.  Nothing, that is to say, which could commonly be called spectacular.’  This ability to derive and convey pleasure from contemplation for its own sake, rather than any inherent interest in what is observed, was to come in handy during the Test series, which contained very little that could ‘commonly be called spectacular’.   

The series was mainly notable for low, and slow, scoring.  Peter Richardson’s century in the First Test was, at the time, the slowest recorded, taking eight hours and eight minutes.  In the third Test, Hugh Tayfield bowled fourteen consecutive (eight-ball) maidens (nine of them to Trevor Bailey).  The fifth Test was the slowest in history, with runs coming at the rate of 1.40 per six balls. (Ross was either unaware of these records, too indifferent to statistics, or too mannerly to mention them.)  Later that year, restrictions on the number of leg-side fieldsmen were introduced, perhaps by someone who had witnessed the defensive bowling to a packed leg-side by Tayfield and Goddard that had stifled England’s batting. 

Ross contemplated Richardson’s innings with the same equanimity as his long desert drive : ‘bare as the Karoo though his innings had been, it was a fighter’s innings and even such spareness had its beauty’.  Bailey’s was of more a test of his patience, and provoked a rare example of Ross expressing overt disapproval, albeit with a lovely image :

 ‘The batting after tea was terrible in its listlessness and passivity.  Not only was no attempt made to score, but it seemed to be a point of principle to avoid runs.  Tayfield was encouraged, rather than allowed to bowl 14 maidens in a row, 9 of them to Bailey … For a whole hour Bailey neither envisaged nor made a scoring stroke … the sharp single had been discarded as a youthful frolic : the hypnotic maidens of Tayfield had become as soothing and necessary to Bailey as opium to a mandarin’.

As for the last Test, he is generous enough to lay most of the blame on the ‘ludicrous’ pitch.

At least at the beginning of the series, Ross was able to spin a silk purse out of this unpromising material, studded with sparkling observational gems.  As the tour progressed, and the length of time away from home increased (he arrived in South Africa on 5th December, and left on 11th March), his mind seemed increasingly to wander from the cricket and on to other matters, the nature of which we can only guess at (the reports on the last two Tests, which England lost, having won the first two, are, by his standards, a little perfunctory). 

On the drive through the Karoo, he had described lizards startled by the sound of his approaching car as ‘shooting into fresh positions with the alacrity of hotel guests surprised in unauthorised bedrooms’ ; from the air, some kopjes appear to him ‘as perfectly formed as the breasts of a Maillol woman’ ; Endean ‘had been on view four hours, and a stationary Follies’ nude does not bear contemplation without greater show of animation for a quarter that length of time’ ; after a burst of scoring, a difficult target becomes ‘like the desired wife of another … an unlikely, but faintly permissible dream’.

In the plane, on the first stage of the journey home with a selection of players from both sides, ‘Nobody has much to say.  Everyone, I think, has had enough, a little more than enough’.

On the cover of the other book I have found I had acquired, ‘Coastwise Lights’, it is hopefully trailed by the publisher as a volume of autobiography, an impression the author corrects in his preface, admitting that it is only ‘incidentally autobiography’.  Although it covers the period when he was the Cricket Correspondent of ‘The Observer’, the subject of cricket makes only a fleeting appearance, but then so does the author. 

The book opens with Ross staying in a shabby hotel in Paris : on a hot night he discovers that, by standing on the lavatory seat and looking through a ventilation grill, he can observe the occupants of a neighbouring flat : three middle-aged French people, mostly naked because of the heat.  By his usual method of close observation and vivid description, he makes their domestic doings fascinating, for a few pages. It seems apt that he was to go on to write for ‘The Observer’.

Looking back at his early book about a trip to Corsica, with the painter John Minton, he writes :

‘For some reason, perhaps out of genuine diffidence, I decided that ‘I’ or ‘we’ should not figure in the narrative, that Johnny and I should be invisible travellers, observing, experiencing, recording, but not intruding.  It was the result, perhaps, of too literal an obeisance to Christopher Isherwood’s method in ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, though his ‘I am a camera’ technique did not preclude his own considerable involvement in the lives of his characters. … The best travel books are nearly always as interesting for what the traveller tells us of his own experiences and feelings as for what he says about the country he travels through.’

Although he claims to think this self-effacement a fault, there is little sign that he is willing, or able, to overcome his extreme reticence about too much unmannerly self-revelation.

The book is in six sections : one about the painters Keith Vaughan and John Minton (and his travels with them) ; a British Council trip he made to Iraq ; various ‘drinkers and dandies’ he has known ; being sent by ‘The Observer’ to cover the war in Algeria in 1958, when their regular correspondent ‘went off his head’ (it is hard to imagine Vic Marks being pressed into service in similar circumstances) ; his time as Editor of ‘The London Magazine’ and publisher of London Editions ; his life, friends and neighbours in  Sussex and, finally, anecdotes from his time as a racehorse owner.

Ross seems to have known, or encountered, a remarkable number of well-known writers ; a tribute to his talent for making friends and connections, or, perhaps, the smallness of English literary life.  On a flight to Baghdad, he sits next to Agatha Christie (‘noticing her quiet assurance and fat legs’) ; he rents a villa in Ischia next door to one owned by Terence Rattigan (who ‘only wanted to talk about cricket’) ; John Betjeman (who was Godfather to his son), Stephen Spender and Anthony Powell were friends (originally, I think, of his wife) ; Derek Walcott and Laurie Lee signed his visitor’s book, alongside Len Hutton and Keith Miller. Looking for an illustrator for a children’s book he has written, he is introduced to a young Raymond Briggs.  His chief companion watching cricket at Hove is Jeremy Hutchinson QC (defender of Christine Keeler and Lady Chatterley, amongst others).

In a conventional autobiography this might seem like name-dropping, but in Ross’s it seems more of a ruse to avoid having to talk about himself.  And, rather than the great names, he devotes the most space to more minor figures who had been entertaining drinking companions, my favourite being Bernard Gutteridge, an advertising copywriter and poet :

‘Bernard was an unusual drinker.  He would be sitting happily beside you in a restaurant and bar, seeming to have drunk not very much.  Then, when it was time to go, he would turn rather guiltily and say ‘I’m sorry, my dear, but I’m not going to be able to get up.’  Nor could he.  He would have to be carried out.’

The book does shed a little retrospective light on the composition of the English section of ‘Cape Summer’, which seems to have been a less sunny time than I had supposed :

‘I drove about the country, mainly on secondary roads, trying to see it as if it were abroad … the attempt to write about England through a stranger’s eyes led me to all kinds of places I would never otherwise have seen.  Apart from the cricket it was a solitary, reflective time ; I drove alone through all kinds of weather and stayed in small country pubs when I wrote up the day’s journey.  At the end of it I felt I had learned something about England and something about myself.’

It is characteristic that he is too reticent to tell us openly quite what it was that he learned about himself.  Even when it comes to the more dramatic events in his life, he is the soul of indirection : although he apparently suffered from debilitating bouts of depression (perhaps caused, or exacerbated, by his wartime experiences), the only reference to this (in this volume, anyway) is in connection with Ian Fleming having featured him in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ in return for giving him ‘only too familiar details about ECT’.  His only allusion to his wife having had the obligatory affair with Cyril Connolly is even more oblique (Connolly had given up the editorship of ‘Horizon’, then claimed that he wanted it back when it was offered to Ross) : ‘this was, alas, a typical Connolly reaction, often demonstrated in his relations with women, as I came to know to my cost’.

Occasionally, an observation about a friend leads to a personal admission : having reported Keith Vaughan’s feeling that he was being ‘superseded’ by newer styles of painting, he is prompted to reflect :

‘He was not alone in this feeling.  Like most others of my age, for whom the war had been the central experience of our lives, I too felt myself cut off, before I had even started, from an emerging generation for whom the war was an irrelevance and Britain’s imperial past, on which I had been brought up, an obscenity.’

Hints at this feeling that the world he had known was about to be swept away are sometimes detectable in his account of the South African trip, perhaps triggered by having witnessed Frank Tyson ‘rock’n’rolling’ at a party in Durban given by the Comptons (Ross’s bag was more in the way of blues and jazz). 

Ross had a natural cosmopolitanism, and a classical frame of reference, that was becoming unfashionable in the later nineteen-fifties (the time of ‘The Movement’, decolonisation and the kitchen sink) : like Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Lawrence Durrell (two writers who inhabited a similar mental universe), he had been born in India (and spoke Hindustani as a first language), although, unlike them, he was not actively anglophobic, tethered to England by, if nothing else, his love of cricket, and able to write as lovingly about Hove as they were to write about Greece.

Ross’s obituary in ‘The Guardian’ said of his poetry that it was ‘oddly impersonal’, and the same might be said of his autobiography, but, at a time when self-revelation is hardly in short supply, I find his reluctance to indulge in it more of a relief than a frustration : it is unusual, these days, to finish a book wanting to know more, rather than less, about its author.  Nor do I regret the lack (for all his intentions) of socio-political context in his writings : we are hardly short of that either.  Ross was a fetishist of the particular, a mind too fine to be violated by ideas, and the substance of his writing lies in brilliant images, rather than sustained argument (which is why, as you may have noticed, the best way to illustrate it is by extensive quotation).  So, as a farewell, here is his own farewell to South Africa :

‘But in the end, it is not the problems that one takes away : they are for those who remain, though inevitably in what one writes and thinks and says elsewhere, one carries on the act of identification. There are many sides to every South African question, but problems of behaviour are the same the world over, however unique their context. 

Rather do I think now, with the rain dripping from the plane trees and the mist softening the harsher outlines of mines and suburbs, of that quality of light and landscape which is peculiarly African : the red, grass-brushed earth running away into the purple-blue of the mountains – colours that are indefinable and which do not travel in painting – the flat-topped hills and kopjes, green and curled in Natal, dry and dusty in the Transvaal, the grey-green watered silk of the sugar cane, the terraced vines of Constantia in the Cape that have produced, among a dozen admirable wines, one spectacularly good dry white one, the Residence Montpelier Riesling, from Stellenbosch ; the coast north of Durban, with its pines and rocks and sand firm enough to inscribe with messages between tides, the fresh-scented beginning and end to day in the Karoo, the palm-divided sundowns over Johannesburg.  It is out of these that we make our private image of Africa, these are what sustain the long vibrations and distant drum-beats of the heart.’

I now know whose works to look out for next season, to lighten a dull moment at Grace Road (should there to be any).

The End of the Tunnel

Leicestershire CCC (308 & 189) v Northamptonshire CCC (357 & 142-3), County Championship, Grace Road, 10-13 September 2019

Leicestershire lost by 7 wickets

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Keeping the flag flying

The cliché that comes to mind, as Leicestershire’s season approaches its end, is the one about light at the end of the tunnel. Watching their progress has certainly too often resembled stumbling through the deep gloom of an abandoned railway tunnel, although – to be fair – with less danger of being run into by a manic cyclist, or bitten by a rat. As always, at the end of a season, the optimist will glimpse some points of light, some hope that next year might be better than this : the pessimist may feel that the main cause for optimism is that we will not have to witness another Leicestershire defeat for the next six months.

The brightest point of light in the season past, by some measure, has been the form of Hassan Azad, who, at the time of writing, has made more runs than any other English batsman* (and, according to one keen statistician, occupied the crease for longer). Given that he was only offered a contract at the start of the season, at the age of 25, this is remarkable. However, batsmen who have remarkable first seasons tend to attract attention, with plans being devised to counter them, and, in spite of the fact that he made 86 in the first innings, I thought there were worrying signs that Northamptonshire had discovered a key to snuffing his light out.

Although the precise configuration of the field varied, Northants’ strategy, in the first innings, was to offer Hassan the chance to play his two favourite scoring strokes – the clip off his hips and the off-side steer – but only through narrow channels through a phalanx of slips and gullies (on both leg and off sides). For close to four hours, he found those channels with what football commentators describe as ‘slide-rule precision’ (a metaphor that has survived the obsolescence of the technology), miscalculating only once, when he was dropped at leg gully by Dougie Bracewell.

Azad field

We’ve got you surrounded!

Bracewell, summoned from New Zealand as a last minute replacement for Kemar Roach, appeared still to be recovering from the flight, the waywardness of his bowling a temptation even to Hassan, let alone the now conspicuously in-form Cosgrove. Bracewell’s beard and general swarthiness do, however, mean that he fits in well with Northants’ battery of brisk-to-medium pacers (Sanderson, Proctor, Hutton and the newly arrived Berg), who would not look out of place crewing a pirate ship on the Spanish main.

Leicestershire’s innings followed the overly familiar script. Paul Horton lasted two balls and Ackermann (it being Cosgrove’s turns to make the runs) patted Berg’s first ball to point. When Cosgrove and Azad had taken the score to 150-2, Cosgrove, to his apparent astonishment, was bowled by Sanderson, and Hassan, to the astonishment of everyone, was bowled shortly afterwards by Proctor. Dexter, who seems to be fading out of the game like a ghost, was only visible for one ball. 183-5.

At this point there was a welcome variation in the script. George Rhodes, a recent acquisition from Worcestershire, was described by Paul Nixon as having been signed to ‘add a bit of grit to the middle order’, which, as he correctly diagnosed, has been lacking it recently. Watched by his father Steve, he displayed the requisite grit by batting for a little over four hours to make an unbeaten 61 ; the lower order chipped in to take the total to 308.

If Rhodes represented a pinprick of light (it was good that he made a career best score on his debut, less encouraging that 61 is his career best), a brighter flare was the debut of Alex Evans. An academy product and student at Loughborough, currently rather gangling, with a long run and a whirling action, he followed a nervously loose first over with the early wickets of Newton and Wakely.  If nothing else, it was a delight to see someone whose wickets seemed to bring him so much pleasure.

There followed one of those long, balmily soporific, afternoons when nothing much seems to happen and thoughts, along with early Autumn leaves, start to drift, that, in some ways, epitomise the pleasures of watching County cricket. Unfortunately, when I awoke from my reverie (or doze), the nothing that had happened was Leicestershire not taking the wickets of Keogh or Rossington, the pair having put on a stand of 148 to take the score from 156-4 to 304-5, and the game away from Leicestershire’s loose grasp. To their credit, the bowlers restricted the final total to 357, encouragingly short of my prediction of 400. I don’t believe, though, that a single Leicestershire supporter would, if attached to a lie-detector, have predicted a home victory.

Leicestershire’s second innings was the same again, only with the unwelcome subtraction of runs from Hassan Azad. This time, Northants, rather than offering opportunities for risky runs, blocked up his channels completely by inserting a fine leg and third man, and invaded his personal space with a silly point and a short leg. Blocked in, like a badger in his sett, and with no opportunities for risk-free runs, he stopped scoring altogether, making a solitary run from the first ten overs. In the twelfth over, a ball from Berg leaped up at him a little and he edged to slip.

Northants also seemed to have an idea that he might be vulnerable to the short ball, and he received a few from over the wicket (as a left-hander). As Charlie Shreck discovered to his cost, attempting to intimidate Hassan can have unwelcome consequences, but they succeeded in hitting him twice, once on the shoulder, turning his back on the ball, and once on the helmet, ducking into one that kept a little low (luckily he came through the concussion protocol, because we would have had difficulty finding a like-for-like replacement). I hope none of the other Counties were taking notes (or reading this), or he (and we) may have a testing time next season.

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Come out with your hands on your head!

After that … well you could, if you felt so inclined, write it yourself. Horton lasted half as long as he had in the first innings.  Cosgrove looked certain of a big score before – to his horrified amazement – being given out LBW for 8. Ackermann (it being his turn) made a cultured and responsible 60, there was a stand of 51 between Dexter and Parkinson that ensured the game would stretch to a fourth day, and there was a slight twitch of the tail – 187 all out. Dexter’s 42 earned him an appreciative but subdued response : if, as seems possible, that was his last first-class innings, the end was in keeping with what has been a fine, but, I think, sometimes under-appreciated career.

The Umpires distinguished themselves in this innings by equalling the world record for LBWs given (eight). One consequence of the introduction of DRS has been to demonstrate how difficult it is for even experienced Umpires to adjudicate accurately on LBWs from 22 yards away, so, from the boundary and a variety of oblique angles, I could not argue with their decisions, but, equally, I do wonder whether all of them would have survived close scrutiny. Only Cosgrove expressed much surprise at having been given out, but no more so than he usually does when he has been bowled.

On the last day, Leicestershire did not suggest much awareness that they were defending a target of 141, as opposed to 341. Slow left-armer Callum Parkinson, who is inexorably turning into a white ball specialist, was given a longer spell than usual, and bowled economically – but that seemed rather beside the point. With Mohammad Abbas absent, and unreplaced, the best chance of bowling Northants out might have been the wild debutant Evans : encouragingly he took a wicket in his two overs – less encouragingly, he was ruled out from the next game with a strain. Cannily, the Umpires delayed lunch until Northants had won, prompting Wakely and noted trencherman Richard Levi (who had earlier struck an interesting fashion note by wearing a cap on top of his sunhat) to polish the innings off.

As I write, Northamptonshire have won again against Durham, and look very likely to be promoted (while Leicestershire are feebly attempting to stave off the inevitable in Cardiff **). I am pleased for Northants (if nothing else, with Nottinghamshire relegated, it means that I will have some Division One cricket within reasonable travelling distance), but it does prompt the question of why they can do it and we cannot – given that there is no obvious reason why they should have better resources, and indeed, like us, have had their best players (Duckett and Gleason) filched by richer counties.

One factor might be that, when Northants recruit from other Counties, they find players who are in the prime of their careers, rather than at the end, or the beginning, as Leicestershire tend to do. They have also made canny use of the loan system to supplement a small squad. However, the major difference seems to come down to intangibles, such as momentum and team spirit : strict rationalists may consider both to be phooey, but – like a fragment of the True Cross – it doesn’t half put a spring in the step of sides who believe that they possess them. I would have thought the one thing that Paul Nixon could be relied upon to instil in his sides would be spirit, but, it appears, we haven’t had that kind of spirit here since 1998.

* He has since been overtaken by Sibley.

** They failed.

PTDC0817

Look, I told you – light!

Lighting a Little Hour or Two

Leicestershire (124-9) lost to Derbyshire (128-1) by 9 wickets, T20, Grace Road, 25th August 2019

I cannot remember when I was last privileged to be part of a crowd so united in rapt attention, experiencing as one a rising sense of cautious hope, the passing dejection of temporary reversals, and, finally, an explosive expression of collective joy at the moment of victory. Games like these are what sport is all about, why we keep coming back! Unfortunately, the game in question was the last day of the Test Match at Headingley, which most of the spectators were following by various means, rather than the game in front of us on the pitch, which, I am afraid, was pretty ordinary.

I would not say that my expectations were high for my annual visit to a T20, but they were about as high as they are ever likely to be. The sad truth is that, as a form of cricket, it mostly bores me – sad for me, that is, because it, as I am beginning to weary even myself by complaining, has already spread like a stain to cover what ought to be the prime months of the English season, and looks set, as it mutates, to swamp the rest of it. However, success in any format can have a tonic effect on a struggling club, and Leicestershire went into this game knowing that a win, after a late burst of four victories, would give them a reasonable chance of qualification for the quarter finals. Derbyshire were in a similar position, although their chances would be better still.

Leaving aside the cricket, it was an enjoyable afternoon. The crowd, still one Bank Holiday Monday away from the return to work, and the novelty of the heat having not yet quite worn off, were plentiful, relaxed and in jovial mood. The drinking was more for the purposes of dehydration than inebriation. At half-time one of the club’s volunteers had her hair cut for charity. I managed to carry a white Magnum back to my seat without it melting, and no-one threw a t-shirt at me. It was all good.

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The first half hour of Leicestershire’s innings was how T20 is sold in the advertisements. A little late in the season, Mark Cosgrove has managed to translate the excellent form that he’s in from his own head to the physical plane, and, greedily hogging the strike, made a virtuoso 45 from 26 balls, Harry Swindells playing Leach to his Stokes. Cosgrove has a fine understanding of the theatrical in cricket, his body language a stylised pantomime of how his innings is progressing, the contrast between his apparent bulk and the delicacy of timing worthy of W.C. Fields.

In one of the game’s less outlandish dismissals, Swindells was caught behind at the start of the fourth over, bringing Aaron Lilley to the crease. Lilley is a T20 specialist, otherwise to be found in the 2nd XI, whose entire raison d’être as a batsman seems to be to hit sixes (he has managed 11 so far this season). He promptly hit one, then was caught off what would have been another if it had travelled horizontally rather than vertically. Still, things seemed to be going reasonably well, and I could not complain of a lack of incident.

Cosgrove, promisingly, was now joined by Colin Ackermann, the classically-trained batsman who, probably to his surprise, now boasts the best bowling analysis in English T20 history. My theory that the two are incapable of batting together was soon confirmed. Ackermann cut the ball straight to backward point, and was regaining his poise for the next delivery when he looked up to see Cosgrove standing a few yards away, performing an eloquent dumbshow of ‘Aw mate, if I can run surely you can’, a perfect mixture of pathos and hilarity.

After this, things really fell apart. Lewis Hill, the only player other than Cosgrove to reach double figures, attempted an ambitious cut from in front of his stumps and was bowled for 16 (he was also the only other to record a boundary, apart from Lilley’s six). Ackermann was caught at long on, playing a stroke that was beneath his dignity ; Aadil Ali and Parkinson followed his lead, with less style, but the same result. The last two batsmen were run out, though by then the humour of this situation was wearing thin. I may not know much about T20, but I know what I don’t like – and the final total of 124-9 seemed unlikely to prove adequate.

When Derbyshire began their reply, England still required about 50 runs to win. I registered that the first two overs of spin (from Parkinson and the demon Ackermann) had been encouragingly economical, but that the third (from Dieter Klein) had resulted in 24 runs. After that, I was mentally translated to Leeds, and, as word spread of what was transpiring, the majority of the crowd seemed to join me. As the end approached, the reaction of the spectators bore a diminishing relation to what was happening on the pitch : a forward defensive from Billy Godleman would be greeted by howls of joy, a dot ball by Callum Parkinson with despairing groans, a break for drinks by spontaneous applause.

After the euphoria of victory had peaked, I returned to Grace Road to find that Derbyshire required seven runs from the last eighteen balls, with nine wickets in hand – but it would have been unreasonable to expect more than one miracle in an afternoon. It would be unfair to make comparisons between one of the best examples of one form of cricket, and a mediocre game in another, except that it suggested how although, or perhaps because, every aspect of T20 is contrived to produce excitement, I cannot believe it has ever produced it so intensely as that Test.

Incidentally, in a small vindication of being behind the times, my old long wave radio kept me informed of developments at Leeds at least five seconds before any of those who relied on digital means, so the first anyone knew of that last ball four would have been me punching the air and yelling ‘yes!’ (in a muted way, of course, as I would not have wanted to spoil the enjoyment of any hardcore T20 enthusiasts nearby).

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, Northampton, County Championship, 19th August 2019 (Day 2 only)

Leicestershire – barring a sequence of events more extraordinary than those at Headingley – will now progress no further in the T20, to add to a poor performance in the RL50 and a so far undistinguished series of results in the Championship, but, to their credit, they have yet to show signs of going to pieces in the way that sides sometimes do in the closing stages of the season. However, I detected signs of it when I caught the second day (there wasn’t much of a third day) of Worcestershire’s ten wicket defeat by Northamptonshire at Wantage Road.

When Worcestershire won by an innings at Grace Road in our first home game of the season, it confirmed the view of most good judges (as well as mine) that they were likely candidates for a swift re-entry to Division One. At the time of writing, they are five points above Leicestershire and now look more likely to pip us to the wooden spoon, having lost six games. Since Daryl Mitchell’s double century in Leicester, his runs have all but dried up, causing the same perplexity at New Road that the Nile drying up might have provoked in Ancient Egypt. Neither Riki Wessels nor Callum Ferguson (both new acquisitions) have contributed many to compensate, nor, with Kohler-Cadmore and Clarke gone, have their younger, home-grown batsmen.

The first day (which I missed) epitomised their problem : at one point they had been reduced to 58-7, with six of their top seven batsmen having made nine runs between them, and only recovered to make 186 thanks to a half century from Captain Joe Leach and some chippings-in from the other bowlers. One source of hope was the return of Moeen Ali, back in his old position at no. 3, who had made a (by all accounts) fallible-looking 42. Josh Tongue had also achieved a minor victory by forcing nightwatchman Buck to retire after a blow to the head : unfortunately, the bowler had also strained his side, which is set to keep him out for the rest of the season.

Because Buck had been concussed, Northants were able to substitute him with Blessing Muzarabani, whereas Worcestershire had to do without a bowler, putting them at a serious disadvantage. The medical logic of concussion replacements may be impeccable, but the sporting logic strikes me as questionable, and I wonder whether, if something similar happened in a Test, it would lead to calls for substitutions to be permitted for injuries of any kind.

With Northamptonshire beginning what promised to be a very hot day on 140-3, on a slow pitch, the three surviving seamers might have been forgiven for their seeming lack of enthusiasm for the task, which diminished further as Alex Wakely and Dwaine Pretorius put on another 120 before lunch. Wakely completed his first century of the season, to general rejoicing : Pretorius (who sounds like the result of a random Afrikaaner generator) was signed to play in the T20 but has stepped in as Northants’ third overseas player of the season (with a fourth – Kemar Roach – lined up to replace him). His innings of 111 was as good an example of T20-style batting as anything I saw at Grace Road, at one point hitting Moeen Ali (I think) out of the ground. To add to Moeen’s tribulations, Leach had dropped a simple catch off his bowling when Pretorius had been on 25.

Moeen had a trying day, bowling long spells (nearly forty overs in all) from the Lynn Wilson end, to no great effect : although there were a few full tosses, he did not exactly bowl badly, but he seemed, as out of form players often do, that he was performing an imitation of himself when in form. Moeen sometimes gives the impression that he regards his career as a front-line Test spinner as the result of some enchantment by a benign djinn : now that enchantment seems to have worn off, and he was back where he expects to be, on a county ground, making aesthete-pleasing runs at no. 3, and filling in uncomplainingly, as required, with the ball.

There was a curious incident, shortly before tea, when Moeen lengthened his run a little, the wicket-keeper (unnecessarily) stood back, and he bowled at medium pace. The batsman, Saif Zaib, concealing his surprise well, slog-swept (roughly) the first two balls, pitched on leg stump, to the boundary. Trying a different approach, Moeen bowled a wide outside off-stump, followed by three more which the batsman left, in the expectation that they would be called wide, but the Umpire erred on the side of mercy to the bowler. This experiment was soon discontinued. Late on, one delivery at last spun sharply and trapped Hutton LBW, followed shortly by two more tail-end wickets to provide some measurable recompense for his 39 overs, and the 126 runs he had conceded.

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes – or it prospers ; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two – is gone.

In their second innings, Worcestershire again collapsed, though less dramatically, and were defeated by ten wickets. It will be a relief to them (but not to me) that the Championship season is on the threshold of its final month.

Wantage Road

Leavers and Remainers (Rhapsody in Torremolinos)

Some new writing on ‘Deep Waters, Long Shadows’ : not about cricket, and only obliquely about ‘Brexit’.

Deep Waters, Long Shadows

At the Lent Assizes in Northampton in 1827, William S*****, aged 26, was convicted of sheep-stealing and sentenced to death, later commuted to transportation for life. A petition for clemency was presented on his behalf :

‘1 collective petition (3 people, William Brotherhood, minister; John Kein and Thomas Harris, the prisoner’s employers) on behalf of William S*****, silk weaver convicted at the Northampton Lent Assizes in 1827 for sheep stealing. Grounds for clemency: the prisoner’s first offence, of previous good character, has been driven to crime by unemployment, the prisoner’s wife is pregnant and dependent on him for support.’

The petition was rejected on the 4th May. On 26th May, he was moved to a prison hulk in Portsmouth, and on 13th August was one of 200 prisoners who sailed for Australia on the Asia,
asia01

arriving in Sydney on 28th March 1828.

Given the habit of re-using the…

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Who Wished there to be a Seat

Some new writing on ‘Deep Waters, Long Shadows’, which is not about cricket, or anything else in particular …

Deep Waters, Long Shadows

From the notebooks of Nicholas Faxton

Having determined to give up smoking, some instinct drove me to take long walks ; not so much to distract my body from cravings, which I hoped to keep at bay with the aid of various gums, lozenges and vapours, as to provide some occupation for my wandering mind. I also, perhaps, anticipated that I might enjoy the first benefits of my new regime, by being able to breathe more freely and deeply, or, with my senses newly cleansed, be pleasingly assailed by the scent of any late-flowering blooms I might encounter on my wanderings (I had begun my programme of abstinence in early October).

It was not the first time that I had walked the route I chose (in the days when I was fully occupied during the week, a truncated version of it had made for a pleasant early Sunday morning stroll…

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From Utopia to Atopia : Milton Keynes and Magna Park

A new post on ‘Deep Waters, Long Shadows’ (which has nothing to do with cricket).

Deep Waters, Long Shadows

IMG_20170124_101557 (2)“What is missing in the American landscape is not so much the absence of historical memories, as the romantic illusion has it, as the fact that no hand has left a trace in it. This relates not merely to the absence of farm-fields, the stubbly and often tiny scrub-like forests, but above all the streets. … They bear no imprint. Because they know no traces of shoes or wheels, no gentle footpaths along their edge as a transition to the vegetation, no side-paths into the valley below, they lack that which is mild, softened, rounded in things, on which hands or their immediate tools have worked. It is as if no-one had combed the landscape’s hair. It is disconsolate and inconsolable. This corresponds to the manner of its perception. For what the hurrying eye has merely viewed from the car cannot be retained, and the latter sinks as tracklessly, as…

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Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 2)

In the first post I offered a broad definition of “fixing”  as being “any sporting contest in which all, or any, of the outcomes of the game have been decided in advance, rather than arising naturally from the efforts of the contestants to win the match”.  I went on to identify nine types of “fix” that might fit that definition, which I called :

1. The fix proper (fixing the result)

2. The coercive fix (fixing because of outside interference)

3. The spot-fix (fixing particular incidents)

4. The tactical fix (fixing by underperforming in the hope of future advantage)

5. The tacitly accepted fix (“sports entertainment”)

6. The mutually agreed demi-fix (where a result is contrived, but not a specific result)

7. The fix of no significance (exhibition matches)

8. The professional fix (ensuring certain outcomes in the interest of entertainment)

9. The regulatory fix (being forced to ensure certain outcomes because of the playing regulations)

I suggested that all of these fixes attract some disapproval, in roughly decreasing order. However, although all fit my broad definition, only two (1 and 3) are what are usually referred to as “match-fixing”, in the sense of a “cancer” that, if left untreated, is supposed to be have the power to kill the game. Of the others :

2 is a special case, in that the blame for it attaches to agencies outside sport, and those inside sport are seen as victims, rather than perpetrators. The problem is one of many, and one of the least important, associated with corrupt or authoritarian governments and the fix is seen as an externally inflicted injury to sport, rather than an internal cancer.

4 is certainly usually condemned, but, because it is an attempt to achieve an ultimate advantage by manipulating the rules of a competition, it is seen as a form of cheating, or gamesmanship, contrary to the spirit of the game, but not, in itself, an offence against sport, in the sense that deliberately losing would be, or placing personal financial advantage above winning.

6 (although it, in many respects, resembles 4) is generally approved of, because it is seen as a legitimate tactic in pursuit of victory, and as being in the interests of the spectators (it is intended to produce an interesting finish). Only “purists” object, and their remedy lies in altering the rules of the competition, rather than punishing the perpetrators.

5 and 7 are essentially the same type of fix, except that, in sports which are classified as “sports entertainment”, there is no expectation that any contest should be anything other than scripted, whereas exhibition games and charity matches in cricket and football are generally seen as less serious forms of sports which are normally genuine. Aficionados of professional wrestling would be disappointed by a fair contest, whereas fans of football and cricket expect it to be the norm, to be departed from only in exceptional circumstances.

8 and 9 I shall return to in a moment.

So, to return to the original definition, there seem to be two additional elements that need to be added when defining the pernicious, “cancerous” form of match-fixing:

1. There must be an element of deception. This excludes 4 (where there is usually little attempt to disguise the fix), 6 and 7 (where the fixing is open) and 5 (where the performers and audience collude in a suspension of disbelief).

2. The motive must be personal self-interest, rather than legitimate sporting self-interest (trying to win the game or competition), or the interest of the crowd in seeing an entertaining contest. Before his motive was revealed, Hanse Cronje was widely applauded for making a “sporting declaration” against England, and the crowd would have seen the same game whatever his motivation.

So, to amend the definition, let us say that match-fixing is “any sporting contest in which all, or any, of the outcomes of the game have been decided in advance, rather than arising naturally from the efforts of the contestants to win the match, without the audience being aware of it, and for reasons of personal self-interest.”

Now, let us return to type no. 8, and ask whether it fits the new definition. The point is not here whether match-fixing of the first and third types are more common in T20 tournaments – though there is considerable evidence that they are – but whether the hypothetical situation I describe (in which a bowler is persuaded to bowl hittable deliveries to a star batsman in the interests of entertainment) would be objected to as match-fixing in the “cancerous” sense.

The first question is whether the audience would be aware that it was happening, to which the answer is, I think, that they probably would not. Even experienced cricket-watchers find it hard to distinguish deliberate ineptitude from the unfeigned variety, although I suspect ex-professionals are much better able to detect the signs. As it is the express intention of, for instance, the ECB that T20 is designed to attract an audience who would not otherwise be interested in cricket, it is even less likely that they would be able to do so. In any case, as I have suggested in describing the ninth type of fix, the playing conditions in T20 tournaments virtually compel the bowler to serve up hittable bowling, without the need for any covert fixing.

The second question is harder to answer. The bowler, in our hypothetical situation, might well argue that it is not only in his personal interests to obey the instructions of his employer, but in the interests of the crowd and the good of the game in general, in that a high scoring game, with plenty of spectacular batting, is what the crowds will pay to see. He might well also argue that, as a professional, there is no real difference between playing well for money and playing badly for money, if that is what is required of him.

There is, I think, another question, which is whether the audience, particularly the new, hypothetical, one that the ECB is pursuing would care if they knew that what they were watching was fixed (or half-fixed, like a half-baked baguette), or whether they would embrace the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach of professional wrestling. Would the perpetrators, in short, plead not guilty to match-fixing proper by pleading to the fifth type of fixing, and admitting that what they were purveying was “sports entertainment”?

Given that the WWE was explicitly stated to be a model for the new T20 competition when I attended an ECB presentation on the subject at the Leicestershire Members’ Forum last Autumn (you can read my account of that here), and this slightly troubling exchange from 2012 (in fairness, I am not sure that Dagnall was aware of the technical meaning of “sports entertainment”)

the answer, from the more go-ahead factions within the game, would appear to be “yes”, or, more precisely, “so what?” or “who cares?”.

“So what?” is always a hard argument to counter, but I will attempt, in the third (and, I hope) final post in this series, to explain why anyone who genuinely cares about sport (or cares about genuine sports) should care about match-fixing, and why it is incongruous, at best, to put so much effort into rooting out one type of fixing, while enthusiastically embracing another, more insidious, form of it, by re-examining the commonly expressed opinion that “you have to be able to believe that what you are seeing is real”.

 

Faced with Porphiry

The first post on the new blog. Warning : contains no cricket at all.

Deep Waters, Long Shadows

Luton Airport Parkway to Harpenden: a walk with Nicholas Faxton.

For a long time, not long ago (from February 2002 to March 2016), I used to wake early. I would leave the house at 6.30 and, by 7.40 approximately, I would be passing through Luton Airport Parkway railway station. In the afternoon, I would leave work early, and, by 5.40 approximately, I would be approaching the same station from the other direction. As I say, I did this every day, five days a week (barring holidays), for a little over fourteen years.

By being in the same place at the same time over such a long period of time (something that would, otherwise, only be experienced by a participant in a scientific experiment, or an art project of some kind), I could observe the landscape changing, in two ways. On the one hand, there were temporal, lateral changes : new buildings…

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