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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Unleash the Cricket

Members’ Forum, Grace Road, 13th October 2016

At any given time, somewhere in this country, in a conference centre, lecture hall or meeting room, a man (or woman, but in the present case a man) will be standing in front of a screen, about to deliver a presentation. He may or may not believe what he is about to say, but he knows that his audience will be, at best, suspicious, at worst hostile. His task is to persuade them to accept some proposal for change. He may believe that this change will genuinely be in the best interests of his audience, or he might know full well that it is not. He may know that he has to persuade them for the change to occur, or (more likely) that it is going to happen anyway. There may be some scope to modify the proposal, or the “consultation process” might be a complete sham.

The presentation will contain most of the following (in bullet point-style, to adopt the conventions of the genre):

  • An attempt to establish that the speaker (on behalf of the management) understands the “concerns” of the audience, that their interests are the same, that they are all on the same side, really.
  • Some threats (of the awful consequences if the proposal is not adopted).
  • The phrase “The status quo is not an option”.
  • A lot of statistics, which the audience are in no position to query, however untrue they may appear to their own experience and intuition.
  • These statistics presented as the outcome of “research”, without much explanation of the source or methodology, or opportunity to query either. The speaker to announce the results of this “research” as if he were a high priest reporting back from a session with the Delphic Oracle.
  • Reassurance that the bleak future implied by the research need not come to pass (the audience does not need to “reach for the razorblades” or “throw itself out of the window”), if only the proposal is adopted.
  • The proposal, outlined in easy-reading infographics, decorated with pictures of vibrant and diverse young people, these representing The Future.
  • Questions (to be deflected or embraced, depending on how awkward or supportive they happen to be).

Anyone who has experience of these occasions, from either side of the divide, might be forgiven for approaching another with a certain weariness, which may explain why so few turned up to last Thursday’s Members’ Forum at Grace Road (it stuck fairly faithfully to the template above). I counted roughly 35 (out of a total membership of, I would guess, 5-700), of whom I recognised about half as regular attenders at Championship matches. Other explanations for the low turnout might be that it had only been extensively publicised on the internet (which, in many cases, our members do not have, or know how to use), and that the timing and venue (Grace Road at 6.15 on a dull October evening) will have discouraged both older members who prefer not to drive into Leicester at night, and younger ones who may not have time to get there after work (or to spare on a school night). Anyone who relies on buses (as many do) would be completely stymied, as they would be unlikely to get home again.

The event had been advertised as a chance to question Colin Graves, Waseem Khan and others. In the event, Waseem (for whom I have a lot of respect, but who is unlikely to do anything to queer his pitch with the ECB), occupied a supportive-but-not-wanting-to-get-too-involved position in the front row and said nothing. Graves spoke about 15 words (of which four were “workstreams”, “stakeholders”, “going” and “forward”), then sat and observed, looking both avuncular and vaguely sinister, as though he were simultaneously sucking on a Werther’s Original and stroking a white Persian cat. I thought I caught him looking askance at my scribbling in a notebook, but perhaps it is just that his eyes follow you around the room, like the Mona Lisa. The talking and pointing was done by Gordon Hollins (the Chief Operating Officer) and Mike Fordham (who has been involved with marketing both the IPL and the BB). Both appeared personable and plausible, but then, if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have been doing their jobs.

I won’t spend too much time outlining the ECB’s case. Anyone who is at all interested in this subject will already be aware of the main points of their research from newspaper reports, and if you require more detail try looking at the ECB’s website under “Cricket Unleashed” (it even has a Powerpoint template, if you would like to make a presentation to yourself). But the gist of it is as follows:

  • All of English cricket (county, club, women’s – the lot) depends on financial support from the ECB.
  • 90% of the ECB’s revenue derives from bilateral international series (mostly from broadcasting rights). It is assumed that this will decline, leaving English cricket in a precarious position.
  • The only viable alternative revenue stream (see how I’m picking up the lingo) will come from T20 cricket.
  • Participation is in decline (apparently half of club cricketers are thinking of giving up next season – probably more if they’ve just made another duck or put their back out again).
  • The majority of those attending all forms of cricket (including T20) are male, over 45 and in social classes ABC1. When asked to choose a word to describe cricket, most 5-15 year-olds chose “boring” (their second choice was “ambivalent”, which suggests that it wasn’t a very long list).

The solution?

  • Create a new T20 tournament that will appeal to that proportion of the supposed “9.4 million” who have some interest in cricket, but do not currently attend matches.
  • This audience will be younger and more “diverse”. The ECB will be able to attract sponsorship and advertising from companies (such as soft drinks manufacturers) who aim their products at a younger audience, rather than the booze and financial services industries, which only appeal to us oldies.
  • This new competition will be “a new event and a new narrative”, a “TV orientated product” which will be marketed through non-traditional media.
  • It will be aimed at a family audience, in particular “Mums, who hold the purse strings”, looking for somewhere to take the children in the Summer holidays.
  • The marketors (yes, that is a word – they even have their own Worshipful Company) will seek to learn from the WWE and other “entertainment products”.
  • The new tournament will rejuvenate the game and protect the revenue stream that irrigates the rest of English cricket and allows it to flower.

So far, so good (or not, but plausible, at any rate). But what will the new tournament look like in practice?

  • The likely start date is 2020 (two or three years later than originally proposed). “20/20 in 2020” is, as Mike Fordham suggested, “a marketor’s dream” (and he seems to place an inordinate trust in their powers of divination).
  • The new teams will not be “franchises”, or even “city-based” (any mention of these terms from the floor prompted an immediate correction), they will be regional teams, which will attract regional support and offer the players an intermediate stage between county and international cricket.
  • The TV deal for the new competition is likely to contain some FTA broadcasts.
  • The new teams will play most of their games at a Test match ground, but may also play some at the grounds of the other counties in the region (e.g. Grace Road).
  • It will be played in a single block in August.
  • The counties will each receive £1.3 million in revenue (more for those hosting matches).

So (I think this is what interested those in the audience most), what will the new season look like? Something like this:

  • April (& May?) : the 50 over cup (a revival of the unlamented, frozen, days when the season began with the qualifying rounds of the B&H).
  • June-July : a slightly reduced T20 blast, played mostly on Friday evenings (to keep the booze’n’balti brigade happy).
  • August : the new Sunny D Supercharge plus … apparently, some kind of limited overs tournament that will include those county players unwanted by the regional sides, but also the minor counties.
  • The County Championship will, I think, be fitted into the gaps from April to July, cease in August and resume in September.
  • There will be fewer Test matches.

And so (again), what did I think? Quite a few things, as you can imagine, but thought that, for once, I would try to report the facts without too much opinionating. But, for what it’s worth, here’s a few …

  • Much depends on how far you are prepared to trust the ECB, and take what they are saying at face value. I don’t belong to the faction that sees them as evil personified (I didn’t notice any half-gnawed baby’s bones hidden under Colin Graves’ chair), and I don’t doubt that most of their officers and employees have what they conceive to be the best interests of English cricket at heart. On the other hand, if they thought the greater good of English cricket (and their careers) justified the extinction of one or two counties, or their relegation to the minor counties, I doubt they would hesitate to do so. (My objection to the ECB has never been as much to its personnel or actions as to its existence in its current over-mighty form : it was brought into being by the Counties, and, like Dr. Frankenstein, they may be starting to have second thoughts about their creation.)
  • I certainly shalln’t be watching the new T20 competition, but then, if I were planning to, the marketors would have failed : I am precisely the sort of undesirable they wish to repel. Who will is another matter, and a crucial one, given that the whole tottering edifice of English cricket appears to depend on its success. I would guess the regional teams might appeal in some regions (for instance Yorkshire), but less so in the East Midlands – most Leicester and Derby fans would only visit Trent Bridge to burn the place down (for football-related reasons). So, the future of English cricket does seem to depend rather a lot on uncovering enough of those purse-string controlling Mums.
  • I have long suspected that, if I am still watching Leicestershire and Northants in 20 years time, it will be at some level between the current Minor Counties and Division 2 of the Championship, quite possibly on a semi-professional basis and at outgrounds (and, as I suggested only last month when I visited Belper Meadows, on a purely selfish level, that would suit me well enough). The messages here were mixed : Hollins went out of his way to stress that the ECB represented all 39 counties, on the other hand that “parity of first class status is critical” and there would be no minor first-class counties. But if all goes to plan, and I find myself in August 2020 watching a Leicestershire XI playing Bedfordshire at Wardown Park, that will feel very much like the future to me.

Any questions?

I was too slow-witted to think of it at the time, but, if I had asked a question, it would have been this:

“You have referred several times to the WWE as a potential role model for your new competition, in particular for the way in which it has been successfully marketed to children. As you have admitted, the WWE is not a sport, but an “entertainment product” ; in the USA it is legally classified as “sports entertainment”, the distinction being that in “sports entertainment” the outcome of the bouts, and indeed, their entire narrative, may proceed according to a pre-determined script. Or, to put it more bluntly, the matches are all fixed. As it is largely this – the guarantee of spectacular action and an interesting narrative, however artificial – that makes it easy to market to children, is that an aspect of the WWE that you will be seeking to emulate?

And, as a supplementary question, you have made it clear that you are hoping to appeal to an audience who know very little about cricket. That being so, how can they be expected to know whether what they are watching is fixed? Would you expect them to care? Would you care?”

Answers, please, on a Powerpoint slide …

Happy Days and End Games

 

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On my first visit of the season, I complained that the inscription on the sundial in the Garden of Remembrance at the County Ground, Northampton had become illegible. I don’t know whether close to six months at Wantage Road has somehow cleansed my doors of perception, or whether they have shelled out to have it cleaned, but on my last visit I found I could read it clearly. It seems to read:

Make time, save time, while time lasts. All time is no time, when time is past.

This sounds like the sort of riddle contestants on 3-2-1 once had to solve to win a microwave oven, but, in fact, appears to have been borrowed from the 17th century monumental sculptor, Nicholas Stone. If the specifics are a little gnomic, the gist is clear : (depending on how you like your eggs) carpe diem, enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think … YOLO.

As September falls, a sense of an ending concentrates the minds of players, coaches and spectators alike, though unalike, according to their roles. Months of settling for high scoring draws (ensuring that the season will not be the kind of disaster that leads to the coach losing his job) give way to a desperate dash for results. In the previous five months of 4-day cricket at Grace and Wantage Roads I saw two results, in the last five weeks, I have seen five (two defeats and a win for Leicestershire, two wins for Northamptonshire).

For a few players, the end of the season will see their last game, some for their current club, for others anywhere or ever. The same goes for some of the crowd : we all hope to winter well, to see you next year, to have all the time in the world, but, as I was saying in the Spring, it does not do to take time for granted. And hovering at the back of our minds, at this season’s ending in particular, there skulks the baleful figure of the Angel of Death, in the shape of Colin Graves, and his plans for city-based cricket.  All time is no time, when time is past …

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, County Championship, 6-7 September 2016

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Should any of us have required a reminder of our mortality, the first day of this game had been designated as “Heart Attack Awareness Day” : praiseworthy, of course, though I found the sight of children simulating heart attacks in the outfield during the lunch interval did little to alleviate the sense of unease generated by another poor Leicestershire performance. They had gambled by preparing a green wicket against a side whose main strength looked to be its seam bowling, and who would have first use of that wicket. Not unpredictably, they were bowled out for 135 and 119 and, having allowed Sussex to recover from 156-7 to 313 (an inability to dock the tail has been a persistent problem), lost by an innings within two days. As if that were not punishment enough, the Umpires added to the insult by reporting the pitch to the ECB.

Little has gone right for Leicestershire recently ; what, precisely, has gone wrong is peculiarly hard to say, though the steep swan-dive in form has, at least, coincided with the confirmation that coach Andrew McDonald would be returning to Australia and the sudden departure of wicket-keeper and chief opposition-irritant Niall O’Brien. What goes on inside a professional cricket club is as mysterious to outsiders as what goes on inside a marriage : commentary is, at best, speculation, at worst gossip. It does appear to the outside observer, though, that the core of this side, mostly thirty-somethings of Australian or South African origin, are a rather introverted, self-sufficient group whose loyalty is (not unnaturally) to each other, rather than to Leicestershire per se, and who, without being actively unfriendly, see little need to build a rapport with outsiders.

There are also hints of a hierarchical split between the first-teamers (eight of whom have played in almost every four-day match this season) and the younger, local-ish players, reduced to the 2s and fetching and carrying (and who are gradually being shed from the staff). Zak Chappell, potentially the most talented, has been unable to bowl more than a few exploratory overs since he broke down in April, but returned against Sussex. Inevitably, given the long lay-off, his length and direction were awry (though he was quick enough to induce some balletics from Eckersley, who is nothing if not an elegant wicket-keeper). When he did finally find his range to finish the innings by clean bowling Jofra Archer, there seemed to be a marked lack of the usual back-slapping and high-fiving from his senior colleagues, and he was left out for the next game in favour of the ready-made Richard Jones. It would be a shame if he had to go elsewhere to find nurture.

Derbyshire 2nd XI v Glamorgan 2nd XI, Belper Meadows, 8th September 2016

The premature ending at Grace Road gave me a last chance to re-visit what is probably my favourite ground on the circuit, at Belper. I have tried to capture its charm in words before, but, as its appeal is largely aesthetic, it is probably best conveyed in pictures. I wondered why anyone would want to watch city-based cricket when they have the option of its De Chiroco shadows and distant prospects of the East Mill and the Derwent Valley.

(On the subject of intimations of mortality, during this match a Derbyshire batsman, completing his second run to reach 200, was struck on the head by a shy at the wicket. He lay motionless on the ground, and there was initially some concern that he was dead. Happily, it transpired that he was just having a larf (#topbantz!), but I wonder, if he had been killed instantly while out of his ground, but his momentum had carried his lifelless body over the crease, would the run have stood? Is it enough for the batsman’s body to complete the run, or does he need to be present in spirit? A question for Ask the Umpire, perhaps, or possibly a theologian.)

Leicestershire Over 50s v Essex Over 50s, Kibworth, 11h September 2016

The final of the Over 50s 50/50 Cup (I don’t think the Over 60s play 60 overs) saw the first of this season’s happy endings. Leicestershire (the underdogs) were struggling (as the shadows lengthened) at 108-9, in reply to Essex’s 167, when the last man arrived at the crease. He made the bulk of the runs to take us to victory, and, as darkness fell, he was sprayed with Champagne by his team-mates, and presented with the Man of the Match Award by the increasingly Tudor Mike Gatting. This is what is usually described as a “fairytale ending”, or “like something out of a Boy’s Own Comic” ; we instinctively mistrust them as too neat, too satisfying, as, in fiction, they would be. Which is why it matters that it actually happened, and that we can believe our eyes.

Derbyshire v Leicestershire, AAA Arena Derby, 12th September 2016

Of all the counties I know well, I’d say Derbyshire has the most attractive grounds – apart from Belper, there is Chesterfield, Buxton, Duffield and, no doubt, many more I have yet to visit. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the County choose to play all but one of their home games at the AAA Arena, which is rapidly transforming itself into one of the ugliest. It has long suffered from being surrounded by a system of ringroads that makes it perilous to approach and which keeps up a whooshing, grumbling, drone in the background, and is famously windswept. It used to have redeeming features, though, such as a well-stocked secondhand bookshop, decent ice-cream, and deckchairs rather than fixed seating around much of the boundary. Unfortunately, this section was cordoned off in connection with the building of a new media centre, which seems designed to complete the transformation from a cricket ground to a collection of multi-use industrial units (with a Travelodge looming over it all). I am not unaware of the commercial imperatives that lie behind this (and that something of the sort threatens at Grace Road), but the thought does occur that, if this is the future for the smaller counties, then a threatened alternative future of playing minor counties at, for instance, Belper, might well be preferable.

It didn’t help that the weather was dull, the crowd glum (as well they might, not having won a match all season), and it cost £18.00 to get in. On the field, it was another frustrating day for Leicestershire, who having ground Derbyshire down to 177-6, as usual allowed 19-year old wicket-keeper Harvey Hosein (83*) to drag the innings out to 307. Both sides looked weary, as though they felt that the season had gone on for too long, and as the gloaming descended in the late afternoon, I began to feel the same way. The most interesting feature of the day was that one of the home supporters had brought along a pet tortoise in a cardboard box, which was allowed to graze just outside the boundary fence ; on the whole I found watching that more entertaining than what was going on inside it.

Northamptonshire v Gloucestershire, County Ground, 12-15 September 2016

Moving from Derby to Northampton was to move from gloom into bright light (once the early mist had burned off). Since their T20 victory, Northamptonshire have been sealed in a golden bubble of happiness, on a winning streak where every gamble they take pays off, where they only have to hope for something to make it happen, much as it must seem to their talisman Duckett (who, while Leicester and Derby had been toiling, had knocked off 208 in a victory over Kent). In this match he could only manage a 70, mostly backhand-smashed off Gloucestershire’s quartet of season-weary back-of-a-length merchants, though he was presented with the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year Award (not to mention being called up by England).

On the final day, Gloucestershire had been set 441 to win. At 286-5 with time shortening, logic suggested a draw, but dream logic demanded that Northants should bowl them out, and that Ben Sanderson (a plucked-from-obscurity fairy story in himself), should take eight wickets to do it. After that it was beers on the balcony, and precious, sweaty, kit flung over it to the faithful, who lingered as long at the ground as they decently could. Make time, save time, while time lasts …

Northamptonshire’s Members too, seem to be locked in a golden bubble of happiness, to the extent that they have allowed themselves to be persuaded to surrender control of the club to a “group of investors” (I voted against this). The current investors appear to be amiable and well-intentioned, and, in the short-term, the future may well appear bright. In the longer term, though, when those investors grow old, or need some cash, the ex-Members may discover that it is harder to regain control of a club than to surrender it, at least until it goes bust (as the supporters of more than local football club will testify).

On the other hand, the long term is too far ahead to look for some of the older Members. As I heard one say “Oh, well. There’ll be cricket here next year … and maybe the year after”. Carpe diem … and let the future look after itself.

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, Grace Road, 20-22 September 2016

And so to the end, and a bitter end it looked to be, when Leicestershire were bowled out for 96 on the first morning (on what Andrew McDonald described as one of the worst days of first-class cricket he had ever seen). I won’t bore you with what led them to this position, but Gloucestershire found themselves, at lunch on the third day, needing 35 to win with 6 wickets in hand. There followed a fairytale ending, of the kind in which the big bad wolves (in the shape of Clint McKay and Charlie Shreck) gobble up the little piggies, as they lost those six wickets for ten runs, to give Leicestershire their first home win since 2012. It somehow happened too quickly to quite take in, and, after a brief explosion of disbelief and relief, I was left with the realisation that, after close to six months, and God knows how many thousands of words, it was all over, finished, gone, and I could think of nothing to say about it at all.

All time is no time, when time is past …

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Mildly Surprised by Joy

Northamptonshire v Glamorgan, County Ground Northampton, County Championship, 31st August-3rd September 2016

I don’t want to say I told you so …” is not a phrase that is often sincerely meant.  Where cricket is concerned, though, it has an ambiguous force.  On the one hand, it is only human to take pleasure in being able, retrospectively, to prove one’s perspicacity : on the other, predictability is a notorious kill-joy.

It depends a little, of course, on the nature of the prediction.  If I had predicted, for instance, at the beginning of the 2013 season, that Leicestershire would not win another Championship game until 2015, it would have been cold comfort to have been proved right. Though there are some (particularly at Northampton) who, perversely, seem to take the opposite view, we generally prefer our optimistic prophecies to come true, and our more gloomy prognostications to be refuted.

I would, for instance, have expected this to be a predictable game, but I am delighted to say that I would have been quite wrong.  I predicted early in the season that Northamptonshire would continue to produce dead, flat wickets and that most of their home games would be high-scoring draws, and I have been proved correct : all but one have been drawn.  I also predicted that, if they wanted to win games, their best hope would be to return to their strategy of the 1950s, prepare turning pitches, and play at least two of their four spinners (this more a pious hope than a prediction).

Until the last ball before lunch, the match proceeded predictably enough.  Northants were on 140-0, with Ben Duckett on 80 (and it is a sign of what an extraordinary player Duckett has become that I can describe making close to a century before lunch as predictable).  He then tried to sweep a very full ball from a debutant, part-time off-spinner called Carlson off middle-and-leg, missed, and was bowled.  This seemed likely to be only a temporary, if disappointing, interruption to their expected progress to a large total. In the afternoon, however, Carlson, who looked to be flighting the ball quite nicely, took 5 (mostly lower order) wickets for 25, and Owen Morgan, another inexperienced spinner, chipped in with 2-37, to dismiss Northants for 269.

This low total was dismissed as a predictable consequence of a hangover from the T20 victory and a depleted batting line-up, and Carlson’s figures as an amusing novelty. By lunch on the second day, however, Rob Keogh, generally seen as a batsman who bowls a bit, had taken 9-52 (the best bowling figures by a living Northamptonshire bowler) and Glamorgan were all out for 124.  So hapless had the batsmen appeared that anxiety grew about a visit from the Pitch Inspector, so, at lunch time, most of the crowd wandered out to inspect it for themselves.

What they found was a pitch that was bare of grass, rutted where batsmen had scratched their marks, scuffed a little by bowlers’ footmarks (particularly the left-armer Wagg), but hard and solid looking (I didn’t dare poke it), and devoid of cracks. It was precisely the kind of wicket that you would hope to see in August, when spinners traditionally came into their own, but far too seldom do now. Still, however, the shadow of the Pitch Inspector and a points deduction hung over the ground, as Duckett and Newton walked out to bat.

Within an over or two, the shadow dispersed, along with the field, which soon came to resemble the closing overs of a Gillette Cup match in the days before fielding restrictions. It helped that Carlson (whose best day may already be behind him) bowled two full tosses to Duckett in his first over, both of which ended up in the groundsman’s hut (D’Oliveira had successfully employed the same tactic to dismiss him earlier in the season, but I don’t think Carlson was doing it deliberately). Duckett went on to make 50 off 30 balls and, in the course of a rare, golden afternoon, 185 off 159 balls, before a tired shot saw him return to a standing ovation and a pair of green wellingtons (whose meaning was obscure) balanced on the dressing room balcony.

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On the third day Glamorgan, chasing a fanciful 451, again disintegrated (unlike the pitch), to Keogh (who took 4-73) and the precise, dandified left armers of Graeme White (6-44), both bowling with the rare luxury of a packed close field.

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Glamorgan only slightly exceeded their first innings total, making 132, and were beaten by 318 runs, shortly before tea. In the course of the match Glamorgan had made 256 runs, Duckett 265. 31 of the 37 wickets to fall had fallen to spin, including all 20 of Glamorgan’s. Keogh finished with 13 wickets, and White 7.

To repeat myself, there was nothing freakishly venomous about this pitch, it was simply one that offered the spinners the help that they would once have taken as their due at this stage of this season (and in April at Northampton, if dear old Claude Woolley was on good form). If proper pitches like this became commonplace again, then only proper batsmen (or batsmen who play spin properly), like Duckett, would be able to make runs, and the flat track, “big” bat bullies would have to learn to adapt, to become better-rounded players.

Players like Keogh would have the incentive to become spinners who bat a bit, rather than vice-versa. Specialists like White might find themselves with a regular red ball gig, and a chance to express their full range of talents, rather than being reduced to mere, miserly, dot ball merchants in the T20. Young bowlers, whose careers are currently deformed (like that of Briggs), or at risk of being snuffed out altogether (like Riley’s), would stand a chance of reaching their potential peaks. England would, when preparing a squad to tour India, know who could play spin, and who was best capable of bowling it. They might even feel the need to employ a specialist wicket-keeper (such as David Murphy, whose swift and sure glovework played a significant part in White and Keogh’s success).

If all, or any, of that comes to pass, I shall be very pleasantly surprised. I shall also, unashamedly, take great pleasure in saying “I told you so”.

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I’m sure Claude Woolley never drove one of these

 

The Business End of a Squeaky Bum

Leicestershire v Essex, Grace Road, County Championship, Thursday 25th August 2016

 

 

There are various ways of approaching the end of a season. Cardus, amongst other Paterian elegancies, wrote of it “August finds the game, like the sun itself, on the wane.  Now the sands are running out every evening as the match moves towards its close in yellow light; autumnal colours darken play at this time of the year; cricketers are getting weary in limb, and even the spirit has lost the first rapture.”  Football managers prefer the more prosaic term”business end“, or even the regrettably graphic “squeaky bum time“.

Cardus was able to contemplate the pathos of the dying fall in peace because he was writing about the period between the wars when there was only one Division, and the Counties knew their place.  Yorkshire would usually be Champions (12 times between 1919 and 1939), and always finished in the top five.  The other five of the “Big Six” – Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Middlesex and Kent – would finish in the top half of the table (only once, three, three, six times and twice respectively did they fail to do so) : Northamptonshire, Glamorgan, Leicestershire, Somerset and Worcestershire would occupy the lowest rungs of the ladder.

After the War, as the rules regarding qualification were relaxed, the ancien regime began to totter, and, after the introduction of overseas players, mere anarchy was loosed upon the Championship : Yorkshire frequently finished in the bottom five, and even Leicestershire won the title four times***. This situation could not be allowed to continue, and the tendency, since the introduction of two divisions, has been for a gradual slide towards the segregation of the “Big Six” (with Warwickshire replacing Kent) in Division 1 (plus Durham and one or two anomalies, such as Somerset and Sussex) from the lesser Counties, who are confined to the lower Division.  Such is progress.

The two main arguments in favour of this division are as outlined (by no means for the first time – they have been around since the nineteenth century) by Roy Webber in 1958.* The first is that it would “be of benefit in finding a better strain of county cricketer” ; the second is that it “would undoubtedly keep interest high right through to the end of the season … I imagine that we would have “house full” signs if, say, Worcestershire and Leicestershire were playing each other in the last match of the season with promotion to Division One at stake”. The first is an argument for another time, but I am doubtful whether the second has worked out quite as Webber anticipated.

Relegation, it is true, is feared by the bigger counties (particularly by their coaches, who usually get the sack). On the other hand, they can reasonably count on being promoted again, if not at the first attempt, then the second. For the smaller clubs, the brief elation of promotion is usually followed by a season of humiliation and immediate relegation (as Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and – although they managed to hang on for a second season – Worcestershire have recently found out). Mike Newell (the coach of Nottinghamshire, who look likely to be relegated) may be worried about his future, but those of the smaller counties still in contention for promotion may equally be feeling some ambivalence about theirs.

Although it is also not impossible that the scenario envisaged by Webber (of a climactic do-or-die shoot out) might happen (Essex and Kent, who, at the time of writing, are first and second, play each other in the last round of matches), the complexity of the points scoring system and the glacial speed at which things happen in Championship cricket militate against it. It is more likely, that Essex -say – will be promoted if they take two bonus points from their last match, unless Sussex take maximum points from theirs (and, of course, if the rain doesn’t make the decision for them).

All of which is a preamble to my account of last week’s game against Essex, and some attempt to compensate for the fact that I missed most of it, due to family commitments. Essex began the match in first place, Leicestershire in second. If Leicestershire had won, they would have been in serious contention for promotion ; if they drew, it would still have been possible ; if, as actually happened, they lost by an innings within three days, then that hope would be reduced to a mere “mathematical possibility”.

There have been various points throughout the season, which I have previously noted, where Leicestershire have failed to press home their advantage (not enforcing the follow on at home against Northants being the most glaring), but the final, fatal, one seems to have occurred on the second day. Leicestershire made 238 (thanks, largely, to Cosgrove, who has been huge this season). Our secret weapon, our midget submarine, our V2, Dieter Klein, soon had Essex “reeling” at 68-5 (his four wickets included Alistair Cook, yorked for 4), but, in the absence of Clint McKay (or a spinner) to deliver a knock-out blow, they soon stopped reeling, and pulled themselves together enough to make 368-8  by the close of play.

The weather for the third day looked promising, with heavy showers forecast all afternoon, but, in the event, it proved to be the kind of day – low cloud, some overnight rain to freshen the pitch – on which you would least fancy your chances against the side with three of the top six wicket-takers in Division 2 (Napier, Porter and Bopara), and the leader in the bowling averages (the – unfortunately – evergreen ex-Fox David Masters).**

But we tried, we really did. With the score on 53-2, and some light drizzle in the air, Mark Cosgrove gave a masterclass in time wasting, apparently suffering, at the same time, an attack of restless leg syndrome that compelled him to wander out to square leg between every ball, and some kind of obsessive syndrome that meant he had to remove every speck of dirt from the wicket before he could face the next delivery. We in the stands did our bit : we opened umbrellas, looked mournfully to the skies, shook our heads, held out our palms, took shelter from the rain (one of the player’s mothers gave a particularly convincing performance, I thought). We won a brief respite of half an hour or so, but it was no use and – as I have said – the innings defeat arrived shortly after tea.

So that is it, I suppose. There are still three games to play : Leicestershire could finish anywhere between second and, not impossibly, last in the table, but I now feel I can return to my contemplation of the dying fall in peace.  There was little drama, no displays of wild emotion, no-one burst into tears (of joy or despair), and there were no squeaky bums in evidence (though, thanks to the wet seats, there were – topically – a few soggy bottoms).

I was, by the way, impressed by what I saw of Alastair Cook ; not on the pitch (where his contribution this season has been significant for Essex), but by his friendly relationship with the visiting supporters, and his patient dealings with various autograph-hunters and selfie-seekers, some senescent, some juvenile : one young Indian boy (wearing a Union Jack t-shirt) seemed particularly overjoyed to have had a picture taken with him.

Late on in the afternoon he had evidently been called away on some important business (which turned out to be about the tour to Bangladesh).  He had just packed away his kit in his (quite modest) 4×4, and started his engine, when a steward approached with a Mother and child in tow. He turned the engine off again, dismounted, and submitted good-humouredly to another lengthy photo-session.  He didn’t really have to do this, and (however awkward his press conferences might be), I was impressed.

* ‘The County Cricket Championship’ : Sportsman’s Book Club, 1958.

** Precisely the sort of “typically English seamers“, of course, that the ECB is determined to discourage. We shall endure.

*** Wishful thinking. Actually three times.

Boofo The Bear : Are Australia Winning The Propaganda War?

More repeats, I’m afraid. Well, it is the Summer and I’m hoping to make up for it with a storming Autumn schedule.

This is from August 2013, when I saw Australia play England Lions at Northampton. By now Root (who we saw playing for the Lions against New Zealand in the last repeat) had moved up into the senior team, but Moeen and Ballance played and scored (though I didn’t see fit to mention them) a 60-ish and a century batting at 3 and 6 respectively. Moeen looked a little jumpy against Starc and I’m afraid I think I left before Ballance had really got into his stride. Although England used 5 bowlers, Moeen didn’t bowl any of them (Kerrigan was the spinner). For what it’s worth I still think Lees is the best long-term bet available to England as an opener, and would have played him in the current series, if only because he wouldn’t have scored fewer runs than Lyth and might have scored a few psychological victories that would stand him in good stead in the future.

The general thrust of the piece – that Australia, if not exactly little lost lambs, were no longer the big bad wolves – might have read oddly the following Winter, but perhaps less so now. And, although this might not have been such a popular opinion at the time, I’m not sorry to see the back of England as a grim, implacable winning machine.

The Crimson Rambler

(Once again I’ve been too busy watching County Cricket to find the time to write about it, so I’m afraid the monthly summary of the games I’ve seen may well have to be extended to some kind of seasonal review.)

Instead, here is a vignette from the game at Northampton between the England Lions and Australia I attended on Friday, which illustrates, I think, the curious way in which the Australians seem to be repositioning themselves as the good guys in the current Ashes series.

The last time I saw Australia play live was at Leicester at the beginning of the 2005 tour (when a young Chris Rogers, confusingly, scored a double hundred for Leicestershire).  The atmosphere was confrontational and the mood, frankly, verged on the ugly.  The Barmies were out in force, handing out songsheets, full of unamusing stuff about McGrath taking it up the arse and so forth. …

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Another Time : I Saw Joe Root In His Prime

I don’t seem to have managed to say anything much about the New Zealanders this time around (in spite of having seen them twice), so here is “another chance to read” what I had to say about them last time around (in May 2013) and, more specifically, about Joe Root’s performance against them for the England Lions. I can’t claim any particular prescience in highlighting Root’s talent (though I suppose I was “ahead of the curve” in complaining about the heavy-handedness of the ECB). It is interesting to note, though, that, of that Lions side, he is the only one to have established themselves as an England regular (whither Toby Roland-Jones? Chris Wright?). James Taylor was not, of course, taken to India or Australia and might well still consider himself ill-used.

The Crimson Rambler

Root and Carberry

Derbyshire v New Zealand, Derby, 6th May & England  Lions v New Zealand, Grace Road, 10-11 May 2013

Last week I took the opportunity to have a couple of looks at the New Zealand tourists, as they prepared for the coming Test series with one game against Derbyshire (effectively a sort of Derbyshire 1 1/2 XI) and another against England Lions (pretty much the England 2nd XI).  I saw very little of New Zealand’s batting, but I’d say collectively their four seamers (Boult, Southee, Wagner and Bracewell) would make a very useful English County attack who shouldn’t really trouble a Test side – unless they happened to be playing in England in May, that is.

Before it became fashionable to insult Grace Road, the done thing was to complain about the County Ground in Northampton and, before that, it was usually Derby.  Although this piece of publicity material is a…

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