Old Mother Cricket and Old Father Time

(Trigger warning – contains mild gender stereotyping.)

Leicestershire v Northamptonshire, Grace Road, County Championship, 8-11 May 2016

I mentioned in the last post that I had picked up a copy of Alan Gibson’s ‘Growing Up with Cricket’ in the Supporters’ Club bookshop at Wantage Road the last time I was there.  None of Gibson’s books show him at his best (most of his genius was wasted on journalism) and this one was written under particularly unhappy circumstances, but it has its happier moments, amongst them a description of his attempts, as a child, to find a game that would allow him to generate a precise facsimile of a game of professional cricket by himself in his living room.

He experimented with  various combinations of toy soldiers, spinning discs, cards and pencils, before arriving at an adapted version of a card-based game called ‘Stumpz‘, that was apparently popular in the 1930s.

“I kept at this for years, constantly introducing new subtleties, and in the end managed to produce a game which, I think, set down ball by ball in a scorebook, could not be distinguished from a real one.  It was, naturally, completely unmarketable, but it comforted me especially during the early years of war, when so little cricket was going on …

Interruptions from the weather solved themselves.  In  a small house it was not often possible to keep my apparatus, which covered a medium-sized table, intact between sessions.  Mother would descend and remove it, and cards would have to be reshuffled later, and a new start made from the moment of interruption.  Mother represented the weather.

I developed a complicated system, depending chiefly on the throwing of dice, to decide a light shower, nothing more than a ten-minute break, or anything above it right up to the disaster of “match abandoned”.  She was a forbearing mother, and on the whole my table summers were bedevilled less by rain than a normal English one.”

There is something resonant and suggestive in that phrase “Mother represented the weather“.  It occurs to me that, for the “cricket family” (an often fractious, dysfunctional and, frankly, childish brood), the English weather, in many respects, does resemble a Mother.  Without it the game would not exist, and at times we bask happily, often unexpectedly, in the warmth of its approval.  On the other hand, it can, as arbitrarily and capriciously, remove that warmth and put a sudden stop to our childish pleasures.  A wise child soon learns to anticipate and navigate these variations in the emotional climate, and knows, above all, when not to push its luck.*

It is a measure of how far Leicestershire have advanced, and Northamptonshire declined,  that it is possible to say that a game that the former could, and should, have won inside two days proceeded much as expected, and even to suspect the Foxes of a degree of complacency.   On the first two days the sun shone so brightly on a notably large and festive crowd (mostly Leicestershire supporters, although Northants’ Members had been offered free admission) that our stately pleasure domes provided shade, not shelter.

By the end of the first day Leicestershire had reached 311-5, thanks to runs from Angus Robson (who has otherwise looked a little edgy this season), “Ted” Dexter (who has few obvious distinguishing characteristics, other than being very effective) and the unmistakable figure of Mark Cosgrove (no. 55), who shuffled through most of his runs as though wearing carpet slippers.

PTDC0614

The only vague threat to their equanimity had come from the ever-promising Oli Stone (who bowls with heart and pace and demonstrative gestures, but has managed barely 20 first-class appearances since his debut in 2012) ; at present, Northants’ is a “four-pronged pace attack” that would struggle to spear a soggy chip, and, with Panesar beginning to take wickets again, I should be surprised and disappointed if he were not soon called in to provide some alternative to this relentless and largely futile  seam. (I should also point out that – even without Duckett keeping wicket – they conceded a remarkable 60 extras, mostly in byes.)

On the second day Leicestershire displayed, perhaps, that element of complacency I mentioned earlier by losing their last five wickets for only 28 runs, but – no matter – because they had bowled Northants out for 151 by half past three.  Duckett, the visitors’ best hope, only made 2, and spent the rest of the day wandering about looking like a boy whose Mother had – for no reason that he could understand – locked all his action figures away in a drawer until he had tidied his bedroom.

There cannot have been a spectator in the ground who had not studied the weather forecast, or who was expecting to return on either of the last two days (when rain was predicted), and none I spoke to who could understand why Leicestershire did not enforce the follow on and – with Northamptonshire in clear disarray – stand a fine chance of having victory wrapped up by the end of play.

The only explanation I can suggest is that Leicestershire’s “management team” is from sunny South Australia, where the weather (and, for all I know, the Mothers) are – though sometimes harsh – less capricious, and where batting again (as they chose to do) might have been a more plausible strategy.  In the event, they batted on indifferently under what were already darkening skies to 132-6, before spending the last two days watching the rain fall.

I believe (I wasn’t there) that they finally made it back on to the pitch in time to bowl seven overs at Northants in failing light, the only incident of note being poor Duckett going for a second ball duck (at which point he must have felt as though his Mother had not only locked his action figures away, but accidentally hoovered up his Darth Vader).

If the weather is the Mother of English cricket, then (as any visitor to Lord’s will know) its Father is old and carries a scythe.  He may not be capricious, but stern and inflexible he most certainly is and, if he has decreed that a match is to last four days, then four days it is, and no amount of pleading “but we haven’t finished the game yet!” or “can’t we just have one more innings?” will sway him.  It is a wise child that knows its own parents, as I say, and a wise Captain that keeps an eye on the weather, and a weather eye on the time.

* I’m pleased to say that my own Mother – like Gibson’s – was nothing like this. Many are though, I ‘m told.

 

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Cricket, Proper and Improper

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

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

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

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

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

Jake Ball

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

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

Trent Bridge TV

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

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

Radcliffe Road

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

Hales forward defensive

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

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

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

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

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

Note gardener’s thumbnail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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