Lightness and Shades

Ladybird women's cricket

England Women (177) lost to Australia Women (178-8), ODI, Grace Road, 2nd July 2019

Teams of women still come from Australia to play matches, but nowadays they also play at less important grounds, such as Grace Road. This, the first of two one-day internationals against Australia there, was preceded by a game against the West Indies : I should have liked to watch all three, had they not been that perpetual bugbear of mine, day-night games. For once, the weather was pleasant enough to compensate for the additional expense and inconvenience, and I shall remember the afternoon into evening as a fleeting glimpse of light in what has otherwise seemed a dim-lit season.

Beyond the summer night on the river aspect, there is a quality of physical lightness about women’s cricket : a relief from the bang bang boys – bang-it-in seamers, bish bosh batting and pumped-up boundary acrobats crashing into the advertising hoardings. The women (some of them anyway) can seem to flicker to and fro. I also detected an infectious lightness of spirit.

By comparison with the men’s Ashes, the burdens of expectation and history seem to weigh less heavily on the players. If the English men were to be beaten as comprehensively by Australia as the women have been, a ton of bricks would seem feathery, compared to the opprobrium that would descend on their heads. Albeit the game at Grace Road was only the first of the series, no-one, not even the players, seemed to mind too much that the performance had been moderate, and the result a defeat : for all involved, it is still, perhaps, enough simply to be there, to see, or be, women being paid for playing in front of a reasonable crowd (of, I’d guess, about 700), on the television, still basking in the sunlight of official approval.

I sensed, though, a slight dip in mood as England lost their first four wickets in the first five overs, with the score only 19, perhaps as much because it meant the match might end before the expected late afternoon influx of spectators could arrive (and, for once, they did arrive, many of them after-schoolers), as because England might lose. The sharpest dip came when opener Tammy Beaumont, who had promised a Roy-style opening salvo with a trio of fours, chopped an attempted cut on to her stumps.

With a fifth wicket lost on 44 (to an LBW decision which the replay on the big screen tactlessly suggested had hit the glove), England made the best of a bad job by switching to the slow lane : Natalie Sciver, batting less adventurously than I remember from the World Cup, made the top score of 64 ; Sophie Ecclestone, with the end of the innings nigh, hit five fours in her 27. I was doubtful whether the total of 177 was a good score or not, but it looked sufficient for the game to extend into the evening, which was good enough.

Having yet to adjust fully to the customs of the women’s game, I half expected Australia to launch a furious assault, with the intention of finishing the game off quickly, thus establishing psychological dominance for the series. Instead, they chose to motor along at comfortably, but not dramatically, above the required rate, shedding a wicket from time to time, like sweet wrappers. Arriving at their destination ahead of schedule, with 27 required from the last 16 overs and, three wickets remaining, Jess Jonassen and Delissa Kimmince (who I think shares her name with Lidl’s range of textured vegetable protein) killed their speed further, almost literally getting them in singles, at the rate of one an over.

Ten overs later, with nine runs required, Jonassen departed to an inexplicable hoick : Kimmince, deciding that valour was now the better part of discretion, struck a four over mid-wicket. With exactly five required, veteran seamer Katharine Brunt obligingly bowled five wides down the leg-side to gift Australia the game. If James Anderson were to do this in similar circumstances later this Summer I would be braced for an outbreak of mass hysterics, but perhaps hysteria is more a feature of the men’s than the women’s game.

I don’t know whether the lightness of spirit has yet been darkened as the series unfolded woefully for England, or for how long simply being there will be enough to engender such sunny goodwill, but, on the evening, it was impossible not to feel buoyed up by it. Purely on the playing side, I was most impressed by Sarah Taylor’s wicket-keeping, enabled by the moderate bowling speeds to stand up in a fashion reminiscent of the Edwardian era, and by two front foot sixes flicked over mid-wicket by Alyssa Healy : they must have been hit with considerable force, but seemed to fly to the boundary on gossamer wings.

Women's cricket, Grace Road

Leicestershire (212 & 273) lost to Durham (117 & 487-7 dec.) by 119 runs, County Championship, Grace Road, 7-10 July 2019

Durham sly cake

Speaking of strings of poor results, Leicestershire continue to trudge through their season with all the lightness of a diplodocus that has strayed into a particularly viscous swamp. At this distance (I have hitherto been prevented from writing about it by various interruptions, mostly unwelcome) it might be better to leave the Durham game in the decent obscurity of an ancient score book, but some misplaced sense of duty compels me to disinter it.

It started well, with Durham (who had chosen to bat) being bowled out for 117 (Wright 5-30), and Leicestershire on 124-4 at the close : Durham didn’t look to have much batting (once past the openers Bancroft and Lees), Mohammad Abbas had bowled them out twice in a day in the last Championship fixture at Grace Road, and the only (figurative) cloud on the horizon was that Hassan Azad had suffered a rare failure. However, supporters of consistently unsuccessful sides learn not to feel too much elation at good beginnings.

With the form Dearden and Hill have been in, and Tom Taylor still absent through injury, the Foxes’ brush effectively started at no. six : the last six batsmen contributed 55 runs between them, slightly fewer than Ackermann, who remained unbeaten on 62. You might think that Ben Raine would have shown some gratitude to his old club for releasing him from his contract early, but he remained the personification of bristling hostility, which, with Chris Rushworth bowling at the other end, meant a lot of hostile bristles. On the positive side, his return meant the reinstatement of his dad’s dog in his old snoozing ground (no hostility from him).

Pascal once advanced the theory that if Cleopatra’s nose had been a few inches shorter (or was it longer?) the whole course of history might have been different. If Harry Dearden’s right arm had been two feet longer the course of this game might have been different (although he would also have to share a tailor with orang-utans). In the first over of Durham’s second innings, Bancroft edged Mohammad Abbas slightly too far to his right to make it worthwhile diving (perhaps a kind interpretation) : by the time the extra slip had been inserted, the horse had bolted and was galloping away in the direction of a century and an opening stand of 187 with Lees.

I was pleased, by the way, not to hear any allusions to sandpaper from the home supporters (or, audibly, from the team). Twice, when Bancroft claimed low catches in the slips, the batsmen spread their arms in appeal to the Umpire, as if to say ‘with his reputation?’, but otherwise there was no more spoken about the Regrettable Incident.

In other circumstances, I would have been pleased to see Lees make runs. I remember seeing him in his best years putting on an invincible double century opening stand for Yorkshire at Trent Bridge, and facing down the Australian paceman for the Lions at Northampton, and it has been puzzling to follow his decline since, particularly when England have been carrying a vacancy (or a series of vacancies) for an opener. Presumably marked by bad experiences, his batting now looks wary and suspicious, like a cat that’s pawed a hedgehog.

Bearing in mind the apparent weakness of the Durham middle order, there was a faint gleam of hope when Bancroft was dismissed shortly before the close of the second day, and Nathan Rimmington emerged as nightwatchman. This Rimmington, sporting dark glasses and an absurd, obviously false, beard, resembled the kind of shifty, stateless individual you might expect to find lurking in a dark corner of a bar in Tangiers in 1942 (come to think of it, ‘Nathan Rimmington’ must be an assumed name). He appears to be a peripatetic T20 specialist, originally from Queensland, who has presumably qualified to play for Durham on forged papers. In the first innings he had batted at nine, and his bowling had provided some respite from Rushworth and Raine. In the second innings, without whipping off the false whiskers, he revealed himself to be a batsman : not a particularly attractive one, but effective enough to make 92 in taking Durham to 349-3 (Lees, slightly to my disappointment, had also fallen slightly short of his century).

Hope gleamed faintly again when two more wickets fell without further addition, but Leicestershire supporters have learned not to be misled by these will’o’the wisps ; a seventh wicket partnership of 103 between Liam Trevaskis (oddly, not a Cornishman) and Ned Eckersley was enough to extinguish it. Under little pressure, Eckersley was free to indulge his sense of style, though I would have derived more pleasure from watching it if he were still a Leicestershire player.

Set 393 to win, Leicestershire’s response of 273 (not bad, but never in danger of being good enough), unfolded in the now-customary way. Hassan Azad batted for a little under three and a half hours : while he was in it was not obviously deluded to dream of a draw, but, when he was on 62 and the score 178-3, our two ex-employees conspired to remove him (c. Eckersley b. Raine). Raine’s reaction to the wicket was so frenzied he seemed in danger of having apoplexy, or, at least, being reported to the ECB once again.

Cosgrove made a few runs (60), so Ackermann did not (it is usually one or the other, not both) ; the last five wickets fell for 63 runs and the innings faded away a few minutes after the appointed time for tea. The wickets had been shared by the ‘3 Rs’ – Rushworth, Rimmington and Raine (who took nine in the match). I couldn’t begrudge them to him, given the dog, and his years of good service.

There was a slightly wistful, Autumnal feel to the final day, given that it was the last day of Championship cricket at Grace Road until 10th September, by which time it will, of course, be inescapably Autumn. We shall have to hope that Leicestershire’s recent upturn in fortunes in the T20 has invigorated, rather than exhausted, them when they return.

Bittersweet Summers : Seaside Special

Yorkshire v Middlesex, Scarborough, County Championship, Sunday 3rd July 2016

“While I have had the best of cricket in my lifetime, there will be lifetimes to come when it will be good enough.” – J.M. Kilburn

I have left it late in life to watch cricket in Scarborough ; also, at least, forty years too late.  At the ground on Sunday I bought a copy of “Sweet Summers“, a compilation of the writings of J.M. Kilburn, for many years the Cricket Correspondent of the Yorkshire Post (owing to some terrible mix-up it had been signed by Geoffrey Boycott, but I kept it anyway).  Kilburn was the Laureate of Yorkshire cricket, and, in particular, the Laureate of Scarborough and its Festival, which sometimes tempted him into a slight relaxation of his scrupulously decorous prose style.

In an essay originally published in 1937 Kilburn wrote:

“Not to be concerned with cricket in the first days of September is to be an outcast in Scarborough, a stranger in a strange land without reason or justification for existence.  There are cricket dances, cricket banquets, cricket celebrations of every possible kind, cricket is first and last in the mind of every public entertainer.”

This was not the case over the week-end (the entertainer in our hotel, a Doncaster songbird, seemed more concerned with the deficiencies in her love-life) and I doubt whether it is any longer even true during what is left of the Festival proper, now shrunk to five days in August.

 

We stayed in the Grand Hotel (historically, an essential part of the Festival experience).  So intense was the interest in the players who were staying there that a special room (“the Cricketers’ Room”) was set aside for them to escape pestering.  It closed in 1979, by which time public interest in cricketers had, presumably, subsided sufficiently to allow them to eat their breakfast unmolested.  In 2016 I doubt whether even Joe Root would be greeted by more than a flicker of recognition over his cornflakes, and I wonder how many visitors would be able to name this character, who gazes, all lordly, down at them as they make their way to their rooms.

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lf I am forty years late for the heyday of the cricket festival, I am about a hundred and forty late for that of the Grand, which, after various changes of ownership, now combines the architecture and décor of a Belle Epoque spa hotel with the ambience and amenities of an English holiday camp (a sort of L’Année dernière à Pontins effect, “grand” in both the French and the George Formby senses).

In a small history of the hotel on sale from reception Nikolaus Pevsner describes it as

“a High Victorian gesture of assertion and confidence, of denial of frivolity and insistence on substance than which none more telling can be found in the land.”

I was initially puzzled by that phrase “denial of frivolity” (the Grand struck me as a vast monument to frivolity), but I suppose what he means is an undertaking that is essentially frivolous, yet taken entirely seriously.  Which brings us neatly on to Yorkshire cricket (and Kilburn’s writing about it).

In a series of tributes at the end of “Sweet Summers“, David Frith writes that he prefers Kilburn to his Lancastrian contemporary Neville Cardus “for the simple reason that he did not indulge himself in fantasy”, nor, he might have added, whimsy, comedy or aestheticism.  Yorkshire cricket (in the person of Kilburn) demands that the game be respected as an essentially serious undertaking : Lancashire cricket (in the writings of Cardus) has a deep-lying sense of its own essential absurdity.*

Lancashire cricket has accommodated exquisites such as Reggie Spooner, who would be dismissed as poseurs in Yorkshire, irresponsible egotists like Archie MacLaren, who would be taken down a peg or two, buffoons of genius like Flintoff, amateurs, dilettantes, piss-artists and assorted comedians who would all be regarded with grave suspicion the other side of the Pennines.

It has also (perhaps because its two main cities are ports and its main industry relied on an import) been more outward-looking and accommodating to outsiders : Lloyd and Engineer looked no more out of place than Ted McDonald had fifty years before.

Yorkshire is not simply inward-looking, but it does have a sense of unselfconscious mental self-sufficiency that is, I think, found nowhere else in England.  (Kilburn, unlike Cardus, never left his native county, and never saw any reason to.)  If Scarborians are insular, that is forgivable in a setting where the sense of living on an island is so intense, where Europe seems so far away and the open sea so inescapable.

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The atmosphere at North Marine Road is not, perhaps, entirely representative of the Yorkshire attitude (Scarborough is, as Kilburn says “Yorkshire cricket on holiday”) but there was no mistaking that it was a Yorkshire crowd ; not unthinkingly partisan, but, as he suggests elsewhere, more deeply and personally identified with the fortunes of their team than the supporters of other English counties.

The ground itself was larger than I had expected, with a capacity roughly equal to that of Grace Road (apparently the crowd on Sunday was 3,500, Yorkshire’s largest of the season) and more modern.  There was one wooden stand (where I spent most of the day), and an expanse of wooden banking (where the rowdier element congregated), but there were also new stands with plastic tip-up seats and, rather to my disappointment, no deckchairs (and no brass band).

The first ball of the day saw Adam Lyth play the archetypical Yorkshire opener’s shot – the leave.  Unfortunately, the ball, from Tim Murtagh, moved in at him, kissed the face of his bat and dropped neatly into the wicket-keeper’s gloves.  This brought Kane Williamson (appreciated in the same way as a good club professional, though I don’t suppose he is expected to help roll the wicket) in to join the other opener, Alex Lees.

Everything about Lees (one of those players to whom I have a not entirely rational attachment) is ramrod straight, from his stance at the crease

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to the arc of his strokes.  He bats as if inside an invisible sentry box and, if (perish the thought!), he had walk-on music, it should be “The British grenadiers” (“Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules“).  He hits his boundaries with a crack like a pistol shot, whereas Williamson strokes them silently, as if batting with a giant feather.

Lees and Williamson’s partnership proved the most enjoyable part of the day (though not, I think, the crowd’s favourite).  Williamson was out in exactly the same way as Lyth, which brought Gary Ballance to the crease.  Lees had not looked in great form, but compared to Ballance, he seemed to be batting as if in a dream.  Ballance is always an awkward, limited player but, at the beginning of this innings, he seemed like a child playing with a bat two sizes too big for him.  Observing his slow progress to a century (shortly before the close) was like watching a three-legged donkey giving rides on the beach : inelegant, at times painful to watch, but astonishing to see it done at all.

After Lees had gone (for 63), and Gale soon after, Ballance was joined by Tim Bresnan.  Although Ballance is an old Harrovian from Zimbabwe, he embodies enough of the stubbornness of the stereotypical Yorkshireman, and makes enough runs, to have won the goodwill of the crowd : Bresnan is echt-Yorkshire and claims it as his birthright.  As the day wore on (and, between Ballance’s scratching and poking and Roland-Jones’s lackadaisical traipse back to his far-distant mark, it might have seemed a long afternoon in less pleasant surroundings) Pevsner, had he dropped by, would have detected many of the same “gesture[s] of assertion and confidence” in the crowd as he had in the architecture of the Grand Hotel.

As it was, Ballance’s painstakingly constructed platform was, eventually, to be washed away, like an afternoon’s sandcastle erased by an evening tide.  I should also say that, as on every occasion I have seen them bowl together, Tim Murtagh was more effective than either Finn or Toby Roland-Jones.  I have never heard Murtagh mentioned as a potential England player (and now he never will be), whereas, as I have learned  while writing this, both Finn and Roland-Jones (not to mention Ballance) have been included in the squad for the next Test match.  Murtagh, I suppose, “doesn’t look like a Test bowler“.

I walked back to the Grand, not, as I had arrived, along North Marine Road, but along the seafront.  A woman, having drained the weekend to the dregs, had collapsed outside a pub and was receiving medical attention on the pavement, some Italian goths were photographing Anne Bronte’s grave, another drunk was groping blindly in the gutter for something to throw at his companion and, at the hotel, a man in an MCC panama, with the glint of happier days in his eyes, was checking.

And on all of this, it being only July, the evening sun shone brightly and high in the sky ; there were no long shadows on the outfield, no sun setting over the bays, no chill in the air, none of what Cardus called “the ache of festival cricket“.  If I want that, I suppose, I shall have to come back later in the year, or another year, which I should like, if it is not too late.

*(A declaration of interest : I spent most of my childhood in the vicinity of Blackpool.  Although I have never considered myself a proper Lancastrian, no doubt some of their influence has rubbed off on me.  I prefer Cardus.)