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.)

All the Time in the World

Recently some of those around me have taken to whistling “We have all the time in the world” in what strikes me as a rather pointed fashion. It is certainly true that I will never have as much time again ; quite how much time that will be is hard to predict (though one of the more mind-concentrating aspects of retirement is attempting, for financial reasons, to do precisely that).

At Wantage Road on Monday I found myself thinking a lot about time.  There is a sundial there with an inscription on that subject that has already become half-obscured (by time, already) :

Wantage Road sundial

Whatever it said, if it was at all profound, is unlikely to have been both original and true ; our experience of time is so universal that it would have to be one or the other.

Trivially, I have begun to realise that I am now part of a world – that of County cricket – where time operates on a longer cycle than the strictly diurnal round of work, a fact brought home to me as I caught the bus home and realised that I was not rejoining that world of unwilling nine-to-fivers, but merely temporarily sharing a space with it.

In the past, the fact that much of the afternoon’s play had been called off through bad light and drizzle would have meant half a day’s valuable holiday wasted ; now – well there were two more days to go, no more rain on the horizon and, of course, I have all the time in the world.  Young Ben Duckett, too, must have felt, on 288 not out, that it was only a matter of time before he reached a historic triple-century and could reasonably have expected to go into lunch on the third day with Northamptonshire’s highest individual score under his belt.

[Duckett, by the way, is a batsman of high talent (though, currently, a rotten wicket-keeper) who, I’m told, when younger, made Kevin Pietersen look like Therese of Lisieux in the humility stakes.  When asked how he had felt about being left out of a pre-season tour for being overweight he responded “it made me feel more hungry” and has followed an unfortunate precedent set by Northamptonshire’s star batsmen of earlier epochs by crashing his car into a ditch.  But, no doubt, these youthful indiscretions are behind him now.]

These may have been the particular occasions this week, but the fact is that there is nowhere that makes me more vertiginously conscious of time’s passing (and literally so, as though I were looking over the edge of a cliff) than Wantage Road.  Without boring you with too much  autobiography, it was the first place I watched professional cricket (what must be close to half a century ago now), with, initially, my Father and Grandfather, then my Father alone.

He was associated with Northants in various guises for most of his life : as a child he hunted the autographs of such as Freddie Brown and Vince Broderick, he played a few games for the Second XI in his ‘O’ Level year, became one of the club’s innumerable Vice-Presidents and, having taken early retirement, spent much of his time at the ground before dying, quite unexpectedly, from a heart attack, shortly after his 61st birthday, and the start of the 2001 season.

When I returned to the area from London (I now live about an equal distance from Northampton and Leicester), shortly before the start of the 2002 season, and I decided to resume watching County cricket seriously, I threw in my lot with Leicestershire instead of Northampton, and couldn’t face returning to the ground for some years afterwards.  I would have had to confront too many ghosts, and worse, perhaps, would have felt like something of an unquiet spirit there myself.

One of those ghosts would have been Colin Milburn (a particularly large and spiritous Spirit of Cricket, I imagine).  If you have read “About the Author” at the head of this blog you may have noticed that I say “the first cricketer to capture his imagination was Colin Milburn and the most recent James Taylor“.  There are various links that could be made between those players ; they were both, for one, treated with suspicion by the selectors on the grounds, partly, of their distinctive physiques and were never chosen for England as often as their admirers would have liked.

As a child it was partly Milburn’s size that appealed, appealing to the same childish instincts as silent comedies (his nickname “Ollie” stemmed from his resemblance to Oliver Hardy, and like Hardy he could be impressively light on his feet) and there was a similar aspect to Taylor.  When he took on (as I saw him do at the Oval once) great lummoxes like Andre Nel and Tremlett he might have been Chaplin  outwitting Eric Campbell with a deft swish of his walking cane.  In fact, one of the many things I remain hugely grateful to him for is allowing me to recapture (quite late in life) that childlike pleasure of having a favourite player, one whom I liked more than I could ever quite rationally account for.

As we learned on Tuesday, of course, the two players now have something else in common, and neither of them will now play for England as often as they should have done.  I was intending to write a kind of eulogy for Taylor, until I realised that I was indeed writing as though he were dead (I was using the same tone I had used for the last genuine eulogy I wrote, which was for my Father), when he is very much alive and much more likely to remain so than he was last week.

Having read that he appreciated such messages, I tweeted to Taylor that I had taken more pleasure from his batting for Leicestershire than anything else in cricket recently, and I meant it.  When I was composing the “About the Author” note I originally wrote “and the last was James Taylor“.  I changed that because it sounded too final, but I think it will turn out to be true.

James Taylor began his career at about the same time I began writing the previous incarnation of this blog – the Crimson Rambler – and I wrote about him there more than any other individual, at times passionately, often merely facetiously, always happily.  If you require a monument to his career from my pen, follow the link and look around.

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As a trivial example of how it is best not to assume that you have all the time in the world, both Ben Duckett and I may have assumed that when we turned up at Wantage Road for the final day of the match on Wednesday he would – given that there had been no overnight rain and it was a gloriously sunny day – be completing his triple-hundred and I would be watching a decent day’s cricket.  But not so.  Thanks to our old friend “water under the covers“, there was no play at all (as my Dad, more inured to the ways of Wantage Road than me, might have predicted).

Of course, there will be many other days for Duckett, and for me as well.  Though best not to take anything for granted, I’d say.