The Chances were Slender, the Beauties may not be Brief

Leicestershire (381) v Derbyshire (251-8 dec.), Grace Road, County Championship, 27-30 April 2018

Match drawn

There were times, watching this game, when I was forced to contemplate the possibility that I may now be supporting a competitive side, and even that I might have to upgrade that to ‘a successful one’. As a supporter, I am naturally pleased, but as a blogger I am confronted by the problem of what tone to adopt when describing success, if my default setting of low comedy is no longer available. ‘Happiness writes white’ they say, and so, perhaps, does success. If it obvious that we no longer have any interest in a game, my mind is free to wander, sometimes in more scenic directions : if we are still in the chase, I seem to spend most of my time doing mental arithmetic.

The first two and a half days of the match were lost to rain, or – to put it more positively – one and a half days were reclaimed from the rain, with the heroic ingenuity of seventeenth century Dutch engineers reclaiming land from the sea. As late as the third morning, the chances of play seemed slender, and the forecast for the fourth would have caused Noah some anxiety. When it was announced that play would begin at 1.45, I cannot say that my heart sang, but, I reasoned, if they were making the effort, then so should I (I was not quite alone in following this line of thought).

I was impressed by the generally single-minded way in which Leicestershire attempted to make the most of what seemed likely to be a single afternoon’s play to scrape as many bonus points as possible, implying, as it did, that they hope to be in a position at the end of the season where an extra bonus point or two might matter. I’d say there have been times in recent seasons when they would have been more likely to give it up as a bad job and go to the pub.

Football managers of a certain vintage used to be given to questioning how much the big time Charlies and fancy Dans would fancy it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke, and one might ask the same of Derbyshire’s imported pace bowlers in relation to a cold Sunday afternoon at Grace Road. Neither Rampaul (who cuts a portly figure these days), Viljoen nor Olivier bowled with much real intent, or to any great effect; most of the wickets fell to the euphonious medium pacer Luis Reece, and Will Davis, the only one of their Staffordshire-raised young seamers to survive the Winter cull.

With their minds fixed firmly on the target of 400 in 110 overs to secure a full bag of batting points, Horton, Ackermann and Eckersley all made half-centuries, with Carberry, Dexter and Raine only a few runs short. The last-named should have made 50, had he not succumbed to the only old school pratfall of the match, when he and Dieter Klein found themselves at the same end, and Klein declined to do the decent thing by surrendering his wicket. As Raine is much the better batsman, this allowed the elusive last point to escape Leicestershire’s grasp, finishing on 381.

To everyone’s surprise, but possibly no-one’s unmixed delight, a full day’s play was possible on the Monday. Once Leicestershire’s innings had finished, Raine had the opportunity to exorcise his frustrations by taking two early wickets. With no possibility of losing, I would have expected Derbyshire to set their sights on 300, but perhaps discouraged by their early losses, and hampered by some more dry bowling (particularly from Griffiths), they lowered their sights and crept past the 250 mark before declaring, to deny Leicestershire a final bowling point (a rather spiteful act, and, arguably, contrary to the playing regulations).

For those interested in the progress of young English qualified players, neither Harvey Hosein (a wicket-keeper and batsman of promise) nor Hamidullah Qadri were playing for Derbyshire, but I was impressed by Matthew Critchley, whose leg-breaks were merely economical, but who did much to shore up an innings that was in danger of collapse. He also frustrated Raine enough to induce the bowler to hurl the ball at him, on the pretext of running him out (I do wish Raine (and others) would stop doing this).

In between the two home games came the debacle in Durham, where Leicestershire forced their opponents to follow on, bowled them out twice, but failed to chase a target of 148. I was not there, but strong men who were seemed barely able to relate what they had witnessed, like the remnants of Napoleon’s Grande Armée who had survived the retreat from Moscow.

Leicestershire (191 & 237) v Glamorgan (178 and 247), Grace Road, County Championship, 11-13 May 2018

Leicestershire won (!) by 3 runs

If you would like to see some excellent photographs of this game (much better than anything I could do), kindly provided by Charlie Dryden, please follow this link – https://chasdryden.myportfolio.com/specsavers-cc-lccc-vs-glamorgan-may-11-2018

And so to the Glamorgan game, which Leicestershire won. It may be that having so rarely witnessed a Leicestershire victory in recent years means that doing so has had the same giddying effect on me as a bottle of vintage Champagne on a lifelong teetotaler, but I feel that this is no time for critical detachment. It was one of the best games I have ever seen (and, although I might have felt differently about it, it would have been so even if Leicestershire had lost). Almost every member of the Leicestershire side contributed significantly to the win, and some performances were positively heroic.

It had not begun well. Having chosen to bat, Leicestershire were soon reduced to 9-3, which before too long had become 67-6. Ateeq Javid had at least hung around for over an hour for his 13 and Callum Parkinson had some success with his tail-ender’s aggression (a foretaste of things to come), but it was only a calm and collected 87 from Neil Dexter, who has looked a new man (or his old self) this season, that dispelled the fear that Durham might have broken their spirits. By the close of play, Glamorgan had reached 82-0 in reply to our 191, and expectations were low.

The damage had been done by Glamorgan’s own trio of nationality-fluid seamers, Hogan, van Gugten and de Lange (Lukas Carey, the 19-year old from Pontardullais who had impressed me last year had joined Hosein and Hamidullah in being left on the sidelines). On the evidence of this game they look likely to be Glamorgan’s only real strength this season.

As the second day began, the majority view (based on long experience) was that Glamorgan would knock up at least 400, declare with an hour to go, then take a couple of cheap wickets to leave us facing defeat by Sunday tea-time. In the event, seven wickets had fallen before lunchtime, thanks to some fast, straight bowling by Varun Aaron and Gavin Griffiths, and some characteristic terrier work by Ben Raine. The majority fear, again based on precedent, was that we would allow the tail to wag, but it was swiftly removed, with only some slogging by van der Gugten a cloud on the horizon, no bigger than a man’s hand.

Leicestershire’s first innings lead of 13 was extended by a solid half-century opening partnership (I am so pleased to have the opportunity to type that sentence that I’m tempted to repeat it) and they finished the day on 119-2, with the in-form Ackermann and the reassuring figure of Cosgrove in occupation.

The vagaries of public transport meant that I arrived at Grace Road late on the Sunday and, as so often, I had to do a double take when I saw the scoreboard, which stood at 142-6 (the culprit being Michael Hogan, the vulpine veteran from New South Wales). Another dramatic reversal in fortune, the assumption at Grace Road being always that the last reversal would be in our opponents’ favour. Talk turned to ‘how much will be enough’ For any other club a target of 200 would do, but for us 250 seemed safer, and a long way away.

At the fall of the sixth wicket Ben Raine strode to the wicket (and he really does stride), beard jutting and bat swinging, like Desperate Dan setting out to rescue his Aunt Aggie from some troublesome varmints. Taking his cue from van der Gugten, he swung and swung again, and, with Parkinson as his sidekick, he dragged the score by the scruff of its neck to 250, having contributed 65. 251 to win (surely, surely …).

When Glamorgan batted again, we experienced the disorientating sensation of watching another side’s batting collapse, instead of our own. The opener Murphy and Chris Cooke offered a little resistance, but Raine, who seemed determined to win the match or die in the attempt, removed both. When a batsman is proving obdurate, Raine sometimes gives the impression that he won’t bother to release the ball, but is simply going to keep running and physically manhandle him off the pitch and he came uncomfortably close to doing so literally with Cooke.

139-8, 111 to win and the tail-enders de Lange and van der Gugten at the crease (career averages of 13 and 10 respectively). The only rational question seemed to be whether we could finish the game off that evening or whether it would be worthwhile returning for an hour the next morning to witness a Leicestershire victory (but still that little voice at the back of the mind – Surely? Surely not? Surely this time? Not again?).

The last hour (though it seemed somehow to be both longer and shorter) would have made an excellent case study for a sports psychologist studying the effects of a team not having won for a long time, and having a record of throwing games away from promising positions. De Lange and van der Gugten are big, strong men with good eyes and, crucially, nothing to lose, but a team who are used to winning would have allowed them to have a little fun and hit a boundary or two, but found a way to nip them in the bud before they came too close to the target.

Instead, Leicestershire appeared to freeze. In all, de Lange hit 90 from 45 balls, including 5 fours and 8 sixes. At least two of the sixes went out of the ground, and one ball was lost completely in the car park. A four ricocheted off the base of the sightscreen and smashed a hole in the window of the Umpire’s room. There were two dropped catches and a missed run out, when wicket-keeper Hill somehow failed to connect ball and stumps, with de Lange well out of his ground. It is amazing how quickly you can get from 139 to 251, if you are counting in multiples of six.

At the beginning of the 53rd over, with 75 still required, Carberry threw the ball to Parkinson, the young slow left-armer, who must have wished that he could throw it back again. His first ball to de Lange went for four, the fourth and fifth (a no-ball) for six. Off the last, however, he trapped van der Gugten LBW, which brought Michael Hogan to the crease. Hogan not only looks and bowls like Glen McGrath, but bats like him too. The obvious course would have been to try to keep him on strike and de Lange as far from it as possible, but so frozen did Carberry appear that this did not seem to occur to him, in spite of receiving plenty of advice to that effect from the crowd, and the frantic semaphore signals from his coach on the balcony.

The next over, from Varun Aaron, brought another six from de Lange, a squirted four from Hogan and a scrambled single to bring de Lange on strike for the start of Parkinson’s next over. The first ball went for six, as did the second (a gentle full toss). This brought calls of ‘take him off’ from the crowd, perhaps orchestrated by Parkinson himself. A single followed, then Hogan prodded out the rest of the over. Gavin Griffiths, so potent earlier, but now caught in the collective nightmare, was hit for two fours and a six.

With nine required to win in what looked certain to be the last over, the indomitable Raine seized the ball (perhaps the only man on the field who would have volunteered for the task). Another single from Hogan brought de Lange on strike for the third ball, which went for four. Four to win. The fourth was a low full toss (deliberate, no doubt), which de Lange, for once in the innings, did not quite strike cleanly. It flew high out of my field of vision behind the sightscreen, followed, after an agonising split-second, by Parkinson, who had taken the catch on the boundary, shooting into view towards his team-mates, screaming like a scalded cat.

As it was a day for superlatives, I don’t think that I have ever seen a side as affected by a result as Leicestershire were by this one. Carberry looked in a terrible state, and some of the younger players seemed on the verge of tears. We supporters were elated, of course, but at least most of us have been around for long enough to have experienced a Leicestershire victory before, which is not true of all of the players.

So, having at last removed this weighty and malodorous monkey from their backs, where do Leicestershire go from here? Well, for the moment, nowhere in particular in the County Championship, in this disjointed season (our next 4-day game begins on 9th June). We shall have to hope that they can carry the same spirit forward into the 50 over competition, which begins today : perhaps for that reason, much the same side that has played in the Championship has been chosen for the first game, with, unexpectedly, no place for white ball lovers such as Pettini, Wells or Aadil Ali. I have every confidence in them, almost.

Incidentally, Leicestershire were docked two of their hard-earned points for a slow over rate, and Glamorgan one. Even leaving aside the amount of time that had been lost retrieving the ball from neighbouring side-streets and removing shards of broken glass from it, the last thing any of the spectators would have had on their minds would have been the over rate, and I am fairly confident that no-one would have been asking for their money back. Sometimes the playing regulations really are a ass.

 

 

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Insults and Injuries

Leicestershire v Nottinghamshire, Grace Road, 7-9 April 2017

Firstly, I should like to offer my apologies to anyone who took my advice that “if you feel short-changed if a match ends early, you know where to head this season”, meaning Wantage Road. If you had done so last Friday, you would have found that Northants had beaten Glamorgan by tea-time on Saturday afternoon. In mitigation, I should point out that I also described Glamorgan last season as being “on the verge of degenerating into a rabble”. It might be fairer to say that are a young side with one or two senior players who have surely reached the end of the line, who looked demoralised and lacking in leadership, but it doesn’t sound as though there has been much improvement this season. Which does, at least, mean that Leicestershire should be reasonably sure of finishing above one other County, even starting the season with a 16 point handicap. Which brings me to l’affaire Shreck.

If you had read my account of Leicestershire’s game against Loughborough very carefully you would have noticed that I said that Charlie Shreck had been “preparing for his expected translation into a coaching role by offering the students plenty of unsolicited advice about their batting technique”. A mild joke, and about all the notice this non-incident merited. To the naked eye, Shreck had become a little frustrated with opener Hasan Azad’s persistent refusal to play any stroke other than the forward defensive and the leave (as you may remember, he made 80 in 302 minutes) and, as is his wont, the “lanky paceman” had strayed down the wicket to address a few remarks to him. After Shreck had done this a couple of times, the Umpire had spoken to him, presumably suggesting that he desist, and that (you might have thought) would have been the end of it.

However, as you may be aware, “the Umpires” (presumably O’Shaughnessy, who has form for this, rather than Middlebrook in his first game) had reported the incident to the ECB. As this was, apparently, our fifth “Level 1” offence in twelve months, their “Disciplinary Panel” (Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Judge Jeffreys, Mrs. Grundy and the Chairman of Nottinghamshire) decided to fine the club £5,000, ban Mark Cosgrove (held to be responsible, as Captain) for one match and – incredibly – impose a 16 point penalty in the County Championship, with another eight points suspended (the club had already suspended Shreck for a fortnight).

To add insult to injury, ‘The Times’ published a highly-coloured report the next day claiming that “a source” had revealed that Shreck had become “enraged” by the opener playing a “flamingo shot” (invisible to me) and had threatened to kill him. Shreck vehemently denies this allegation which, even if it were true, would hardly constitute what the police refer to as a “credible threat” (for an earlier example of his Pathetic Shark-like sledging see here for my account of his failed attempt to intimidate Callum Parkinson (now of Leicestershire) last season).

Some of the criticism has implied that there was something particularly reprehensible about the incident because it involved “students”, implying that these are beardless youths, taking time off between lectures to play a bit of cricket. In fact, they are mostly players who have not yet quite succeeded in establishing themselves with a County, and see playing for an MCCU as a way of showcasing their skills, while hedging their bets by acquiring an academic qualification.

Has(s)an Azad, for instance (the object of Shreck’s ire), is 23 and has (amongst a long list of achievements listed on his LinkedIn profile) played for Nottinghamshire 2nd XI. Basil Akram (who took most of the wickets) is 24 and has been round the houses with Essex, Hampshire, Northants and Nottinghamshire. Nitish Kumar has been representing Canada in ODIs since the age of 15, not to mention a spell with the St. Lucia Zouks. Even among the genuine youngsters, James Bracey has played a game for Gloucestershire and Sam Evans (who admittedly looks about 12) was offered a Leicestershire contract during the course of the match. They would, surely, have felt more insulted if Shreck had patronisingly applauded their efforts, rather than acknowledging the extent to which they had succeeded in frustrating him, in the way that he would do with full-time professionals.

There are several aspects to this business that I find dispiriting. One is simply that it had seemed to me that the match had generally been played in what used to be referred to as “the right spirit”, and I would be surprised if anyone present at the ground (except Steve O’Shaughnessy, apparently) felt differently. It had been a pleasant and fruitful three days for all concerned, and it seemed a great pity that the mood had to be soured so soon. Another is the willingness of those who can have no first-hand knowledge of the matter to make pronouncements about Leicestershire’s on field behaviour over the last year (as one who has seen all of their home games in that time, I should say they were no worse than anyone else).

The worst aspect, though, is the imposition of a sixteen point penalty. Apart from the illogic of imposing a penalty in a competition of which the match concerned was not a part (why not the 50 over competition, or the T20?), the ECB must be aware that imposing such a handicap on the eve of the season must inevitably have a depressing effect on a club who have recently been struggling, with some success, to revive, not only their own fortunes, but the interest in cricket in what should be fertile territory. Furthermore, the imposition of a points penalty for any reason other than points having been illegitimately acquired (by fielding an ineligible player, perhaps, or blatant time-wasting) devalues the competition, by making it a question not of how well the teams have performed on the pitch, but of how well-behaved they have been in the eyes of the governing body.

I would not go quite as far as those conspiracy theorists who believe that the ECB is deliberately trying to force Leicestershire out of business, but it does feel as though the relationship between the ECB and the smaller Counties is now roughly that of wanton boys to flies (they kill us, or not, for their sport).

As a result of all this, Leicestershire took the field on the first day of the match against Nottinghamshire under something of a pall, knowing that, even if they managed to pull off a surprise victory against the ante-post favourites, they would be awarded no points for it ; the players must sometimes feel that they are wasting their time (and I know I do). The pall had lifted by mid-afternoon on the Saturday, when balmy weather and a good crowd (larger on the Friday than the Saturday, and with a sizeable contingent from Nottinghamshire)

saw the sides on roughly equal terms (Nottinghamshire on 167-7 in reply to Leicestershire’s 251), with hopes of Leicestershire going into the third day (predicted to be the hottest day of the year) with a first innings lead, but it had crashed down again, like badly-secured garage doors, by the end of the day, when Leicestershire required 27 to make Nottinghamshire bat again, with four wickets remaining.

The match did, at least, lend a little more credibility to my predictive powers. I had predicted that Leicestershire’s strength this season would be in its pace bowling, its major weakness the fragility of the top order. I had not expected that the pace bowlers would be required to do most of the batting as well, but so it had proved in the first innings, with Chappell (30), Raine (55*) and McKay (35) dragging the innings to its feet after the batsmen (Cosgrove excepted) had allowed it to collapse to 135-7. I also predicted that we would be the most unpredictable County in Division 2, though I really had in mind that would be over the course of the season, rather than a single afternoon (what exactly happened in the fateful last hour on the second day I cannot report, as I was following the second, more dramatic, collapse to 51-6, with mounting horror, on my ‘phone on the way home).

Of the pace bowlers, Ben Raine had said that they were planning to “bowl around Zak”, and so it proved. Chappell had seemingly been instructed simply to bowl fast and he succeeded in discomfiting some of the Nottinghamshire batsmen, while, at the same time, forcing wicket-keeper Eckersley into some not always effectual gymnastics behind the stumps. His bowling was expensive, taking 1-78 off 19 overs, but had at least three catches dropped in what was, after all, only his fifth first-class match, and the really significant figure (for anyone who has watched him gingerly stepping in to bowl a couple of overs so as not to wreck various parts of his physique) is that 19 overs.

26 of those 78 runs were scored by Stuart Broad off 16 balls, with three fours tipped over the slips and one straight-driven off a rare full delivery. When Chappell went round the wicket, Broad carted him for six over mid-wicket and then should have been caught attempting to repeat the stroke, resulting in a huge steepler bearing down on McKay out of the sun, like a Messerschmidt (if the day had been seasonably dull he might well have held it).


Raine, meanwhile, took 6-66, to add to his first innings runs. Raine is a snappy, tenacious Muttley of a player who has, since his arrival from Durham, provided some bite (and bark) to a side who have sometimes (whatever the ECB think) often appeared too well-bred and diffident, and it would be a pity if he felt obliged to curb his instincts so as not to incur another points deduction.

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Raine (l), Chappell (r)

 

There was, I thought, a surprisingly large crowd on the Sunday morning, given that there was little prospect of the game lasting more than an hour, if that (most, I think, were Nottinghamshire supporters who had stayed overnight in the hope of making a weekend of it).

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Leicestershire just managed to make the opposition bat again, thanks to a six from the fight-to-the-death Raine and four overthrows from Luke Fletcher (who, unless my ears were deceiving me, had advised Chappell to “fook off” on his dismissal, though this was, no doubt, inaudible to the Umpires). Requiring four to win, ex-Fox Greg Smith added another insult to our injuries by lofting Paul Horton for a straight six, narrowly avoiding braining an innocent hound, and smashing a window in the Charles Palmer Suite, leaving the Nottinghamshire supporters to bask in the glory, and the glorious afternoon.

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Snap me while you can!

In itself, this was not a disastrous result. The truth is that Broad and, particularly, Pattinson were simply too good for us, as they are likely to prove for most for most of the sides they face this season (for as long as Pattinson is available, and Broad is allowed to play by the caprices of the ECB). Gloucestershire, in the game starting this weekend, should be beatable, and Glamorgan, in the next home game, really must be beaten. However, this week came news of another, this time self-inflicted, injury.

Angus Robson had not been selected against Nottinghamshire, and it came as no great surprise to learn that he and the club have now parted “by mutual consent”. Again, this is not, in itself, a disaster (although, if young Harry Dearden falters, there is no obvious replacement, it may be possible to whistle up reinforcements from the Republic of Kolpakia, or, if we are looking for solidity in the face of intolerable pressure, perhaps we could see how Hasan Azad is fixed). It does, though, lend credence to the belief that there may be tensions between new coach, discipline enthusiast Pierre de Bruyne, and some of the more fun-loving elements in the side (he has, it is said, banned mobile ‘phones in the dressing room and, presumably, in Robson’s case, had confiscated his fags).

If true, this does not bode well. I’d say we have quite have enough on our plate at the moment fighting the ECB, without fighting amongst ourselves as well.