Chewed-up Balls

Leicestershire (36-3) v Middlesex, Grace Road, County Championship, 10-13 June 2019 (theoretically) – Match drawn

Yesterday, upon the square
I saw a game that wasn’t there!
It wasn’t there again today.
Oh how I wish it’d go away!

Unless you have spent at least one day at a cricket ground in the rain, waiting in vain for some play, you cannot hope to understand the true spirit of English cricket. I imagine that if you were to spend four whole days in contemplation of a soggy outfield and periodic, futile, pitch inspections you might achieve some kind of satori, where all the deep mysteries of the game are suddenly made clear, but, avid as I am for enlightenment, I am afraid that I gave up on this match after a couple of hours.

Had I stuck it out, I would have found my meditations interrupted by eleven overs of cricket late on the third day, enough time for Leicestershire to reproduce their season so far in microcosm. Hassan Azad carried his bat, Paul Horton (presumably feeling that two a half days in the dressing room had not been enough) ran himself out for a duck in the third over, and Mark Cosgrove, having started brightly, was caught behind for 13. I suppose having played Middlesex twice without being beaten is an achievement of sorts, although it seemed a shame to gift them a bonus point.

Leicestershire (487 & 211-0 dec.) v Gloucestershire (571), Grace Road, County Championship, 17-20 June 2019 – Match drawn

Gloucestershire have been a bogey side for Leicestershire in recent seasons, in the sense of a side who should not be able to beat us, but usually do (as opposed to the sides who ought to be able to do so, and frequently do). However, there were grounds for optimism, in that they have suffered as badly from predation by richer clubs as we have : in particular, two of their seam bowlers, Miles and (particularly) Liam Norwell have been ‘took by the fox’ (as they say in these parts), or rather by Bears, since last season.

In their places were the one bowler Warwickshire turned their nose up at, David Payne (not the one who used to play the saxophone for Ian Dury), and two whose unnumbered shirts indicated that they had been hurriedly enlisted to cover for unexpected absences. These were Chadd (sic) Sayers, whose one appearance for Australia against South Africa had rather been lost in the excitement over sandpaper, and Josh Shaw, on loan from Yorkshire (I picture these loan players hanging around in gangs on street corners waiting to be hired, like day labourers during the Great Depression).

Gloucestershire clearly had enough faith in this scratch crew to exercise their right to bowl first ; they might also reasonably have expected that a pitch that had been in soak for close to a week would have a little life in it. Initially, they appeared to have reason to congratulate themselves on their good judgement, as an outswinger from Sayers lured Horton into guiding the ball into the gloves of the leaping wicket-keeper. Shortly after tea, with another 320 runs scored, they must have been lamenting the fickleness of the English wicket.

In an interview before the game, Mark Cosgrove had said :

‘Hassan [Azad] has been fantastic, he loves to bat time and that lets some of us play a little bit more freely, as you do when you have someone at the other end who is happy to chew up balls. Don’t just look at his scores, look at the partnerships he’s been involved with – there’s a lot of big ones.’

This proved to be prophetic.

The partnership between Azad and Neil Dexter reached 150 at roughly the same time as Dexter’s 100 and Azad’s 50, Dexter playing freely and Azad chewing up balls (I haven’t come across this expression before, but it conveys how whatever the Gloucestershire bowlers aimed at him seemed to disappear into some sort of industrial mincer). Azad, like Charles Augustus Fortescue, shows what everybody might become by SIMPLY DOING RIGHT (head still, watch the ball on to the bat, don’t chase wide ones) ; all Dexter’s troubles (which have been keeping him out of the team) seemed so far away.

A number of records (perhaps a record number of records) were set : on 153 Leicestershire’s record stand against Gloucestershire, on 289 our record Championship second wicket stand, and eventually the record first-class stand, set by Ateeq Javid and … Hassan Azad against Loughborough in the first game of this season. An awful lot of balls have been chewed up since then.

Gloucestershire’s seamers faced hard labour on a pitch that revealed itself to be a poor, lifeless thing, on what may have been the first and last warm and cloudless day this June. Sayers, reputed to be a swing bowler, must be doubting the stories he has heard about ‘English conditions’ ; Payne and Shaw were sweatingly workmanlike ; Higgins’ medium pace and van Buuren’s slow left armers were enough to tempt even Azad to gamble a little (albeit responsibly).

Once Azad had been dismissed (for 137), the edifice built on his foundations began to sway alarmingly : Dexter was one of five catches for wicket-keeper Roderick, for a rejuvenating personal best of 180 ; Cosgrove, who insists – as all gamblers do – that ‘the big one is definitely around the corner’, gambled irresponsibly after one run, and was another. Two nightwatchmen were employed, only one of whom survived their vigil. 343-5 at the close.

The second day revealed one of the differences between those who watch cricket and those who play it professionally : we watchers are keen observers of the weather forecast, whereas the players, I am convinced, would not recognise Carol Kirkwood if she sashayed into the Fox Bar. Another is that we followers are prone to spinning hopeful fantasies of how a game might work out, whereas the player – like alcoholics – prefer to take the game one day at a time.

The forecast was that rain would arrive early on the second afternoon, and not depart until after close of play on the third. My view (quite forcefully expressed to anyone who would listen) was that Leicestershire should dash to 400 and declare, in the hope that Mohammad Abbas might bowl the opposition twice (unlikely, but not impossible). Leicestershire’s view seemed to be that they should carry on batting for as long as possible, and then see how it went. As the second new ball approached its dotage, and the cloud cover descended invitingly, Colin Ackermann delivered a pro-forma 50, Harry Dearden took a little over an hour to make 26 (‘it’s the way he plays’), and only Lewis Hill (a characteristically chancy 44) suggested any sense of urgency.

Mohammad Abbas eventually made his appearance at about the time when the rain was due to descend in earnest, unfortunately with a bat in his hand. Any one of the seamers would have welcomed his wicket as a reward for their graft, but Captain Dent, an occasional bowler in the sense that the Andean Condor is an occasional summer visitor, chose to bowl himself, and snatched the wicket from under their noses with his fourth ball.

Before play was finally abandoned for the day, through a combination of continuous rain and very dim light, Abbas only had time to take 3-10. The third wicket fell with the score on 16, though some looser bowling from the other end allowed them to edge gingerly, as if along a mountain ledge, to 41. Another couple of hours of bowling in those conditions and they might have been six or seven down. But – as Horts would be the first to point out – what might have been is an abstraction remaining a possibility only in a world of speculation.

Although the third day remained a nasty, dingy grey, it did not actually rain once (Horton 1 Kirkwood 0). As it progressed, the question ceased to be whether Leicestershire had left enough time to bowl Gloucestershire out twice and became whether we would be capable of bowling them out at all. The first error was that none of the batsmen dismissed on the second afternoon had been Chris Dent, whose main strength as a batsman is that, once established, he is as hard to get rid of as an infestation of nits. Another was dropping him when he was on 15 (I shan’t mention the culprit, but he shares his initials with an Imagist poet).

The prospect of a quick victory receded as Dent and Howell (also dropped by the Imagist) put on 67 for the fourth wicket, but that of any victory slowly evaporated during the course of a stand of 318 for the sixth wicket between Dent (176) and Ryan Higgins (whose own bowling had been treated with similar disdain earlier). This set its own slew of records, and rather cast a retrospective shadow over Azad and Dexter’s monumental effort. By the close, Gloucester had overtaken Leicestershire for the loss of six wickets, and another possibility entered the world of speculation – that Leicestershire might lose.

A packed Grace Road rises to applaud Ryan Higgins’ historic 199

In the context of this game, Leicestershire did well to restrict Gloucestershire to 571 on the last day (Higgins, in a small victory, was bowled for 199). The visitors made only a token attempt to dismiss Leicestershire for less than 84 (Payne bowled only four overs), before surrendering to clock watching, as keen for 5.00 to arrive as any office worker on a Friday afternoon, while Azad chewed up their balls ; both he and Paul Horton made exactly 100 apiece before sending them home early with a declaration. Azad’s was, of course, his second of the match, and was one, you felt, he would have made in exactly the same fashion against more earnest bowling. Horton’s average (and possibly his self-confidence) has been greatly improved.

Every member of the Gloucestershire side, bar the wicket-keeper, bowled in the second innings. A slightly poignant note is that one of the comedy bowlers was Jack Taylor, who began his career as a specialist off-break bowler, before being banned for throwing (very happily he has managed to save his career by reinventing himself as a specialist batsman). His action could not have been more smooth, although he failed to take a wicket.

Leicestershire (293) v Northamptonshire (299 & 206-6 dec.), Wantage Road, County Championship, 24-27 June 2019 – Match drawn

In advance, I should have liked to visit Wantage Road (ground of my fathers) for all four days of this match, but considerations of cost (exasperatingly, we have no reciprocal agreement) meant that I was only there for the third day, by which time the game had been spavined by the rain that washed out the second day, and reduced it to another grind for bonus points. On the first day, Northamptonshire had been bowled out for 299 (one short of the glittering prize of a third batting point), which would have set a four day game up nicely, given that both sides are rather stronger in their bowling (but I am straying again into that world of speculation).

The Leicestershire contingent was not large, but then neither was the home contingent (at the start of play I counted 87 adults). There were, however, at least three large parties of school children, who kept up a crescendo, high-pitched, squeal as the bowlers approached the crease, and a chorus of ‘ooh’s as the ball proceeded harmlessly into the wicket-keeper’s gloves. This occupied most of their visit, as they watched Hassan Azad leave the majority of the deliveries he received in the five hours and ten minutes he occupied the crease, a trout resolutely untickled.

I have to admire their connoisseurship, although fans of stroke play might have been more inclined to squeal at Mark Cosgrove’s innings of 63, which suggested that his big one might, indeed, be around the corner. It is a pity he does not play like this more often at Grace Road. The children reserved their loudest squeals for the fall of a wicket (of which there were seven in the course of the day) : if they had stayed past tea, it might have sounded as if One Direction had reformed and put on an impromptu show in the outfield, as – almost more extraordinarily – Hassan Azad stumbled into a leg-trap, when eight short of his third successive century.

I gave the final day a miss, when Leicestershire, like their hosts, narrowly failed to achieve their target of 300. After that, with the serious business of bonus points concluded, it was again a question of how to pass the time until they could knock off and head for home (or the bar), which they managed to do at ten to five. I understand the weather had improved.

The latest recruit to the Wantage Road Home for the Generously Proportioned is the increasingly have-boots-will-travel Matt Coles, another in the gang of day-labourer seamers (he is on loan from Essex). The problem of finding a shirt big enough for him had been solved by giving him Ben Cotton’s old jersey (Cotton has, I think, been disposed of for being a bit too generously proportioned). The letters TTON had been removed, and LES written in with black marker pen. I feel that this says something about Northants’ current ‘brand of cricket’, although I am not quite sure what that might be.

 

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England’s Fitful Dozing

On the Sunday afternoon of the Worcestershire game at Wantage Road, I found myself sitting in the back row of the Briggs & Forrester Family Stand.  If there is any sun, this stand traps it (several tattooed men had stripped to the waist, closed their eyes and were using it as a cheap alternative to a tanning salon) ; there was also a strong south-easterly wind.  A few rows in front of me sat a ruddy-faced man from Worcestershire (I like to think he was a retired pear-farmer) wearing a broad-brimmed canvas hat.

Perhaps nine times in the hour I sat there the wind blew the hat off his head.  Sometimes it lifted it vertically, like a Harrier jump-jet, and flipped it backwards on to the seat behind ; sometimes it spun off horizontally like a Frisbee ; once it cartwheeled away and came to rest four or five rows back.  Every time, the man patted his head to confirm his headgear had gone, before, with a look of mild puzzlement, trotting patiently back to retrieve it and replace it on his head. It did not seem to occur to him to take his hat off, or move to a less blowy location.

Something about this scene seemed to me to suggest the mentality of the regular watcher of County cricket : the dogged persistence, in the face of considerable experience to the contrary,  in believing that, if you turn up day after day after day, you will eventually be rewarded with the discovery of whatever it is you have come there to find.  I say “you”, but, of course, what I really mean is “me”.

I have often referred to Cardus’s visions of the ideal, Platonic season (In “Prelude” and “the Summer Game” and elsewhere), where “when June arrives, cricket grows to splendour like a rich part of the garden of an English summertime” and “if the sun be ample and you close your eyes for a while you will see a vision of all the cricket fields in England at that very minute” and I would count myself unlucky if I did not, at least once a year, surprise, or be surprised by, some midsummer spirit of cricket (and often in some of the less looked-for places, such as here, or even here).

Whether, if ever, the season, like a budding English garden, blooms and “grows to splendour” depends on that elemental, but banal quantity, the English weather.  Midsummer should be England’s dreamtime, but this year it has struggled to emerge from a fitful, interrupted sleep.  Or, to put it more prosaically, we have had an awful lot of rain and, if not rain, then cloud.

On my return from Scarborough, I had been intending to eke out the holiday feeling by pursuing the spirit of cricket to one of its likelier hiding places, the Cricket Festival at Queen’s Park, Chesterfield, which, with its fish and chips and miniature railway, is the nearest the East Midlands has to offer to the seaside.  There was little rain during the Festival but, thanks to some heavy rain the week before, there was no cricket either.  I do not know whether this was because of exceptionally poor drainage, or over-caution on the part of the Umpires, but I fear I may have to look elsewhere for my Festival spirit and chips in coming seasons.

Leicestershire v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Grace Road, 27-30 June 2016

The week before Scarborough I had watched Leicestershire play Gloucestershire. Consulting the photographs I had taken as an aide-memoire, I found several of Chris Dent (the Gloucestershire batsman and occasional wicket-keeper), a few of the patterns of light dancing on the back of the score box, several of the boundary fence and two or three of some copulating ducks, which were pretty much the salient points over the four days.

As anyone who had consulted the weather forecast knew (and I believe Leicestershire Captain Cosgrove has now picked up this Pommy habit) there was little chance of a result from the outset.  By lunchtime on day 2, Leicestershire had made 334. By the time play resumed at the beginning of the fourth day, the first question was whether both sides would forfeit an innings to set Gloucestershire a target of 335.

Perhaps mindful of the last time Leicestershire made a sporting declaration against Gloucestershire, which resulted in the defenestration (almost literally so, I’ve heard) of the previous Captain, Ronnie Sarwan, Cosgrove was, understandably, reluctant.  In the event, this was just as well, as Chris Dent made a good-looking 165 to take Gloucestershire to 403-2.  (It is hard not to look good when making 165, but then it is hard to make 165 if you aren’t any good.)

The ducks had made their appearance late on the first day, making a horrible racket as they frolicked shamelessly in the outfield, to a running commentary from the Leicestershire balcony.  Ducks are never a welcome sight on a cricket field, but this was a disgraceful performance.

Nottinghamshire v Lancashire, County Championship, Trent Bridge, 6th July 2016

There were no ducks (or low comedy of any kind) at Trent Bridge, where I witnessed another day of “proper cricket”, the fourth day of the game between Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. Nottinghamshire began the day with victory in sight, a vision that slowly faded as Lancashire batted out the day, led by an obdurate, but not inelegant century from nineteen-year-old Boltonian opener Haseeb Hameed (who might, at some point, make a good opening partner for Alex Lees). If the keynotes of the day were Stoical restraint from the batsmen and mounting frustration for the Nottinghamshire crowd, there was also one moment of cathartic relief, as Stuart Broad bowled the best ball I’ve seen this season to send Petersen’s middle stump cartwheeling, like my pear-farmer’s hat.

Pakistan A v Sri Lanka A, Grace Road, 5th July

My companion for the day at Grace Road (the Last Gnome) had predicted the likely crowd level as “pauper’s funeral” and, by those standards, there wasn’t a bad turnout. At the start of play there were just the two of us, but, at its height, the crowd had swelled to eleven paying customers (including one professional autograph merchant and two small children), watched over by eight stewards and four St. John Ambulance personnel. In the lunch hour a steward was posted to prevent a pitch invasion ; the Gnome and I thought of running on from different sides of the pitch in a pincer movement, but calculated that, in the five minutes it would take us to reach the square, the steward would have had time to call for reinforcements.

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At these A games, the hope is always to spot some future great in embryo, some budding Waqar or infant Murali, but, if I did, I had the experience but missed the meaning (as the poet hath it). Pakistan (this was the third day of four) had, as you might expect, four nippy seamers who bowled a little too short, a spinner who might have been very effective against English batsmen, and Sri Lanka two or three top-order batsmen who seemed to be under orders to play sensibly “in English conditions”. The main source of entertainment was to see whether the run-rate on the scoreboard was going to dip below one an over (a thing I’ve only seen once before, at a Women’s Test against India). It came close to it shortly after lunch, but accelerated to just over two slightly after tea, before the innings inexplicably collapsed, like a shanty town in an earthquake.

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, County Championship, Wantage Road, 10-13 July 2016

When Adam Rossington and Richard Levi walked out to resume Northamptonshire’s first innings on 60-3 at the beginning of the second day against Worcestershire, they were greeted with a barrage of high-pitched squealing and shrieking of an intensity last heard when the Beatles made their debut at the Shea Stadium.  It was Schools Day at Wantage Road.

If the intention was to introduce the children to cricket, they must have formed the impression that it is a game that is played in brief bursts of about thirty minutes, before a tall man in a white coat (Alex “the Terminator” Wharf) waves his arms about and they all go back into the pavilion, to re-emerge about ten minutes later.  Sometimes the men in green hats seemed reluctant to leave and hung around expectantly on the edge of the pitch, while the men in maroon caps seemed to want to get off the pitch as quickly as they could and seemed very reluctant to come out again.

The children left at lunchtime, which was just as well, as there was very little lunch available.  The Pic’n’Mix stall was open, as was Gallone’s ice-cream van (incongruously staffed by what appeared to be Anna Sharapova’s more attractive younger sister).  For members there was a perfectly palatable chicken supreme available in the pavilion, (though in very small quantities), but, as the announcer put it “the Speckled Hen Lounge does not appear to be serving lunch”.  This might not be unconnected to a 2nd XI match against Derbyshire having being abandoned due to nine of the players and an umpire going down with food poisoning, but a ground that cannot rustle up a plate of chips or a cheese roll for its patrons does not convey the impression that it is prioritising its traditional clientele.

It is a cliché that games are won by the side “that wants it more”.  If “it” is promotion, then Worcestershire do want it (and seem well-equipped to attain it), Northamptonshire do not and don’t really need this competition at all, while they are (very successfully)putting all their very limited resources into “white ball cricket”. The incessant delays for rain only delayed the inevitable trouncing, which arrived late on the third day, with Northamptonshire bowled out by Mighty Joe Leach and Matt Henry for 148 and 142.

Ben Duckett had been made Captain for this game.  If this was in an effort to encourage him to stay with Northamptonshire, it may have been counter-productive.  As a 21-year-old with a background in dressing room pranking, he seemed to be struggling to impose his authority on some of the more experienced members of his side.

In Worcestershire’s first innings, he explained, with hand-signals, some cunning stratagem he had devised to bowler Panesar, who listened as patiently as a cat. He then positioned himself at short mid-on.  The next ball was driven hard and straight into his gut, and then straight out again.  In the second, the Sri Lankan Prasanna, in particular, took as much notice of his semaphored field directions as a seagull.

In his first innings he had failed (trapped LBW by Leach for 4) but, when he opened Northants’ second innings shortly before lunch on the third day, the romantic optimists in the crowd (less common at Wantage Road than Ukrainian beauty queens though we are) might have been anticipating an epic, match-saving Captain’s innings.

Duckett comfortably rode out the opening blast from Henry and Leach.  Then, predictably, Worcestershire brought on D’Oliveira Minimus (who has added about three inches to his height with a Little Richard style pompadour) to bowl his heritage leg-breaks for an over before lunch. The first two balls were full-tosses, which he slop-swept imperiously for four, the third a better-pitched ball, which he blocked.  The fourth he tried to sweep again, but scuffed it up just short of one of the two deeply silly short legs he had been engaging in conversation. The fifth an exact repeat of the fourth, except that he was caught.

Very late on an elderly man returned to the ground (shortly before Worcestershire won by 311 runs) and announced “I’ve just been to the dentist’s … I wish I’d stayed there now”.  It’s being so cheerful as keeps us going, you know.

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