Leicestershire (390-3 dec. & 245-0) drew with Loughborough MCCU (152), Grace Road, 2-4th April 2020
I seem to find it harder each year to find something new to say at the start of the season, but then, perhaps, novelty is beside the point. There, is, of course, the promise of a new start, a clean slate, a blank piece of paper on which any story could be written, but the essence of it lies in the rediscovery of the familiar, of finding that those familiar scenes are still there. Winter has passed, Spring has returned, as it sometimes felt during the Winter that it might not, and, with it, the cricket.
The first game at Grace Road seldom lives up to our wintry day-dreams of the platonic spring day, if only because it is always against Loughborough University, and the ground is only half-awake. We enter not through the usual, welcoming, gates, but through a gap in the wall at the end of a bottle-strewn alley, but the first sight of the ground, even if it is yet to cast off its winter weeds, its parasols unfurled, still feels like a release : in our minds’ eyes, we see it, not under grey skies and sparsely populated, but bathed in mid-summer light and humming with life. It is not the first day itself, but the sure and certain knowledge of the six months still to come that makes us feel newly glad to be alive.
Given the age of many of our members, and most of those who turned up for the first day, ‘glad to be alive’ is not an idle figure of speech : it is always a relief to find that familiar faces have survived the Winter. Although the general bonhomie may not survive far into the season, its beginning is celebrated with handshakes, backslapping and even the occasional hug, as friends, reunited, congregate in convivial groups, or share their winter-news over a drink in the bar. I am afraid that we sometimes take these pleasures and liberties, however small in themselves, too much for granted, and the start of the season makes us feel it.
Leicestershire, as is the convention in these games, batted, and the first ball of the season was faced by Paul Horton, who has now been relieved, or possibly relieved himself, of the captaincy. Unfortunately, perhaps due to the dim light, or the remnants of dew in the pitch, he played down the wrong line to a full, straight, delivery and was bowled. This was less unpropitious than it might seem, given that the bowler was Alex Evans, who is contracted to Leicestershire and will be available to strengthen the bowling later in the season.
After taking a few overs to acclimatise (Evans’ first three overs were all maidens), the incoming Colin Ackermann then played the hare to opener Hassan Azad’s tortoise, scoring freely on the off-side, in particular, to reach his fifty shortly before lunch, by, rather gratuitously, lofting Leicestershire academician Don Butchart, who had been brought on for the last over, over long on and into the, mercifully underpopulated, car park. Azad, who had not departed from his trusted techniques of patient accumulation, had then made 17.
During the lunch hour, I dropped into the office (buzzing with anticipation) to renew my membership (excellent value at £99, given the number of days of cricket, particularly in the coming two months, it will entitle me to see), then dropped into the Meet, busy despite its limited menu, and picked up my ‘Playfair’ from the Friends of Grace Road shop, providing its usual reassurance, so little does it change, that, whatever else may be wrong in the world, the cricket season will inevitably return in the Spring.
Shortly after lunch, in a stroke that might have been an act of deliberate self-sacrifice, Ackermann chipped a half volley from Evans straight to cover point. The manner in which the next man in, Mark Cosgrove, emerged from the pavilion suggested that he felt in the form of his life, but also that he was feeling the cold. The first two deliveries he ostentatiously left alone, the third tested his powers of abstinence too far, and he was dropped at second slip (the edge was audible to all in the ground, except, if his body language were to be believed, the batsman himself).
After reaching twenty more by luck than judgement, Cosgrove’s co-ordination seemed to return, if not his self-control, and three good balls were stroked, with his usual incongruous delicacy, through the covers for four. The next ball must have hit some foreign object on the pitch, or perhaps he was unsighted by light reflected off a car windscreen, because it removed his off stump. He appeared as incredulous at this turn of events as ever, though, given the cold, less reluctant to leave the field. Cosgrove is no longer quite the batsman he was, but he is still a joy to watch, and we are lucky to have the prospect of at least one last full season in which to watch him.
Harry Dearden came to the crease shortly before 2.15, with the total on 129-3, and Hassan Azad three short of his half-century. Dearden, who does not have the credit at the bank that Ackermann and Cosgrove enjoy, is in no position to spurn a chance to make a substantial score, and, reverting to his earliest manner, scored at a rate that made his partner look like a chancer : by tea, the pair had crept surreptitiously to 210-3. With the evening chill creeping in, I crept off too at 5.00, by which time the score was approaching 300, in the stealthy manner of a game of grandmother’s footsteps. Unfortunately, my departure coincided with the rush hour, and I spent the journey home pressed against a window by a large man with little conception of personal space and a nasty cough.
I arrived a little late for the second day, having stopped off at my favourite Café Roma (cash only!) for a macchiato and a brace of cannoli. The warmer weather had brought some of the more elderly element of Leicester’s café society out, and we were packed together cosily, like anchovies in a tin. As I was not expecting any dramatic developments at Grace Road, I passed some time strolling through the crowded lanes, browsing aimlessly. How pleasant it can be to wander at will through a crowded city, when the weather is fine and the mood relaxed!
When I finally arrived at the ground, Azad and Dearden were, as I had suspected, still at the crease. The scoring rate had increased slightly, but only in the manner of an elderly and overworked donkey goaded into a jog-trot. By lunch, the score had advanced to 390 : Azad had made his century at some point in the morning, and Dearden was closing in on his (assuming the game was first class, his maiden century). The students must have been wondering whether their turn to bat would ever come, like a younger brother in the back garden.
There had, incidentally, been an amusing incident just before lunch. You may remember that, in the corresponding fixture a few years ago, when Hassan Azad was still playing for Loughborough, Charlie Shreck, frustrated by his obdurate batting and Loughborough’s failure to declare, had directed a few unfriendly remarks at him (‘The Times’ alleged that he had threatened to kill him). Umpire O’Shaughnessy reported the incident, Shreck was suspended and Leicestershire were subjected to a points deduction. Alex Evans (who obviously knows Azad) pantomimed a repetition of the incident : the batsman seemed highly amused, Umpire O’Shaughnessy, perhaps, less so.
To the surprise of most, it emerged that Leicestershire had declared at lunch. Although I can see why they would have wanted the bowlers to have a run out, it did seem hard on Dearden, who was left on 94*. It is true that he had every opportunity to make his century over the previous six hours, but we will have to hope that the disappointment will not have the same effect on his psyche as it did on Graeme Hick’s, in similar circumstances. It was noticeable that he spent his time in the field with hands in pockets, and dropped a couple of catches (though not, perhaps, ones he would normally have caught).
The Leicestershire bowlers did not have the time to put in quite as many overs as they had hoped, although Wright, Griffiths and Taylor (apparently now fit) all claimed three wickets, and Mike (a little loose) one. Only Joe Kendall, of the batsmen, made more than a start, falling two short of his fifty while trying to reverse sweep a full delivery from Taylor off his stumps. The innings ended shortly after 5.30, with the score on 152, leaving Azad and Horton to play out the remaining overs (Horton surviving a couple of persuasive shouts).
If it had not been for the balmy weather, and the general feeling that we were glad just to be there, Leicestershire’s tactics on the Saturday morning might have attracted adverse comment. Azad was only marginally more fluent than he had been in the first innings, and Horton defended his wicket as if it were his life, against some tired bowling of moderate quality. In the second hour, Evans, knowing the chink in Azad’s armour, posted two short legs and a leg slip, and bowled short from around the wicket. Clearly discomfited, Azad fended one delivery just over one of the short legs, another just wide, and then, attempting a pull, deflected the ball hard on to his helmet. Although he was able to leave the field unaided, he appeared disorientated.
After lunch, Tom Taylor, who had replaced Azad, livened proceedings with some firmly driven boundaries until, bending to tie a loose shoelace, he appeared to put his back out, and had to be helped from the field. Surprisingly, it was Harry Dearden who replaced him. As the afternoon wore on, it was clear that he was not inclined to miss another chance of a maiden hundred, and, reverting to his one-day style, hit the bowling to all (or most) parts of the ground. Justifiably suspicious that Ackermann might be inclined to shake hands on a draw at 5.00, he accelerated further as that hour approached, passing his hundred at 4.50, to wild, and only half-ironical, applause from the few spectators who remained. The end of play was postponed to 5.10 to allow Horton to catch up and make his century as well.
There were some worrying pieces of news in the aftermath of the game. Taylor has apparently suffered a recurrence of the back problem that kept him out for most of last season, and Hassan Azad will have to miss at least the first two Championship games under the concussion protocol. Alex Evans had been reported to the ECB by Steve O’Shaughnessy, and it is possible that any suspension will mean that he will be unavailable for Leicestershire when term is finished (as it only affects first-class fixtures). The report in ‘The Times’, which alleged that Evans had kneed Azad in the groin, and threatened to tear him limb from limb and dump the pieces in the Soar, cannot have helped matters.
One or two of the members were also a little perturbed by newspaper reports of a new flu-like virus that had emerged in China in the last weeks of March, apparently caused by someone in Wuhan Province thinking that it would be a good idea to eat a bat. But I’m sure that it will take more than that to spoil the prospect of a new cricket season.
Since before Christmas, the BBC has, with monotonous regularity, been broadcasting a self-advertisement, publicising its coverage of sport in 2020, under the slogan ‘Raise the game’. In it, a bumptious voice informs us that ‘you can’t stop the future – it’s already here’, a future that includes the Olympics, the European Championship finals and ‘The Hundred’. Apart from being a piece of bombastic pseudo-profundity worthy of ‘Doctor Who’, this has, thanks to Coronavirus, proven to be a little premature, given that it is by no means certain that the first two events, at least, will be taking place. Not only is ‘the future’ not ‘already here’, it may not be arriving any time soon. So, I am more hesitant than usual about offering my predictions concerning the new cricket season.
A few weeks ago, I pointed out that the virus should pose no threat to Championship matches at Grace Road, given that our crowds are rarely large enough to constitute a ‘large public gathering’. At the time, this struck me as rather droll : it seems less amusing now, given that the world and his dog have now made the same feeble joke, and the ECB are, at this moment, mulling over our fate. I would hope that they will consider the risk low enough for the Championship to continue, but I am not holding my breath (not, incidentally, a reliable test for coronavirus). We would be even more seriously affected if any of the Test matches, or – perish the thought – ‘The Hundred’, had to be called off, given that we find ourselves even more at the financial mercy of the ECB than usual.
Over the Winter, we have secured a loan of £1.75 million from Leicester City Council, which should come in handy, particularly to increase our wage bill by half again (at least) to meet the ECB’s new ‘salary collar’ of £1.5 million, as will, of course, the money we are meant to be getting for supporting ‘The Hundred’. The catch with this loan is that it is secured by the ECB, who will be presented with the perfect opportunity to close us down if we cannot repay it. We find ourselves rather in the position of the owners of a small trattoria hoping that the local mob’s prostitution racket is doing good business, in case they decide to withdraw their ‘protection’ (*taps nose* – capisce?).
Turning to this year’s schedule, we discover the usual baffling dog’s breakfast. My spirits rose sharply towards the end of last year when Leicestershire announced that not only would annual membership (excluding T20) be reduced to £99, but, as significantly from my point of view, we would be restoring our reciprocal agreement with Northamptonshire (in addition to the ones we already had with Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Derbyshire). When the fixtures were announced, I happily busied myself with filling my newly acquired diary with the dates at Wantage Road.
Not unpredictably, however, given that Northamptonshire’s cheapest season ticket costs £175 (excluding T20 and RL50), the offer was soon withdrawn, and I had to go back and, crossly, cross them all out again. More gratuitously, the agreement with Notts (which has been in place for as long as I have been a member) was reduced to three fixtures. It surely cannot be beyond human wit to devise some scheme that would allow those of us who would like to watch Championship games at neighbouring grounds, if our own team aren’t playing (a small, but, I’d like to think, not entirely insignificant group), at a reduced price. As compensation, though, free parking at Grace Road has been restored (not much of a compensation for me, as I don’t drive).
Peering through the thicket of crossings-out, brackets and question marks, the general outline of the season appears to be much the same as in recent seasons : a slightly thin April (though mainly because Leicestershire have two Championship games away from home), a busy May, a thin June and a thinner July, scattered with 50-over games and a flurry of activity in between the two, when Leicestershire have two home four-day games in eleven days. August is a parched wasteland, with only the last of the 50-over matches and a game in the women’s version of ‘The Hundred’, featuring the ‘Trent Rockets’ on a Thursday afternoon (which might attract a large paying audience, but only if it doesn’t clash with a display of synchronised nose-blowing in the Lee Circle car park). Cricket is due to return in September, for those of us who have managed to survive the Summer.
Moving on to Leicestershire’s prospects, one piece of good news, which may have been facilitated by that loan from the Council, is the late announcement that we have secured the services of Janaman ‘The Man’ Malan (having previously been told that we would not be able to afford an overseas player this season), for both white ball competitions and (potentially) three Championship matches. I haven’t seen him play, but – apart from bringing joy to fans of internal rhyme – he sounds like pretty hot stuff. I suppose this is the cricketing equivalent of the advice fashion magazines like to give that it is better to buy ‘one really good piece’ than a lot of cheaper items.
Moving on to the rest of the squad, I am faced with the annual struggle to say something optimistic that does not rely too heavily on the words ‘decent’, ‘handy’ and ‘useful’. We do, at least, seem to have five decent and useful seam bowlers (Wright, Taylor, Griffiths, Davis and Klein), plus Ben Mike (whose only notable performance last year came, frustratingly, when he was on loan to Warwickshire, but probably has enough talent to be poached by a larger County), plus Alex Evans, who should be available when his term ends at Loughborough. So, a handy supporting cast, but rather, in the absence of Mohammad Abbas, lacking a ‘spearhead’ : a spear without a spearhead would, I suppose, be more like a broom handle, and I am afraid, although they will have their days, that may represent the approximate level of threat posed by our attack to good batsmen on unhelpful pitches.
And so, with some trepidation, to the batting. It would be expecting a lot of Hassan Azad to repeat his performance in his debut season, when he made a thousand runs at an average of 54, but we shall all have to pray to our respective gods that the falling-off (if any) is not too steep. Unless he has some failure of nerve, he should always be difficult to get out, but his range of preferred scoring shots is so limited that it should not be too difficult to put him (in the fashionable phrase) into lockdown, by employing unconventional fields, as Northants demonstrated last year. We shall have to hope that no-one else has thought of this, or we could be struggling.
Colin Ackermann, who is yet to average 40, resembles a thoroughbred who looks good in the paddock, is often placed, but rarely wins a race. Paul Horton (37) and Mark Cosgrove (rising 36), punters’ favourites in years past, must now both have one hoof in the stud farm. We can expect hard-nosed captaincy from Horton, and Cosgrove is never less than entertaining, but we cannot rely on too many runs from them. To extend the analogy, an unkind wag might suggest that Harry Dearden should be giving rides on Blackpool beach, but I prefer to think that he is yet to find his niche. He is, after all, only 23 in May, and his sprightly performances in last year’s 50-over cup suggest that his talents may be hidden, rather than non-existent. Our only other specialist batsman is Sam Evans.
Either Harry Swindells or Lewis Hill will keep wicket : Hill was plainly out of sorts and out of form last season, and I should expect Swindells to be given his chance in the Championship, with Hill returning for limited overs cricket. To fill the unsightly gap between the end of the batting and the beginning of the tail, we have George Rhodes, who was impressively dogged in the three games he played for us at the end of last season, and should be capable of delaying our collapses. A season-long fit Tom Taylor, who is not only the most dangerous of our seamers, but can make useful runs, would be a great help, but then so would a revived W.G. Grace or all the royalties from the ‘Harry Potter’ series, both of which we are about as likely to get.
The spin option, which is generally given as much priority as the vegetarian option at a Golden Egg in 1974, is likely to be Ackermann in the first half of the season, while Parkinson, who is mutating into a T20 specialist who bats a bit, may re-emerge in September. Our only wholly new acquisition is a young off-spinner called Tom Bowley, who, like Alex Evans, is still at Loughborough. I haven’t consciously seen him bowl, although he appears to sport a towering quiff which makes him look like a member of the Stray Cats. I expect that Jack Birkenshaw will have marched him off to the barber’s for a trim before he is allowed to make his debut.
You might be able to detect that I am not taking our chances in the Championship too seriously, but then neither are the club, who seem to have decided to concentrate our limited resources on white ball cricket, which, I would grudgingly concede, makes sense. Apart from the presence of Malan (and one player of international quality can make a crucial difference), we have the advantage in the RL50 that we are the only County not have lost any players to ‘The Hundred’, and, in some cases, will be playing virtual 2nd XIs. A trophy would be expecting too much, but qualification for the knock-out stages should not be. I am no expert on T20, but having a ‘gun bat’ to add to our collection of blunderbusses and air rifles will obviously improve our firepower.
At present, I have to say, all of this seems a little beside the point. It now seems even less probable that the season will start on time than it did when I began this piece, and, if it does eventually revive, any cricket, even the meagre fare that was served up last year, will feel like a return to the Golden Age. The financial consequences of an abandoned season might well prove terminal for the club, but not abandoning it may prove terminal for some of our members (including – not impossibly – me, though I would be one of the less obvious candidates).
Perhaps I need to get my ‘Winter well’ in early this year.
In the course of a season, I have the habit of accumulating second hand books, found at those grounds that still offer some for sale (the Friends of Grace Road have a good selection, as does the Supporters’ Club bookshop at the County Ground, Northampton). I might leaf through them during the occasional longueur during the game (for these have been known, even at Grace Road), or a break for rain, but generally I stow them away, like a squirrel burying nuts in the Autumn, with the intention of returning to them in the Winter ; quite often, like that squirrel, I neglect to do so. This Winter, like a squirrel gratefully unearthing a long and deeply buried acorn during a lean period, I discovered that I owned two unread books by Alan Ross.
That might imply that I own a lot of books by Ross which I have read, but, in fact, I have read very little of his work, having tended to think of him primarily as an editor (both of the ‘London Magazine’ and the anthology ‘The Cricketer’s Companion’). In spite of that, I find that I have previously described his writing as ‘elegant’, an impression, in so far as it more than a convenient cliché, that I may have formed from having read his biography of Ranji (some years ago), from his ubiquitous photographic portrait, tanned, suave and half-goateed,
or, perhaps, some ancient memory of reading his pieces about cricket in ‘The Observer’, whose Cricket Correspondent he was from 1953 to 1982.
The first book has the spine-title ‘Cape Summer’, hinting at why I have not read more : most take the form of tour books (or books-of-a-series), of which I have a not unfounded suspicion ; even Arlott, who turned out a number of them, could be said to have written his ‘with his left hand’ ; some less distinguished practitioners of the once-commonplace genre appear to have written theirs with their foot.
Although it is ‘Cape Summer’ (an account of England’s 1956-7 tour of South Africa) that appears on the spine (perhaps to lure readers of the straightforward travel books that precede it in Ross’s bibliography), the first half of the book concerns Australia’s tour to England in 1956, which is best remembered, if at all, for Jim Laker’s having taken 19 wickets in the third test in Manchester. In a very wet Summer, in which four of the five Tests were, to some extent, affected by rain, England won the series 2-1, to retain the Ashes they had won in Australia the previous year.
As with most books-of-a-series, Ross reproduces the reports that he wrote about the five Tests as they originally appeared in ‘The Observer’ (‘revising a phrase here and there, for stylistic reasons only, but neither a mood nor comment’). I would have guessed that he had employed his editorial skills to iron out a few kinks and wrinkles in the texture of his prose, which is as smooth as a pair of cashmere combinations (from somewhere exclusive in Jermyn Street, no doubt), but he appears to have been gifted with an internal autocorrect which enabled him to eliminate any obtrusive vulgarities as he wrote. (The first sentence of the book is ‘As I write, in an Autumn that has assumed the better manners of summer …’, and he was a very mannerly writer.)
Ross had first made a small name as a poet, taking as his principal subject his wartime experiences serving on destroyers escorting the arctic convoys, and, like Arlott, his cricket-writing is poetic in the sense that he has a gift for precise observation, rather than employing high-flown diction. In a poem, he describes a fly that has landed on the paper he is writing on : ‘as if carving a joint / It carefully sharpens its legs’. In a match report, Harvey, Craig and McDonald ‘brought off magnificent one-handed pick-ups. Thus do Cossack riders at brisk canters swoop from the saddle to snatch handkerchiefs from the sawdust’.
With television still in its youth in 1956, the presumption was that it was the writer’s responsibility to paint a verbal picture for readers who would not have seen the game, whereas contemporary writers (and, worse, radio commentators) tend, at least subconsciously, to assume that the reader is able to see the match, and be in search of analysis and opinion rather than description. As a result, I find that I now have a clearer mental image of how the young Cowdrey batted than – say – Dominic Sibley.
In an introduction, Ross explains his ambition to do what match reports alone cannot do and ‘elaborate about … scene or social background … convey a feeling of movement, or the personal discovery of place … a sense of a journey … those marginal impressions that make a summer of cricket what it is’, and my lasting impression of the book (perhaps more apparent in retrospect) is of a vision of England in the nineteen-fifties that contradicts the received view of it as stultifying and repressed, always in ‘monochrome’, dozily waiting to be woken into technicolour by the arrival of the Beatles. Ross’s England is certainly relieved from the strains of war and austerity, but various, both traditional-pastoral and optimistically modern (there is an enthusiastic portrait of the rebuilt Coventry, which reads oddly now), and offering plenty of scope for stylish hedonism for those with a little money (Ross had married Jennifer Fry, the chocolate heiress, in 1949).
Between games Ross motors between grounds, at a time before mass car ownership or motorways, when motoring was an activity that could still be undertaken for pleasure (it is not until page 100 that he reveals he is driving a convertible, but I think that might have been assumed) :
‘Making my way out on the Buxton road, the evening was as clear as a bell. A week earlier I had been sitting in the warm, riverside darkness of the Trout at Wolvercott, fireflies cruising the banks, and the crowned lion on the island thrusting through the poppies at the marauding peacock. In hot sun, the hood down, I drove out of Oxford northwards through Warwick and Lichfield, skirting the sunken and smoking areas of the Potteries …’
and on until shadowing the Australians’ itinerary has shown him, as he says, ‘more of my own country than in all the other summers put together’. A striking thing about these landscapes (and, as his allusions to Claude and Poussin suggest, he was a connoisseur of them) is that they are largely unpeopled : the few human beings who do stray into view are as voiceless as figures in a landscape. Most travelogues depend for their colour (or ‘social background’) on chance meetings with interesting characters, or overheard conversations ; Ross’s is an interior, if not introspective, monologue voiced over exterior views.
His points of reference, when describing the cricket, sometimes glance backwards to the war : (at Headingley) ‘a cold wind blows up at us as sharply as over the bridge of a destroyer’ ; ‘One felt the bridge telegraph ringing down for more speed, and Lindwall hurled down several at Cowdrey. The pitch softened them like a head sea …’ ; ‘far from forming the spearhead, they [Tyson and Statham] had ambled up like Base majors just in time for the champagnes of victory’ – allusions, which eleven years after the war had ended, will have been familiar to many of his readers.
Fewer of them will have had first-hand experience of quite the way of life implied by his other points of reference, which are those of a more intellectually sophisticated, less brutish, James Bond (Ross’s friend Ian Fleming later awarded him a cameo appearance (promoted to ‘Commander Ross’) in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, in which he was fed to crocodiles).
‘Rain had toned up the pitch, acting on the close-cropped, fawn stubble rather in the manner of an after-shaving lotion’ (probably from Trumper’s, and exotic for 1956) ; Graveney’s batting ‘disseminated an air of the Burlington Arcade’ ; ‘a gentleman in white waiter’s jacket who looked as if he ought to have been dispensing Martinis rather than delicately brushing the wicket’ ; ‘fifty-nine runs, as reviving as a Bloody Mary to the appetite, came in the forty-five minutes play’ ; ‘A lot rested on winning the toss first – a simple roulette gamble, but the wheel stuck in mid-spin for a while …’ ; ‘Cowdrey and Richardson … played with such ease of attitude that they might have been club members reclining in favourite chairs, whisky and cigars to hand’ ; ‘one has become accustomed now, at about the aperitif hour, to this ritual procession to the Test match wickets …’ (I would have put the aperitif hour at not earlier than 5 o’clock, but Ross appears to be referring to the scheduled start of play).
The cricket, however vividly and scrupulously observed, features in the narrative only as a part of a civilised, and, apparently, enviable life, and reading the first half of the book offers an opportunity to take a cheap holiday in someone else’s happiness. One might have expected (and Ross might have been hoping) that this post-war idyll would continue when he followed the England touring team to South Africa the following Winter, but, from the outset, his pursuit of pleasure is undercut by a creeping sense of unease.
The voyage out takes in a (largely) pre-tourist Las Palmas (‘the seedy and depressed-looking port’), passing Dakar two days later, encountering dolphins who are ‘unhindered by the hangovers and accidie of shipboard life’. In a portent of changing times, he notes oil tankers diverted from their normal route by the Suez crisis (which, as readers of ‘The Observer’ would have been aware, had flared up between the two series). He arrives at Cape Town twelve days after leaving the Canaries: ‘it has been an overcast and heavy trip, on which all bar records for the line have been broken. One felt oneself gingerly all over every morning and assessed the damage’ … ‘We tie up, and within the dusty howl of the wind, the heat is like an oven’.
Ominously, before the first Test, ‘Hot Steam, a much-fancied runner in the Johannesburg Summer Handicap, broke a leg and was destroyed an hour after I had backed it. Its owner-trainer suffered a simultaneous heart attack, as well might I have, as well might I.’
As in his account of the Summer, the narrative between Tests is mostly taken up by journeying, though the distances involved are greater : he travels from Cape Town to Pretoria by train, a distance of 999 miles, taking twenty-seven hours, mostly through semi-desert, but, luckily, the catering is well up to standard (‘Meals are six-course and admirable and the bar in the Observation Car sells you almost anything, including sherry at 9d. a glass, and gin at 1/-‘). The African landscapes are more spectacular, and less unpeopled, glimpses of the native population adding colour to the flora and fauna :
‘The encircling mountains give off a bluish powder, low stony ridges lying like recumbent sphinxes under the afternoon glare. Beneath occasional eucalyptus, groups of Africans are stretched out asleep. I lunch on sweet melon, Cape Lobster and Chicken Maryland …’.
Although his natural inclination is to enjoy the sybaritic lifestyle available to English visitors, while painting picturesque word-pictures of the scenery, he cannot ignore the figures at the margins of the picture :
‘The Africans again are conspicuous by their absence, more noticeable sprawling at the roadside on the outskirts waiting for buses to their locations than in the heart of the capital. They are, or have become, an unobtrusive people.’
Having quoted at length from an editorial in ‘Africa South’, probably by the soon-to-exiled Ronald Segal, written at the time of the ‘treason’ trials (his inverted commas) which coincided with Christmas and the Johannesburg Test, he concludes, with a hint of reluctance :
‘One can no more avoid, if one is a sentient human being, being involved in what goes on day to day than one can avoid being involved in the weather. One may lunch in the Rand Club, play tennis in the afternoon, bridge in the evenings, and discuss over endless whiskies anything under the sun, but the shadow remains, the issue returns. Moral problems have a way of refusing to be shelved.’
Although the shadow can never quite be lifted, it can be lightened by good food, drink and other pleasures, even cricket : as he says of the fourth Test (a South African victory) ‘a thrilling Test match has miraculously squeezed some of the poison out of South African life’.
His most memorable journey was a drive of nine hundred miles from Johannesburg to Cape Town, in his new car (a Nash Rambler), as the ‘speedometer needle dances between eighty and ninety’, embarked upon having stayed up all night (‘suddenly it was not worth going to bed at all’) to celebrate England’s victory in the first Test : he observes that ‘its charm, for those of a contemplative nature, is that, for the first eight hundred miles, there is precisely nothing to see. Nothing, that is to say, which could commonly be called spectacular.’ This ability to derive and convey pleasure from contemplation for its own sake, rather than any inherent interest in what is observed, was to come in handy during the Test series, which contained very little that could ‘commonly be called spectacular’.
The series was mainly notable for low, and slow, scoring. Peter Richardson’s century in the First Test was, at the time, the slowest recorded, taking eight hours and eight minutes. In the third Test, Hugh Tayfield bowled fourteen consecutive (eight-ball) maidens (nine of them to Trevor Bailey). The fifth Test was the slowest in history, with runs coming at the rate of 1.40 per six balls. (Ross was either unaware of these records, too indifferent to statistics, or too mannerly to mention them.) Later that year, restrictions on the number of leg-side fieldsmen were introduced, perhaps by someone who had witnessed the defensive bowling to a packed leg-side by Tayfield and Goddard that had stifled England’s batting.
Ross contemplated Richardson’s innings with the same equanimity as his long desert drive : ‘bare as the Karoo though his innings had been, it was a fighter’s innings and even such spareness had its beauty’. Bailey’s was of more a test of his patience, and provoked a rare example of Ross expressing overt disapproval, albeit with a lovely image :
‘The batting after tea was terrible in its listlessness and passivity. Not only was no attempt made to score, but it seemed to be a point of principle to avoid runs. Tayfield was encouraged, rather than allowed to bowl 14 maidens in a row, 9 of them to Bailey … For a whole hour Bailey neither envisaged nor made a scoring stroke … the sharp single had been discarded as a youthful frolic : the hypnotic maidens of Tayfield had become as soothing and necessary to Bailey as opium to a mandarin’.
As for the last Test, he is generous enough to lay most of the blame on the ‘ludicrous’ pitch.
At least at the beginning of the series, Ross was able to spin a silk purse out of this unpromising material, studded with sparkling observational gems. As the tour progressed, and the length of time away from home increased (he arrived in South Africa on 5th December, and left on 11th March), his mind seemed increasingly to wander from the cricket and on to other matters, the nature of which we can only guess at (the reports on the last two Tests, which England lost, having won the first two, are, by his standards, a little perfunctory).
On the drive through the Karoo, he had described lizards startled by the sound of his approaching car as ‘shooting into fresh positions with the alacrity of hotel guests surprised in unauthorised bedrooms’ ; from the air, some kopjes appear to him ‘as perfectly formed as the breasts of a Maillol woman’ ; Endean ‘had been on view four hours, and a stationary Follies’ nude does not bear contemplation without greater show of animation for a quarter that length of time’ ; after a burst of scoring, a difficult target becomes ‘like the desired wife of another … an unlikely, but faintly permissible dream’.
In the plane, on the first stage of the journey home with a selection of players from both sides, ‘Nobody has much to say. Everyone, I think, has had enough, a little more than enough’.
On the cover of the other book I have found I had acquired, ‘Coastwise Lights’, it is hopefully trailed by the publisher as a volume of autobiography, an impression the author corrects in his preface, admitting that it is only ‘incidentally autobiography’. Although it covers the period when he was the Cricket Correspondent of ‘The Observer’, the subject of cricket makes only a fleeting appearance, but then so does the author.
The book opens with Ross staying in a shabby hotel in Paris : on a hot night he discovers that, by standing on the lavatory seat and looking through a ventilation grill, he can observe the occupants of a neighbouring flat : three middle-aged French people, mostly naked because of the heat. By his usual method of close observation and vivid description, he makes their domestic doings fascinating, for a few pages. It seems apt that he was to go on to write for ‘The Observer’.
Looking back at his early book about a trip to Corsica, with the painter John Minton, he writes :
‘For some reason, perhaps out of genuine diffidence, I decided that ‘I’ or ‘we’ should not figure in the narrative, that Johnny and I should be invisible travellers, observing, experiencing, recording, but not intruding. It was the result, perhaps, of too literal an obeisance to Christopher Isherwood’s method in ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, though his ‘I am a camera’ technique did not preclude his own considerable involvement in the lives of his characters. … The best travel books are nearly always as interesting for what the traveller tells us of his own experiences and feelings as for what he says about the country he travels through.’
Although he claims to think this self-effacement a fault, there is little sign that he is willing, or able, to overcome his extreme reticence about too much unmannerly self-revelation.
The book is in six sections : one about the painters Keith Vaughan and John Minton (and his travels with them) ; a British Council trip he made to Iraq ; various ‘drinkers and dandies’ he has known ; being sent by ‘The Observer’ to cover the war in Algeria in 1958, when their regular correspondent ‘went off his head’ (it is hard to imagine Vic Marks being pressed into service in similar circumstances) ; his time as Editor of ‘The London Magazine’ and publisher of London Editions ; his life, friends and neighbours in Sussex and, finally, anecdotes from his time as a racehorse owner.
Ross seems to have known, or encountered, a remarkable number of well-known writers ; a tribute to his talent for making friends and connections, or, perhaps, the smallness of English literary life. On a flight to Baghdad, he sits next to Agatha Christie (‘noticing her quiet assurance and fat legs’) ; he rents a villa in Ischia next door to one owned by Terence Rattigan (who ‘only wanted to talk about cricket’) ; John Betjeman (who was Godfather to his son), Stephen Spender and Anthony Powell were friends (originally, I think, of his wife) ; Derek Walcott and Laurie Lee signed his visitor’s book, alongside Len Hutton and Keith Miller. Looking for an illustrator for a children’s book he has written, he is introduced to a young Raymond Briggs. His chief companion watching cricket at Hove is Jeremy Hutchinson QC (defender of Christine Keeler and Lady Chatterley, amongst others).
In a conventional autobiography this might seem like name-dropping, but in Ross’s it seems more of a ruse to avoid having to talk about himself. And, rather than the great names, he devotes the most space to more minor figures who had been entertaining drinking companions, my favourite being Bernard Gutteridge, an advertising copywriter and poet :
‘Bernard was an unusual drinker. He would be sitting happily beside you in a restaurant and bar, seeming to have drunk not very much. Then, when it was time to go, he would turn rather guiltily and say ‘I’m sorry, my dear, but I’m not going to be able to get up.’ Nor could he. He would have to be carried out.’
The book does shed a little retrospective light on the composition of the English section of ‘Cape Summer’, which seems to have been a less sunny time than I had supposed :
‘I drove about the country, mainly on secondary roads, trying to see it as if it were abroad … the attempt to write about England through a stranger’s eyes led me to all kinds of places I would never otherwise have seen. Apart from the cricket it was a solitary, reflective time ; I drove alone through all kinds of weather and stayed in small country pubs when I wrote up the day’s journey. At the end of it I felt I had learned something about England and something about myself.’
It is characteristic that he is too reticent to tell us openly quite what it was that he learned about himself. Even when it comes to the more dramatic events in his life, he is the soul of indirection : although he apparently suffered from debilitating bouts of depression (perhaps caused, or exacerbated, by his wartime experiences), the only reference to this (in this volume, anyway) is in connection with Ian Fleming having featured him in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ in return for giving him ‘only too familiar details about ECT’. His only allusion to his wife having had the obligatory affair with Cyril Connolly is even more oblique (Connolly had given up the editorship of ‘Horizon’, then claimed that he wanted it back when it was offered to Ross) : ‘this was, alas, a typical Connolly reaction, often demonstrated in his relations with women, as I came to know to my cost’.
Occasionally, an observation about a friend leads to a personal admission : having reported Keith Vaughan’s feeling that he was being ‘superseded’ by newer styles of painting, he is prompted to reflect :
‘He was not alone in this feeling. Like most others of my age, for whom the war had been the central experience of our lives, I too felt myself cut off, before I had even started, from an emerging generation for whom the war was an irrelevance and Britain’s imperial past, on which I had been brought up, an obscenity.’
Hints at this feeling that the world he had known was about to be swept away are sometimes detectable in his account of the South African trip, perhaps triggered by having witnessed Frank Tyson ‘rock’n’rolling’ at a party in Durban given by the Comptons (Ross’s bag was more in the way of blues and jazz).
Ross had a natural cosmopolitanism, and a classical frame of reference, that was becoming unfashionable in the later nineteen-fifties (the time of ‘The Movement’, decolonisation and the kitchen sink) : like Paddy Leigh-Fermor and Lawrence Durrell (two writers who inhabited a similar mental universe), he had been born in India (and spoke Hindustani as a first language), although, unlike them, he was not actively anglophobic, tethered to England by, if nothing else, his love of cricket, and able to write as lovingly about Hove as they were to write about Greece.
Ross’s obituary in ‘The Guardian’ said of his poetry that it was ‘oddly impersonal’, and the same might be said of his autobiography, but, at a time when self-revelation is hardly in short supply, I find his reluctance to indulge in it more of a relief than a frustration : it is unusual, these days, to finish a book wanting to know more, rather than less, about its author. Nor do I regret the lack (for all his intentions) of socio-political context in his writings : we are hardly short of that either. Ross was a fetishist of the particular, a mind too fine to be violated by ideas, and the substance of his writing lies in brilliant images, rather than sustained argument (which is why, as you may have noticed, the best way to illustrate it is by extensive quotation). So, as a farewell, here is his own farewell to South Africa :
‘But in the end, it is not the problems that one takes away : they are for those who remain, though inevitably in what one writes and thinks and says elsewhere, one carries on the act of identification. There are many sides to every South African question, but problems of behaviour are the same the world over, however unique their context.
Rather do I think now, with the rain dripping from the plane trees and the mist softening the harsher outlines of mines and suburbs, of that quality of light and landscape which is peculiarly African : the red, grass-brushed earth running away into the purple-blue of the mountains – colours that are indefinable and which do not travel in painting – the flat-topped hills and kopjes, green and curled in Natal, dry and dusty in the Transvaal, the grey-green watered silk of the sugar cane, the terraced vines of Constantia in the Cape that have produced, among a dozen admirable wines, one spectacularly good dry white one, the Residence Montpelier Riesling, from Stellenbosch ; the coast north of Durban, with its pines and rocks and sand firm enough to inscribe with messages between tides, the fresh-scented beginning and end to day in the Karoo, the palm-divided sundowns over Johannesburg. It is out of these that we make our private image of Africa, these are what sustain the long vibrations and distant drum-beats of the heart.’
I now know whose works to look out for next season, to lighten a dull moment at Grace Road (should there to be any).
“And all around us the challenge of change.” (Tony Blair, September 1999)
In September 1999, with the Millennium imminent, Tony Blair, two years in office, delivered a speech to the Labour Party conference, which verged on the millenarian. He left no doubt as to the enemy – the ‘forces of conservatism’, which were mentioned seventeen times :
‘a New Britain where the extraordinary talent of the British people is liberated from the forces of conservatism that so long have held them back’ …‘modernise the nation, sweep away those forces of conservatism to set the people free’ … ‘to be the progressive force that defeats the forces of conservatism’ … ‘For the 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism’ … ‘The old order, those forces of conservatism, they held people back’ … ‘these forces of conservatism chain us not only to an outdated view of our people’s potential but of our nation’s potential’ … ‘The forces of conservatism, the elite, have held us back for too long’.
Apart from ‘holding us back’, what had these ‘forces of conservatism’ done?
‘the forces of conservatism pulled every trick in the book … against the creation of the NHS’ … ‘the forces of conservatism allied to racism are why one of the heroes of the 20th Century, Martin Luther King, is dead. It’s why another, Nelson Mandela, spent the best years of his life in a cell the size of a bed.’
The enemy was everywhere :
‘and now having defeated the force of conservatism in granting devolution, let us continue to defeat the separatism which is just the forces of conservatism by another name.’ … ‘don’t let the forces of conservatism stop devolution in Northern Ireland too’ … ‘It would be comforting to think the forces of conservatism were only Tories. But wrong. There were forces of conservatism who said changing Clause 4 would destroy the Labour Party’ … ‘let us take on the forces of conservatism in education, too’
even within ourselves :
‘let’s be honest. When it comes to transport we are all the forces of conservatism.’
Who were these forces?
‘Arrayed against us: the forces of conservatism, the cynics, the elites, the establishment. Those who will live with decline. Those who yearn for yesteryear.’
And, so, you gather, in the decade to come, the ‘forces of conservatism’ would be getting it in the neck.
Anyone still tempted to ‘yearn for yesteryear’ after hearing that speech might have been reassured, that September, when the October issue of ‘Wisden Cricket Monthly’ dropped on to their mat, with a picture of Dickie Bird on the cover, smiling benignly.
If they had turned straight to page 22, expecting to find a celebration of the then enormously popular Bird, they might have been discomfited to read a mild twitting of the man and his collected works (his autobiography had recently become the best-selling sports book ever, and another was about to be published) by Editorial Assistant Lawrence Booth, pointing out the extent to which Bird’s books recycled the same anecdotes. Significantly, Booth quotes his biographer, David Hopps as saying :
‘The great sales of Dickie Bird’s book symbolise the nature of cricket’s audience at the moment : romanticised and elderly.’
So there we can detect the enemy – those ‘forces of conservatism’ – in cricket*: the elderly and romantic (who might also have been mildly affronted to see a review of a biography of Colin Cowdrey entitled ‘Cricket’s Queen Mum’). Apparently gratuitously, Booth finishes by saying, in connection with Bird’s next book being about his experiences on the county circuit :
‘Which is probably just as well. Because, if attendances are anything to go by, there’ll be no-one around to verify the stories.’
Rather than gratuitous, this turns out to be a theme threaded through the issue, as if in response to some editorial diktat : Stephen Fay, for instance, signs off his review of Birley’s ‘Social History of English Cricket’ (in itself, intended as a blow against the ‘forces of conservatism’) :
‘… but English cricket would almost certainly not be run by county clubs principally for their few members. No bad thing.’
Elsewhere, Booth is quoted as saying, in response to an innings defeat for Northamptonshire :
‘At a time when the counties are supposed to be fighting for their lives, there’s a lot of supine cricket going on. … As a Northants fan, it grieves me to admit it, but if five counties were abolished tomorrow, my team would be first on the chopping block.’
and, among the ‘Quotes of the Month’, is this, from E.W. Swanton, in response to ‘our suggestion (WCM Sept) that the county programme should be cut in half’ :
‘Outlandish … touched by the confines of lunacy’
(the implication being that if Swanton, the personification of cricket’s ‘forces of conservatism’, thought an idea was mad, it must be entirely sane).
Flicking back to the cover, our reader would discover the pretext for much of this pre-millennial tension in the headline ‘Bottom of the World’. By losing the last Test of the Summer to New Zealand, England had found themselves at the bottom of the Wisden World Championship (WCM naturally attached great importance to this, given that it was an unofficial championship of their own devising). I can verify Steven Lynch’s description of the last day (I had come on impulse, having heard on the radio that there were tickets available) :
‘On the Sunday, around 12,000 came to roar England on – and suffered in silence, punctuated by the odd catcall’.
My memory is that when Mark Ramprakash was out first ball, and his replacement emerged from the pavilion, the large man in front of me (from Derby, I think), who had previously amused himself by affecting to confuse the Kiwi seamer Dion Nash with the Canadian songbird Celine Dion, stood up (with some difficulty) and, exasperated beyond endurance, screamed ‘**** me, it’s ****ing Irani. We’re ****ing ****ed! … **** off Irani, just **** off!’, before collapsing back into his seat, drained by emotion. At the end of the match, a section of the crowd gathered in front of the pavilion, to sing ‘We’re shit and we know we are’, a sentiment that, more circumspectly expressed, pervades WCM.
Editor Tim de Lisle is critical of Chairman of the Selectors, David Graveney : when first appointed, he was ‘genial, decent and modern-minded, in deliberate contrast to his predecessor, Raymond Illingworth’ (‘modern-minded’ might be pushing it, but Illingworth would be justified in taking umbrage at the other two), but had turned out to be, as the headline puts it ‘a Grav Disappointment’, largely, one gathers, because he had dropped Mark Ramprakash.
Others diagnose deeper causes. Alan Lee, interviewing Graham Gooch (who had just been sacked as a selector) reports his view that ‘the county game … must bear heavy responsibility for England’s decline’ ; ‘if the people who control the game – and that’s the 18 counties – really want to have a strong Test side, everything has to be designed to bring that about … The key is to have fewer players on county staffs.’ This theme is developed in a feature entitled, with a Blairish nod to Martin Luther King, ‘I Have a Dream’, which presents ‘three radical solutions’ to the ‘England crisis’.
The first is by Bob Willis (alive when I began to write this), who, quixotically, traces ‘the root of the problem’, back to the abolition of amateur status, which, he feels, discourages those who ‘have better things to do with their lives’ than play full-time cricket, whereas those who do ‘join the ranks of this clapped-out army’ (of County cricketers) ‘quickly kowtow to the system which hatches [a nice period touch, this] Gameboy and personal-stereo addicts, and mollycoddles the boring and uncommunicative.’ So far, so cranky, but what he goes on to say is more in tune with the reformist zeal of the period. He proposes :
The abolition of the First Class Forum : instead the government should appoint a ‘board of directors to oversee a change from self-interested and parochial county-led administration’
The Counties should be split into three divisions, playing ten first-class matches a season, with the players to be provided from ‘fiercely competitive premier leagues around the country’.
The only full-time professionals would be an ‘elite national squad of about 24’ cricketers.
He ends by hoping that ‘Kate Hoey … could galvanise this project and be remembered as the sports minister who saved cricket’ (not, perhaps, what she will be primarily remembered for).
If Willis is Dantonesque, the next contributor, Christopher Lane, who was then Managing Director of WCM, goes the full Robespierre, scarcely less incandescent with rage than my Derby-based neighbour at the Oval. His piece ‘Abolish the County Pro’ is a locus classicus of the kind of visceral hatred for the county game that seems to have animated so many of those with a professional interest in cricket.
‘County cricket is an infectious disease, which quickly takes its debilitating grip on any young player who strays into its contaminated zone. Its mediocrity is not a symptom, but the cause of all the problems in English cricket. The 18 counties have ultimate control of every major aspect of English cricket, and as they will never contemplate culling themselves to eight or fewer, the only chance that English cricket has is for the top current players … to be divorced from county cricket.’
To achieve this, he proposes :
Five first-class teams, playing eight four-day games a year.
These teams to be made up of 55 professionals, contracted to ‘the controlling body’, 15 making up the senior squad, the others young players at an English Cricket Academy.
Unfortunately, he thinks, the counties are unlikely to give up ‘claiming the subsidies which provide a crutch to allow their hopeless businesses to struggle on’, which would ‘instantly produce a natural cull of their numbers’, and ‘more likely, county cricket will survive to clamp England at the bottom of the rankings for years to come. There is a narrow tunnel out of here. But is anyone prepared to grasp the nettle and lead the way?’ (perhaps grasping a torch might have been more useful).
Just in case we haven’t got the point, the third ‘radical solution’ is entitled ‘Merge the Counties’, in which John Brown (at the time the publisher of Viz and numerous in-house magazines, later the Chairman of the Wisden Group), ‘takes a businessman’s approach’. This would involve reducing ‘the number of professional teams to ten, merging eight adjacent pairs such as Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire’, playing nine games a season (‘admittedly diehard members might be put off, but they should be cancelled out by new fans attracted to the higher standard of cricket’). He also cheerfully admits (a true ‘businessman’s approach’) that ‘half the professionals in the game – from ground-staff to administrators – would lose their jobs, but this would be better than all of them over a longer period of time. Obviously … there would be many disgruntled people, but not nearly as many as there will be when the county game disappears into oblivion – which it will over the next 20 years if it does nothing to revitalise itself’.
Elsewhere in the magazine the dramatis personae of the next decade are beginning to emerge, like daffodil shoots in Winter. Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff (both classed as ‘batsmen who bowl’) are in the tour party for South Africa, as, a premature shoot, is Graeme Swann ; Ashley Giles is in the one-day squad ; Trescothick and Harmison (lauded as ‘very lively’ by Martin Bicknell) are in the A team. In Middlesex’s county notes Andrew Strauss is described by Mike Gatting as a ‘youngster’, who ‘needs more time to get up to speed’ ; a 17-year-old Ian Bell made a reasonable showing for the England U-19s against Australia. It is noted, in passing, that Duncan Fletcher, ‘who officially starts as coach in October’ helped to select the England side for the Oval Test.
There are various other features that might be construed as blows against the ‘forces of conservatism’. Tim de Lisle announces ‘just in time for the 21st century’ a Wisden website, which will offer an alternative to ‘the other stuff floating about, largely unedited, on the great ocean of the web’ (the term ‘blog’ was first used in 1999). This included ‘Ethic View’, shared between Orin Gordon (‘a Guyana-born BBC producer’) and Kamran Abbasi, who also contributes a militant ‘Asian View’ to the magazine (‘Imran Khan has more clout these days in Yorkshire than Lahore’), and a ‘Women’s Page’, by Tanya Aldred, who interviewed some of the ‘few women’ at the NatWest final. Now that the amount of ‘unedited stuff on the Web’ has grown, the comments of Holly Brown, 25, might attract some adverse comment from today’s ‘online community’ :
‘You can’t really blame the authorities. They need women to get off their arses and learn that there is more to life than shopping.’ (#arses #shopping)
The signs of a new dawn (or the shadow falling) are also visible in the Championship table, with half the counties (those who were destined for Division One in the next season) in the light, the others in the shade. (With three games to go, incidentally, Leicestershire, who had won the title the previous year, were in second place).
Admittedly, the ‘forces of conservatism’ were mounting a small rearguard action in the classified adverts, where the Dunkery Beacon Hotel in Wootton Courtenay advertised itself as offering touring teams ‘open-ended bar hours for gentlemen drinkers’ (as opposed to ladies or yobboes, presumably) and ‘comfortable beds (when needed)’, for those gentlemen who did not fancy spending all night in the bar.
Come the new Millennium, the ‘forces of conservatism’ were indeed forced to give ground in cricket, as elsewhere in the country. Central contracts were introduced in 2000, partly satisfying Christopher Lane’s demand that England cricketers should be quarantined from the infection of County cricket. The First Class Forum, as advocated by Bob Willis, voted itself out of existence in 2005, by which time, under the direction of Duncan Fletcher, England’s results had improved to the point where, as you may remember, England beat Australia in a series that was generally reckoned to have been the best-ever.
All of this had been achieved without reducing the number of counties (although WCM had taken its own advice and merged with ‘The Cricketer‘ in 2003) : county cricket had, pace Lane, survived, but England had not been ‘clamped at the bottom of the rankings for years’ ; in fact, although there have been ups and downs, they have generally been one of the better sides. So, given that ‘we’ were all agreed in 1999 that the purpose of the county game was to produce a successful England side, and that has been achieved, it would be reasonable to assume that the counties would now be safe, but in 2019, with the ‘Hundred’ in the offing, that is far from being the case. Reducing the number of counties, for the ECB and some die-hard progressives has, it seems, become less a means to an end than an end in itself, an article of faith.
What was not taken into consideration, or even hinted at, in the October 1999 issue (although it had been mooted) was the largest single threat to the ‘forces of conservatism’, the advent of T20, an invention of the ECB’s Marketing Manager, which was voted through (by 11 votes to 7) by the First Class Forum in 2003, shortly before their voluntary self-immolation. The scale of T20’s success, and its proposed, not unpredictable, mutation into the eight-County ‘Hundred’, has confused the issue considerably since the heady days of 1999, and, although some commentators would only confess to being conservative on pain of death, it is making conservatives of many erstwhile progressives.
One comparison I have previously made is that the introduction of T20 into English cricket resembles that of the cane toad into Queensland : the toads were imported from central America to control the native cane beetle, but, lacking any natural predators, multiplied uncontrollably and wrecked the local ecology. T20, too, was introduced with good intentions, and for a specific purpose, but has now run amok, pushing the native fauna of the Championship to the inhospitable extremities of its habitat.
Another amphibian-based comparison that occurs to me is the fable of the ‘Frogs who wanted a King’. The frogs asked Zeus for a King : he sent them a log. At first they were happy with this, but when they realised it was only a log, they mocked it mercilessly, and asked Zeus to send them a proper King. He next sent them a stork, which ate them. For the frogs, read the cricketing public ; for King Log, the MCC ; for the stork, the ECB. (Perhaps also, for frogs, read liberal commentators ; for King Log, Gordon Brown ; for the stork, Boris Johnson.)
And finally, the – I hope – untested – belief that it is possible to boil a frog without it complaining if you turn the heat up slowly enough. The loud and widespread complaints you can currently hear about the ‘Hundred’, from those who had been happy to applaud the establishment of the ECB, the abolition of the First Class Council, the introduction of central contracts, a two division championship, the Sky deal and the proliferation of T20 as blows against ‘the forces of conservatism’, sound to me like the frantic croaking of frogs who have, at the last moment, woken up to the fact that they are being boiled.
*I am not suggesting that this particular animus was directly influenced by Tony Blair, simply that the gospel of always looking forward, enthusiasm for ‘change’ as a good in itself, and reflexive hostility to conservatism in all its forms, seemed all-pervasive at the time, and Blair was its most prominent evangelist. Twenty years on he finds himself allied with that much-mocked epitome of the ‘forces of conservatism’, John Major, with his much-hated warm beer and long shadows on the county ground (both phrases from a speech urging continued membership of the European Union, which he could have made yesterday, to widespread acclaim from ‘progressives’). The creatures outside looked from progressive to conservative, and from conservative to progressive …
Pushing the Boundaries : Cricket in the Eighties / by Derek Pringle (Hodder & Stoughton, 1998)
You may have heard of the ‘New Statesman’ competition that asked for the most unlikely combination of author and title : the winner, famously, was ‘My Struggle’, by Martin Amis. An alternative suggestion might be ‘It’s Been a Lot of Fun’ (actually one of Brian Johnston’s many productions), by almost any recent England cricketer.
Although there have always been exceptions, readers of a cricketer’s autobiography used to know what they were in for : a plain (‘My Story’) or punning (‘A Spinner’s Yarn’) title, a discreet acknowledgement of the faithful ghost (‘with thanks to my old pal Ted Corns of the Bolton Evening Gazette for his assistance in writing this book’), then a largely untroubled progress from the cradle (‘Early Years’) to a well-deserved benefit and retirement. Shortly before the Statistical Section (‘with thanks to Irving Rosenwater’), there might be a conclusion along the lines of ‘It’s been a wonderful life, so here’s to cricket – the finest game in the world!”.
The ‘dairy of a season’ genre, which enjoyed a vogue in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties (Willis, Brain, Agnew and (particularly) Roebuck), may have suggested that the lot of a professional cricketer was not always a cloudlessly happy one, but the clouds were rarely darker than boredom, frustration, mild anxiety at a loss of form, or mounting irritation with team-mates. Actual mental illness was largely absent, from the text, at least (historical biographies, from Shrewsbury to Gimblett are another matter).
The first outright cricketing misery memoir I can remember reading was Graham Thorpe’s ‘Rising from the Ashes’, published in 2005. Largely concerned with his marital difficulties, it managed to convey the impression that playing cricket professionally would be an attractive option only if the alternative were being a galley slave. He also, I felt, cut a fairly unsympathetic figure, which was not the case with the title that really opened the floodgates for the genre, Marcus Trescothick’s ‘Coming Back to Me’, published in 2008.
By the time that his book came out it was, I think, common knowledge that Trescothick had retired from playing for England because he found the stress of it had driven him to depression, but the openness with which he described his illness was, at the time, rather shocking, and, as it was often said, brave. Since then, there have been similar accounts by Jonathan Trott, Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and, from earlier eras, Graeme Fowler and Robin Smith. This year’s film about England’s tour of Australia in 2013-4 was entitled ‘On the Edge’ (apparently of a collective nervous breakdown).
I am not seeking to belittle these books, or underestimate the positive effect that they have had in improving the public’s understanding of depression and anxiety. However, they do make me uneasy, in that I am reluctant to feel that I am deriving pleasure from watching a game which drives its participants to the verge of suicide. Even at the time, I found that tour of Australia increasingly hard to watch (or listen to, in my case), as it became clear that several of the English players were being subjected to intolerable mental strain, and were unravelling before our eyes (or ears).
I accept that this feeling is not universal among followers of cricket : there are those who like to think of cricketers as tragic heroes, whose every trip to the crease represents an existential crisis (among them some of our sports-writers). There are also those of us, however, who prefer to think, perhaps deludedly, that cricket ought to offer an escape from gloom, a comedy with occasional excursions into farce, albeit sometimes tinged with pathos. I think it is this latter group that has ensured the notable success of Derek Pringle’s ‘Pushing the Boundaries’.
Even from the cover, there is no mistaking Pringle’s book for a misery memoir, where convention dictates that the author is portrayed in full face, with an expression suggesting that the photographer has written ‘abyss of despair’ on his forehead, and invited the subject to stare into it. A monochrome Pringle is depicted in his delivery stride, watched, like a moth-eaten hawk, by that reliable guarantor of old school japes , Dickie Bird, in a kind of sepia wash. (Bird, in fact, only makes one appearance – the one about water springing up around the run-ups at Leeds, which you may have heard before).
Anyone still apprehensive that they might not be in for a cheerful read would be reassured by the preface, in which Pringle suggests that having played in the Eighties was like ‘being first in the queue at the January sales’, that it ‘wasn’t always pretty but it was a hell of a lot of fun’, and that ‘cricket was about fun, joy and self-expression, not the endless and often futile quest for constant self-improvement’. This period, he feels, came to an end with the arrival of ‘coach culture’, which he dates precisely to being made to do shuttle runs in 90 degree heat in India in 1990 (shortly before his retirement).
As a player, Pringle was classed as an all-rounder, initially miscast as the ‘New Botham’. Botham was one of the rare all-rounders who would have been picked for either discipline ; Pringle one of the more common type (particularly in England in the ‘eighties) who would not have been picked for either (in Test cricket), but was useful for plugging a gap. Not short of self-awareness, he soon abandoned any attempt to become the hoped-for swashbuckler, and settled for being a niggardly line-and-length seamer who could contribute some handy late-order runs. (He also returned his sponsored yellow Porsche to the garage, after Steve O’Shaughnessy had emptied a bucket of whitewash over it).
Looking at his Test career, it is hard to find much retrospective logic to his selection or non-selection. After his first year, when he was taken to Australia, he did not tour (his bowling was felt to be suitable only for English conditions), and came closest to playing a whole home series in 1986, while Botham was serving a ban after admitting to smoking cannabis. Pringle himself admits that ‘the selectors picked Beefy and me … on several occasions, yet at times it was difficult to see why’. Younger readers may also be surprised that a player with a Test batting average of 15, and only one 50 to his name, could be picked as an all-rounder, sometimes batting as high as no. 6. (In one-day cricket, to be fair, he was worth his place).
Purchasers of an old-style autobiography could be confident of finding two things : amusing anecdotes (sometimes gathered together at the end, shortly before ‘The Greatest of my Time’, under a chapter heading such as ‘The Lighter Side of Cricket’), and blow-by-blow accounts of some of the subject’s more memorable games (often cobbled together from old match reports in ‘Wisden’ by a conscientious ghost, to pad out a thin narrative). There are plenty of both in ‘Pushing the Boundaries’, although it is the anecdotes that are the selling point, as if Pring, in return for a few pints of Old Ratbiter, is prepared to tell the one about Derek Randall’s evening as a transvestite prostitute, but only after he has taken you through the closing stages of a tight Benson & Hedges quarter-final against Glamorgan in 1987.
Many of these anecdotes concern one of two subjects – women and alcohol – which tend to feature in new-style autobiographies in the context of ‘problems with’ : ‘by now my drinking was completely out of hand and, in retrospect, I don’t know how Karen put up with me for so long. I must have been very difficult to live with’. Pringle’s approach, on the other hand, is in line with his response to Somerset Chairman, Tony Brown, when asked to apologise for flicking a v-sign at a section of the Taunton crowd (who responded by pelting him with ‘lunchboxes and half-eaten drumsticks’) : ‘I give you the words of Edith Piaf – ‘Je ne regrette rien’’.
One of the few occasions when he does express a hint of regret occurs early on, when he discusses his pre-England relationship with ‘Claire’, a South African medical student, responsible for his notorious ear-stud : his only named paramour, she even qualifies for a photograph. In a rare excursion into Mills and Boon territory, he recalls
‘we shared a sleeping bag under clear desert skies. Naturally I told Andre that nothing had gone on, but heavy condensation on the bag the following morning suggested otherwise. … those seven heavenly days … stirred emotions hitherto dormant’.
Unfortunately, being selected for England turned his head, and, ‘selfish, small minded and weak-willed’ (he is not short of self-knowledge), Pringle threw her over for the shifting cast of air hostesses, ‘models’ (his inverted commas) and camp followers who flit in and out of the rest of the narrative.
Michael Atherton is quoted on the cover as saying that the book ‘is a love letter to … the greatest player of his generation, Sir Ian Botham’. It is true that Botham is a central character, and the source of some of the more lurid anecdotes (most of which prove that, if he took to you, ‘Beefy’ could be a generous, loyal and life-enhancing companion), but, if the book is a love letter to anything, it is one to ale. I think the last time I read a work with quite such a high level of alcohol consumption, it was a biography of Malcolm Lowry, or possibly an autopsy report.
There are the great set-pieces of intoxication, such as the night that he and Botham, after a ‘skinful’ in the local pub and ‘a few spliffs’, polish off a ‘61 Chateau Latour to accompany a late night supper of bacon and sausages, or the time that he drank 17 pints of Tetley’s bitter during the rest day of the 1986 Test against India at Headingley (leading J.K. Lever to dub him ‘Half Man Half Tetley’), but throughout there is the steady drip of alcohol, like water leaking from a cracked pipe. Nor was he alone in this : even the Essex scorer had ‘non-drinking days’, when he drank only two bottles of white wine, and ‘drinking days’, when he would sink at least three quarters of a bottle of whisky (‘preferably the Famous Grouse’).
Nothing disturbs the insouciance with which he surfs this river of booze, not even an encounter with a ‘permanently drunk’ and out-of-control Peter Cook on a trip to La Manga in aid of Botham’s benefit year. After recounting Cook’s atrocious behaviour, which ended in a well-deserved black eye from the wife of the boxer Jim Watt, he observes of this ‘functioning alcoholic’, ‘his actions lacked, utterly, … any kind of judgement or humanity’. Perhaps Pringle felt reassured that, however much Tetley’s he sank, he could never sink quite that low.
Cook is one of a number of non-cricketing celebrities who make cameo appearances. Elton John and Eric Clapton are two of the more predictable : more surreally, he also meets Siouxsie and the Banshees in the lobby of a Sydney hotel, sipping crème-de-menthe (which sounds like the result of a game of Consequences).
‘Sitting there like the Sphinx of Gaza, [she] rebuffed all attempts at conversation with a wall of silence, her disdain for something as unhip as a cricket team written all over her face.’
She might be similarly unimpressed to find herself in the index, between Singh, Maninder and Slack, Wilf.
Anyone pining for the old-school autobiography will be cheered by the reappearance of some familiar motifs, which tend to be thin on the ground in the more intense variety of memoir : snoring room-mates are dealt with in some detail, as are Keith Fletcher’s difficulty in remembering names, and long car journeys with team-mates who are terrible navigators, or who have conflicting musical tastes. He was, though, slightly too young to have been driven by Brian Close, which always used to be worth a couple of pages.
The only readers who might be disappointed would be puritans who resent the fact that anyone has ever enjoyed themselves without receiving some form of come-uppance, and, to be fair, those who prefer some element of profound self-reflection in their memoirs. One answer to the latter is simply that Pringle has chosen not to write that kind of book, and, as he is writing it himself, there is no-one to encourage him to do so. The death of his father in a car crash, the moment that would have prompted any self-respecting ghost to probe more deeply (‘so, Derek, how did you feel …?’) is passed over in a paragraph. He may not be an unreflective man, but he has not chosen to write a deeply self-reflective book. (It is also, perhaps, not irrelevant when he observes (of David Gower) that ‘like a lot of public schoolboys of that era, he thought it uncool to care too much about anything, especially something so footling as a game of cricket‘.)
It is, though, difficult for the reader to resist reflecting on the quite remarkable lack of angst, not to mention rancour (few, other than England physiotherapist Bernard Thomas (‘chief sneak to the selectors’) and the ‘sanctimonious clots that populate most national newspapers‘ receive less than generous treatment). Pringle’s own explanation is that the 1980s were a unique decade, when players had been freed from the quasi-feudal restrictions that had once prevailed, but had not yet been stifled by micro-management from over-mighty coaches, enabling ‘mavericks’ to flourish.
Earlier ‘mavericks’, from Lionel Tennyson to Denis Compton, might dispute that there was anything novel about the idea of an England tour as mobile bacchanalia, and there is some reason, on recent evidence, to suspect that excessive hedonism has not so much disappeared, as been forced underground, away from the scrutiny of, not so much the tabloid press (Botham’s nemesis), as its natural successor in combining prurience and sanctimony, social media.
While on the subject of snoring, Pringle does suggest, in passing, that ‘the depression that now seems to afflict so many modern cricketers appeared less prevalent when players shared rooms’ : I suppose being knocked onto his backside by an electric shock from Chris Lewis’ malfunctioning (and superfluous) hairdryer might have acted as an impromptu form of ECT.
Most players of any era, though, would have expressed some resentment at being dropped and called-up so many times, with so little apparent reason : the furthest Pringle goes is recording that his non-selection for the 1988-9 tour of India ‘hacked me off no end’. Some might have been more self-critical about not having made more of the opportunities he was offered (by, perhaps, laying off the ale during Test matches, or learning to swing the ball a little earlier in his career than 1989) : Pringle seems to have taken the robust attitude that he was lucky to have been in the side in the first place, and grateful that it offered him so many incidental benefits.
It must have helped that, before the age of central contracts, Pringle was not primarily an England player : he was an Essex player who was occasionally chosen to play for England. His place in the England team might have been precarious but he was a secure and valued member of the most successful county side of the decade, who seem to have been a companionable, and almost equally bibulous, collection, even if on a slightly smaller budget : some of his warmest, if least sensational, recollections, are of his Essex colleagues, and life on the, now sadly depleted, county circuit. Contemporary England players have fewer opportunities to escape from the spotlight in the company of friends in the familiar surroundings of a homely dressing room, or to refresh their skills in front of a smaller, and less exacting, audience.
When the last chapter, entitled ‘Endgame’, arrives, one might expect the tone to darken slightly, or at least turn a little wistful, but not a bit of it : rather than any lament for failing powers, the book ends abruptly, after an account of the 1992 World Cup final (one of his better games, in which his ten overs cost only 22 runs, and he took 3 wickets), simply noting that it was followed, shortly afterwards, by the retirements of Botham, Gower, Tavaré and Randall, and then himself. He does not quite drink a toast (or 17 pints of Tetley’s) to ‘cricket, the greatest game in the world’, but he does conclude :
‘I spent the next 20 years covering cricket instead of playing it – a job that was almost as much fun. Almost.’
The last time I saw Pringle was at Fenner’s, reporting on the game in which Surrey, lead by Kevin Pietersen, were defeated by the University. I seem to remember him rather ostentatiously standing up when Pietersen came into bat, some time before lunch, and announcing that he was heading to the pub (presumably one of his favourite local watering-holes) : he only returned some time after lunch, by which time Pietersen was out. I expect the presumed next volume of his memoirs, covering his time in the press-box, to be almost as much fun as the first.
Leicestershire CCC (155 & 191-3 dec.) v Lancashire CCC (170), County Championship, Grace Road, 23-26th September 2019
Regular readers (if any) may have detected of note of disenchantment creeping into my writings about cricket this season. Not disillusion (I have few illusions about the future of cricket in this country, or the likely place of Leicestershire within it), nor disappointment (my expectations were low enough), but a loss of enchantment. Perhaps this suggests an image of Disney’s Tinkerbell sprinkling fairy dust from her wand over the Meet, transforming it into a fairy-tale castle, but that it is not quite what I mean : I mean simply some vital spark to transform what I am often uncomfortably aware are a moderately talented collection of sportsmen struggling from contract to contract into something a little less mundane.
This game looked to be an improbable source of re-enchantment, featuring the two sides in Division Two whose final position was already secure : Lancashire, whose role in the ‘title race’ has been that of the electric hare, were certain to be Champions, Leicestershire nailed firmly to the wooden spoon (completing their set of three for the season), but for some reason – the feeling that we had better make the best of it while it lasts, or that, given the weather forecast, we were lucky to be seeing anything at all – or some trick of the light (and natural light, for what felt like the first time this season), I thought I felt a faint, but definite twitch upon the thread. And in a certain light, you could say that Leicestershire, unexpectedly, had the better of the game.
After overnight rain, I was surprised that play began on time, but it was no surprise that Lancashire chose to bowl on a wicket that was presumably moist, nor that Paul Horton made a third successive duck at Grace Road (the last two of them golden). Lancashire (clearly not keen students of my blog) began with a conventional field for Hassan Azad, who confidently, and uncharacteristically, drove Bailey for four in the second over. In the third, however, Gleeson brought in a short leg, and Hassan, his style cramped, patted a gentle catch back to the bowler. Ackermann lashed himself to the mast, weathering two overs from Bailey without scoring, before being prised off by Gleeson, for a second duck.
At 16-3, Gleeson seemed set to take all ten wickets before lunch (his journey from the honest journeyman I saw make his debut for Northants in 2015 has been remarkable), but, mercifully, he was replaced by Liam Hurt, and with the less exacting Bailey continuing at the Pavilion end, Leicestershire could relax a little. Cosgrove perhaps relaxed a little too much, edging an attempted cut on to his stumps for 17 (as his prolonged examination of the toe of his bat indicated, this can only have been the result of some kind of sabotage of his equipment).
With Gleeson away, Harry Dearden and George ‘Gritty’ Rhodes enjoyed a brief mouse’s playtime, as pleasantly surprised, perhaps, as I was to see Liam Hurt’s name on the scoreboard. Although originally from Lancashire, Hurt was briefly on the staff at Leicestershire in 2015, making a single one-day appearance, since when he has been a fixture on the 2nd XI triallist circuit, appearing for seven different counties. Although he has made some headway for Lancashire in white ball cricket this season, this was his first-class debut. It is good to see persistence rewarded, though his muscular, rather guileless, seamers posed little threat.
Playtime (not, in truth, very playful, with Rhodes and Dearden at the crease) ended immediately after lunch with the return of Gleeson, who bowled both Rhodes and his immediate successor Swindells, with the score on 82. This introduced the main bout of the afternoon, Parkinson v Parkinson. Of these twins, Lancashire’s Matthew bowls leg-breaks, and is much the better bowler ; Callum bowls slow left-armers, and has the minor compensation of being the better batsman. Apparently it is common for even identical twins (and they are indistinguishable by sight) to have different dominant hands, but it must sometimes have occurred to Callum, as he suffered from his twin’s feats of dexterity on the back lawn, that he had drawn the short genetic straw.
Rhodes and Dearden, who cannot have seen much serious leg-spin, had played Parkinson (M.) with the wary watchfulness of early European explorers encountering a previously unknown snake. The pitch was not conducive to dramatic turn (which I have seen him achieve elsewhere), but his drift and dip was as mesmeric as a cobra’s. With Rhodes gone, Parkinson (C.) combined a grim determination not to be outdone with, perhaps, inside knowledge acquired in infancy to survive the afternoon session. Dearden, who had batted for over two hours for his 30 (a reversion to his earlier style), was undone by a momentary lapse, and a rare ball that turned dramatically ; Ben Mike, who had displayed mature impulse control against Parkinson, relaxed it to flip a self-styled leg-break from Liam Livingstone, the last before tea, to Parkinson (M.) at square leg.
At tea, Parkinson (C.) could feel that he was having the better afternoon. What he did not know, but most of the crowd did, was that Matthew had been called up by England to tour New Zealand while they were on the pitch. Whether Matthew knew I am not sure, but twelfth man Saqib Mahmood (who had been similarly honoured) might have mentioned it when he ran on to offer him a drink (of energy fluids, I imagine, rather than champagne). Shortly after tea, Matthew completed his triumph by trapping his twin LBW ; I happened to be standing by the players’ entrance when Callum returned to the pavilion. He motioned to smash his bat against a railing (or possibly my head), but stayed his hand at the last moment, and disappeared into the interior, howling primal oaths. I suppose being knocked unconscious in a fit of geminicidal fury would have made a dramatic finale to what has been rather a dull season.
Gleeson, who had the incentive of taking more wickets for the season than Onions (more wickets than Graham Onions, I mean, not that he has been filching vegetables), finished the innings by bowling Klein, to claim 6-43. With the skies lowering, we had a brief taste of what it must be like to watch test cricket, as Wright bowled Keaton Jennings first ball. Leicestershire were, understandably, keen to continue, but the Umpires were not, and the day was prematurely terminated. Bearing in mind the forecast, I thought that it was it for the season, and I said my goodbyes, external and internal.
The second day was entirely rained off, and I was surprised to find myself back at the ground for 2.00 on the third, feeling as if I had been granted an unexpected lease of life ; by the end of the day, in the early evening, I felt mildly enchanted (it’s those long shadows, you know, those darned long shadows), although I could not directly attribute that to anything that had occurred on the pitch. By the end of the day, there was still a faint hope that Leicestershire might achieve another of their freakish, consolatory, end of season victories, such as that against Glamorgan in 2016, or Durham last year, if only because Lancashire, with their Championship already securely in their bag, seemed to be adopting an increasingly half-hearted, if not half-arsed, attitude.
Following Jennings, none of Davies, Bohannon (Bohannon! Bohannon!), Livingstone, Jones or Vilas (who also dropped more than one catch) could muster more than 20 against Leicestershire’s depleted seamers (even Mark Cosgrove was granted an over, to general merriment). Ben Mike, who has only really impressed this season when on loan to Warwickshire, offered some hope for next season, but then he did that last year too. At 77-6, perhaps waking up to the possibility that they might lose their unbeaten record, Steven Croft and Liam Hurt (in his major contribution) knuckled down to compile an eighth wicket partnership of 80, to equal Leicestershire’s total.
When Matthew Parkinson appeared at no. 10, Callum Parkinson (perhaps the only player on the pitch (other than Gleeson) with any real motivation) was brought on to bowl, and immediately had him LBW, offering some fertile material for students of twin studies, and cricket statisticians. Callum’s 2-0, as opposed to his twin’s 2-32, may have granted him temporary seniority, within the family at least. With Leicestershire 40 without loss at the close, 25 ahead, there was still the faint hope that the last might fleetingly pose as first in another sense.
The loss of the first hour of the fourth day meant the probable end to any hope of a result. Leicestershire at least gestured in the direction of making a game of it : Hassan Azad, unmolested by short legs, leg gullies or silly points, moved serenely in the direction of a century, while Colin Ackermann took advantage of some indifferent bowling to fall slightly short of his half-century. Once it was clear that no early declaration would be forthcoming, the only questions were whether Hassan Azad could make another hundred, and Gleeson could claim a fourth wicket, to make it ten for the match, or six to make it 50 for the season. I thought this might, at least, mean that they span it out until five.
At four o’clock, a fine, final, rain began to fall, and Leicestershire declared, with Azad on 82, and Gleeson still with only three wickets. Some covert calculation allowed them to shake hands and head eagerly to the pavilion, Lancashire receiving an ovation from their impressive travelling support, for their performances over the season, presumably, rather than in this match. Hassan Azad received more subdued, if heartfelt, acclaim from the remaining Leicestershire supporters. As I had already said my goodbyes to the ground and the season, I set off for home without any particular emotion.
So … to be continued? Well, possibly. Even given their current financial state, which is apparently more parlous than usual, Leicestershire should be able to keep going for another season. If so, I hope to be there – although there would come a point, if the first-class schedule is further buggered about in the interests of accommodating ‘The Hundred’, where I would have to question whether it is worthwhile renewing my membership (I do know, as they say, when I am not wanted).
Even so, I am not sure whether I shall continue to write about it. As much as I complain about the players apparently going through the motions, I sometimes, uneasily, suspect that I am as guilty of that as they are, and – God knows – there are other things in the world to write about than cricket. But I shall have to see how I feel when the new season approaches, and wait for a firmer, more unmistakeable twitch upon that thread.
Leicestershire CCC (308 & 189) v Northamptonshire CCC (357 & 142-3), County Championship, Grace Road, 10-13 September 2019
Leicestershire lost by 7 wickets
Keeping the flag flying
The cliché that comes to mind, as Leicestershire’s season approaches its end, is the one about light at the end of the tunnel. Watching their progress has certainly too often resembled stumbling through the deep gloom of an abandoned railway tunnel, although – to be fair – with less danger of being run into by a manic cyclist, or bitten by a rat. As always, at the end of a season, the optimist will glimpse some points of light, some hope that next year might be better than this : the pessimist may feel that the main cause for optimism is that we will not have to witness another Leicestershire defeat for the next six months.
The brightest point of light in the season past, by some measure, has been the form of Hassan Azad, who, at the time of writing, has made more runs than any other English batsman* (and, according to one keen statistician, occupied the crease for longer). Given that he was only offered a contract at the start of the season, at the age of 25, this is remarkable. However, batsmen who have remarkable first seasons tend to attract attention, with plans being devised to counter them, and, in spite of the fact that he made 86 in the first innings, I thought there were worrying signs that Northamptonshire had discovered a key to snuffing his light out.
Although the precise configuration of the field varied, Northants’ strategy, in the first innings, was to offer Hassan the chance to play his two favourite scoring strokes – the clip off his hips and the off-side steer – but only through narrow channels through a phalanx of slips and gullies (on both leg and off sides). For close to four hours, he found those channels with what football commentators describe as ‘slide-rule precision’ (a metaphor that has survived the obsolescence of the technology), miscalculating only once, when he was dropped at leg gully by Dougie Bracewell.
We’ve got you surrounded!
Bracewell, summoned from New Zealand as a last minute replacement for Kemar Roach, appeared still to be recovering from the flight, the waywardness of his bowling a temptation even to Hassan, let alone the now conspicuously in-form Cosgrove. Bracewell’s beard and general swarthiness do, however, mean that he fits in well with Northants’ battery of brisk-to-medium pacers (Sanderson, Proctor, Hutton and the newly arrived Berg), who would not look out of place crewing a pirate ship on the Spanish main.
Leicestershire’s innings followed the overly familiar script. Paul Horton lasted two balls and Ackermann (it being Cosgrove’s turns to make the runs) patted Berg’s first ball to point. When Cosgrove and Azad had taken the score to 150-2, Cosgrove, to his apparent astonishment, was bowled by Sanderson, and Hassan, to the astonishment of everyone, was bowled shortly afterwards by Proctor. Dexter, who seems to be fading out of the game like a ghost, was only visible for one ball. 183-5.
At this point there was a welcome variation in the script. George Rhodes, a recent acquisition from Worcestershire, was described by Paul Nixon as having been signed to ‘add a bit of grit to the middle order’, which, as he correctly diagnosed, has been lacking it recently. Watched by his father Steve, he displayed the requisite grit by batting for a little over four hours to make an unbeaten 61 ; the lower order chipped in to take the total to 308.
If Rhodes represented a pinprick of light (it was good that he made a career best score on his debut, less encouraging that 61 is his career best), a brighter flare was the debut of Alex Evans. An academy product and student at Loughborough, currently rather gangling, with a long run and a whirling action, he followed a nervously loose first over with the early wickets of Newton and Wakely. If nothing else, it was a delight to see someone whose wickets seemed to bring him so much pleasure.
There followed one of those long, balmily soporific, afternoons when nothing much seems to happen and thoughts, along with early Autumn leaves, start to drift, that, in some ways, epitomise the pleasures of watching County cricket. Unfortunately, when I awoke from my reverie (or doze), the nothing that had happened was Leicestershire not taking the wickets of Keogh or Rossington, the pair having put on a stand of 148 to take the score from 156-4 to 304-5, and the game away from Leicestershire’s loose grasp. To their credit, the bowlers restricted the final total to 357, encouragingly short of my prediction of 400. I don’t believe, though, that a single Leicestershire supporter would, if attached to a lie-detector, have predicted a home victory.
Leicestershire’s second innings was the same again, only with the unwelcome subtraction of runs from Hassan Azad. This time, Northants, rather than offering opportunities for risky runs, blocked up his channels completely by inserting a fine leg and third man, and invaded his personal space with a silly point and a short leg. Blocked in, like a badger in his sett, and with no opportunities for risk-free runs, he stopped scoring altogether, making a solitary run from the first ten overs. In the twelfth over, a ball from Berg leaped up at him a little and he edged to slip.
Northants also seemed to have an idea that he might be vulnerable to the short ball, and he received a few from over the wicket (as a left-hander). As Charlie Shreck discovered to his cost, attempting to intimidate Hassan can have unwelcome consequences, but they succeeded in hitting him twice, once on the shoulder, turning his back on the ball, and once on the helmet, ducking into one that kept a little low (luckily he came through the concussion protocol, because we would have had difficulty finding a like-for-like replacement). I hope none of the other Counties were taking notes (or reading this), or he (and we) may have a testing time next season.
Come out with your hands on your head!
After that … well you could, if you felt so inclined, write it yourself. Horton lasted half as long as he had in the first innings. Cosgrove looked certain of a big score before – to his horrified amazement – being given out LBW for 8. Ackermann (it being his turn) made a cultured and responsible 60, there was a stand of 51 between Dexter and Parkinson that ensured the game would stretch to a fourth day, and there was a slight twitch of the tail – 187 all out. Dexter’s 42 earned him an appreciative but subdued response : if, as seems possible, that was his last first-class innings, the end was in keeping with what has been a fine, but, I think, sometimes under-appreciated career.
The Umpires distinguished themselves in this innings by equalling the world record for LBWs given (eight). One consequence of the introduction of DRS has been to demonstrate how difficult it is for even experienced Umpires to adjudicate accurately on LBWs from 22 yards away, so, from the boundary and a variety of oblique angles, I could not argue with their decisions, but, equally, I do wonder whether all of them would have survived close scrutiny. Only Cosgrove expressed much surprise at having been given out, but no more so than he usually does when he has been bowled.
On the last day, Leicestershire did not suggest much awareness that they were defending a target of 141, as opposed to 341. Slow left-armer Callum Parkinson, who is inexorably turning into a white ball specialist, was given a longer spell than usual, and bowled economically – but that seemed rather beside the point. With Mohammad Abbas absent, and unreplaced, the best chance of bowling Northants out might have been the wild debutant Evans : encouragingly he took a wicket in his two overs – less encouragingly, he was ruled out from the next game with a strain. Cannily, the Umpires delayed lunch until Northants had won, prompting Wakely and noted trencherman Richard Levi (who had earlier struck an interesting fashion note by wearing a cap on top of his sunhat) to polish the innings off.
As I write, Northamptonshire have won again against Durham, and look very likely to be promoted (while Leicestershire are feebly attempting to stave off the inevitable in Cardiff **). I am pleased for Northants (if nothing else, with Nottinghamshire relegated, it means that I will have some Division One cricket within reasonable travelling distance), but it does prompt the question of why they can do it and we cannot – given that there is no obvious reason why they should have better resources, and indeed, like us, have had their best players (Duckett and Gleason) filched by richer counties.
One factor might be that, when Northants recruit from other Counties, they find players who are in the prime of their careers, rather than at the end, or the beginning, as Leicestershire tend to do. They have also made canny use of the loan system to supplement a small squad. However, the major difference seems to come down to intangibles, such as momentum and team spirit : strict rationalists may consider both to be phooey, but – like a fragment of the True Cross – it doesn’t half put a spring in the step of sides who believe that they possess them. I would have thought the one thing that Paul Nixon could be relied upon to instil in his sides would be spirit, but, it appears, we haven’t had that kind of spirit here since 1998.