Half Man Half Tetley

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.

First and Last

Leicestershire CCC (155 & 191-3 dec.) v Lancashire CCC (170), County Championship, Grace Road, 23-26th September 2019

Match drawn

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.

Winter well!

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The End of the Tunnel

Leicestershire CCC (308 & 189) v Northamptonshire CCC (357 & 142-3), County Championship, Grace Road, 10-13 September 2019

Leicestershire lost by 7 wickets

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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.

Azad field

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.

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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.

* He has since been overtaken by Sibley.

** They failed.

PTDC0817

Look, I told you – light!

Chewed-up Balls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This proved to be prophetic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Darkness Visible

Leicestershire (120 & 168) v Derbyshire (139 & 214), Grace Road, County Championship, 27-30 May 2019

Derbyshire won by 65 runs

If a marketing department, charged with devising a new cricket-flavoured product that would appeal to a wider audience, were asked to describe the antithesis of what they were after, this match would have had most of the essential elements. A four day game that would have been over in three, had it not been stretched by frequent breaks for rain, played mostly under lights because of low-lying cloud ; one fifty, and only three other innings of over forty (all compiled methodically by the same two batsmen) ; only one total of over 200 ; no sixes – a scorecard from a past era.  So, I should have enjoyed it.

I would have enjoyed it more had Leicestershire ever seemed likely to approach close enough to their fourth innings target of 234 to provide some element of dramatic tension (or ‘jeopardy’, as the moderns have it) ; instead, they fell short by 65 runs, leaving me to thumb through the thesaurus in search of synonyms for ‘weary sense of inevitability’, and look for something else to do, with what, frustratingly, was a perfect afternoon for cricket, after three days of darkness and showers.

Leicestershire spirits were at their highest, perhaps, at the end of Derbyshire’s first innings ; having chosen to bat, the visitors were bowled out for 139, which seemed, at the time, to be a testament to the (undeniable) strength of our seam bowling. By the end of the day, with Leicestershire on 55-4, and Ackermann already dismissed, it seemed more a tribute to the inability of batsmen on both sides to cope with some good, but not truly outstanding, fast-medium seam bowling in what were helpful, but not unusual, conditions for England in May. It would be a low-scoring game.

When play resumed the next day, there was some hope that Leicestershire might achieve a first innings lead, but only if Hassan Azad and Harry Dearden could stay in. The ability to stay in has, until recently, been Dearden’s most obvious talent, but on this occasion it deserted him with the score on 82 (perhaps he should now be classed as a ‘one-day specialist’). With Tom Taylor missing through injury, and Dieter Klein (a hit or miss batsman) unusually high in the order at eight, this exposed a last five who managed thirteen runs between them. Hassan Azad, in his fourth Championship match, was forced to play the elder statesman, and must have been tactfully exasperated to be left stranded on 46 not out, having as good as carried his bat. The total was 120.

The bowlers whom Leicestershire had found so hard to play were Antonio ‘Tony’ Palladino (5-29) and Logan van Beek (3-20). Palladino is nearly thirty-six and an archetype of the kind of English seam bowler who is expected to take wickets in the English early season ; although I appreciate that it is easier said than done, you would have thought that anyone with aspirations to play County cricket would have evolved some strategy to play bowlers of his type. Hassan Azad’s seems to have been to listen to all the favourite truisms of junior coaches of the old school – ‘keep your head still’, ‘watch the ball on to the bat’, ‘straight bat’, ‘wait for the bad ball’ … but if I carry on too far down that route I shall find myself saying ‘it’s not rocket science’ (and smoking a pipe).

Another heavy shower (in real time this narrative would have been punctuated by them) after tea prompted me to leave for home : the prospect of play resuming, if it ever did, seemed likely to promise only a few hours in near-drizzle, watching Derbyshire, having been let off the hook, wriggle off to swim to a comfortable lead (they reached 106-2). In fact, as usually happens in these circumstances, Leicestershire offered enough hope to make returning the next day seem worthwhile by taking six quick wickets in a final session that extended well into the early evening (ah, the roller-coaster of emotions!). I would not, though, in all honesty, say that I regretted my decision.

As sure as night follows day, a successful evening session was followed, the next morning, by the Derbyshire tail-enders being allowed to stretch the target for victory from 179 to 234 (Palladino and van Been – those maverick NYC crime-fighters – again being the culprits).

The most memorable aspect of Leicestershire’s reply were two – in the circumstances – culpably unnecessary strokes from Horton and Cosgrove that must have had Hassan Azad, who was again forced to watch helplessly from the other end, averting his eyes to avoid embarrassing his seniors.  In fairness, Horton’s shot seemed marginally more explicable in the replay than it had from the mid-wicket boundary ; from there he had looked to have been bowled trying to smash a straight delivery over long off, missed and been bowled (in fact, it had pitched outside off and he had edged it on to his stumps).

Cosgrove’s looked poor from any angle. He had taken the lead in putting on 58 with Azad, negotiating the seam in a composed and responsible fashion, when Derbyshire invited Wayne Madsen to bowl a few overs of his net-quality off-breaks (four overs of which comprised the only spin of the game). Setting a trap, so ill-disguised that it should not have snared a partially sighted heffalump, Madsen allowed Cosgrove to loft one drive into the sight screen, in the sure and certain hope that he would try to repeat the stroke two balls later and be caught at long on. When precisely this occurred, even Cosgrove did not have the effrontery to perform his usual dumbshow of disbelief, but traipsed off shame-faced, while his young partner took a keen interest in the buckling of his pads. Cosgrove ought to be – and generally is – a better batsman than that.

Even so, and even when Ackermann was bowled by a genuinely fine swinging delivery from the mellifluous Luis Reece, a disinterested observer would still have backed Leicestershire, on 110-4 at the close of play, to overhaul the target of 234 on the final day. Not being disinterested, I would have settled for a couple of sessions in the sun (and, at last, there was sun) watching my side make a valiant attempt at the total, even if they were to fall slightly short. But, in place of hope, there was that ‘weary sense of inevitability’ I mentioned earlier (or perhaps ‘fatigued feeling of inescapability’, by way of variation).

Hassan Azad and Harry Dearden, who again bore the burden of reviving the innings on their youthful shoulders, offered a brief respite from the sense of hopelessness by still occupying the crease at 11.30, but both fell to Reece shortly afterwards (the lifting of the cloud cover did not seem to have inhibited his ability to swing the ball). None of the later batsmen had anything to offer, and the game ground to a halt at 12.30, leaving me time to catch the second half of the 2nd XI game at Kibworth on the way home, so at least I had my afternoon in the sun. Many of the spectators had cut their losses by going straight there.

This game was the first of six Championship games in seven weeks, three of them at home and one at Northampton, before we are thrown out of the T20 window. They find us in the odd position of having two sets of good seam bowlers (Gavin Griffiths, bowling well in the Toose, must be champing on the bit), but very little batting, which is like having two nice shirts, but no trousers.

As I write, we are battling (not unvaliantly, in fairness) to avoid an innings defeat against Lancashire : I see we have abandoned the experiment of opening with Ateeq Javid (I hope he can find some other role), and adopted my pre-season suggestion of substituting Swindells for Hill in four-day cricket. There have been hints of revival from Horton and Cosgrove, and we must hope for a long, hot Indian Summer from both, and the returning Dexter, otherwise, barring some shrewd activity in the loan market, I may find the prospect of not returning to Grace Road until late September (or at all) more of a relief than I would wish.

See you on the other side (probably).

 

 

Shades of the Prison House

Leicestershire CCC (312-8) lost to Derbyshire CCC (266-3) by DLS

Leicestershire CCC (261-9) lost to Northamptonshire CCC (290-6) by 29 runs

Leicestershire CCC (340) beat Warwickshire CCC (304) by 36 runs

All at Grace Road in the RL50, 24th April, 4th May & 6th May 2019

IMG_20190504_142049 (2)

I was originally expecting to miss most of this competition through enforced attendance at Leicester Crown Court (I shall tell you about my secret life as a criminal mastermind another time)*, so that I managed to catch the majority of the home games lent a pleasing feeling of stolen pleasures to what might otherwise have been a forgettable and soon-forgotten series of games. Being among people who would not wish to be anywhere other than where they are is a mood-enhancing aspect of days at the cricket, but having something to contrast them with accentuates it : work used to do the job nicely, a few days in court worked well too.

I felt that there should have seemed something momentous about what were, it appears, likely to be the last series of one-day games to be contested by full county sides : the shades of Ted Dexter, David Hughes, Brian Langford and other luminaries should have hovered mournfully over the ground, softly lamenting golden days gone by – but not so.

The format of the one-day competition has been mucked about with so frequently over the last twenty or so years that there is now no sense of continuity about it. Supporters of the winning team in the County Championship are at least dimly aware that they are part of a line that stretches back to 1890 (or 1873, if you prefer) :  if Somerset were to win it this year, their supporters would know that it would be for the first time. It is hard to say whether the RL50 is the inheritor of the old Gillette Cup, or the John Player League (or even the superfluous Benson and Hedges Cup, the one it most resembles in terms of format, and – this year – its iceland slot in April). Any fule kno that Yorkshire has won the most Championships : I doubt whether the most persistent badger could tell you who has won the most one-day trophies**.

The current format also meant that none of the competitors in Leicestershire’s last two home games had any chance of qualifying for the next round : not only was there a lack of dramatic tension, but Warwickshire, at least, jumped the gun on fielding a ‘development’ team by omitting most of their senior players.

I am not certain, in any case, how many of those who turned up for the ‘Family Fun Day’ on the Saturday, or even the Bank Holiday Monday game, would have been aware of the ECB’s plans for next season, or that they were witnessing a mildly historic occasion. They were trying bravely, in the face of mild hostility from the weather (the most consistent performer in this year’s competition was N.E. Wind), to have a good day out for a pound, and I imagine they’ll be back next year too, ‘development competition’ or not, as long as one side is billed as ‘Leicestershire’, there are enough juvenile distractions, and Towcester cheesecake still for tea. We all dream of the platonic day at the cricket (in whatever form), and we are not that easily discouraged.

Leicestershire saved their really abject defeats for the away games, so a purely home supporter’s impression of their performance would not have been be too unfavourable : two wins, two defeats (and neither by shameful margins). The Derbyshire game was one that I was expecting to miss in its entirety, but managed to catch the Leicestershire innings : given the confidence with which the forecasters had predicted rain, I was not expecting there to be a Derbyshire innings, and I’m not sure they did either. When I had to leave, they seemed to be taking care to keep slightly ahead of the DLS target (helpfully displayed on the scoreboard) : in the event, I believe, the rain did arrive, but cleared unexpectedly, and Derbyshire were left to scramble for their win off the last ball, as if they had arrived early for a train, but had lingered too long in the café. They had lost only three wickets, and only one to a Leicestershire bowler.

In the innings I did see, Leicestershire had made 312-8, 119 of them by Colin Ackermann, who currently looks to belong in a different class to his colleagues (perhaps the one that will be drafted into ‘The Hundred’). Harry Dearden will have been disappointed to make only 36 (not a sentence I could have imagined writing a year ago), and Aaron Lilley hit two successive sixes, in an innings of 23 that would have been better suited to a T20, before knocking down his own wicket. Otherwise, Leicestershire’s batsmen mostly brought their own demise against a motley attack, which began with Wayne Madsen’s sluggish part-time off-spin, joined by two teenage seamers and some more batting than bowling all-rounders, whom Captain Godelman shuffled almost by the over, perhaps to create the impression that he had more bowlers than there really were.

The Northamptonshire game (which had been chosen for the Family Fun Day) saw the reappearance of Mohammad Abbas, whose return has been awaited with the fervour that messianic sects reserve for the return of their saviour. He bowled well enough, if a little in need of a squirt of WK40. It also saw the disappearance of Paul Horton, replaced as Captain by Colin Ackermann : I have not dwelled on Horton’s form, but, although he may still have a few fifties left in him, I would not be surprised if the replacement became permanent in other forms of the game in due course.

Northants, who batted first, fielded a potentially explosive top three in Vasconcelos, Levi and Cobb (no longer in the Mr. Creosote sense, in Levi’s case, as he seems to have slimmed down a little). Dieter Klein, whose effectiveness can decline the longer he bowls, bowled Vasconcelos in his first over, and Levi, rumbling like Vesuvius, drove Abbas straight to mid-off. Josh Cobb, in the ‘it’s-the-way-I-play’ style we remember well from his days at Grace Road, tried to silence Stench’s airhorn with a massive hack at Klein, when on one : unfortunately, the only sunlight of the day happened to be in Harry Dearden’s eyes, and he was dropped, as he was in similar fashion by Mike when he had made two.

Having been dropped twice, Cobb continued to menace low-flying birds, with some success, until a firmly hit drive was plucked from the air by Harry Munsey, the young Scotsman who had been drafted in to replace Paul Horton (his most significant achievement in the two games he was to play). Captain Wakely, who had steadied his ship after the early turbulence, was LBW to Callum Parkinson, who was flighting the ball nicely, and must have been relieved to bowl so economically, after some of the pastings he took last year.

During the most significant partnership of the day, of 156 between Keogh and Tom Curran, more of the crowd were inside than out, coinciding, as it did, with a hail storm, and the height of the ‘fun’ (including a display of exotic animals in the Bennett End bar, to rival the usual one in the Fox Bar). It also coincided with lunch time, and I am not ashamed to say that I spent most of it in The Meet enjoying another Lewis Hill Burger. My view of the action was largely obscured, but whatever Keogh and Curran were doing on the field was obviously effective.

By the time Leicestershire began their reply, the hail had cleared, the temperature was merely uncomfortably chilly, and the families, beginning to tire of the ‘fun’, were drifting home for tea : by the fifth over, with only 15 runs on the board and both openers gone, anyone desperate for a home win must have been tempted to follow them. There are sides, packed with middle-order ‘gun bats’, who would have been capable of simultaneously consolidating and accelerating from such a poor start, but ours are low-calibre, and, in spite of some worthy contributions from Ackermann, Taylor and Mike, the total traipsed along behind the required run-rate, at a respectful distance, to a 29 run defeat.

The final game, against Warwickshire felt more like a foretaste of things to come than a fitting end to the one-day era. Warwickshire were lacking Bell, Ambrose, Hain, Brookes, Sidebottom, Norwell, Stone and Woakes (some through injury) : Leicestershire, mindful that another defeat would be a blow to morale, fielded their first choice team. The crowd was meagre for a Bank Holiday : some, no doubt, deterred by the deadness of the rubber and the absence of stars, but most, I’d guess, by the greyness of the skies and the lack of sun.

The bulk of Leicestershire’s 340 runs came from the three batsmen who have most impressed this year. The word ‘imperious’ does not naturally attached itself to Harry Dearden, but there was something of that quality about his handling of the seamers, whom he punched blithely through the covers on his way to 69. He is, understandably, more wary of spin, and was characteristically unlucky to receive the ball of the tournament from Jeetan Patel, one which Dearden quite reasonably expected to hit leg stump (if that) but straightened to removed his off peg instead.

Ackermann’s 74 came as no surprise, and it took Patel himself to remove him. I had no idea that Tom Taylor was such an accomplished batsman (I’ll refrain from saying the same about Dearden), and it was only a piece of low comedy that prevented him making a maiden century. A straight drive to take him from 98 to 100 was deflected by the bowler on to non-striker Parkinson’s stumps, bringing last man Mohammad Abbas to the crease in the last over. Abbas may be one of the world’s ten best bowlers, but he is also one of the ten worst batsman, and was bowled before he could return the strike to Taylor.

Warwickshire opened with Sibley and Pollock, like a greengrocer putting his best fruit at the top of the pile to conceal the lower quality produce beneath (not that the batsmen to follow were rotten, just mostly unripe). Unusually, it was not clear until about the twentieth over who was going to win. The openers began fluently, but Sibley was cut off in full flow by a toe-crusher from Klein, and Pollock, the man most likely to accelerate the scoring above the required rate, was bowled by a ball from Parkinson that Jeetan Patel might, in other circumstances, have appreciated .

Rob Yates, however, an auspicious 19-year-old debutant, seemed worryingly at ease with the bowling, and was only removed by fellow youth Ben Mike inadvertently obstructing him as he turned for a second run, when on 66. After that, the innings began to run down like a clockwork rabbit powered by cheap batteries, and with it the match, and the competition.

Given that Leicestershire had narrowly shaded Northants for the wooden spoon, that ending felt surprisingly hopeful. Morale will not have been broken, as we turn gratefully to an extended period of Championship cricket : apart from Ackermann, Dearden and Taylor, Klein finished as the leading wicket-taker, Lewis Hill made a century, Ben Mike had a few good moments and Parkinson bowled well enough to have had a better return. Mark Cosgrove’s form is the major concern : that opening salvo against Worcestershire now looks less like a man in the form of his life than one trying to bluff his way out of a slump.

Looking forward to next year, I am not sure that the prospects for one-day cricket are too bleak, from a purely selfish point of view (I understand why supporters of the larger counties would not agree) . Although, in the long term, I think the advent of ‘The Hundred’ can only damage the smaller counties (indeed, that may be one of its primary purposes), in the short term, a competition stripped of its stars will, at least, improve Leicestershire’s chances of winning. It will also be nice for T20 deniers to have some cricket to watch at the height of Summer, when the prospects of a wind-free day of ‘Family Fun’ will also be increased.

Anyway, I am sure it will be a lot more enjoyable than being in prison.

* Actually, jury service.

** For the record, it’s Lancashire, with 16.

Apocalypse Postponed

Leicestershire CCC (302 & 233) v Worcestershire CCC (553-6 dec.), County Championship, Grace Road, 11-14 April 2019 Worcestershire won by an innings & 18 runs

Leicestershire CCC (377-4) v Worcestershire CCC (339 all out), RL50, Grace Road, 21st April, 2019 Leicestershire won by 38 runs

Strolling around Grace Road before the Championship game began, I happened to observe a tabby cat having a rather elaborate crap in the Milligan Road flowerbeds (I bet you don’t get that quality of pre-match entertainment at the IPL). It is a pity that Leicestershire’s management team did not have an augur on hand to interpret this omen before choosing to bat (I had been expecting to see Worcestershire bowl, but a game of after-you-Cecil-no-after-you-Claude had led to a toss, which Leicestershire had won). Apparently coach Nixon and captain Horton had wanted to bat, bowling coach Mason to bowl : I accept that you would not generally want to pick an argument with Matt Mason, but, in retrospect, it was a pity Nixon and Horton did not press their case harder.

For the first few overs, the point had seemed moot. Fresh from his success against Sussex, Tom Taylor seemed to finding a little movement out of the air, and openers Mitchell and Fell were appropriately respectful. The first changes in the bowling brought apparent vindication for Mason : Fell seemed to be beaten for pace by Davis and Ben Mike had his replacement, D’Oliveira, caught in the slips. Mike is still at the new puppy stage where every new experience is a joy and he expects everything he attempts to succeed. This belief must have been sorely tested throughout a long morning and afternoon of bowling at Daryl Mitchell and Hamish Rutherford, who put on 166 between them.

In my preview of the season, without the aid of augurs, I feared that, in the absence of Mohammad Abbas, a batsman who could play one of our seamers could play all of them, and that man was Daryl Mitchell. A pack of English seamers pursuing Mitchell across the wastes of Grace Road has the quality of a pack of wild dogs pursuing a wildebeest for hours across the Serengeti, with the difference that the unfortunate ruminant will eventually tire, whereas, in Mitchell’s case, it tends to be the bowlers. His centuries (this was the 36th of his career) resemble a volley from a firing squad, in that, although none of the individual shots may stick in the mind, the over all effect is devastating. His innings ended with the third ball after tea, when he absent-mindedly (perhaps still savouring the after-taste of one of Mr. Stew’s macaroons) flicked an off-break from Ackermann to slip.

By now, the newly-laid pitch, enigmatic at the start, had revealed its true character as a bit of a pudding, and the Worcestershire batsman queued up, as tray-bearers at a cafeteria, to eat their fill. Rutherford completed his own century, and Wessels made 43. There was a second moment of triumph for Ben Mike as he had Whitely tripping over his own feet in being trapped lbw on 49 : the exuberance of his celebration gave reassurance that his spirit had not been entirely crushed. As the game entered far into the second day, and a nasty, insinuating north wind crept into every corner of the ground, penetrating the stoutest of anoraks, Worcestershire’s acting Captain Ben Cox deferred declaring until he had made a century of his own : this having been duly completed, the innings closed on 553-6, leaving Leicestershire needing 403 to avoid the follow-on.

With the options being an innings defeat, or dying from a lampreyish surfeit of runs of the kind that was being served up at Sophia Gardens, the postponed Brexitapocalypse that had been scheduled for Friday evening might have provided a welcome distraction. As it was, Leicestershire without batting especially badly in either innings, never looked capable of accumulating enough runs to avoid defeat, which was postponed for just long enough to allow the crowd to enjoy their Sunday lunches.

With the exception of Captain Paul Horton, all of the top five batsmen made one half century and one single figure score. In the first innings, Ateeq Javid showed a good grasp of what was required by taking close to five hours to score 67 : a nervy character, who never looks entirely comfortable at the crease, he has adapted to his new role as an opener by adopting (or exaggerating) a square-on, bottom-handed gouging style of batting, that will be forgiven for as long as it is effective. Apart from his century against Loughborough, this was only his second half century for the Foxes, and, in the second innings, Morris found a way through his determined defence to bowl him for five.

Hassan Azad, on the other hand, makes a virtue of his limited range of strokes (his Twitter handle is ‘Bat pad man’) : in the first innings he had little opportunity to show what is incapable of, falling lbw to Morris off his fifth ball, but in the second he accumulated with a prudence that would have impressed Mr. Dawes Junior to make a second Championship half-century. As Charlie Shreck will attest, his chaste resistance to temptation brings out the devil in fast bowlers, and Tongue subjected him to a succession of unusually threatening bouncers, all of which he prudently swayed away from, until the nastiest of the lot struck him on the glove on its way to the gully.

Leicestershire have two batsmen of genuine quality – Cosgrove and Ackermann – who rarely seem to make substantial scores in the same innings : Cosgrove managed 67 and 0, Ackermann 5 and 69. If the scoring rate had been recorded by a heart monitor, the spike at the start of Cosgrove’s innings would have brought the medics running, as he hit Wayne Parnell for eight boundaries off nine balls. Giving the impression that he feels he is in the form of his life, he attempted something similar off his fifth ball of the second innings, but saw it ping straight to the cover fieldsman.

Cosgrove and Ackermann display contrasting attitudes to dismissal : whereas Ackermann exhibits an indifference to the vicissitudes of fortune that Marcus Aurelius might have considered excessive, Cosgrove moves from denial (remaining immobile at the crease for as long as decently possible) to rage, cursing his way back to the pavilion, while the younger players make themselves scarce on the balcony, like children forewarned that their Dad has pranged his car on the way home.

Of the others, poor Harry Dearden was relegated to no. 7 in both innings by the insertion of a nightwatchman, and seems to be getting the worse of the swap with Ateeq Javid. Lewis Hill now has the honour of a burger in the Meet named after him (containing chorizo)

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: I was tempted to say you could at least guarantee that it wouldn’t give you the runs, but that would be too much scatology for one post, and anyway he did make a few.

Leicestershire can sometimes use the term ‘all-rounder’ too loosely, but Tom Taylor batted well enough to justify it. His rival for the title ‘New Ben Raine’ (as eagerly awaited as once was the ‘New Botham‘), Ben Mike’s sense of youthful invincibility led him to aim a great hoick at a ball when he was on one that attained more height than distance, and was caught. He was more circumspect in the second : he had, perhaps, been reminded of his responsibilities, or had his e-numbers monitored.

Worcestershire’s bowling, even in the absence of captain-talisman Joe Leach, was good enough to make me relieved that, thanks to the daft schedule for this competition, we only have to play them once. The last time I saw Josh Tongue he was tall but spindly, and didn’t look terribly threatening : he has now, as all grand-parents like to say, grown into ever such a big boy and bowled with considerable pace. James Taylor was at the ground, perhaps to cast an eye over him (unless he was just there to collect the unsold copies of his book). He would also have witnessed Charlie Morris, a name previously unknown to me, and possibly him, and not a regular in the side, take 7-45, whose ‘whippy’, dog-thrower, pace had been too much for our tail, openers and Mark Cosgrove.

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Still, to slip on the gaffer’s sheepskin (or El Cap’s natty crew neck), if we had been offered 25 points after the first two games at the start of the season, we would have taken that. The very welcome news that Mohammad Abbas should be available, as far as we know, for the rest of the season, gives me confidence that the win over Sussex will not be the last, although, given the strength of our batting, I should expect them to be in low scoring games, even on this pitch.

The Championship game was followed, with the intervention of a couple of one-day defeats for Leicestershire, by a 50-over game between the same two sides, as a satyr play would sometimes follow a tragedy.  I was only able to watch the first couple of hours, which was a pity, because Leicestershire victories are not so common that I can afford to shun the opportunity to witness one.

Initially, with Leicestershire on 5-2, the second game seemed likely to be a continuation of the first ; in the stands there was disquiet that the planned day out in the sun might be prematurely terminated.  Then, as the unseasonable sun shone on a pitch which might euphemistically be described as ‘true’, the world was turned upside down : the Worcestershire seamers, irresistible lords of creation one Sunday, the next became the helpless playthings of the batsmen they had once disdained.

Ackermann, unsurprisingly, made 152* (though it seems curmudgeonly to say so, it might have been more useful if he could have done so in the first game) ; Lewis Hill, perhaps buoyed by the popularity of his burgers, made a maiden limited overs century, and Harry Dearden, who had led the way in turning the tide, was, at last, able to demonstrate why Leicestershire have thought it worthwhile persisting with him (it was a shame that he could not quite complete his own hundred).

On the face of it, it would be a shame, too, if players like Dearden and Hill, and the side as a whole, began to flower in this form of cricket at the exact point when it is about to be devalued.  On the other hand, if ‘development competition‘ turns out to mean only that the players chosen for the ‘Hundred’ will not be available in the RL50, then the outcome may be that Leicestershire wins, and runs for Dearden, might become less of a rarity.

Though the ground was far from full, there was a very reasonable turnout for the one-day game (certainly as compared to the Saturday and Sunday of the four-day game, when I have seen bigger crowds gathered at the sites of minor road traffic accidents).  I wonder, again, whether it would have been any smaller if Dearden and Hill had been making merry against a Worcestershire side trimmed of its stars, given the sun, the Bank Holiday mood, and the quality of the catering.

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