A Win is a Win is a Win

Leicestershire v Worcestershire, Grace Road, 30 April 2017

Leicestershire v Warwickshire, Grace Road, 2 May 2017

Leicestershire v Northamptonshire, Grace Road, 12 May 2017

Leicestershire v Derbyshire, Grace Road, 14 May 2017

As you may have noticed, although I’m pretty good at taking photos of empty stands, action photography is not really my forte, but Charlie Dryden has been kind enough to allow me to reproduce some of his excellent photographs from the games against Worcestershire and Warwickshire.  The full selection can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/56864674@N02/albums/with/72157683321347786

(and now from the Northants and Derbyshire games at https://chasdryden.myportfolio.com/projects)

As any football manager will tell you, “A win is a win”. Or even, as Gertrude Stein liked to say during her brief spell in the hot seat at Turf Moor “A win is a win is a win”. So, my lasting memory of Leicestershire’s campaign in this year’s Royal London One-Day Cup will be that we won the last home game (against Derbyshire) and that I was there to see it (the first of these is less rare than the second) ; the resulting euphoria is enough to cast a retrospective endorphin glow over what was, in any case, an encouraging set of performances.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with it, it is easier to explain what the RLDOC is than quite why it is what it is. The only one day competition in this year’s County calendar, it is played over 50 overs a side. The Counties are divided into two groups, on roughly geographical lines (Leicestershire are in the North group) and play each other once. The sides finishing top of these groups proceed to a home semi-final, whereas the sides finishing second and third play what is either a quarter-final or a play-off, depending on how you look at it, before proceeding to an away semi-final and then a final at Lord’s. The group stages (and this is fairly crucial) are played in a “block” during the last week of April and the first two weeks of May.

(I wouldn’t bother trying to memorise any of this, by the way. It will all be completely different next year.)

The tournament is apparently played in a “block” because the players dislike having to switch between formats, and over 50 overs because that is the format in international cricket. The timing is because the whole of July and August is reserved for T20 and June for the Champions’ Trophy (not to mention the Womens’ World Cup, which will be occupying four County grounds, including Grace Road, for three weeks from June to July).

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What seems not to be remotely a consideration here is the opinion of people who enjoy watching one-day cricket, who would, I would suggest (it’s been suggested to me often enough), fairly universally, prefer a 40-over league played throughout the season on Sunday afternoons, with, if possible, a 50-over knock-out cup thrown in.

Two of Leicestershire’s home games (the ones against Worcestershire and Derbyshire) were played during daylight hours (11.00-6.45) on Sundays, and attracted respectable numbers of the kinds of people who used to watch the Sunday leagues (multi-generational, amiable, unfanatical, though without the hardcore piss artists, who are presumably saving themselves for the T20). The other two games (against Warwickshire and Northants), played on Tuesday and Friday respectively, were blighted by the ECB’s latest craze – day-night cricket.

These games are scheduled to last from 2.00 to 9.45, the idea being to allow spectators to drop in after work. This is, in itself, an admirable aim, but would probably work better in a country with a hot climate (such as Australia), or in a month when there was a reasonable chance of a warm evening (such as August). It might also work in a city which has a system of public transport which operates late enough to allow the spectators to get home (such as London). As it was, both games were poorly attended, mostly by the same people who watch Championship matches, many of whom went home, as usual, at about 5.00. There was certainly no visible after-work influx to replace them although, to be fair, rain had already set in at the Northants game and, at the other, though dry, the cold was purgatorial.

Paradoxically, I suppose, the fact that I am no longer working does allow me, public transport permitting, to watch the whole of games, as opposed to one or two days of a Championship match, or the first half of a one day game. One effect has been to make me more conscious of the narratives of games, rather than individual players and performances, more fixated on the result and, therefore, more partisan, and more inclined to hang on until the bitterly cold end of games in the hope of witnessing a Leicestershire victory.

Playing the games as a block does also lend the competition a degree of narrative coherence and allows an overall assessment of Leicestershire’s performance, which has, given their recent dismal showing in this form of the game, been surprisingly. Two wins, a defeat and an abandonment (plus three defeats and a rain-aided win away from home) may not sound like a triumph, but there have been no outright capitulations, every player has put in at least one outstanding performance and have otherwise performed consistently well.

The first two games followed the pattern of the side batting first (Worcestershire, then Leicestershire against Warwickshire) posting their record scores in List A cricket (361 and 363 respectively), leaving the side batting second (after the first ten overs) bearing the same relationship to the DL target (which now mocks them from the new scoreboard) as a greyhound does to the electric hare.

Worcestershire are currently the romantic’s choice in Division 2 : apart from Moeen Ali, they have a selection of young, locally produced players (mostly sourced from the Public Schools), and, though only Moeen made a really significant score (90), all, with the exception of Kohler-Cadmore, run out by a deft sidestep by Zak Chappell, made runs and any real hope of restricting them to a feasible total vanished when Hastings and Bernard scored 46 off the last 20 balls (Whitely had earlier smashed a hole in the boundary fence with a straight drive, which I thought he should have been billed for – we aren’t made of money).

No real blame attaches to the Leicestershire bowlers for this, on a pitch that was helpful to neither seam nor spin, though only Griffiths managed to maintain a more than respectable economy rate. Apart from his nifty footwork to remove Kohler-Cadmore, Chappell had Moeen caught behind (he hasn’t taken many wickets yet, but they’ve been good ones), but a desperately inexperienced bowler who relies on sheer pace is always likely to be expensive in this form of cricket, and it was probably prudent to omit him from the side for the last two games. What he needs is a full season’s bowling, but it is hard to see how he is going to get that when so much of the calendar is given over to T20, another form of the game in which he is never likely to be the safest option.

Zak does still have some way to go before he is quite the finished article as a nasty fast bowler.  I think I detected a hint of a vulpine lope, but, when a plastic bag (Tesco, I think) blew across his path at the start of his delivery run, he picked it up, trotted back to the pavilion and handed it to a steward. I can’t picture “Terror” Thomson in his prime being quite so public-spirited.

At the break, with Leicestershire set to chase 361, it didn’t seem likely that the major gratifications of watching one day cricket this year were going to come from on the pitch, but, with the weather warm enough to risk an ice-cream, it felt that there were worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon, a fact brought home when it was announced that there was a serious blockage in the lavatories behind the Meet, and a bloke was summoned to spend the rest of the day trying to unblock it.  Sooner him than me.

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Astonishingly (I was astonished, anyway), the Foxes almost matched Worcestershire’s total, the difference being that they were bowled out in the 48th over, at the point when Worcestershire were about to add the 46 runs that separated the sides. I’m afraid I didn’t have enough faith to hang around to witness the final overs, but baled out in search of a bus when Aadil Ali (who had been given the licence to play with the kind of aggression and fluency that’s always come easily to him in club cricket) was run out for 88.

If Leicestershire couldn’t match Worcestershire’s 361 on the Sunday, they overhauled it on the Tuesday against Warwickshire, making 363 (another club record). This day-night match was played in front of a small crowd for a game against a neighbouring County, though, for the first hour, the atmosphere was enlivened by a party of about 500 schoolchildren. Hopes were raised of an influx of Warwickshire supporters when a fleet of coaches arrived in mid-afternoon, but it turned out they had come to take the schoolchildren away. After that an eerie silence descended on the ground.

If one problem with the Leicestershire bowlers is a lack of experience, the problem with Warwickshire’s (and the team generally) looks to be too much of it. Leicestershire have put their two biggest eggs in one basket by opening with their two one-day specialists, Pettini and Delport. Against Worcestershire Delport had somehow contrived to be stumped early on off the bowling of Joe Leach, but this time the tactic came off triumphantly, the openers making 72 off the first seven overs, allowing them to promote Aadil Ali ahead of retrenchment specialist Eckersley and introduce death-or-glory boy Tom Wells early to lead an assault that brought over 100 off the last ten overs.

Pettini made a club-record 159, playing, unlike Delport or Wells, with the rapier, or possibly sabre, rather than the cudgel. He has been playing like a man possessed this year, having been a marginal figure last season, though whether this is the result, as is popularly supposed, of having been rapped by tough-talking boss De Bruyn in a clear-the-air-session, I couldn’t say. If he carries on like this I might even stop confusing him with Tony Palladino.

Warwickshire’s reply was hobbled at the outset, as was the unfortunate batsman, when a vicious yorker from our secret weapon Dieter Klein hit Porterfield on the instep plumb in front of the wicket. Hain (a batsman I perhaps over-rate because he makes a century every time I see him) and Ambrose made runs, but not quickly enough ; Trott and Bell look increasingly like a band who haven’t made a decent record in years, but have every half-decent effort hailed as a return to form, and the visitors’ last five wickets fell for 14 runs.

So, a famous victory, which, of course, I wasn’t there to see, having left to catch the last bus home (which leaves the city centre soon after 8.00). I’d be surprised if many were : the crowd was already sparse when I left, many of the regulars having left in the interval, and I think the only new arrivals had been a party of polar bears who said they’d come down from the Arctic to cool off.

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Such was my determination to see the end of a game that, for the match against Northants (another day-night affair), I splashed out and came by train (the last train home leaves Leicester shortly before 10.00).  The forecast was equivocal about the prospect of rain, but, I thought, even if it came down to a 10-over thrash at 8.00, I could say I was there.

The afternoon started well, in sunshine, and with Klein repeating his trick by bowling Duckett in the first over for 0 (I would normally feel ambivalent about this, because I enjoy watching Duckett bat, but, by now, cup fever was upon me).  It then took on an ominous aspect, as Levi and Newton made half-centuries apiece, and the clouds gathered.  The first rain fell at 3.00, and, apart from a ten-minute reprise at 5.15, that was it.  The game was finally called off at 7.15, which did, at least, give me time to have some of Mr. Stew’s excellent shepherd’s pie for dinner, though I needn’t have bothered with the train ticket.

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The crowd for this, by the way, was lower than you would normally expect for a County Championship game.  Admittedly the forecast was unpromising, but it cannot help that, to travel from Northampton to Leicester by train (a distance of about 40 miles) you would have to go via Birmingham or London.

And so to the last game, against Derbyshire (which was well-attended, with a substantial Derbyshire contingent).  I did have a suspicion that the visitors, who looked a depressed side last year, might be much-improved this season : Gary Wilson, Luis Reece and particularly “Hardus” Viljoen sounded like handy signings, and Harvey Hosein, a wicket-keeper batsmen, had impressed me as a useful prospect when he played against us at Derby.  In the event, they looked a poor side throughout. Neither Wilson nor Hosein played (quasi-Kolpak Daryn Smit, listed as an “occ WK” in Playfair, was behind the stumps) and it was only thanks to 98* by Alex Hughes (playing the “anchor role” that I thought was now outmoded) that they reached the total of 219, which would not have been overly impressive in 1976.

Viljoen’s first couple of overs raised the spectre that I might be making it home early, without seeing a Leicestershire win, being rapid enough to have Pettini caught behind and induce Delport and Eckersley (who can be a nervous starter) to play and miss more than once. However, his fire seemed to die down as the innings progressed and the only real threat came from Ben Cotton (a tall, “raw-boned” seamer of the kind that Derbyshire used, apocryphally, to be able to whistle up from the nearest pit, though, in fact, he seems to come from Stoke), who bowled 9 overs for 18 runs and briefly re-summoned that spectre by removing Cosgrove and Aadil Ali with Leicestershire still 100 short.

However, as you may remember from the spoiler at the beginning of this piece, Eckersley, permitted by the circumstances of the match to play an only slightly accelerated version of his preferred game, and Lewis Hill, whose unorthodoxy can sometimes stray into comedy (he has a tendency to fall over), but who is nothing if not determined, steered the ship safely to within one run of the harbour, when Eckersley was run out.

The entire Leicestershire contingent, who had gathered in front of the pavilion to applaud the two heroes off the field, had first to applaud Eckersley off solo,

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and then reconvene to celebrate the victory itself, which we did with much jubilation.  Supporters of more successful sides may be blasé about this kind of scene, but I can assure you that it was well worth waiting for.  And, as it had only taken them 40 overs, I was even home in time for dinner.

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Larks on the Wing, Worms in the Bud

Worcestershire v Nottinghamshire, RLODC, New Road, Worcester, 27th April 2017

In his essay ‘Prelude‘ Neville Cardus wrote that

Cricket, as I know and love it, is part of that holiday time which is the Englishman’s heritage – a playtime in a homely countryside.”

Leaving the rest of this aside for a moment (or longer), the significant words here are “holiday time”. Watching professional cricket has always, for most people, been associated with being on holiday and from that derives a significant part of its appeal. Some are on a permanent holiday : historically, this group would have included the progressively dwindling minority who had private incomes large enough not to need to work, but is now mostly made up of people who, like me, are retired. You might also once have included in this fortunate band resting actors and the unemployed (in the happy days, long gone, when that involved nothing more strenuous than signing on once a fortnight and going to the Post Office to cash your giro*).

There were workers who managed to combine employment with watching cricket on a regular basis : vicars, postmen and those who worked nights (some of whom had chosen their line of work specifically for that reason), but for most it was a holiday occupation. Bank Holiday matches attracted huge crowds, particularly for derby games such as the Roses Match and Surrey v Kent at the Oval, which were timed to coincide with them. Teachers, schoolchildren and students could, if they chose, spend their long Summer holidays at the cricket. Then there were Saturdays (or Saturday afternoons in the early days), half-day early closing (when the factories often shut to allow their works teams to play) and – sweetest of all, in my experience – the snatched day off work.

Then there are those who choose to combine their annual holidays with watching cricket, which would once have offered seaside resorts to suit every taste (Blackpool, Scarborough, Eastbourne, Hastings, Southend), Cathedral and University cities (Canterbury, Gloucester, Worcester, Oxford, Cambridge) and spa towns (Tunbridge Wells, Harrogate, Cheltenham, Buxton). Some of those venues have been ripped from the calendar, but some remain, and there are still those who choose to spend their annual holiday allowance following their team around what remains of the circuit, even if that involves spending three nights in a Travelodge in Chelmsford. (If you ask them how their trip went, as with any other holiday, the answer will include the quality of the hotel, the journey, the weather, the food and perhaps some comment such as … “the cricket wasn’t much cop”.)

I cannot aspire to that level of devotion, but I do sometimes yearn to deviate a little more from my East Midlands beat to take in some of the diverse glories of the English scene, which is how I found myself, the other week, staying in Malvern Spa the night before a match at Worcester.

As this is a cricket blog and not a travelogue, I won’t linger too long over my description of Great Malvern, except to say that I liked it very much and hope to return. The same is true of my hotel (the Foley Arms, now a branch of J.D. Wetherspoon)

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though, as this is not TripAdvisor, I won’t linger too long on that either. The town can boast a priory,

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some restful and elevating late-Victorian architecture, numerous literary and musical associations (C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and Auden, who watched over me benignly as I ate my reasonably priced Traditional Breakfast

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Elgar, who is commemorated by a statue, and Cher Lloyd, who is not). There was also the chance to climb a reasonably inclined hill to view the original source of Malvern water, St. Ann’s Well. Those who insist on finding a worm in every bud will note the sign attached to the well, saying that the water had “failed recent bacteriological tests and should be boiled before drinking” ;

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although I am confident that the bottled Malvern water sold by Mr. Wetherspoon is perfectly safe to drink, I decided to take no chances that evening and opted for the very reasonable offer of 3 bottles of Sol for £5.00.

The day dawned bright and clear (as they say in the kind of novel I rather felt I was living in) and I made sure to arrive early enough at the well-preserved railway station to buy a cup of coffee in Lady Foley’s Tea-Room (Lady Edith Foley, who essentially owned Malvern when it was at its height as a spa, once had this room reserved for her personal use). I felt this was what Cardus would have done, on one of his much-relished forays out of Manchester, though I suppose he would have ordered a cup of tea and a bun rather than a cafe latte in a paper cup. I did not notice any larks, but, if there were, I am confident that they would have been on the wing, likewise any snails on the thorn.

I have sometimes pondered the paradox that some of the chief glories of Europe’s architecture – its spa towns – own their existence to what was, at best, Bad Science, and, at worst, conscious fraud ; some (not I) would say the same about the Church of England, whose Cathedral famously provides the backdrop to cricket at Worcester (this is one of two things everyone knows about New Road, the other being that it is subject to periodic flooding by the River Severn).

If you sit in the right position, it is still possible to see the Cathedral as a backdrop (and that word, with its suggestion of painted theatrical scenery, seems somehow appropriate):

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but if you require, as it were, the classic Worcester experience, you would have to look at the painted version which still seems to be used to advertise the ground to potential corporate clients

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or buy one of the greeting cards sold in the Supporters’ Club Shop, neither of which feature the large hotel that has been built in a corner of the ground, nor the cluster of rectangular buildings that adjoin it.

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The presence of a hotel would be less incongruous if it were the Foley Arms, or indeed the Grand in Scarborough, or any building more in keeping with the spirit of the place ; its design is, however, as one of the various bodies who objected to its being built, “simplistic”, as though the architect had given a three-year-old a crayon, asked it to draw a house, and passed the resulting arrangement of rectangles straight to the builders. I am only too well aware of the financial imperatives involved, but it does sometimes feel as though the County circuit is being turned into a giant Monopoly board, the aim of the game being to build as many hotels as possible on the prime properties.

Cardus also once described the spirit of cricket in Worcestershire as being “as genial and magnanimous as the English landscape”, but I’m not sure that was quite the vibe around the ground when I visited. When I was making a preliminary perambulation a rather grim-faced man in search of a parking space tooted his horn impatiently at me, and my purchase of a greetings card was delayed by a tetchy exchange between a man representing the Supporters’ Association and the Chief Executive (“You may have apologised to him, but you haven’t apologised to me” – “Don’t tell me how to run a cricket club”). (I am uneasy about recording these kinds of eavesdroppings, but do feel that this kind of conversation is significantly symptomatic of the uneasy relationships County Members often have with those who run them, and not just at Worcester.)

When play started, I began by sitting in the spot that offered what I have referred to as the classic Worcester view, which happened to be in the Ladies’ Pavilion. I was unsure whether, not being a Lady, I should have been there at all, but was reassured by the presence of one or two other Gentlemen, and took my seat, inscribed in memory of Rev. Prebendary W.R. Chignell, W.C.S.A. President 1977-1994 (until 2006 the ground was owned by the Cathedral). To my right I had my eye on some wooden benches, in the shade (or, as seemed likely to be more useful) under the shelter of some trees.

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The drawback to this arrangement was that, although I had a good view of the Cathedral, the square had been pitched so far over to the river side of the ground that I had little idea of what was happening on the pitch, except that the Worcestershire seamers were restricting the scoring of the Nottinghamshire batsmen without having much success in removing them.

As I have said, the day had dawned bright and clear and dry : after the first half hour it was still dry, but no longer bright or clear, and by noon it was no longer dry. When the first shower started, I thought to retreat into the interior of the Ladies’ Pavilion ; I must have looked as though I was considering sitting on a particular canvas chair on the verandah, as a Lady politely, but firmly, informed me that, although I could, if I wished, bring one of the plastic chairs in the Pavilion out on to the verandah, the canvas chair, and a cluster of armchairs inside it, were reserved for Lady Members. I write this, by the way, in a spirit of admiration, rather than mockery : if anyone embodies the quixotic spirit of County cricket, it is those Ladies fiercely defending their hard-worn privileges by sitting cosy in their armchairs, admiring the view of the Cathedral.

When the shower relented, I left the Ladies to their privileges and switched to the ubiquitous plastic bucket seats nearest the (very) short boundary. From there I had a good view, which only served to confirm the impression I had formed from the Ladies’ Pavilion that neither side were obviously in the ascendancy. The Worcestershire seamers (the useful quartet of Mighty Joe Leach, John Wayne Hastings, Ed Barnard and Shantry) bowled accurately enough ; the Nottinghamshire batsmen scored off the loose balls, whilst periodically losing wickets. Lumb played what used to be known as “the anchor role”, making a handy, but entirely unmemorable, century and there was a brief flurry of sixes from Samit Patel. Over all, it went to show quite how uninvolving 50-over cricket can be to the disinterested observer, particularly if he is chilled to the marrow.

The rain returned, drizzly at first, then briefly torrential, with Nottinghamshire’s innings not quite complete. During the drizzly spells I watched, of all people, Bob Geldof performing on the new scoreboard (the Boomtown Rats are soon to appear at New Road) and discovered what must have been the old scoreboard, now beached by the advancing tide of modernity and bucket seats (I suppose Geldof and his Rats would have had to stick their heads out of the flaps).

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When it turned torrential I passed up the chance to buy an ice-cream from the splendidly-named Cow Corner (staffed by a shivering goth),

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discovered that, whatever their merits as sunshades, the trees offered little protection from the rain, and finally holed up in an internally, if not externally, attractive new cafe called Foley’s (the Foley family, as well as owning Malvern, played an important part in Worcestershire’s early years).

I stayed long enough to see Nottinghamshire conclude their innings (on a marginally below par 273-6), then cut and ran for the station at about 4.45. The last train that would be sure to get me home was the 6.20, it was damp, painfully cold and very dark (one of the penalties of an aesthetically pleasing ground is that it is hard to erect floodlights), and I could see little prospect of a result. In the event, play did resume and Worcestershire won, by making 169-5 (this doesn’t sound better to me than 273-6, but then I am neither Duckworth nor Lewis). Cricinfo’s correspondent admitted that the first three hours had been “humdrum”, which I can vouch for, but described the game over all as “a minor classic” ; I imagine he could not have had much company at the ground by the end of it.

So, how was my holiday? The hotel was nice, the food was good, the weather was awful … and the cricket wasn’t much cop. I should like to return to Malvern, and Worcester, perhaps when mid-Summer shows it to better advantage, though, I suppose, if the Ladies take my comments the wrong way, I may have to do so wearing false whiskers.

*Author’s memory.

Not Entirely Pointless

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, LVCC, Grace Road, 21-24 April 2017

A while ago, writing about match-fixing, I wrote the following :
“Any sport consists of an elaborate system of rules that constructs an artificial world within which it is possible to have an authentic experience. As anyone who has watched a lot of County cricket, or lower league football, will attest, that experience is rarely obviously thrilling, or even interesting (it is not spectacular), but, even if it not “real” in the sense that bull-fighting is real, it is and must be known to be authentic. When something genuinely marvellous happens (such as Botham in 1981) it reassures us that miracles can occasionally happen in real life, and not only in fiction.”
I suppose this match was a good example of what I had in mind. Only two of the passages of play (the morning session on the first day and the afternoon and evening sessions on the fourth) were particularly compelling in themselves. In between there were a few interesting moments, some worthy performances and touches of humour, but the main interest was in trying to anticipate the denouement, which, in the event, was never revealed.

Although there were several points when one side seemed to have the advantage, by the end of each day equilibrium had reasserted itself (Leicester ended the first day on 275-5, Glamorgan were 281-4 by the end of the second ; Leicester were 200-3 at the end of the third, Glamorgan 144-4 at the close). (This state of equilibrium may have been the result of the game – as a man in front of me put it – being a case of a resistible force meeting a moveable object.)

A journeyman scriptwriter would have repeated the ending to last season’s match between the two sides, when, in the last game of the season, McKay and Shreck had taken Glamorgan’s last five wickets for ten runs when they required only 36 more to win (not quite Botham in ’81, but a satisfying conclusion). Instead we had a sort of nouveau roman policier, in which, having established numerous suspects, the detective concludes that he cannot work out who the murderer is and simply gives up and goes home for dinner.

The match was unusual, in that the most significant delivery of the four days was one that no-one in the crowd could see, it being the ball in the nets that had (apparently) bruised Zak Chappell’s shoulder and rendered him incapable of bowling in Glamorgan’s first innings. This is not because I would expect him to run through them like a dose of salts (those days may come, but not yet, and probably not, I’m afraid, for Leicestershire), but because it meant that we were left with only three front line bowlers, McKay, Raine and Shreck, who, in benign conditions for batting, were compelled to bowl 27, 30.5 and 29 overs respectively. As a result, I imagine, neither McKay (back) nor Raine (sidestrain) were able to bowl more than a few overs on the last afternoon, though Chappell was able to bowl, alongside the apparently indefatigable Shreck.

The first session of the first day was, as I say, compelling to watch, as the Lancastrian duo of Horton and Dearden opened together for the fourth time this season. Horton was in fragile form at the end of last season and has a highest score this of 20, with four single figure scores. Dearden was averaging 11 and their highest opening partnership against a County had been 10. It might not be true that they were anxious for their places, as, with Robson having absconded, there is no obvious alternative opener, but Horton (at 34) might have been worrying that he is facing something worse than a temporary dip in form and Dearden (19) that he is out of his depth.

Friday was a bitterly cold and overcast morning, and it was something of a test of character simply to stay out on the pitch for the opening session, when there was the option of a warm dressing room to retreat to, but the pair dug in (the phrase implies some of the dogged physical effort that seemed to be involved) and were still together at lunch. The pitch seemed generally true, but with the nasty quirk that balls just short of a length sometimes reared up alarmingly, and Horton was hit painfully more than once. Glamorgan, too, seemed a bowler short (there was no van der Gugten, nor cricket’s answer to Robbie Savage, Graham Wagg), and their opening pair Michael Hogan (a “rangy” Australian who looks somehow under-dressed without a Drizabone) and Lukas Carey (a 19-year old from the same Swansea school as Aneurin Donald) were only intermittently threatening, but the sense of relief when the beleaguered pair returned to the pavilion, with the score on 81-0 was almost tangible.

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At lunch, to illustrate my point about anticipating possible futures, a century opening partnership, and an individual century for at least one of the openers seemed on the cards. By about 2.00, with Horton out for 41 (he returned to a standing ovation from the home balcony, indicating that spirit within the team is good, whatever their alleged relationship with the coach), followed swiftly by Dexter first ball and Captain for the day Eckersley for 1, thoughts (my thoughts anyway) had turned to a card-house collapse and how Chappell might be hard to play in the fading light of the final session. (I must, incidentally, get out of the habit of taking pictures of batsman as they return to the pavilion, which makes me feel too much like a tricoteux cackling at the foot of the tumbril.)


In the event, equilibrium was restored by Dearden (who fell 13 frustrating runs short of a maiden century) and Mark Pettini, who has been the least convincing of the “experienced” imports, but who made important runs in both innings here ; the balanced then tipped in favour of Leicestershire as the last five wickets, in what has become something of a pattern, more than doubled the score to finish on 420.

The last 61 of those runs came from a last wicket stand on the second morning between those knights of the long handle McKay and Shreck ; they were clearly enjoying themselves enormously at the time

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but might have been less pleased if they had known quite how many overs they would have to bowl over the course of the next two sunny days, on a pitch which had mellowed so much that it might as well have fired up a joint and stuck some James Taylor on the stereo.

Spirits first sank at the sight of Tom Wells taking the field. Not that there is anything wrong with Wells per se, but because it soon dawned that he was fielding as a substitute for Chappell, leaving, as support for the three main bowlers, Dearden (who had not, I think, previously bowled with a red ball even for the 2nd XI), Dexter (whose medium pace surprisingly often breaks partnerships, but is not suited to long spells) and Delport (supposedly on a one day contract, but drafted in here (any Delport in a storm) to purvey his big maximums and little wobblers).

The bulk of Glamorgan’s reply came from young opener Selman (117) and the mature Kolpak Ingram (137). I can remember little of their stand of 161, except being torn between wanting it to stop and being secretly relieved that the game would, at least, outlast the weekend. Once that stand was broken, wickets fell at regular, but widely spaced, intervals and Glamorgan finally crept six runs in front (equilibrium restored again).  Another responsible, as well as stylish, innings by Pettini (a century this time) and a similar effort from Eckersley ensured that defeat was out of the question, but the timing of the declaration, which left Glamorgan 355 to make off a possible 57 overs, meant that something extraordinary would be required for a home victory.

What we saw (the thirty or so who were left by the end) was, in a way, extraordinary, but not in the way required to win. To set the scene, by mid-afternoon the sky was, at its most colourful, battleship grey, and the only things that seemed to be preventing it snowing were the intense cold and the biting wind. If it weren’t for the floodlights we would all have been home by lunchtime.

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McKay bowled his first over like a man who is a martyr to lumbago, and it must have been clear to Glamorgan that last year’s bogeyman would not be troubling them again (he only managed one more over).  Raine, a player who would, as the saying goes, run through brick walls for the club (and probably does so for fun on his days off) was forced to leave the field after, heroically, bowling seven overs and taking two wickets.  Which (without a recognised, or recognisable, spinner in the side) left Shreck and Chappell. Shreck, a man closer in age to me than he is to Chappell, managed another 13 overs to go with the 29 he had bowled in the first innings (perhaps his enforced rest period had done him good) but posed no real threat to batsmen who were looking only to survive.

Chappell, though, in light that seemed pretty dim even with the floodlights on, bowled fast enough to endanger the physical safety of the batsmen, even if he did not often enough threaten their wickets (Cooke looked thoroughly uncomfortable, particularly when he was hit somewhere in the region of his solar plexus).  He also posed some threat to his wicket-keeper and slip cordon, and even a St. John Ambulance lady who was sheltering from the wind behind the sightscreen (a bouncer had flown as far over Lewis Hill’s head as a lecture on Hegel and trampolined over the screen off a hoarding angled at 45 degrees).  In fact, for once, the only person he did not look likely to injure was himself.

The more sensible element in the crowd had called it a day when there was a brief interruption for bad light,

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but I hung on to the end, in the faint hope that the extraordinary thing, the thing you don’t see every day, might happen, which, in a way, it did.  A ball from Chappell to Rudolph, slightly short of a length, instead of veering harmlessly off towards the slips, cut back viciously and skinned his glove on its way through to Hill.  A whole possible future glimpsed in a single ball.

To maintain the equilibrium, both Leicestershire and Glamorgan have now earned 20 points this season though, after deductions, we only have four left.  So, not entirely pointless, at least.

 

 

 

 

Insults and Injuries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Raine (l), Chappell (r)

 

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

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

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Snap me while you can!

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

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

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

 

As I Walked Out One March Morning

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The Way to Wantage Road

Leicestershire v Loughborough MCCU, Grace Road, 28-30 March 2017

Northamptonshire v Loughborough MCCU, County Ground, Northampton, 3 April 2017

The first day of a new season is (if you are lucky) a little like the first week of a new school year.  I don’t mean that it is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of foreboding and a crushing sense of futility in the face of inevitable failure. No, I mean that it is nice to be back, to see your old friends and colleagues again, to note what has changed and what has not, and to ease yourself back into the old routines before the serious business of the year begins.

It helps, I think, to be returning after a good, long, break, and I must admit that I have been paying little attention to cricket over the Winter (apart from a couple of hours of TMS and the tinnitus of Twitter).  The old, re-discovered, routines, the relief of allowing yourself to become absorbed by small narratives again, afford the pleasures of both familiarity and freshness, as if you have, by chance, re-encountered a once-favourite, half-forgotten book or piece of music.

By August, you might be planning a circuitous route around the ground to avoid those dreadful bores X and Y ; in March you are relieved to find that they are still alive.   Quirks of the game, such as leaving the pitch for bad light and then returning half an hour later when the light has not visibly improved

can be irksome in August, charming in April.  Showers falling, glimpsed through the windows of the Fox Bar, stir memories of Springs past, and, in March, there are, of course, still hopes of sunnier days to come.

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Even the collapse of Leicestershire’s top order, unanticipated but at once instantly familiar, prompts bittersweet remembrance of times gone by.

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There are even some pleasant new routines, such as the unfurling of the parasols (however swiftly repurposed as umbrellas)

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In comparing the start of the season to the beginning of the school year, I am, of course, picturing myself in the role, not of a pupil, but of a rather elderly master (Mr. Chips, perhaps) who has, in his time, seen an awful lot of boys (that is to say, players) come and go, and it is not a trick of the mind that they come and go rather more quickly than they used to.  There is no-one left at Grace Road from the Leicestershire squad at the time I began to write this blog in April 2009 (Ned Eckersley, who made his debut in 2011, is the longest serving) and only four of them (Buck, Cobb, Greg Smith and Allenby) are still playing first-class cricket.

The illusion is that we spectators (who return year after year) stand still while the players pass by, but the truth is that we are passing each other on opposite sides of an escalator ; ours is moving too, slowly, almost imperceptibly, but inexorably.  Players who have passed by us do, however, sometimes pass by again in different guises, and I was pleased to see James Middlebrook (Semper Eadem) make his debut as an Umpire, alongside the apparently changeless Steve O’Shaughnessy.

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A glance at the new scoreboard above (underneath which, palimpsestically, lies the old electronic scoreboard, and underneath that the old manual scoreboard), or the final scorecard (Leicestershire 194 and 113-3 ; Loughborough 278) might induce a certain pessimism about Leicestershire’s prospects for the season, but that would be premature (not wrong, necessarily, but a little too early).

Leicestershire have been preparing for the new season in South Africa, which might help explain why the first five wickets were all clean bowled, all apparently surprised to discover that balls may deviate in line in England on a misty March morning (Cosgrove was visibly baffled, as if a sleight-of-hand artiste had surreptitiously contrived to remove his braces).  The Skip had, however, regained his composure by the second innings and Ned Eckersley combined responsibility and fluency to pleasing effect, but apart from those two, Dexter, and the much-heralded but, as yet, unseen Colin Ackermann*, the batting reserves look a little low. In particular, if the openers Horton and Robson were to prove consistently fallible, it is hard to see who would replace them.

On the other hand (and this is a significant advance), we do seem to have assembled a numerically formidable battery of seam bowlers.  In addition to Clint McKay (who should have enough fuel left to be good for another 50 wickets) and Ben Raine (always hostile, in one way or another), we have Charlie Shreck (who seemed to be preparing for his expected translation into a coaching role by offering the students plenty of unsolicited advice about their batting technique) and Dieter Klein (who, used in small doses, should surprise a lot of batsmen, as he surprised Alastair Cook last season).

We also have the reliable Richard Jones (lately of Warwickshire), two young stinkers in Gavin Griffiths (who bowled well against Loughborough) and Will Fazakerley, and, of course, Zak Chappell, who, as long-time readers will know, has been my Tip for the Top for a couple of years now.  He did not bowl exceptionally well against Loughborough, but, crucially, he did look fit, and ready to bowl at full pace without having to worry about his legs giving way.  Given a full season’s bowling, he should have put on a little more speed, acquired some guile and a taste for blood, and become the formidable bowler he is capable of being.

Other than that we have James Burke (on loan from Surrey), who just about qualifies as an all-rounder, and Tom Wells, a genuine all-rounder who may yet surprise me by adapting his game to the four-day format (against Loughborough he made 20 off four balls then slog-hooked one straight to backward square leg, but bowled surprisingly well).  As spinners, we have Rob Sayer, a steady off-spinner who relies as much on drift and swerve as spin, Callum Parkinson (half-inched from Derbyshire in dubious circumstances), and James Sykes, who may, I am afraid, have to find another outlet for his undoubted ability to make the ball turn.

The problem in selecting a side from this lot does seem to revolve around the difficulty of exploiting the strength in pace bowling without leaving an unconscionably long tail.  For what it’s worth (assuming we have prepared a seaming wicket) my first choice side would be : Horton, Robson, Ackermann, Cosgrove, Dexter, Eckersley, Aadil Ali, Raine, Chappell, Klein, McKay.  I suspect, though, we may see more of Shreck and Jones than Chappell or Klein, and Lewis Hill keeping wicket, with Eckersley playing as a specialist batsman.

As for Prospects for the Season, the best I can do is that Leicestershire will be the most unpredictable side in Division 2.  If you would like to know what is most likely to happen (but won’t, quite), then consult the odds being offered by the bookies.  They are in agreement that Nottinghamshire and Sussex (the two “big clubs”, presumed to have the most money) should be promoted, with Kent and Worcestershire (the sides with the young talent) their main competition.  Derbyshire (who looked thoroughly depressed last season) and Glamorgan (who were on the verge of degenerating into a rabble) will struggle, with the severely handicapped Durham, the anonymous but well-organised Gloucestershire, Northants (who have a plan) and Leicestershire somewhere in the middle.

My visit to Wantage Road (I caught one day of Loughborough’s visit there) established, beyond too much doubt, what Northamptonshire’s plan is going to be, and that is the same as last season’s : prepare pitches that ought to be reported to the coroner rather than the pitch inspector, pile up some high scoring draws, then nick a couple of games on the break at the end of the season by preparing a few turners.  In three days at Grace Road (with only brief interruptions for rain or bad light) 585 runs were scored for the loss of 23 wickets (the highest score being an admirably painstaking 305 minute 80 by Hasan Azad).  A week later, at Wantage Road, three days involving the same side resulted in 1173 runs being scored, for the loss of 15 wickets, with six centuries (three of them fine innings by Loughborough’s Thurston, Kumar and Leicestershire Academy product Sam Evans).  So, if you feel short-changed if a match ends early, you know where to head this season …

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Calling it a day …

* Apparently no relation to Hylton Ackermann (whom I watched at Wantage Road in the ’60s) and H.D. Ackermann (Leicestershire’s main source of runs in the middle years of last decade) or even Jan, the guitarist with Focus, (though he does have a Dutch passport).

 

 

Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 3)

The third and concluding part of this piece. (The first two parts are Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 1) and Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 2).)

Sport is not fiction – is sport real? – sport is not a spectacle

You must be able to believe that what you are seeing is real” is, on the face of it, an odd thing to say about sport, and not something it would occur to anyone to say about other forms of entertainment. No-one complains, when watching a film, or reading a book, that it is not real1, although they might complain that the occurrences could not be real (that the plot is “far-fetched”) or that the illusion of reality is not credible (because the acting is “hammy” or the characters “one-dimensional”).

But think of the best match, or the best series, that you can remember (Headingley in 1981 or the 2005 Ashes, or whatever it might be) and ask yourself whether it would be of any interest to you if it were a work of fiction. I imagine that it would not, and that it would be precisely those features that made it exceptional in real life – the suspense, the dramatic turnarounds, the heroic individual performances – that made it banal as fiction.

Or try to think of a successful work of fiction (above a juvenile ‘Roy of the Rovers level) which depends on the description of the course of a game for its narrative ; that is, where the narrative of the book coincides exactly with the narrative of a game. I don’t know of any, and I doubt whether it could be done, which it is not to say that a good novel could not be written about cricket, only that the interest of it would have to differ in kind from the interest that derives from reading an account of a real game. In fiction, anything can be made to happen ; the only thing that makes (say) Botham’s performance in 1981 interesting is that it really happened.

Or imagine that you were to discover that a match that you had enjoyed while you were watching it (not even a truly exceptional one with extraordinary happenings, but a moderately entertaining T20), had been entirely scripted in advance, so that the players had been actors (and actors sufficiently skilled and well-rehearsed to make their performance indistinguishable from reality). Even though the two games (the real game you thought you were watching and the fake) were identical in every other respect, would you then feel retrospectively cheated?

Is sport real?

So, if sport is not fiction, must it be real? It can be both too real and not real enough to be real sport.

“Field sports” (hunting, fishing and shooting), though undeniably real, are not real sports, in this sense, because game can be eaten and (so the argument goes) fox-hunting serves a useful purpose as a form of vermin control : real sport must be gratuitous, an end in itself. They also, of course, end in the death in some of the participants. On a similar, if diminished, note, Simon Barnes, in ‘The Meaning of Sport claims that boxing is not a sport, because “Sport is a metaphor” and “Boxing is not a metaphor. Boxing is a death duel.

Then again, there is bull-fighting, about which (in ‘What is Sport?’) Roland Barthes had this to say :

Bullfighting is hardly a “sport,” and yet it is perhaps the model, the extreme of all sports, with its ceremonial elegance, its strict rules of combat, the powerful strength of the adversary and the skill and courage of the man who fights. All our modern sport can be found in this spectacle from another age, inherited from ancient religious sacrifices. But this theatre is not true theatre, for here the deaths staged are real.”

and Ernest Hemingway this, in ‘Death in the Afternoon

The formal bullfight is a tragedy, not a sport, and the bull is certain to be killed … You would think, then, that it would make of bullfighting a true sport, rather than merely a tragic spectacle, if bulls that had been in the ring were allowed to reappear.”

Like a child that contrives to appear at both ends of the back row in a long-exposure school photograph by sprinting from one end to the other, bull-fighting (for Barthes) both is and is not a sport. For Barthes it cannot be real theatre, because it ends in real-life death. For Hemingway it is tragic theatre rather than real sport because the outcome is fixed (the bull, even if it wins the bout, will still die). It is too real to be sport, or fiction, and both writers use the same term (“spectacle”) to describe this not-sport, non-fiction (the heading (“Espectaculos”) (neither sports nor arts) under which the liberal Spanish newspaper ‘El Pais’ publishes its bull-fighting reviews).

Sport is not a spectacle

If bull-fighting is too real to be sport, then, at the other extreme, “professional2” wrestling is too unreal, but it, too, is a spectacle, according to Barthes :

There are people who think wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromache. Of course, there exists a false wrestling, in which the participants unnecessarily go to great lengths to make a show of a fair fight ; this is of no interest.

The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences ; what matters is not what it thinks, but what it sees … Extrapolated, fair wrestling could only lead to boxing or judo, whereas true wrestling derives its originality from all the excesses which make it a spectacle and not a sport.”

There is, as usual, an element of mischief about this, but there is nothing to suggest that he is not genuine in his preference for a sport which is staged, fictional, a form of theatre, intelligible in terms outside itself. In short, he is not a sportsman, or a sports-lover at all.

Since ‘Mythologies’ was written, the word “spectacle” has escaped from its ordinary language bounds, acquired a life of its own, and has, in some circles, acquired an almost theological significance, as a kind of omnipresent, miasmic force by which “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation3” and every hope of an authentic experience is thwarted by the appearance of an inauthentic doppelgänger. I have difficulties with this theory, but it has many virtues as an accurate description of the psychological effect of an electronically mediated world, and it seems to me to have a particular application to sport.

Any sport consists of an elaborate system of rules that constructs an artificial world within which it is possible to have an authentic experience. As anyone who has watched a lot of County cricket, or lower league football, will attest, that experience is rarely obviously thrilling, or even interesting (it is not spectacular), but, even if it not “real” in the sense that bull-fighting is real, it is and must be known to be authentic. When something genuinely marvellous happens (such as Botham in 1981) it reassures us that miracles can occasionally happen in real life, and not only in fiction.

So, to return to my original taxonomy of match-fixing, the first and third types are experienced as such serious offences against sport because they reduce sport to one thing that it is not – fiction – and have the potential to expose apparent miracles as conjuring tricks. They are, at least, though, recognisable as “cancers” and, as such, attempts can be made to remove them. The eighth and ninth types are not only not generally diagnosed as “cancers” but seen as a sign of health.  But they too, more insidiously, have the power to rob sport of its authenticity and reduce it to something else it cannot be – a spectacle.

The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences ; what matters is not what it thinks, but what it sees …” 

And now, I’ll hand you back to Charlie Dagnall …

1In fact, there are plenty of people (mostly men) who say that they don’t read fiction because it is not real – often those who enjoy sport the most.

2The type of wrestling Barthes was writing about was, technically, amateur, but “professional” in the sense that it was fixed.

3Guy Debord ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ (and his many disciples and imitators).

Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 2)

In the first post I offered a broad definition of “fixing”  as being “any sporting contest in which all, or any, of the outcomes of the game have been decided in advance, rather than arising naturally from the efforts of the contestants to win the match”.  I went on to identify nine types of “fix” that might fit that definition, which I called :

1. The fix proper (fixing the result)

2. The coercive fix (fixing because of outside interference)

3. The spot-fix (fixing particular incidents)

4. The tactical fix (fixing by underperforming in the hope of future advantage)

5. The tacitly accepted fix (“sports entertainment”)

6. The mutually agreed demi-fix (where a result is contrived, but not a specific result)

7. The fix of no significance (exhibition matches)

8. The professional fix (ensuring certain outcomes in the interest of entertainment)

9. The regulatory fix (being forced to ensure certain outcomes because of the playing regulations)

I suggested that all of these fixes attract some disapproval, in roughly decreasing order. However, although all fit my broad definition, only two (1 and 3) are what are usually referred to as “match-fixing”, in the sense of a “cancer” that, if left untreated, is supposed to be have the power to kill the game. Of the others :

2 is a special case, in that the blame for it attaches to agencies outside sport, and those inside sport are seen as victims, rather than perpetrators. The problem is one of many, and one of the least important, associated with corrupt or authoritarian governments and the fix is seen as an externally inflicted injury to sport, rather than an internal cancer.

4 is certainly usually condemned, but, because it is an attempt to achieve an ultimate advantage by manipulating the rules of a competition, it is seen as a form of cheating, or gamesmanship, contrary to the spirit of the game, but not, in itself, an offence against sport, in the sense that deliberately losing would be, or placing personal financial advantage above winning.

6 (although it, in many respects, resembles 4) is generally approved of, because it is seen as a legitimate tactic in pursuit of victory, and as being in the interests of the spectators (it is intended to produce an interesting finish). Only “purists” object, and their remedy lies in altering the rules of the competition, rather than punishing the perpetrators.

5 and 7 are essentially the same type of fix, except that, in sports which are classified as “sports entertainment”, there is no expectation that any contest should be anything other than scripted, whereas exhibition games and charity matches in cricket and football are generally seen as less serious forms of sports which are normally genuine. Aficionados of professional wrestling would be disappointed by a fair contest, whereas fans of football and cricket expect it to be the norm, to be departed from only in exceptional circumstances.

8 and 9 I shall return to in a moment.

So, to return to the original definition, there seem to be two additional elements that need to be added when defining the pernicious, “cancerous” form of match-fixing:

1. There must be an element of deception. This excludes 4 (where there is usually little attempt to disguise the fix), 6 and 7 (where the fixing is open) and 5 (where the performers and audience collude in a suspension of disbelief).

2. The motive must be personal self-interest, rather than legitimate sporting self-interest (trying to win the game or competition), or the interest of the crowd in seeing an entertaining contest. Before his motive was revealed, Hanse Cronje was widely applauded for making a “sporting declaration” against England, and the crowd would have seen the same game whatever his motivation.

So, to amend the definition, let us say that match-fixing is “any sporting contest in which all, or any, of the outcomes of the game have been decided in advance, rather than arising naturally from the efforts of the contestants to win the match, without the audience being aware of it, and for reasons of personal self-interest.”

Now, let us return to type no. 8, and ask whether it fits the new definition. The point is not here whether match-fixing of the first and third types are more common in T20 tournaments – though there is considerable evidence that they are – but whether the hypothetical situation I describe (in which a bowler is persuaded to bowl hittable deliveries to a star batsman in the interests of entertainment) would be objected to as match-fixing in the “cancerous” sense.

The first question is whether the audience would be aware that it was happening, to which the answer is, I think, that they probably would not. Even experienced cricket-watchers find it hard to distinguish deliberate ineptitude from the unfeigned variety, although I suspect ex-professionals are much better able to detect the signs. As it is the express intention of, for instance, the ECB that T20 is designed to attract an audience who would not otherwise be interested in cricket, it is even less likely that they would be able to do so. In any case, as I have suggested in describing the ninth type of fix, the playing conditions in T20 tournaments virtually compel the bowler to serve up hittable bowling, without the need for any covert fixing.

The second question is harder to answer. The bowler, in our hypothetical situation, might well argue that it is not only in his personal interests to obey the instructions of his employer, but in the interests of the crowd and the good of the game in general, in that a high scoring game, with plenty of spectacular batting, is what the crowds will pay to see. He might well also argue that, as a professional, there is no real difference between playing well for money and playing badly for money, if that is what is required of him.

There is, I think, another question, which is whether the audience, particularly the new, hypothetical, one that the ECB is pursuing would care if they knew that what they were watching was fixed (or half-fixed, like a half-baked baguette), or whether they would embrace the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach of professional wrestling. Would the perpetrators, in short, plead not guilty to match-fixing proper by pleading to the fifth type of fixing, and admitting that what they were purveying was “sports entertainment”?

Given that the WWE was explicitly stated to be a model for the new T20 competition when I attended an ECB presentation on the subject at the Leicestershire Members’ Forum last Autumn (you can read my account of that here), and this slightly troubling exchange from 2012 (in fairness, I am not sure that Dagnall was aware of the technical meaning of “sports entertainment”)

the answer, from the more go-ahead factions within the game, would appear to be “yes”, or, more precisely, “so what?” or “who cares?”.

“So what?” is always a hard argument to counter, but I will attempt, in the third (and, I hope) final post in this series, to explain why anyone who genuinely cares about sport (or cares about genuine sports) should care about match-fixing, and why it is incongruous, at best, to put so much effort into rooting out one type of fixing, while enthusiastically embracing another, more insidious, form of it, by re-examining the commonly expressed opinion that “you have to be able to believe that what you are seeing is real”.