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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Happy Days and End Games

 

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On my first visit of the season, I complained that the inscription on the sundial in the Garden of Remembrance at the County Ground, Northampton had become illegible. I don’t know whether close to six months at Wantage Road has somehow cleansed my doors of perception, or whether they have shelled out to have it cleaned, but on my last visit I found I could read it clearly. It seems to read:

Make time, save time, while time lasts. All time is no time, when time is past.

This sounds like the sort of riddle contestants on 3-2-1 once had to solve to win a microwave oven, but, in fact, appears to have been borrowed from the 17th century monumental sculptor, Nicholas Stone. If the specifics are a little gnomic, the gist is clear : (depending on how you like your eggs) carpe diem, enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think … YOLO.

As September falls, a sense of an ending concentrates the minds of players, coaches and spectators alike, though unalike, according to their roles. Months of settling for high scoring draws (ensuring that the season will not be the kind of disaster that leads to the coach losing his job) give way to a desperate dash for results. In the previous five months of 4-day cricket at Grace and Wantage Roads I saw two results, in the last five weeks, I have seen five (two defeats and a win for Leicestershire, two wins for Northamptonshire).

For a few players, the end of the season will see their last game, some for their current club, for others anywhere or ever. The same goes for some of the crowd : we all hope to winter well, to see you next year, to have all the time in the world, but, as I was saying in the Spring, it does not do to take time for granted. And hovering at the back of our minds, at this season’s ending in particular, there skulks the baleful figure of the Angel of Death, in the shape of Colin Graves, and his plans for city-based cricket.  All time is no time, when time is past …

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, County Championship, 6-7 September 2016

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Should any of us have required a reminder of our mortality, the first day of this game had been designated as “Heart Attack Awareness Day” : praiseworthy, of course, though I found the sight of children simulating heart attacks in the outfield during the lunch interval did little to alleviate the sense of unease generated by another poor Leicestershire performance. They had gambled by preparing a green wicket against a side whose main strength looked to be its seam bowling, and who would have first use of that wicket. Not unpredictably, they were bowled out for 135 and 119 and, having allowed Sussex to recover from 156-7 to 313 (an inability to dock the tail has been a persistent problem), lost by an innings within two days. As if that were not punishment enough, the Umpires added to the insult by reporting the pitch to the ECB.

Little has gone right for Leicestershire recently ; what, precisely, has gone wrong is peculiarly hard to say, though the steep swan-dive in form has, at least, coincided with the confirmation that coach Andrew McDonald would be returning to Australia and the sudden departure of wicket-keeper and chief opposition-irritant Niall O’Brien. What goes on inside a professional cricket club is as mysterious to outsiders as what goes on inside a marriage : commentary is, at best, speculation, at worst gossip. It does appear to the outside observer, though, that the core of this side, mostly thirty-somethings of Australian or South African origin, are a rather introverted, self-sufficient group whose loyalty is (not unnaturally) to each other, rather than to Leicestershire per se, and who, without being actively unfriendly, see little need to build a rapport with outsiders.

There are also hints of a hierarchical split between the first-teamers (eight of whom have played in almost every four-day match this season) and the younger, local-ish players, reduced to the 2s and fetching and carrying (and who are gradually being shed from the staff). Zak Chappell, potentially the most talented, has been unable to bowl more than a few exploratory overs since he broke down in April, but returned against Sussex. Inevitably, given the long lay-off, his length and direction were awry (though he was quick enough to induce some balletics from Eckersley, who is nothing if not an elegant wicket-keeper). When he did finally find his range to finish the innings by clean bowling Jofra Archer, there seemed to be a marked lack of the usual back-slapping and high-fiving from his senior colleagues, and he was left out for the next game in favour of the ready-made Richard Jones. It would be a shame if he had to go elsewhere to find nurture.

Derbyshire 2nd XI v Glamorgan 2nd XI, Belper Meadows, 8th September 2016

The premature ending at Grace Road gave me a last chance to re-visit what is probably my favourite ground on the circuit, at Belper. I have tried to capture its charm in words before, but, as its appeal is largely aesthetic, it is probably best conveyed in pictures. I wondered why anyone would want to watch city-based cricket when they have the option of its De Chiroco shadows and distant prospects of the East Mill and the Derwent Valley.

(On the subject of intimations of mortality, during this match a Derbyshire batsman, completing his second run to reach 200, was struck on the head by a shy at the wicket. He lay motionless on the ground, and there was initially some concern that he was dead. Happily, it transpired that he was just having a larf (#topbantz!), but I wonder, if he had been killed instantly while out of his ground, but his momentum had carried his lifelless body over the crease, would the run have stood? Is it enough for the batsman’s body to complete the run, or does he need to be present in spirit? A question for Ask the Umpire, perhaps, or possibly a theologian.)

Leicestershire Over 50s v Essex Over 50s, Kibworth, 11h September 2016

The final of the Over 50s 50/50 Cup (I don’t think the Over 60s play 60 overs) saw the first of this season’s happy endings. Leicestershire (the underdogs) were struggling (as the shadows lengthened) at 108-9, in reply to Essex’s 167, when the last man arrived at the crease. He made the bulk of the runs to take us to victory, and, as darkness fell, he was sprayed with Champagne by his team-mates, and presented with the Man of the Match Award by the increasingly Tudor Mike Gatting. This is what is usually described as a “fairytale ending”, or “like something out of a Boy’s Own Comic” ; we instinctively mistrust them as too neat, too satisfying, as, in fiction, they would be. Which is why it matters that it actually happened, and that we can believe our eyes.

Derbyshire v Leicestershire, AAA Arena Derby, 12th September 2016

Of all the counties I know well, I’d say Derbyshire has the most attractive grounds – apart from Belper, there is Chesterfield, Buxton, Duffield and, no doubt, many more I have yet to visit. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the County choose to play all but one of their home games at the AAA Arena, which is rapidly transforming itself into one of the ugliest. It has long suffered from being surrounded by a system of ringroads that makes it perilous to approach and which keeps up a whooshing, grumbling, drone in the background, and is famously windswept. It used to have redeeming features, though, such as a well-stocked secondhand bookshop, decent ice-cream, and deckchairs rather than fixed seating around much of the boundary. Unfortunately, this section was cordoned off in connection with the building of a new media centre, which seems designed to complete the transformation from a cricket ground to a collection of multi-use industrial units (with a Travelodge looming over it all). I am not unaware of the commercial imperatives that lie behind this (and that something of the sort threatens at Grace Road), but the thought does occur that, if this is the future for the smaller counties, then a threatened alternative future of playing minor counties at, for instance, Belper, might well be preferable.

It didn’t help that the weather was dull, the crowd glum (as well they might, not having won a match all season), and it cost £18.00 to get in. On the field, it was another frustrating day for Leicestershire, who having ground Derbyshire down to 177-6, as usual allowed 19-year old wicket-keeper Harvey Hosein (83*) to drag the innings out to 307. Both sides looked weary, as though they felt that the season had gone on for too long, and as the gloaming descended in the late afternoon, I began to feel the same way. The most interesting feature of the day was that one of the home supporters had brought along a pet tortoise in a cardboard box, which was allowed to graze just outside the boundary fence ; on the whole I found watching that more entertaining than what was going on inside it.

Northamptonshire v Gloucestershire, County Ground, 12-15 September 2016

Moving from Derby to Northampton was to move from gloom into bright light (once the early mist had burned off). Since their T20 victory, Northamptonshire have been sealed in a golden bubble of happiness, on a winning streak where every gamble they take pays off, where they only have to hope for something to make it happen, much as it must seem to their talisman Duckett (who, while Leicester and Derby had been toiling, had knocked off 208 in a victory over Kent). In this match he could only manage a 70, mostly backhand-smashed off Gloucestershire’s quartet of season-weary back-of-a-length merchants, though he was presented with the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year Award (not to mention being called up by England).

On the final day, Gloucestershire had been set 441 to win. At 286-5 with time shortening, logic suggested a draw, but dream logic demanded that Northants should bowl them out, and that Ben Sanderson (a plucked-from-obscurity fairy story in himself), should take eight wickets to do it. After that it was beers on the balcony, and precious, sweaty, kit flung over it to the faithful, who lingered as long at the ground as they decently could. Make time, save time, while time lasts …

Northamptonshire’s Members too, seem to be locked in a golden bubble of happiness, to the extent that they have allowed themselves to be persuaded to surrender control of the club to a “group of investors” (I voted against this). The current investors appear to be amiable and well-intentioned, and, in the short-term, the future may well appear bright. In the longer term, though, when those investors grow old, or need some cash, the ex-Members may discover that it is harder to regain control of a club than to surrender it, at least until it goes bust (as the supporters of more than local football club will testify).

On the other hand, the long term is too far ahead to look for some of the older Members. As I heard one say “Oh, well. There’ll be cricket here next year … and maybe the year after”. Carpe diem … and let the future look after itself.

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, Grace Road, 20-22 September 2016

And so to the end, and a bitter end it looked to be, when Leicestershire were bowled out for 96 on the first morning (on what Andrew McDonald described as one of the worst days of first-class cricket he had ever seen). I won’t bore you with what led them to this position, but Gloucestershire found themselves, at lunch on the third day, needing 35 to win with 6 wickets in hand. There followed a fairytale ending, of the kind in which the big bad wolves (in the shape of Clint McKay and Charlie Shreck) gobble up the little piggies, as they lost those six wickets for ten runs, to give Leicestershire their first home win since 2012. It somehow happened too quickly to quite take in, and, after a brief explosion of disbelief and relief, I was left with the realisation that, after close to six months, and God knows how many thousands of words, it was all over, finished, gone, and I could think of nothing to say about it at all.

All time is no time, when time is past …

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Eckersley in Excelsis

Leicestershire v Derbyshire, Grace Road, LVCC, 4-7 August 2016

Those of us who follow cricket, in particular County cricket, are often accused of “living in the past“, or painting a “rose-tinted“, “sepia” picture of it (though what – in the age of Instagram filters – could be more modern?).  There is some truth in this (though I would argue that nostalgia, in the sense of homesickness and a consciousness of loss, is about the most profound experience the game has to offer), but what we are equally prone to do is to live in the future, and a rosy future at that.

As soon as a season’s fixtures are published, in the depths of Winter, we map out dream itineraries, new grounds to visit, old faces to re-encounter ; we dream of warm Springs,  high Summers, poignant Autumns.  A new face in the side sparks hope ; a few decent strokes and we are watching the next Gower, a hint of real pace from a debutant and he is giving the Aussies hell at the Gabba.  Needless to say, we are usually disappointed, but not for long, as there is always another season, and new new faces to look forward to.

What we do not often do, between looking back and looking forward, is to live in the present, but there is always one moment, one day in the season, when we would not wish to be anywhere else in time.  For many, I imagine, it would come at a Test, or at the moment of some personal triumph, but for me, this year, it came on the fourth day of what turned out to be a drawn game between Leicestershire and Derbyshire at Grace Road.

It helps that, for the first time since I began writing this blog in 2009, Leicestershire still have a realistic chance of being promoted at this stage of the season.  Unfortunately, due to the number of drawn games this year, so do five other Counties, but it does mean that, for once, thoughts at Grace Road have not yet begun to turn to the hope of better things next year.

I joined the game shortly before lunch on the third day, with Derbyshire about a hundred short of Leicestershire’s first innings total of 380, with eight wickets down.  This soon became nine and the Foxes must have been content to postpone their lunches in the expectation of polishing off the young debutant off-spinner, Callum Parkinson.  Unfortunately Parkinson (who, through rose-tinted spectacles, is clearly the new Graeme Swann) proved to be a wolf in rabbit’s clothing, and had no difficulty in holding them off until hunger drove them into the pavilion.

Over lunch it seemed to dawn on Leicestershire that this might be the precise moment when promotion slipped away from them, because they re-emerged with the seeming plan of trying to bully the youngster out.  “Let’s give him a nice easy game lads, lots of half volleys” came a voice from behind the stumps (which must have puzzled the lad, as this was pretty much what they had been doing for the previous half hour). “He’s only 19” bellowed Charlie Shreck from the boundary, menacingly, like the Great Long Legged Scissor Man. “Better than being 39“, retorted a nearby Derbyshire supporter, piquantly (the bowler pondered this melancholy truth in silence).

Parkinson was left stranded on 48*, having put on 73 for the last wicket to bring his side to within 18 of Leicestershire’s total. For the second time in the match, Leicestershire’s prospects looked bleak when Ned Eckersley came in at number 7, with the score at 103-5 (in their first innings, they had been 138-5 before he scored his first century).

Edmund “Ned” Eckersley has been weaving in and out of this chronicle since he made his first appearance as a triallist in 2011 (as “the man with no squad number” and an impressive portfolio of nicknames). In 2013 he scored over a thousand runs at an average of over 50, and was neck and neck with a certain Moeen Ali as the leading run scorer in Division 2. His highlight that season was scoring two centuries in the match against Worcestershire, many of them off the innocuous looking off-spin of the same Moeen.

After that, through the lean years, he seemed miscast as senior batsman and rock of the side at number three. He became introverted and crabbed, weighed down with responsibility, and began to exhibit Trott-like symptoms, such as obsessive crease-scratching. The runs dried up, his average declined (27 in 2014, 25.74 last year). He was said to crave a return to his native Smoke, he wrote a piece for the Cricketer and tried some work experience as a journalist. So far this season he has been sidelined with a broken finger (perhaps sustained through excessive typing).

Eckersley has a whiff of Bohemia about him : unusually for a modern cricketer, he would look more at home in the Cafe Royale than Nandos. My first mention in “Wisden” singled out a description of his beard, on its first appearance, as “scrubby” and “rabbinical”. Since then, it has been through an Assyrian phase, and a crypto-hipster one, before settling on an unstyled long hair and beard combo which makes him look, with the white-rimmed shades Leicestershire currently sport, like a Greenwich Village folksinger who has just discovered LSD and is about to go psychedelic, or, perhaps, Robert Powell in the role of Jesus of Nazareth.

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Borrowed shamelessly from the Cricket Paper

Being moved down to number 7, with six experienced batsmen above him, does seem to have allowed him to play as he would he choose to, freed from constraint. Early on he was watchful and fastidious in his choice of strokes ; as the danger receded, his top hand took over and was given free rein in the covers. By early afternoon he was approaching his second century, and Leicestershire were in a position where a declaration might have tempted Derbyshire into a hazardous run-chase. But Eckersley was allowed to bat on (it didn’t help that he was, through no fault of his own, stalled for 15 minutes on 99) and that moment passed.

Derbyshire were listing badly at 5-2,, but Madsen and Thakor righted the vessel and the two sides shook hands on a draw. I thought they did so a little prematurely, but then I noticed a barbie was already smouldering behind the pavilion (perhaps set up by the families of the Australian contingent, who sometimes turn sunny days at Grace Road into a scene from Home and Away). No doubt Eckersley, whose 27th birthday was the next day, would be offered the choicest cuts, but I hope they kept a sausage or two for young Parkinson.

Eckersley was allowed to lead the sides off the field : there is a wonderful photograph of that moment by Ed Melia, which suggests what made it, for me, the day of the season (you can see it here). Aside from its formal qualities, it seems to capture the precise moment when a player’s career is at its absolute zenith, neither promising nor declining, looking neither forward or back, the moment, perhaps never to be repeated, when he would not wish to be anywhere else.

Ripeness is all.

Northamptonshire v Leicestershire, County Ground, LVCC, 13-16 August 2016

I suggested, at the start of the season, that Northamptonshire’s strategy in the Championship seemed to be, bearing in mind that they have a reasonable batting side, but apparently weaker bowling, to prepare dead pitches, opt for high-scoring draws and hope to “nick one on the break” towards the end, when sides in contention for promotion might be inclined to make sporting declarations. That has proved accurate, the only game at Wantage Road that has not been drawn being the slightly freakish defeat by Worcestershire. This game was another that would have gone into its second week, had it not been for a sporting declaration : the surprise was that it came from Northants, and not Leicestershire.

In their first innings, Leicestershire compiled 519, with three centuries, including a third in three innings for Eckersley (which I missed, not being there on the Sunday). On the Monday, Northamptonshire had reached 397-7 (Newton 202*) when, to the surprise of all, they declared. On the Tuesday, to the surprise of most (but not me), Leicestershire batted on to set Northants a notional target of 405 in 51 overs.

The shadow-boxing on the Tuesday had the unfortunate effect of casting doubt on the validity of 18 year-old slow left armer Saif Zaib’s figures of 5-148 off a very long 26 overs. In fact, though some of his wickets did come off silly hoicks, he could easily have had five legitimate ones, if there had been more close catchers in place. It also, unfortunately, ruined Eckersley’s chances of equally C.B. Fry’s record of six centuries in succession, as he was caught at long on for 1, off a ball by – of all people – wicket-keeper David Murphy. He might have preferred to bat the day out.

Those who enjoy living in the past had an opportunity to re-enact it on the Monday, when various members of the side who won the Gillette Cup in 1976 were having a re-union (and those, like Mushtaq, who could not attend were there in spirit, on a big screen). Sarfraz Nawaz, looking only a little less like Omar Sharif than he did in his heyday, was cornered in the car park by the same men, I suspect, who, as boys, had cornered him there forty years ago. I don’t suppose they sang “Forty Years On”, though parts of it would have been appropriate.

Leicestershire will play the current leaders, Essex, at Grace Road this coming week, without their bowling talisman and leading wicket-taker, Clint McKay, who pulled up lame towards the end of Northamptonshire’s first innings (the chief reason they did not declare earlier). Defeat would make promotion for Leicestershire improbable, and though I would not underestimate the acumen of our Australian management team, they might – assuming they really want us to be promoted – find themselves looking back in regret at a few of the dies that they have declined to carpere over the course of the season.

On the other hand, though, young Zak Chappell looked about ready to bowl again, and, anyway, there’s always next year …

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cricket, Proper and Improper

Nottinghamshire v Yorkshire, Trent Bridge, County Championship, 3rd May 2016

Northamptonshire v Derbyshire, County Ground, County Championship, 4th May 2016

I’m sure you’ve heard the distinction made before between “the cricket” and “a day at the cricket” (John Woodcock said that, whereas he wrote about the first, Alan Gibson wrote about the second).  “Good day at the cricket?” is not the same question as “Cricket good today?”.

On Tuesday, for instance, when I went to Trent Bridge to watch Notts play Yorkshire, the cricket was good, right enough.  In fact, as George Dobell wrote on Cricinfo, it was “a perfect advert for Championship cricket”.  I can’t speak for those who were there on the other three days, but, as a “day at the cricket“, the third day was little short of purgatorial.

It was a match  with everything : quality players (seven on each side with international experience (and two more, Lees and Ball,

Jake Ball

likely to join them), Hales and Broad starring for Notts,  Ballance, Root, Bairstow and Plunkett for Yorkshire) ; context (the current Champions taking on one of their most plausible challengers and historic rivals) ; narrative – an even contest where the advantage changed hands by the hour, both sides capable of winning as they went into the last session and the result in doubt to the last ball – yes, all of that.

Anyone who was following the game on TV, or online, must have wished they could be at the ground to see it.  Anyone who turns to the relevant page of Wisden in years to come will wish they had been there.  It must even have looked good from the warmth of the pressbox.  As a game, it made for great reading, and, for those with the ability to concentrate exclusively on what went on between the wickets (the cameraman’s view), great viewing.

Trent Bridge TV

It even began well ; at the start of play I was in the middle tier of the Radcliffe Road Stand and down to one layer, but by lunch a leaden pall of grey cloud had covered the sun and the cooling breeze had turned into a nasty, insidious little north-westerly wind that seemed to be trying to insinuate itself into any gap in the spectators’ layers of insulation.

Not everyone would agree, of course.  Most of those who had begun in the Radcliffe Road (Middle or Lower) stuck it out there all day and were probably rooted to the same spot for all four days.

Radcliffe Road

Without wishing to stereotype the Yorkshire crowd too much, they must have been sustained (in addition to a proper cap and muffler and frequent recourse to the thermos) by the fact that the afternoon session was proper cricket.  After the loss of two quick wickets, Alex Hales and Michael Lumb (two notorious sloggers, of course) dug in good and proper against some relentlessly accurate seam bowling from, in particular, Jack Brooks and Steven Patterson

Hales forward defensive

The first 20 overs yielded 32 runs, which must have puzzled anyone whose previous experience of cricket was of the 20 over variety.

It was an afternoon for the purist, a day for the connoisseur, and, if it had only been a little warmer, it would have been a day for me.  As it was, I took what turned out to be a brief abandonment for bad light and drizzle as a sign that I should make my excuses (“sorry – I’m not from Yorkshire“) and scuttle off back to the warmth of the Railway Station and Leicestershire.

The Trent Bridge match vindicates one of the arguments of those who favour a Two Division Championship.  There were no easy, devalued, runs against two attacks with four near Test-quality seamers (Willey, Brooks, Patterson and Plunkett on the one side ; Ball, Broad, Gurney and Bird on the other).  The drawback is that the concentration of the top bowlers in the First Division (Brooks and Willey were lured from Northamptonshire, Broad and Gurney from Leicestershire) threatens to leave the Second Division as an environment stripped of its apex predators, in which some fairly unfit-to-survive batsmen can graze and thrive.

Wednesday at Wantage Road was, I suppose, in the wider scheme of things, a nothing match between two nothing-in-particular teams.  Derbyshire have been de-fanged by the loss of Footitt to Surrey (their opening bowlers were those old partners-in-crime Fletcher and Carter, last seen at Radlett https://newcrimsonrambler.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/304/) . Northants’ bowling, with Ollie Stone sidelined, might as well have left its dentures in a glass at the side of the bed.  The first three days had seen a glut of runs, elongated by rain, and the chances of a result were slim or none when I arrived, but so too – oh the relief! – were the chances of bad weather.

Slim left town shortly after lunch, by which time Derbyshire had reached 100 for no wicket and – armed with a copy of Alan Gibson’s ‘Growing Up With Cricket’, which I had found in the Supporters’ Club bookshop, and a delicious vanilla cone from that Queen of its Species, the Gallone’s ice-cream van

Note gardener’s thumbnail

I settled down, high in the new stands on the Eastern side, far from the action but catching most of the warmth and light, to bask like a sand lizard, secure in the knowledge that the players wouldn’t be allowed to come off the pitch until 5.00.

Shortly before tea, when both openers (Chesney Hughes and Billy Godleman) were making stately progress towards their centuries, all Hell broke loose (or as much Hell as about a hundred elderly people can raise).  I hadn’t caught what had happened (I may have been absorbed in my book, I might have dozed off), so I asked my nearest neighbours (about ten yards away) what all the fuss was about, but they hadn’t seen it either.  Eventually it transpired that Jake Libby (on loan from Nottinghamshire) had claimed a catch on the boundary, but the batsman (Godleman) was doubting his word and refusing to go.

In a televised match the incident would have replayed and analysed endlessly and inconclusively, in an Ashes Test it would have led to a week-long Twitter war between pro- and anti- Spirit of Cricket factions.  As there were no cameras here, and the Umpires seemed to feel unqualified  to make a decision without their assistance, it led to a ten minute argument out in the middle, to the accompaniment of slow handclapping and cries of “disgraceful” from those in the crowd who had been nearer to the incident than they had.

In the event, the Spirit of Cricket was to have her revenge on Godleman.  On 94, with time running out, he looked to reach his 100 by aiming a majestic heave at one of the aggrieved Libby’s strictly occasional off-spinners, but succeeded only in wrecking his own wicket.  He returned to the pavilion to the accompaniment of what the official web site politely described as “catcalls“.

At ten to five, as I was making my way to the exit, the final sign that the Muse of Comedy had taken over came with the solemn announcement that Josh Cobb would be taking over the gloves from Ben Duckett*.  Duckett would be bowling.  Chesney Hughes (who had already reached his hundred) prodded forward respectfully to his second delivery, the ball spiralled gently into the lap of first slip, who juggled and dropped it like an electric eel, at which point they shook hands (grudgingly) and called it a day.

“Proper cricket” be damned.  I haven’t had so much fun in ages.

*(I maligned Duckett in an earlier post by describing him as a “rotten wicket-keeper”, by the way.  He ‘kept very well in this match.)