Leicestershire 2nd XI v MCC Universities, Desborough, 19-20 July 2016
Here’s a handy tip. If you can think of a ground that is hell to visit in early season, where the wind whips unmercifully, and then think of the place where you would least like to sit, then that will be the ground to visit, and the spot to sit in, on the hottest day of the year. The wind that bit through to your bones in April will have bloomed into a gently caressing zephyr by July. So, on this year’s hottest day, I visited Desborough.
Desborough is not, by reputation, idyllic. A small Northamptonshire town, which still has some manufacturing (shoes and corsets), it lies five miles (as the sign-post says) from Harborough (in Leicestershire), where I live. I have watched Northamptonshire’s 2nd XI play here before : this season they play at least one game in Harborough ; Leicestershire, conversely and confusingly, are playing several in Desborough.
The ground is surrounded on three sides by farmland, on the other by the “West Lodge Farm Centre”, a sort of petting zoo for children. The wheat in the neighbouring fields is ripening ; a combine is harvesting, and, no doubt, separating the wheat from the chaff. On one side of the ground, the baa-ing of sheep is audible through the hedge that acts as an all-too permeable membrane, and, separately, the bleating of the goats in the petting zoo. Wheat and chaff, sheep and goats.
To the spectator, the world of the Leicestershire Second XI (or “Tooze”) cricketer appears an idyll. You play at the prettier grounds, hang out with your mates and get a decent free feed. You can loll in front of the pavilion, doze on the treatment table, or walk very slowly round the boundary in your training kit and flip-flops, kicking or spinning a ball in front of you ; you can top up your tan, and if you circumnavigate in twos or threes, it gives you the chance to have those conversations that are not for the ears of the coach, or your team-mates.
Idyllic though it may appear, like Tambimuttu’s Soho, it does not pay to become too seduced, because, once seduced, it is not always possible to escape, at least not in the way that you would choose. Mostly, the toozemen are cricket’s precariat, Pietersen’s “muppets on £15k” (if that), living from one short-term contract to another, hoping for a chance to break through into the Firsts (or even, like Harry Gurney, achieve a kind of miraculous translation), fearing that, in that kindly-sounding phrase, they will be “released” back into the wild, and then what? Golf pro? Master in Charge of Cricket? Too late to give rugby another go?
This is the time of the season, as it ripens, when the serpent is in the garden, and the worm is in the bud ; next year’s contracts are being decided ; the wheat is being separated from the chaff, and the sheep from the goats. The coach is on his ‘phone, out of earshot “I’m telling you this in the strictest confidence …”, a player on loan from another county is there (though not playing), talking to the coach (how many seamers will they need next year?), there are earnest, awkward, appraisal-like conversations on the boundary stroll (“I don’t feel like I’ve been given an extended run …”). Someone might be going to Somerset.
“The students'” bowling should give the batsmen a chance to make a good impression. The top five, half-successes, in and out of the side, half-succeed and half-fail, twenties, thirties, not enough. One looks good for twenty, thirty, then – a moment’s inattention – pats a long hop to square leg. The ground falls silent (even the sheep) and waits for the slamming of the door, the sound of a bat thrown against the wall.
At six – and how infuriating this must be to those batsmen who have never wanted to do anything but bat for a living – is the Golden Boy, who would, but for injury, be bowling in the first team. He is worth his place in the Tooze for his batting and he bats – though I doubt he’s heard of him – like Tony Grieg, drawing himself up to his full height (6’4″, or is it 6’6″ by now?) to force straight drives off the back foot, effortlessly through the hedge and in amongst the sheep. So, effortlessly, almost apologetically (I’m not quite sure how I did that) and infuriatingly, he makes 81 and turns the innings around. It wouldn’t matter if he hadn’t. The anxiety about contracts is, in his case, on the side of the club, and he is still in his teens. He has, you see, all the time in the world.
The next day, it is the students’ turn to bat and Leicestershire have unveiled a secret weapon (a sort of midget submarine), in the shape of one Dieter Klein. No-one has heard of him before, and he introduces a new element into the equation (how many seamers do you think they’ll need again?). He looks to be in his late twenties, is short for a fast bowler, with very fair hair and a high forehead. He looks like a heavily muscled version of Derek Underwood and, until he reaches his delivery stride, as though he’s going to bowl like him too. A left-armer, he bowls off about five full paces, apparently relying on the strength of his chest and shoulders ; his deliveries fizz and blow up in the batsmen’s faces like Mills Bombs. He could probably complete an over in the time it takes Toby Roland-Jones to bowl a single ball.
Klein proves a little too fast for most of “the students” and by late afternoon on the second day (and the second hottest of the year) their innings is in its death throes. You can’t see or hear it yet, but you can feel the thunder is coming. The outfielders have been acting the goat all afternoon (while the coach seems pre-occupied by his ‘phone) and, as the atmosphere thickens, they seem suddenly, giddily, struck by the absurdity of their situation.
Jigar Naik is bowling ; Golden Boy (clearly bored) turns from chanting his name as encouragement (as, presumably, instructed) to improvising wild rhythmic variations on it “Jiggary Naikary Jiggary-Pokery Naikery-Snakery“, rather in the style of Vachel Lindsay. Fieldsmen who have been slipping in a few surreptitious baas metamorphose in unison into a flock “Baaa baaaa baaaaa “. Look, coach, sheep – not goats!
As the black clouds creep up from behind the pavilion, like Bela Lugosi unfurling his cape,
I try to make good my escape before the rain starts (it is about forty minutes’ walk to the bus stop). On my way a farm dog, perhaps spooked by the thunder, or aiming for the peacock’s tail feather that is protruding, lunges for my bag (my Playfair sustains some minor damage). About fifteen minutes out (too late to turn back), the rain comes. The only place to shelter from the lightning is under a radio transmission mast. I submit, and stand, and in five minutes I am soaked, as the French say, to the bone. In another twenty, as the pavement steams, I am as dry as a bone.
Postscript : Nic Pothas (the coach) is leaving for Sri Lanka ; Dieter Klein (who turns out to have a good first-class record in South Africa and a German passport) and Richard Jones (the loanee from Warwickshire) have been offered two-year contracts, as has Lewis Hill (the bat-thrower). We await further announcements.