Heart Rot and Purple Haze

Kent v Leicestershire, County Championship, Canterbury, 30th August 2017

Leicestershire v West Indies, Grace Road, 2nd September 2017

You’re very optimistic” the gate-woman at the St. Lawrence Ground observed, laughingly, as she trousered my £20 note in return for a ticket which is now, I imagine, something of a collector’s item (I am reasonably confident that I was the only purchaser). As a general character assessment “fatalistic” might be nearer the mark, but I suspect that she intended it as a euphemism for “silly”, given the prospects for play (and no doubt I am).

According to ‘The Cricket Paper’,

This three-day county game in leafy Canterbury must have felt like pure joy to those nostalgic followers of championship cricket

and I suppose it must, if they happened to have been there on one of those three days. On Monday, Leicestershire’s bristly nemesis Darren Stevens had threatened to take all ten of our wickets (he finished with 8-75), before Lewis Hill and Callum Parkinson broke the record for a tenth wicket partnership set by George Geary and Alec Skelding in 1925. On Tuesday, Neil Dexter (who still has time to become the new Darren Stevens) snaffled another five wickets, and, on the Thursday, Mark Cosgrove (for motives that have been much speculated-upon) hit 24 off the first five balls of an over from Matt Coles, before edging to the wicket-keeper off the sixth.

It was one of Leicestershire’s more encouraging performances, there was an innings I should like to have seen from Sam Northeast, and the weather (for two and a half days) was blissful. Unfortunately, the only day on which I could be there was the Wednesday. It started to rain shortly before the start of play (having, briefly, been fine enough in the morning to lure me in), gently at first, then heavily enough for the day and ground to have been abandoned by lunchtime. This not only spoilt my day, but the match, which was hastened to its all-but-inevitable, drawn, conclusion by the return of the rain on the afternoon of the fourth day.

Canterbury, like Worcester and Hove, has the reputation of being one of the more conventionally romantic of the Counties’ headquarters : with a little imagination, I could sense that it was somewhere I should enjoy watching cricket, if there were any cricket to be seen. The majority of the ground is ringed by low banks of seating, and enough trees to justify the soubriquet “leafy”, interspersed with some medium-rise buildings, none of them offensive. The inevitable “redevelopment” – some retirement flats and a branch of Sainsbury’s – struck me as unobtrusive, though whether I would think so if I remembered the ground in its heyday I don’t know.

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Another new development, The Lime Tree Cafe, though not a patch, in culinary terms, on our own dear Meet, offered a snug vantage point from which to observe the rain (or cricket, where applicable).IMG_20170830_105553 (2)

A few of the younger Leicestershire players had taken refuge there too, giving off the vague impression of children keeping out of the way while the grown-ups argued.  Thanks to the rain, I had plenty of opportunity to inspect both the interior and exterior of the Frank Woolley Stand, a two storey concrete structure which is, perhaps, best described as “venerable” or “imposing” rather than “elegant” in the style of its dedicatee. I think it is somewhere I should only choose to sit to escape from the elements (excessive sun, wind or rain), but then so many days at the cricket are afflicted by one of those three. The leaking roof, I thought, only enhanced its discreet charms, but I suspect it will be “redeveloped” as soon as funds allow.

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The ground’s best-known feature, the lime tree which used to grow inside the boundary, apparently died of “heart rot”, an ailment I imagine as a feeling of profound discouragement brought on by prolonged soaking. Though very wet by the time I returned to the city centre, I think I managed to escape a dose and, having taken a liking to both Canterbury and its cricket ground, I hope we will meet again (though, at present, I don’t know when), preferably on some sunnier day.

This has been quite the season for novelties (or things that, Miranda-like, are new to me), and there was another in the shape of the format for the tour match against the West Indies. It was intended to be a two-day game, with one innings a side ; the first innings to be limited to 100 overs, the second not. The novel twist was that the West Indies were allowed 15 players, Leicestershire only 11. The Leicestershire side, with the exceptions of Ned Eckersley (who was captaining) and Harry Dearden, were the squad members who had not played against Kent, with debuts for teenagers Sam Evans and Harry Swindells, and tentative returns from injury for Zak Chappell (who has, again, spent most of the Summer playing as a batsman for the 2nd XI), and Richard Jones (who has not been seen since April).

The intention was presumably to provide the tourists with some practice between Tests and when, as expected, they won the toss, they chose to bat. Until lunch, however, Leicestershire’s bowlers were uncooperative enough to make a game of it, reducing them, at one point, to 64-5. There had been a September dew in the early morning, and, perhaps, Klein and Chappell were a little sharper than they had been expecting : Klein often surprises batsmen who haven’t faced him before ; Zak was bowling at a little below full pace and, perhaps as a result, was more economical than usual (his first nine overs cost only eighteen runs).

Brathwaite and Hope (K.) were trapped lbw by Klein and Chappell, by balls that swung and dipped in respectively, for single-figure scores ; neither Chase nor Blackwood reached double figures either. I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing Hope (S.) bat, given the records he had set at Headingley, but statistics mean nothing when you play down the wrong line, as he did to a delivery from Richard Jones, edging the ball on to his stumps having made a 28 that had hinted at better things. It was two players who had not made much impression at Headingley, Kieran Powell and the wicket-keeper Dowrich, who returned the game to its expected course, with an initially circumspect sixth wicket partnership of 127.

The exception to that circumspection was provided by a single stroke from Powell which impressed itself on the mind like a clap of thunder on a cloudless day, but might well have impressed itself for different reasons. Zak Chappell had been afflicted by one of his usual trials, a slight tickle down the legside that just evaded the leaping ‘keeper and crashed into the sightscreen. His next delivery, predictably, was a textbook bouncer, which Powell chose not to evade, but hooked off the tip of his nose. The ball travelled horizontally at almost precisely 90 degrees to the wicket, at a tall man’s head height, over a boundary which was as short as I have seen at Grace Road, and had rebounded off the Meet with alarming force before anyone in the vicinity had moved a muscle. It must have passed over the heads of those sitting on the benches in front of the Meet, but if someone, as is usually the case, had been making their way to the ice-cream parlour, lavatories or bar, and the ball had hit them on the head, it might easily have killed them. Fortunately, one of the few things at Grace Road which is more robust than it used to be is the glass in the Meet’s windows (once notoriously frangible, and prone to producing showers of broken glass).

Talking of sore heads, the club, perhaps suspecting that the West Indies would not provide enough of an attraction in themselves, had chosen to combine the match with a real ale festival. I am not sure of the precise distinction between craft beer and real ale, except that the former is fashionable and comes in bottles, whereas the latter is less fashionable and comes on draught. Craft beer is, reputedly, drunk by hipsters with sculpted beards, and real ale is, supposedly, drunk by old hippies with untamed beards (as the names of some of the ales, among them “Tangerine Dream” and “Purple Haze” would suggest). The ale-fanciers made up slightly more of a fair-sized crowd the West Indies supporters, many of whom I recognised from the visit of their women’s team in July.

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Powell’s thunderbolt aside, the afternoon was balmy, and meandered on its way in relaxed fashion, until, as tea approached, West Indies stood on 161-7. With only the tail to come, the crowd could have anticipated seeing the Windies bowl before the close of play, but that would be to forget the unusual playing conditions. One or two hardened topers (and I am not speaking from personal experience here, you understand) might have felt that they had been overdoing the “Spin Me Round” (one of Roxy Music’s more underrated tracks) as a number nine, with the frankly improbable name of Shimron Odilon Hetmyer, raised the ghost of old-tyme calypso cricket with a gaily-struck unbeaten 128, featuring 17 fours and 5 sixes (mostly hit too high to be a danger to life and limb). This Hetmyer, you see, normally bats at three, and may have glimpsed, and grasped, an opportunity to supplant the faltering Hope (K.), by laying into a tiring attack.

I didn’t bother turning up for the second day. The forecast was dubious, and I suspected that the West Indians would be less keen on bowling practice in chilly conditions. I believe that the match was abandoned because of bad light shortly before lunch (in spite of the floodlights), though I trust that the beer festival was allowed to continue for rather longer.

(Talking of trimmed and unkempt beards, I feel I would be failing in my duty if I did not report on the latest developments with respect to Ned Eckersley’s grooming. For most of the season he has favoured a long, off-centre-parted style, resembling Richard le Gallienne after a couple of months on a tramp steamer, but, for this game, both hair and beard had been severely cropped (perhaps in acknowledgement of the responsibilities of Captaincy).)

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Drift Dodgers

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Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream …

Some time on the morning of the first day of Leicestershire’s match against Kent (which, in the event, saw no play at all), Richard Rae of the BBC tweeted a quotation from ‘The Cricketer’ in 1926, to the effect that Leicestershire were “engaged in floating complacently down the streams of Time”. This led me to thinking (there was plenty of time for thought that day) of how the governing principle of County Cricket is drift (a little like Thomas Pynchon’s conception of entropy).

Innings accumulate slowly, grain by grain, flake by flake, imperceptibly, like sand or snow-drifts. Games drift to a conclusion, drift towards a draw. Clubs are said be drifting ; overly passive Captains are accused of letting games drift ; players’ careers start to drift, they drift out of the game. Crowds drift around the ground (particularly when it’s raining) and start to drift away after tea. Clouds drift over and away again. Afternoons, days, games, seasons drift by, and with them the years.

This drift is seductive (what could be more pleasant that floating effortlessly downstream on a Summer’s afternoon?) as long as you don’t think too hard about where the current is taking you. Resistance is ultimately futile (the greatest players, as the least, are carried away in the end), but temporary victories depend on fighting the drift and swimming upstream against the current.

Leicestershire v Kent, Grace Road, 19-22 May 2017

The first day of the Kent game was, as I say, a washout. It had rained heavily overnight and the rain returned intermittently throughout the day. No-one at the ground (some small parties from Kent and the usual suspects) seriously expected that there would be any play, though there were the usual teasing announcements about inspections and what might happen if there were no further rain. You can (and I have) spent days such as these at Grace Road, drifting aimlessly round the ground, playing spot the wheelbarrow

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observing the dark clouds drift over and drift away again, watching the rain fall through the big picture windows of the Fox Bar, barely conscious of the hours, of life, drifting away, not unpleasantly but inexorably, but, for once, I chose to fight the drift and, after a quick lunch, spent the afternoon at an exhibition about the Anglo-Sikh Wars.

The second day was an affair of showers, interrupted by scattered outbreaks of cricket, and, by its end, it already seemed likely that the natural direction of drift was towards a draw. I am not suggesting any element of conscious collusion, but a slow drift to the eventual conclusion (a draw with maximum bonus points each) would not have struck either side as an outcome to be struggled against too determinedly.

Kent are a side I still think of as being, like Worcestershire, made up of young, locally-produced talent, but this is to ignore the slow drift of time. Sam Billings (26 in June) was away with England ; Sam Northeast, now in his 10th year of first-class cricket, is 27 ; Adam Riley (25), seen by good judges not so long ago as the future of English spin, only made two first-class appearances last season and may be drifting out of the game altogether. Matt Coles (27) has drifted away to Hampshire (apparently adrift on a tide of alcohol) and back again. James Harris (27), ten years after his debut, has unexpectedly drifted in from Middlesex on loan. Daniel Bell-Drummond (24 in August) still fits the description, but, given the competition for the England openers’ berths, may soon find that he’s missed that particular boat. Fabian Cowdrey, apparently, has given it up for music and a free electric band.

Having said that, a side made up of players in their prime who are not quite good, or lucky, enough to play for England (and Kent also have nearly men of a different generation, in Denly, Tredwell and Gidman) is one route to success in County cricket. They should, by rights, have been promoted last season and came into this game having won their first three matches, but may be well advised to catch the tide before the drift catches up with them.

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Play began on time, under low cloud and continued, through some light drizzle, until roughly lunchtime. Horton and Dearden opened ; both Lancastrians, they are beginning to forge the kind of safety-first partnership that drove Cardus to lyrical peaks of exasperation when writing about Lancashire’s Hallows and Makepeace in the 1920s. Horton, who was a little more expansive, departed when the score was 58, leaving Dearden to make 34 off 108 balls, having taken 12 overs to reach double figures.

They were permitted to take this approach by Coles, whom I have seen bowl well, but who looked sluggish here, bowling a few showy bouncers, but few balls that did not give the batsmen the option of leaving them, but compelled to do so by Darren Stevens, whose first ten overs resulted in roughly the same number of runs. Stevens, a brazenly nibbly medium pacer, who, at 41, looks like the sort of bloke you’d expect find in B&Q on a Saturday morning, is so much the embodiment of the kind of cricketer who is officially frowned upon that the toss was abolished to discourage him from taking wickets ; he still went into this game as both the leading run-scorer and the leading wicket-taker in Division 2. When he switched to the Bennett End, and came in with a stiff breeze at his back, scented by the familiar whiff of disinfectant and old socks, he was in his element, as threatening in his way as Thommo at the WACA.

A combination of Stevens’ miserliness and the rain that washed out the afternoon, before a brief four over reprise at 5.45 (by which time I’d drifted off home), meant that Leicestershire began the third day on 127-2 with another 63 overs to reach the 400 they needed to achieve maximum batting points. Colin Ackermann played his first innings of any substance at Grace Road, making 89 in a little over four hours (I thought a quick burst of “Sylvia” over the PA might have been in order when he reached 50). A slight, neatly turned out figure, he seems something of a throwback, playing in an unobtrusively stylish, through scrupulously orthodox style, as if he’d learned to play by following the MCC Coaching Manual while observing himself in the mirror. Together with Cosgrove (39) and Eckersley (33) he provided the middle-order solidity that he seemed to promise when he first signed.

However, with those three, plus Pettini (who didn’t look in the mood) and debutant Callum Parkinson out cheaply, the score stood on 278-7 after 91 overs. Although there was no prospect of losing, it seemed unlikely that a fourth, let alone a fifth, batting point would be secured. It occurs to me that an observer unfamiliar with the scoring of bonus points would have been puzzled by what happened next, which was that Tom Wells, Clint McKay and Dieter Klein began to flex their muscles, making 139 off the last 19 overs (a quite reasonable T20 score). Even Darren Stevens was forced to concede 44 off his 21 overs, though Matt Hunn (a tall young seamer with a disappointing lack of nicknames, given the options) bore the brunt, going for 110 off his 22.

Having left soon after 5.00, I missed the one point in the game where it seemed that the drift to a draw might be reversed, that the extraordinary thing might happen, as Dieter Klein took four wickets and Tom Wells one to reduce Kent to 144-5, in a session that did not end until 7.30. The man to re-establish it the next morning was, inevitably, Stevens, who had begun to turn the tide with a counter-attacking 50 the evening before. He went on to make exactly 100 (cheered on by the Ultras in the Stench & Benno Stand, who can’t have been quite wasted enough at that time of the morning to have forgotten that he was now playing for Kent), making the follow-on, and thus a result, unachievable by about lunchtime.

After that, the innings ended with a mirror image of Leicestershire’s, as the Kent lower order secured the fifth bonus point with 20 overs to spare. With the serious business concluded, they continued clubbing the bowling (Coles taking 26 off an over from a visibly shaken Parkinson) long after the point where it had begun to seem merely gratuitous. Leicestershire’s reply, in which Harry Dearden scored 17 in 72 minutes represented an exercise in Zen pointlessness, although young Hunn did have the consolation of returning figures of 1-2.

You may have noticed, incidentally, that this report is uncharacteristically reliant on figures (which I have borrowed from Cricinfo). Even at the distance of little over a week, much of my memory of the game has been erased by the sand-drifts of time : in fact, what I remembered most clearly about it (and this you couldn’t find on Cricinfo) was the remarkable mackerel sky on the Sunday afternoon.

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Picture yourself on a boat on a river …

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, Wantage Road, 26 May 2017

I have not renewed my Membership at Northamptonshire this year. Technically, no-one has, because Membership has been reduced to Season Ticket Holder-ship, and, with the sentimental motive removed, I have chosen not to buy one because three of Northamptonshire’s home matches coincide with Leicestershire’s (a fourth, the one against Leicestershire, is a day-night game, so I am unlikely to see much of that either).

As a result, this single day, the first of a low-scoring contest which Worcestershire won in three days, lacked context, though it drifted by enjoyably enough. What I remember best is, rather ignobly, hoping that the young Worcestershire seamer Josh Tongue would fall over, so that I could make a joke about “a slip of the Tongue” and the stroke of doubtful heritage (perhaps a kind of paddle-pull over his shoulder) that removed Ben Duckett after a watchful 28, caught behind off the said Tongue (and not even by a slip). Last season Duckett would have played this stroke without hesitation and sent it over the boundary ; he is a “confidence player”, if ever there was one, and his misadventures with England over the Winter may have depleted even his considerable reserves of that quantity.

The Memorial Garden looked lovely in the sunshine, I must say.

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Derbyshire v Leicestershire, Derby, 27 May 2017

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Two Derbyshire supporters

The following day I visited Derby. The ground is not, these days, one that you would choose to visit without some strong motive (even the once adequate tea-room has now been replaced by a burger van). Mine was that there was an outside chance that Leicestershire might win (the extraordinary thing), with the chance of sheet lightning thrown in (which, in the event, might have livened the game up a bit).

On the first two days, Leicestershire had made 619, chiefly because they could (in that unattractive phrase). On a Slumberdown of a pitch, and with Derbyshire lacking Viljoen and Cotton (the two bowlers who had threatened in their RLDOC match), Ackermann, Cosgrove and Eckersley all waxed fat to the tune of a large century apiece. Any chance of a result depended on Derbyshire being made to follow on. When Godelman and Thakor (another couple of drifters) began the day on 154-1 this seemed unlikely ; when, by the early afternoon, they had a century apiece and were collectively on 323-1, the direction of drift was clear.

The promised sheet lightning, which was meant to be sweeping up from the South-West (like the Duke of Monmouth), had failed to materialise during the morning, which was warm, but with a strong wind providing an undertone of unease. After lunch, though, the sky darkened and the wind rose further, coinciding with the arrival of the second new ball. McKay removed Thakor and Madsen ; Klein snared Hughes ; Chappell, who always seems to be bowl best in Wagnerian conditions, finally yorked Godelman in a moment of catharsis that had at least one spectator* leaping to his feet and punching the air. At 384-5, the extraordinary thing still seemed a possibility.

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The sheet lightning never arrived, and neither did the extraordinary thing. Although Chappell subjected Smit and Wilson to a fearful battering in Stygian light (breaking Wilson’s bat, to his annoyance), they weathered the storm, which had never quite arrived, and the total drifted on past the 469 required to avert the follow on, thus killing the game late on the third day.

Cricinfo headlined their account of this match “Dull draw ends Derbyshire’s run of defeats”.

And so the season drifts on. Leicestershire stand 8th in Division 2 (without the points deduction they would be 6th). Ned Eckersley is the leading run scorer in Division 2, with Cosgrove not far behind ; Ackermann would be third in the averages (if they still had such things), and Leicestershire have more batting points than any side bar leaders Nottinghamshire. Zak has taken his first four wicket haul, which should give him confidence.

On the other hand, we have played five games and have yet to win. Nine to go.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily – Life is but a dream!

* Me.

The Business End of a Squeaky Bum

Leicestershire v Essex, Grace Road, County Championship, Thursday 25th August 2016

 

 

There are various ways of approaching the end of a season. Cardus, amongst other Paterian elegancies, wrote of it “August finds the game, like the sun itself, on the wane.  Now the sands are running out every evening as the match moves towards its close in yellow light; autumnal colours darken play at this time of the year; cricketers are getting weary in limb, and even the spirit has lost the first rapture.”  Football managers prefer the more prosaic term”business end“, or even the regrettably graphic “squeaky bum time“.

Cardus was able to contemplate the pathos of the dying fall in peace because he was writing about the period between the wars when there was only one Division, and the Counties knew their place.  Yorkshire would usually be Champions (12 times between 1919 and 1939), and always finished in the top five.  The other five of the “Big Six” – Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Middlesex and Kent – would finish in the top half of the table (only once, three, three, six times and twice respectively did they fail to do so) : Northamptonshire, Glamorgan, Leicestershire, Somerset and Worcestershire would occupy the lowest rungs of the ladder.

After the War, as the rules regarding qualification were relaxed, the ancien regime began to totter, and, after the introduction of overseas players, mere anarchy was loosed upon the Championship : Yorkshire frequently finished in the bottom five, and even Leicestershire won the title four times***. This situation could not be allowed to continue, and the tendency, since the introduction of two divisions, has been for a gradual slide towards the segregation of the “Big Six” (with Warwickshire replacing Kent) in Division 1 (plus Durham and one or two anomalies, such as Somerset and Sussex) from the lesser Counties, who are confined to the lower Division.  Such is progress.

The two main arguments in favour of this division are as outlined (by no means for the first time – they have been around since the nineteenth century) by Roy Webber in 1958.* The first is that it would “be of benefit in finding a better strain of county cricketer” ; the second is that it “would undoubtedly keep interest high right through to the end of the season … I imagine that we would have “house full” signs if, say, Worcestershire and Leicestershire were playing each other in the last match of the season with promotion to Division One at stake”. The first is an argument for another time, but I am doubtful whether the second has worked out quite as Webber anticipated.

Relegation, it is true, is feared by the bigger counties (particularly by their coaches, who usually get the sack). On the other hand, they can reasonably count on being promoted again, if not at the first attempt, then the second. For the smaller clubs, the brief elation of promotion is usually followed by a season of humiliation and immediate relegation (as Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and – although they managed to hang on for a second season – Worcestershire have recently found out). Mike Newell (the coach of Nottinghamshire, who look likely to be relegated) may be worried about his future, but those of the smaller counties still in contention for promotion may equally be feeling some ambivalence about theirs.

Although it is also not impossible that the scenario envisaged by Webber (of a climactic do-or-die shoot out) might happen (Essex and Kent, who, at the time of writing, are first and second, play each other in the last round of matches), the complexity of the points scoring system and the glacial speed at which things happen in Championship cricket militate against it. It is more likely, that Essex -say – will be promoted if they take two bonus points from their last match, unless Sussex take maximum points from theirs (and, of course, if the rain doesn’t make the decision for them).

All of which is a preamble to my account of last week’s game against Essex, and some attempt to compensate for the fact that I missed most of it, due to family commitments. Essex began the match in first place, Leicestershire in second. If Leicestershire had won, they would have been in serious contention for promotion ; if they drew, it would still have been possible ; if, as actually happened, they lost by an innings within three days, then that hope would be reduced to a mere “mathematical possibility”.

There have been various points throughout the season, which I have previously noted, where Leicestershire have failed to press home their advantage (not enforcing the follow on at home against Northants being the most glaring), but the final, fatal, one seems to have occurred on the second day. Leicestershire made 238 (thanks, largely, to Cosgrove, who has been huge this season). Our secret weapon, our midget submarine, our V2, Dieter Klein, soon had Essex “reeling” at 68-5 (his four wickets included Alistair Cook, yorked for 4), but, in the absence of Clint McKay (or a spinner) to deliver a knock-out blow, they soon stopped reeling, and pulled themselves together enough to make 368-8  by the close of play.

The weather for the third day looked promising, with heavy showers forecast all afternoon, but, in the event, it proved to be the kind of day – low cloud, some overnight rain to freshen the pitch – on which you would least fancy your chances against the side with three of the top six wicket-takers in Division 2 (Napier, Porter and Bopara), and the leader in the bowling averages (the – unfortunately – evergreen ex-Fox David Masters).**

But we tried, we really did. With the score on 53-2, and some light drizzle in the air, Mark Cosgrove gave a masterclass in time wasting, apparently suffering, at the same time, an attack of restless leg syndrome that compelled him to wander out to square leg between every ball, and some kind of obsessive syndrome that meant he had to remove every speck of dirt from the wicket before he could face the next delivery. We in the stands did our bit : we opened umbrellas, looked mournfully to the skies, shook our heads, held out our palms, took shelter from the rain (one of the player’s mothers gave a particularly convincing performance, I thought). We won a brief respite of half an hour or so, but it was no use and – as I have said – the innings defeat arrived shortly after tea.

So that is it, I suppose. There are still three games to play : Leicestershire could finish anywhere between second and, not impossibly, last in the table, but I now feel I can return to my contemplation of the dying fall in peace.  There was little drama, no displays of wild emotion, no-one burst into tears (of joy or despair), and there were no squeaky bums in evidence (though, thanks to the wet seats, there were – topically – a few soggy bottoms).

I was, by the way, impressed by what I saw of Alastair Cook ; not on the pitch (where his contribution this season has been significant for Essex), but by his friendly relationship with the visiting supporters, and his patient dealings with various autograph-hunters and selfie-seekers, some senescent, some juvenile : one young Indian boy (wearing a Union Jack t-shirt) seemed particularly overjoyed to have had a picture taken with him.

Late on in the afternoon he had evidently been called away on some important business (which turned out to be about the tour to Bangladesh).  He had just packed away his kit in his (quite modest) 4×4, and started his engine, when a steward approached with a Mother and child in tow. He turned the engine off again, dismounted, and submitted good-humouredly to another lengthy photo-session.  He didn’t really have to do this, and (however awkward his press conferences might be), I was impressed.

* ‘The County Cricket Championship’ : Sportsman’s Book Club, 1958.

** Precisely the sort of “typically English seamers“, of course, that the ECB is determined to discourage. We shall endure.

*** Wishful thinking. Actually three times.

Super Heroes and Scary Creeps

There comes a point in every season when it starts to curdle.  In a hot Summer (which, in our case, we have not had), hot for too long, the grass scorches, flowers wilt and go to seed, rivers choke, tempers fray ; a feeling of satiety, and beyond satiety, excess. Too much heat, too much lager, too much sun, too much fun, just too much ; too much ice-cream, too many chips, too many runs, too many sixes, too much cricket.

The feeling will pass (has passed) : a palate-cleansing visit to an outground, a nip in the air, the first leaves of Autumn creeping on to the outfield, will makes the passing season seem precious again, but, while it lasts, the spell is broken and I see cricket through the eyes of one who cannot see the point.  What does it matter if those three little sticks get knocked down?  What is so clever about hitting that ball so far?  What is the point?

I usually reach this point at about this time, and it’s often at a 50 over game : this year, I pushed my luck by watching three in the space of six days.  I witnessed two (I believe) record-breaking innings and more sixes than you could have seen in an average season forty years ago, and, with the exception of one multi-faceted gem, my overwhelming feeling was one of futility, satiety, just too much.

England Lions v Sri Lanka A, Wantage Road, 21st July

Lions fixtures attract unpredictable crowds.  I once, for instance, saw Joe Root play one of the best innings I’ve seen, against a strong New Zealand side, in front of a crowd of about 20 at Grace Road ; a few months later, he was playing much the same innings with tens of thousands all ROOOOTing  loudly for him. Perhaps because it was a one-day match, perhaps even because it was a day-night match, or perhaps just because it was free, there was an unusually good turnout at Wantage Road for the visit of a poor Sri Lanka A (I’m not sure I want to see Sri Lanka B).

There were quite a few children there (who, as children will, seemed more interested in their own games than the one on the pitch). There were clean-cut young men with a certain swagger, a lot of Jack Wills and Abercrombie and Fitch and yah-ing (and these can’t all have been friends and team-mates of the players).  Mr.and Mrs. Percival Bell-Drummond were there, as always, dressed as if for a garden party at Buckingham Palace. The Northamptonshire loyalists had turned out specifically to see Ben Duckett, and then there were a few “passionate England fans”.

On my way in, I passed a couple of elderly regulars, packing their kit up into their old carrier bags and shuffling off, like tramps moved on by the police.  One said to the other “imagine having that in your ear all afternoon“.  In their usual roost behind the bowler’s arm sat a fat man in a replica shirt bawling into his ‘phone in an estuarine accent “so he said the £40 million was all down to Brexit, so I put the ‘phone down on him“. I didn’t wait to find out whether he did keep it up all afternoon, but I imagine what followed was his idea of a good time.

The first ten overs (the “powerplay”) followed the usual formula.  Bell-Drummond played well enough, placing the ball accurately through the gaping holes Sri Lanka were forced to leave in the outfield, most memorably with the sort of bottom-handed gouge that now rivals the traditional cover drive.  He is a good player, but this, against some moderate pace bowling, was like playing tennis with no net.  Fortuitously, he was stumped for 52 soon after the powerplay had ended and the spinners (Sri Lanka employed four) had come on.  This brought the man whom the crowd (including me) had come to see to the crease, to much applause.

This was the second time this season I have seen Ben Duckett play a one-day innings of any length.  I have consulted his “waggon wheel” to confirm my memory of it, and there it is, like some exquisite tropical fish, with a fan tail of straight drives and two feathery fins square of the wicket, composed of dismissal-defying cuts, sweeps and reverse sweeps, mostly from turning balls in front of his stumps.  Of his eight fours, four were behind square on the off side, as well as two scoop-cum-ramps back over his head off a returning paceman.  Once or twice he missed or mis-hit, but, with the luck of the brave, he survived, only to fall to a tame caught-and-bowled, for 61 (which seemed a bit like Al Capone being done for tax evasion).

Duckett is not, as both the Northamptonshire police and Brett D’Oliveira will attest, always innocent of displays of gratuitous bravado, but the beauty of his innings was that the match situation enabled him to put his undoubted virtuosity at the service of the needs of the team, to avoid getting bogged down in the slough of the middle overs.  It seemed, as the best batting does, successful against the odds, even if only the narrow ones of some better than inept bowling on a wicket that was taking a little turn.

It was at the same time modern and reminiscent of Jack Hobbs in his fleet-footed pre-War prime, when his party trick was to skip out to leg and cut the ball to the boundary off middle-stump (for which he, like Duckett, was often berated by sober critics for showing off).  It was also, unlike those that followed, an innings that he could have played with a Herbert Sutcliffe Autograph. What followed was Dawid Malan’s innings (with Sam Billings in a supporting role).

The facts are that Malan scored 185* off 126 balls, with 8 sixes and 16 fours, the most memorable of which were struck off the front foot back over the bowler’s head. It is a style of batting that would have been entirely familiar to “Buns” Thornton in the 1870s, and would have been warmed the heart of that redoubtable proponent of Golden Age batting, E.H.D. Sewell. The difference is that dear old “Buns”, unlike Malan, would not have been armed with a G&M Maxi F4.5 (or similar) and would have expected to perish somewhere in the outfield before he had reached 50.

E.H.D. Sewell

E.H.D. Sewell

The crowd, who did not seem to have been drinking too heavily, seemed rather blasé about this record-breaking innings, though there were a few murmurs of “Yah, gun bat” from the Jack Wills crew, and the children were distracted from their games when they had to scatter to avoid being brained by one of Malan’s sixes. I found it as entertaining a sporting spectacle as someone taking a twelve-bore to a farrowing shed, and was not too sorry when I had to leave before Sri Lanka began their hopeless attempt to overhaul England’s total of 393-5, as the clouds that were to curtail the evening began to loom.

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Leicestershire v Yorkshire, Royal London Cup, Grace Road, 24th July 2016

This Sunday had been designated as Superhero Day. Other than Charlie Fox (who was dressed as Superman), only about ten people had come in costume, but there was something appropriate about the theme, in so far as superhero films represent something essentially infantile, but hyper-inflated by technology and hype.

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Yorkshire’s innings started entertainingly enough, with Adam Lyth run out in the first over for 2 (he consoled himself by buying a bacon cob from the burger van), and Alex Lees (upright as always) making 32.

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After that, Travis Head (who sounds like a permed AOR one-hit wonder from 1978, but is actually an Australian), and Jack Leaning played essentially the same innings as Malan, only this time in stereo. Again the statistics tell the whole story : Head made 175 off 139 balls (4 sixes and 18 fours) and Leaning 131* off 110, with 5 sixes and 7 fours. Yorkshire finished on 376-3. A few years ago these figures would have been extraordinary, but today are anything but.

In the interval Charlie Fox raced a bear, representing a local charity, and various groups of (mainly Muslim) schoolgirls played organised games in the outfield.

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It was all very inclusive, and accessible, and sweet, but it seemed, as we settled down on the pop side after the break, that it had not met with universal approval. Two women wearing niqab walked by. “It’s a disgrace. Shouldn’t be allowed” was one loudly voiced opinion from a group of Yorkshire supporters. Shortly afterwards, I heard a woman (whom I did not recognise) complaining to a steward. The only part of her complaint I could hear was “It’s just horrible”.

Another, larger, male steward was summoned and spoke to a well-dressed man, who received the news that he was being asked to leave impassively, as though being thrown out of the ground were an unavoidable, minor irritant of the cricket-watching life, on a par with rain, or bad light. He drained his pint and handed the glass to the steward (without even asking for the £1 deposit back). “I’ll just get me things” said his wife, and off they went.

The fact that their side was taking a drubbing did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of Leicestershire’s Ultras.  Early season favourites “Jamie Vardy’s Having a Party” and “We Want Our Country Back” had been mothballed, but any tentative chant of “York-sheer” was met with “Flat Caps and Whippets” and “You Haven’t Even Got a Football Team“.  There was some mirthful stuff about burkas, and AIDS ; it wasn’t “racist” (apart from anything else it’s a multiracial group), not even “offensive”, because none of it made any sense.

A woman with short, bleached hair walked past, accompanied by what might have been her grand-children, on the way to the ice-cream parlour.  An imagined resemblance to Annie Lennox was spotted, and, on her way back, she was met with a loud chorus of “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”.  She looked embarrassed, the man in front of me was literally crying with laughter, and I’d had enough.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the far side of the ground, a long way from the action, but pleasantly sunlit, as Leicestershire went through the motions of a reply before subsiding, chiefly to Adil Rashid and Aseem Rafiq, after 33 overs.  “Leicestershire La La La“sounded quite soothing from over there.

Leicestershire v Lancashire, Grace Road, Royal London Cup, 26th July

I’m not quite sure why I turned up for this one.  In the morning, I had to see a woman about a dog,

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so only caught Lancashire’s reply to Leicestershire’s 307, which struggled to get going against a makeshift attack devoid of conventional straight-up-and-down pace (Neil Dexter’s medium pace claimed 4-22, and even Paul Horton took a wicket).  If I had stayed to the end, I would have seen Leicestershire win by 131 runs (their first 50-over victory for two years), though their interest in this competition (small as it was) ended some time ago.

One source of the batsmen’s discomfort was the debut of Dieter Klein, the German-South African who bowls briskly off five paces, and still has the element of surprise.  At one point, he fielded a firmly struck cover drive off his own bowling and was back at his mark before the batsmen had decided whether to run or not. If nothing else (and he did take 2-38), he offers a one-man solution to slow over rates.

I was also intrigued by the appearance of a half familiar bearded figure, a cross between Bob Dylan and a Renaissance Christ, acting as a substitute fielder for Leicestershire.

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Who was this apparition?  Well, that’s a story for next time.

All is Ripeness : Ripeness is All. Pt. 2. New Blooms, Nipped in the Bud

Leicestershire 2nd XI v MCC Universities, Desborough, 19-20 July 2016 

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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.

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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.

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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!

A two year contract would be nice

A two year contract would be nice

As the black clouds creep up from behind the pavilion, like Bela Lugosi unfurling his cape,

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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.

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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.