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.