The Art of Falling Apart

Leicestershire CCC  (100 & 196) v Warwickshire CCC (400-9 dec.), Grace Road, 10-12 September 2018 (Warwickshire won by an innings and 104 runs) 

Leicestershire CCC (321) v Durham CCC (61 & 66), Grace Road, 18-19 September 2018 (Leicestershire won by an innings and 194 runs)

I ended my last post by expressing the hope (hope against hope) that neither Leicestershire’s season, nor the team, would fall apart in September. The first has certainly happened : having lost only two games, both very narrowly, in the first half of the season, since the defeat against Kent we have lost five times, by margins varying from 132 to 328 runs. It is some compensation that we are not alone in having made a succession of low totals. The last month of the season increasingly resembles the climax to an episode of ‘Wacky Races’, filled with spectacular crashes, bits falling off the competitors and some improbable leaps. Predictably so, some would say, if that month is September.

The defeat against Warwickshire was nothing if not predictable. The soon-to-be Champions featured five players with Test experience, and the Division’s three leading run-scorers (three of only four to have averaged over 40). Leicestershire’s cobbled-together side featured two bowlers brought in from Minor Counties, to replace the soon-to-be permanently absent Raine and Chappell, and the injured Griffiths (the regular 2nd XI seamers, too, were injured). Unsurprisingly, Warwickshire exercised their prerogative to bowl first (the game was to be largely played under lights), and, to no-one’s surprise, Leicestershire were bowled out for exactly 100. Barker and Woakes were too swinging for the top order, and Stone, though sparingly used, was too fast for the tail.

There was, at least, an element of comedy to the dismissal of Mark Cosgrove (for the spectators, if not the batsman). Neil Dexter had looked to get off the mark with a single that would have been ambitious had his partner been Speedy Gonzales. Cosgrove is capable of a surprising turn of speed, but it takes him a while to achieve terminal velocity, achieving it, in this case, roughly as he entered the pavilion, the wicket having long since been broken by Woakes in his follow through. If Woakes had really been ‘the nicest man in cricket’, he might have taken pity and deliberately thrown wide.

I left early, having been called away (I have been called away a lot recently, for one reason or another), but stayed long enough to see opener Dominic Sibley (who seems to have grown since I last saw him play for Surrey) make 50 off 49 balls (mostly off one of our Minor Counties seamers, who was quickly removed from the attack). By the end of the day, Sibley had made more runs than Leicestershire on his own, and Warwickshire had nearly doubled our total for the loss of three wickets.

It rained overnight, and for most of the morning. When play began at 2.00, in front of an understandably sparse crowd, the conditions, with the wicket freshly-spritzed, were ideally suited to the seam of Dexter and Abbas. Jonathan Trott resumed on 34, and took forty minutes to make another eight, before mis-timing a pull. This would be the last time that any of us would see Trott in action at Grace Road, and it seemed an appropriate way for him to take his leave, mostly unapplauded, but having seen off the (slight) threat to his side. As conditions eased and Leicestershire’s bowling resources were stretched too thin, Ambrose, Hain and Woakes moved easily to within sight of 400, a target that was reached first thing the next morning, followed by a declaration.

Although Leicestershire offered slightly more resistance in their second innings, the result seemed a formality, and most of the day was spent speculating about comings and goings : amongst other things, I was told that Chappell was definitely moving to Nottinghamshire, which turned out to be true, and that Keith Barker, who had taken eight wickets, would be joining us at Leicestershire, which, unfortunately, turned out not to be.

A ray of light in the gloom

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was the performance of Ben Mike, in his second game, who stuck to his task with the ball to take three wickets, and was the top scorer in both innings. Having struck Patel, in a feather-ruffling act of lèse-majesté, for two straight sixes, his was the last wicket to fall, attempting bravely to pull Stone for another six. Like Ben Raine, for whom he looks a plausible replacement, he strikes me as someone who can always be counted upon to go down fighting, which is a useful characteristic for a Leicestershire player to possess.

In contrast to Trott, who had slipped out unnoticed by the back door, as it were, Paul Collingwood’s every move, in his last appearance at Grace Road, was greeted with a standing ovation, to the point where, given his performance, it might, though motivated by genuine affection, have become a slight embarrassment to him. The first ovation came when he led his side on to the field, having, not unreasonably, chosen to field.

Leicestershire opened with the novel pairing of Sam Evans and Atiq Javid : at first, I assumed that regular opener Harry Dearden must have missed his bus, but it was revealed to be a deliberate tactical switch, and a successful one, with Atiq, whose average in the Championship prior to this game was in single figures, allowed to give free rein to his defensive instincts to make a maiden fifty at Grace Road. Dearden too, when he batted at five, appeared more at ease, as if the move had allowed him to loosen his stays a little.

Though Atiq’s was the only fifty of the innings, all of Leicestershire’s batsmen reached double figures, to finish the day on a hopeful 316-8. Most creditably, Mark Cosgrove, who is struggling through an unprecedented loss of form, managed to gouge out 38 painfully acquired runs, persistently attempting to play his favourite off-side strokes to balls that didn’t really invite them. If a slimmer batsmen, or one who has less hope of recovering his form, was struggling so to do what had been used to doing effortlessly, the effect would be more tragical.

Leicestershire’s total would have been smaller had Collingwood not dropped two catches in the slips (though, needless to say, he received a standing ovation as he left the field).

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Of the bowlers, the mountainous Rushworth

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deserved more than his two wickets. Mark Wood, though apparently pained by his ankles, was treated respectfully, watched by James Taylor, presumably there with his scout’s cap on (unless he, too, was there to say goodbye to Collingwood).

Whatever else you can say about this season at Grace Road, it has rarely been dull, and what turned out to be the last day there this year coincided with the arrival of Storm Ali. At the storm’s height, the players paused to gaze anxiously at one of the floodlights, which had begun to sway alarmingly : the only way that the season could have ended any more dramatically would have been if it had blown over and demolished the Meet.

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The day had begun with a slight disappointment for Leicestershire, their last two wickets falling with the total still short of the 350 required for another bonus point (Mohammad Abbas later apologised for having played a “lazy shot”). It was at this point that the wind really began to get up (particularly the Durham batsmen). With his fourth delivery, Abbas, bowling with the swelling gale behind him, a rider on the storm, took the wicket of Cameron Steel (who had scored a double century in the same fixture last year) ; by the end of the eleventh over he had taken five wickets, with the score on 18. Bowling into the gale, Neil Dexter had bowled five consecutive maidens.

Abbas’s last victim had been that of Paul Collingwood, who was cheered to the wicket, and cheered back again one ball later.

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On another day, I would have expected the visitors to have found some way to recover a little ground, even if only through the thrashing of the tail, but, as the gale reached its peak, the batsmen seemed as spooked as cats in a thunderstorm. Though efforts were made to tether it, the bell that is rung to signal the start of play began to ring of its own accord, like the ghostly church bells of a drowned village, tolling the knell for each departing batsman, and, at times, it seemed as if the sightscreen might blow over, flattening them before they could reach the wicket.

Like jackals finishing off a lion’s kill, Dexter (whose figures were 7-6-1-1), Griffiths and Mike polished off the remaining batsmen. Alex Lees, who had, at least, battened down the hatches while others abandoned ship, narrowly missed carrying his bat for a single figure score. Research soon revealed that the total of 61 was Durham’s lowest first-class score, a record that was in danger of being broken when they batted again, until a last wicket stand of seven between Rushworth and Wood enabled them to reach the comparative respectability of 66.

Mohammad Abbas, who may not have been quite unplayable, but was certainly largely unplayed, had taken another five wickets (his powers perhaps enhanced by his newly awarded “gold fox“),

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to give him 10-52 in the match. Collingwood received his final ovation, about two hours after his previous one (including the lunch interval), as he left the field for the last time, having been bowled by Abbas for five. His expression as he left the field was hard to read, but I don’t think it signalled unmixed delight.

 

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There was further applause as Collingwood was the first to congratulate Abbas, as he (modest to the last) had to be pushed into leading the Leicestershire players from the pitch.

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From the Leicestershire dressing room soon came the merry, if unmelodious, sound of Paul Nixon leading the community singing, and the prising off of beer bottle tops : from the Durham side, a silence so deep and ominous that it could be felt half way down Milligan Road.

The last few games of a season, as departing players are left out and new players introduced, sometimes reminds me of the publishing fad of printing the first chapter of its sequel at the end of a novel, as an inducement to buy. The sequel to Leicestershire’s season seems a lot more enticing if it will feature Mohammad Abbas (as, happily, it should), rather than the Abbas-less sequel suggested by the last game of the season (a defeat away to, of all people, Glamorgan).

Although the endless love-smothering of Collingwood felt a little incongruous in the circumstances, it does suggest an understandable desire not to allow players to slip from sight without some appropriate farewell. It seems a pity that Ned Eckersley, whose release was announced shortly before the Durham game, was not allowed one last home game. Rather as when someone has died unexpectedly, I tried to recall my final sight of him in Leicestershire colours, which must have been of him being bowled by Keith Barker for a perfectly honourable 77-minute 23. If I’d known at the time, I would have clapped a lot longer and harder.

It seems churlish to complain about an excess of excitement, but I do sometimes yearn for the kind of season’s end we used to have in the days of a one division Championship, when sides with nothing to play for would drift off into the close season through somnolent draws, as if in a mildly opiated haze (which, at least, allowed some space for reflection).

With Leicestershire down in the valleys, I tried a day at Northampton, where Northants, who have had a season that has been poor even by Leicestershire’s recent standards, were taking on Sussex, badly deflated by having been overtaken at the last minute by Kent, but even here there was no peace to be found : again, twenty wickets fell in the day, though, on this occasion, ten from each side, and both sides managed to creep into three figures.

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Bye!

The very last day of the season took me to Trent Bridge, where Nottinghamshire were due to resume their second innings needing another 215 to avoid an innings defeat, with seven wickets remaining. Clearly, there was little chance of Nottinghamshire saving the match, but I hoped they might spin things out for long enough for me to see some of those long shadows on the County Ground.

As I was contemplating where to sit, Ben Slater was caught behind by Trescothick from the bowling of Craig Overton. As I took my seat, Samit Patel was out in the same way to his first ball (prompting an unimpressed Nottinghamshire supporter to shout “Why not give him a standing ovation?”). Overton’s first ball to Wessels was identical to the previous two, and there seemed nothing the batsman could do other than nick it to Trescothick. It was a good job that Trescothick had announced that he wouldn’t be retiring for another year, or we would never have got home for all the ovations.

My season ended shortly before lunch, with the sun still high in the sky, and the shadows only slightly lengthening.

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Carnivalesque

Leicestershire (243-5) beat Durham (240) by 5 wickets, RLD50, Grace Road, 7th June 

Leicestershire (217 & 217-4) beat Northamptonshire (204 & 229) by 6 wickets, County Championship, County Ground, Northampton, 9-11th June

It is meant to be a comfort in time of trouble to remember that there is always someone who is worse off than you are. This consolation has not always been available to Leicestershire supporters over the last five years or so, because, quite often, there hasn’t been. These two victories, though, both comfortable and well-deserved, came against sides whose supporters have good reason currently to feel disgruntled. I will come to Northamptonshire in due course, but first to Durham.

Having been led on by the ECB to spend money they could not afford on developing a ground fit for Test cricket, Durham had their immediate future wrecked by being relegated and having 48 points deducted by the same body. As a result, they have been ruthlessly asset-stripped of their best players (Stoneman, Jennings, Onions, Borthwick, and even their ewe lamb, the promising all-rounder Paul Coughlin). Last season they would have finished last in the Championship, if it had not been for Leicestershire : this season they would have not won a Championship game, had it not been for Leicestershire.

All that was at stake in this game was to decide who was to finish last in the Northern group, and neither side had put out their strongest XI (I’m not sure what Durham’s strongest one-day side would be, but there was no sign of Collingwood, Steel, Rushworth or Weighell). The players who had made the trip didn’t look as if they particularly wanted to be there, and, unsurprisingly, given that the game was due to finish at 9.45 on a Thursday night, few of their supporters were either.

Durham’s innings at least had the merit that it was not immediately obvious who was going to win after ten overs. A few of their players made starts (sending me flicking through Playfair to find out who they were), but the scoring rate was moderate : at 106-4, the game could have gone either way. With the score on 125, though, four wickets fell for the addition of only 13 runs, first that of the Irish wicket-keeper Poynter, then three to Zak Chappell, returning for a second spell.

I have been predicting that Chappell will one day run through a side for so long now, without it ever quite happening, that I am beginning to feel like a man who has spent twenty years parading Oxford Street with a sandwich board predicting that the end is nigh, but here he combined accuracy and nous with his natural pace. He did not exactly rip the heart out of the batting, but, perhaps, some organs a little lower down, and I had hopes, at 137-8, that I would be able to leave the ground having witnessed a Leicestershire victory (I certainly was not prepared to hang around until a quarter to ten to see it). Almost inevitably, though, Leicestershire’s habitual flaw of being unable to finish sides off allowed Davies and McCarthy, with Chappell bowled out, to prolong the afternoon, by making exactly 100 for the ninth wicket.

It was not a foregone conclusion that Leicestershire would make the modest 241 required to win, though Durham’s general demeanour in the field suggested that they thought it was (and that they weren’t overly bothered). There was an early example of self-sabotage when Raine, coming in at number 3, as non-striker, charged for a quick single, without noticing that the striker Delport had shown no inclination to move, but Delport (who prefers to make his runs in boundaries) went on to play the kind of innings (122 from 128 balls) that Leicestershire had desperately lacked earlier in the tournament. When he was out, in the 37th over, with only 36 to win and seven wickets in hand, the remaining spectators were consulting their bus timetables and collecting the deposits on their glasses. I took the opportunity to dash for the last train, though it took another seven overs and the loss of two wickets for the end to come (Harry Dearden, making his white ball debut, is not the obvious man to finish a game quickly).

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At the time, this game seemed a frustrating coda to the one-day campaign, suggesting, too late, what might have been. In retrospect, though aspects of it, particularly Chappell’s bowling, made it more of a prologue to what occurred at Wantage Road over the weekend.

If the source of Durham’s troubles is easy to identify, it is harder to say quite what has happened to Northamptonshire, who were only denied promotion last season by a points deduction, but, at the time of writing, have lost four of their five Championship games, with the other being a washout, and only finished above Leicestershire in their 50-over group by virtue of a superior run rate. It is not surprising that a failing team should lack confidence, but what is striking is the contrast with the impression they made in the games at the end of last season (when they beat both Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire), when they seemed to be a side propelled mainly by impregnable self-belief.

No-one exemplifies this better than Ben Duckett, who is having a terrible season (233 runs in 16 innings), and seems so bereft of his old swagger that he has even started to wear his cap the right way round. I now feel lucky to have seen so much of him in 2016 (his annus mirabilis), when the secret to his success seemed that he was prepared to back his unorthodox technique to succeed more often than it failed (even in that season he made plenty of single figure scores). He now seems torn between his instincts and attempting to play in a more conventional way, with the result that, when he does play his strokes, he does so in a half-hearted, inhibited way. He might be well-advised to follow Jos Buttler’s example and write ‘Duckett‘ on the end of his bat handle, in an attempt to recover his true identity as a batsman.

Duckett’s achievements in 2016 were made easier by what seemed to be a deliberate tactic of preparing doped pitches (Northants had not appeared to have much in the way of bowling at the start of the season). Last season, they were livelier, and now the entire pitch has been relaid over the Winter. The outfield has a strange, almost astroturfed, appearance, and the low scoring in this game was partly due to its extraordinary slowness : even firmly hit strokes ran out of steam short of the boundary. The square, while not quite a green top, was favourable to pace, with considerable movement off the seam (as well as in the air), and some variable bounce.

In these conditions, the openers were understandably wary, given his newly acquired reputation, of Mohammad Abbas, but it was Ben Raine who took the first wicket, of a very disconsolate, Daddles-like, Duckett. Newton and Ricardo Vasconcelos (a 20-year-old South African with a Portuguese passport, making his debut) had gingerly fended their way to 51, when Zak Chappell, who had come on first change, bowled him with a full and fast delivery that swung in sharply and late. Chappell has bowled these deliveries before, but they have tended to be isolated incidents, too often followed by a rash of byes to the leg-side boundary. This time he soon followed it with another quick delivery that swung away from Alex Wakely, finding an edge on its way to Mark Cosgrove, who took the catch with a cat-like agility reminiscent of Gordon Banks saving from Pele in the Mexico World Cup.

At lunch, with the score on 128-3, both sides had reason to be satisfied, or, given the natural propensities of the two sets of supporters, pessimistic : the Northamptonshire supporters were convinced that a collapse was just around the corner, the Foxes’ fans that they would fail to capitalise on their early wickets.

Soon after the afternoon session began, the Northampton Carnival procession began to pass down Wantage Road, on its way to the Racecourse. This used to be a rather sedate affair, but in recent years it has acquired a Caribbean accent and a more authentically carnivalesque air (this year, as announced by the police sirens that followed the floats, it resulted in several stabbings). The afternoon session was played out to the accompaniment of a loud medley of musical exotica, and various curious sights visible through the Wantage Road gates, including, at one point, a giant red patent leather, fetishistic, boot.

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Something of the spirit of the carnivalesque, the temporary suspension of normal life, animated the play, particularly Zak, who seemed (perhaps temporarily) transformed into an avenging angel, sculpted by Arno Brecker. Returning for a second spell, he took 3-19 in six overs, with Vasconcelos and Keogh caught behind off deliveries that, on a less enchanted afternoon, they might have played inside. Kleinveldt, who has an ability to wreck bowlers’ figures second only to Mr. Stew’s rhubarb crumble, briefly looked ominous, guiding two balls from Chappell off his hip for four to fine leg, before attempting to repeat the trick and losing his exposed leg stump. Chappell’s sixth wicket came as he clean bowled one of his predecessors as Leicestershire’s fast bowling hope, Nathan Buck. With the help of the tireless Raine, who claimed three victims, Northants were bowled out for 204 in time for tea.

 

As the afternoon approached its end, the Carnival had processed on to its disorderly conclusion, and sombre normality (for Leicestershire fans, anyway) reasserted itself, with the Foxes losing three wickets for 64 by the close. Northamptonshire’s bowling looked better than its batting, even without the injured Gleason, and has been reinforced, temporarily, by Ben ‘Dot’ Cotton (so-called on account of his miserly economy rate). Cotton, who has, rather surprisingly, been released by Derbyshire (he always looked a decent prospect to me), has grown into a very big lad, big enough even to fill Richard Levi’s shirt (which he had borrowed), so he fits in well with the general Northamptonshire aesthetic.

I wasn’t able to be present on the Sunday, so, eager to return on the Monday, I followed the scores in an Augustinian spirit ‘O Lord, make Leicestershire win, but not yet’. I was not surprised that Leicestershire made only 217, that Chappell (still in a state of enchantment) had made 40, or that Cotton was Northamptonshire’s most economical bowler. I was, guiltily, quite relieved when Northants closed the day on 165-3, with a lead of 152.

What occurred on the third day came, I think, as more of a surprise to the Leicestershire supporters present than those of the hosts. From a Leicestershire perspective, they bowled with ruthless efficiency, to bowl Northants out for 229, before cruising serenely to victory with six wickets to spare : from a Northamptonshire one, their side collapsed pathetically, before limply conceding in the field. There was some truth in both interpretations. Mohammad Abbas, Raine and Griffiths all bowled tightly, and made good use of what life was left in the pitch (the spell seemed to have worn off Chappell a little, and he was rubbing his shopping-lifting shoulder in ominous fashion), and the fielding was excellent, (particularly by substitute Ateeq Javid).

It was not surprising that there never seemed much doubt in the minds of the home supporters that Leicestershire would win, but more so that that belief seemed to be shared by their bowlers. The innings had not started well, with Harry Dearden bowled for nought, but Horton and Lewis Hill, who had come in as a kind of lunch-watchman, brought the hundred up with no alarms, and it was pleasant to speculate on the possibility of a nine-wicket victory to compensate for the recent sequence of nine-wicket defeats. Even when Horton fell, with the score on 148, the calm head (and, as it turned out) broken finger, of Colin Ackermann seemed likely to shepherd Hill over the finishing line.

There was a token attempt to cock things up at the last minute : Hill was understandably keen to complete his second first-class hundred, while Ackermann had a fifty in his sights. Hill attempted a misguided sweep against Saif Zaib and, to his obvious disappointment, was LBW for 85. Mark Cosgrove attempted to hit his fifth ball out of the ground, but only succeeded in making the day of the youthful substitute fieldsman (one W. J. Heathfield, who had earlier appealed vociferously for a catch off a bump ball) on the mid-wicket boundary. Ackermann did not quite make his fifty, but he and Dexter ensured that no-one would have to return to Wantage Road in the morning.

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The reaction of the few Northamptonshire supporters left at the end surprised me a little (though not a lot, given my long experience of them) : I overheard one say ‘Getting beat by this lot is like Liverpool getting beat by Cobblers’. It is a natural reaction (particularly in Kettering) to assume that a defeat is due to your own team being poor, rather than the quality of the opposition, but, in this case, I’m not so sure. Leicestershire are now third in the table, and that is no fluke (if they had not thrown away the game against Durham they would be second). It is true that they have so far played some of the weaker sides in the division, but the fact that there are so many weaker sides to play is indicative of Leicestershire’s relative strength.

The game set a couple of modest records, it being the first time since 2010 that Leicestershire had either won two Championship games in succession, or beaten Northamptonshire. Looking back, that was in the first game of the season, and Leicestershire won, thanks, in part, to an 88 from James Taylor, who was to go on to have something of an ‘annus mirabilis’ himself that year.  The future seemed brightening, but was clouded by the creeping likelihood that Taylor would soon be poached by a larger County.

Remembering that, it is hard to feel unmixed joy at Chappell’s blooming, given that his contract runs out at the end of the season, and that Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and Surrey (the usual hyaenas) are already circling him. Leicestershire are, obviously, keen to persuade him to stay, but (I’m told) are being hampered by his agent, who has demanded that they pay £5,000 before they can even speak to him (whether to the agent or the player I’m not sure). Agents have a lot to answer for, I feel.

Another looming cloud is that Michael Carberry is, apparently, considering legal action against the club, on the grounds that his contract specifies that he was appointed to the Captaincy. The loss of Carberry as a player would be a pity, but the prospect of having to pay him substantial compensation would be a more serious blow. Appoint in haste, repent at leisure, as the saying goes.

Still, while the sky is still relatively cloudless, we have two more Championship fixtures, before the competition hibernates (or aestivates) for the T20 interval, a home match against Middlesex, and a day-nighter at Derby (which I don’t think I can face). Middlesex, the ante-post favourites, have been curiously ailing this season, and a third win in succession does not seem out of the question. If we could beat Derby as well, we might even be able to persuade Zak that he should stay on to play First Division cricket next season (even if we have to do it by slipping a note under his door).

 

 

 

Beer and Balti and Eve Pudding and Gravy

Leicestershire v Durham, County Championship, Grace Road, 6-7 August 2017

Leicestershire v Yorkshire, T20 Blast, Grace Road, 12 August 2017

In my last post, I pictured the stand-alone Championship fixture against Durham, beckoning from the horizon like an oasis in the cricket-desert of mid-Summer. In the event, it turned out to be something of a mirage, or, at best, a roadside burger van that had run out of sauce. The most memorable moment of my two days at Grace Road was witnessing the ‘Leicester Mercury’’s roving reporter insisting on having gravy, instead of custard, on his eve pudding. Having nothing to do but watch cricket all day undoubtedly permits the full expression of one’s eccentricities, but I sometimes cannot help wondering whether that is entirely a good thing.

The match was, as anyone who had read the weather forecast would have known, a priori doomed (as predicted, days three and four were washed out). The same could be said of Durham’s season (even more so than Leicestershire’s) : having been relegated, by order of the ECB, a further imposition of a 36-point penalty means that their chances of promotion are negligible. In addition to having Stokes, Wood and Jennings on loan to England, they have been compelled to release Stoneman and Borthwick (along with Jennings, their leading run-scorers last season). Hoping, at best, to regroup, and find some replacements for their missing stars, they have struggled to the extent that only Leicestershire lie below them in the table.

This might go some way towards explaining their tactics, which seemed to disregard the issue of points altogether, as irrelevant to their situation (or perhaps they simply hadn’t read the weather forecast). If they were in contention for promotion, they would, having chosen to bat, have been well-advised to move smartly enough along to gain maximum batting points, declare, and hope to bowl Leicestershire out, if not twice, then quickly enough to bag three bowling points.

As it was, their openers, Cameron Steel and the New Zealander Tom Latham, batted serenely through the first two sessions, and gave every indication of carrying on in that vein until the rains came. In the event, Latham, who had been the more energetic of the two, tired late on the first day and departed with the score on 234. Steel, however, carried on until, shortly after he reached his double-century, a switch was thrown and Durham began to hit out (not, I think, Steel’s strong point), before declaring, unnecessarily late, on 525-8.

Steel has come to the North-East by a circuitous route (born in California, childhood in Australia, Millfield, Middlesex, Somerset and Durham University). He is clearly run-hungry and risk-averse enough to make a significant score against some undemanding bowling on a predictable pitch, but whether he is capable of doing so regularly is hard to say. He might turn out to be the new Andrew Strauss, or he might find himself relegated to the 2nd XI when Jennings returns. If he turns out to be any good, of course, I suppose he will end up at Surrey.

Leicestershire, weakened further by injuries, gave the impression that they would rather be anywhere other than Grace Road. In the field they were all but silent : Ben Raine, their usual cheerleader and irritant, who has now been out since June, prowled the boundary, looking as though he’d like a few words with someone he suspected of pinching his wallet. Perhaps he might be positioned on the dressing-room balcony, where he could offer encouragement through a loud hailer (though I imagine the ECB might take a dim view of that).

At the beginning of the season, I wondered how Leicestershire would find room in the side for all the seam bowlers we seemed to have acquired. Having lost Shreck (retired in disgust), Burke (returned to Surrey, now released from the game), Jones, Raine and Chappell (long-term injuries), and with McKay and Pillans also nursing ailments, the flagging Klein, who is not suited to being a stock bowler, and the tireless Griffiths (who is), were unexpectedly reinforced by, of all people, Ajmal Shahzad, who has, apparently been released by his third county, Sussex. It must seem a very long time to him since he was playing for England.

With the clouds already beginning to gather, Leicestershire went through the motions of a match-saving reply, with Harry Dearden making 30 from 109 balls. While I was watching him bat, Geoffrey Boycott was on the radio, asking whether there is anyone in county cricket capable of batting two hours to make 30.   I’m not sure Dearden is quite what he had in mind.

A happy feature of the game was that Neil Dexter, who has been out of the side “for personal reasons” was back on the pitch. When Durham came to throw the bat, it was mostly at his bowling, and he picked up 5-71. The gods of cricket, so often accused of cruelty, can also be kind, sometimes.

Part of the reason for Leicestershire’s distracted air against Durham might have been that the game had come as something of a distraction from their T20 campaign, which, although I have not been following it too closely, has been more successful than their efforts in the Championship. They won their first four games, all away from Grace Road, then lost the next four at home, in dismal weather, mostly narrowly, or in vaguely farcical circumstances. The previous evening they had defeated Northamptonshire at Wantage Road.

It was something of a revelation to see them in action in a different context, rather like seeing one’s work colleagues, freed from workaday constraints, out for a night on the town.  Colin Ackermann, whose batting is usually the soul of restraint, gaily flicked the ball over his shoulder, with the air of Maureen from Accounts tripping the light fantastic in fishnets and a feather boa.

In fact, the afternoon was, to a T20 novice, a revelation in a number of respects. Grace Road had been transformed into a cross between a holiday camp and an airport food court. I didn’t notice any eve pudding and gravy on offer, but most sane culinary tastes were catered for : beer and balti, the Spice Bazaar, a burger van, a hog roast and an ice cream van, and, for the more traditional fan, lashings of delicious lager. Various antic young people patrolled the perimeter on stilts, others fired T-shirts advertising Pepsi Max into the crowd from small bazookas (perhaps they should try firing MCC cravats into the pavilion at Lord’s).

Slightly to my surprise, the Yorkshire supporters were heavily outnumbered by Leicestershire fans. It must have helped that Leicester City had played at home the previous evening, whereas most of Yorkshire’s football clubs were playing that afternoon. Another factor may have been that Yorkshire had played and beaten Lancashire the previous evening and some of their supporters may have been in no fit state to make the journey.

Once the match started, I was struck by how negative the tactics were, given that the game is sold on the basis that it consists of all-out attack. It resembled a kind of asymmetrical warfare, whereby a weaker side (Leicestershire) can overcome a stronger enemy (Yorkshire) whom they would have little hope of defeating in an open battle (or a four-day game) by successfully harrying and frustrating them.

Yorkshire batted first, and, though Kohler-Cadmore (who began the season playing for Worcestershire) made the highest score of the day (75 out of a total of 182-5), their innings never quite got going, and none of their more fluent scorers were able to flow. Leicestershire used seven bowlers (3 seamers, 3 spinners, 1 medium pace), swapping them at the end of almost every over. I could see nothing obviously innovative about the bowling, or indeed the batting, just a lot of niggling and nibbling, gouging and scuffing and general frustration.

An effect of Leicestershire’s predominance in the crowd was that, although the small children enjoyed the boundaries (marked by a quick burst of what sounded like “Club hits of 1992”), the real appreciation among the aficionados was reserved for the bowling of a “dot ball”. In this respect Gavin Griffiths, bowling exactly the kind of good honest fast-medium stuff he’d been peddling to so little effect against Durham earlier in the week, was the hero of the hour, as half of his 18 deliveries resulted in no score. If anyone had succeeded in bowling a maiden (no-one did, though Adil Ali nearly managed it with his occasional off-spin), I imagine the expression of collective joy would have been on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When Leicestershire came to bat, the game was as good as settled in the second over, in which off-spinner Azeem Rafiq served up an entire over of delicious tripe, which have-boots-will-travel Austro-Kiwi Luke Ronchi, pausing only to stuff a napkin down the front of his shirt, tucked into to the tune of (I think) 22 runs. Leicestershire were well ahead of the required run-rate (scoring at over ten an over) until the mid-way stage when, with their three big-hitters gone, Colin Ackerman was left to shepherd the potentially wayward flock home. Renouncing his earlier flamboyance, he seemed to be, with the help of a succession of short-lived assistants, trying to get them in singles, finally overtaking Yorkshire’s total with two balls to spare.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. The weather was fine, the crowd in amiable mood, I had a delicious chicken curry for lunch and – crucially – Leicestershire won. It was even over in time for me to catch the last bus home.

I would not say, however, that it has done anything to assuage my anxieties about the future of County cricket.  As, say, a once-a-fortnight Saturday afternoon diversion, T20 has its attractions, but if it were ever to become the only form of cricket available, I think that would be the end of my interest in the game.

I also wonder about the future of the new city-based competition.  T-shirts and face-painting will only go so far to attract the new child-centred audience it is intended to attract, and some further tweaking of the rules may be required to ensure a regular supply of the boundaries they have been promised.  The dot-ball enthusiasts, on the other hand, are only enthusiastic because it is Leicestershire delivering them : some amorphous regional entity based in Nottingham is unlikely to attract this faction either.

Still, at the time of writing, Leicestershire are hopeful of qualifying for the quarter-finals and, if they do, I am very tempted to watch them.  Just call me a glory hunter.

 

Scribbling in the Margins

 Derbyshire v Durham, Queen’s Park, Chesterfield, County Championship, 3rd July 2017 and various minor games

“Something is pushing them to the side of their own lives …”

How have the last few weeks been for you?

Perhaps your schedule has been packed : the Tests against South Africa, the first half of the T20 Blast and, of course, the Women’s World Cup, whose final seems, for some, to have become an event akin to the death of Diana Spencer or the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in 2012. For you, perhaps, this High Summer of cricket looks set to continue until the end of August (more Tests, more floodlit T20s, more telly) before it fades away around the August Bank Holiday, with only the coda of a one day series against the West Indies (absurdly late!) to bridge the gap before England tour Australia.

Alternatively, if you don’t enjoy T20, don’t have a Sky subscription and aren’t an enthusiast for the women’s game, you may feel that your season dried up prematurely in about the middle of June, and that you are currently stranded in a mid-Summer desert, with only the oasis of a single round of Championship games this weekend to sustain you. Your season will only resume when the nights are encroaching on the days and there is an Autumnal nip in the air, that is if you have not already been lured away by the raucous siren songs of the football season.

I suppose this is one thing that I meant when I talked about disintegration (or diversity) : the cricketing public is no longer a single, monocultural, entity that follows the same seasonal narrative, but has fragmented into multicultural groupings, each with their own narratives, conversing mostly amongst themselves, and suspicious of, or in denial about, the existence of the others. Those forms of the game that the ECB wishes to see thrive (the international game, women’s cricket, T20) occupy the centre ground, and those that they do not are pushed to the sidelines, or – to use a word that has occurred a lot to me lately – marginalised.

This marginalisation can be both temporal (the Championship being pushed to the beginning and end of the season) and physical. The last Championship game I attended (for a day) was the game between Derbyshire and Durham at Chesterfield, which began on 3rd July, when matches were also being played at Cheltenham, Beckenham and Scarborough. As a long-standing advocate for outgrounds, I would normally applaud this outbreak of diversity, but it was hard not to feel some sense of displacement and relegation to the margins (the Women’s World Cup having requisitioned Derbyshire and Gloucestershire’s usual homes for the duration).

I have written about my visits to Queen’s Park, Chesterfield several times before and would still award it first prize in the small-to-medium-sized County grounds category, but a little of the old magic seemed to be missing. Perhaps because it was still term-time, the miniature railway that runs through Queen’s Park along one side of the ground was confined to the sidings (without even a miniature replacement bus service), the sound of children’s voices from the playground were diminished and the fish-and-chip van that is usually such an olfactory ornament to the ground was nowhere to be seen, or smelt. I was sad to see that the ghost sign for the Picture Post has been painted over.

This feeling (of being marginal people, in the shadows) did not stem from the size of the crowd. I would say it was as large as for the better attended games in the WWC at Grace Road, but we are not the story, and our place in that is as footnotes, marginalia.

The cricket (which is rarely the point of these flying visits) was a reminder that it can be quite relaxing to watch a batting side gently collapsing after a promising start (Derbyshire) and mildly amusing to see a wagging tail frustrate the bowlers (Durham’s), provided that neither of them are the side you support. Durham (who have, in the most literal sense, been relegated to the margins of Division 2 by the ECB) won the game, and have now overcome their 36-point handicap to overtake Leicestershire. Hamidullah Qadri, who has emerged into the foreground this season (and taken his place in the narrative), was playing, but his innings only lasted four balls, and I did not see him bowl.

Derbyshire (in the shape of their 2nd XI) featured in both of the other days of County cricket I have watched in the last seven weeks. One of these was at Belper Meadows, which retains its crown as my favourite ground in the Small Grounds category, though a little of its appeal depends on the quality of the light, which was generally subdued, though it had its moments.  The field of what I think is maize*, which adjoins one side of the ground, had grown higher than I have seen it before and must be close to being harvested (I feel this must have some metaphorical relevance, but nothing springs to mind).

Hamidullah Qadri was playing in this game too : he bowled a long spell of robotically accurate off-spin and took a wicket. Also playing was Harvey Hosein, another young player who made a dramatic first-class debut for Derbyshire, equalling their record for the most dismissals by a wicket-keeper, but has since been relegated to the margins of the 2nd XI by the arrival of Gary Wilson from Surrey and Daryn Smit from Kolpakia. Even aside from his wicket-keeping (which seemed competent, though he struggled a little with Qadri), his batting (he made 85* at Belper and a century at Kibworth) ought to make him an attractive target (if Derbyshire don’t want him) for any County looking to strengthen their middle order. I can think of one, not very far from Derbyshire.

Hosein, though not Qadri, also played against Leicestershire’s 2nd XI at Kibworth. This game, which, on a third day of cloud and drizzle,

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seemed mostly to consist of declaration bowling against a side who had no real incentive to declare, made me wonder seriously if I might not be able to find some better use for my time. If you look hard enough, and know where to look (and the real refuseniks do), there are always games to be had somewhere : Academy games at Uppingham, 2nd XI T20 double-headers, age-group sides. Though these all have their merits, convincing myself that I really want to watch them does feel uneasily like hunting frantically for a half-drunk bottle of creme-de-menthe left over from Christmas, and claiming that this is because I have a real taste for the stuff, rather than some kind of addiction.

Nonetheless, I set off for Leicester Grammar School last Monday with the earnest intention of watching a 2nd XI T20 against Northants. As the bus approached Great Glen, however, it was raining quite hard, and I decided, with what that felt uneasily like relief, to stay on the bus and proceed on to Leicester, where I had a cup of coffee and visited a museum instead. Watching 2nd XI cricket can be a wonderful way of discovering some of this country’s genuine diversity : this season I have stumbled across Europe’s largest Gurdwara in Smethwick, some gypsy horses on the way to Desborough, and a Japanese water-garden in Milton Keynes :

but, although watching cricket can provide a pretext for visiting places that it would not otherwise have occurred to you to visit, it is not a necessary one. So, over the last fortnight, I have visited Leamington Spa and Cheltenham, without the faintest sniff of leather or willow, and enjoyed the break.

As you may have discovered in bed sometimes, I suppose you can only be pushed so far towards the edge before you fall out altogether.

*Apparently it’s sweetcorn (but, see the further correction in the comments).

Fun, Fun, Fun (Until Arriva Takes the Buses Away)

Leicestershire v Durham, Grace Road, 5th June / Northamptonshire v Lancashire, Wantage Road, 8th June / Northamptonshire v Leicestershire, Wantage Road, 12th June (all the Royal London One-day Cup)

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Didn’t we have a lovely time, the day we went to Leicester?

(I repeat myself? Very well, I repeat myself.)

If you have been following this blog since the start of the season, you may have detected a pattern. One week Leicestershire play a County Championship match from Sunday to Wednesday, the next it is Northamptonshire’s turn. (I don’t know whether it is a coincidence that they don’t play at home at the same time, but, if so, it is a happy one.)

It is like following a league in football or rugby. Leaders and stragglers, themes, narratives and characters have emerged. If you want to watch a game you know the date and time; it may have become part of your weekly routine. At the beginning of June, however, anyone hoping to navigate their way through the season enters a sort of Bermuda Triangle, where the instruments go haywire, landmarks disappear and the course ahead is hard to see.

The Championship disappears, only to reappear, briefly and randomly, before disappearing again. Leicestershire next play a 4-day game on 27th June (just to keep us on our toes, from Monday to Thursday), then nothing until 4th August (Thursday to Sunday). Northamptonshire have nothing in June, one game from 10-13 July (Sunday to Wednesday), then nothing until Saturday 13th August.

In the meantime, there is, of course, 20/20. If you watch this exclusively then the season assumes a different pattern. It begins towards the end of May, when the football season is ending, and continues until it begins again in August. You have to keep your wits about you, as games can crop on any random day of the week, but most are played on Friday evenings, so, if T20 is your bag, Friday night is cricket night.

Apart from that, there is 2nd XI cricket (where the hardcore of County regulars take refuge), Minor Counties and a ragbag of international fixtures (Grace Road have a women’s ODI, Northants host Pakistan A v Sri Lanka A and an England U-19 game). Then there is the Royal London One Day Cup, which this year is played in two “blocks”, in the first two weeks of June and the last week of July.

Few things divide cricket’s “overground” from its “underground” more sharply than their attitudes to one-day cricket. By “overground” I mean the administrators, the players and coaches, national journalists and that section of the cricketing public who are most audible (or legible) on social media: by “underground” I mean the people who go to the matches (and their allies, the County Chairmen).

For some time after it became clear that 20/20 would be a popular success, “overground” opinion was that one-day cricket had had its day; it was a “tired old format”, with “no place in a crowded schedule”. As it is a core belief of this group that the only purpose of domestic cricket is to produce a successful England side, one-day county cricket was run down to the point where all that was left was a few scattered midweek 40-over matches. Then, at about the time England performed badly in the last World Cup, the wind changed and it became common wisdom that ODIs should be given the same priority as Test cricket, and that the Counties should play more 50-over cricket, as that is the format England play.

The people who go the matches, by contrast, never lost their enthusiasm for one-day games. If asked (and plenty will tell you this unasked) they would like to see 40-over matches on Sundays (in effect, the old John Player League) and a 50-over knock-out competition (in effect, the old Gillette Cup). There are some who enjoy the format for its own sake (though few, I suspect, who prefer it to both 4-day cricket and 20/20) and some (those who work from Monday to Friday) for whom it is a matter of practicality. The greatest attraction though, is that a one-day match represents that great English institutioni, the Good Day Out.

Historically, the Good Day Out has taken different forms: the railway excursion, the charabanc trip, the family outing by car. There are many types of day out (the zoo, the seaside, the stately home, the fair, the countryside), but there will always be the journey there, a bit of lunch, a few drinks, a bag of chips, some laughs, the journey home, a bit of a sing-song. Whatever the ostensible purpose of the trip, it will be remembered by some amusing incident (not “the day we saw the Rembrandts”, but “the day Elsie got a wasp in her drawers”)ii. Four-day cricket is a way of life, 20/20 a night out (with the lads or otherwise), but, as a look around any crowd will confirm, a one-day game is a Good Day Out.

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We don’t care how late it is, we’re not going home, because we’re having a lovely time.

Out of this conflict of interests has emerged this season’s One-Day Cup, a strange hybrid beast, neither league nor cup, which entirely satisfies no-one.  The players dislike playing it, clubs like Leicestershire find it a distraction from the Championship (in which they have been making some progress) and T20 (which they need to make an effort with for financial reasons).  As soon as is decent (certainly when they have no chance of qualifying) most will put out weakened sides (as Lancashire rested their leading bowlers for their trip to Wantage Road last week).

As for the trippers, the 50-over format means that the Sunday games begin at 11.00 (too early) and, in a new complication, the midweek games begin at 2.00.  In theory, this is to allow people to drop in after work (at half-price) to watch the second innings under floodlights.   In practice, at Wantage Road, it meant that there were few Lancashire supporters and there was a mass exodus at 5.30, many of them (like me) hurrying to catch the last bus home.  Whether an evening shift arrived to replace us I don’t know.

Although it was only last week that I saw these games, I struggle to remember much about any of them. In fact, however much I may have enjoyed them at the time, I struggle to remember much about any of the limited overs matches I’ve seen in the time I’ve been writing this blog. I can remember some early sightings of Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes (the competition does give those of us who follow Second Division Counties a chance to see some of the younger First Division stars in action) and a few amusing incidents, such as James Taylor taking four wickets with his leg-breaks (my equivalent, I suppose, of Elsie getting a wasp caught in her drawers).

The only matches I can remember in their entirety are Buttler (and Cobb)’s match referred to above (the last time I saw Leicestershire win with my own eyes), and a pathetic performance by Leicestershire against Somerset last season, which was over by 12.30.  I have seldom seen such an angry crowd and not, as you might expect, only the home supporters (the travelling Somerset contingent had also, you see, been denied their Good Day Out).

The Leicestershire game was well-attended (a lot of Durham supporters had travelled down for the previous day’s T20, thus turning a Good Day Out into a Weekend Away) and most were pleased when their openers, Stoneman and Mustard, put on 180 for the first wicket.  You might be surprised that Leicestershire supporters were pleased too, but it meant, you see, that the game would last until, at least, the late afternoon.  Stoneman and Borthwick are often mentioned as being in contention for England call-ups (usually in the form “why do Stoneman and Borthwick never get a mention?”) and both made runs, though not very memorably.  Unlike Buttler or Stokes, you need to see their figures to know how good they are.

I cannot report on most of Leicestershire’s reply, as the last bus home on Sundays leaves at 5.45, and I cannot report on any of Lancashire’s reply to Northamptonshire on Wednesday as I had to leave the ground at 5.30, along (as I have said) with many others in the crowd.

There were two memorable things about this game: Ben Duckett’s latest  innings (an imperious 98) and Lancashire’s ridiculous kit, a lime-green affair with a smiley face on the front that made them look as if they had just dropped in on their way to Shoom in 1988.

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Top one! Sorted!

Duckett made his name as a T20 finisher, and his weakness as an opener in 4-day cricket has been a tendency to play uncalled-for shots too early.  The 50-over format has the advantage that, as a no. 3, he is obliged to construct an innings of substance, rather than go in with all guns blazing.  His excellence lies in being able always to select the ideal shot for any given ball, rather than Buttler’s  wild flights of avant-garde invention or Stokes’ elemental brutishness, but it is, nonetheless, as visible to the naked eye, whereas Borthwick’s is not.

I had no problems with the buses at Wantage Road last Sunday, and managed to catch the entire match, which lasted from 4.00 to 4.07 (not even long enough for Duckett to get out to a rash shot).  There weren’t many there, but those who were gave a heroic demonstration of Not Allowing a Bit of Rain to Spoil a Good Day Out.  Some sat out in the pouring rain, sheathed in polythene, for all the world as if they were sitting in a shelter in Cleveleys, staring out at the Irish sea.

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A family were having a picnic of Edwardian extravagance in the West Stand, and were rewarded by a song and dance routine from mascot Steeler the Dog

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children practised happily in the wet nets, the Pick’n’Mix stall never closed, nor did Gallone’s ice-cream van or the Memsahib curry stall.  And for those who regard watching cricket as the point of a Good Day Out, rather than a pretext for one, the Test Match was on the TV in the Pavilion, although, for myself, I chose to sit and contemplate the rain fall on the covers.

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(I offer all this, by the way, as a few, mere, benign Notes from Under the Floorboards, at a time when the gap between the English Over- and Under-ground has seldom been wider (and not just in the world of cricket), and there are some pretty rough beasts slouching their way out above ground, seemingly convinced their time has come.)