Festivals of Insignificance

England Lions v South Africa A, Northampton, 3 June 2017

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, 9-12 June 2017

It has sometimes occurred to me that the ideal reader of this blog has not yet been born. This is not because, like Friedrich Nietzsche or Martin Peters, I imagine myself to be ahead of my time, but because, I hope, it may serve as a record of a way of life that, I suspect, will have long since ceased to exist. There may still be a game played with bats and balls ; it may be called cricket ; but I do not expect that the County game or the longer forms generally will have survived. So, if anyone out there in the future is interested in knowing what it felt like to watch cricket in the Summer of 2017, it felt, to me, like this.

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Anything in the paper?

I am not yet convinced that 2017 will prove to be a memorable date in English history, and I doubt whether anyone will be able to relate what I have written about cricket to the any event that might make it so. Contemporary accounts of cricket in – say – the Summers of 1914 or 1939 have acquired a retrospective poignancy, in that you would rarely be able to tell from reading them what was about to happen, and we assume from this that the crowds did not know what that would be. It might equally be that they knew, or suspected, perfectly well, but hoped to find in cricket a zone of exclusion, where the horrors could temporarily be forgotten, or, at least, not decently alluded to. (As I have often said, a large part of the appeal of sport is that it offers us the opportunity to lose ourselves in something that, ultimately, doesn’t matter at all.)

So, for the benefit of my readers in 2117, the Lions’ match against South Africa A took place 12 days after an Islamist suicide bomber had killed 23 people (including himself) at a concert in Manchester, mainly attended by young women and girls, and on the day when, in the evening, a group of three terrorists killed eight people in London by driving a van at them and then attacking them with knives. I have seen some fine pieces, written in the aftermath of these events, which have managed to connect them to games of cricket, but, for my part, the only connection I feel is that the game was not quite absorbing enough to mask a deep, dull, sense of disquiet. In the Briggs and Forrester Family Stand, I could connect nothing with nothing.

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My ability to concentrate on the game was not aided by the fact that Northamptonshire had chosen it for a Community Day (our old friend the Family Fun Day under another name), with the result that the crowd consisted largely of parents with young children, who, as usual, were more interested in their own games (more fidget spinners* and simple fidgets than spinners ) than anything occurring on the pitch. In the circumstances, earnestly studying the cricket felt like being a Professor of Zoology visiting a safari park on a Bank Holiday, as if I were rather missing the point.

It also didn’t help that, although the Lions’ opponents were billed as South Africa A, it would not be hard to assemble at least one better XI from South Africans currently playing County cricket, under various flags. Only two of them made much of an impression (the opening bowler Duanne Olivier and off-breaking all-rounder Aiden Markram), and I imagine you can expect to see those two appearing at a County ground near you soon enough.

Another crypto-South African, Dawid Malan, opened the batting with Ben Duckett. In the corresponding fixture against Sri Lanka A last year, Duckett, in what I hope does not turn out to have been his brief pomp, made an inventive 62 and I grew so bored by Malan hitting sixes that I was moved to compare him to “Buns” Thornton. This time Duckett made only 2, before he was caught at mid-wicket off another indeterminate stroke. Last year his strokes could be hard to describe because he was busy inventing exciting new hybrids ; this year he seems unsure himself quite which one he is intending to play.

Bell-Drummond and Vince (two players seemingly stuck in development hell) also departed cheaply, leaving Malan (a restrained 84, until he inexplicably leaped out half way down the wicket and was stumped) and Liam Livingstone (129 off 83 balls) to push the game beyond plausible reach (the final total was 349-7). Given how many openers England have tried recently, it is hard to see why Malan has been ignored : perhaps an almost 30-year old South African is not the kind of player they would ideally wish to be seen employing. Livingstone, whose innings was equally appealing to the Mums, Dads, kiddiz, and even old miseries like me, has the curious quality of batting, in a long-levered style, like a man much taller than his Playfair-billed height of 6’1” (I was quite surprised when I checked). He would fit into England’s one-day line-up well, if they can find the space for him.

South Africa’s reply began brightly, but was half-hearted in the face of some economical, if not overly incisive, bowling, and petered out on a paltry 205. The bowler who impressed most was George Garton, a hostile left-armer from Sussex, who has now played almost as often for the Lions as he has first-class games for Sussex. I did not stay to the end, drifting away at about the same time as most of the families had tired of the entertainment, but returned home in reasonably good spirits (not, of course, to survive long into the evening).

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There are blue skies just around the corner

Leicestershire’s game against Kent began on the morning after the General Election, which you – O gentle retrospect – may have to look up in a book, if you still have such things (it was the first of the year). The campaign had been as long drawn out, painful and unedifying to observe as a man with chronic constipation attempting a crap, and had culminated in a result which should have pleased no-one. It might have been a hangover from that, the weather (overcast, with a chill wind and rain threatening) or pessimism about Leicestershire’s prospects, but I thought I detected at least a mild whiff of what the Argentinians call bronca abroad (a sort of sullen anger).

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I was generally successful in evading the election through the course of the four days, although the combination of free wi-fi and a smart ‘phone sometimes led me to log into Twitter, releasing a thousand “hot takes” to buzz around my ears like angry wasps after my sandwiches. The only time I heard anyone allude to it directly was when a man read out from his ‘phone : “Theresa May will be going to the Palace this afternoon”. If I were Neville Cardus, I would claim that, with the ready wit that comes naturally to Leicestershire supporters, someone responded “I thought the football season had finished” but, in fact, everyone roundly ignored it.

Looking at the scores (Leicestershire 340 and 175 ; Sussex 284 and 234-5), you might suppose that this game was a good advertisement for 4-day cricket : from a neutral’s perspective (or that of the substantial contingent who had swapped good old Sussex-by-the-Sea for Leicester-by-the-Soar) you would be right. The outcome was not quite certain until the last afternoon, there was a mid-game reversal of fortune and one outstanding performance from a new starlet, in the person of Jofra Archer. But Leicestershire supporters are already far too familiar with this storyline to be much beguiled by it.

Leicestershire’s 340 had been hard-won, in the face of a near-international attack comprising Philander, Jordan, Archer, Briggs and David Wiese. (Leaving aside its effect on South African cricket, I am generally agnostic about the recent influx of South Africans, but Wiese does seem a gratuitous signing, given that Garton (who had impressed me for the Lions) was relegated to twelfth man, and Sussex also have Whittingham, Robinson, Ajmal Shahzad and part-timer Tymal Mills on their books).

Now that Horton and Dearden have passed through their early season pain barrier, they have emerged as a moderately reassuring opening partnership : in the first innings Dearden only made 8, but managed to stick around until the 18th over in doing so. Horton contributed 71, Cosgrove (whose excellence I take too much for granted) 128, and Zak Chappell, who seems to have found his feet as a batsman (almost literally so, in that he sometimes plays like someone who has not quite come to terms with being exceptionally tall), a handy 44.

When Sussex were reduced to 156-7, or even 201-9 (thanks mainly to Clint McKay, who has previously been economical this season without taking many wickets), a naive observer would have thought that the advantage lay with Leicestershire. A seasoned observer (and there are some pretty highly-seasoned, not to mention well-pickled, ones in and around the Fox Bar) would not have been surprised when Philander and Briggs (who batted just under two hours for his 27) elongated the score to 284, with a last wicket stand of 83, nor that Leicestershire’s reply soon subsided to 107-7, before a late rally enabled them to go into the last day with a lead of 232.

I have to say that no real blame attaches to Leicestershire’s batsmen, even against an attack depleted by Philander twisting his ankle during a display of over-athletic fielding, and Wiese unable to bowl because of some unspecified ailment. Jofra Archer, a slim 22-year-old with a nonchalant approach to the wicket but an explosive shoulder action, took 6-70 to go with the 5-65 he had taken in the first innings and would have troubled anyone. The last time I saw him (at Grace Road last September) I was impressed by his ability to swing the ball at speed ; this time his chief weapon was the delivery that rose sharply from just short of a length. He looked a better bowler than either Jordan or Philander, or, for that matter, any of the Lions’ pace bowlers ; he is, apparently, waiting to be approached before deciding whether he is English or West Indian, and, if I were Trevor Bayliss, I’d be approaching him pretty sharpish.

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Excuse me, Jofra, could I have a word?

The last morning proceeded to a Sussex win with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, if little of the jollity. The only batsmen to play a significant innings, Luke Wells, was dropped by the wicket-keeper off Chappell, and it does not help in defending a total of 232 to concede 43 extras, including 35 byes and leg-byes. Having said that, I would resist the temptation to remove the gloves from Eckersley, as I suspect his main problem as a ‘keeper, apart from Chappell’s high-speed unpredictability, is lack of match practice.

So, six games played, three draws and three defeats. The top five now seem solid and the four pace bowlers who played here (McKay, Raine, Chappell and Klein) would be my choices. I would be tempted to replace Pettini (who seems to be reverting to last season’s four-day form) with Adil Ali, who is champing at the bit for another bite at four-day cricket, and Tom Wells, who made some useful runs, but was only trusted to bowl four overs, with one of our three spinners (probably Sayer, though they all have their virtues). I still look forward to seeing Chappell, who is very much having to learn his craft in public, run through a side, as he is surely capable of doing, and I remain hopeful that a victory will come before the end of the season (or, preferably, sooner). I should only be pleasantly astonished if it came against a Pattinson-less Nottinghamshire next week.

And, of course, at least puzzling over all this gives me something to worry about that doesn’t really matter at all.

*A toy, very popular in 2017, for some reason.

 

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.

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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.