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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.