Happy Days and End Games

 

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On my first visit of the season, I complained that the inscription on the sundial in the Garden of Remembrance at the County Ground, Northampton had become illegible. I don’t know whether close to six months at Wantage Road has somehow cleansed my doors of perception, or whether they have shelled out to have it cleaned, but on my last visit I found I could read it clearly. It seems to read:

Make time, save time, while time lasts. All time is no time, when time is past.

This sounds like the sort of riddle contestants on 3-2-1 once had to solve to win a microwave oven, but, in fact, appears to have been borrowed from the 17th century monumental sculptor, Nicholas Stone. If the specifics are a little gnomic, the gist is clear : (depending on how you like your eggs) carpe diem, enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think … YOLO.

As September falls, a sense of an ending concentrates the minds of players, coaches and spectators alike, though unalike, according to their roles. Months of settling for high scoring draws (ensuring that the season will not be the kind of disaster that leads to the coach losing his job) give way to a desperate dash for results. In the previous five months of 4-day cricket at Grace and Wantage Roads I saw two results, in the last five weeks, I have seen five (two defeats and a win for Leicestershire, two wins for Northamptonshire).

For a few players, the end of the season will see their last game, some for their current club, for others anywhere or ever. The same goes for some of the crowd : we all hope to winter well, to see you next year, to have all the time in the world, but, as I was saying in the Spring, it does not do to take time for granted. And hovering at the back of our minds, at this season’s ending in particular, there skulks the baleful figure of the Angel of Death, in the shape of Colin Graves, and his plans for city-based cricket.  All time is no time, when time is past …

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, County Championship, 6-7 September 2016

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Should any of us have required a reminder of our mortality, the first day of this game had been designated as “Heart Attack Awareness Day” : praiseworthy, of course, though I found the sight of children simulating heart attacks in the outfield during the lunch interval did little to alleviate the sense of unease generated by another poor Leicestershire performance. They had gambled by preparing a green wicket against a side whose main strength looked to be its seam bowling, and who would have first use of that wicket. Not unpredictably, they were bowled out for 135 and 119 and, having allowed Sussex to recover from 156-7 to 313 (an inability to dock the tail has been a persistent problem), lost by an innings within two days. As if that were not punishment enough, the Umpires added to the insult by reporting the pitch to the ECB.

Little has gone right for Leicestershire recently ; what, precisely, has gone wrong is peculiarly hard to say, though the steep swan-dive in form has, at least, coincided with the confirmation that coach Andrew McDonald would be returning to Australia and the sudden departure of wicket-keeper and chief opposition-irritant Niall O’Brien. What goes on inside a professional cricket club is as mysterious to outsiders as what goes on inside a marriage : commentary is, at best, speculation, at worst gossip. It does appear to the outside observer, though, that the core of this side, mostly thirty-somethings of Australian or South African origin, are a rather introverted, self-sufficient group whose loyalty is (not unnaturally) to each other, rather than to Leicestershire per se, and who, without being actively unfriendly, see little need to build a rapport with outsiders.

There are also hints of a hierarchical split between the first-teamers (eight of whom have played in almost every four-day match this season) and the younger, local-ish players, reduced to the 2s and fetching and carrying (and who are gradually being shed from the staff). Zak Chappell, potentially the most talented, has been unable to bowl more than a few exploratory overs since he broke down in April, but returned against Sussex. Inevitably, given the long lay-off, his length and direction were awry (though he was quick enough to induce some balletics from Eckersley, who is nothing if not an elegant wicket-keeper). When he did finally find his range to finish the innings by clean bowling Jofra Archer, there seemed to be a marked lack of the usual back-slapping and high-fiving from his senior colleagues, and he was left out for the next game in favour of the ready-made Richard Jones. It would be a shame if he had to go elsewhere to find nurture.

Derbyshire 2nd XI v Glamorgan 2nd XI, Belper Meadows, 8th September 2016

The premature ending at Grace Road gave me a last chance to re-visit what is probably my favourite ground on the circuit, at Belper. I have tried to capture its charm in words before, but, as its appeal is largely aesthetic, it is probably best conveyed in pictures. I wondered why anyone would want to watch city-based cricket when they have the option of its De Chiroco shadows and distant prospects of the East Mill and the Derwent Valley.

(On the subject of intimations of mortality, during this match a Derbyshire batsman, completing his second run to reach 200, was struck on the head by a shy at the wicket. He lay motionless on the ground, and there was initially some concern that he was dead. Happily, it transpired that he was just having a larf (#topbantz!), but I wonder, if he had been killed instantly while out of his ground, but his momentum had carried his lifelless body over the crease, would the run have stood? Is it enough for the batsman’s body to complete the run, or does he need to be present in spirit? A question for Ask the Umpire, perhaps, or possibly a theologian.)

Leicestershire Over 50s v Essex Over 50s, Kibworth, 11h September 2016

The final of the Over 50s 50/50 Cup (I don’t think the Over 60s play 60 overs) saw the first of this season’s happy endings. Leicestershire (the underdogs) were struggling (as the shadows lengthened) at 108-9, in reply to Essex’s 167, when the last man arrived at the crease. He made the bulk of the runs to take us to victory, and, as darkness fell, he was sprayed with Champagne by his team-mates, and presented with the Man of the Match Award by the increasingly Tudor Mike Gatting. This is what is usually described as a “fairytale ending”, or “like something out of a Boy’s Own Comic” ; we instinctively mistrust them as too neat, too satisfying, as, in fiction, they would be. Which is why it matters that it actually happened, and that we can believe our eyes.

Derbyshire v Leicestershire, AAA Arena Derby, 12th September 2016

Of all the counties I know well, I’d say Derbyshire has the most attractive grounds – apart from Belper, there is Chesterfield, Buxton, Duffield and, no doubt, many more I have yet to visit. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the County choose to play all but one of their home games at the AAA Arena, which is rapidly transforming itself into one of the ugliest. It has long suffered from being surrounded by a system of ringroads that makes it perilous to approach and which keeps up a whooshing, grumbling, drone in the background, and is famously windswept. It used to have redeeming features, though, such as a well-stocked secondhand bookshop, decent ice-cream, and deckchairs rather than fixed seating around much of the boundary. Unfortunately, this section was cordoned off in connection with the building of a new media centre, which seems designed to complete the transformation from a cricket ground to a collection of multi-use industrial units (with a Travelodge looming over it all). I am not unaware of the commercial imperatives that lie behind this (and that something of the sort threatens at Grace Road), but the thought does occur that, if this is the future for the smaller counties, then a threatened alternative future of playing minor counties at, for instance, Belper, might well be preferable.

It didn’t help that the weather was dull, the crowd glum (as well they might, not having won a match all season), and it cost £18.00 to get in. On the field, it was another frustrating day for Leicestershire, who having ground Derbyshire down to 177-6, as usual allowed 19-year old wicket-keeper Harvey Hosein (83*) to drag the innings out to 307. Both sides looked weary, as though they felt that the season had gone on for too long, and as the gloaming descended in the late afternoon, I began to feel the same way. The most interesting feature of the day was that one of the home supporters had brought along a pet tortoise in a cardboard box, which was allowed to graze just outside the boundary fence ; on the whole I found watching that more entertaining than what was going on inside it.

Northamptonshire v Gloucestershire, County Ground, 12-15 September 2016

Moving from Derby to Northampton was to move from gloom into bright light (once the early mist had burned off). Since their T20 victory, Northamptonshire have been sealed in a golden bubble of happiness, on a winning streak where every gamble they take pays off, where they only have to hope for something to make it happen, much as it must seem to their talisman Duckett (who, while Leicester and Derby had been toiling, had knocked off 208 in a victory over Kent). In this match he could only manage a 70, mostly backhand-smashed off Gloucestershire’s quartet of season-weary back-of-a-length merchants, though he was presented with the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year Award (not to mention being called up by England).

On the final day, Gloucestershire had been set 441 to win. At 286-5 with time shortening, logic suggested a draw, but dream logic demanded that Northants should bowl them out, and that Ben Sanderson (a plucked-from-obscurity fairy story in himself), should take eight wickets to do it. After that it was beers on the balcony, and precious, sweaty, kit flung over it to the faithful, who lingered as long at the ground as they decently could. Make time, save time, while time lasts …

Northamptonshire’s Members too, seem to be locked in a golden bubble of happiness, to the extent that they have allowed themselves to be persuaded to surrender control of the club to a “group of investors” (I voted against this). The current investors appear to be amiable and well-intentioned, and, in the short-term, the future may well appear bright. In the longer term, though, when those investors grow old, or need some cash, the ex-Members may discover that it is harder to regain control of a club than to surrender it, at least until it goes bust (as the supporters of more than local football club will testify).

On the other hand, the long term is too far ahead to look for some of the older Members. As I heard one say “Oh, well. There’ll be cricket here next year … and maybe the year after”. Carpe diem … and let the future look after itself.

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, Grace Road, 20-22 September 2016

And so to the end, and a bitter end it looked to be, when Leicestershire were bowled out for 96 on the first morning (on what Andrew McDonald described as one of the worst days of first-class cricket he had ever seen). I won’t bore you with what led them to this position, but Gloucestershire found themselves, at lunch on the third day, needing 35 to win with 6 wickets in hand. There followed a fairytale ending, of the kind in which the big bad wolves (in the shape of Clint McKay and Charlie Shreck) gobble up the little piggies, as they lost those six wickets for ten runs, to give Leicestershire their first home win since 2012. It somehow happened too quickly to quite take in, and, after a brief explosion of disbelief and relief, I was left with the realisation that, after close to six months, and God knows how many thousands of words, it was all over, finished, gone, and I could think of nothing to say about it at all.

All time is no time, when time is past …

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Mildly Surprised by Joy

Northamptonshire v Glamorgan, County Ground Northampton, County Championship, 31st August-3rd September 2016

I don’t want to say I told you so …” is not a phrase that is often sincerely meant.  Where cricket is concerned, though, it has an ambiguous force.  On the one hand, it is only human to take pleasure in being able, retrospectively, to prove one’s perspicacity : on the other, predictability is a notorious kill-joy.

It depends a little, of course, on the nature of the prediction.  If I had predicted, for instance, at the beginning of the 2013 season, that Leicestershire would not win another Championship game until 2015, it would have been cold comfort to have been proved right. Though there are some (particularly at Northampton) who, perversely, seem to take the opposite view, we generally prefer our optimistic prophecies to come true, and our more gloomy prognostications to be refuted.

I would, for instance, have expected this to be a predictable game, but I am delighted to say that I would have been quite wrong.  I predicted early in the season that Northamptonshire would continue to produce dead, flat wickets and that most of their home games would be high-scoring draws, and I have been proved correct : all but one have been drawn.  I also predicted that, if they wanted to win games, their best hope would be to return to their strategy of the 1950s, prepare turning pitches, and play at least two of their four spinners (this more a pious hope than a prediction).

Until the last ball before lunch, the match proceeded predictably enough.  Northants were on 140-0, with Ben Duckett on 80 (and it is a sign of what an extraordinary player Duckett has become that I can describe making close to a century before lunch as predictable).  He then tried to sweep a very full ball from a debutant, part-time off-spinner called Carlson off middle-and-leg, missed, and was bowled.  This seemed likely to be only a temporary, if disappointing, interruption to their expected progress to a large total. In the afternoon, however, Carlson, who looked to be flighting the ball quite nicely, took 5 (mostly lower order) wickets for 25, and Owen Morgan, another inexperienced spinner, chipped in with 2-37, to dismiss Northants for 269.

This low total was dismissed as a predictable consequence of a hangover from the T20 victory and a depleted batting line-up, and Carlson’s figures as an amusing novelty. By lunch on the second day, however, Rob Keogh, generally seen as a batsman who bowls a bit, had taken 9-52 (the best bowling figures by a living Northamptonshire bowler) and Glamorgan were all out for 124.  So hapless had the batsmen appeared that anxiety grew about a visit from the Pitch Inspector, so, at lunch time, most of the crowd wandered out to inspect it for themselves.

What they found was a pitch that was bare of grass, rutted where batsmen had scratched their marks, scuffed a little by bowlers’ footmarks (particularly the left-armer Wagg), but hard and solid looking (I didn’t dare poke it), and devoid of cracks. It was precisely the kind of wicket that you would hope to see in August, when spinners traditionally came into their own, but far too seldom do now. Still, however, the shadow of the Pitch Inspector and a points deduction hung over the ground, as Duckett and Newton walked out to bat.

Within an over or two, the shadow dispersed, along with the field, which soon came to resemble the closing overs of a Gillette Cup match in the days before fielding restrictions. It helped that Carlson (whose best day may already be behind him) bowled two full tosses to Duckett in his first over, both of which ended up in the groundsman’s hut (D’Oliveira had successfully employed the same tactic to dismiss him earlier in the season, but I don’t think Carlson was doing it deliberately). Duckett went on to make 50 off 30 balls and, in the course of a rare, golden afternoon, 185 off 159 balls, before a tired shot saw him return to a standing ovation and a pair of green wellingtons (whose meaning was obscure) balanced on the dressing room balcony.

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On the third day Glamorgan, chasing a fanciful 451, again disintegrated (unlike the pitch), to Keogh (who took 4-73) and the precise, dandified left armers of Graeme White (6-44), both bowling with the rare luxury of a packed close field.

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Glamorgan only slightly exceeded their first innings total, making 132, and were beaten by 318 runs, shortly before tea. In the course of the match Glamorgan had made 256 runs, Duckett 265. 31 of the 37 wickets to fall had fallen to spin, including all 20 of Glamorgan’s. Keogh finished with 13 wickets, and White 7.

To repeat myself, there was nothing freakishly venomous about this pitch, it was simply one that offered the spinners the help that they would once have taken as their due at this stage of this season (and in April at Northampton, if dear old Claude Woolley was on good form). If proper pitches like this became commonplace again, then only proper batsmen (or batsmen who play spin properly), like Duckett, would be able to make runs, and the flat track, “big” bat bullies would have to learn to adapt, to become better-rounded players.

Players like Keogh would have the incentive to become spinners who bat a bit, rather than vice-versa. Specialists like White might find themselves with a regular red ball gig, and a chance to express their full range of talents, rather than being reduced to mere, miserly, dot ball merchants in the T20. Young bowlers, whose careers are currently deformed (like that of Briggs), or at risk of being snuffed out altogether (like Riley’s), would stand a chance of reaching their potential peaks. England would, when preparing a squad to tour India, know who could play spin, and who was best capable of bowling it. They might even feel the need to employ a specialist wicket-keeper (such as David Murphy, whose swift and sure glovework played a significant part in White and Keogh’s success).

If all, or any, of that comes to pass, I shall be very pleasantly surprised. I shall also, unashamedly, take great pleasure in saying “I told you so”.

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I’m sure Claude Woolley never drove one of these

 

Welcome to the Muppet Show #newera

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, LVCC, Grace Road, 12-15th April 2015

So, has it started yet?

Open Day

(Charlie Fox et al. sing)

It’s time to play the music!
It’s time to light the lights!
It’s time to meet the Muppets on the Muppet Show tonight!

It’s time to put on makeup!
It’s time to dress up right!
It’s time to raise the curtain on the Muppet Show tonight!

Statler and Waldorf

The Members (in the voices of Statler and Waldorf)

Why do we always come here?
I guess we’ll never know
It’s like a kind of torture
To have to watch the show

Determined to Succeed

Wazim Khan, Andrew McDonald et al. (in unison)

And now let’s get things started!

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Members (in unison)

Why don’t you get things started? Why can’t you get it right?

Charlie Fox, Wasim Khan, Andrew McDonald etc. (with gusto)

It’s time to get things started
On the most sensational inspirational celebrational Muppetational
This is what we call the Muppet Show!

Well, OK. I am forced to admit, curmudgeon as I am, that I was impressed.  I cannot really fault the concept or the execution of the Open Day, which marked the opening day of the season at Grace Road last Sunday.  As you may have read elsewhere, invitations had been sent out to local residents and a crowd of over 1,500 (mostly families with young children) were there to take advantage of the bouncy castle, pirate ship, free lollies and arts and crafts (not really of a kind that William Morris would have recognised).  Wasim Khan was, as advertised, on the gate and round and about to meet and greet and the positive impression he is reported to have made on the staff seems, on the basis of a few guarded conversations, to be a genuine one.

A few unformed minds should, at least, have come away with positive associations for a day at the cricket, though it may also have created some unrealistic expectations about what the average day of Championship cricket is likely to entail.  If a few of them are encouraged to pester their parents to take them to the cricket again, and a few of them in turn to become hooked on the game itself, the exercise will have been well worthwhile.

There were those of us there, of course, whose minds are far from unformed and by the close on Sunday evening, with Glamorgan having progressed to 294-2, a fair few of those were already resigned to what a rather splendid man with a West Country accent repeatedly announced would be “another long, hard, Zummer“.  The same man also insisted that he was never coming back again to Grace Road, but by Tuesday, when, inevitably – such is the nature of addiction – he was back in his familiar seat, things were looking up and Leicestershire responded to Glamorgan’s 513-9 dec. with a respectable 435 (Eckersley 147, Robson 83).

On the last day Leicestershire were set a tantalising but improbable 305 in an afternoon to win, finding themselves in a situation reminiscent of several games last season where, having maintained parity for most of the match, they collapsed painfully and pitifully, like a drunk on to a camp bed, on the last afternoon.  At 1-2, I imagine our friend from the West must have been going through his Cassandra routine again, but Captain Cosgrove saved the day with an innings of all the solidity his record and physique suggest to shepherd his nervous flock through to a comfortable draw.

Though I think Citizen Khan’s stated aim (for us to become “the best non-international side in the world“) is, frankly, crazy talk, there is no reason why we cannot win games and have a reasonably successful season.  I should be astonished if we were promoted, but surprised if we finished last again. We have three proven run-scorers in Robson, Eckersley and Cosgrove and some promising strokemakers in Redfern, Pinner and Aadil Ali.  Niall O’Brien still seems up for a scrap.  Freckingham and Atif Sheikh will take wickets, if used in short bursts, though they will concede runs too.  Shreck may adapt well to the role of a stock bowler and Raine, Taylor and Wells are all useful medium-fast all rounders (though perhaps too similar to be played together).  Naik can hold up an end and take wickets if offered a responsive surface.

In short, we have one good side and a few spares, if not the depth to survive any serious absences through injury or loss of form.  What we will struggle to do (and this is true of most of Division 2) is bowl sides out twice on docile surfaces.  One bowler of real quality would make a dramatic difference (think of Ajmal last year, Copeland the year before, or even Hogan at Glamorgan) and we must hope that Clint McKay turns out to be that man.  He is currently absent on honeymoon and we must hope, too, that he is conserving some of his Vital Energies for cricket.

I am not, incidentally, going to fall into the trap of saying that there is a buzz around Grace Road at the start of the season (I fell into that one too early last year and look what happened).  Except for the terminally curmudegeonly, there is always a buzz at the start of the season; it is only when there is still one at the end of it that it is worth making a song and dance about it.