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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England’s Fitful Dozing

On the Sunday afternoon of the Worcestershire game at Wantage Road, I found myself sitting in the back row of the Briggs & Forrester Family Stand.  If there is any sun, this stand traps it (several tattooed men had stripped to the waist, closed their eyes and were using it as a cheap alternative to a tanning salon) ; there was also a strong south-easterly wind.  A few rows in front of me sat a ruddy-faced man from Worcestershire (I like to think he was a retired pear-farmer) wearing a broad-brimmed canvas hat.

Perhaps nine times in the hour I sat there the wind blew the hat off his head.  Sometimes it lifted it vertically, like a Harrier jump-jet, and flipped it backwards on to the seat behind ; sometimes it spun off horizontally like a Frisbee ; once it cartwheeled away and came to rest four or five rows back.  Every time, the man patted his head to confirm his headgear had gone, before, with a look of mild puzzlement, trotting patiently back to retrieve it and replace it on his head. It did not seem to occur to him to take his hat off, or move to a less blowy location.

Something about this scene seemed to me to suggest the mentality of the regular watcher of County cricket : the dogged persistence, in the face of considerable experience to the contrary,  in believing that, if you turn up day after day after day, you will eventually be rewarded with the discovery of whatever it is you have come there to find.  I say “you”, but, of course, what I really mean is “me”.

I have often referred to Cardus’s visions of the ideal, Platonic season (In “Prelude” and “the Summer Game” and elsewhere), where “when June arrives, cricket grows to splendour like a rich part of the garden of an English summertime” and “if the sun be ample and you close your eyes for a while you will see a vision of all the cricket fields in England at that very minute” and I would count myself unlucky if I did not, at least once a year, surprise, or be surprised by, some midsummer spirit of cricket (and often in some of the less looked-for places, such as here, or even here).

Whether, if ever, the season, like a budding English garden, blooms and “grows to splendour” depends on that elemental, but banal quantity, the English weather.  Midsummer should be England’s dreamtime, but this year it has struggled to emerge from a fitful, interrupted sleep.  Or, to put it more prosaically, we have had an awful lot of rain and, if not rain, then cloud.

On my return from Scarborough, I had been intending to eke out the holiday feeling by pursuing the spirit of cricket to one of its likelier hiding places, the Cricket Festival at Queen’s Park, Chesterfield, which, with its fish and chips and miniature railway, is the nearest the East Midlands has to offer to the seaside.  There was little rain during the Festival but, thanks to some heavy rain the week before, there was no cricket either.  I do not know whether this was because of exceptionally poor drainage, or over-caution on the part of the Umpires, but I fear I may have to look elsewhere for my Festival spirit and chips in coming seasons.

Leicestershire v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Grace Road, 27-30 June 2016

The week before Scarborough I had watched Leicestershire play Gloucestershire. Consulting the photographs I had taken as an aide-memoire, I found several of Chris Dent (the Gloucestershire batsman and occasional wicket-keeper), a few of the patterns of light dancing on the back of the score box, several of the boundary fence and two or three of some copulating ducks, which were pretty much the salient points over the four days.

As anyone who had consulted the weather forecast knew (and I believe Leicestershire Captain Cosgrove has now picked up this Pommy habit) there was little chance of a result from the outset.  By lunchtime on day 2, Leicestershire had made 334. By the time play resumed at the beginning of the fourth day, the first question was whether both sides would forfeit an innings to set Gloucestershire a target of 335.

Perhaps mindful of the last time Leicestershire made a sporting declaration against Gloucestershire, which resulted in the defenestration (almost literally so, I’ve heard) of the previous Captain, Ronnie Sarwan, Cosgrove was, understandably, reluctant.  In the event, this was just as well, as Chris Dent made a good-looking 165 to take Gloucestershire to 403-2.  (It is hard not to look good when making 165, but then it is hard to make 165 if you aren’t any good.)

The ducks had made their appearance late on the first day, making a horrible racket as they frolicked shamelessly in the outfield, to a running commentary from the Leicestershire balcony.  Ducks are never a welcome sight on a cricket field, but this was a disgraceful performance.

Nottinghamshire v Lancashire, County Championship, Trent Bridge, 6th July 2016

There were no ducks (or low comedy of any kind) at Trent Bridge, where I witnessed another day of “proper cricket”, the fourth day of the game between Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. Nottinghamshire began the day with victory in sight, a vision that slowly faded as Lancashire batted out the day, led by an obdurate, but not inelegant century from nineteen-year-old Boltonian opener Haseeb Hameed (who might, at some point, make a good opening partner for Alex Lees). If the keynotes of the day were Stoical restraint from the batsmen and mounting frustration for the Nottinghamshire crowd, there was also one moment of cathartic relief, as Stuart Broad bowled the best ball I’ve seen this season to send Petersen’s middle stump cartwheeling, like my pear-farmer’s hat.

Pakistan A v Sri Lanka A, Grace Road, 5th July

My companion for the day at Grace Road (the Last Gnome) had predicted the likely crowd level as “pauper’s funeral” and, by those standards, there wasn’t a bad turnout. At the start of play there were just the two of us, but, at its height, the crowd had swelled to eleven paying customers (including one professional autograph merchant and two small children), watched over by eight stewards and four St. John Ambulance personnel. In the lunch hour a steward was posted to prevent a pitch invasion ; the Gnome and I thought of running on from different sides of the pitch in a pincer movement, but calculated that, in the five minutes it would take us to reach the square, the steward would have had time to call for reinforcements.

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At these A games, the hope is always to spot some future great in embryo, some budding Waqar or infant Murali, but, if I did, I had the experience but missed the meaning (as the poet hath it). Pakistan (this was the third day of four) had, as you might expect, four nippy seamers who bowled a little too short, a spinner who might have been very effective against English batsmen, and Sri Lanka two or three top-order batsmen who seemed to be under orders to play sensibly “in English conditions”. The main source of entertainment was to see whether the run-rate on the scoreboard was going to dip below one an over (a thing I’ve only seen once before, at a Women’s Test against India). It came close to it shortly after lunch, but accelerated to just over two slightly after tea, before the innings inexplicably collapsed, like a shanty town in an earthquake.

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, County Championship, Wantage Road, 10-13 July 2016

When Adam Rossington and Richard Levi walked out to resume Northamptonshire’s first innings on 60-3 at the beginning of the second day against Worcestershire, they were greeted with a barrage of high-pitched squealing and shrieking of an intensity last heard when the Beatles made their debut at the Shea Stadium.  It was Schools Day at Wantage Road.

If the intention was to introduce the children to cricket, they must have formed the impression that it is a game that is played in brief bursts of about thirty minutes, before a tall man in a white coat (Alex “the Terminator” Wharf) waves his arms about and they all go back into the pavilion, to re-emerge about ten minutes later.  Sometimes the men in green hats seemed reluctant to leave and hung around expectantly on the edge of the pitch, while the men in maroon caps seemed to want to get off the pitch as quickly as they could and seemed very reluctant to come out again.

The children left at lunchtime, which was just as well, as there was very little lunch available.  The Pic’n’Mix stall was open, as was Gallone’s ice-cream van (incongruously staffed by what appeared to be Anna Sharapova’s more attractive younger sister).  For members there was a perfectly palatable chicken supreme available in the pavilion, (though in very small quantities), but, as the announcer put it “the Speckled Hen Lounge does not appear to be serving lunch”.  This might not be unconnected to a 2nd XI match against Derbyshire having being abandoned due to nine of the players and an umpire going down with food poisoning, but a ground that cannot rustle up a plate of chips or a cheese roll for its patrons does not convey the impression that it is prioritising its traditional clientele.

It is a cliché that games are won by the side “that wants it more”.  If “it” is promotion, then Worcestershire do want it (and seem well-equipped to attain it), Northamptonshire do not and don’t really need this competition at all, while they are (very successfully)putting all their very limited resources into “white ball cricket”. The incessant delays for rain only delayed the inevitable trouncing, which arrived late on the third day, with Northamptonshire bowled out by Mighty Joe Leach and Matt Henry for 148 and 142.

Ben Duckett had been made Captain for this game.  If this was in an effort to encourage him to stay with Northamptonshire, it may have been counter-productive.  As a 21-year-old with a background in dressing room pranking, he seemed to be struggling to impose his authority on some of the more experienced members of his side.

In Worcestershire’s first innings, he explained, with hand-signals, some cunning stratagem he had devised to bowler Panesar, who listened as patiently as a cat. He then positioned himself at short mid-on.  The next ball was driven hard and straight into his gut, and then straight out again.  In the second, the Sri Lankan Prasanna, in particular, took as much notice of his semaphored field directions as a seagull.

In his first innings he had failed (trapped LBW by Leach for 4) but, when he opened Northants’ second innings shortly before lunch on the third day, the romantic optimists in the crowd (less common at Wantage Road than Ukrainian beauty queens though we are) might have been anticipating an epic, match-saving Captain’s innings.

Duckett comfortably rode out the opening blast from Henry and Leach.  Then, predictably, Worcestershire brought on D’Oliveira Minimus (who has added about three inches to his height with a Little Richard style pompadour) to bowl his heritage leg-breaks for an over before lunch. The first two balls were full-tosses, which he slop-swept imperiously for four, the third a better-pitched ball, which he blocked.  The fourth he tried to sweep again, but scuffed it up just short of one of the two deeply silly short legs he had been engaging in conversation. The fifth an exact repeat of the fourth, except that he was caught.

Very late on an elderly man returned to the ground (shortly before Worcestershire won by 311 runs) and announced “I’ve just been to the dentist’s … I wish I’d stayed there now”.  It’s being so cheerful as keeps us going, you know.

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