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.

 

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Not Entirely Pointless

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, LVCC, Grace Road, 21-24 April 2017

A while ago, writing about match-fixing, I wrote the following :
“Any sport consists of an elaborate system of rules that constructs an artificial world within which it is possible to have an authentic experience. As anyone who has watched a lot of County cricket, or lower league football, will attest, that experience is rarely obviously thrilling, or even interesting (it is not spectacular), but, even if it not “real” in the sense that bull-fighting is real, it is and must be known to be authentic. When something genuinely marvellous happens (such as Botham in 1981) it reassures us that miracles can occasionally happen in real life, and not only in fiction.”
I suppose this match was a good example of what I had in mind. Only two of the passages of play (the morning session on the first day and the afternoon and evening sessions on the fourth) were particularly compelling in themselves. In between there were a few interesting moments, some worthy performances and touches of humour, but the main interest was in trying to anticipate the denouement, which, in the event, was never revealed.

Although there were several points when one side seemed to have the advantage, by the end of each day equilibrium had reasserted itself (Leicester ended the first day on 275-5, Glamorgan were 281-4 by the end of the second ; Leicester were 200-3 at the end of the third, Glamorgan 144-4 at the close). (This state of equilibrium may have been the result of the game – as a man in front of me put it – being a case of a resistible force meeting a moveable object.)

A journeyman scriptwriter would have repeated the ending to last season’s match between the two sides, when, in the last game of the season, McKay and Shreck had taken Glamorgan’s last five wickets for ten runs when they required only 36 more to win (not quite Botham in ’81, but a satisfying conclusion). Instead we had a sort of nouveau roman policier, in which, having established numerous suspects, the detective concludes that he cannot work out who the murderer is and simply gives up and goes home for dinner.

The match was unusual, in that the most significant delivery of the four days was one that no-one in the crowd could see, it being the ball in the nets that had (apparently) bruised Zak Chappell’s shoulder and rendered him incapable of bowling in Glamorgan’s first innings. This is not because I would expect him to run through them like a dose of salts (those days may come, but not yet, and probably not, I’m afraid, for Leicestershire), but because it meant that we were left with only three front line bowlers, McKay, Raine and Shreck, who, in benign conditions for batting, were compelled to bowl 27, 30.5 and 29 overs respectively. As a result, I imagine, neither McKay (back) nor Raine (sidestrain) were able to bowl more than a few overs on the last afternoon, though Chappell was able to bowl, alongside the apparently indefatigable Shreck.

The first session of the first day was, as I say, compelling to watch, as the Lancastrian duo of Horton and Dearden opened together for the fourth time this season. Horton was in fragile form at the end of last season and has a highest score this of 20, with four single figure scores. Dearden was averaging 11 and their highest opening partnership against a County had been 10. It might not be true that they were anxious for their places, as, with Robson having absconded, there is no obvious alternative opener, but Horton (at 34) might have been worrying that he is facing something worse than a temporary dip in form and Dearden (19) that he is out of his depth.

Friday was a bitterly cold and overcast morning, and it was something of a test of character simply to stay out on the pitch for the opening session, when there was the option of a warm dressing room to retreat to, but the pair dug in (the phrase implies some of the dogged physical effort that seemed to be involved) and were still together at lunch. The pitch seemed generally true, but with the nasty quirk that balls just short of a length sometimes reared up alarmingly, and Horton was hit painfully more than once. Glamorgan, too, seemed a bowler short (there was no van der Gugten, nor cricket’s answer to Robbie Savage, Graham Wagg), and their opening pair Michael Hogan (a “rangy” Australian who looks somehow under-dressed without a Drizabone) and Lukas Carey (a 19-year old from the same Swansea school as Aneurin Donald) were only intermittently threatening, but the sense of relief when the beleaguered pair returned to the pavilion, with the score on 81-0 was almost tangible.

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At lunch, to illustrate my point about anticipating possible futures, a century opening partnership, and an individual century for at least one of the openers seemed on the cards. By about 2.00, with Horton out for 41 (he returned to a standing ovation from the home balcony, indicating that spirit within the team is good, whatever their alleged relationship with the coach), followed swiftly by Dexter first ball and Captain for the day Eckersley for 1, thoughts (my thoughts anyway) had turned to a card-house collapse and how Chappell might be hard to play in the fading light of the final session. (I must, incidentally, get out of the habit of taking pictures of batsman as they return to the pavilion, which makes me feel too much like a tricoteux cackling at the foot of the tumbril.)


In the event, equilibrium was restored by Dearden (who fell 13 frustrating runs short of a maiden century) and Mark Pettini, who has been the least convincing of the “experienced” imports, but who made important runs in both innings here ; the balanced then tipped in favour of Leicestershire as the last five wickets, in what has become something of a pattern, more than doubled the score to finish on 420.

The last 61 of those runs came from a last wicket stand on the second morning between those knights of the long handle McKay and Shreck ; they were clearly enjoying themselves enormously at the time

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but might have been less pleased if they had known quite how many overs they would have to bowl over the course of the next two sunny days, on a pitch which had mellowed so much that it might as well have fired up a joint and stuck some James Taylor on the stereo.

Spirits first sank at the sight of Tom Wells taking the field. Not that there is anything wrong with Wells per se, but because it soon dawned that he was fielding as a substitute for Chappell, leaving, as support for the three main bowlers, Dearden (who had not, I think, previously bowled with a red ball even for the 2nd XI), Dexter (whose medium pace surprisingly often breaks partnerships, but is not suited to long spells) and Delport (supposedly on a one day contract, but drafted in here (any Delport in a storm) to purvey his big maximums and little wobblers).

The bulk of Glamorgan’s reply came from young opener Selman (117) and the mature Kolpak Ingram (137). I can remember little of their stand of 161, except being torn between wanting it to stop and being secretly relieved that the game would, at least, outlast the weekend. Once that stand was broken, wickets fell at regular, but widely spaced, intervals and Glamorgan finally crept six runs in front (equilibrium restored again).  Another responsible, as well as stylish, innings by Pettini (a century this time) and a similar effort from Eckersley ensured that defeat was out of the question, but the timing of the declaration, which left Glamorgan 355 to make off a possible 57 overs, meant that something extraordinary would be required for a home victory.

What we saw (the thirty or so who were left by the end) was, in a way, extraordinary, but not in the way required to win. To set the scene, by mid-afternoon the sky was, at its most colourful, battleship grey, and the only things that seemed to be preventing it snowing were the intense cold and the biting wind. If it weren’t for the floodlights we would all have been home by lunchtime.

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McKay bowled his first over like a man who is a martyr to lumbago, and it must have been clear to Glamorgan that last year’s bogeyman would not be troubling them again (he only managed one more over).  Raine, a player who would, as the saying goes, run through brick walls for the club (and probably does so for fun on his days off) was forced to leave the field after, heroically, bowling seven overs and taking two wickets.  Which (without a recognised, or recognisable, spinner in the side) left Shreck and Chappell. Shreck, a man closer in age to me than he is to Chappell, managed another 13 overs to go with the 29 he had bowled in the first innings (perhaps his enforced rest period had done him good) but posed no real threat to batsmen who were looking only to survive.

Chappell, though, in light that seemed pretty dim even with the floodlights on, bowled fast enough to endanger the physical safety of the batsmen, even if he did not often enough threaten their wickets (Cooke looked thoroughly uncomfortable, particularly when he was hit somewhere in the region of his solar plexus).  He also posed some threat to his wicket-keeper and slip cordon, and even a St. John Ambulance lady who was sheltering from the wind behind the sightscreen (a bouncer had flown as far over Lewis Hill’s head as a lecture on Hegel and trampolined over the screen off a hoarding angled at 45 degrees).  In fact, for once, the only person he did not look likely to injure was himself.

The more sensible element in the crowd had called it a day when there was a brief interruption for bad light,

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but I hung on to the end, in the faint hope that the extraordinary thing, the thing you don’t see every day, might happen, which, in a way, it did.  A ball from Chappell to Rudolph, slightly short of a length, instead of veering harmlessly off towards the slips, cut back viciously and skinned his glove on its way through to Hill.  A whole possible future glimpsed in a single ball.

To maintain the equilibrium, both Leicestershire and Glamorgan have now earned 20 points this season though, after deductions, we only have four left.  So, not entirely pointless, at least.