Darkness Visible

Leicestershire (120 & 168) v Derbyshire (139 & 214), Grace Road, County Championship, 27-30 May 2019

Derbyshire won by 65 runs

If a marketing department, charged with devising a new cricket-flavoured product that would appeal to a wider audience, were asked to describe the antithesis of what they were after, this match would have had most of the essential elements. A four day game that would have been over in three, had it not been stretched by frequent breaks for rain, played mostly under lights because of low-lying cloud ; one fifty, and only three other innings of over forty (all compiled methodically by the same two batsmen) ; only one total of over 200 ; no sixes – a scorecard from a past era.  So, I should have enjoyed it.

I would have enjoyed it more had Leicestershire ever seemed likely to approach close enough to their fourth innings target of 234 to provide some element of dramatic tension (or ‘jeopardy’, as the moderns have it) ; instead, they fell short by 65 runs, leaving me to thumb through the thesaurus in search of synonyms for ‘weary sense of inevitability’, and look for something else to do, with what, frustratingly, was a perfect afternoon for cricket, after three days of darkness and showers.

Leicestershire spirits were at their highest, perhaps, at the end of Derbyshire’s first innings ; having chosen to bat, the visitors were bowled out for 139, which seemed, at the time, to be a testament to the (undeniable) strength of our seam bowling. By the end of the day, with Leicestershire on 55-4, and Ackermann already dismissed, it seemed more a tribute to the inability of batsmen on both sides to cope with some good, but not truly outstanding, fast-medium seam bowling in what were helpful, but not unusual, conditions for England in May. It would be a low-scoring game.

When play resumed the next day, there was some hope that Leicestershire might achieve a first innings lead, but only if Hassan Azad and Harry Dearden could stay in. The ability to stay in has, until recently, been Dearden’s most obvious talent, but on this occasion it deserted him with the score on 82 (perhaps he should now be classed as a ‘one-day specialist’). With Tom Taylor missing through injury, and Dieter Klein (a hit or miss batsman) unusually high in the order at eight, this exposed a last five who managed thirteen runs between them. Hassan Azad, in his fourth Championship match, was forced to play the elder statesman, and must have been tactfully exasperated to be left stranded on 46 not out, having as good as carried his bat. The total was 120.

The bowlers whom Leicestershire had found so hard to play were Antonio ‘Tony’ Palladino (5-29) and Logan van Beek (3-20). Palladino is nearly thirty-six and an archetype of the kind of English seam bowler who is expected to take wickets in the English early season ; although I appreciate that it is easier said than done, you would have thought that anyone with aspirations to play County cricket would have evolved some strategy to play bowlers of his type. Hassan Azad’s seems to have been to listen to all the favourite truisms of junior coaches of the old school – ‘keep your head still’, ‘watch the ball on to the bat’, ‘straight bat’, ‘wait for the bad ball’ … but if I carry on too far down that route I shall find myself saying ‘it’s not rocket science’ (and smoking a pipe).

Another heavy shower (in real time this narrative would have been punctuated by them) after tea prompted me to leave for home : the prospect of play resuming, if it ever did, seemed likely to promise only a few hours in near-drizzle, watching Derbyshire, having been let off the hook, wriggle off to swim to a comfortable lead (they reached 106-2). In fact, as usually happens in these circumstances, Leicestershire offered enough hope to make returning the next day seem worthwhile by taking six quick wickets in a final session that extended well into the early evening (ah, the roller-coaster of emotions!). I would not, though, in all honesty, say that I regretted my decision.

As sure as night follows day, a successful evening session was followed, the next morning, by the Derbyshire tail-enders being allowed to stretch the target for victory from 179 to 234 (Palladino and van Been – those maverick NYC crime-fighters – again being the culprits).

The most memorable aspect of Leicestershire’s reply were two – in the circumstances – culpably unnecessary strokes from Horton and Cosgrove that must have had Hassan Azad, who was again forced to watch helplessly from the other end, averting his eyes to avoid embarrassing his seniors.  In fairness, Horton’s shot seemed marginally more explicable in the replay than it had from the mid-wicket boundary ; from there he had looked to have been bowled trying to smash a straight delivery over long off, missed and been bowled (in fact, it had pitched outside off and he had edged it on to his stumps).

Cosgrove’s looked poor from any angle. He had taken the lead in putting on 58 with Azad, negotiating the seam in a composed and responsible fashion, when Derbyshire invited Wayne Madsen to bowl a few overs of his net-quality off-breaks (four overs of which comprised the only spin of the game). Setting a trap, so ill-disguised that it should not have snared a partially sighted heffalump, Madsen allowed Cosgrove to loft one drive into the sight screen, in the sure and certain hope that he would try to repeat the stroke two balls later and be caught at long on. When precisely this occurred, even Cosgrove did not have the effrontery to perform his usual dumbshow of disbelief, but traipsed off shame-faced, while his young partner took a keen interest in the buckling of his pads. Cosgrove ought to be – and generally is – a better batsman than that.

Even so, and even when Ackermann was bowled by a genuinely fine swinging delivery from the mellifluous Luis Reece, a disinterested observer would still have backed Leicestershire, on 110-4 at the close of play, to overhaul the target of 234 on the final day. Not being disinterested, I would have settled for a couple of sessions in the sun (and, at last, there was sun) watching my side make a valiant attempt at the total, even if they were to fall slightly short. But, in place of hope, there was that ‘weary sense of inevitability’ I mentioned earlier (or perhaps ‘fatigued feeling of inescapability’, by way of variation).

Hassan Azad and Harry Dearden, who again bore the burden of reviving the innings on their youthful shoulders, offered a brief respite from the sense of hopelessness by still occupying the crease at 11.30, but both fell to Reece shortly afterwards (the lifting of the cloud cover did not seem to have inhibited his ability to swing the ball). None of the later batsmen had anything to offer, and the game ground to a halt at 12.30, leaving me time to catch the second half of the 2nd XI game at Kibworth on the way home, so at least I had my afternoon in the sun. Many of the spectators had cut their losses by going straight there.

This game was the first of six Championship games in seven weeks, three of them at home and one at Northampton, before we are thrown out of the T20 window. They find us in the odd position of having two sets of good seam bowlers (Gavin Griffiths, bowling well in the Toose, must be champing on the bit), but very little batting, which is like having two nice shirts, but no trousers.

As I write, we are battling (not unvaliantly, in fairness) to avoid an innings defeat against Lancashire : I see we have abandoned the experiment of opening with Ateeq Javid (I hope he can find some other role), and adopted my pre-season suggestion of substituting Swindells for Hill in four-day cricket. There have been hints of revival from Horton and Cosgrove, and we must hope for a long, hot Indian Summer from both, and the returning Dexter, otherwise, barring some shrewd activity in the loan market, I may find the prospect of not returning to Grace Road until late September (or at all) more of a relief than I would wish.

See you on the other side (probably).

 

 

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Apocalypse Postponed

Leicestershire CCC (302 & 233) v Worcestershire CCC (553-6 dec.), County Championship, Grace Road, 11-14 April 2019 Worcestershire won by an innings & 18 runs

Leicestershire CCC (377-4) v Worcestershire CCC (339 all out), RL50, Grace Road, 21st April, 2019 Leicestershire won by 38 runs

Strolling around Grace Road before the Championship game began, I happened to observe a tabby cat having a rather elaborate crap in the Milligan Road flowerbeds (I bet you don’t get that quality of pre-match entertainment at the IPL). It is a pity that Leicestershire’s management team did not have an augur on hand to interpret this omen before choosing to bat (I had been expecting to see Worcestershire bowl, but a game of after-you-Cecil-no-after-you-Claude had led to a toss, which Leicestershire had won). Apparently coach Nixon and captain Horton had wanted to bat, bowling coach Mason to bowl : I accept that you would not generally want to pick an argument with Matt Mason, but, in retrospect, it was a pity Nixon and Horton did not press their case harder.

For the first few overs, the point had seemed moot. Fresh from his success against Sussex, Tom Taylor seemed to finding a little movement out of the air, and openers Mitchell and Fell were appropriately respectful. The first changes in the bowling brought apparent vindication for Mason : Fell seemed to be beaten for pace by Davis and Ben Mike had his replacement, D’Oliveira, caught in the slips. Mike is still at the new puppy stage where every new experience is a joy and he expects everything he attempts to succeed. This belief must have been sorely tested throughout a long morning and afternoon of bowling at Daryl Mitchell and Hamish Rutherford, who put on 166 between them.

In my preview of the season, without the aid of augurs, I feared that, in the absence of Mohammad Abbas, a batsman who could play one of our seamers could play all of them, and that man was Daryl Mitchell. A pack of English seamers pursuing Mitchell across the wastes of Grace Road has the quality of a pack of wild dogs pursuing a wildebeest for hours across the Serengeti, with the difference that the unfortunate ruminant will eventually tire, whereas, in Mitchell’s case, it tends to be the bowlers. His centuries (this was the 36th of his career) resemble a volley from a firing squad, in that, although none of the individual shots may stick in the mind, the over all effect is devastating. His innings ended with the third ball after tea, when he absent-mindedly (perhaps still savouring the after-taste of one of Mr. Stew’s macaroons) flicked an off-break from Ackermann to slip.

By now, the newly-laid pitch, enigmatic at the start, had revealed its true character as a bit of a pudding, and the Worcestershire batsman queued up, as tray-bearers at a cafeteria, to eat their fill. Rutherford completed his own century, and Wessels made 43. There was a second moment of triumph for Ben Mike as he had Whitely tripping over his own feet in being trapped lbw on 49 : the exuberance of his celebration gave reassurance that his spirit had not been entirely crushed. As the game entered far into the second day, and a nasty, insinuating north wind crept into every corner of the ground, penetrating the stoutest of anoraks, Worcestershire’s acting Captain Ben Cox deferred declaring until he had made a century of his own : this having been duly completed, the innings closed on 553-6, leaving Leicestershire needing 403 to avoid the follow-on.

With the options being an innings defeat, or dying from a lampreyish surfeit of runs of the kind that was being served up at Sophia Gardens, the postponed Brexitapocalypse that had been scheduled for Friday evening might have provided a welcome distraction. As it was, Leicestershire without batting especially badly in either innings, never looked capable of accumulating enough runs to avoid defeat, which was postponed for just long enough to allow the crowd to enjoy their Sunday lunches.

With the exception of Captain Paul Horton, all of the top five batsmen made one half century and one single figure score. In the first innings, Ateeq Javid showed a good grasp of what was required by taking close to five hours to score 67 : a nervy character, who never looks entirely comfortable at the crease, he has adapted to his new role as an opener by adopting (or exaggerating) a square-on, bottom-handed gouging style of batting, that will be forgiven for as long as it is effective. Apart from his century against Loughborough, this was only his second half century for the Foxes, and, in the second innings, Morris found a way through his determined defence to bowl him for five.

Hassan Azad, on the other hand, makes a virtue of his limited range of strokes (his Twitter handle is ‘Bat pad man’) : in the first innings he had little opportunity to show what is incapable of, falling lbw to Morris off his fifth ball, but in the second he accumulated with a prudence that would have impressed Mr. Dawes Junior to make a second Championship half-century. As Charlie Shreck will attest, his chaste resistance to temptation brings out the devil in fast bowlers, and Tongue subjected him to a succession of unusually threatening bouncers, all of which he prudently swayed away from, until the nastiest of the lot struck him on the glove on its way to the gully.

Leicestershire have two batsmen of genuine quality – Cosgrove and Ackermann – who rarely seem to make substantial scores in the same innings : Cosgrove managed 67 and 0, Ackermann 5 and 69. If the scoring rate had been recorded by a heart monitor, the spike at the start of Cosgrove’s innings would have brought the medics running, as he hit Wayne Parnell for eight boundaries off nine balls. Giving the impression that he feels he is in the form of his life, he attempted something similar off his fifth ball of the second innings, but saw it ping straight to the cover fieldsman.

Cosgrove and Ackermann display contrasting attitudes to dismissal : whereas Ackermann exhibits an indifference to the vicissitudes of fortune that Marcus Aurelius might have considered excessive, Cosgrove moves from denial (remaining immobile at the crease for as long as decently possible) to rage, cursing his way back to the pavilion, while the younger players make themselves scarce on the balcony, like children forewarned that their Dad has pranged his car on the way home.

Of the others, poor Harry Dearden was relegated to no. 7 in both innings by the insertion of a nightwatchman, and seems to be getting the worse of the swap with Ateeq Javid. Lewis Hill now has the honour of a burger in the Meet named after him (containing chorizo)

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: I was tempted to say you could at least guarantee that it wouldn’t give you the runs, but that would be too much scatology for one post, and anyway he did make a few.

Leicestershire can sometimes use the term ‘all-rounder’ too loosely, but Tom Taylor batted well enough to justify it. His rival for the title ‘New Ben Raine’ (as eagerly awaited as once was the ‘New Botham‘), Ben Mike’s sense of youthful invincibility led him to aim a great hoick at a ball when he was on one that attained more height than distance, and was caught. He was more circumspect in the second : he had, perhaps, been reminded of his responsibilities, or had his e-numbers monitored.

Worcestershire’s bowling, even in the absence of captain-talisman Joe Leach, was good enough to make me relieved that, thanks to the daft schedule for this competition, we only have to play them once. The last time I saw Josh Tongue he was tall but spindly, and didn’t look terribly threatening : he has now, as all grand-parents like to say, grown into ever such a big boy and bowled with considerable pace. James Taylor was at the ground, perhaps to cast an eye over him (unless he was just there to collect the unsold copies of his book). He would also have witnessed Charlie Morris, a name previously unknown to me, and possibly him, and not a regular in the side, take 7-45, whose ‘whippy’, dog-thrower, pace had been too much for our tail, openers and Mark Cosgrove.

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Still, to slip on the gaffer’s sheepskin (or El Cap’s natty crew neck), if we had been offered 25 points after the first two games at the start of the season, we would have taken that. The very welcome news that Mohammad Abbas should be available, as far as we know, for the rest of the season, gives me confidence that the win over Sussex will not be the last, although, given the strength of our batting, I should expect them to be in low scoring games, even on this pitch.

The Championship game was followed, with the intervention of a couple of one-day defeats for Leicestershire, by a 50-over game between the same two sides, as a satyr play would sometimes follow a tragedy.  I was only able to watch the first couple of hours, which was a pity, because Leicestershire victories are not so common that I can afford to shun the opportunity to witness one.

Initially, with Leicestershire on 5-2, the second game seemed likely to be a continuation of the first ; in the stands there was disquiet that the planned day out in the sun might be prematurely terminated.  Then, as the unseasonable sun shone on a pitch which might euphemistically be described as ‘true’, the world was turned upside down : the Worcestershire seamers, irresistible lords of creation one Sunday, the next became the helpless playthings of the batsmen they had once disdained.

Ackermann, unsurprisingly, made 152* (though it seems curmudgeonly to say so, it might have been more useful if he could have done so in the first game) ; Lewis Hill, perhaps buoyed by the popularity of his burgers, made a maiden limited overs century, and Harry Dearden, who had led the way in turning the tide, was, at last, able to demonstrate why Leicestershire have thought it worthwhile persisting with him (it was a shame that he could not quite complete his own hundred).

On the face of it, it would be a shame, too, if players like Dearden and Hill, and the side as a whole, began to flower in this form of cricket at the exact point when it is about to be devalued.  On the other hand, if ‘development competition‘ turns out to mean only that the players chosen for the ‘Hundred’ will not be available in the RL50, then the outcome may be that Leicestershire wins, and runs for Dearden, might become less of a rarity.

Though the ground was far from full, there was a very reasonable turnout for the one-day game (certainly as compared to the Saturday and Sunday of the four-day game, when I have seen bigger crowds gathered at the sites of minor road traffic accidents).  I wonder, again, whether it would have been any smaller if Dearden and Hill had been making merry against a Worcestershire side trimmed of its stars, given the sun, the Bank Holiday mood, and the quality of the catering.

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