Reasons to be Rueful

Leicestershire (427 & 186) v Middlesex (233 & 383-9), Grace Road, County Championship, 20-23 June 2018

Middlesex won by 1 wicket

I have never been very sympathetic to the perpetual complaints from cricketers that there is too much cricket. I have no doubt that accountants feel that there is too much accountancy, and that, if they only had to work alternate weeks, they would approach their spreadsheets with greater freshness and enthusiasm. I am, however, beginning to see their point.

It is not so much that there is too much cricket, but that the cricket of the type that I want to watch is condensed into too short a space of time, with too long a period when there is only the type that I don’t much want to watch. I will shortly be withdrawing to the backwaters to watch Second XI cricket for six or seven weeks, while the professionals (or most of them) are occupied with the most intense part of their season, the “Vitality Blast” (not some dubious herbal remedy for erectile dysfunction, but the new name for the T20 competition).

Leicestershire aren’t helping. No sooner have I reported on a defeat, than I find they have won. No sooner have I have reported on a victory, than I find they have lost. As soon as I began to write about their defeat by Middlesex, I found they had beaten Derbyshire in three days (a match I would have attended, had it not been a day-night fixture – £40 (including the train fare) being too high a price to pay for half a day’s cricket).

After two days, Leicestershire had been in a winning position against Middlesex too, and still contrived to lose : it was the second time this season that they have been in a position to enforce the follow on, but lost. The natural cliché in these circumstances is that Leicestershire “must be rueing those eight dropped catches” (I only counted six, but Captain Horton, who was responsible for a couple of them, thought there were eight), but, although they looked a little sheepish as they left the field, they clearly didn’t waste much time feeling rueful, preferring to make amends by beating Derbyshire.

Leicestershire’s supporters, though, may be forgiven a smidgeon of ruefulness. On the one hand, we have now played all but three of the Counties in our division, and competed on at least equal terms with all of them. For two days we were the superior side against a team who had won the Championship in 2016. But one more wicket against Middlesex and a second innings total of 147 against Durham would have meant that we would now have been leading the table, with promotion a realistic prospect. The time for ruefulness may come at the end of the season.

The game seemed haunted by a spectre that only occasionally showed itself – ‘the one that kept low’. I was a little surprised that Middlesex opted to have a toss, and that Leicestershire, having won it, chose to bat. The first morning was the only part of the game that was played under cloud, before the heatwave set in, and Middlesex’s bowling included Finn, Harris and Murtagh. The decision may have been influenced by the fact that the same pitch had been used the previous day for a one-day game against India A, when the odd one had appeared to keep low, and the suspicion that the demons of lowness would emerge on what would effectively be the fifth day of use.

The same fear, I think, underlay the decision not to enforce the follow on, and dictated the general tone of straight-batted watchfulness adopted by both sides’ batsmen. Unexpectedly, although the bounce was a little low at times on the last day, it was mostly an even and predictable lowness that could easily be catered for. A win of the toss does not abolish chance, as Mallarmé perhaps meant to write.

The bulk of Leicestershire’s total of 427 came from an epically watchful, but refined, unbeaten innings of 197 by Colin Ackermann, who came to the wicket early and was only denied a deserved double century when his last escort, Mohammad Abbas, to his evident remorse, was not quite able to keep him company to the end of his journey. He had earlier received useful support from Dexter, Raine, and, to his obvious pride, Gavin Griffiths, who had batted for close to two hours for his career-best 40.

With the exception of Murtagh, who bowled 11 maidens and took five wickets, and lacking Roland-Jones, the Middlesex bowling was surprisingly ineffectual. Finn looked, frankly, bored, and took longer to traipse back to the start of his shortened run-up than he used to when he came in off 20 paces. It has always been something of a mystery to me why Murtagh had to wait for Ireland’s recent elevation to play Test cricket : perhaps it is because, however often he outperforms Finn, he does not look, to the naked eye, as much like our idea of what a Test match bowler ought to be.

The only part of what seemed like a very long match that I missed was the last hour on the second day. Unfortunately, this was the most dramatic passage of the game, as Middlesex collapsed from 200-3 to 233 all out, with Chappell taking another three wickets to add to an early rearrangement of Eskinazi’s stumps that had the batsman looking back, seemingly unable to comprehend what could have happened. Having taken three early wickets, Leicestershire had been frustrated by Dawid Malan, Paul Stirling (an Irishman whose full red beard makes him look as if he is auditioning for the role of a leprechaun on a fruit machine), and Australian utility player Hilton Cartwright ; they were also frustrated by their own inability to take catches (Gavin Griffiths, off whose bowling two were missed, seemed to be suffering the torments of the damned).

Overnight, Middlesex were, apparently, told a few home truths by their coach. It might have been that which accounted for Leicestershire’s low second innings total of 186, though the batsmen’s fear of the pitch (and the Ones That Keep Low) seemed a factor as well. Paul Horton (whose shirt, in a nod to his Australian roots, now reads ‘Hoon’) was bowled fifth ball by a delivery from Harris that was suspected of keeping low. Ackermann carried on where he had left off, making three to bring up his double century, before, again, being bowled by Harris. Harry Dearden, meanwhile, retreated into his tortoise-shell, making six in a little short of an hour and a half, before being caught behind.

Mark Cosgrove, who has been uncharacteristically unproductive recently, was LBW to an occasional off-break from Max Holden (Cosgrove always reacts to being given out as if he has been the victim of a baffling conjuring trick, but this time his surprise seemed genuine). Neil Dexter, in a rare display of absent-mindedness, strolled out of his crease to a delivery from Murtagh, and was stumped by a lob from behind the stumps : he, too, looked surprised. Raine (aggressively) and Chappell (more diffidently) combined, with some useful assistance from Griffiths, to take the total to 186.

In itself, this was a disappointing total, but raised hopes that Middlesex might find batting equally hard in pursuit of a fourth innings target of 381 on a pitch that was expected to disintegrate at any minute. On the subject of the pitch, Sam Robson, at one point, had plonked himself down a few seats away from me to fiddle with the strapping on his finger. His view was that ‘one or two are doing a bit’, which might have been laconic Australian understatement, but was probably an accurate statement of fact. When Malan was caught behind in the dying minutes of the day, to leave Middlesex on 79-3, the Foxes could head off into the still sultry evening, bright-eyed, bushy-brushed, and incautiously optimistic.

As final days on which the batting side overhaul a total of 381, with one wicket and five overs remaining, go, the last day was undramatic (after the Glamorgan game, we at Grace Road have grown blasé about dramatic finishes). The pitch, like an attack dog that rolls over to have its tummy tickled, failed to live up to its reputation. There were no de Lange-style heroics, only a couple of surprising twists, and there was nothing obvious that Leicestershire could have done to achieve a different result.

Until mid-afternoon, the worst prospect was that Middlesex would hold on for a draw (throughout the day, the likelihood of the four results shuffled their order like the teams in a World Cup qualifying group graphic). Steven ‘Vladimir’ Askenazi and the useful utility player Cartwright had made slow but sure progress to 197-5, with the former himself on 97. The seam bowling had been parsimonious, but suggested little prospect of producing five wickets. Some of the more vocal elements in the crowd had been agitating loudly for the introduction of the spinner Parkinson, and when Captain Hoon took their advice, the results were immediate. The batsmen (Cartwright seemingly more at fault) made the mistake of underestimating Ben Raine by running for a misfield by him, and(shying, for once, at the stumps rather than the batsman), Raine ran Askenazi out.

At tea, Middlesex required 105 from 33 overs, with four wickets remaining. With Horton apparently reluctant to bowl Parkinson (perhaps haunted by thoughts of the pasting he had taken against Glamorgan), a last throw of the dice was required. Chappell had not bowled all day, but, during the interval, the bowling coach, Matt Mason, went on to the pitch to torment him with a giant elastic band and a small beach ball. Chappell seemed to be trying to convey, through a dumb show of grimacing and wincing, that he did not think he was fit to bowl, whereas Mason, an Australian, who, as P. G. Wodehouse said in another context, looks as if he might kill rats with his teeth and gargle with broken glass, remained unmoved.

Chappell, manfully, if reluctantly, bowled the first three overs after tea, all wicketless, still wincing and grimacing, before he left the field, leaving the three seamers to bowl with creditable accuracy to two batsmen, the contrite Cartwright and James Harris, who, with commendable restraint, blocked the straight balls and pushed away the occasional wider delivery, to stay slightly above the required run rate of four an over. The game seemed to be leaking away slowly, but inexorably, like some valuable oil through a very small crack in an amphora.

Mark Cosgrove, though not obviously injured, had not returned to the field after tea, his place at second slip being taken by Ateeq Javid, who had taken two memorable catches against Northamptonshire. With Harris on 23, having already been put down once, he flashed hard at a wide delivery from Raine. Ateeq did well to get a hand to it, but … it went to earth, and with it, perhaps, the game. Hopes were briefly raised when the One that Kept Low at last showed itself and removed Cartwight, LBW to Raine. With Finn caught behind down the leg side, Harris and last man Murtagh required seven to win, which, until the final flourish of a boundary, they got in singles.

Oddly, the crowd had seemed more excited by the prospect of seeing a tie (which no-one seemed to have seen before), rather than either side winning, which is, I suppose, an indication of how much progress we have made this season. If a side hasn’t won for two years, then a victory is a cause for wild elation, a narrow defeat for despair : a side who expect to win more they lose can accept defeat with greater equanimity. Nevertheless, that dropped catch, that one wicket, those missing points, may come to be a cause of more than the usual ruefulness when the Autumn leaves are falling.

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So, as the currently popular saying goes, I am not getting carried away just yet.

Leicestershire (177) v India A (458-4), Grace Road, 19 June

India A won by 281 runs

England Lions (207) v India A (309-6), Grace Road, 26 June

India A won by 102 runs

 

The Middlesex game was preceded and followed by two 50-over games featuring India A. One was against a weakened Leicestershire 2nd XI, featuring four Academy players (at least two of whom I’d never heard of, and one who I only knew because he plays for my club), the other against the England Lions. At times it would have been difficult to tell which was which.

Against Leicestershire, India made what was (for about an hour) the second highest List A total in history (until it was superseded by England later that afternoon). Leicestershire were, clearly, in no position to chase this (they opened with Harry Dearden), and, in the  circumstances, did well to make 177.

Against the Lions, India looked on course to match even their previous total, with the score in the 34th over on 207-1, but the Lions bowlers (who had been made to look very ordinary) got a slight grip, the lower order fell away, and they finished on a more modest 309-6. The Lions, inevitably, did not refuse to get carried away, and lost three early wickets. Kohler-Cadmore and Hain were both bowled, charging fast bowlers in an attempt to hit them into the car park (a trick, which, like limbo dancing with a flaming sambuca on your head, has the potential to make you look very silly, if it doesn’t come off).

In other circumstances, Livingstone might have matched the six-hitting feats of the Indians, but, in these, he had to exercise unnatural restraint, and the Lions only just managed to exceed Leicestershire’s total. Liam Dawson was both the highest scorer and the most economical bowler, which will not have told the England selectors anything that they wanted to hear.

It is hard to say whether the Indian batsmen are quite as good as they were made to look, but, if so, Agarwal (not, I think, the one who played for Oxford a few years ago), Shubman Gil, Vihari and Prithvi Shaw are names to bear in mind. The fast bowling and fielding (under the eye of Rahul Dravid) were tigerish too, which has not always been the case with Indian sides. Most of these names were quite unknown to me, but evidently not so to that half of the crowd who were supporting India (the other half being the inevitable parties of schoolchildren), who, I deduce, would have known them mainly for their recent exploits in the IPL.

Judging by the amount of hair-swishing and giggling going on near the boundary, the younger Indian players are clearly teenage heart-throbs in a way that English players rarely are (Liam Dawson, for instance, failed to provoke the same excitement). A particular favourite appeared to be Rishabh Pant, a 20-year old wicket-keeper/batsman, widely touted as the next M.S. Dhoni. Unfortunately, he made very small scores in both games, so we were only treated to a brief glimpse of Pant.

(Ed. – Am I allowed to say this ‘in the current climate’? Please check.)

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Ecstatic, Bewildered or Indifferent

England v Pakistan, Australia v Pakistan, India v South Africa, West Indies v Pakistan, Sri Lanka v Pakistan (all Women’s World Cup, Grace Road, 27th June to 15th July 2017)

Leicester’s New Walk Art Gallery and Museum has, in its permanent collection, a painting by Stanley Spencer accompanies it contains the phrase “the girls ecstatic, the old men bewildered or indifferent”. This phrase stuck in my mind, when I visited a few weeks ago, because I thought it might come in handy when describing the crowd for the Women’s World Cup, which has been occupying Grace Road, and much of my attention, for the past three weeks.

In the event, that wasn’t quite how it was, but there are certainly those who have been left baffled by, and indifferent to it, and not all of them old or men. The usual suspects, the Leicestershire members who watch Championship (and often one-day) cricket at Grace Road were, with very few exceptions, conspicuously absent. Where they have been is unclear. There were a happy few (a very few, though not very happy) at the day-night game at Northampton, and, no doubt, some will have made their way to the Sussex game at Arundel. Some will have been biding their time and waiting for the T20 season to begin (though, because of the World Cup, the Foxes’ first four games are all away from home).

Some, though, particularly those who are not interested in T20, will simply have given up on watching live professional cricket altogether. To re-iterate, between the end of the Sussex game on 12th June and the beginning of the Gloucestershire game on 5th September, there is only one non-T20 game involving Leicestershire at Grace Road (the Championship game against Durham beginning 8th August). If what you want to watch is Championship, or even one-day, cricket, and are at all averse to being cold and wet, Membership represents increasingly poor value and, some, I know, have, as I say, simply given it up as a bad job.

That is one reason why the attitude of some goes beyond indifference to active hostility. Another is the perception that the club is more interested in pandering to the ECB and its various visions than in producing a successful Leicestershire team (this season’s woeful results have not helped in this respect). There is, too, a suspicion that the women’s game is, to use a retro term, more hype than substance, that it is being promoted by powerful forces for reasons that have little to do with its intrinsic merits.

In fact, about the only thing about women’s cricket that can be irksome (the matches themselves are usually enjoyable to watch) is the uncritical and breathlessly enthusiastic tone that some commentators feel obliged to adopt when writing about it, rather like a 14-year-old E.W. Swanton reporting on a House Match.

I am inexpert at estimating the size of crowds, but both ‘The Times’ newspaper (and, a more reliable source, Clare in the Meet) informed me that 1,000 tickets had been sold in advance, and 2,000 given away to parties of schoolchildren for my first game, between England and Pakistan. Of the five games I saw, there were, perhaps, 2,000 paying customers for the weekend game between India and South Africa (mostly India supporters), and perhaps 200-300, free or paying, for the other three (the parties of children tend to melt away at going-home-time, leaving a breathless hush in the Meet, and, by the end of the Pakistan-West Indies game, the crowd was in close to single figures).

As to who these paying customers were, they were not noticeably young nor female, nor seemed interested, specifically, in women’s cricket, but pretty much, I imagine, the same types who would turn out to support the mens’ teams of their respective countries.


The general aim seemed to be to create a sort of stadium rock experience, with elements borrowed from the 2012 Olympics. As always with an ECB event, there were a large number of security staff, augmented by “Cricketeers”, whose job, rather like Butlins’ Redcoats, or the Mouseketeers, was to ensure that the crowd had a good time, all of the time.

Inevitably, there was face painting, and a gospel choir.

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Grace Road had made some attempt to accommodate a feminine audience, by providing a pop-up prosecco van, and warning against wearing high heels in the Maurice Burrows stand (they must have had problems with this in the past)

Even Wasim Khan (I think it was him, anyway) joined in the fun, by performing a juggling act with hats.

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There were all the elements that, I imagine, are familiar to the T20 regulars, but less so to me. Any lull in the action was filled by a randomly chosen burst of music : the only ones I recognised were AC/DC’s Thunderstruck (which went down well with the Australians) and bizarrely, given its lyrical content, Primal Scream’s Rocks ; my daughter, who accompanied me to one game, described the others as Some Random Shit, though I’m not sure whether that was the name of the genre or the artiste.

The music was played to mark any significant event, such as a wicket or a boundary, which were also marked by some contraption that resembled multicoloured ectoplasm leaping into the air from a box. While the schoolchildren were present this was greeted by a noise like 2,000 pocket air raid sirens going off, presumably in response to the music, the ectoplasm and the urgings of the Cricketeers, rather than any understanding of what had happened on the pitch, given that the boundaries had been brought in so far in front of the stand where most of the children were corralled that they would have needed telescopes to see it

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In fact, I was struck by how few opportunities there seemed to be, for the children in particular, to get at all close to the players. Usually at Grace Road, because the players have lunch and tea in the Charles Palmer suite, anyone who wants to ask for autographs or take a photograph of themselves with them has plenty of chances to buttonhole them, and even the bigger stars (such as Cook or Broad) are usually happy to comply. During the WWC, the players mostly sat between the usual and the actual boundary in a sort of beach bar arrangement, with benches and parasols, and the security staff strongly discouraged any attempt to make contact with them (the mob eventually managed to descend on India’s regal Captain, Mithali Raj, as she made the short journey back to the dressing room).

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One player whom it was possible to observe at close quarters was the South African Marizanne Kapp, who, much to the consternation of the security staff, dashed off the pitch several times through the Fox Bar to the ladies’ lavatories. The South Africans seemed to have taken the odd decision to ban smiling and encourage glaring in their pictures in the (very useful) programme, with the result that they looked like a group of prison warders with some of their more dangerous charges. Kapp, in particular, looked rather as though she was about to be interviewed by Piers Morgan about how it was that she had come to poison five husbands, so it was a relief to find that she is actually perfectly pleasant-looking.

 

The first match followed the same pattern as the one day game between the same sides at Grace Road last year : England batted first and knocked up a large score, which Pakistan made only a token effort to chase. In fact this was the pattern of the first four of the World Cup games I saw. England, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies made 377-7, 290-8, 273-9 and 285-4 respectively, with Pakistan (India against South Africa) making 107-3 (against a DLS target of 215), 131 all out, 158 all out and 117-3 (against a DLS target of 137).

There have been changes in the women’s game since I saw my first one-day game, which must have been in about 2004, mostly in the direction of increased athleticism. The seam bowling has increased in pace, though not, I’d say, very dramatically. The fielding is more athletic, though unlike the men, they have not taken to the sliding stop and flip back (which now seems obligatory, even when completely unnecessary). There are still a plethora of overthrows and comedy run outs, though this might be because the side I saw the most of were Pakistan, who rather specialised in them.

The biggest change, though, has been the advent of the “power hitter” – the player who can get her foot to the pitch of the ball and hit it back over the bowler’s head. The sides who batted first and won collectively hit 27 sixes, 18 of them by four players : Sciver of England (4), Villani of Australia (4), Lee of South Africa (7) and Dottin of the West Indies (3). The sides who batted second and lost only managed 2. India are a slightly different case, in that their chief power hitters, Mandhana and Kaur, were out cheaply, but Pakistan, a small side, were simply unable to compete. As their Captain, Sana Mir, plaintively admitted after the England game : “We knew that it was impossible for us to chase. We are not so powerful like them, and we have no big hitters”.

The South Africans, a strenuously athletic side, rather rubbed this in, having overpowered India, by warming down on the pitch afterwards, while the Indians had a sit down under their parasols, and Mithali Raj, presumably, finished reading her famous book.

It occurs to me that watching the women’s game now is rather what it must have been like watching the men’s game in the earliest days of the modern era (in the 1870s and 1880s) : predominantly medium pace bowling and spin, well-pitched up, with the batsmen playing off the front foot with a straight bat (though I’m not sure that Nat Sciver would recognise any real sense of kinship with the likes of “Buns” Thornton). The West Indian ‘keeper, Merissa Aguileira, added a further antiquarian touch by fielding without pads, and Sciver headed further back into the past by reviving the “draw”, a stroke that was last in fashion when W.G. Grace was beardless.

During the course of the competition I became quite attached to Pakistan, who were based in Leicester (why not India, whom I would have expected to attract larger crowds, I don’t know). I might have become equally attached to India, who, though a better side, also seemed better suited to the longer forms (now virtually defunct in the women’s game). I remember a young Mithali Raj playing in what must have been one of her earliest Tests at Grace Road. Her style was to play five immaculate forward defensives, followed by an elegant cover drive and a gently strolled single. She is now a very grand personage, who looks as though she ought to be led to the wicket, riding side-saddle on a white Arabian stallion : she can adapt her style a little to the one-day game, but, you feel, actual power-hitting is a little beneath her.

Pakistan had begun their tournament promisingly (in a match I did not see) by losing narrowly to South Africa, and they began quite promisingly against England.  They opened, unusually, with two seam bowlers, who restricted England’s scoring in the power play and removed dangerwoman Tammy Beaumont.  Perhaps conscious that it was an area that required improvement, they were fielding like tigers (or perhaps, given their size, ocelots).

After the change bowlers came on, unfortunately, it all fell to pieces.  I was shielded from the worst of the carnage because, in an attempt to get away from the squealing, I was seated behind the ectoplasm machines, which, in a rather literal expression of the hype getting in the way of the cricket, obscured my view as Sciver hit boundary after boundary.

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I did see one fielder deal with a steepling catch on the boundary by moving backwards, rather than forward to meet it, with the result that the ball bounced over her head for four.

When Pakistan batted, as I have said, they seemed to be hoping to bat through to the inevitable rain without too much embarrassment.  As Sanva Mir played out another maiden, a neighbour stood up and announced, in what seemed to be a pre-prepared speech, “What a terrible advertisement for the women’s game“, to which his wife replied “Leave the poor duck alone – she’s doing her best“.

The Australia game, though less dramatic, was much the same.  Pakistan’s reply of 131 in their 50 overs took me back to the early days of the Gillette Cup, with left-arm spinner Jess Jonassen returning the Langfordesque figures of 10-6-12-1.  Australia, incidentally, were very Australian, but then so are England these days.

My hopes of seeing a Pakistan victory rose slightly for the match against the West Indies, who had had an erratic tournament, having been bowled out for 48 by South Africa in their first game at Grace Road.  They fell when, yet again, after a promising start, the West Indians smacked 285-4 off them in steady drizzle.  It was a sign of my new-found devotion that I hung around through a couple of hours of steady rain, with, by the end, about ten West Indians and a couple of Pakistanis, in the hope that Pakistan could throw caution to the wind and reach the revised target of 137 in 24 overs which, even in the face of some very ordinary bowling, they could not.

So to the last game, against Sri Lanka, when surely, surely, I thought, victory would be theirs against a side who were ranked below them, had not won, and looked, if anything, even smaller and less athletic.  They even, in restricting their opponents to 222, took several of those high, high boundary catches that had previously confounded them.

And so, I found myself, not for the first time this season (with 10 overs remaining, 46 runs required and 2 wickets to fall) sitting in front of the pavilion in cold, wet conditions, floodlights barely illuminating the gloom, accompanied by a small group of fanatics, desperately willing my side to achieve the highly unlikely.

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The ninth wicket stand, which took them to between 16 runs of the target, was between Asmavia Iqbal and Diana Baig, the seamers who had been two of Pakistan’s heroines in the tournament, with some economical bowling in the opening overs.  Baig had first caught my eye by emerging from a gap in the ectoplasm to take a leaping catch in the opening game

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but, although she was described by the programme as an all-rounder, her batting average in internationals before this innings was 0.2.   She poked out a gallant 11, before being caught in the covers, which brought no. 11 Sadia Yousuf to the crease.

All that was required was for her to keep the bowlers at bay, while Asmavia, who had the bit between her teeth, hit the paltry runs remaining, but she was, of course, bowled first ball.

And I had even missed my bus for them. Ah well, the fundamental things remain.