(When I begin to write this (at about 3.00) I was planning to return to Wardown Park tomorrow. By the time I’d finished, I’d decided I might head off to Lord’s instead, which might lend support to my theory. Or not.)
Last Bank Holiday Monday found me at Wardown Park in Luton where James Middlebrook (once of Yorkshire and Essex, and lately of Northamptonshire) was captaining Bedfordshire and someone asked me (via Twitter) “Does a player with a first class batting average of 28 & a bowling av. of 38 stand out in minor counties?” (For those who haven’t seen him, Middlebrook is one of those finger spinners who used to thrive in great numbers in English cricket by putting it there-or-thereabouts, ball after ball, over after over, season after season, but whose survival is threatened by the shrinking of their late Summer, dusty habitats).
Well, no he hadn’t. Perhaps the analyst, the man who watches every ball from behind the bowler’s arm through binoculars, the man who does a bit of coaching and has theories might have spotted him instantly as having been used to better things, having strayed in from a “higher level”, but the casual spectator, the man sitting at backward square of the wicket because there was a nice bench in a bit of a suntrap, would have only have looked up from his paper to study Middlebrook if he had happened to recognise his name on the scoresheet.
But then who would stand out at Minor Counties or any other level? Who would be obviously out of their depth, or obviously on that elusive “other level”? There are observably, if you watch cricket often at different levels, players who are neither. I’ve seen Rob Taylor, in the course of a season, play for Market Harborough, Leicestershire 2nd XI and Leicestershire without ever looking out of place and I doubt whether he looks out of place when he plays internationals for Scotland. As opposed to a series of dramatic changes of level, there is, I suspect, a gentle upwards curve in quality from the higher reaches of club cricket (the level of the various Premier Leagues) to the lower levels of International cricket and that quality is only (except to the keenest of eyes) visible by looking at the statistics. One hundred for Bedfordshire (by a young Alastair Cook, for instance) would not reveal that quality, five would. A single county hundred would not reveal a Test player, five might. The point where the player has found his level is the point where the averages cease to improve.
Those who stand out would, I think, stand out at any level and would include those who bowl genuinely fast and the very small number of batsmen who are not simply different in quality but different in kind, who can do things that other batsmen would not attempt. Roy Gilchrist, in exile from Test cricket, spread terror through the league men of Central Lancashire, but then he had much the same effect in the few Tests he was allowed to play. Pietersen looks out of place in County cricket, but he could hardly be more destructive in the Leicestershire League than he was at the Oval the other week and he has, on occasion looked as other-levelly in Internationals. “Good club players”, who do what Cook does, only not as consistently or for as long, or against such good quality bowling, would not attempt to play like Jos Buttler because they would make fools of themselves.
But back to Middlebrook. As it happens, his figures in the match at Luton were 18 and 1-36, almost precisely matching his career averages in List A cricket of 19.53 and 35.28. The previous week he had been called up by Yorkshire to cover for Adil Rashid (a whisker away from being selected to play for England) and took 8-178 against Warwickshire). If Middlebrook had been called up by England instead then would he have stood out any more than he did at Wardown Park? Or would he have, without standing out at all, have unobtrusively made his 20, taken his 1-36 (or 3-108), as unchanged by his circumstances as a Pietersen or a Gilchrist?