Leicestershire v Kent, County Championship, Grace Road, 19-22 August 2018
It had been so long since the last Championship match at Grace Road, which had begun on the 20th of June, that, when the regulars reconvened at last, it had the feeling of the start of a season, with all its pleasures of rediscovery and recognition. By the time it had finished, it felt like the beginning of the season’s end.
The progress of the game was largely determined by the weather, the first two days having been played under floodlights from beginning to end. The leaves (apart from some twirling samaras from the sycamores)
and temperature suggested Summer, but the light and the low cloud hinted at early Spring, or late Autumn. The weather brightened a little on the third morning, and, at lunch, the clouds dispersed altogether to uncover a blue sky suggesting flaming June.
The first two, damp and artificially illuminated, days produced totals of 220, 195 and 227. Chasing what had seemed an ambitious target of 253 on the third, sunlit, afternoon, Kent’s Dickson and Kuhn put on an unbeaten partnership of 215 between them for the third wicket. On the first two days, a wicket seemed always on the verge of falling ; on the last afternoon there seemed no reason why the pair should not continue batting indefinitely.
On the first morning, the eternal verities of Championship cricket seemed to have reasserted themselves as Darren Stevens took the new ball in light drizzle, particularly when he switched to the Bennett End, where some quirk of the air conditioning in the indoor school meant that he came in accompanied by an evocative gust of disinfectant and old socks.
It is one of the minor tragedies of Leicestershire cricket that Stevens, the quintessential Leicestershire cricketer, son of Hinckley, the natural heir to George Geary, should have played most of his career for Kent. I cannot remember much lamentation when he left (at the time he seemed a stodgy middle-order batsman who bowled a bit of occasional medium pace), but he has given us plenty of cause to lament since (as late as last season he took a career-best 8-75 against us in Canterbury).
There have been few signs this season, at the age of 42, of his strong enchantments failing : his 26 wickets have cost him a little over 20 runs apiece, and just over a quarter of his overs have been maidens. The abolition of the toss, which was intended specifically to disempower the likes of Stevens, meant, here, that he was in his natural element (inevitably, Kent chose to bowl). In he came through the friendly murk, setting off at a gentle jog, then slowing almost to a stroll, steadying himself, cocking his wrist and then with a flick of it sending down ball after ball that pitched on off and moved away in the direction of the slips, with the grooved smoothness of a skilled framework knitter.
His first victim was young Harry Dearden, born in the year that Stevens first played for Leicestershire. Like a child venturing into a dark wood, he must have been warned of the enchanter’s wiles, but after some brave flourishes (he continues to emerge tentatively from his tortoise-shell), the left-hander was lured to his doom by a ball that moved into him (perhaps more sharply than usual, perhaps not, perhaps not at all).
Stevens’ new ball partner was Podmore, fleetingly creating the illusion that the archetypal English bits-and-pieces player was bowling with his parodic doppelganger. This Podmore (Harry, late of Middlesex), was clean-cut and svelte, but still a frank medium pacer, who I would not expect to see taking the new ball in normal conditions, but then these were not normal conditions. Without the lights I doubt they would have been playing at all, which was good news for the spectators and seamers, but less so for the batsmen, who must have been pining for the bright lights of the pavilion, winking in the distance.
Although progress was slow (opener Horton took ten overs to make two runs), on the cusp of the twentieth Horton and the prolific Ackermann had seen off both the sorcerer and his apprentice, and had inched gingerly across the minefield to 47, when Ackermann fell LBW to first change bowler Grant Stewart, a muscular Australian with an Italian mother.
Mark Cosgrove, who, like many out-of-form batsmen, manages to find ever more inventive ways to get out, then attempted to cut a ball from Ivan Thomas that appeared to be moving in at him and played on. Thomas, whom I vaguely remember as a fresh-faced youth bowling for Leeds/Bradford MCCU, has now grown a full red beard that ought be accessorised with a coonskin cap. He is 6’4” and seemed to put on pace as his spell progressed : although the pitch (a used one that had been substituted at the last minute for one deemed excessively green) might not quite have attracted the attention of late Princess of Wales’ excellent charity, the unpredictability of its bounce exaggerated the already considerable threat from his persistently short-pitched bowling.
In about the only sighting of spin before the last day, Joe Denly was given the last over before lunch. Ateeq Javid, who is yet to make much of a positive impression since his move from Warwickshire, edged one of his deceptively harmless looking leg breaks to slip, a sucker punch that sent Leicestershire into lunch on 79-4, although that didn’t seem too bad in the circumstances.
After lunch, with the gloom, if anything, deepening, Ned Eckersley briefly released his inner cavalier to hit three fours before young Podmore, who had looked the least threatening of the bowlers, trapped him LBW playing back to a ball that nibbled in a way that must have made Stevens’ heart glad. A similar delivery next ball resulted in the loss of Ben Raine’s middle stump and, in his next over, Horton played on, one short of a hard-won half century.
At the other end, Thomas was bowling with enough pace to make being nibbled to death by Darren Stevens seem an attractive prospect. Parkinson, who is capable of brave defiance, edged him to the wicket-keeper, leaving Chappell, whose height, hair, and upright stance remind me a little of Tony Grieg, to attempt a counter-attack. When he had reached 31, a leaping ball from Thomas was met with the reassuring sound of the ball hitting the meat of the bat : this, unfortunately turned out to have come from his head. Ten minutes of rubbing and shaking, and a few drinks of water, failed to restore him, and he left the field.
In the past, he would probably have returned, if necessary, and plotted revenge on Thomas when his turn came to bowl. In these more enlightened days, it was decided that he might have suffered concussion, and that Dieter Klein would replace him for the remainder of the match. The loss of Chappell’s batting was a blow, that of his bowling would prove to be a more serious one.
That the tail-enders, who went on a measured offensive, managed to extend the score to 220 seemed a minor triumph (it was the sort of game where every run seemed a victory over the odds), and Leicestershire hastened to let Mohammad Abbas, who seemed likely to be unplayable, at the openers, while the light was still barely playable. By the close, three wickets had fallen for 53, with two for Abbas and one for Raine : if play had not been curtailed by what felt like the premature arrival of an October evening, it might have been significantly more.
Leicestershire were pleased to find that the conditions had not improved on the second morning. By early afternoon Kent had been dismissed for 197, with six wickets for Abbas and four for Raine. The only significant resistance had come from Denly, who made 62, and who had, ominously, shared in a sixth wicket stand of 57, when the change bowlers, Griffiths and Klein, had relieved Abbas and Raine, and, unfortunately, the pressure. Griffiths has a tendency to bowl loosely when he first comes on, and conceded four fours in his first over ; at his best, particularly if roused by a blow to the bonce, Chappell would not have been so lightly treated. Five of the wickets to fall had been caught by Eckerlsey, the balletic elegance of whose wicket-keeping has not always been matched by its reliability.
By the close of the day, the match seemed to be hurtling towards an early conclusion, Leicestershire having collapsed from 82-1 to 126-5, in the face of renewed hostility from Thomas, who took four wickets in light that was not detectably better than that of the previous evening. It would have been very much to Leicestershire’s advantage to have come off at the same time as on the first day.
The third day dawned ominously bright, with some cloud, but not enough for the floodlights to have been turned on. Harry Dearden, who had resumed on 61, seemed to be on course for his first first-class century, and the laurels of a tortoiseshell hero, when he aimed an uncharacteristic, and unbusinesslike, cut at a delivery from Stevens and top-edged to slip, for a 74 which had taken him a little over three-and-a-half hours. At the time, it seemed as though this might prove a match-winning innings, which would have been a just reward for the most sustained display of concentration and good judgement of the game. In an, as it turned out, perfidious sign from the Gods that they were on his side, a shy at the stumps had even rebounded from Dearden as he made his ground, and made its way to the boundary for a gratuitous, and welcome, four.
Under the illusion, as we were, that every run was precious, the forty runs that the boldly striking Klein put on with Griffiths and Abbas for the last two wickets, to push the target beyond 250, were greeted with wild enthusiasm (or as close to it as we get at Grace Road), as were the two Kent wickets that quickly fell to Abbas. The first of these was Bell-Drummond, who had looked badly out of sorts in both innings, the second Grant Stewart, who had batted at number ten in the first innings. The thinking behind this unorthodox, but shrewd, promotion became clear in the afternoon, as the last of the cloud vanished, the sun shone benignly on the newly-docile pitch, and Abbas and Raine, who had been treated with decent respect, approached the end of their opening spells.
The afternoon session, as you will see if you re-examine the figures at the beginning of this piece (an unbeaten third wicket stand of 215), seemed to have been cut-and-pasted from another season entirely, both in meteorological terms, and in the sense that we were unwillingly dragged back to one of the too numerous seasons of recent years when Leicestershire went through many a long afternoon with no sniff of a wicket.
Griffiths, who has improved greatly this season, but may be tiring, again bowled loosely in his first overs, feeding Dickson and Kuhn a succession of deliveries on or outside leg stump, and Parkinson was the victim of a premeditated assault, which did not quite knock him out of the attack, but, judging by the consoling arms placed around his shoulders by a kindly Cosgrove, had dented his confidence. Having been deserted by the elements, and with Abbas apparently slightly niggled (he spent some time just outside the boundary, waving his legs in the air like a dying ant), Horton was eventually reduced to giving Mark Cosgrove his first over of the season. Apart from that, there seemed to be nothing to be done, apart from trying to enjoy the sunshine, while it lasted. Dickson, who had a head start, completed his century ; Kuhn was left one boundary short.
This defeat (the first of the season by any significant margin) felt like the end of Leicestershire’s promotion hopes : having begun the game on roughly equal terms with Kent, we are now some way behind them, and even further from the leaders. We have two, perhaps three, games (against Gloucestershire, Glamorgan, and Durham) that we should win, two (against leaders Warwickshire and Sussex) that, by the same token, we ought to lose. The hope has to be that our season does not fall apart in the way that it did in 2016, as we enter the silly September season of declarations, contrived finishes, and sporting pitches, as we all scramble after points through the deepening gloom.
Even more urgently, having caught a glimpse of a possible future that looked worryingly like the recent past, we have to hope that the team does not fall apart too. Our success this season had been based on our fast bowling (only Ackermann has been prolific with the bat) : the indications are that Chappell will be leaving, as might Raine (assuming that we are not promoted), and there is no certainty that Abbas will be returning (he is apparently keen to do so, but no terms have been agreed, and, if we are still paying Carberry close to £100,000 for doing nothing, we may not be able to afford him). To lose one fast bowler would be a misfortune, to lose three would be a disaster.