Heart Rot and Purple Haze

Kent v Leicestershire, County Championship, Canterbury, 30th August 2017

Leicestershire v West Indies, Grace Road, 2nd September 2017

You’re very optimistic” the gate-woman at the St. Lawrence Ground observed, laughingly, as she trousered my £20 note in return for a ticket which is now, I imagine, something of a collector’s item (I am reasonably confident that I was the only purchaser). As a general character assessment “fatalistic” might be nearer the mark, but I suspect that she intended it as a euphemism for “silly”, given the prospects for play (and no doubt I am).

According to ‘The Cricket Paper’,

This three-day county game in leafy Canterbury must have felt like pure joy to those nostalgic followers of championship cricket

and I suppose it must, if they happened to have been there on one of those three days. On Monday, Leicestershire’s bristly nemesis Darren Stevens had threatened to take all ten of our wickets (he finished with 8-75), before Lewis Hill and Callum Parkinson broke the record for a tenth wicket partnership set by George Geary and Alec Skelding in 1925. On Tuesday, Neil Dexter (who still has time to become the new Darren Stevens) snaffled another five wickets, and, on the Thursday, Mark Cosgrove (for motives that have been much speculated-upon) hit 24 off the first five balls of an over from Matt Coles, before edging to the wicket-keeper off the sixth.

It was one of Leicestershire’s more encouraging performances, there was an innings I should like to have seen from Sam Northeast, and the weather (for two and a half days) was blissful. Unfortunately, the only day on which I could be there was the Wednesday. It started to rain shortly before the start of play (having, briefly, been fine enough in the morning to lure me in), gently at first, then heavily enough for the day and ground to have been abandoned by lunchtime. This not only spoilt my day, but the match, which was hastened to its all-but-inevitable, drawn, conclusion by the return of the rain on the afternoon of the fourth day.

Canterbury, like Worcester and Hove, has the reputation of being one of the more conventionally romantic of the Counties’ headquarters : with a little imagination, I could sense that it was somewhere I should enjoy watching cricket, if there were any cricket to be seen. The majority of the ground is ringed by low banks of seating, and enough trees to justify the soubriquet “leafy”, interspersed with some medium-rise buildings, none of them offensive. The inevitable “redevelopment” – some retirement flats and a branch of Sainsbury’s – struck me as unobtrusive, though whether I would think so if I remembered the ground in its heyday I don’t know.

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Another new development, The Lime Tree Cafe, though not a patch, in culinary terms, on our own dear Meet, offered a snug vantage point from which to observe the rain (or cricket, where applicable).IMG_20170830_105553 (2)

A few of the younger Leicestershire players had taken refuge there too, giving off the vague impression of children keeping out of the way while the grown-ups argued.  Thanks to the rain, I had plenty of opportunity to inspect both the interior and exterior of the Frank Woolley Stand, a two storey concrete structure which is, perhaps, best described as “venerable” or “imposing” rather than “elegant” in the style of its dedicatee. I think it is somewhere I should only choose to sit to escape from the elements (excessive sun, wind or rain), but then so many days at the cricket are afflicted by one of those three. The leaking roof, I thought, only enhanced its discreet charms, but I suspect it will be “redeveloped” as soon as funds allow.

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The ground’s best-known feature, the lime tree which used to grow inside the boundary, apparently died of “heart rot”, an ailment I imagine as a feeling of profound discouragement brought on by prolonged soaking. Though very wet by the time I returned to the city centre, I think I managed to escape a dose and, having taken a liking to both Canterbury and its cricket ground, I hope we will meet again (though, at present, I don’t know when), preferably on some sunnier day.

This has been quite the season for novelties (or things that, Miranda-like, are new to me), and there was another in the shape of the format for the tour match against the West Indies. It was intended to be a two-day game, with one innings a side ; the first innings to be limited to 100 overs, the second not. The novel twist was that the West Indies were allowed 15 players, Leicestershire only 11. The Leicestershire side, with the exceptions of Ned Eckersley (who was captaining) and Harry Dearden, were the squad members who had not played against Kent, with debuts for teenagers Sam Evans and Harry Swindells, and tentative returns from injury for Zak Chappell (who has, again, spent most of the Summer playing as a batsman for the 2nd XI), and Richard Jones (who has not been seen since April).

The intention was presumably to provide the tourists with some practice between Tests and when, as expected, they won the toss, they chose to bat. Until lunch, however, Leicestershire’s bowlers were uncooperative enough to make a game of it, reducing them, at one point, to 64-5. There had been a September dew in the early morning, and, perhaps, Klein and Chappell were a little sharper than they had been expecting : Klein often surprises batsmen who haven’t faced him before ; Zak was bowling at a little below full pace and, perhaps as a result, was more economical than usual (his first nine overs cost only eighteen runs).

Brathwaite and Hope (K.) were trapped lbw by Klein and Chappell, by balls that swung and dipped in respectively, for single-figure scores ; neither Chase nor Blackwood reached double figures either. I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing Hope (S.) bat, given the records he had set at Headingley, but statistics mean nothing when you play down the wrong line, as he did to a delivery from Richard Jones, edging the ball on to his stumps having made a 28 that had hinted at better things. It was two players who had not made much impression at Headingley, Kieran Powell and the wicket-keeper Dowrich, who returned the game to its expected course, with an initially circumspect sixth wicket partnership of 127.

The exception to that circumspection was provided by a single stroke from Powell which impressed itself on the mind like a clap of thunder on a cloudless day, but might well have impressed itself for different reasons. Zak Chappell had been afflicted by one of his usual trials, a slight tickle down the legside that just evaded the leaping ‘keeper and crashed into the sightscreen. His next delivery, predictably, was a textbook bouncer, which Powell chose not to evade, but hooked off the tip of his nose. The ball travelled horizontally at almost precisely 90 degrees to the wicket, at a tall man’s head height, over a boundary which was as short as I have seen at Grace Road, and had rebounded off the Meet with alarming force before anyone in the vicinity had moved a muscle. It must have passed over the heads of those sitting on the benches in front of the Meet, but if someone, as is usually the case, had been making their way to the ice-cream parlour, lavatories or bar, and the ball had hit them on the head, it might easily have killed them. Fortunately, one of the few things at Grace Road which is more robust than it used to be is the glass in the Meet’s windows (once notoriously frangible, and prone to producing showers of broken glass).

Talking of sore heads, the club, perhaps suspecting that the West Indies would not provide enough of an attraction in themselves, had chosen to combine the match with a real ale festival. I am not sure of the precise distinction between craft beer and real ale, except that the former is fashionable and comes in bottles, whereas the latter is less fashionable and comes on draught. Craft beer is, reputedly, drunk by hipsters with sculpted beards, and real ale is, supposedly, drunk by old hippies with untamed beards (as the names of some of the ales, among them “Tangerine Dream” and “Purple Haze” would suggest). The ale-fanciers made up slightly more of a fair-sized crowd the West Indies supporters, many of whom I recognised from the visit of their women’s team in July.

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Powell’s thunderbolt aside, the afternoon was balmy, and meandered on its way in relaxed fashion, until, as tea approached, West Indies stood on 161-7. With only the tail to come, the crowd could have anticipated seeing the Windies bowl before the close of play, but that would be to forget the unusual playing conditions. One or two hardened topers (and I am not speaking from personal experience here, you understand) might have felt that they had been overdoing the “Spin Me Round” (one of Roxy Music’s more underrated tracks) as a number nine, with the frankly improbable name of Shimron Odilon Hetmyer, raised the ghost of old-tyme calypso cricket with a gaily-struck unbeaten 128, featuring 17 fours and 5 sixes (mostly hit too high to be a danger to life and limb). This Hetmyer, you see, normally bats at three, and may have glimpsed, and grasped, an opportunity to supplant the faltering Hope (K.), by laying into a tiring attack.

I didn’t bother turning up for the second day. The forecast was dubious, and I suspected that the West Indians would be less keen on bowling practice in chilly conditions. I believe that the match was abandoned because of bad light shortly before lunch (in spite of the floodlights), though I trust that the beer festival was allowed to continue for rather longer.

(Talking of trimmed and unkempt beards, I feel I would be failing in my duty if I did not report on the latest developments with respect to Ned Eckersley’s grooming. For most of the season he has favoured a long, off-centre-parted style, resembling Richard le Gallienne after a couple of months on a tramp steamer, but, for this game, both hair and beard had been severely cropped (perhaps in acknowledgement of the responsibilities of Captaincy).)

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Drift Dodgers

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Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream …

Some time on the morning of the first day of Leicestershire’s match against Kent (which, in the event, saw no play at all), Richard Rae of the BBC tweeted a quotation from ‘The Cricketer’ in 1926, to the effect that Leicestershire were “engaged in floating complacently down the streams of Time”. This led me to thinking (there was plenty of time for thought that day) of how the governing principle of County Cricket is drift (a little like Thomas Pynchon’s conception of entropy).

Innings accumulate slowly, grain by grain, flake by flake, imperceptibly, like sand or snow-drifts. Games drift to a conclusion, drift towards a draw. Clubs are said be drifting ; overly passive Captains are accused of letting games drift ; players’ careers start to drift, they drift out of the game. Crowds drift around the ground (particularly when it’s raining) and start to drift away after tea. Clouds drift over and away again. Afternoons, days, games, seasons drift by, and with them the years.

This drift is seductive (what could be more pleasant that floating effortlessly downstream on a Summer’s afternoon?) as long as you don’t think too hard about where the current is taking you. Resistance is ultimately futile (the greatest players, as the least, are carried away in the end), but temporary victories depend on fighting the drift and swimming upstream against the current.

Leicestershire v Kent, Grace Road, 19-22 May 2017

The first day of the Kent game was, as I say, a washout. It had rained heavily overnight and the rain returned intermittently throughout the day. No-one at the ground (some small parties from Kent and the usual suspects) seriously expected that there would be any play, though there were the usual teasing announcements about inspections and what might happen if there were no further rain. You can (and I have) spent days such as these at Grace Road, drifting aimlessly round the ground, playing spot the wheelbarrow

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observing the dark clouds drift over and drift away again, watching the rain fall through the big picture windows of the Fox Bar, barely conscious of the hours, of life, drifting away, not unpleasantly but inexorably, but, for once, I chose to fight the drift and, after a quick lunch, spent the afternoon at an exhibition about the Anglo-Sikh Wars.

The second day was an affair of showers, interrupted by scattered outbreaks of cricket, and, by its end, it already seemed likely that the natural direction of drift was towards a draw. I am not suggesting any element of conscious collusion, but a slow drift to the eventual conclusion (a draw with maximum bonus points each) would not have struck either side as an outcome to be struggled against too determinedly.

Kent are a side I still think of as being, like Worcestershire, made up of young, locally-produced talent, but this is to ignore the slow drift of time. Sam Billings (26 in June) was away with England ; Sam Northeast, now in his 10th year of first-class cricket, is 27 ; Adam Riley (25), seen by good judges not so long ago as the future of English spin, only made two first-class appearances last season and may be drifting out of the game altogether. Matt Coles (27) has drifted away to Hampshire (apparently adrift on a tide of alcohol) and back again. James Harris (27), ten years after his debut, has unexpectedly drifted in from Middlesex on loan. Daniel Bell-Drummond (24 in August) still fits the description, but, given the competition for the England openers’ berths, may soon find that he’s missed that particular boat. Fabian Cowdrey, apparently, has given it up for music and a free electric band.

Having said that, a side made up of players in their prime who are not quite good, or lucky, enough to play for England (and Kent also have nearly men of a different generation, in Denly, Tredwell and Gidman) is one route to success in County cricket. They should, by rights, have been promoted last season and came into this game having won their first three matches, but may be well advised to catch the tide before the drift catches up with them.

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Play began on time, under low cloud and continued, through some light drizzle, until roughly lunchtime. Horton and Dearden opened ; both Lancastrians, they are beginning to forge the kind of safety-first partnership that drove Cardus to lyrical peaks of exasperation when writing about Lancashire’s Hallows and Makepeace in the 1920s. Horton, who was a little more expansive, departed when the score was 58, leaving Dearden to make 34 off 108 balls, having taken 12 overs to reach double figures.

They were permitted to take this approach by Coles, whom I have seen bowl well, but who looked sluggish here, bowling a few showy bouncers, but few balls that did not give the batsmen the option of leaving them, but compelled to do so by Darren Stevens, whose first ten overs resulted in roughly the same number of runs. Stevens, a brazenly nibbly medium pacer, who, at 41, looks like the sort of bloke you’d expect find in B&Q on a Saturday morning, is so much the embodiment of the kind of cricketer who is officially frowned upon that the toss was abolished to discourage him from taking wickets ; he still went into this game as both the leading run-scorer and the leading wicket-taker in Division 2. When he switched to the Bennett End, and came in with a stiff breeze at his back, scented by the familiar whiff of disinfectant and old socks, he was in his element, as threatening in his way as Thommo at the WACA.

A combination of Stevens’ miserliness and the rain that washed out the afternoon, before a brief four over reprise at 5.45 (by which time I’d drifted off home), meant that Leicestershire began the third day on 127-2 with another 63 overs to reach the 400 they needed to achieve maximum batting points. Colin Ackermann played his first innings of any substance at Grace Road, making 89 in a little over four hours (I thought a quick burst of “Sylvia” over the PA might have been in order when he reached 50). A slight, neatly turned out figure, he seems something of a throwback, playing in an unobtrusively stylish, through scrupulously orthodox style, as if he’d learned to play by following the MCC Coaching Manual while observing himself in the mirror. Together with Cosgrove (39) and Eckersley (33) he provided the middle-order solidity that he seemed to promise when he first signed.

However, with those three, plus Pettini (who didn’t look in the mood) and debutant Callum Parkinson out cheaply, the score stood on 278-7 after 91 overs. Although there was no prospect of losing, it seemed unlikely that a fourth, let alone a fifth, batting point would be secured. It occurs to me that an observer unfamiliar with the scoring of bonus points would have been puzzled by what happened next, which was that Tom Wells, Clint McKay and Dieter Klein began to flex their muscles, making 139 off the last 19 overs (a quite reasonable T20 score). Even Darren Stevens was forced to concede 44 off his 21 overs, though Matt Hunn (a tall young seamer with a disappointing lack of nicknames, given the options) bore the brunt, going for 110 off his 22.

Having left soon after 5.00, I missed the one point in the game where it seemed that the drift to a draw might be reversed, that the extraordinary thing might happen, as Dieter Klein took four wickets and Tom Wells one to reduce Kent to 144-5, in a session that did not end until 7.30. The man to re-establish it the next morning was, inevitably, Stevens, who had begun to turn the tide with a counter-attacking 50 the evening before. He went on to make exactly 100 (cheered on by the Ultras in the Stench & Benno Stand, who can’t have been quite wasted enough at that time of the morning to have forgotten that he was now playing for Kent), making the follow-on, and thus a result, unachievable by about lunchtime.

After that, the innings ended with a mirror image of Leicestershire’s, as the Kent lower order secured the fifth bonus point with 20 overs to spare. With the serious business concluded, they continued clubbing the bowling (Coles taking 26 off an over from a visibly shaken Parkinson) long after the point where it had begun to seem merely gratuitous. Leicestershire’s reply, in which Harry Dearden scored 17 in 72 minutes represented an exercise in Zen pointlessness, although young Hunn did have the consolation of returning figures of 1-2.

You may have noticed, incidentally, that this report is uncharacteristically reliant on figures (which I have borrowed from Cricinfo). Even at the distance of little over a week, much of my memory of the game has been erased by the sand-drifts of time : in fact, what I remembered most clearly about it (and this you couldn’t find on Cricinfo) was the remarkable mackerel sky on the Sunday afternoon.

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Picture yourself on a boat on a river …

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, Wantage Road, 26 May 2017

I have not renewed my Membership at Northamptonshire this year. Technically, no-one has, because Membership has been reduced to Season Ticket Holder-ship, and, with the sentimental motive removed, I have chosen not to buy one because three of Northamptonshire’s home matches coincide with Leicestershire’s (a fourth, the one against Leicestershire, is a day-night game, so I am unlikely to see much of that either).

As a result, this single day, the first of a low-scoring contest which Worcestershire won in three days, lacked context, though it drifted by enjoyably enough. What I remember best is, rather ignobly, hoping that the young Worcestershire seamer Josh Tongue would fall over, so that I could make a joke about “a slip of the Tongue” and the stroke of doubtful heritage (perhaps a kind of paddle-pull over his shoulder) that removed Ben Duckett after a watchful 28, caught behind off the said Tongue (and not even by a slip). Last season Duckett would have played this stroke without hesitation and sent it over the boundary ; he is a “confidence player”, if ever there was one, and his misadventures with England over the Winter may have depleted even his considerable reserves of that quantity.

The Memorial Garden looked lovely in the sunshine, I must say.

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Derbyshire v Leicestershire, Derby, 27 May 2017

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Two Derbyshire supporters

The following day I visited Derby. The ground is not, these days, one that you would choose to visit without some strong motive (even the once adequate tea-room has now been replaced by a burger van). Mine was that there was an outside chance that Leicestershire might win (the extraordinary thing), with the chance of sheet lightning thrown in (which, in the event, might have livened the game up a bit).

On the first two days, Leicestershire had made 619, chiefly because they could (in that unattractive phrase). On a Slumberdown of a pitch, and with Derbyshire lacking Viljoen and Cotton (the two bowlers who had threatened in their RLDOC match), Ackermann, Cosgrove and Eckersley all waxed fat to the tune of a large century apiece. Any chance of a result depended on Derbyshire being made to follow on. When Godelman and Thakor (another couple of drifters) began the day on 154-1 this seemed unlikely ; when, by the early afternoon, they had a century apiece and were collectively on 323-1, the direction of drift was clear.

The promised sheet lightning, which was meant to be sweeping up from the South-West (like the Duke of Monmouth), had failed to materialise during the morning, which was warm, but with a strong wind providing an undertone of unease. After lunch, though, the sky darkened and the wind rose further, coinciding with the arrival of the second new ball. McKay removed Thakor and Madsen ; Klein snared Hughes ; Chappell, who always seems to be bowl best in Wagnerian conditions, finally yorked Godelman in a moment of catharsis that had at least one spectator* leaping to his feet and punching the air. At 384-5, the extraordinary thing still seemed a possibility.

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The sheet lightning never arrived, and neither did the extraordinary thing. Although Chappell subjected Smit and Wilson to a fearful battering in Stygian light (breaking Wilson’s bat, to his annoyance), they weathered the storm, which had never quite arrived, and the total drifted on past the 469 required to avert the follow on, thus killing the game late on the third day.

Cricinfo headlined their account of this match “Dull draw ends Derbyshire’s run of defeats”.

And so the season drifts on. Leicestershire stand 8th in Division 2 (without the points deduction they would be 6th). Ned Eckersley is the leading run scorer in Division 2, with Cosgrove not far behind ; Ackermann would be third in the averages (if they still had such things), and Leicestershire have more batting points than any side bar leaders Nottinghamshire. Zak has taken his first four wicket haul, which should give him confidence.

On the other hand, we have played five games and have yet to win. Nine to go.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily – Life is but a dream!

* Me.

In Praise of the Doldrums

Northamptonshire v Kent, County Championship, County Ground, 23-24th May 2016

Leicestershire v Sri Lanka, Grace Road, 20th May 2016

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All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

The doldrums (as in “Northamptonshire cricket is in the doldrums) are not generally thought of as a good place to be.  The maritime doldrums, though (an area of low pressure that results in sailing ships becoming becalmed), are not all that bad, provided the crew are aware of where they are and have enough to drink (unlike the unfortunates in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’).  The warmth of the sun, a slight breeze and no danger of going anywhere in particular … I can think of many worse places to be.

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In that sense, Wantage Road has been in the doldrums this season.  This week’s was the third Championship match I’ve seen, the third to be drawn and the third where at no time did there seem any serious prospect of a result (even without the intervention of the rain).  The scores made there so far have been 487-7, 324, 470, 229-1, 396, 498 and 131-2.  Northants’ lowest score has been 470, there have been two double centuries, three centuries and three nineties.  It would be no surprise if the ground went the whole season without seeing any result other than a draw. This state of affairs is generally blamed on the state of the pitch.

In spite of the bemoaning in the press I am not convinced that anyone at Wantage Road is really that bothered.  The Members (though they might join in with the moaning – any excuse!) want, above all, to watch as many days of cricket as they possibly can, preferably on sunny days.  There is no great incentive for a County like Northants to look for wins to chase promotion; to stand a chance of staying up they would need to recruit a class of player they cannot afford and there is no other substantial financial advantage to being in Division One.  A respectable, high scoring, performance in the Championship will do, while they put most of their efforts into making money and achieving a flicker of glory in the T20 competition.

The batsmen, needless to say, will have no complaints about a nice average at the end of the season and the chance for a little low-risk showboating (there were eight sixes in the Northants innings of 498 I saw, spreading over most of the second and third days).  The only ones who have cause for complaint are the bowlers, particularly the poor old “typically English” seamers, who have been identified (once again) as the cause of everything that is wrong with English cricket, and against whom the abolition of the toss has been aimed.

The bowler most often cited in this connection is (along with Jesse Ryder) Darren Stevens, who, in the absence of Matt Coles (suspended for throwing the ball at someone “in a dangerous fashion”) opened the bowling for Kent with Mitchell Claydon.  He took one wicket (Duckett slapped him straight to point, followed by a heart-rending dumbshow of existential dissent against an indifferent universe), before giving the pitch up as a bad job and retiring to his tent.

This left the burden of bowling to the effortful Claydon and three youngsters, Haggett, Hunn (perhaps known as “Beastly” or “UOK”) and Imran Quyam, a left-arm spinner making his debut (his name makes one think of the Rubaiyat, but I’m afraid his colleagues seemed to be referring to him as “Quim”).  He bowled  41.2 overs without any sign of raggedness or complaint and well deserved the two last-minute tail-end wickets which touched his figures up to 3-158.

The oldest hands at Wantage Road (and I imagine there are a few left) may feel they have been here before.  In his book “A Typhoon Called Tyson“, the Typhoon recalled that “when I first came to the midland county, the pitches had so little pace and were so good that quite often visiting sides had to be content with one innings matches, and a titanic struggle for first innings points.  In one season alone, we had thirteen draws, most of them at home”.  In time, though, the policy changed and “the Northamptonshire policy-makers … began to cater for their strong suit, spin-bowlers.  The groundsman was ordered to prepare spinning wickets by scraping off the grass and leaving the wicket bare on a slow-bowlers’ length. … We never bothered to play a second fast bowler … Quite often the opening partner of the current England quick bowler was a spinner …”.

I did suggest, earlier in the season, that I thought Northants’ best chance of winning matches would be to play Panesar and at least one of their other spinners (they have White, Keogh or Saif Zaib to choose from).  Panesar was given forty overs in the first innings and, in the second, was given the new ball, so it might be back to the days of George Tribe later in the season (assuming, as I say, that they do want to win matches).

An alternative view was offered by the old Northants seamer who stiffly makes his rounds of the ground at most games, a little like the Ancient Mariner, though, unlike him, he is stopped by roughly one in three, who was asked what a Northants side of his vintage would have made of the pitch.  He shrugged indifferently and pointed out that his side had Sarfraz and Bedi and could have pointed out that a Kent side from the same period would have had Underwood and Julien. It isn’t better pitches that are needed, he implied, but better bowlers.

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The other day of cricket I saw last week was the first day of Sri Lanka’s tour match against Leicestershire (or their 2nd XI).  As our side contained three spinners, it will not have given the Sri Lankans much of an idea of what they will be facing in the Tests, but it did give them an opportunity to acclimatise to English conditions, which they achieved by sitting outside in the teeth of a cold wind, wrapped in high-visibility jackets.

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The day’s major talking point was the high-visibility security, which – while not approaching the Presidential levels that accompanied a visit from the ECB hierarchy a few years ago – did seem absurdly disproportionate to the tiny crowd and the feeble level of threat we seemed likely to pose.  But then this is a team who were quite recently attacked within machine-guns, and it is one of the many side-effects of terrorism that we can no longer always laugh easily at absurd things.

In the event, the security men had to protect the Sri Lankans not from gun-toting jihadis but only a gaggle of adult autograph hunters.  I don’t know whether any of the team are fans of Coleridge, but, if so, the line “Unhand me! Grey-beard loon!” may have occurred to them more than once in the course of the afternoon.

In LE2 did Wasim Khan a Stately Pleasure Dome Decree : Works in Progress

Leicestershire v Kent, County Championship, Grace Road, 24-27 April 2016

I never realised, until I retired, quite how many shades of Cuprinol there are.  Seasoned Oak and Deep Russet, of course, but then there’s Seagrass, Forget-me-not, Gated Forest, Mellow Moss, Mediterranean Glaze and many, many more.  It’s a whole new world to me, and I often find myself browsing the shelves in Homebase as avidly I once flicked through the racks of LPs in record shops.  I have, you see, decided to take up gardening.

It’s not that I’ve done nothing to the garden before, of course, but that was merely in the way of keeping what was already there under control – mowing the lawn, pruning the roses, weeding the flowerbeds – and it was something of a chore, to be fitted in around work and more enjoyable leisure time pursuits.  Now I have the time and a little money to be more creative, to have a “vision” of how I would like the garden to be and to attempt to put it into practice.

I say “the garden” but I am starting with a more manageable “space”, to wit the patio (the back garden will have to remain a “forgotten wilderness of boredom” for the time being).  I have cleared the ivy that was clogging one fence, cut down a holly bush that had grown up under another and was threatening to demolish it, and removed last year’s (still living) Christmas tree.  I have introduced sackloads of decorative white stone chippings and planters in every shape and material, to be filled with bulbs and seeds that will, in time, I hope, result in a sweetly fragrant riot of colour.  And I have of course, applied Cuprinol to the fences (Woodland Green only at the moment, though I am toying with the idea of adding some White Daisy or Arabian Sand to create an effect of Andalusian stripes).

The problem with all this is that unless you share my “vision” (i.e. have some idea of how it’s meant to look when it’s finished) it all looks rather bare and, frankly, a bit of a mess at present.  Another is that what I am working towards is somewhere that will be a  delight to sit in when the Summer comes, but only if we happen to have a heatwave and need to take refuge from the heat.

The root of the problem here is that word “patio“.  Originally a patio was an uncovered but shaded courtyard garden in the South of Spain, perfected by the Moorish rulers of Al-Andalus.  It would, typically, feature exquisite geometric tiling, delicately perfumed flowers and topiary, ingenious running water features and served both to remind believers of the pleasures of the heavenly gardens to come and provide refuge from the fierce Andalusian sun.

Needless to say, most English patios are not like this at all, but the word is a reminder of the reluctance of the English to embrace our – at best – temperate climate, a land of holly and ivy and mistletoe, and our urge to hanker always after something warmer, something more delicate, something more exotic, even if it means employing that contradiction in terms, a patio heater.

I mention all this because, after spending a few days at Grace Road this week, it appears to me that Leicestershire’s new go-ahead Chief Executive Wasim Khan has been spending a lot of time in Homebase as well recently, and, like me, has a vision for the ground that will be lovely when it’s finished, and when Summer comes.

He began last season by painting the roof of the dear old Meet, which still seemed to be stained with soot from its days at Aylestone Road, a delicate shade of Cambridge Blue (or Seagrass, as the Cuprinol colour chart describes it); you can just about make it out in the background here, beneath some skies that might have interested Turner (J.M.W., not Ken)

Grace Road

The venerable George Geary Stand has been given a coat of Mediterranean Glaze, and white canopies or parasols put up over two of the exposed stands (smaller than those over the Mound Stand at Lord’s, but larger than the ones you can buy in Homebase, for your patio)

Grace Road

The white pavilions seem to hover and billow like an encampment of the Great Khan himself.  Imagine retreating beneath their shade on a hot afternoon, in a geographically eclectic Orientalist fantasy, to sip Pimms to the accompaniment of a drowsy afternoon raga! Or, if you prefer, retreating from the rain on a wet Friday evening to sink five pints of Red Fox Bitter to the accompaniment of Stench’s airhorn!

As you can also see (somewhere through the murk), we now have floodlights installed, which loom over the ground, but do not currently illuminate it (thanks to some obscure administrative mix-up we cannot use them for Championship matches) and the Maurice Burrows Stand has been spruced up (though not yet opened to the public).

This, though, is only the beginning.  The Milligan Road wall has been demolished and the turnstiles shut, areas of seating are roped off and one of the new floodlights is positioned in what is now the outfield.  The plan seems to be to shift everything – the poor old George Geary, the boundary and all – inwards, to make room for – the last time I heard – some flats.  At the moment it is all a little disconcerting, but then, as I said earlier, we Men of Vision must expect to be misunderstood, and I have every faith it will look nice when it’s finished.

In developing a cricket team, as in building a garden, there is a slow, ecologically sound way and a quick and easy one.  The first is to plant your own seeds and bulbs and nurture them to maturity, the second to buy your plants in fully formed from elsewhere.  Since the turn of the decade Leicestershire have been pursuing the first approach, relying on young, locally produced talent (Broad, Taylor, Cobb, Smith, Thakor, Buck, Gurney et al.) and a fat lot of good it’s done us too.

To shift the metaphor to vegetable gardening, it’s as though we have been growing our own delicious organic lettuces, tomatoes and peas, only to find that, just as they were ripening, our bigger and richer neighbours have jumped over the garden fence and pinched them.  Having had enough of this, our recent recruitment policy has been the equivalent of saying “Sod it – let’s send out for a takeaway“.  In this scenario Horton, Pettini and Dexter are a pretty solid chicken tikka, pilau rice and naan bread meal deal, with Cosgrove, McKay, Shreck and O’Brien, I suppose, a four-pack of cold beer in the fridge.

From 2013-14 Leicestershire had no effective on-field leadership, effectively no overseas player (even when he was somewhere in the vicinity of the ground, Ronnie Sarwan created a double absence) and, at times, fielded seven or eight players under the age of 25.  It is hardly surprising, in the circumstances, that we never won a match.

The new side has a pretty hard-nosed, (metaphorically) hairy-arsed (though, no doubt warm-hearted) South Australian core of Cosgrove, McKay and Coach Andrew McDonald, and are an experienced and battle-hardened crew all round (eight of this week’s side were over thirty).

I make no predictions as to where they’ll finish this season, but anyone expecting them to roll over without a fight, as they too often did in the recent past, is in for a nasty shock.  They have already brushed Glamorgan aside by an innings and would have been odds-on to beat Kent this week, had the game not been endlessly interrupted by 57 varieties of Winter, and might have won anyway had it not been for a circumspect century by Daniel Bell-Drummond.

This side may be hard to beat, but nothing (apart from a “mystery” spinner) wins matches like a bowler of genuine pace and Leicestershire appear to think they have might have found one in the one young, home-grown member of the side, Zak Chappell.  Zak is a young-looking 19 (he looks young even to my daughter), who has so far managed to evade the England age group set-ups (I’m told he was a late developer at cricket).

He made his first-class debut last season, making 96 from no. 10 (he can bat too, in a “long-levered” way).  Before this match I had seen him bat for Harborough and bowl for the Seconds, when he always seemed to be stepping gingerly and bowling within himself (he has already been bedevilled by injuries), but, although I’ve been told that he is potentially genuinely quick (on the one occasion he was allowed to bowl for Harborough he took seven wickets in four overs), until Monday I’d never seen him do so.

His moment came when, late on in Kent’s first innings, he was given the second new ball.  He had been told to concentrate on bowling fast and that is what he did, with a fluency in his approach and delivery I’d not seen before.

Zak 1

There was a little spraying, but he had a difficult chance dropped in the gully, induced a mistimed flat-batted slap to mid-wicket and, finally, smashed the last man’s stumps with a straight full one.  They might bristle at the suggestion, but there was something almost touching about the way McKay and Shreck, positioned at mid-off and -on, offered advice and arm-round-the-shoulder encouragement to the young tyro, and how he was encouraged to lead the side off the field.

Zak 2

When Kent batted again, he came on in about the tenth over and carried on where he had left off, hurrying the top-order, but, after two balls of his second over, he seemed to pull up lame, in the way that racehorses do, and almost as distressingly (though he was led off the pitch by the physio for treatment rather than taken away to be destroyed ).

Even the least poetic of men (Lord Emsworth, for instance, or “Ticker” Mitchell), can sometimes reveal a softer side when it comes to nurturing vulnerable young blooms, and, no doubt, business considerations aside, the hard-nosed Leicestershire leadership must be hoping fervently that Zak’s Springtime promise has not been nipped in the bud by this cruel late frost.

Young rose

 

What Difference Will It Make?

Leicestershire v Surrey & Kent, LVCC, Grace Rd., June & July 2015

I can’t quite call it to mind, but there must be some term, some euphemism, some managerialist spin, for the process whereby “they” (whoever they may be – the local Council, say, or the ECB ) prepare the way for abolishing something loved or needed by a minority by gradually reducing it to the point where it might as well not exist.  Rural bus services are one example and it increasingly feels as though the County Championship is becoming another.  If there is only one bus a day from a village then those who need it will be forced to find some other form of transport and if there are only four home Championship matches between May and August then those of us who can’t or won’t watch 20/20 cricket will be forced to look elsewhere for our days in the sun.  When the service is scrapped altogether or there is no Championship cricket between May and August the response from those who would have fought the proposal can only be a weary shrug and a sigh of “what difference will it make?”.

In June and July I have visited Grace Road twice and seen less than two days of cricket.  In June I caught the third day against Surrey (Leicestershire bowled out for 177, half way to the required total) and in July I was there for the first day against Kent.  I wasn’t there for the third day (as I’d planned) because (if it hadn’t been for some rain) Leicestershire would have lost within two days. Instead, I watched an excellent day of Minor Counties cricket between Hertfordshire and Northumberland at Harpenden.

This isn’t simply a question of Leicestershire being a load of rubbish (before you suggest that), it’s a question of T20 becoming the main event and Championship cricket a sideshow.  The T20 fan could, in the same period, have seen seven home matches (and, with a little travel) seven more away ones.  Cricket has become a regular fortnightly Friday night event in the way that football is on Saturdays from August to April (for largely the same audience) and, as it happens, Leicestershire have performed reasonably well this year in the shortest form.  For them Grace Rd. is a home from home, for me it is becoming one of many grounds I visit occasionally throughout the season.

Though they might deny it, I doubt the playing staff and the management of the club could seriously dispute that T20 is their main priority (as, in financial terms, it has to be) or that it has not affected their approach to Championship cricket.  Leicestershire don’t have enough staff to employ format-specific players (only their best 4-day batsman, Angus (I think) Robson, hasn’t played T20 this season) and if most of their LVCC games end early it does help to provide a little breathing space for the weary troops (the match against Kent on a Sunday followed a T20 in Durham on Friday and another at Grace Rd. on Saturday).

This might explain why we had prepared what, from Row Z, looked like an unusually verdant wicket (in the middle of a heatwave).

Sporting

It was a reasonable gamble that our McKay, Freckingham, Shreck and Raine could skittle out Kent (who, in spite of their array of young gun bats, have been performing feebly this season) more quickly than their Matt Coles (a sort of Home Counties Luke Fletcher)

Matt Coles

and that wily old ex-fox Darren Stevens could skittle us, but it didn’t come off. Robson and a surely knackered Eckersley managed to take us to 80-1 before a middle order seemingly assembled on the basis of a late Friday night ring-round by the Captain (“know what you said about your Wife, Mate, but we’ve been let down at the last minute and I was wondering …”) demonstrated that, although the slash-snick may be a business stroke in T20, it’s less effective against a bowler of Coles’s pace on a sporting wicket with three slips and a gully in place.  As I’ve said, the game just about crept into Tuesday morning before we lost by an innings. Kent played neither Adam Riley nor James Tredwell, by the way, nor did we play any of our spinners. I suppose there didn’t seem a lot of point.

As I’ve also said, I spent my Tuesday watching the third and final day of an entertaining, evenly matched and hard-fought Minor Counties match at a pleasant (if noisy) ground instead, where the quality of cricket was not, to be honest, far below what I had been witnessing at Grace Road.

So, how will I react if the ECB propose introducing three-day cricket, or a three division Championship, played only in April, May and September, which might elevate one or two Minor Counties into First-class ones, or might reduce the Division 3 Counties (of whom we would surely be one) to the level of the Minor Counties.  What could I say? “What difference will it make?”

(Mind you, I shouldn’t complain really.  I did see Jack Birkenshaw tickling a baby, and that’s a thing you don’t see everyday.)

Birkenshaw tickles baby