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