All’s Well That Ends

Northamptonshire (194 & 270) v Nottinghamshire (151 & 189), County Ground Northampton, 19-22 September 2017

Leicestershire (128 & 270) v Northamptonshire (202 & 197-4), Grace Road, 25-28 September 2017 

I have never been good at endings, but then neither is cricket. The satisfactory conclusion, all ends tied up and justice done, seems trite. Last minute twists are corny or unbelievable. The true-to-life ending (inconclusive, ambiguous or abrupt) satisfies no-one. Perhaps the best we can hope for is an ending that seems, in retrospect, to have been inevitable.

You may remember I was a Member at Northamptonshire last season. This season, as most of their home games coincided with Leicestershire’s, I chose to put loyalty before pleasure and follow the Foxes (an often weary and reluctant hound), so can offer no first-hand account of how they came to play the last two games of their season with the real prospect of promotion before them.

It has been said of Northants that they “continue to defy predictions”, and they have certainly defied mine at the start of the season, that they would “struggle to pull off the same trick twice”. They may have failed to pull off quite the same tricks in white ball cricket, but in the Championship they have abandoned their old trick of preparing dead pitches and playing for the bonus points, and found the better one of winning the matches they did not lose (in the end, they won nine, lost three and drew only twice).

Their small squad (sixteen registered at the start of the season) has featured a core of locally produced players in the prime of their careers, one exceptional, if erratic talent (Duckett), two experienced seamers sourced from the Minor Counties, two refugees from Grace Road who never fulfilled their promise there, a shifting cast of loanees and triallists, and two South Africans who, from a distance, look as though they ought to be packing down for the Bagford Vipers, one a T20 specialist, the other whose Test career was interrupted by a suspension for smoking marijuana.

This does not sound like an obvious recipe for success ; the best explanation I can offer is that they appear to be an exceptionally happy team, led by a Captain who enjoys a good relationship with his Coach and who “play without fear”. A poor cliché, no doubt, but the truth of it is striking if you have spent the rest of the season watching another side who appear to enjoy none of those advantages.

Whatever their secret, they appear to be in that happy state that teams and individuals sometimes attain (however briefly) where they succeed in everything they attempt, and their victories in these, their last two games, always seemed inevitable, even when a glance at the scorecard might suggest otherwise. It also felt, however, somehow inevitable that they would not be promoted (although even that might prove to be a blessing in light disguise).

Their rivals for promotion, and their opponents in their first game, Nottinghamshire looked a different side from the one that had obliterated Leicestershire twice early in the season. That is because they were a completely different side. The early season Notts had boasted a Test-quality attack featuring Pattinson, Broad and Ball, supported by a slimline Luke Fletcher. The pace bowling against Northants consisted of Mullaney, Luke Wood and Brett Hutton (all, accurately, described by Playfair as medium-pacers) and Harry Gurney, who, in this game, looked less like an international bowler than his one-time rival at Grace Road, Nathan Buck.

Also missing were batsmen Alex Hales (otherwise occupied), Michael Lumb, Brendan Taylor and Greg Smith (all of whom seem to have packed it in mid-season). In their place were an assortment of players I have often watched playing 2nd XI cricket, and Cheteshwar Pujara, who, on this showing, looked as though he ought to be doing so (fine player though he has shown himself to be in other contexts).

Being asked to bat first at 10.30 in late September is to have drawn the short straw (not that, for the home side, there is much likelihood of being offered the option of a long one). Duckett, who opened with Robbie Newton, will have been aware of the need to bat responsibly ; a responsibility that chafed like a stiff collar on a younger brother under orders to behave himself at his sister’s wedding. Off the third ball he received he almost forgot, then restrained, himself, with the unhappy effect that he offered a simple catch to the bowler. I think this is the fourth time this season in as many innings that I have seen him caught somewhere near, but not behind, the wicket, playing a half-checked shot : he would be better advised to, as the hashtag has it, #gohardorgohome, as he did to such effect, one way or the other, last season.

Luke Wood had removed both openers with the score on only 12. Wood is an all-rounder who sticks in the mind (I remember him playing for the England Under-19s at this ground some years ago) because of his platinum blond hair (currently worn in a sort of 1920s short back-and-sides), and his very long run up, perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing on the County circuit. With his bony face, which seems to belong under an outsize cloth cap, he would be an excellent choice for the lead in ‘The Harold Larwood Story’, provided that the camera cut away as he reached his delivery stride, as his left-arm medium-pacers do not fulfil the promise of their lengthy preamble. Nonetheless, he bowled (and later batted) very well in the conditions (though not as effectively as Broad or Ball, let alone Pattinson, might have done).

In this situation some other Counties (mentioning no names) would have collapsed, but as the last of the mist and dew evaporated and the sun shone (this match often seemed to be played in a sort of over-saturated Technicolor),

 

Richard Levi came to the wicket, and the possibility of prudent retrenchment, let alone retreat, vanished. There is a fine line between batting forcefully and slogging, which Levi bestrides (mostly on the right side) like a hog roast-fuelled colossus ; it is possible that he could play in some other way, but no-one, surely, would want him to. The scorecard records that he made only 35 from 30 balls (with 7 fours), but his innings restored the psychological balance of the match to the home side’s advantage. An only slightly more subdued innings of 43 by Rory Kleinveldt, in which he received uncharacteristically dutiful support from one-time Grace Road starlets Cobb and Buck, allowed them to reach a first-innings total of 194.

For another side, or in another season, 194 would not have sounded enough, but between tea and the close of play Kleinveldt reassured the home supporters that it would prove to be so by taking four wickets (Buck, again playing a supporting role, took one) to leave Notts on 80-5. Kleinveldt is at an opposite pole from Wood, in the sense that his perfunctory lumber to the wicket – like an out of condition no. 8 arriving late at a ruck – does nothing to warn of the purposeful violence of the delivery that is to follow.

The second day was the kind of rare, enchanted day when good players are permitted, fleetingly, to be great. Kleinveldt demolished the rest of the Nottinghamshire batting as simply as a wall of toy bricks with a coconut (he took 9-65), then Levi did the same to the bowling, scoring 115 off 104 balls, from a total of 270. Kleinveldt took advantage of this temporary suspension of reality to strike 48 from 41 and took two more wickets when Nottinghamshire batted again.

I missed the half day of play that was possible on Day 3, when the spell was, apparently, temporarily broken and Nottinghamshire were able to come within 207 runs of the required total, with three wickets remaining. It is possible that I have the opposite effect on Northants to the one I have on Leicestershire, who never perform well when I am watching them (or when I am not, recently).

Rationally, the game was evenly balanced at the start of Day 4, but it seemed to me a formality that Northants would win, and, indeed, it was all over bar the victory song by lunchtime (the game’s not over these days until the substantial lads have sung). The visitors’ last hope lay with Samit Patel, so majestic in his element against Leicestershire at Trent Bridge, but here something of a grounded albatross, and Chris Read, (who, like his counterpart David Murphy, is about to retire), when they came together on 152-7. Towards the end of one over Gleeson had made a great show of positioning two men on the boundary for the hook. Patel duly took note. In the following over, when Patel came to face, with the same field in place, Sanderson bowled him the kind of bouncer that is designed to be hit, not hit, and Patel sheepishly hit it into the waiting pouch of perpetual substitute Saif Zaib. When a trick that cornball comes off for you, you know the spirits are with you.

And so to Grace Road, for the last time, where it seemed, for once, as though things might get interesting. The precise mathematics of the situation no longer matter (I heard several different analyses, all different, all delivered with the same authority), but the gist of it was that Northants would be promoted if they won, provided that Nottinghamshire lost to Sussex at Hove. My impression is that there were few present (with the exception, one would hope, of the Leicestershire players) who did not want Northamptonshire to win. Apart from the overtly pro-Northants contingent (there in greater numbers than usual), there are some Leicestershire supporters who (like me) also have some attachment to Northants, and a larger number who have a strong antipathy to Nottinghamshire, and would be only too delighted to see them fall at the last hurdle in their promotion chase (and, preferably, be taken out to the paddock and shot).

The first day was entirely washed out. This had the potential to make the remaining three days more interesting, in that it might fall to Mark Cosgrove to decide whether to offer Northants a sporting declaration, which might, in turn, stymie Nottinghamshire (thus earning him the grateful thanks of two Counties, and the opprobrium of disinterested, high-minded, observers). This intriguing mirage had vanished within half an hour of the start of play on Tuesday, by which time Leicestershire had lost their first seven wickets for 26 runs. None of those seven batsmen had made double figures, with young Sam Evans (on his debut) top-scoring with eight. Northants’ official website tweeted excitably that there were “unbelievable scenes at Grace Road”, but, as the weary sighing of the regulars confirmed, they were, in fact, all too believable.

In mitigation for this debacle, I should acknowledge that, for the first half hour, conditions were hazardous for batting : there is an argument that play should not begin as early as 10.30 in the last week of September, and a stronger one that Championship matches should be played in the Summer rather than late Autumn (but I grow weary of makingit). However, the conditions were hardly worse than those that had faced Northants on the first morning against Notts and, as we have seen, they managed to make a reasonable fist of it.

If they had required any encouragement to take heart, they might have taken it from the sight of the enchanter Kleinveldt limping off at the start of his second over (his great frame apparently buckling under the weight of something or other), leaving the seam bowling in the hands of Sanderson and Gleeson (suppliers by appointment of furniture polish and saddle soap). Once the moisture had burnt off a little, it was certainly possible to make runs, as a visibly irked Raine and Chappell proved by putting on 88 for the eighth wicket. The innings closed on 128, with Gleeson and Sanderson, bowling virtually unchanged, having taken five wickets each (reaping the reward for simply bowling a consistently good line and length, a skill that is often underestimated, because it is not generally appreciated how fiendishly difficult it is to do).

The only questions that remained (it being perfectly obvious that Northants were going to win) was whether Nottinghamshire were going to oblige by losing, and how many batting points Northants needed to accumulate. At this point the signs from Hove were hopeful, and the consensus seemed to be that Northants would easily have time to make 400 and still have time to bowl Leicestershire out again. By the time they had reached 90 without loss (thanks mostly to Luke Proctor, who has shrewdly been borrowed from Lancashire), and then 168-2, as the evening grew dark, that seemed a formality, and I took the liberty of sloping off into the gloaming in search of a bus.

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Inevitably, Northamptonshire’s last eight wickets fell for 34 runs. Instinctively, I attributed this to the fact that it was the one hour of play I did not see, but, more rationally, it might have been because the last hour in late September can sometimes be as inhospitable to batsmen as the first. Ben Raine took five wickets and Callum Parkinson three. Even the “indefatigable” Raine may eventually grow fatigued by shoring up a losing side, and we will do well to dissuade him from returning to his native Durham (who may now be ruing turning their nose up at him in their fat years).

Leicestershire’s second innings began less calamitously than their first. There was a minor outbreak of applause (at least semi-ironic, I’m afraid) when Carberry reached double figures, and an even more minor one when he returned to the pavilion for 16. In fact, they batted quite well and, as Cosgrove and Aadil Ali constructed a moderately substantial fourth wicket partnership (with Sanderson and Gleeson seen off and no Kleinveldt to come), it seemed once again as though Leicestershire might have a part in deciding the question of promotion. It was at about this point, though, that the bad news was confirmed from Hove that Nottinghamshire had avoided the follow-on, and thus defeat, and the game visibly wilted and died before our eyes.

Overnight rain meant that no play was possible on the morning of the fourth day. In the afternoon, for the record, Northamptonshire made the 197 they needed to win for the loss of four wickets, and the season passed away, peacefully, in its sleep at around tea-time. It had been a bright afternoon, though a cold wind seemed to be impatient for the beginning of Winter. The man who makes the announcements over the Tannoy used it to announce that he was retiring (at least I think that is what he said – it wasn’t very clear). The inhabitants of the Stench and Benno (who I think must have been smoking some of the seasonal toadstools growing at the Bennett End

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were claiming loudly and improbably that they weren’t going home because they were having a lovely time, and singing “Halleluia – it’s Raine-ing Ben”, which has the kind of nice, fuzzy, logic to it that only makes sense to the epically stoned.

The Northants team sang their victory song again and threw their shirts over the balcony to their travelling supporters, who, perhaps shrewdly, did not seem too disheartened by the loss of promotion.

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Leicestershire, needless to say, were not singing (they only sing when they’re winning), although, perhaps, if they commissioned some sort of dismal, discordant, defeat-dirge to sing, it might discourage them from losing quite so often. Only Stench and Benno seemed interested in their shirts.

After one last look around, I left without too much regret, an indifferent end to an indifferent season. But then, as I said at the beginning, I’m afraid that I have never been very good at endings.

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Deviation, Repetition, Desperation

Leicestershire v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Grace Road, 5-8 September 2017

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As anyone who is likely to be interested will know by now, Leicestershire coach Pierre de Bruyn has left the club, by what the official website, amongst other periphrases, described as “mutual consent”. And, as every commentator observed, this came as no surprise.

Peering through the thicket of euphemism, the problem appears to have been the inability of de Bruyn and Captain Mark Cosgrove to work together. Matters seem to have come to a head on the last morning against Kent. Promotion outsiders Kent were keen to contrive a result : Cosgrove was agreeable, but de Bruyn was not (given Cosgrove’s apparent reluctance to declare last season under the old regime, there is a certain irony about this), leading to the Captain’s otherwise puzzling six-ball 24. There followed, one may infer, a “him or me” ultimatum to the Committee from Cosgrove, followed by de Bruyn “mutually consenting” to pack his bags and biltong and seek pastures new.

De Bruyn was in an unenviable position from the start. An inexperienced coach, with a respectable, but unspectacular, playing record, he took charge of a club with a group of experienced players, brought together by the previous coach, who might have been expecting to be left to play out the remainder of their careers in a convivial atmosphere, and had been doing with some degree of success. To make matters worse, the core of this group were Australian, as had been the previous Coach, Andrew MacDonald, and de Bruyn is, of course, South African. “Intense” is the word most frequently applied to describe De Bruyn, whereas the previous atmosphere at the club might best be described as “relaxed”.  His previous experience as coach of the Namibia Under-19s will not have been the ideal preparation.

The coach did little to ingratiate himself before the season started, publicly upbraiding his senior players for having a “culture of underperformance”, naming and shaming Paul Horton, Mark Pettini and Angus Robson (younger, but, perhaps as an Australian, cut a fair amount of slack). Robson “mutually consented” to leave immediately, Pettini seems to have vanished into thin air, and Horton is currently averaging 26.52, which is worse than the “underperforming” 34.92 he managed last year. De Bruyn’s approach might have been vindicated had his “culture of performance” improved performances, but, some success in limited overs cricket aside, results have been poor, and the only player to have had an unequivocally successful season has been Mark Cosgrove.

This is not the first time de Bruyn has been involved in similar situations, albeit it on the other side of the divide. He was one of a group of senior players (including H.D. Ackerman and Andrew Hall) released by Dolphins in 2010, to make room for younger, home-grown talent. Before that, having been released by Titans, he claimed that he and Alfonso Thomas had been “chased away from the Titans like dogs”, and criticised coach Richard Pybus as “one-dimensional” and “a very boring coach”, who relied on “yoga and other nonsense”, claiming that “the players get so drained from this that on completion one does not know where you are”. While playing for Easterns, he was once suspended for “acts of misconduct and using crude and abusive language”. He is clearly something of a stormy petrel, and I should be a little concerned if he alighted anywhere near my club.

Anyone unaware of the weekend’s events might have wondered, on arriving at the ground on the first day, why Cosgrove and Clint McKay (the Australian seamer who acts as one-day Captain and the skipper’s mate, in the full Australian sense) seemed to be in such cheerful moods. Graeme Welch and John Sadler, the ex-Derbyshire duo who have taken over as interim coaches, looked pretty chipper too. Otherwise, there seemed few grounds for optimism. After rain overnight, and more in the morning, it came as a surprise that play began shortly after lunch. With Leicestershire forced to bat on a moist, green-tinged pitch under low cloud, the only people who seemed less comfortable in the conditions than the batsmen were the spectators.

Had Kenneth Williams been seated behind the bowler’s arm (an improbable scenario, I admit), he could have been taken the opportunity to shout “deviation!” after almost every delivery, as the visitors’ four seamers achieved exaggerated movement, both in the air and off the pitch. A Leicestershire supporter might have added a weary sigh of “repetition”, as both openers (Dearden and Carberry) were dismissed, having mustered 3 runs between them.

Leave the gate open

(You may be surprised to learn that Carberry is playing for Leicestershire : he has been having a poor season for Hampshire and has been loaned to us, supposedly for the remainder of the season, though there is credible talk (or incredible talk from a credible source) that he may be offered a contract and even the Captaincy. If that comes as a surprise to you, that surprise is shared by most Leicestershire supporters and, I imagine, by Carberry himself.)

The rest of the first innings was an unwelcome repetition of too many this season. After a poor start, Cosgrove made 92, with some support from Ackermann or Eckersley (the former here), and an effort, at least, from Lewis Hill, before the innings closed on 222. But let us go back to Cosgrove for a minute : he has made the bulk of the runs so often that I have become accustomed to taking him for granted, but the weekend’s hint that he might not always be with us made me concentrate, for once, on his batting.

In a game of word association, the first word that might occur in connection with Cosgrove is “fat”. There have been times in his career when he has been overweight, but he currently looks as fit as a man with his constitution is ever likely to be : he is, though, an unusual, top-heavy, shape, as though his torso were too large for his legs. Certainly no-one who remembers Colin Milburn in his prime (or has seen Richard Levi recently) would say that Cosgrove bats like a fat man. He is capable of the fat man’s pull (legs apart, power coming from the belly), but inside this fat batsman there is clearly a thin one trying to get out, perhaps even that epitome of the “elegant left-hander”, Frank Woolley. His favoured off-side strokes may be hit with great force, but are executed with all the delicacy and precision of a Japanese calligrapher. He is always determined to make runs, but, in this match, that determination seemed to amount almost to desperation.

The second afternoon of the game seemed to belong to another game entirely, or another season. The sun shone, a soft breeze blew, the ale left over from the weekend beer festival was being sold off cheaply, and was eventually given away to the Members (although only in half-pints). It was the last of the Summer ale, and felt like the last day of a Summer that had never quite arrived. Unfortunately, it was also the afternoon when Gloucestershire batted.

Gloucestershire are a star-free side but, unlike Leicestershire, they make the most of their talents. Their highest score was 63 (by the same James Bracey who had made an impression on Charlie Shreck and others for Loughborough MCCU earlier in the season), but there were two other fifties and no score of fewer than 22 by the top seven. The demons in the pitch had taken the afternoon off (perhaps in the beer tent), and the bowlers were unable to summon up any of their own. Clint McKay bowled at little more than medium pace : he has the best economy rate of any bowler in the Division, but he can no longer be relied upon to take 50 wickets a season. Gloucestershire continued their innings into the third morning, when they finished on 368.

Leicestershire’s second innings was a repetition of their first, except that the conditions were even worse, and they made fewer runs. The only hope of avoiding defeat was for Cosgrove and Eckersley, who put on a fourth-wicket partnership of 79

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to hang on for grim life until the game was finally extinguished by rain or bad light. As so often this season, the sky was dark and the floodlights on by lunchtime. The batsmen were clearly have difficulties seeing the ball, and Cosgrove raged hard against this dying of the light, and in favour of coming off the pitch. Unfortunately this was in the hearing of the Umpires, who, in spite of endless fiddling about with light meters, seemed determined to stay on at all costs.

Eckersley fell to a swooping delivery from the normally innocuous medium-pacer Noema-Barnett. Cosgrove desperately chased a wide one from the strapping, rapid Norwell, and was given out by Umpire Nigel Cowley, a decision which seemed to be more in response to his uninvited views about the light than an honest opinion about whether he had made contact (had there been any daylight, there would have been about an inch of it between bat and ball). Sitting by the players’ entrance to the pavilion, I wondered at quite how eloquent an Australian of Scouse heritage can be while using but a single word.

There were, I think, fifteen spectators in the ground (plus Ben Raine’s Dad’s golden retriever) on the last day, which began with Leicestershire nine runs ahead, with three wickets remaining. I suppose we were hoping it would rain. However, Nigel Cowley, who has been a useful player and decent Umpire in his time, but only has one match to go before he retires, seemed keen for the match to end as soon as possible. Gloucestershire, having hit lucky with Cosgrove, acted as though they had come across a faulty cash dispenser, and appealed frantically and continuously for anything. McKay was caught behind, having made as much contact with the ball as Cosgrove. Opinions differed about last man Klein’s dismissal : it looked to me like a bump ball, whereas my companion thought it had come off his boot. The whole thing, even including a brief interruption for rain and Gloucestershire’s formality of a reply, was over in less than an hour.

Liam Norwell, who admittedly bowled well, finished with 8-43 : I doubt he will ever take as many as easily again. This gave him 10 wickets in the match, for the second time this season against Leicestershire, placing him slightly ahead of Jofra Archer, who has taken 18, and James Pattinson (16). In addition to having been (forgivably) beaten twice by Nottinghamshire and Sussex, who are strong bowling sides, we have now lost twice to Gloucestershire, on paper a weaker team, by an innings and by 10 wickets. At least we can look forward a tight finish to the return fixture against Northants, I suppose (though not, I hope, in the middle of the night this time).

It isn’t always the hope that kills you, you know.  Sometimes it’s the repetition.

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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).)

Beer and Balti and Eve Pudding and Gravy

Leicestershire v Durham, County Championship, Grace Road, 6-7 August 2017

Leicestershire v Yorkshire, T20 Blast, Grace Road, 12 August 2017

In my last post, I pictured the stand-alone Championship fixture against Durham, beckoning from the horizon like an oasis in the cricket-desert of mid-Summer. In the event, it turned out to be something of a mirage, or, at best, a roadside burger van that had run out of sauce. The most memorable moment of my two days at Grace Road was witnessing the ‘Leicester Mercury’’s roving reporter insisting on having gravy, instead of custard, on his eve pudding. Having nothing to do but watch cricket all day undoubtedly permits the full expression of one’s eccentricities, but I sometimes cannot help wondering whether that is entirely a good thing.

The match was, as anyone who had read the weather forecast would have known, a priori doomed (as predicted, days three and four were washed out). The same could be said of Durham’s season (even more so than Leicestershire’s) : having been relegated, by order of the ECB, a further imposition of a 36-point penalty means that their chances of promotion are negligible. In addition to having Stokes, Wood and Jennings on loan to England, they have been compelled to release Stoneman and Borthwick (along with Jennings, their leading run-scorers last season). Hoping, at best, to regroup, and find some replacements for their missing stars, they have struggled to the extent that only Leicestershire lie below them in the table.

This might go some way towards explaining their tactics, which seemed to disregard the issue of points altogether, as irrelevant to their situation (or perhaps they simply hadn’t read the weather forecast). If they were in contention for promotion, they would, having chosen to bat, have been well-advised to move smartly enough along to gain maximum batting points, declare, and hope to bowl Leicestershire out, if not twice, then quickly enough to bag three bowling points.

As it was, their openers, Cameron Steel and the New Zealander Tom Latham, batted serenely through the first two sessions, and gave every indication of carrying on in that vein until the rains came. In the event, Latham, who had been the more energetic of the two, tired late on the first day and departed with the score on 234. Steel, however, carried on until, shortly after he reached his double-century, a switch was thrown and Durham began to hit out (not, I think, Steel’s strong point), before declaring, unnecessarily late, on 525-8.

Steel has come to the North-East by a circuitous route (born in California, childhood in Australia, Millfield, Middlesex, Somerset and Durham University). He is clearly run-hungry and risk-averse enough to make a significant score against some undemanding bowling on a predictable pitch, but whether he is capable of doing so regularly is hard to say. He might turn out to be the new Andrew Strauss, or he might find himself relegated to the 2nd XI when Jennings returns. If he turns out to be any good, of course, I suppose he will end up at Surrey.

Leicestershire, weakened further by injuries, gave the impression that they would rather be anywhere other than Grace Road. In the field they were all but silent : Ben Raine, their usual cheerleader and irritant, who has now been out since June, prowled the boundary, looking as though he’d like a few words with someone he suspected of pinching his wallet. Perhaps he might be positioned on the dressing-room balcony, where he could offer encouragement through a loud hailer (though I imagine the ECB might take a dim view of that).

At the beginning of the season, I wondered how Leicestershire would find room in the side for all the seam bowlers we seemed to have acquired. Having lost Shreck (retired in disgust), Burke (returned to Surrey, now released from the game), Jones, Raine and Chappell (long-term injuries), and with McKay and Pillans also nursing ailments, the flagging Klein, who is not suited to being a stock bowler, and the tireless Griffiths (who is), were unexpectedly reinforced by, of all people, Ajmal Shahzad, who has, apparently been released by his third county, Sussex. It must seem a very long time to him since he was playing for England.

With the clouds already beginning to gather, Leicestershire went through the motions of a match-saving reply, with Harry Dearden making 30 from 109 balls. While I was watching him bat, Geoffrey Boycott was on the radio, asking whether there is anyone in county cricket capable of batting two hours to make 30.   I’m not sure Dearden is quite what he had in mind.

A happy feature of the game was that Neil Dexter, who has been out of the side “for personal reasons” was back on the pitch. When Durham came to throw the bat, it was mostly at his bowling, and he picked up 5-71. The gods of cricket, so often accused of cruelty, can also be kind, sometimes.

Part of the reason for Leicestershire’s distracted air against Durham might have been that the game had come as something of a distraction from their T20 campaign, which, although I have not been following it too closely, has been more successful than their efforts in the Championship. They won their first four games, all away from Grace Road, then lost the next four at home, in dismal weather, mostly narrowly, or in vaguely farcical circumstances. The previous evening they had defeated Northamptonshire at Wantage Road.

It was something of a revelation to see them in action in a different context, rather like seeing one’s work colleagues, freed from workaday constraints, out for a night on the town.  Colin Ackermann, whose batting is usually the soul of restraint, gaily flicked the ball over his shoulder, with the air of Maureen from Accounts tripping the light fantastic in fishnets and a feather boa.

In fact, the afternoon was, to a T20 novice, a revelation in a number of respects. Grace Road had been transformed into a cross between a holiday camp and an airport food court. I didn’t notice any eve pudding and gravy on offer, but most sane culinary tastes were catered for : beer and balti, the Spice Bazaar, a burger van, a hog roast and an ice cream van, and, for the more traditional fan, lashings of delicious lager. Various antic young people patrolled the perimeter on stilts, others fired T-shirts advertising Pepsi Max into the crowd from small bazookas (perhaps they should try firing MCC cravats into the pavilion at Lord’s).

Slightly to my surprise, the Yorkshire supporters were heavily outnumbered by Leicestershire fans. It must have helped that Leicester City had played at home the previous evening, whereas most of Yorkshire’s football clubs were playing that afternoon. Another factor may have been that Yorkshire had played and beaten Lancashire the previous evening and some of their supporters may have been in no fit state to make the journey.

Once the match started, I was struck by how negative the tactics were, given that the game is sold on the basis that it consists of all-out attack. It resembled a kind of asymmetrical warfare, whereby a weaker side (Leicestershire) can overcome a stronger enemy (Yorkshire) whom they would have little hope of defeating in an open battle (or a four-day game) by successfully harrying and frustrating them.

Yorkshire batted first, and, though Kohler-Cadmore (who began the season playing for Worcestershire) made the highest score of the day (75 out of a total of 182-5), their innings never quite got going, and none of their more fluent scorers were able to flow. Leicestershire used seven bowlers (3 seamers, 3 spinners, 1 medium pace), swapping them at the end of almost every over. I could see nothing obviously innovative about the bowling, or indeed the batting, just a lot of niggling and nibbling, gouging and scuffing and general frustration.

An effect of Leicestershire’s predominance in the crowd was that, although the small children enjoyed the boundaries (marked by a quick burst of what sounded like “Club hits of 1992”), the real appreciation among the aficionados was reserved for the bowling of a “dot ball”. In this respect Gavin Griffiths, bowling exactly the kind of good honest fast-medium stuff he’d been peddling to so little effect against Durham earlier in the week, was the hero of the hour, as half of his 18 deliveries resulted in no score. If anyone had succeeded in bowling a maiden (no-one did, though Adil Ali nearly managed it with his occasional off-spin), I imagine the expression of collective joy would have been on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When Leicestershire came to bat, the game was as good as settled in the second over, in which off-spinner Azeem Rafiq served up an entire over of delicious tripe, which have-boots-will-travel Austro-Kiwi Luke Ronchi, pausing only to stuff a napkin down the front of his shirt, tucked into to the tune of (I think) 22 runs. Leicestershire were well ahead of the required run-rate (scoring at over ten an over) until the mid-way stage when, with their three big-hitters gone, Colin Ackerman was left to shepherd the potentially wayward flock home. Renouncing his earlier flamboyance, he seemed to be, with the help of a succession of short-lived assistants, trying to get them in singles, finally overtaking Yorkshire’s total with two balls to spare.

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. The weather was fine, the crowd in amiable mood, I had a delicious chicken curry for lunch and – crucially – Leicestershire won. It was even over in time for me to catch the last bus home.

I would not say, however, that it has done anything to assuage my anxieties about the future of County cricket.  As, say, a once-a-fortnight Saturday afternoon diversion, T20 has its attractions, but if it were ever to become the only form of cricket available, I think that would be the end of my interest in the game.

I also wonder about the future of the new city-based competition.  T-shirts and face-painting will only go so far to attract the new child-centred audience it is intended to attract, and some further tweaking of the rules may be required to ensure a regular supply of the boundaries they have been promised.  The dot-ball enthusiasts, on the other hand, are only enthusiastic because it is Leicestershire delivering them : some amorphous regional entity based in Nottingham is unlikely to attract this faction either.

Still, at the time of writing, Leicestershire are hopeful of qualifying for the quarter-finals and, if they do, I am very tempted to watch them.  Just call me a glory hunter.

 

Diversity and Disintegration

Nottinghamshire v Leicestershire, Trent Bridge, 19th June 2017

Northamptonshire v Leicestershire, County Ground, Northampton, 26th & 29th June 2017

It is odd, or not, how certain words seem to spring to mind repeatedly at certain times, in connection with cricket, and more generally. A few weeks ago, you may remember, that word was drift : more recently it has been superseded by disintegration. On the simplest level, my season has, until now, consisted of an orderly succession of four-day Championship games at Grace Road (interrupted, it is true, by the one-day cup, which, I suppose, had its own integrity), but, as we have approached midsummer and mid-season, with only one more home four-day match before the end of August, it has disintegrated, or, to use a phrase which claims more positive connotations, diversified (and like love and marriage, I believe, you cannot have diversity without disintegration, or vice-versa).

In the last fortnight I have seen the following : a semi-final of the Leicestershire League Cup ; the first day of Leicestershire’s Championship match at Trent Bridge ; Day 2 of a Leicestershire 2nd XI game and Day 3 of a Northamptonshire one ; a 2nd XI club game at Harborough ; the afternoon of the first day of Leicestershire’s day-night game at Wantage Road ; a Women’s World Cup game at Grace Road and the fourth, concluding, day and night at Northampton. In every one of them there was something out of the ordinary : a village side containing ten “Asians” coming within a few runs of beating the mighty Kibworth ; Samit Patel ; a leg-spinner taking ten wickets, including that of his identical twin ; a four-hour walk around a reservoir to a ground with a small Greek temple-cum-mausoleum, the match played to the accompaniment of peacocks and Spitfires ;

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an 11-year old playing an innings of Tayloresque precocity* ; a century before high tea by an apparently reinvigorated Duckett ; an eau-de-nil prosecco bar in a horsebox, and finally, almost, but not, excruciatingly, quite, the extraordinary thing itself.

I intend to return to these happy scenes of diversity on another occasion, but for the moment I will attempt to disentangle the less glittering strand, what, at one time, appeared likely to be the disintegration of Leicestershire’s season, and the disintegration of the team into its constituent parts.

I always approach Trent Bridge hopeful of an enjoyable day, but will doing so less this season because, as part of what sometimes feels like a concerted plan to prevent me watching first-class cricket, Nottinghamshire no longer have a reciprocal agreement with Leicestershire (if you are interested in the economics, an off-peak return to Nottingham costs £19.50 and entry to the ground is £17.00, so I shan’t be visiting too often). On the other hand, my expectations of a favourable result for Leicestershire could hardly have been lower, particularly when I saw that Pattinson, Broad and Ball were available for selection, and that a small heatwave was forecast that made rain an improbable escape route.

My expectations fell further when I saw Leicestershire’s team selection. The gloves had been removed from Eckersley (perhaps due to his Ancient Mariner-style attitude to byes against Sussex), which meant that, with Lewis Hill at no. 7, there was room for only four front-line bowlers, all seamers (and none of them Zak Chappell, who was out with what the OWS described as “a groin”). Pettini was still at no. 6 and there was no sign of Aadil Ali. Choosing to bowl first cannot, in the circumstances, have been a popular decision with the bowlers, and suggested that the Captain had about as much faith in his batting against Pattinson and his posse as I did.

As the temperature rose, my hopes evaporated when Ben Raine, who had just returned from injury, pulled up at the start of his fourth over and returned to the pavilion with his head in his hands (it was his side, not his head, that was ailing, but he also seemed to be experiencing considerable mental anguish). The remaining three seamers (Klein, McKay and Griffiths) cannot have been feeling too chilled either at the prospect of sharing out Raine’s overs on a day when any strenuous activity seemed likely to result in dramatic weight loss by (in spite of which Mark Cosgrove chose to bring himself on early).

In the event, Leicestershire’s bowlers acquitted themselves well by, at the end of the first day, restricting Notts to only 345-4. McKay, who seems to have mislaid his ability to take wickets, but is still treated warily by sensible batsmen, bowled 28.4 overs for 78 runs, and Griffiths, who is a grafter, if nothing else, stuck uncomplainingly to his task. Dieter Klein, who usually aims, like Byron’s tiger, to kill with his first spring, showed hyena-like persistence and was rewarded with 6-142 off his 31 overs. Colin Ackermann offered some welcome relief, if little threat, with 31 overs of his dutiful, minimalist, offspin.

The bulk of Nottinghamshire’s 548 runs were provided by Samit Patel, whose 247 suggested an experienced camel making its progress across the Sahara, not conventionally beautiful, but serene in its natural habitat and self-assured in its mastery of conditions in which most would wilt. Richard Rae described the crowd as “impressively sizeable” and, to be fair, there were some very big lads in the sun-trap of the Hound Road stand, many of whom decided to strip down to their smalls ; for most of us, though, it was a day for flitting between sun and shade, and feeling thankful that we were not in the field.

(These photographs may suggest an attempt at a blue period, or a strong subconscious urge for cool, but, in fact, I had been forced to revert to an old pocket camera and had forgotten to alter the settings. I rather like the effect.)

In the following days, I was not surprised to learn (from afar) that Nottinghamshire had declared on 548, nor that Leicestershire had been bowled out twice, by a piquant statistical quirk, for 134, nor that Pattinson had returned match figures of 8-71, nor that this was Leicestershire’s heaviest innings defeat for 85 years.

I was, though, surprised to learn that Pierre de Bruyn had reacted to the defeat by signing Arun Harinath and Matt Pillans on a short-term loan from Surrey, which seemed to be a frank admission of panic. Harinath is a decent enough opener and might have been a useful acquisition at the start of the season, but to sign him now, with two games to go before the start of the T20 campaign, means that Harry Dearden, who has finally shown signs of establishing himself in the side after a baptism of ice, will now be relegated to the 2nd XI until at least the end of August. Pillans I had, frankly, never heard of, though I was interested to note that he is one of the seven bowlers currently registered in England whom Playfair considers genuinely fast.**

Both, predictably, went straight into the side for the match against Northants at Wantage Road, Harinath replacing Dearden and Pillans the unhappy Raine (Dexter was in for Pettini and Sayer for Griffiths). My expectations of this match were low too, not so much, this time, with respect to Leicestershire’s prospects, but in the sense that I was not expecting to be able to watch very much of it, the ECB having decreed that this round of games should be day-night affairs, played with a bubblegum pink ball. (I think I have made my views on this topic clear quite often enough already, so will not bore you by repeating them.)

The first afternoon, the only part of the match I was expecting to see, was pleasant enough, though somnolent, as though we were starting play three hours late because we had all overslept. It divided into roughly two halves (before and after what I have seen variously referred to as lunch, dinner and tea). In the first half, Ben Duckett smashed (for once that word seems unavoidable) 112 runs from 102 balls, 84 of them coming in fours. He seemed to have, correctly, I think, identified that his problems this season have stemmed from half-heartedness and over-elaboration, and, while eschewing some of his more experimental strokes, concentrated on hitting any vaguely hittable delivery very hard in the direction of the boundary. Four of his fours came off the first over by Pillans, leaving me to wonder if that F in ‘Playfair’ might not stand for “Filth”, rather than “Fast” (though after that he bowled well). When Duckett did go, just in time for tea (or whatever)***, he was caught at short fine leg, off another insufficiently full-blooded lap-slog-sweep.

The second half seemed to consist mostly of Max Holden blocking deliveries from Rob Sayer. Holden is a highly-regarded 19-year-old batsman, on loan from Middlesex, who is described by Cricinfo as having “a strong work ethic” ; Sayer an off-break bowler whose forte is containment. It was a hard to say who was on top in this encounter : Holden seemed to be holding out against a more attacking bowler than Sayer, and Sayer bowling to contain a more aggressive batsman than Holden, who was still inching his way towards a second first-class century, which he was not quite to achieve, when I, without too much regret, left to catch the last bus.

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It was a pleasant evening and there was a small shoal of lads, wearing what used to be called bermuda shorts, arriving as I left, making a bee-line for the bar and the burger stand, which was, unfortunately, shut, as were all the other sources of nourishment. I also spotted a father and son arriving, providing some vindication of the day-night concept, and some compensation for the slightly larger numbers leaving the ground as they arrived.

I followed the evening session, and the next two days and nights of the game from elsewhere, and none of it came as any great surprise. As soon as I had left, Leicestershire (mainly in the person of Dieter Klein, who took another six wickets) had sprung into life, reducing Northants from 211-3 to 261 all out (whether this had anything to do with the pink ball under lights I cannot say). On the Tuesday, Leicestershire had recovered from 87-7 to 157 all out, thanks mainly to a rearguard action by Lewis Hill and the mysterious Pillans. On Wednesday, which was mostly washed out, the game continued until shortly before ten o’clock, and I congratulated myself, as I prepared for bed, on not being at Wantage Road at that time on a cold, damp evening, a prospect which struck me as being about as attractive as spending the evening in a storm drain.

So it is fair to say that when I arrived at 2.00 on Thursday I was not expecting the unexpected. Northamptonshire had declared to set Leicestershire 393 to win, which would have been their highest-ever winning fourth innings total. In fact, I was expecting that Leicestershire would have lost, perhaps ignominiously, well in time for me to catch the last bus home. I was not expecting still to be there at close to nine o’clock, with Leicestershire’s two last men in and only 2 runs required to win. But that is what happened, on an evening which had such a hallucinatory quality that I am not quite certain, in retrospect, that it actually happened.

I had, in fact, been hovering on the point of quitting the ground, as expected, at six o’clock, when Leicestershire had made roughly 200 for 3. Cosgrove had gone, but Ackerman and Eckersley were still in and the lure of witnessing the extraordinary, unexpected thing , the small, nagging, voice of faith, was enough to persuade me to turn around and join a fellow-Fox, who had kindly offered me a lift home, in front of the pavilion.

I shan’t relate the events of the evening blow-by-blow, but it was largely thanks to Colin Ackermann, who batted for a couple of minutes short of five hours for his 105, that we found ourselves, peering through the gloaming, on 357-7, with victory, rationally, more probable than not. There had been several points in the innings where the expected had threatened to reassert its unlovely self, and it loomed into view again when first Ackermann

and then McKay were dismissed, leaving the last two batsmen, Dieter Klein and the Horatian Pillans, 25 short of victory. Pillans, as the stronger of two, expertly farmed the strike and counter-attacked until, having made 56, only those two, final, paltry, excruciating, runs were required, at which point … well, the memory is too fresh and painful to dwell on, but, as you probably know, we lost.

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We could be heroes , just for one evening

I don’t suppose it was quite what the ECB had in mind when they instituted day-night cricket (perhaps beautiful young urban professionals sipping prosecco as the sun sets radiantly over the Oval), but it certainly contributed to the heroic quality of the evening that it was played out in front of, at most, about fifty spectators, the hardest of the hardcore, in dank conditions, long after any source of food, drink or public transport had vanished (if it were not for the presumed “heritage” of the leading participants, I might describe it as being a bit like the Siege of Mafeking). On the other hand, I am not sure I would wish to see the experiment repeated : better to leave that evening lingering as a solitary, shining, memory.

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What effect this will have on the team remains to be seen. It has been said that team spirit is “an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory” ; we shall have to hope that it can also be glimpsed in the aftermath of certain kinds of defeat. But, even if Matthew Pillans picks up a bit of a niggle and has to go straight back to Surrey, never to play for us again, his name will live long in Leicestershire folklore, and the tale of how he almost beat Northamptonshire will grow in the telling, whenever two or more Foxes are gathered together round a campfire, spinning yarns of yore.

* I don’t want to jinx the lad, but his initials are VS.

** The others are Mohammed Amir, Mark Wood, Tymal Mills, Hardus Viljoen, Brydon Carse and Matt Dixon (the last two, in case you’ve never heard of them either, are signed to Durham and Essex respectively).

***The caterers seemed to have got round the problem of which meals the players were meant to be eating by providing an all-you-can-eat buffet. Probably wise to get in the queue early, given the appetites of some of the Northamptonshire staff.

Festivals of Insignificance

England Lions v South Africa A, Northampton, 3 June 2017

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, 9-12 June 2017

It has sometimes occurred to me that the ideal reader of this blog has not yet been born. This is not because, like Friedrich Nietzsche or Martin Peters, I imagine myself to be ahead of my time, but because, I hope, it may serve as a record of a way of life that, I suspect, will have long since ceased to exist. There may still be a game played with bats and balls ; it may be called cricket ; but I do not expect that the County game or the longer forms generally will have survived. So, if anyone out there in the future is interested in knowing what it felt like to watch cricket in the Summer of 2017, it felt, to me, like this.

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Anything in the paper?

I am not yet convinced that 2017 will prove to be a memorable date in English history, and I doubt whether anyone will be able to relate what I have written about cricket to the any event that might make it so. Contemporary accounts of cricket in – say – the Summers of 1914 or 1939 have acquired a retrospective poignancy, in that you would rarely be able to tell from reading them what was about to happen, and we assume from this that the crowds did not know what that would be. It might equally be that they knew, or suspected, perfectly well, but hoped to find in cricket a zone of exclusion, where the horrors could temporarily be forgotten, or, at least, not decently alluded to. (As I have often said, a large part of the appeal of sport is that it offers us the opportunity to lose ourselves in something that, ultimately, doesn’t matter at all.)

So, for the benefit of my readers in 2117, the Lions’ match against South Africa A took place 12 days after an Islamist suicide bomber had killed 23 people (including himself) at a concert in Manchester, mainly attended by young women and girls, and on the day when, in the evening, a group of three terrorists killed eight people in London by driving a van at them and then attacking them with knives. I have seen some fine pieces, written in the aftermath of these events, which have managed to connect them to games of cricket, but, for my part, the only connection I feel is that the game was not quite absorbing enough to mask a deep, dull, sense of disquiet. In the Briggs and Forrester Family Stand, I could connect nothing with nothing.

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My ability to concentrate on the game was not aided by the fact that Northamptonshire had chosen it for a Community Day (our old friend the Family Fun Day under another name), with the result that the crowd consisted largely of parents with young children, who, as usual, were more interested in their own games (more fidget spinners* and simple fidgets than spinners ) than anything occurring on the pitch. In the circumstances, earnestly studying the cricket felt like being a Professor of Zoology visiting a safari park on a Bank Holiday, as if I were rather missing the point.

It also didn’t help that, although the Lions’ opponents were billed as South Africa A, it would not be hard to assemble at least one better XI from South Africans currently playing County cricket, under various flags. Only two of them made much of an impression (the opening bowler Duanne Olivier and off-breaking all-rounder Aiden Markram), and I imagine you can expect to see those two appearing at a County ground near you soon enough.

Another crypto-South African, Dawid Malan, opened the batting with Ben Duckett. In the corresponding fixture against Sri Lanka A last year, Duckett, in what I hope does not turn out to have been his brief pomp, made an inventive 62 and I grew so bored by Malan hitting sixes that I was moved to compare him to “Buns” Thornton. This time Duckett made only 2, before he was caught at mid-wicket off another indeterminate stroke. Last year his strokes could be hard to describe because he was busy inventing exciting new hybrids ; this year he seems unsure himself quite which one he is intending to play.

Bell-Drummond and Vince (two players seemingly stuck in development hell) also departed cheaply, leaving Malan (a restrained 84, until he inexplicably leaped out half way down the wicket and was stumped) and Liam Livingstone (129 off 83 balls) to push the game beyond plausible reach (the final total was 349-7). Given how many openers England have tried recently, it is hard to see why Malan has been ignored : perhaps an almost 30-year old South African is not the kind of player they would ideally wish to be seen employing. Livingstone, whose innings was equally appealing to the Mums, Dads, kiddiz, and even old miseries like me, has the curious quality of batting, in a long-levered style, like a man much taller than his Playfair-billed height of 6’1” (I was quite surprised when I checked). He would fit into England’s one-day line-up well, if they can find the space for him.

South Africa’s reply began brightly, but was half-hearted in the face of some economical, if not overly incisive, bowling, and petered out on a paltry 205. The bowler who impressed most was George Garton, a hostile left-armer from Sussex, who has now played almost as often for the Lions as he has first-class games for Sussex. I did not stay to the end, drifting away at about the same time as most of the families had tired of the entertainment, but returned home in reasonably good spirits (not, of course, to survive long into the evening).

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There are blue skies just around the corner

Leicestershire’s game against Kent began on the morning after the General Election, which you – O gentle retrospect – may have to look up in a book, if you still have such things (it was the first of the year). The campaign had been as long drawn out, painful and unedifying to observe as a man with chronic constipation attempting a crap, and had culminated in a result which should have pleased no-one. It might have been a hangover from that, the weather (overcast, with a chill wind and rain threatening) or pessimism about Leicestershire’s prospects, but I thought I detected at least a mild whiff of what the Argentinians call bronca abroad (a sort of sullen anger).

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I was generally successful in evading the election through the course of the four days, although the combination of free wi-fi and a smart ‘phone sometimes led me to log into Twitter, releasing a thousand “hot takes” to buzz around my ears like angry wasps after my sandwiches. The only time I heard anyone allude to it directly was when a man read out from his ‘phone : “Theresa May will be going to the Palace this afternoon”. If I were Neville Cardus, I would claim that, with the ready wit that comes naturally to Leicestershire supporters, someone responded “I thought the football season had finished” but, in fact, everyone roundly ignored it.

Looking at the scores (Leicestershire 340 and 175 ; Sussex 284 and 234-5), you might suppose that this game was a good advertisement for 4-day cricket : from a neutral’s perspective (or that of the substantial contingent who had swapped good old Sussex-by-the-Sea for Leicester-by-the-Soar) you would be right. The outcome was not quite certain until the last afternoon, there was a mid-game reversal of fortune and one outstanding performance from a new starlet, in the person of Jofra Archer. But Leicestershire supporters are already far too familiar with this storyline to be much beguiled by it.

Leicestershire’s 340 had been hard-won, in the face of a near-international attack comprising Philander, Jordan, Archer, Briggs and David Wiese. (Leaving aside its effect on South African cricket, I am generally agnostic about the recent influx of South Africans, but Wiese does seem a gratuitous signing, given that Garton (who had impressed me for the Lions) was relegated to twelfth man, and Sussex also have Whittingham, Robinson, Ajmal Shahzad and part-timer Tymal Mills on their books).

Now that Horton and Dearden have passed through their early season pain barrier, they have emerged as a moderately reassuring opening partnership : in the first innings Dearden only made 8, but managed to stick around until the 18th over in doing so. Horton contributed 71, Cosgrove (whose excellence I take too much for granted) 128, and Zak Chappell, who seems to have found his feet as a batsman (almost literally so, in that he sometimes plays like someone who has not quite come to terms with being exceptionally tall), a handy 44.

When Sussex were reduced to 156-7, or even 201-9 (thanks mainly to Clint McKay, who has previously been economical this season without taking many wickets), a naive observer would have thought that the advantage lay with Leicestershire. A seasoned observer (and there are some pretty highly-seasoned, not to mention well-pickled, ones in and around the Fox Bar) would not have been surprised when Philander and Briggs (who batted just under two hours for his 27) elongated the score to 284, with a last wicket stand of 83, nor that Leicestershire’s reply soon subsided to 107-7, before a late rally enabled them to go into the last day with a lead of 232.

I have to say that no real blame attaches to Leicestershire’s batsmen, even against an attack depleted by Philander twisting his ankle during a display of over-athletic fielding, and Wiese unable to bowl because of some unspecified ailment. Jofra Archer, a slim 22-year-old with a nonchalant approach to the wicket but an explosive shoulder action, took 6-70 to go with the 5-65 he had taken in the first innings and would have troubled anyone. The last time I saw him (at Grace Road last September) I was impressed by his ability to swing the ball at speed ; this time his chief weapon was the delivery that rose sharply from just short of a length. He looked a better bowler than either Jordan or Philander, or, for that matter, any of the Lions’ pace bowlers ; he is, apparently, waiting to be approached before deciding whether he is English or West Indian, and, if I were Trevor Bayliss, I’d be approaching him pretty sharpish.

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Excuse me, Jofra, could I have a word?

The last morning proceeded to a Sussex win with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, if little of the jollity. The only batsmen to play a significant innings, Luke Wells, was dropped by the wicket-keeper off Chappell, and it does not help in defending a total of 232 to concede 43 extras, including 35 byes and leg-byes. Having said that, I would resist the temptation to remove the gloves from Eckersley, as I suspect his main problem as a ‘keeper, apart from Chappell’s high-speed unpredictability, is lack of match practice.

So, six games played, three draws and three defeats. The top five now seem solid and the four pace bowlers who played here (McKay, Raine, Chappell and Klein) would be my choices. I would be tempted to replace Pettini (who seems to be reverting to last season’s four-day form) with Adil Ali, who is champing at the bit for another bite at four-day cricket, and Tom Wells, who made some useful runs, but was only trusted to bowl four overs, with one of our three spinners (probably Sayer, though they all have their virtues). I still look forward to seeing Chappell, who is very much having to learn his craft in public, run through a side, as he is surely capable of doing, and I remain hopeful that a victory will come before the end of the season (or, preferably, sooner). I should only be pleasantly astonished if it came against a Pattinson-less Nottinghamshire next week.

And, of course, at least puzzling over all this gives me something to worry about that doesn’t really matter at all.

*A toy, very popular in 2017, for some reason.

 

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.