Happy Days and End Games

 

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On my first visit of the season, I complained that the inscription on the sundial in the Garden of Remembrance at the County Ground, Northampton had become illegible. I don’t know whether close to six months at Wantage Road has somehow cleansed my doors of perception, or whether they have shelled out to have it cleaned, but on my last visit I found I could read it clearly. It seems to read:

Make time, save time, while time lasts. All time is no time, when time is past.

This sounds like the sort of riddle contestants on 3-2-1 once had to solve to win a microwave oven, but, in fact, appears to have been borrowed from the 17th century monumental sculptor, Nicholas Stone. If the specifics are a little gnomic, the gist is clear : (depending on how you like your eggs) carpe diem, enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think … YOLO.

As September falls, a sense of an ending concentrates the minds of players, coaches and spectators alike, though unalike, according to their roles. Months of settling for high scoring draws (ensuring that the season will not be the kind of disaster that leads to the coach losing his job) give way to a desperate dash for results. In the previous five months of 4-day cricket at Grace and Wantage Roads I saw two results, in the last five weeks, I have seen five (two defeats and a win for Leicestershire, two wins for Northamptonshire).

For a few players, the end of the season will see their last game, some for their current club, for others anywhere or ever. The same goes for some of the crowd : we all hope to winter well, to see you next year, to have all the time in the world, but, as I was saying in the Spring, it does not do to take time for granted. And hovering at the back of our minds, at this season’s ending in particular, there skulks the baleful figure of the Angel of Death, in the shape of Colin Graves, and his plans for city-based cricket.  All time is no time, when time is past …

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, County Championship, 6-7 September 2016

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Should any of us have required a reminder of our mortality, the first day of this game had been designated as “Heart Attack Awareness Day” : praiseworthy, of course, though I found the sight of children simulating heart attacks in the outfield during the lunch interval did little to alleviate the sense of unease generated by another poor Leicestershire performance. They had gambled by preparing a green wicket against a side whose main strength looked to be its seam bowling, and who would have first use of that wicket. Not unpredictably, they were bowled out for 135 and 119 and, having allowed Sussex to recover from 156-7 to 313 (an inability to dock the tail has been a persistent problem), lost by an innings within two days. As if that were not punishment enough, the Umpires added to the insult by reporting the pitch to the ECB.

Little has gone right for Leicestershire recently ; what, precisely, has gone wrong is peculiarly hard to say, though the steep swan-dive in form has, at least, coincided with the confirmation that coach Andrew McDonald would be returning to Australia and the sudden departure of wicket-keeper and chief opposition-irritant Niall O’Brien. What goes on inside a professional cricket club is as mysterious to outsiders as what goes on inside a marriage : commentary is, at best, speculation, at worst gossip. It does appear to the outside observer, though, that the core of this side, mostly thirty-somethings of Australian or South African origin, are a rather introverted, self-sufficient group whose loyalty is (not unnaturally) to each other, rather than to Leicestershire per se, and who, without being actively unfriendly, see little need to build a rapport with outsiders.

There are also hints of a hierarchical split between the first-teamers (eight of whom have played in almost every four-day match this season) and the younger, local-ish players, reduced to the 2s and fetching and carrying (and who are gradually being shed from the staff). Zak Chappell, potentially the most talented, has been unable to bowl more than a few exploratory overs since he broke down in April, but returned against Sussex. Inevitably, given the long lay-off, his length and direction were awry (though he was quick enough to induce some balletics from Eckersley, who is nothing if not an elegant wicket-keeper). When he did finally find his range to finish the innings by clean bowling Jofra Archer, there seemed to be a marked lack of the usual back-slapping and high-fiving from his senior colleagues, and he was left out for the next game in favour of the ready-made Richard Jones. It would be a shame if he had to go elsewhere to find nurture.

Derbyshire 2nd XI v Glamorgan 2nd XI, Belper Meadows, 8th September 2016

The premature ending at Grace Road gave me a last chance to re-visit what is probably my favourite ground on the circuit, at Belper. I have tried to capture its charm in words before, but, as its appeal is largely aesthetic, it is probably best conveyed in pictures. I wondered why anyone would want to watch city-based cricket when they have the option of its De Chiroco shadows and distant prospects of the East Mill and the Derwent Valley.

(On the subject of intimations of mortality, during this match a Derbyshire batsman, completing his second run to reach 200, was struck on the head by a shy at the wicket. He lay motionless on the ground, and there was initially some concern that he was dead. Happily, it transpired that he was just having a larf (#topbantz!), but I wonder, if he had been killed instantly while out of his ground, but his momentum had carried his lifelless body over the crease, would the run have stood? Is it enough for the batsman’s body to complete the run, or does he need to be present in spirit? A question for Ask the Umpire, perhaps, or possibly a theologian.)

Leicestershire Over 50s v Essex Over 50s, Kibworth, 11h September 2016

The final of the Over 50s 50/50 Cup (I don’t think the Over 60s play 60 overs) saw the first of this season’s happy endings. Leicestershire (the underdogs) were struggling (as the shadows lengthened) at 108-9, in reply to Essex’s 167, when the last man arrived at the crease. He made the bulk of the runs to take us to victory, and, as darkness fell, he was sprayed with Champagne by his team-mates, and presented with the Man of the Match Award by the increasingly Tudor Mike Gatting. This is what is usually described as a “fairytale ending”, or “like something out of a Boy’s Own Comic” ; we instinctively mistrust them as too neat, too satisfying, as, in fiction, they would be. Which is why it matters that it actually happened, and that we can believe our eyes.

Derbyshire v Leicestershire, AAA Arena Derby, 12th September 2016

Of all the counties I know well, I’d say Derbyshire has the most attractive grounds – apart from Belper, there is Chesterfield, Buxton, Duffield and, no doubt, many more I have yet to visit. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the County choose to play all but one of their home games at the AAA Arena, which is rapidly transforming itself into one of the ugliest. It has long suffered from being surrounded by a system of ringroads that makes it perilous to approach and which keeps up a whooshing, grumbling, drone in the background, and is famously windswept. It used to have redeeming features, though, such as a well-stocked secondhand bookshop, decent ice-cream, and deckchairs rather than fixed seating around much of the boundary. Unfortunately, this section was cordoned off in connection with the building of a new media centre, which seems designed to complete the transformation from a cricket ground to a collection of multi-use industrial units (with a Travelodge looming over it all). I am not unaware of the commercial imperatives that lie behind this (and that something of the sort threatens at Grace Road), but the thought does occur that, if this is the future for the smaller counties, then a threatened alternative future of playing minor counties at, for instance, Belper, might well be preferable.

It didn’t help that the weather was dull, the crowd glum (as well they might, not having won a match all season), and it cost £18.00 to get in. On the field, it was another frustrating day for Leicestershire, who having ground Derbyshire down to 177-6, as usual allowed 19-year old wicket-keeper Harvey Hosein (83*) to drag the innings out to 307. Both sides looked weary, as though they felt that the season had gone on for too long, and as the gloaming descended in the late afternoon, I began to feel the same way. The most interesting feature of the day was that one of the home supporters had brought along a pet tortoise in a cardboard box, which was allowed to graze just outside the boundary fence ; on the whole I found watching that more entertaining than what was going on inside it.

Northamptonshire v Gloucestershire, County Ground, 12-15 September 2016

Moving from Derby to Northampton was to move from gloom into bright light (once the early mist had burned off). Since their T20 victory, Northamptonshire have been sealed in a golden bubble of happiness, on a winning streak where every gamble they take pays off, where they only have to hope for something to make it happen, much as it must seem to their talisman Duckett (who, while Leicester and Derby had been toiling, had knocked off 208 in a victory over Kent). In this match he could only manage a 70, mostly backhand-smashed off Gloucestershire’s quartet of season-weary back-of-a-length merchants, though he was presented with the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year Award (not to mention being called up by England).

On the final day, Gloucestershire had been set 441 to win. At 286-5 with time shortening, logic suggested a draw, but dream logic demanded that Northants should bowl them out, and that Ben Sanderson (a plucked-from-obscurity fairy story in himself), should take eight wickets to do it. After that it was beers on the balcony, and precious, sweaty, kit flung over it to the faithful, who lingered as long at the ground as they decently could. Make time, save time, while time lasts …

Northamptonshire’s Members too, seem to be locked in a golden bubble of happiness, to the extent that they have allowed themselves to be persuaded to surrender control of the club to a “group of investors” (I voted against this). The current investors appear to be amiable and well-intentioned, and, in the short-term, the future may well appear bright. In the longer term, though, when those investors grow old, or need some cash, the ex-Members may discover that it is harder to regain control of a club than to surrender it, at least until it goes bust (as the supporters of more than local football club will testify).

On the other hand, the long term is too far ahead to look for some of the older Members. As I heard one say “Oh, well. There’ll be cricket here next year … and maybe the year after”. Carpe diem … and let the future look after itself.

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, Grace Road, 20-22 September 2016

And so to the end, and a bitter end it looked to be, when Leicestershire were bowled out for 96 on the first morning (on what Andrew McDonald described as one of the worst days of first-class cricket he had ever seen). I won’t bore you with what led them to this position, but Gloucestershire found themselves, at lunch on the third day, needing 35 to win with 6 wickets in hand. There followed a fairytale ending, of the kind in which the big bad wolves (in the shape of Clint McKay and Charlie Shreck) gobble up the little piggies, as they lost those six wickets for ten runs, to give Leicestershire their first home win since 2012. It somehow happened too quickly to quite take in, and, after a brief explosion of disbelief and relief, I was left with the realisation that, after close to six months, and God knows how many thousands of words, it was all over, finished, gone, and I could think of nothing to say about it at all.

All time is no time, when time is past …

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The Business End of a Squeaky Bum

Leicestershire v Essex, Grace Road, County Championship, Thursday 25th August 2016

 

 

There are various ways of approaching the end of a season. Cardus, amongst other Paterian elegancies, wrote of it “August finds the game, like the sun itself, on the wane.  Now the sands are running out every evening as the match moves towards its close in yellow light; autumnal colours darken play at this time of the year; cricketers are getting weary in limb, and even the spirit has lost the first rapture.”  Football managers prefer the more prosaic term”business end“, or even the regrettably graphic “squeaky bum time“.

Cardus was able to contemplate the pathos of the dying fall in peace because he was writing about the period between the wars when there was only one Division, and the Counties knew their place.  Yorkshire would usually be Champions (12 times between 1919 and 1939), and always finished in the top five.  The other five of the “Big Six” – Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Middlesex and Kent – would finish in the top half of the table (only once, three, three, six times and twice respectively did they fail to do so) : Northamptonshire, Glamorgan, Leicestershire, Somerset and Worcestershire would occupy the lowest rungs of the ladder.

After the War, as the rules regarding qualification were relaxed, the ancien regime began to totter, and, after the introduction of overseas players, mere anarchy was loosed upon the Championship : Yorkshire frequently finished in the bottom five, and even Leicestershire won the title four times***. This situation could not be allowed to continue, and the tendency, since the introduction of two divisions, has been for a gradual slide towards the segregation of the “Big Six” (with Warwickshire replacing Kent) in Division 1 (plus Durham and one or two anomalies, such as Somerset and Sussex) from the lesser Counties, who are confined to the lower Division.  Such is progress.

The two main arguments in favour of this division are as outlined (by no means for the first time – they have been around since the nineteenth century) by Roy Webber in 1958.* The first is that it would “be of benefit in finding a better strain of county cricketer” ; the second is that it “would undoubtedly keep interest high right through to the end of the season … I imagine that we would have “house full” signs if, say, Worcestershire and Leicestershire were playing each other in the last match of the season with promotion to Division One at stake”. The first is an argument for another time, but I am doubtful whether the second has worked out quite as Webber anticipated.

Relegation, it is true, is feared by the bigger counties (particularly by their coaches, who usually get the sack). On the other hand, they can reasonably count on being promoted again, if not at the first attempt, then the second. For the smaller clubs, the brief elation of promotion is usually followed by a season of humiliation and immediate relegation (as Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and – although they managed to hang on for a second season – Worcestershire have recently found out). Mike Newell (the coach of Nottinghamshire, who look likely to be relegated) may be worried about his future, but those of the smaller counties still in contention for promotion may equally be feeling some ambivalence about theirs.

Although it is also not impossible that the scenario envisaged by Webber (of a climactic do-or-die shoot out) might happen (Essex and Kent, who, at the time of writing, are first and second, play each other in the last round of matches), the complexity of the points scoring system and the glacial speed at which things happen in Championship cricket militate against it. It is more likely, that Essex -say – will be promoted if they take two bonus points from their last match, unless Sussex take maximum points from theirs (and, of course, if the rain doesn’t make the decision for them).

All of which is a preamble to my account of last week’s game against Essex, and some attempt to compensate for the fact that I missed most of it, due to family commitments. Essex began the match in first place, Leicestershire in second. If Leicestershire had won, they would have been in serious contention for promotion ; if they drew, it would still have been possible ; if, as actually happened, they lost by an innings within three days, then that hope would be reduced to a mere “mathematical possibility”.

There have been various points throughout the season, which I have previously noted, where Leicestershire have failed to press home their advantage (not enforcing the follow on at home against Northants being the most glaring), but the final, fatal, one seems to have occurred on the second day. Leicestershire made 238 (thanks, largely, to Cosgrove, who has been huge this season). Our secret weapon, our midget submarine, our V2, Dieter Klein, soon had Essex “reeling” at 68-5 (his four wickets included Alistair Cook, yorked for 4), but, in the absence of Clint McKay (or a spinner) to deliver a knock-out blow, they soon stopped reeling, and pulled themselves together enough to make 368-8  by the close of play.

The weather for the third day looked promising, with heavy showers forecast all afternoon, but, in the event, it proved to be the kind of day – low cloud, some overnight rain to freshen the pitch – on which you would least fancy your chances against the side with three of the top six wicket-takers in Division 2 (Napier, Porter and Bopara), and the leader in the bowling averages (the – unfortunately – evergreen ex-Fox David Masters).**

But we tried, we really did. With the score on 53-2, and some light drizzle in the air, Mark Cosgrove gave a masterclass in time wasting, apparently suffering, at the same time, an attack of restless leg syndrome that compelled him to wander out to square leg between every ball, and some kind of obsessive syndrome that meant he had to remove every speck of dirt from the wicket before he could face the next delivery. We in the stands did our bit : we opened umbrellas, looked mournfully to the skies, shook our heads, held out our palms, took shelter from the rain (one of the player’s mothers gave a particularly convincing performance, I thought). We won a brief respite of half an hour or so, but it was no use and – as I have said – the innings defeat arrived shortly after tea.

So that is it, I suppose. There are still three games to play : Leicestershire could finish anywhere between second and, not impossibly, last in the table, but I now feel I can return to my contemplation of the dying fall in peace.  There was little drama, no displays of wild emotion, no-one burst into tears (of joy or despair), and there were no squeaky bums in evidence (though, thanks to the wet seats, there were – topically – a few soggy bottoms).

I was, by the way, impressed by what I saw of Alastair Cook ; not on the pitch (where his contribution this season has been significant for Essex), but by his friendly relationship with the visiting supporters, and his patient dealings with various autograph-hunters and selfie-seekers, some senescent, some juvenile : one young Indian boy (wearing a Union Jack t-shirt) seemed particularly overjoyed to have had a picture taken with him.

Late on in the afternoon he had evidently been called away on some important business (which turned out to be about the tour to Bangladesh).  He had just packed away his kit in his (quite modest) 4×4, and started his engine, when a steward approached with a Mother and child in tow. He turned the engine off again, dismounted, and submitted good-humouredly to another lengthy photo-session.  He didn’t really have to do this, and (however awkward his press conferences might be), I was impressed.

* ‘The County Cricket Championship’ : Sportsman’s Book Club, 1958.

** Precisely the sort of “typically English seamers“, of course, that the ECB is determined to discourage. We shall endure.

*** Wishful thinking. Actually three times.

Eckersley in Excelsis

Leicestershire v Derbyshire, Grace Road, LVCC, 4-7 August 2016

Those of us who follow cricket, in particular County cricket, are often accused of “living in the past“, or painting a “rose-tinted“, “sepia” picture of it (though what – in the age of Instagram filters – could be more modern?).  There is some truth in this (though I would argue that nostalgia, in the sense of homesickness and a consciousness of loss, is about the most profound experience the game has to offer), but what we are equally prone to do is to live in the future, and a rosy future at that.

As soon as a season’s fixtures are published, in the depths of Winter, we map out dream itineraries, new grounds to visit, old faces to re-encounter ; we dream of warm Springs,  high Summers, poignant Autumns.  A new face in the side sparks hope ; a few decent strokes and we are watching the next Gower, a hint of real pace from a debutant and he is giving the Aussies hell at the Gabba.  Needless to say, we are usually disappointed, but not for long, as there is always another season, and new new faces to look forward to.

What we do not often do, between looking back and looking forward, is to live in the present, but there is always one moment, one day in the season, when we would not wish to be anywhere else in time.  For many, I imagine, it would come at a Test, or at the moment of some personal triumph, but for me, this year, it came on the fourth day of what turned out to be a drawn game between Leicestershire and Derbyshire at Grace Road.

It helps that, for the first time since I began writing this blog in 2009, Leicestershire still have a realistic chance of being promoted at this stage of the season.  Unfortunately, due to the number of drawn games this year, so do five other Counties, but it does mean that, for once, thoughts at Grace Road have not yet begun to turn to the hope of better things next year.

I joined the game shortly before lunch on the third day, with Derbyshire about a hundred short of Leicestershire’s first innings total of 380, with eight wickets down.  This soon became nine and the Foxes must have been content to postpone their lunches in the expectation of polishing off the young debutant off-spinner, Callum Parkinson.  Unfortunately Parkinson (who, through rose-tinted spectacles, is clearly the new Graeme Swann) proved to be a wolf in rabbit’s clothing, and had no difficulty in holding them off until hunger drove them into the pavilion.

Over lunch it seemed to dawn on Leicestershire that this might be the precise moment when promotion slipped away from them, because they re-emerged with the seeming plan of trying to bully the youngster out.  “Let’s give him a nice easy game lads, lots of half volleys” came a voice from behind the stumps (which must have puzzled the lad, as this was pretty much what they had been doing for the previous half hour). “He’s only 19” bellowed Charlie Shreck from the boundary, menacingly, like the Great Long Legged Scissor Man. “Better than being 39“, retorted a nearby Derbyshire supporter, piquantly (the bowler pondered this melancholy truth in silence).

Parkinson was left stranded on 48*, having put on 73 for the last wicket to bring his side to within 18 of Leicestershire’s total. For the second time in the match, Leicestershire’s prospects looked bleak when Ned Eckersley came in at number 7, with the score at 103-5 (in their first innings, they had been 138-5 before he scored his first century).

Edmund “Ned” Eckersley has been weaving in and out of this chronicle since he made his first appearance as a triallist in 2011 (as “the man with no squad number” and an impressive portfolio of nicknames). In 2013 he scored over a thousand runs at an average of over 50, and was neck and neck with a certain Moeen Ali as the leading run scorer in Division 2. His highlight that season was scoring two centuries in the match against Worcestershire, many of them off the innocuous looking off-spin of the same Moeen.

After that, through the lean years, he seemed miscast as senior batsman and rock of the side at number three. He became introverted and crabbed, weighed down with responsibility, and began to exhibit Trott-like symptoms, such as obsessive crease-scratching. The runs dried up, his average declined (27 in 2014, 25.74 last year). He was said to crave a return to his native Smoke, he wrote a piece for the Cricketer and tried some work experience as a journalist. So far this season he has been sidelined with a broken finger (perhaps sustained through excessive typing).

Eckersley has a whiff of Bohemia about him : unusually for a modern cricketer, he would look more at home in the Cafe Royale than Nandos. My first mention in “Wisden” singled out a description of his beard, on its first appearance, as “scrubby” and “rabbinical”. Since then, it has been through an Assyrian phase, and a crypto-hipster one, before settling on an unstyled long hair and beard combo which makes him look, with the white-rimmed shades Leicestershire currently sport, like a Greenwich Village folksinger who has just discovered LSD and is about to go psychedelic, or, perhaps, Robert Powell in the role of Jesus of Nazareth.

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Borrowed shamelessly from the Cricket Paper

Being moved down to number 7, with six experienced batsmen above him, does seem to have allowed him to play as he would he choose to, freed from constraint. Early on he was watchful and fastidious in his choice of strokes ; as the danger receded, his top hand took over and was given free rein in the covers. By early afternoon he was approaching his second century, and Leicestershire were in a position where a declaration might have tempted Derbyshire into a hazardous run-chase. But Eckersley was allowed to bat on (it didn’t help that he was, through no fault of his own, stalled for 15 minutes on 99) and that moment passed.

Derbyshire were listing badly at 5-2,, but Madsen and Thakor righted the vessel and the two sides shook hands on a draw. I thought they did so a little prematurely, but then I noticed a barbie was already smouldering behind the pavilion (perhaps set up by the families of the Australian contingent, who sometimes turn sunny days at Grace Road into a scene from Home and Away). No doubt Eckersley, whose 27th birthday was the next day, would be offered the choicest cuts, but I hope they kept a sausage or two for young Parkinson.

Eckersley was allowed to lead the sides off the field : there is a wonderful photograph of that moment by Ed Melia, which suggests what made it, for me, the day of the season (you can see it here). Aside from its formal qualities, it seems to capture the precise moment when a player’s career is at its absolute zenith, neither promising nor declining, looking neither forward or back, the moment, perhaps never to be repeated, when he would not wish to be anywhere else.

Ripeness is all.

Northamptonshire v Leicestershire, County Ground, LVCC, 13-16 August 2016

I suggested, at the start of the season, that Northamptonshire’s strategy in the Championship seemed to be, bearing in mind that they have a reasonable batting side, but apparently weaker bowling, to prepare dead pitches, opt for high-scoring draws and hope to “nick one on the break” towards the end, when sides in contention for promotion might be inclined to make sporting declarations. That has proved accurate, the only game at Wantage Road that has not been drawn being the slightly freakish defeat by Worcestershire. This game was another that would have gone into its second week, had it not been for a sporting declaration : the surprise was that it came from Northants, and not Leicestershire.

In their first innings, Leicestershire compiled 519, with three centuries, including a third in three innings for Eckersley (which I missed, not being there on the Sunday). On the Monday, Northamptonshire had reached 397-7 (Newton 202*) when, to the surprise of all, they declared. On the Tuesday, to the surprise of most (but not me), Leicestershire batted on to set Northants a notional target of 405 in 51 overs.

The shadow-boxing on the Tuesday had the unfortunate effect of casting doubt on the validity of 18 year-old slow left armer Saif Zaib’s figures of 5-148 off a very long 26 overs. In fact, though some of his wickets did come off silly hoicks, he could easily have had five legitimate ones, if there had been more close catchers in place. It also, unfortunately, ruined Eckersley’s chances of equally C.B. Fry’s record of six centuries in succession, as he was caught at long on for 1, off a ball by – of all people – wicket-keeper David Murphy. He might have preferred to bat the day out.

Those who enjoy living in the past had an opportunity to re-enact it on the Monday, when various members of the side who won the Gillette Cup in 1976 were having a re-union (and those, like Mushtaq, who could not attend were there in spirit, on a big screen). Sarfraz Nawaz, looking only a little less like Omar Sharif than he did in his heyday, was cornered in the car park by the same men, I suspect, who, as boys, had cornered him there forty years ago. I don’t suppose they sang “Forty Years On”, though parts of it would have been appropriate.

Leicestershire will play the current leaders, Essex, at Grace Road this coming week, without their bowling talisman and leading wicket-taker, Clint McKay, who pulled up lame towards the end of Northamptonshire’s first innings (the chief reason they did not declare earlier). Defeat would make promotion for Leicestershire improbable, and though I would not underestimate the acumen of our Australian management team, they might – assuming they really want us to be promoted – find themselves looking back in regret at a few of the dies that they have declined to carpere over the course of the season.

On the other hand, though, young Zak Chappell looked about ready to bowl again, and, anyway, there’s always next year …

 

 

 

 

 

 

Super Heroes and Scary Creeps

There comes a point in every season when it starts to curdle.  In a hot Summer (which, in our case, we have not had), hot for too long, the grass scorches, flowers wilt and go to seed, rivers choke, tempers fray ; a feeling of satiety, and beyond satiety, excess. Too much heat, too much lager, too much sun, too much fun, just too much ; too much ice-cream, too many chips, too many runs, too many sixes, too much cricket.

The feeling will pass (has passed) : a palate-cleansing visit to an outground, a nip in the air, the first leaves of Autumn creeping on to the outfield, will makes the passing season seem precious again, but, while it lasts, the spell is broken and I see cricket through the eyes of one who cannot see the point.  What does it matter if those three little sticks get knocked down?  What is so clever about hitting that ball so far?  What is the point?

I usually reach this point at about this time, and it’s often at a 50 over game : this year, I pushed my luck by watching three in the space of six days.  I witnessed two (I believe) record-breaking innings and more sixes than you could have seen in an average season forty years ago, and, with the exception of one multi-faceted gem, my overwhelming feeling was one of futility, satiety, just too much.

England Lions v Sri Lanka A, Wantage Road, 21st July

Lions fixtures attract unpredictable crowds.  I once, for instance, saw Joe Root play one of the best innings I’ve seen, against a strong New Zealand side, in front of a crowd of about 20 at Grace Road ; a few months later, he was playing much the same innings with tens of thousands all ROOOOTing  loudly for him. Perhaps because it was a one-day match, perhaps even because it was a day-night match, or perhaps just because it was free, there was an unusually good turnout at Wantage Road for the visit of a poor Sri Lanka A (I’m not sure I want to see Sri Lanka B).

There were quite a few children there (who, as children will, seemed more interested in their own games than the one on the pitch). There were clean-cut young men with a certain swagger, a lot of Jack Wills and Abercrombie and Fitch and yah-ing (and these can’t all have been friends and team-mates of the players).  Mr.and Mrs. Percival Bell-Drummond were there, as always, dressed as if for a garden party at Buckingham Palace. The Northamptonshire loyalists had turned out specifically to see Ben Duckett, and then there were a few “passionate England fans”.

On my way in, I passed a couple of elderly regulars, packing their kit up into their old carrier bags and shuffling off, like tramps moved on by the police.  One said to the other “imagine having that in your ear all afternoon“.  In their usual roost behind the bowler’s arm sat a fat man in a replica shirt bawling into his ‘phone in an estuarine accent “so he said the £40 million was all down to Brexit, so I put the ‘phone down on him“. I didn’t wait to find out whether he did keep it up all afternoon, but I imagine what followed was his idea of a good time.

The first ten overs (the “powerplay”) followed the usual formula.  Bell-Drummond played well enough, placing the ball accurately through the gaping holes Sri Lanka were forced to leave in the outfield, most memorably with the sort of bottom-handed gouge that now rivals the traditional cover drive.  He is a good player, but this, against some moderate pace bowling, was like playing tennis with no net.  Fortuitously, he was stumped for 52 soon after the powerplay had ended and the spinners (Sri Lanka employed four) had come on.  This brought the man whom the crowd (including me) had come to see to the crease, to much applause.

This was the second time this season I have seen Ben Duckett play a one-day innings of any length.  I have consulted his “waggon wheel” to confirm my memory of it, and there it is, like some exquisite tropical fish, with a fan tail of straight drives and two feathery fins square of the wicket, composed of dismissal-defying cuts, sweeps and reverse sweeps, mostly from turning balls in front of his stumps.  Of his eight fours, four were behind square on the off side, as well as two scoop-cum-ramps back over his head off a returning paceman.  Once or twice he missed or mis-hit, but, with the luck of the brave, he survived, only to fall to a tame caught-and-bowled, for 61 (which seemed a bit like Al Capone being done for tax evasion).

Duckett is not, as both the Northamptonshire police and Brett D’Oliveira will attest, always innocent of displays of gratuitous bravado, but the beauty of his innings was that the match situation enabled him to put his undoubted virtuosity at the service of the needs of the team, to avoid getting bogged down in the slough of the middle overs.  It seemed, as the best batting does, successful against the odds, even if only the narrow ones of some better than inept bowling on a wicket that was taking a little turn.

It was at the same time modern and reminiscent of Jack Hobbs in his fleet-footed pre-War prime, when his party trick was to skip out to leg and cut the ball to the boundary off middle-stump (for which he, like Duckett, was often berated by sober critics for showing off).  It was also, unlike those that followed, an innings that he could have played with a Herbert Sutcliffe Autograph. What followed was Dawid Malan’s innings (with Sam Billings in a supporting role).

The facts are that Malan scored 185* off 126 balls, with 8 sixes and 16 fours, the most memorable of which were struck off the front foot back over the bowler’s head. It is a style of batting that would have been entirely familiar to “Buns” Thornton in the 1870s, and would have been warmed the heart of that redoubtable proponent of Golden Age batting, E.H.D. Sewell. The difference is that dear old “Buns”, unlike Malan, would not have been armed with a G&M Maxi F4.5 (or similar) and would have expected to perish somewhere in the outfield before he had reached 50.

E.H.D. Sewell

E.H.D. Sewell

The crowd, who did not seem to have been drinking too heavily, seemed rather blasé about this record-breaking innings, though there were a few murmurs of “Yah, gun bat” from the Jack Wills crew, and the children were distracted from their games when they had to scatter to avoid being brained by one of Malan’s sixes. I found it as entertaining a sporting spectacle as someone taking a twelve-bore to a farrowing shed, and was not too sorry when I had to leave before Sri Lanka began their hopeless attempt to overhaul England’s total of 393-5, as the clouds that were to curtail the evening began to loom.

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Leicestershire v Yorkshire, Royal London Cup, Grace Road, 24th July 2016

This Sunday had been designated as Superhero Day. Other than Charlie Fox (who was dressed as Superman), only about ten people had come in costume, but there was something appropriate about the theme, in so far as superhero films represent something essentially infantile, but hyper-inflated by technology and hype.

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Yorkshire’s innings started entertainingly enough, with Adam Lyth run out in the first over for 2 (he consoled himself by buying a bacon cob from the burger van), and Alex Lees (upright as always) making 32.

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After that, Travis Head (who sounds like a permed AOR one-hit wonder from 1978, but is actually an Australian), and Jack Leaning played essentially the same innings as Malan, only this time in stereo. Again the statistics tell the whole story : Head made 175 off 139 balls (4 sixes and 18 fours) and Leaning 131* off 110, with 5 sixes and 7 fours. Yorkshire finished on 376-3. A few years ago these figures would have been extraordinary, but today are anything but.

In the interval Charlie Fox raced a bear, representing a local charity, and various groups of (mainly Muslim) schoolgirls played organised games in the outfield.

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It was all very inclusive, and accessible, and sweet, but it seemed, as we settled down on the pop side after the break, that it had not met with universal approval. Two women wearing niqab walked by. “It’s a disgrace. Shouldn’t be allowed” was one loudly voiced opinion from a group of Yorkshire supporters. Shortly afterwards, I heard a woman (whom I did not recognise) complaining to a steward. The only part of her complaint I could hear was “It’s just horrible”.

Another, larger, male steward was summoned and spoke to a well-dressed man, who received the news that he was being asked to leave impassively, as though being thrown out of the ground were an unavoidable, minor irritant of the cricket-watching life, on a par with rain, or bad light. He drained his pint and handed the glass to the steward (without even asking for the £1 deposit back). “I’ll just get me things” said his wife, and off they went.

The fact that their side was taking a drubbing did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of Leicestershire’s Ultras.  Early season favourites “Jamie Vardy’s Having a Party” and “We Want Our Country Back” had been mothballed, but any tentative chant of “York-sheer” was met with “Flat Caps and Whippets” and “You Haven’t Even Got a Football Team“.  There was some mirthful stuff about burkas, and AIDS ; it wasn’t “racist” (apart from anything else it’s a multiracial group), not even “offensive”, because none of it made any sense.

A woman with short, bleached hair walked past, accompanied by what might have been her grand-children, on the way to the ice-cream parlour.  An imagined resemblance to Annie Lennox was spotted, and, on her way back, she was met with a loud chorus of “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”.  She looked embarrassed, the man in front of me was literally crying with laughter, and I’d had enough.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the far side of the ground, a long way from the action, but pleasantly sunlit, as Leicestershire went through the motions of a reply before subsiding, chiefly to Adil Rashid and Aseem Rafiq, after 33 overs.  “Leicestershire La La La“sounded quite soothing from over there.

Leicestershire v Lancashire, Grace Road, Royal London Cup, 26th July

I’m not quite sure why I turned up for this one.  In the morning, I had to see a woman about a dog,

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so only caught Lancashire’s reply to Leicestershire’s 307, which struggled to get going against a makeshift attack devoid of conventional straight-up-and-down pace (Neil Dexter’s medium pace claimed 4-22, and even Paul Horton took a wicket).  If I had stayed to the end, I would have seen Leicestershire win by 131 runs (their first 50-over victory for two years), though their interest in this competition (small as it was) ended some time ago.

One source of the batsmen’s discomfort was the debut of Dieter Klein, the German-South African who bowls briskly off five paces, and still has the element of surprise.  At one point, he fielded a firmly struck cover drive off his own bowling and was back at his mark before the batsmen had decided whether to run or not. If nothing else (and he did take 2-38), he offers a one-man solution to slow over rates.

I was also intrigued by the appearance of a half familiar bearded figure, a cross between Bob Dylan and a Renaissance Christ, acting as a substitute fielder for Leicestershire.

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Who was this apparition?  Well, that’s a story for next time.

All is Ripeness : Ripeness is All. Pt. 2. New Blooms, Nipped in the Bud

Leicestershire 2nd XI v MCC Universities, Desborough, 19-20 July 2016 

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Here’s a handy tip.  If you can think of a ground that is hell to visit in early season, where the wind whips unmercifully, and then think of the place where you would least like to sit, then that will be the ground to visit, and the spot to sit in, on the hottest day of the year.  The wind that bit through to your bones in April will have bloomed into a gently caressing zephyr by July.  So, on this year’s hottest day, I visited Desborough.

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Desborough is not, by reputation, idyllic. A small Northamptonshire town, which still has some manufacturing (shoes and corsets), it lies five miles (as the sign-post says) from Harborough (in Leicestershire), where I live.  I have watched Northamptonshire’s 2nd XI play here before : this season they play at least one game in Harborough ; Leicestershire, conversely and confusingly, are playing several in Desborough.

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The ground is surrounded on three sides by farmland, on the other by the “West Lodge Farm Centre”, a sort of petting zoo for children.  The wheat in the neighbouring fields is ripening ; a combine is harvesting, and, no doubt, separating the wheat from the chaff.  On one side of the ground, the baa-ing of sheep is audible through the hedge that acts as an all-too permeable membrane, and, separately, the bleating of the goats in the petting zoo.  Wheat and chaff, sheep and goats.

 

To the spectator, the world of the Leicestershire Second XI (or “Tooze”) cricketer appears an idyll.  You play at the prettier grounds, hang out with your mates and get a decent free feed.  You can loll in front of the pavilion, doze on the treatment table, or walk very slowly round the boundary in your training kit and flip-flops, kicking or spinning a ball in front of you ; you can top up your tan, and if you circumnavigate in twos or threes, it gives you the chance to have those conversations that are not for the ears of the coach, or your team-mates.

Idyllic though it may appear, like Tambimuttu’s Soho, it does not pay to become too seduced, because, once seduced, it is not always possible to escape, at least not in the way that you would choose.  Mostly, the toozemen are cricket’s precariat, Pietersen’s “muppets on £15k” (if that), living from one short-term contract to another, hoping for a chance to break through into the Firsts (or even, like Harry Gurney, achieve a kind of miraculous translation), fearing that, in that kindly-sounding phrase, they will be “released” back into the wild, and then what? Golf pro? Master in Charge of Cricket? Too late to give rugby another go?

This is the time of the season, as it ripens, when the serpent is in the garden, and the worm is in the bud ; next year’s contracts are being decided ; the wheat is being separated from the chaff, and the sheep from the goats. The coach is on his ‘phone, out of earshot “I’m telling you this in the strictest confidence …”, a player on loan from another county is there (though not playing), talking to the coach (how many seamers will they need next year?), there are earnest, awkward, appraisal-like conversations on the boundary stroll  (“I don’t feel like I’ve been given an extended run …”).  Someone might be going to Somerset.

“The students'” bowling should give the batsmen a chance to make a good impression.  The top five, half-successes, in and out of the side, half-succeed and half-fail, twenties, thirties, not enough.  One looks good for twenty, thirty, then – a moment’s inattention – pats a long hop to square leg.  The ground falls silent (even the sheep) and waits for the slamming of the door, the sound of a bat thrown against the wall.

At six – and how infuriating this must be to those batsmen who have never wanted to do anything but bat for a living – is the Golden Boy, who would, but for injury, be bowling in the first team.  He is worth his place in the Tooze for his batting and he bats – though I doubt he’s heard of him – like Tony Grieg, drawing himself up to his full height (6’4″, or is it 6’6″ by now?) to force straight drives off the back foot, effortlessly through the hedge and in amongst the sheep.  So, effortlessly, almost apologetically (I’m not quite sure how I did that) and infuriatingly, he makes 81 and turns the innings around. It wouldn’t matter if he hadn’t.  The anxiety about contracts is, in his case, on the side of the club, and he is still in his teens.  He has, you see, all the time in the world.

The next day, it is the students’ turn to bat and Leicestershire have unveiled a secret weapon (a sort of midget submarine), in the shape of one Dieter Klein.  No-one has heard of him before, and he introduces a new element into the equation (how many seamers do you think they’ll need again?).  He looks to be in his late twenties, is short for a fast bowler, with very fair hair and a high forehead.  He looks like a heavily muscled version of Derek Underwood and, until he reaches his delivery stride, as though he’s going to bowl like him too.  A left-armer, he bowls off about five full paces, apparently relying on the strength of his chest and shoulders ; his deliveries fizz and blow up in the batsmen’s faces like Mills Bombs.  He could probably complete an over in the time it takes Toby Roland-Jones to bowl a single ball.

Klein proves a little too fast for most of “the students” and by late afternoon on the second day (and the second hottest of the year) their innings is in its death throes.  You can’t see or hear it yet, but you can feel the thunder is coming.  The outfielders have been acting the goat all afternoon (while the coach seems pre-occupied by his ‘phone) and, as the atmosphere thickens, they seem suddenly, giddily, struck by the absurdity of their situation.

Jigar Naik is bowling ; Golden Boy (clearly bored) turns from chanting his name as encouragement (as, presumably, instructed) to improvising wild rhythmic variations on it “Jiggary Naikary Jiggary-Pokery Naikery-Snakery“, rather in the style of Vachel Lindsay.  Fieldsmen who have been slipping in a few surreptitious baas metamorphose in unison into a flock “Baaa baaaa baaaaa “.  Look, coach, sheep – not goats!

A two year contract would be nice

A two year contract would be nice

As the black clouds creep up from behind the pavilion, like Bela Lugosi unfurling his cape,

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I try to make good my escape before the rain starts (it is about forty minutes’ walk to the bus stop).  On my way a farm dog, perhaps spooked by the thunder, or aiming for the peacock’s tail feather that is protruding, lunges for my bag (my Playfair sustains some minor damage). About fifteen minutes out (too late to turn back), the rain comes.  The only place to shelter from the lightning is under a radio transmission mast.  I submit, and stand, and in five minutes I am soaked, as the French say, to the bone.  In another twenty, as the pavement steams, I am as dry as a bone.

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Postscript : Nic Pothas (the coach) is leaving for Sri Lanka ; Dieter Klein (who turns out to have a good first-class record in South Africa and a German passport) and Richard Jones (the loanee from Warwickshire) have been offered two-year contracts, as has Lewis Hill (the bat-thrower).  We await further announcements.

 

 

 

England’s Fitful Dozing

On the Sunday afternoon of the Worcestershire game at Wantage Road, I found myself sitting in the back row of the Briggs & Forrester Family Stand.  If there is any sun, this stand traps it (several tattooed men had stripped to the waist, closed their eyes and were using it as a cheap alternative to a tanning salon) ; there was also a strong south-easterly wind.  A few rows in front of me sat a ruddy-faced man from Worcestershire (I like to think he was a retired pear-farmer) wearing a broad-brimmed canvas hat.

Perhaps nine times in the hour I sat there the wind blew the hat off his head.  Sometimes it lifted it vertically, like a Harrier jump-jet, and flipped it backwards on to the seat behind ; sometimes it spun off horizontally like a Frisbee ; once it cartwheeled away and came to rest four or five rows back.  Every time, the man patted his head to confirm his headgear had gone, before, with a look of mild puzzlement, trotting patiently back to retrieve it and replace it on his head. It did not seem to occur to him to take his hat off, or move to a less blowy location.

Something about this scene seemed to me to suggest the mentality of the regular watcher of County cricket : the dogged persistence, in the face of considerable experience to the contrary,  in believing that, if you turn up day after day after day, you will eventually be rewarded with the discovery of whatever it is you have come there to find.  I say “you”, but, of course, what I really mean is “me”.

I have often referred to Cardus’s visions of the ideal, Platonic season (In “Prelude” and “the Summer Game” and elsewhere), where “when June arrives, cricket grows to splendour like a rich part of the garden of an English summertime” and “if the sun be ample and you close your eyes for a while you will see a vision of all the cricket fields in England at that very minute” and I would count myself unlucky if I did not, at least once a year, surprise, or be surprised by, some midsummer spirit of cricket (and often in some of the less looked-for places, such as here, or even here).

Whether, if ever, the season, like a budding English garden, blooms and “grows to splendour” depends on that elemental, but banal quantity, the English weather.  Midsummer should be England’s dreamtime, but this year it has struggled to emerge from a fitful, interrupted sleep.  Or, to put it more prosaically, we have had an awful lot of rain and, if not rain, then cloud.

On my return from Scarborough, I had been intending to eke out the holiday feeling by pursuing the spirit of cricket to one of its likelier hiding places, the Cricket Festival at Queen’s Park, Chesterfield, which, with its fish and chips and miniature railway, is the nearest the East Midlands has to offer to the seaside.  There was little rain during the Festival but, thanks to some heavy rain the week before, there was no cricket either.  I do not know whether this was because of exceptionally poor drainage, or over-caution on the part of the Umpires, but I fear I may have to look elsewhere for my Festival spirit and chips in coming seasons.

Leicestershire v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Grace Road, 27-30 June 2016

The week before Scarborough I had watched Leicestershire play Gloucestershire. Consulting the photographs I had taken as an aide-memoire, I found several of Chris Dent (the Gloucestershire batsman and occasional wicket-keeper), a few of the patterns of light dancing on the back of the score box, several of the boundary fence and two or three of some copulating ducks, which were pretty much the salient points over the four days.

As anyone who had consulted the weather forecast knew (and I believe Leicestershire Captain Cosgrove has now picked up this Pommy habit) there was little chance of a result from the outset.  By lunchtime on day 2, Leicestershire had made 334. By the time play resumed at the beginning of the fourth day, the first question was whether both sides would forfeit an innings to set Gloucestershire a target of 335.

Perhaps mindful of the last time Leicestershire made a sporting declaration against Gloucestershire, which resulted in the defenestration (almost literally so, I’ve heard) of the previous Captain, Ronnie Sarwan, Cosgrove was, understandably, reluctant.  In the event, this was just as well, as Chris Dent made a good-looking 165 to take Gloucestershire to 403-2.  (It is hard not to look good when making 165, but then it is hard to make 165 if you aren’t any good.)

The ducks had made their appearance late on the first day, making a horrible racket as they frolicked shamelessly in the outfield, to a running commentary from the Leicestershire balcony.  Ducks are never a welcome sight on a cricket field, but this was a disgraceful performance.

Nottinghamshire v Lancashire, County Championship, Trent Bridge, 6th July 2016

There were no ducks (or low comedy of any kind) at Trent Bridge, where I witnessed another day of “proper cricket”, the fourth day of the game between Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. Nottinghamshire began the day with victory in sight, a vision that slowly faded as Lancashire batted out the day, led by an obdurate, but not inelegant century from nineteen-year-old Boltonian opener Haseeb Hameed (who might, at some point, make a good opening partner for Alex Lees). If the keynotes of the day were Stoical restraint from the batsmen and mounting frustration for the Nottinghamshire crowd, there was also one moment of cathartic relief, as Stuart Broad bowled the best ball I’ve seen this season to send Petersen’s middle stump cartwheeling, like my pear-farmer’s hat.

Pakistan A v Sri Lanka A, Grace Road, 5th July

My companion for the day at Grace Road (the Last Gnome) had predicted the likely crowd level as “pauper’s funeral” and, by those standards, there wasn’t a bad turnout. At the start of play there were just the two of us, but, at its height, the crowd had swelled to eleven paying customers (including one professional autograph merchant and two small children), watched over by eight stewards and four St. John Ambulance personnel. In the lunch hour a steward was posted to prevent a pitch invasion ; the Gnome and I thought of running on from different sides of the pitch in a pincer movement, but calculated that, in the five minutes it would take us to reach the square, the steward would have had time to call for reinforcements.

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At these A games, the hope is always to spot some future great in embryo, some budding Waqar or infant Murali, but, if I did, I had the experience but missed the meaning (as the poet hath it). Pakistan (this was the third day of four) had, as you might expect, four nippy seamers who bowled a little too short, a spinner who might have been very effective against English batsmen, and Sri Lanka two or three top-order batsmen who seemed to be under orders to play sensibly “in English conditions”. The main source of entertainment was to see whether the run-rate on the scoreboard was going to dip below one an over (a thing I’ve only seen once before, at a Women’s Test against India). It came close to it shortly after lunch, but accelerated to just over two slightly after tea, before the innings inexplicably collapsed, like a shanty town in an earthquake.

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, County Championship, Wantage Road, 10-13 July 2016

When Adam Rossington and Richard Levi walked out to resume Northamptonshire’s first innings on 60-3 at the beginning of the second day against Worcestershire, they were greeted with a barrage of high-pitched squealing and shrieking of an intensity last heard when the Beatles made their debut at the Shea Stadium.  It was Schools Day at Wantage Road.

If the intention was to introduce the children to cricket, they must have formed the impression that it is a game that is played in brief bursts of about thirty minutes, before a tall man in a white coat (Alex “the Terminator” Wharf) waves his arms about and they all go back into the pavilion, to re-emerge about ten minutes later.  Sometimes the men in green hats seemed reluctant to leave and hung around expectantly on the edge of the pitch, while the men in maroon caps seemed to want to get off the pitch as quickly as they could and seemed very reluctant to come out again.

The children left at lunchtime, which was just as well, as there was very little lunch available.  The Pic’n’Mix stall was open, as was Gallone’s ice-cream van (incongruously staffed by what appeared to be Anna Sharapova’s more attractive younger sister).  For members there was a perfectly palatable chicken supreme available in the pavilion, (though in very small quantities), but, as the announcer put it “the Speckled Hen Lounge does not appear to be serving lunch”.  This might not be unconnected to a 2nd XI match against Derbyshire having being abandoned due to nine of the players and an umpire going down with food poisoning, but a ground that cannot rustle up a plate of chips or a cheese roll for its patrons does not convey the impression that it is prioritising its traditional clientele.

It is a cliché that games are won by the side “that wants it more”.  If “it” is promotion, then Worcestershire do want it (and seem well-equipped to attain it), Northamptonshire do not and don’t really need this competition at all, while they are (very successfully)putting all their very limited resources into “white ball cricket”. The incessant delays for rain only delayed the inevitable trouncing, which arrived late on the third day, with Northamptonshire bowled out by Mighty Joe Leach and Matt Henry for 148 and 142.

Ben Duckett had been made Captain for this game.  If this was in an effort to encourage him to stay with Northamptonshire, it may have been counter-productive.  As a 21-year-old with a background in dressing room pranking, he seemed to be struggling to impose his authority on some of the more experienced members of his side.

In Worcestershire’s first innings, he explained, with hand-signals, some cunning stratagem he had devised to bowler Panesar, who listened as patiently as a cat. He then positioned himself at short mid-on.  The next ball was driven hard and straight into his gut, and then straight out again.  In the second, the Sri Lankan Prasanna, in particular, took as much notice of his semaphored field directions as a seagull.

In his first innings he had failed (trapped LBW by Leach for 4) but, when he opened Northants’ second innings shortly before lunch on the third day, the romantic optimists in the crowd (less common at Wantage Road than Ukrainian beauty queens though we are) might have been anticipating an epic, match-saving Captain’s innings.

Duckett comfortably rode out the opening blast from Henry and Leach.  Then, predictably, Worcestershire brought on D’Oliveira Minimus (who has added about three inches to his height with a Little Richard style pompadour) to bowl his heritage leg-breaks for an over before lunch. The first two balls were full-tosses, which he slop-swept imperiously for four, the third a better-pitched ball, which he blocked.  The fourth he tried to sweep again, but scuffed it up just short of one of the two deeply silly short legs he had been engaging in conversation. The fifth an exact repeat of the fourth, except that he was caught.

Very late on an elderly man returned to the ground (shortly before Worcestershire won by 311 runs) and announced “I’ve just been to the dentist’s … I wish I’d stayed there now”.  It’s being so cheerful as keeps us going, you know.

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Live at the Electric Circus

Leicestershire Foxes v “Birmingham Bears”, T20 Northern Division, Grace Road, Friday 24th June

“I’m so tired of working every day / Now the weekend’s come I’m gonna throw my troubles away / If you’ve got the cab fare mister you’ll do all right  / I want to see the bright lights tonight.”

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This was the second game of professional T20 I’ve seen  (I admit I went more out of curiosity than in the expectation of enjoyment). The first was a gentle Sunday afternoon affair, which led me to conclude that every social event in English life aspires to the condition of a village fete. A little sweeping, and too optimistic. There is, also, as we have seen, the “good day out”, and then there is the “good night out” which, for that section of the population most likely to enjoy one (men, mostly, between the ages of about 18 and 50) has three key ingredients: a) a beer b) a curry and c) a laugh. All three were available in profusion at Grace Road on Friday evening (the cricket, such as it was, provided the laughs).

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Past T20 campaigns at Grace Road have had various outlandish, family orientated themes: a beach theme one year, Hawaiian another. This year the approach is more direct: the slogan is “Bright lights, great nights” (we have floodlights now, you see) and the key offer is “Beer & balti(“pre-match curry served with rice & naan bread” and “complimentary bar with unlimited draft beer and lager and house wines until the close of play”) and, where beer and balti are, can bantz be far behind?

For patrons who prefer an a la carte approach to getting drunk, the old Geary Stand (named after Leicestershire’s famously “genial” inter-war stalwart George Geary), which once offered a refuge from the elements for the more sensitive spectators

has been transformed into the Geary Bar and the Spice Bazzar, thus, conveniently, allowing spectators to drink, eat curry and shelter from the rain simultaneously.

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Using cricket as a pretext to sell large amounts of alcohol has a history in England that stretches back to its eighteenth century origins as a commercial sport, when games were often laid on by inn-keepers as an alternative, or adjunct, to other, even less genteel, entertainments such cock-fighting and shift racing. Often, inevitably, the combination of booze and banter led to outbreaks of violence, such as after the match in Hinckley I described in an earlier post.

This culture of boozing’n’brawling (which never entirely went away) re-emerged and reached its apogee in the Hogarthian days of the old John Player League in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. Before the reform of the licensing laws the pubs were obliged to shut at 2.00, roughly when the games began : as a result, hardened topers would repair to the cricket, having already put in a couple of hours in the pub, and continue drinking for another five hours, with predictable results. (There is, for example, a description in Jon Agnew’s “8 Days a Week” of the Leicestershire team having to barricade themselves in the dressing room while enraged Glamorgan supporters smashed its windows in their efforts to get at them.)

I have to say that, although there was no shortage of booze, there was no real belligerence to the crowd at Grace Road on Friday. Apart from my feeling that we are simply a less physically violent society than we were in my youth, there is hardly enough time to get fighting drunk in the space of a T20 game, particularly when (unless you really fancy drinking pints of Pimms) the strongest brew on offer was Foster’s.

The other selling point this year is the new floodlighting, which was switched on before it was quite needed. I find there is a certain romance in floodlit football, a sort of Beltane light in the darkness quality (the poetry of the raindrops dancing in the backlit fagsmoke), but having them on this early on what should have been a fine evening in late June served only to highlight the unseasonable murk, to have too much in common with that peculiar English contradiction-in-terms, the patio heater.

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As the game took place the day after the Referendum, I suppose I should try to tie the two together in some way, to suggest that the mood of the crowd (a sort of jovially sullen defiance) reflected the mood of the nation, but that would be stretching it a bit.  It is true that the award of some cheques to various “inner-city clubs” was met with total silence, but then so was the lap of honour made by a junior club in the interval (led, of course, by good old Charlie Fox, whose sunny temperament seemed quite unaffected by the day’s momentous events).

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If I seem to be treating this match as an anthropological exercise, that is because, considered simply as a game of cricket, it was of negligible interest. Warwickshire won the toss and, on a wicket still moist from earlier rain, and under low cloud, chose to bowl. Although Woakes, Rankin, Barker and Wright were missing, they were still able to play Clarke, Hannon-Dolby, Gordon and Adair, four seamers who would be automatic choices for the smaller counties. There was nothing fancy about the bowling, but, in these conditions, it would have been enough (in conventional cricket) to make any sensible batsman batten down the hatches and try to ride the storm out.

As it was, it was sad to see a talented group of batsman reduced to playing the kind of lamentable swipe that would get you slung out of a self-respecting pub team, in a futile attempt to “move the score along” and avoid the dreaded “dot ball” (although it was clear five overs in that they stood no chance of winning). Six of the seven wickets to fall were caught well short of the boundary the shots were intended to clear (the other saw Kevin O’Brien running himself out). If there was any sign of “360 degree batting”, it was mostly unintentional, although Lewis Hill did manage to play a deft slog-sweep for six and a neat scoop over the wicket-keeper’s head for four. Unfortunately, when he tried to repeat the trick a few balls later, the ball plopped tamely into the wicket-keeper’s gloves.

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The crowd (apart from one man who shouted “You Bears” every fifteen minutes, like a cuckoo-clock, they were mostly Foxes supporters) greatly enjoyed any Leicestershire boundary, whether it came off the bat, or, better still, as a result of some incompetent wicket-keeping or mishaps in the field. They seemed particularly amused when spinner Jeetan Patel fired in a ball at about 85 miles an hour without, judging by the angry gesticulation that followed, warning ‘keeper Ronchi he was about to do so, but their favourite thing of all seemed to be when a Warwickshire fieldsman narrowly failed to cut off a boundary because he had slipped over on the wet outfield. If only one of them had gone head first into an advertising hoarding, I imagine it would have made their night.

As it was, the highlight of the evening came when Sam Hain claimed a low catch deep in the outfield. The batsmen, as is the convention these days, pretended they hadn’t noticed and stayed put. The Umpires both walked over to Hain and, presumably, asked him earnestly, on Scouts’ Honour, whether he had taken the catch fairly. Whatever the conversation, no wicket resulted.

Unfortunately for Hain, all this had taken place directly in front of the “Stench and Benno Stand”, where the Foxes’ Ultras congregate (yes, we do have some). As a result, whenever the ball came near him he was greeted with boos, catcalls, choruses of “Does your carer know you’re here?” and a persistent chant of “Cheat, cheat, cheat!”. In alternate overs, he tried to take refuge in front of the “Family Stand” (no smoking, no alcohol), but the small children there gleefully took up the chant “Cheat, cheat, cheat ….”.

Cheat?

Cheat?

(I am not implying, by the way, that there was anything malicious about any of this.  It is just how you behave at the football, which is where most of the crowd have learned their sporting etiquette.)

There were almost as many children at Grace Road on Friday as there had been at last week’s Women’s International. One group will remember a squeaky-clean, officially sanctioned celebration of diversity, inclusion and all that is meant to be best in the modern game of cricket, the other a chance to stay up past your bedtime, eat chips, see your Dad get half-pissed and shout abuse at the opposition. I’m not at all sure which of the two groups is the more likely to have formed a lifelong attachment to the game. Whatever the answer, I don’t think they will be seeing me at too many more floodlit matches, at least not until the weather improves, or I become a Grandfather (whichever is the sooner).

Due to the railway timetable (which I won’t bore you with here), I left about five overs into Warwickshire’s reply (they won easily, of course).  Ian Bell opened their batting and I was able to catch a glimpse of his fabled “elegance” before I left, but I couldn’t help feeling  that, in this context, it was a little like watching Glenn Gould being asked to fill in between a stripper and the meat-raffle.

“A couple of drunken nights rolling on the floor / Is just the kind of mess I’m looking for / I want to see the bright lights …”

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