Series of Dreams

I generally sleep well these days.  When I don’t, perhaps through an excess of wine or cheese, I sleep fitfully, slipping in and out of a series of dreams, caught up in narratives which cohere until I stir, when they dissolve, to be replaced by a succession of similar fragments, until I wake, when these mini-dramas, which temporarily compelled my attention, vanish from my memory.  I mention this not to be gratuitously boring, but because following this year’s cricket season has seemed rather like that.

After months without cricket, it has felt like opening an overstuffed high cupboard in search of something lost, and having its contents fall out on to your head.  Since I last wrote, I have followed (by various means), at a rough estimate, five Test Matches, four of Leicestershire’s Bob Willis Trophy games, three club matches at Market Harborough, four at Kibworth, one in Great Bowden, one on the Recreation Ground behind my home, and the closing stages of a junior game which I came across by accident on a walk.   

Of these, I only saw one in its entirety, and in many cases that entirety was rendered less than entire by rain. At times, I have listened to one game in the morning and watched another in the afternoon ; at others, watched a County game online while listening to the Test on the radio.  It is not surprising that most of them have, along with my fitful dreams, vanished from my memory.  I suppose it is salutary to be reminded, by seeing a whole season concertinaed into a couple of months, how much of the average season is, far from the Platonic ideal as imagined by Neville Cardus, or me in the depths of Winter, spent in disappointment and wet frustration.

The structure of English cricket resembles a human pyramid : amazing feats are performed at its apex, while no-one notices that the bottom row are beginning to stagger, and that ill-wishers are attempting to kick their legs out from under them.  To begin at the top of that pyramid, most of my memories of 2020’s international cricket will be of Test Match Special itself, rather than any of the games that they were reporting on.  The interminable saga of what the presenters were planning to have for their dinner will be as redolent of the immediate post-lockdown period as the alcopop reek of hand-sanitiser, or wind-blown blue masks mingling with the early Autumn leaves.

TMS has been as much about itself as the cricket for years, and, in fairness, the numerous interruptions for rain did not leave much choice but to fall back on their own resources.  Predictably, I found the dips into the archives the most memorable.  What struck me (apart from how the presenters’ voices had deepened over the years), is how various those voices used to be : Arlott’s Hampshire ; Johnston and Blofeld’s music hall toff ; CMJ’s exaggerated RP ; Lewis’s Welsh ; Trueman and Mosey’s Yorkshire.  With the departure of Boycott and Blofeld (who represented that tradition in, latterly, self-parodic fashion), we now hear, apart from Agnew (who will eventually turn into Johnston), and Vaughan’s trans-Pennine caw, the tones of Herne Hill, High Wycombe, Barnet, Dulwich and (with the addition of Mark Ramprakash), Bushey.

Perhaps cricket is now a less various game, perhaps we are a less variously-voiced nation (that portion of it that is allowed on the BBC, anyway), and TMS may well be the best programme that it is possible to produce in England in 2020.  (I would not claim, incidentally, that my own tones, like Derek Nimmo on Mandrax*, would do anything to improve the situation). It goes without saying that I should miss TMS if it went, and that we should be grateful to the ECB, the West Indies and Pakistan for arranging two entertaining and coffer-replenishing series.  So I shalln’t say it.

I am not the only one to have been dreaming.  At first, I thought that naming this year’s County competition the ‘Bob Willis Trophy’ was a nicely sentimental tribute to the recently deceased great, if a little incongruous, given his reputed lack of enthusiasm for representing Warwickshire.  But then I recalled his contribution to the symposium in the ‘Wisden Cricketer’ in October 1999, which I discussed at (probably excessive) length a short while ago.

In it, Willis, having accused the County members of having made ‘a terrible mess’ of running the game, and the players of being a ‘clapped-out army’, goes on to propose that we should ‘split our current 18 teams into three divisions of six and play ten first-class matches a season’.  This is not quite what we have had this season, but, if various people who ought to know are to be believed, it is likely that we will be getting something along those lines next year.  It is not obvious to me why this would be an improvement on previous arrangements, but, as most of the alternative proposals seem to involve Leicestershire ceasing to exist (as advanced by that frightful old ghoul Graves), or only playing limited overs cricket, it should not be much worse, given that it promises no reduction in first-class matches (thanks to some kind of subsidiary competition tacked on to the end of the main one).

Leicestershire’s results in the BWT have been a bonsai of one of their typical seasons : after their encouraging win against Lancashire in the first game, they lost by nine wickets to Derbyshire (having been forced to follow on, and – as the club’s Twitter put it – taken a slender 11 run lead) ; been denied by rain against Durham, in a contrived run chase they were favourites to win ; in their turn, denied Nottinghamshire a win in another game spavined by bad light and showers ; and, finally, a hugely discouraging ten wicket defeat by Yorkshire.   I would like to say that I have followed all these faithfully on the streaming service, but it has been more a matter of a few afternoon sessions.

As compared to Lancashire’s coverage of the first game, which had fairly high production values, that from Grace Road has been a throwback to the earliest days of cricket broadcasting with a fixed camera at both ends (unless it was one bloke haring from end to end between overs on his bike).  At times, the (fine) commentary has been a little ahead of the pictures, which at least alerts the viewer whose attention is wandering that a ball will be worth watching, and at others they have seemed to be employing some of the primitive psychedelic effects that used to feature on Top of the Pops in the early 1970s (though that was probably attributable to some inadequacy in my wi-fi connection).  Given the rain we have had I seem to have spent a lot of the last months squinting at what appeared to be CCTV footage of the ground staff going about their business.  At least we have been spared the vast boredom of replays and DRS reviews.

When play was possible, the fixed camera puts the viewer in the position of one who remains clamped to his seat behind the bowler’s arm, binoculars trained on the square.  There are spectators of this kind in real life (what you might call the Ted Chippington tendency) and, no doubt, their diligence is rewarded by technical insights that those who, like me, prefer to roam around are denied.  On the other hand, they miss a large part of what, for me, makes a day at Grace Road enjoyable : the susurrus overhead as the wind ruffles the limes, the creeping advance of the shade across the cheap seats parallel to the wicket as the afternoon draws on, the cheering sight of the lunchtime special being paraded from the kitchens to The Meet, the heady whiff of old socks and disinfectant issuing from the air conditioning in the indoor schools at the Bennett End.  But I am becoming sentimental.

At least, except when they were having trouble focusing, the fixed cameras spared me the painful sight of what I was being denied.  I have given up attempting to discern the logic behind the ever-changing restrictions, but I cannot understand why lower division football clubs are allowed to admit 10% of their capacity (the other evening I attended a game where the attendance was 230), when County cricket clubs are not allowed to admit any spectators at all, at grounds where the capacity is considerably larger.  I would estimate the capacity of Grace Road to be about 10,000, so application of the same principle would mean that the number permitted to attend would be considerably in excess of any crowd we achieved for a Championship game last season.  There do seem to have been some attempts to circumvent the lockout, including a suffragette-style chaining to the railings on the Milligan Road side, and an occupation of the balcony of the ‘Cricketers’ pub, which offers an unobstructed view of the pitch.  At times the commentary could just pick up the plangent dying fall of Stench’s vuvuzela, summoning up remembrance of things past.  But I am becoming sentimental again.

To look on the bright side, the freakish nature of the season has meant that none of the players has lost out too badly.  Those who have been successful have advanced their cases, while those who have not can write their figures off as being too small a sample to be significant.  Colin Ackermann has made a success of the captaincy, and has largely carried the batting.  Harry Swindells has probably established himself as the first choice ‘keeper in red ball cricket.  Sam Evans, with the bat, and Ben Mike, (mostly) with the ball, have done enough to remain ‘promising’ (though the latter promises more in the shorter forms).  Harry Dearden is inching closer to averaging thirty in a season, has looked good when permitted to cut loose, and should be allowed to try it more often.  Without doing anything startling, Tom Taylor has confirmed that the side is more balanced with him in it**.  Callum Parkinson narrowly missed being our leading wicket-taker, and ought to play for often.

Heading the list of those who might prefer to write 2020 off as a bad dream is Hassan Azad, who, having made 58 in his first innings, made only another 86 in his next seven outings, averaging 18.  Last September I expressed the fear that he could be in for a ‘a testing time next season’ : I could not have predicted quite how testing it would be for all of us, but I hope the cricket gods will accept this as his ‘difficult second season’.  The rot set in against Derbyshire, with a couple of freakish dismissals : in the first he was stumped off a seamer, perhaps having already set off on his post-delivery stroll half way to square leg ; in the second, his logical scientific mind was unable to cope with the nonsensical questions (‘why is a hat stand an otter?’) posed by Leus du Plooy, a bowler whose stock delivery seemed to be the waist-high full toss.  To add a comical irony to injury, he took a wicket, having been brought on as a joke bowler with the aim of gifting Durham runs to expedite a declaration, and nearly finished top of the bowling averages.

Hassan has signed a two year extension to his contract, which requires something of a leap of faith on both sides : on Leicestershire’s that he can overcome the limitations of his game and prove that his first season was more typical than his second, and on his that Leicestershire are going to be able to pay a living wage to a player who is unlikely ever to feature in white ball cricket.  With his qualifications, he cannot, even in the current climate, be short of other options.  Alternatively, another of Willis’s recommendations – that there should only be 24 full-time professionals, with the rest playing as amateurs – might suit his case. 

As usual, various ex-Foxes have come back to haunt us (though we were spared a visitation by Darren Stevens) : one of the more dreamlike images, enhanced by the psychedelic effects on CCTV, was the sight of Ben Raine and Ned Eckersley batting together against us for Durham.  Zak Chappell, too, was back with Nottinghamshire, having undergone a transformation from the slim-gilt youth who used to turn out for Market Harborough into a hulking brute whom you might expect to see appearing under some macabre alias in a professional wrestling bout.  He seemed to have sacrificed a little speed for accuracy (Tom Barber, at the other end, supplied the woolly wildness) : although I feel contractually obliged to wish him ill, I am pleased to see that he took 15 wickets (15 more than last season) and – as significantly – played four consecutive games.  I wish him well.

One of the more attractive features of the BWT is that the format stimulated the teams to make greater efforts than usual to achieve a win.  One memorable image is of Chappell, desperate to continue chipping away at some admirably obdurate last ditch resistance by Leicestershire on the last day, replacing the stumps that Nick Cook (who seemed more inclined to warm his toes in the Umpire’s room) had recently uprooted (and getting a ticking-off for his Lèse-majesté).  Chappell’s urgency may have stemmed from a desire to end Nottinghamshire’s lengthy stretch without a win, which now dates back to June 2018 (having probably had enough of that at Leicestershire, not to mention Market Harborough).

Harborough too had not won since June 2018, until, unlike Notts, they won the last game of the season, against Thorpe Arnold. This was only the 1st XI’s second home game of the season, the scheduled second, against Electricity Sports, having fallen foul of the Leicester lockdown (an additional source of pain in this area).  After an hour, Harborough were 30-odd for 6, with clouds gathering and rain in the air.  I am afraid to say, dear reader, that I decided to cut my losses and caught a bus to the other end of town to watch the football (where Harborough Town won 6-0).  It had been so cold and wet at the game that I assumed the only question was whether Thorpe Arnold had had time to finish us off before the game was abandoned.  In fact, we had, God knows how, made 80 and bowled them out for 67.  You would think that, given that I had been present for most of their home defeats, I might have been entitled to witness their victory, but I suppose it serves me right (O me of little faith!).

My season is, I think, over now, but the season is not : if you happen to be a follower of T20, Somerset or Essex it is approaching its climax, and if you follow the England Women’s team it is just beginning.  September is a poignant time for cricketers (I know this must be true, because I say it every year).  That poignancy usually stems from an atavistic awareness of a long Summer season approaching its end, and is softened by the sure and certain hope that it will return again in the Spring.  This year there has been no long Summer season, the emotions are more mixed, and less simply nameable, and my hope that the season will return is less sure and far from certain.  However, Winter well, as far as you are able.  

*For younger readers, Nimmo was an actor of the ‘60s and ‘70s, who specialised in playing clergymen, and also advertised Penguin biscuits.  Mandrax was a hypnotic sedative, popular as a recreational drug in the counterculture. 

**Since I wrote this, Taylor has signed for Northamptonshire.  It’s enough to unbalance anyone, never mind the team.   

In the Circumstances

As regular readers (if any) will know, one of my perennial complaints is that the English season does not have a proper starting point (at least since the translation of the MCC v Champion County fixture to Dubai), but tends to peter in, to the point where it can be difficult to say whether it has started or not.  In recent years, Leicestershire’s first fixture has usually been against Loughborough MCCU, a game that sometimes has first-class status, sometimes not, but that is sometimes preceded by an intra-squad game, or a friendly game against some other side unlucky enough not to be taking their pre-season in a warmer climate.  In a year when it initially seemed unlikely that the season would be starting at all, it would be churlish of me to make the same complaint, and, I concede, inaccurate : the season began on 8th July in Southampton ; some people’s season will have begun the following Saturday ; my season began on Saturday 18th, in Whitby.

It would not feel like an English season if it did not begin in a state of muddle, bedevilled and bedraggled by rain, and, as I observed of Terence Prittie’s account of the first season after the war, the sure sign that some kind of normality has returned is not that one experiences some huge flood of emotion, but that one forgets to be grateful that anything is happening at all and resumes the everyday grumbling that makes up a large part of any cricket-follower’s usual discourse.  The feeling of gratitude and relief lasted throughout the first morning of the Test, as I listened to Jon Agnew and Phil Tufnell wittering pleasantly while it rained.  A lengthy and indirectly COVID-related telephone call caused me to miss the commentary on the knee-taking, the silence, something (I think) involving Major Tom, and presumably the Jerusalem (a very heavy weight of significance with which to freight such a frail vessel as a game of cricket), but quite soon after the start of play I had returned to my habitual carping about the state of TMS.  I freely admit that is churlish in the extreme, but at the same time, perversely reassuring.

I had originally had some idea about trying to write about the game based on the radio commentary, but after about twenty minutes of closing my eyes and attempting to visualise what was occurring on the pitch I was forced to abandon this futile ambition.  It is true that I came away with some vivid mental images : Jon Agnew flying his light aircraft with his pet dog in the passenger seat ; Isa Guha sprinting to the Post Office to collect some World Cup tickets for her Dad ; Alison Mitchell caught up in some imbroglio involving a pigeon in her bedroom.  These would all have been diverting enough anecdotes if related at a dinner party (which TMS increasingly resembles) ; the trouble being that they came not during an interruption for rain (or a sanitiser break), but in the middle of overs (a not untypical slice of commentary being ‘Bengali cookery uses a lot of fish, as Broad comes in to bowl to Holder)’. 

Now, I am not expecting pretty waitresses and walking sticks, but I would like to have some idea of what the players look like, beyond a brief assessment of their height (Holder, Gabriel and Cornwall, I gathered, are tall ; Dowrich and Blackwood are short ;  beyond that, only that Joseph is ‘wiry’).  This is particularly important, given how few of the West Indians play regularly in English cricket.  The presumption seems to be that the listener will know what they look like from having seen them on the television, but if the listener had a Sky subscription they would probably be a viewer instead.  It cannot help that the radio commentators have (as I understand it) to switch between TV and radio commentary. 

Watching a few of the highlights packages on the TV made the strangeness of the situation more evident than it had been listening to the radio : TMS, if they had chosen to, could (thanks to ‘the hum’) have just about have brought off the illusion that normality had resumed entirely ; the empty stands visible on the TV pointed up the post-apocalyptic aspect of the thing (even to one used to watching cricket at Grace Road).  No doubt, the situation felt even stranger to those actively involved.  Cricket’s elite (players, broadcasters, senior officials) are sometimes accused on living in ‘a bubble’ : to find themselves occluded for weeks in an almost literal bubble, unable to leave, is a scenario that might have appealed to Luis Bunuel.

It goes without saying, of course, that I am grateful that the series took place, and particularly to the West Indies for making it possible.  Not only was the cricket diverting, the participants’ pioneer efforts have made it possible for the lower levels of the game to resume in due course, and, of course, the revenue generated makes it more likely that there will be professional cricket for me to watch if ever the old normal returns.  I am also, in spite of my complaints, grateful for the continued existence of TMS, which at least gives me a chance to complain about something that does not really matter at all, after months of complaining about things that are only too serious.  (The nadir, while I am carping, came when Michael Vaughan seemed not only to have never heard of A.N. ‘Monkey’ Hornby, but to find the very idea of his existence absurd. O my …)

While I would never have foreseen seeing my first live game of the season at Whitby (not a ground or, indeed, a town I have visited before), there are many worse places to do so.  If my first game had been at one of my usual haunts, I imagine that I would have felt more intensely conscious of the peculiarity of the situation : at a strange ground I was less aware of the strangeness of it all. In any case, compared to the febrile atmosphere in the rest of the town, the cricket ground was a haven of normality.  It was not so much that anyone in town was doing anything that they would not normally do at the seaside (drink, eat fish and chips, sunbathe, argue), as that they seemed to be attempting to cram about four months’ worth of each into a weekend.

The ground itself is pleasant, if not outstandingly beautiful, overshadowed on one side by the Towbar Express Stadium (home of Whitby Town FC), although it stands close enough to the sea for those with a nose for it to sense its proximity.  The only obvious signs of the times were some (presumably obsolete) notices that the ground had not yet opened, and a polite request to leave my contact details. I took a while to quite adjust, at first seeing the figures in white as trees walking, but, as I began to grasp the argument of the game (in progress when I arrived), my sight was restored.  Whitby, I gathered from listening to other spectators, were bowling ; Great Ayton 2nd XI batting, and making reasonable progress when I arrived, with two finger spinners operating in tandem, but the return (presumably) of a brisk opening bowler and a run out provoked a collapse, shored up slightly by a last wicket stand, finishing on 168 (reassuring to be able to bring these comfy old clichés out of the wardrobe after so many months).

Not feeling that I could justify spending all day of a family holiday watching cricket, I left shortly after Whitby had begun their reply.  Some of the home crowd seemed pessimistic about their prospects, and they started badly, losing two cheap wickets, though apparently they later recovered to win with overs to spare.  As I left, Charlie (a keen-looking youngster) and Marshy (a burly older man with a shaved head) were opening the bowling, as I imagine any number of Charlies and Marshies were all over the country, in what, in other circumstances, would have been similarly unremarkable games. It was hardly Cardus’s ‘vision of all the cricket fields in England’ from the Mound Stand on Midsummer morning, but it almost did the trick of making me feel that if normality had not yet returned, it was not impossible that it might one day do so.

On the way to the ground I had over-trustingly relied on directions from Google Maps, which had led me through streets of boarding houses (not aided by what seems to be a Whitby custom of streets changing their names half way along their length).  On the way back I followed my nose, which led me along the clifftop, in late-afternoon marine sunshine and a stiff breeze which felt strong enough to blow any lurking coronaviruses harmlessly off into the aether.  Later that evening, a rainbow added colour to an already luminous sunset : the rainbow is another sign that has been over-freighted with symbolic weight recently, but it felt hopeful, as well as beautiful.

Trying to find if any cricket is being played in Leicestershire has been rather like the heyday of rave culture, when would-be ravers would (I’m told) drive hopefully around the M25, waiting to be tipped-off about that night’s location.  The Saturday after Whitby I eventually tracked down a friendly at Kibworth, against Oakham.  Normality in cricket (which, given the quality in Leicestershire recently, is an odd thing to be hankering after) normally involves rain, and this was a lively, but sporadic, on-off affair, which was terminated after 31 overs with Kibworth on 179-2.  A slightly melancholy note was struck by the sight of Rob Taylor, who has fetched up at Oakham, whom I remember, what seems like only last week, as a lively teenage opening bowler, bowling off about five paces and not being treated with a great deal of respect. Time waits for no man, or virus.

All of this had felt like a preamble, or overture, to the start of the season proper, on the 1st August (which was rather late for me, or anyone else), with the first games in the truncated quasi-leagues for both Leicestershire and Market Harborough (my home club).   I felt that watching both had the quality of the subtler sort of surrealism, where everything is at first sight normal, but some details are sufficiently skewed for the experience to be subtly disorientating.  I spent most of Harborough’s game with a couple of old cricket-watching companions, catching up with the news since the end of last season (most of it, I am afraid, bad).  So there was little opportunity to forget about the circumstances, even for an afternoon.

In other circumstances, I would have felt heartened, even mildly elated, about the club’s prospects for the season.  To put this into context, Harborough have only won one game in the last two years, and have suffered successive relegations.  Last season, I tended to make alternative plans for the second half of the afternoon, given that, if Harborough batted first, the game was unlikely to last past 3’o’clock.  After a promising start (we seem to have acquired a hostile opening bowler), the pattern of the game began to revert to type when the change bowlers came on.  Uppingham’s Eddie Tucker (who finished on 153) had officials consulting the regulations to see whether regularly propelling the notorious vector of disease into the road and neighbouring gardens constituted a health hazard (beyond the obvious risk of concussion).  Uppingham finished on 277-6 from their 40 overs, without even the prospect of a decent tea to encourage the home side.

Not unusually, Harborough began well (we tend to top load our batting), but, most unusually, having apparently also acquired some useful middle-order batsmen, they continued well, Uppingham visibly anxious as a fairly ignominious defeat became decreasingly inconceivable.  In the end, it was not quite to be, Harborough falling 31 runs short, but this August could prove to be a short, but (in the circumstances) merry season.

Watching Harborough caused me to miss the first day of Leicestershire’s game against Lancashire, which was being live-streamed (with some admirably cricket-orientated commentary).  Were I truly conscientious, I could have reported on the game in the same way that I usually report the live home games, except that, to employ the Woodcock/Gibson distinction, this was ‘the cricket’ without ‘the day at the cricket’ (how, I suppose, most of its audience usually watches cricket anyway).  It reminded me of one of those ‘What is wrong with this picture?’ puzzles that you used to find in children’s magazines, which offered a picture that, at first sight, appeared perfectly realistic, but, on closer inspection, was revealed to contain a number of incongruities and impossibilities.

The first thing wrong with the picture was that Leicestershire and Lancashire were playing at Worcester (instantly recognisable by the cathedral), another that the artist had erased all the spectators.  There seemed to be no cakes on sale in the Ladies’ Pavilion, and Leicestershire seemed to be using one of the cafes as a changing room.  A four-day game was being played in August.  Most incongruous of all, Leicestershire were much the better of the two sides, and completed a thrilling run chase against the odds to take 22 points.

It should be noted that Lancashire were seriously depleted (all but one of their bowlers would normally be in the 2nd XI), and that 172 of Leicestershire’s first innings total of 409-8 dec. were made by Ben Slater, now of Nottinghamshire (another deliberate mistake).  However, Leicestershire looked to be a well-balanced and competitive side : Hassan Azad continued as he had left off ; Callum Parkinson looked a much better bowler than he sometimes has in real life ; Colin Ackermann made a fine start as four-day Captain, and close observation revealed the detail of his abilities as a batsman.  The unlikely hero of the heroic final hour (when Leicestershire chased down 150 in 17 overs) was Harry Dearden, who had made a stereotypical duck in the first innings, but at the crucial moment in the second burst out of his tortoise-shell to hit 33 from 18 balls, including three sixes (to add to the two he had hit in his previous 37 games).  At this rate we will be losing him to the IPL.

The game supported the theory that, if everyone is fit and in form, Leicestershire are only a couple of high quality players away from being a successful side : it is a lot easier to keep everyone fit and in form over a month than a full season, so we may find ourselves achieving some success in an anomalous competition which, in a sense, does not matter very much, while thinking wistfully of what might have been.  I would love to say, incidentally, that the last hour was so enthralling that I forgot about the current difficulties entirely, but I am afraid that I was called away to deal with a ‘phone call involving an indirectly Covid-related crisis, so missed it completely.  

So, not such a bad start, in the circumstances.

.   

Glad to be Alive

And then I woke up, and it was all a dream …

Leicestershire (390-3 dec. & 245-0) drew with Loughborough MCCU (152), Grace Road, 2-4th April 2020

I seem to find it harder each year to find something new to say at the start of the season, but then, perhaps, novelty is beside the point.  There, is, of course, the promise of a new start, a clean slate, a blank piece of paper on which any story could be written, but the essence of it lies in the rediscovery of the familiar, of finding that those familiar scenes are still there.  Winter has passed, Spring has returned, as it sometimes felt during the Winter that it might not, and, with it, the cricket.

The first game at Grace Road seldom lives up to our wintry day-dreams of the platonic spring day, if only because it is always against Loughborough University, and the ground is only half-awake.  We enter not through the usual, welcoming, gates, but through a gap in the wall at the end of a bottle-strewn alley, but the first sight of the ground, even if it is yet to cast off its winter weeds, its parasols unfurled, still feels like a release : in our minds’ eyes, we see it, not under grey skies and sparsely populated, but bathed in mid-summer light and humming with life.  It is not the first day itself, but the sure and certain knowledge of the six months still to come that makes us feel newly glad to be alive.

Given the age of many of our members, and most of those who turned up for the first day, ‘glad to be alive’ is not an idle figure of speech : it is always a relief to find that familiar faces have survived the Winter.  Although the general bonhomie may not survive far into the season, its beginning is celebrated with handshakes, backslapping and even the occasional hug, as friends, reunited, congregate in convivial groups, or share their winter-news over a drink in the bar.  I am afraid that we sometimes take these pleasures and liberties, however small in themselves, too much for granted, and the start of the season makes us feel it.

Leicestershire, as is the convention in these games, batted, and the first ball of the season was faced by Paul Horton, who has now been relieved, or possibly relieved himself, of the captaincy.  Unfortunately, perhaps due to the dim light, or the remnants of dew in the pitch, he played down the wrong line to a full, straight, delivery and was bowled.  This was less unpropitious than it might seem, given that the bowler was Alex Evans, who is contracted to Leicestershire and will be available to strengthen the bowling later in the season.

After taking a few overs to acclimatise (Evans’ first three overs were all maidens), the incoming Colin Ackermann then played the hare to opener Hassan Azad’s tortoise, scoring freely on the off-side, in particular, to reach his fifty shortly before lunch, by, rather gratuitously, lofting Leicestershire academician Don Butchart, who had been brought on for the last over, over long on and into the, mercifully underpopulated, car park.  Azad, who had not departed from his trusted techniques of patient accumulation, had then made 17.

During the lunch hour, I dropped into the office (buzzing with anticipation) to renew my membership (excellent value at £99, given the number of days of cricket, particularly in the coming two months, it will entitle me to see), then dropped into the Meet, busy despite its limited menu, and picked up my ‘Playfair’ from the Friends of Grace Road shop, providing its usual reassurance, so little does it change, that, whatever else may be wrong in the world, the cricket season will inevitably return in the Spring.

Shortly after lunch, in a stroke that might have been an act of deliberate self-sacrifice, Ackermann chipped a half volley from Evans straight to cover point.  The manner in which the next man in, Mark Cosgrove, emerged from the pavilion suggested that he felt in the form of his life, but also that he was feeling the cold.  The first two deliveries he ostentatiously left alone, the third tested his powers of abstinence too far, and he was dropped at second slip (the edge was audible to all in the ground, except, if his body language were to be believed, the batsman himself).

After reaching twenty more by luck than judgement, Cosgrove’s co-ordination seemed to return, if not his self-control, and three good balls were stroked, with his usual incongruous delicacy, through the covers for four.  The next ball must have hit some foreign object on the pitch, or perhaps he was unsighted by light reflected off a car windscreen, because it removed his off stump.  He appeared as incredulous at this turn of events as ever, though, given the cold, less reluctant to leave the field.  Cosgrove is no longer quite the batsman he was, but he is still a joy to watch, and we are lucky to have the prospect of at least one last full season in which to watch him.

Harry Dearden came to the crease shortly before 2.15, with the total on 129-3, and Hassan Azad three short of his half-century.  Dearden, who does not have the credit at the bank that Ackermann and Cosgrove enjoy, is in no position to spurn a chance to make a substantial score, and, reverting to his earliest manner, scored at a rate that made his partner look like a chancer : by tea, the pair had crept surreptitiously to 210-3.  With the evening chill creeping in, I crept off too at 5.00, by which time the score was approaching 300, in the stealthy manner of a game of grandmother’s footsteps.  Unfortunately, my departure coincided with the rush hour, and I spent the journey home pressed against a window by a large man with little conception of personal space and a nasty cough.

I arrived a little late for the second day, having stopped off at my favourite Café Roma (cash only!) for a macchiato and a brace of cannoli.  The warmer weather had brought some of the more elderly element of Leicester’s café society out, and we were packed together cosily, like anchovies in a tin.  As I was not expecting any dramatic developments at Grace Road, I passed some time strolling through the crowded lanes, browsing aimlessly.  How pleasant it can be to wander at will through a crowded city, when the weather is fine and the mood relaxed!

When I finally arrived at the ground, Azad and Dearden were, as I had suspected, still at the crease.  The scoring rate had increased slightly, but only in the manner of an elderly and overworked donkey goaded into a jog-trot.  By lunch, the score had advanced to 390 : Azad had made his century at some point in the morning, and  Dearden was closing in on his (assuming the game was first class, his maiden century).  The students must have been wondering whether their turn to bat would ever come, like a younger brother in the back garden.

There had, incidentally, been an amusing incident just before lunch.  You may remember that, in the corresponding fixture a few years ago, when Hassan Azad was still playing for Loughborough, Charlie Shreck, frustrated by his obdurate batting and Loughborough’s failure to declare, had directed a few unfriendly remarks at him (‘The Times’ alleged that he had threatened to kill him).  Umpire O’Shaughnessy reported the incident, Shreck was suspended and Leicestershire were subjected to a points deduction.  Alex Evans (who obviously knows Azad) pantomimed a repetition of the incident : the batsman seemed highly amused, Umpire O’Shaughnessy, perhaps, less so.

To the surprise of most, it emerged that Leicestershire had declared at lunch.  Although I can see why they would have wanted the bowlers to have a run out, it did seem hard on Dearden, who was left on 94*.  It is true that he had every opportunity to make his century over the previous six hours, but we will have to hope that the disappointment will not have the same effect on his psyche as it did on Graeme Hick’s, in similar circumstances.  It was noticeable that he spent his time in the field with hands in pockets, and dropped a couple of catches (though not, perhaps, ones he would normally have caught).

The Leicestershire bowlers did not have the time to put in quite as many overs as they had hoped, although Wright, Griffiths and Taylor (apparently now fit) all claimed three wickets, and Mike (a little loose) one.  Only Joe Kendall, of the batsmen, made more than a start, falling two short of his fifty while trying to reverse sweep a full delivery from Taylor off his stumps.  The innings ended shortly after 5.30, with the score on 152, leaving Azad and Horton to play out the remaining overs (Horton surviving a couple of persuasive shouts). 

If it had not been for the balmy weather, and the general feeling that we were glad just to be there, Leicestershire’s tactics on the Saturday morning might have attracted adverse comment.  Azad was only marginally more fluent than he had been in the first innings, and Horton defended his wicket as if it were his life, against some tired bowling of moderate quality.  In the second hour, Evans, knowing the chink in Azad’s armour, posted two short legs and a leg slip, and bowled short from around the wicket.  Clearly discomfited, Azad fended one delivery just over one of the short legs, another just wide, and then, attempting a pull, deflected the ball hard on to his helmet.  Although he was able to leave the field unaided, he appeared disorientated.

After lunch, Tom Taylor, who had replaced Azad, livened proceedings with some firmly driven boundaries until, bending to tie a loose shoelace, he appeared to put his back out, and had to be helped from the field.  Surprisingly, it was Harry Dearden who replaced him.  As the afternoon wore on, it was clear that he was not inclined to miss another chance of a maiden hundred, and, reverting to his one-day style, hit the bowling to all (or most) parts of the ground.  Justifiably suspicious that Ackermann might be inclined to shake hands on a draw at 5.00, he accelerated further as that hour approached, passing his hundred at 4.50, to wild, and only half-ironical, applause from the few spectators who remained.  The end of play was postponed to 5.10 to allow Horton to catch up and make his century as well.  

There were some worrying pieces of news in the aftermath of the game.  Taylor has apparently suffered a recurrence of the back problem that kept him out for most of last season, and Hassan Azad will have to miss at least the first two Championship games under the concussion protocol.  Alex Evans had been reported to the ECB by Steve O’Shaughnessy, and it is possible that any suspension will mean that he will be unavailable for Leicestershire when term is finished (as it only affects first-class fixtures).  The report in ‘The Times’, which alleged that Evans had kneed Azad in the groin, and threatened to tear him limb from limb and dump the pieces in the Soar, cannot have helped matters.

One or two of the members were also a little perturbed by newspaper reports of a new flu-like virus that had emerged in China in the last weeks of March, apparently caused by someone in Wuhan Province thinking that it would be a good idea to eat a bat.  But I’m sure that it will take more than that to spoil the prospect of a new cricket season.

And then I woke up …

Prospects for the Season (If Any)

Since before Christmas, the BBC has, with monotonous regularity, been broadcasting a self-advertisement, publicising its coverage of sport in 2020, under the slogan ‘Raise the game’.  In it, a bumptious voice informs us that ‘you can’t stop the future – it’s already here’, a future that includes the Olympics, the European Championship finals and ‘The Hundred’.  Apart from being a piece of bombastic pseudo-profundity worthy of ‘Doctor Who’, this has, thanks to Coronavirus, proven to be a little premature, given that it is by no means certain that the first two events, at least, will be taking place.  Not only is ‘the future’ not ‘already here’, it may not be arriving any time soon.  So, I am more hesitant than usual about offering my predictions concerning the new cricket season.

A few weeks ago, I pointed out that the virus should pose no threat to Championship matches at Grace Road, given that our crowds are rarely large enough to constitute a ‘large public gathering’.  At the time, this struck me as rather droll : it seems less amusing now, given that the world and his dog have now made the same feeble joke, and the ECB are, at this moment, mulling over our fate.  I would hope that they will consider the risk low enough for the Championship to continue, but I am not holding my breath (not, incidentally, a reliable test for coronavirus).  We would be even more seriously affected if any of the Test matches, or – perish the thought – ‘The Hundred’, had to be called off, given that we find ourselves even more at the financial mercy of the ECB than usual. 

Over the Winter, we have secured a loan of £1.75 million from Leicester City Council, which should come in handy, particularly to increase our wage bill by half again (at least) to meet the ECB’s new ‘salary collar’ of £1.5 million, as will, of course, the money we are meant to be getting for supporting ‘The Hundred’.  The catch with this loan is that it is secured by the ECB, who will be presented with the perfect opportunity to close us down if we cannot repay it.  We find ourselves rather in the position of the owners of a small trattoria hoping that the local mob’s prostitution racket is doing good business, in case they decide to withdraw their ‘protection’ (*taps nose* – capisce?).

Turning to this year’s schedule, we discover the usual baffling dog’s breakfast.  My spirits rose sharply towards the end of last year when Leicestershire announced that not only would annual membership (excluding T20) be reduced to £99, but, as significantly from my point of view, we would be restoring our reciprocal agreement with Northamptonshire (in addition to the ones we already had with Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Derbyshire).  When the fixtures were announced, I happily busied myself with filling my newly acquired diary with the dates at Wantage Road.

Not unpredictably, however, given that Northamptonshire’s cheapest season ticket costs £175 (excluding T20 and RL50), the offer was soon withdrawn, and I had to go back and, crossly, cross them all out again.  More gratuitously, the agreement with Notts (which has been in place for as long as I have been a member) was reduced to three fixtures.  It surely cannot be beyond human wit to devise some scheme that would allow those of us who would like to watch Championship games at neighbouring grounds, if our own team aren’t playing (a small, but, I’d like to think, not entirely insignificant group), at a reduced price.  As compensation, though, free parking at Grace Road has been restored (not much of a compensation for me, as I don’t drive).   

Peering through the thicket of crossings-out, brackets and question marks, the general outline of the season appears to be much the same as in recent seasons : a slightly thin April (though mainly because Leicestershire have two Championship games away from home), a busy May, a thin June and a thinner July, scattered with 50-over games and a flurry of activity in between the two, when Leicestershire have two home four-day games in eleven days.  August is a parched wasteland, with only the last of the 50-over matches and a game in the women’s version of ‘The Hundred’, featuring the ‘Trent Rockets’ on a Thursday afternoon (which might attract a large paying audience, but only if it doesn’t clash with a display of synchronised nose-blowing in the Lee Circle car park).  Cricket is due to return in September, for those of us who have managed to survive the Summer.

Moving on to Leicestershire’s prospects, one piece of good news, which may have been facilitated by that loan from the Council, is the late announcement that we have secured the services of Janaman ‘The Man’ Malan (having previously been told that we would not be able to afford an overseas player this season), for both white ball competitions and (potentially) three Championship matches.  I haven’t seen him play, but – apart from bringing joy to fans of internal rhyme – he sounds like pretty hot stuff.  I suppose this is the cricketing equivalent of the advice fashion magazines like to give that it is better to buy ‘one really good piece’ than a lot of cheaper items.     

Moving on to the rest of the squad, I am faced with the annual struggle to say something optimistic that does not rely too heavily on the words ‘decent’, ‘handy’ and ‘useful’.  We do, at least, seem to have five decent and useful seam bowlers (Wright, Taylor, Griffiths, Davis and Klein), plus Ben Mike (whose only notable performance last year came, frustratingly, when he was on loan to Warwickshire, but probably has enough talent to be poached by a larger County), plus Alex Evans, who should be available when his term ends at Loughborough.  So, a handy supporting cast, but rather, in the absence of Mohammad Abbas, lacking a ‘spearhead’ : a spear without a spearhead would, I suppose, be more like a broom handle, and I am afraid, although they will have their days, that may represent the approximate level of threat posed by our attack to good batsmen on unhelpful pitches.

And so, with some trepidation, to the batting. It would be expecting a lot of Hassan Azad to repeat his performance in his debut season, when he made a thousand runs at an average of 54, but we shall all have to pray to our respective gods that the falling-off (if any) is not too steep.  Unless he has some failure of nerve, he should always be difficult to get out, but his range of preferred scoring shots is so limited that it should not be too difficult to put him (in the fashionable phrase) into lockdown, by employing unconventional fields, as Northants demonstrated last year.  We shall have to hope that no-one else has thought of this, or we could be struggling.

Colin Ackermann, who is yet to average 40, resembles a thoroughbred who looks good in the paddock, is often placed, but rarely wins a race.  Paul Horton (37) and Mark Cosgrove (rising 36),  punters’ favourites in years past, must now both have one hoof in the stud farm.  We can expect hard-nosed captaincy from Horton, and Cosgrove is never less than entertaining, but we cannot rely on too many runs from them.  To extend the analogy, an unkind wag might suggest that Harry Dearden should be giving rides on Blackpool beach, but I prefer to think that he is yet to find his niche.  He is, after all, only 23 in May, and his sprightly performances in last year’s 50-over cup suggest that his talents may be hidden, rather than non-existent.  Our only other specialist batsman is Sam Evans.

Either Harry Swindells or Lewis Hill will keep wicket : Hill was plainly out of sorts and out of form last season, and I should expect Swindells to be given his chance in the Championship, with Hill returning for limited overs cricket.  To fill the unsightly gap between the end of the batting and the beginning of the tail, we have George Rhodes, who was impressively dogged in the three games he played for us at the end of last season, and should be capable of delaying our collapses.  A season-long fit Tom Taylor, who is not only the most dangerous of our seamers, but can make useful runs, would be a great help, but then so would a revived W.G. Grace or all the royalties from the ‘Harry Potter’ series, both of which we are about as likely to get.

The spin option, which is generally given as much priority as the vegetarian option at a Golden Egg in 1974, is likely to be Ackermann in the first half of the season, while Parkinson, who is mutating into a T20 specialist who bats a bit, may re-emerge in September.  Our only wholly new acquisition is a young off-spinner called Tom Bowley, who, like Alex Evans, is still at Loughborough.  I haven’t consciously seen him bowl, although he appears to sport a towering quiff which makes him look like a member of the Stray Cats. I expect that Jack Birkenshaw will have marched him off to the barber’s for a trim before he is allowed to make his debut.

You might be able to detect that I am not taking our chances in the Championship too seriously, but then neither are the club, who seem to have decided to concentrate our limited resources on white ball cricket, which, I would grudgingly concede, makes sense.  Apart from the presence of Malan (and one player of international quality can make a crucial difference), we have the advantage in the RL50 that we are the only County not have lost any players to ‘The Hundred’, and, in some cases, will be playing virtual 2nd XIs.  A trophy would be expecting too much, but qualification for the knock-out stages should not be.  I am no expert on T20, but having a ‘gun bat’ to add to our collection of blunderbusses and air rifles will obviously improve our firepower.

At present, I have to say, all of this seems a little beside the point.  It now seems even less probable that the season will start on time than it did when I began this piece, and, if it does eventually revive, any cricket, even the meagre fare that was served up last year, will feel like a return to the Golden Age.  The financial consequences of an abandoned season might well prove terminal for the club, but not abandoning it may prove terminal for some of our members (including – not impossibly – me, though I would be one of the less obvious candidates). 

Perhaps I need to get my ‘Winter well’ in early this year.

First and Last

Leicestershire CCC (155 & 191-3 dec.) v Lancashire CCC (170), County Championship, Grace Road, 23-26th September 2019

Match drawn

Regular readers (if any) may have detected of note of disenchantment creeping into my writings about cricket this season. Not disillusion (I have few illusions about the future of cricket in this country, or the likely place of Leicestershire within it), nor disappointment (my expectations were low enough), but a loss of enchantment. Perhaps this suggests an image of Disney’s Tinkerbell sprinkling fairy dust from her wand over the Meet, transforming it into a fairy-tale castle, but that it is not quite what I mean : I mean simply some vital spark to transform what I am often uncomfortably aware are a moderately talented collection of sportsmen struggling from contract to contract into something a little less mundane.

This game looked to be an improbable source of re-enchantment, featuring the two sides in Division Two whose final position was already secure : Lancashire, whose role in the ‘title race’ has been that of the electric hare, were certain to be Champions, Leicestershire nailed firmly to the wooden spoon (completing their set of three for the season), but for some reason – the feeling that we had better make the best of it while it lasts, or that, given the weather forecast, we were lucky to be seeing anything at all – or some trick of the light (and natural light, for what felt like the first time this season), I thought I felt a faint, but definite twitch upon the thread. And in a certain light, you could say that Leicestershire, unexpectedly, had the better of the game.

After overnight rain, I was surprised that play began on time, but it was no surprise that Lancashire chose to bowl on a wicket that was presumably moist, nor that Paul Horton made a third successive duck at Grace Road (the last two of them golden). Lancashire (clearly not keen students of my blog) began with a conventional field for Hassan Azad, who confidently, and uncharacteristically, drove Bailey for four in the second over. In the third, however, Gleeson brought in a short leg, and Hassan, his style cramped, patted a gentle catch back to the bowler. Ackermann lashed himself to the mast, weathering two overs from Bailey without scoring, before being prised off by Gleeson, for a second duck.

At 16-3, Gleeson seemed set to take all ten wickets before lunch (his journey from the honest journeyman I saw make his debut for Northants in 2015 has been remarkable), but, mercifully, he was replaced by Liam Hurt, and with the less exacting Bailey continuing at the Pavilion end, Leicestershire could relax a little. Cosgrove perhaps relaxed a little too much, edging an attempted cut on to his stumps for 17 (as his prolonged examination of the toe of his bat indicated, this can only have been the result of some kind of sabotage of his equipment).

With Gleeson away, Harry Dearden and George ‘Gritty’ Rhodes enjoyed a brief mouse’s playtime, as pleasantly surprised, perhaps, as I was to see Liam Hurt’s name on the scoreboard. Although originally from Lancashire, Hurt was briefly on the staff at Leicestershire in 2015, making a single one-day appearance, since when he has been a fixture on the 2nd XI triallist circuit, appearing for seven different counties. Although he has made some headway for Lancashire in white ball cricket this season, this was his first-class debut. It is good to see persistence rewarded, though his muscular, rather guileless, seamers posed little threat.

Playtime (not, in truth, very playful, with Rhodes and Dearden at the crease) ended immediately after lunch with the return of Gleeson, who bowled both Rhodes and his immediate successor Swindells, with the score on 82. This introduced the main bout of the afternoon, Parkinson v Parkinson. Of these twins, Lancashire’s Matthew bowls leg-breaks, and is much the better bowler ; Callum bowls slow left-armers, and has the minor compensation of being the better batsman. Apparently it is common for even identical twins (and they are indistinguishable by sight) to have different dominant hands, but it must sometimes have occurred to Callum, as he suffered from his twin’s feats of dexterity on the back lawn, that he had drawn the short genetic straw.

Rhodes and Dearden, who cannot have seen much serious leg-spin, had played Parkinson (M.) with the wary watchfulness of early European explorers encountering a previously unknown snake. The pitch was not conducive to dramatic turn (which I have seen him achieve elsewhere), but his drift and dip was as mesmeric as a cobra’s. With Rhodes gone, Parkinson (C.) combined a grim determination not to be outdone with, perhaps, inside knowledge acquired in infancy to survive the afternoon session. Dearden, who had batted for over two hours for his 30 (a reversion to his earlier style), was undone by a momentary lapse, and a rare ball that turned dramatically ; Ben Mike, who had displayed mature impulse control against Parkinson, relaxed it to flip a self-styled leg-break from Liam Livingstone, the last before tea, to Parkinson (M.) at square leg.

At tea, Parkinson (C.) could feel that he was having the better afternoon. What he did not know, but most of the crowd did, was that Matthew had been called up by England to tour New Zealand while they were on the pitch. Whether Matthew knew I am not sure, but twelfth man Saqib Mahmood (who had been similarly honoured) might have mentioned it when he ran on to offer him a drink (of energy fluids, I imagine, rather than champagne). Shortly after tea, Matthew completed his triumph by trapping his twin LBW ; I happened to be standing by the players’ entrance when Callum returned to the pavilion. He motioned to smash his bat against a railing (or possibly my head), but stayed his hand at the last moment, and disappeared into the interior, howling primal oaths. I suppose being knocked unconscious in a fit of geminicidal fury would have made a dramatic finale to what has been rather a dull season.

Gleeson, who had the incentive of taking more wickets for the season than Onions (more wickets than Graham Onions, I mean, not that he has been filching vegetables), finished the innings by bowling Klein, to claim 6-43. With the skies lowering, we had a brief taste of what it must be like to watch test cricket, as Wright bowled Keaton Jennings first ball. Leicestershire were, understandably, keen to continue, but the Umpires were not, and the day was prematurely terminated. Bearing in mind the forecast, I thought that it was it for the season, and I said my goodbyes, external and internal.

The second day was entirely rained off, and I was surprised to find myself back at the ground for 2.00 on the third, feeling as if I had been granted an unexpected lease of life ; by the end of the day, in the early evening, I felt mildly enchanted (it’s those long shadows, you know, those darned long shadows), although I could not directly attribute that to anything that had occurred on the pitch. By the end of the day, there was still a faint hope that Leicestershire might achieve another of their freakish, consolatory, end of season victories, such as that against Glamorgan in 2016, or Durham last year, if only because Lancashire, with their Championship already securely in their bag, seemed to be adopting an increasingly half-hearted, if not half-arsed, attitude.

Following Jennings, none of Davies, Bohannon (Bohannon! Bohannon!), Livingstone, Jones or Vilas (who also dropped more than one catch) could muster more than 20 against Leicestershire’s depleted seamers (even Mark Cosgrove was granted an over, to general merriment). Ben Mike, who has only really impressed this season when on loan to Warwickshire, offered some hope for next season, but then he did that last year too. At 77-6, perhaps waking up to the possibility that they might lose their unbeaten record, Steven Croft and Liam Hurt (in his major contribution) knuckled down to compile an eighth wicket partnership of 80, to equal Leicestershire’s total.

When Matthew Parkinson appeared at no. 10, Callum Parkinson (perhaps the only player on the pitch (other than Gleeson) with any real motivation) was brought on to bowl, and immediately had him LBW, offering some fertile material for students of twin studies, and cricket statisticians. Callum’s 2-0, as opposed to his twin’s 2-32, may have granted him temporary seniority, within the family at least. With Leicestershire 40 without loss at the close, 25 ahead, there was still the faint hope that the last might fleetingly pose as first in another sense.

The loss of the first hour of the fourth day meant the probable end to any hope of a result. Leicestershire at least gestured in the direction of making a game of it : Hassan Azad, unmolested by short legs, leg gullies or silly points, moved serenely in the direction of a century, while Colin Ackermann took advantage of some indifferent bowling to fall slightly short of his half-century. Once it was clear that no early declaration would be forthcoming, the only questions were whether Hassan Azad could make another hundred, and Gleeson could claim a fourth wicket, to make it ten for the match, or six to make it 50 for the season. I thought this might, at least, mean that they span it out until five.

At four o’clock, a fine, final, rain began to fall, and Leicestershire declared, with Azad on 82, and Gleeson still with only three wickets. Some covert calculation allowed them to shake hands and head eagerly to the pavilion, Lancashire receiving an ovation from their impressive travelling support, for their performances over the season, presumably, rather than in this match. Hassan Azad received more subdued, if heartfelt, acclaim from the remaining Leicestershire supporters. As I had already said my goodbyes to the ground and the season, I set off for home without any particular emotion.

So … to be continued? Well, possibly. Even given their current financial state, which is apparently more parlous than usual, Leicestershire should be able to keep going for another season. If so, I hope to be there – although there would come a point, if the first-class schedule is further buggered about in the interests of accommodating ‘The Hundred’, where I would have to question whether it is worthwhile renewing my membership (I do know, as they say, when I am not wanted).

Even so, I am not sure whether I shall continue to write about it. As much as I complain about the players apparently going through the motions, I sometimes, uneasily, suspect that I am as guilty of that as they are, and – God knows – there are other things in the world to write about than cricket. But I shall have to see how I feel when the new season approaches, and wait for a firmer, more unmistakeable twitch upon that thread.

Winter well!

PTDC0869

The End of the Tunnel

Leicestershire CCC (308 & 189) v Northamptonshire CCC (357 & 142-3), County Championship, Grace Road, 10-13 September 2019

Leicestershire lost by 7 wickets

PTDC0814

Keeping the flag flying

The cliché that comes to mind, as Leicestershire’s season approaches its end, is the one about light at the end of the tunnel. Watching their progress has certainly too often resembled stumbling through the deep gloom of an abandoned railway tunnel, although – to be fair – with less danger of being run into by a manic cyclist, or bitten by a rat. As always, at the end of a season, the optimist will glimpse some points of light, some hope that next year might be better than this : the pessimist may feel that the main cause for optimism is that we will not have to witness another Leicestershire defeat for the next six months.

The brightest point of light in the season past, by some measure, has been the form of Hassan Azad, who, at the time of writing, has made more runs than any other English batsman* (and, according to one keen statistician, occupied the crease for longer). Given that he was only offered a contract at the start of the season, at the age of 25, this is remarkable. However, batsmen who have remarkable first seasons tend to attract attention, with plans being devised to counter them, and, in spite of the fact that he made 86 in the first innings, I thought there were worrying signs that Northamptonshire had discovered a key to snuffing his light out.

Although the precise configuration of the field varied, Northants’ strategy, in the first innings, was to offer Hassan the chance to play his two favourite scoring strokes – the clip off his hips and the off-side steer – but only through narrow channels through a phalanx of slips and gullies (on both leg and off sides). For close to four hours, he found those channels with what football commentators describe as ‘slide-rule precision’ (a metaphor that has survived the obsolescence of the technology), miscalculating only once, when he was dropped at leg gully by Dougie Bracewell.

Azad field

We’ve got you surrounded!

Bracewell, summoned from New Zealand as a last minute replacement for Kemar Roach, appeared still to be recovering from the flight, the waywardness of his bowling a temptation even to Hassan, let alone the now conspicuously in-form Cosgrove. Bracewell’s beard and general swarthiness do, however, mean that he fits in well with Northants’ battery of brisk-to-medium pacers (Sanderson, Proctor, Hutton and the newly arrived Berg), who would not look out of place crewing a pirate ship on the Spanish main.

Leicestershire’s innings followed the overly familiar script. Paul Horton lasted two balls and Ackermann (it being Cosgrove’s turns to make the runs) patted Berg’s first ball to point. When Cosgrove and Azad had taken the score to 150-2, Cosgrove, to his apparent astonishment, was bowled by Sanderson, and Hassan, to the astonishment of everyone, was bowled shortly afterwards by Proctor. Dexter, who seems to be fading out of the game like a ghost, was only visible for one ball. 183-5.

At this point there was a welcome variation in the script. George Rhodes, a recent acquisition from Worcestershire, was described by Paul Nixon as having been signed to ‘add a bit of grit to the middle order’, which, as he correctly diagnosed, has been lacking it recently. Watched by his father Steve, he displayed the requisite grit by batting for a little over four hours to make an unbeaten 61 ; the lower order chipped in to take the total to 308.

If Rhodes represented a pinprick of light (it was good that he made a career best score on his debut, less encouraging that 61 is his career best), a brighter flare was the debut of Alex Evans. An academy product and student at Loughborough, currently rather gangling, with a long run and a whirling action, he followed a nervously loose first over with the early wickets of Newton and Wakely.  If nothing else, it was a delight to see someone whose wickets seemed to bring him so much pleasure.

There followed one of those long, balmily soporific, afternoons when nothing much seems to happen and thoughts, along with early Autumn leaves, start to drift, that, in some ways, epitomise the pleasures of watching County cricket. Unfortunately, when I awoke from my reverie (or doze), the nothing that had happened was Leicestershire not taking the wickets of Keogh or Rossington, the pair having put on a stand of 148 to take the score from 156-4 to 304-5, and the game away from Leicestershire’s loose grasp. To their credit, the bowlers restricted the final total to 357, encouragingly short of my prediction of 400. I don’t believe, though, that a single Leicestershire supporter would, if attached to a lie-detector, have predicted a home victory.

Leicestershire’s second innings was the same again, only with the unwelcome subtraction of runs from Hassan Azad. This time, Northants, rather than offering opportunities for risky runs, blocked up his channels completely by inserting a fine leg and third man, and invaded his personal space with a silly point and a short leg. Blocked in, like a badger in his sett, and with no opportunities for risk-free runs, he stopped scoring altogether, making a solitary run from the first ten overs. In the twelfth over, a ball from Berg leaped up at him a little and he edged to slip.

Northants also seemed to have an idea that he might be vulnerable to the short ball, and he received a few from over the wicket (as a left-hander). As Charlie Shreck discovered to his cost, attempting to intimidate Hassan can have unwelcome consequences, but they succeeded in hitting him twice, once on the shoulder, turning his back on the ball, and once on the helmet, ducking into one that kept a little low (luckily he came through the concussion protocol, because we would have had difficulty finding a like-for-like replacement). I hope none of the other Counties were taking notes (or reading this), or he (and we) may have a testing time next season.

PTDC0825

Come out with your hands on your head!

After that … well you could, if you felt so inclined, write it yourself. Horton lasted half as long as he had in the first innings.  Cosgrove looked certain of a big score before – to his horrified amazement – being given out LBW for 8. Ackermann (it being his turn) made a cultured and responsible 60, there was a stand of 51 between Dexter and Parkinson that ensured the game would stretch to a fourth day, and there was a slight twitch of the tail – 187 all out. Dexter’s 42 earned him an appreciative but subdued response : if, as seems possible, that was his last first-class innings, the end was in keeping with what has been a fine, but, I think, sometimes under-appreciated career.

The Umpires distinguished themselves in this innings by equalling the world record for LBWs given (eight). One consequence of the introduction of DRS has been to demonstrate how difficult it is for even experienced Umpires to adjudicate accurately on LBWs from 22 yards away, so, from the boundary and a variety of oblique angles, I could not argue with their decisions, but, equally, I do wonder whether all of them would have survived close scrutiny. Only Cosgrove expressed much surprise at having been given out, but no more so than he usually does when he has been bowled.

On the last day, Leicestershire did not suggest much awareness that they were defending a target of 141, as opposed to 341. Slow left-armer Callum Parkinson, who is inexorably turning into a white ball specialist, was given a longer spell than usual, and bowled economically – but that seemed rather beside the point. With Mohammad Abbas absent, and unreplaced, the best chance of bowling Northants out might have been the wild debutant Evans : encouragingly he took a wicket in his two overs – less encouragingly, he was ruled out from the next game with a strain. Cannily, the Umpires delayed lunch until Northants had won, prompting Wakely and noted trencherman Richard Levi (who had earlier struck an interesting fashion note by wearing a cap on top of his sunhat) to polish the innings off.

As I write, Northamptonshire have won again against Durham, and look very likely to be promoted (while Leicestershire are feebly attempting to stave off the inevitable in Cardiff **). I am pleased for Northants (if nothing else, with Nottinghamshire relegated, it means that I will have some Division One cricket within reasonable travelling distance), but it does prompt the question of why they can do it and we cannot – given that there is no obvious reason why they should have better resources, and indeed, like us, have had their best players (Duckett and Gleason) filched by richer counties.

One factor might be that, when Northants recruit from other Counties, they find players who are in the prime of their careers, rather than at the end, or the beginning, as Leicestershire tend to do. They have also made canny use of the loan system to supplement a small squad. However, the major difference seems to come down to intangibles, such as momentum and team spirit : strict rationalists may consider both to be phooey, but – like a fragment of the True Cross – it doesn’t half put a spring in the step of sides who believe that they possess them. I would have thought the one thing that Paul Nixon could be relied upon to instil in his sides would be spirit, but, it appears, we haven’t had that kind of spirit here since 1998.

* He has since been overtaken by Sibley.

** They failed.

PTDC0817

Look, I told you – light!

Lighting a Little Hour or Two

Leicestershire (124-9) lost to Derbyshire (128-1) by 9 wickets, T20, Grace Road, 25th August 2019

I cannot remember when I was last privileged to be part of a crowd so united in rapt attention, experiencing as one a rising sense of cautious hope, the passing dejection of temporary reversals, and, finally, an explosive expression of collective joy at the moment of victory. Games like these are what sport is all about, why we keep coming back! Unfortunately, the game in question was the last day of the Test Match at Headingley, which most of the spectators were following by various means, rather than the game in front of us on the pitch, which, I am afraid, was pretty ordinary.

I would not say that my expectations were high for my annual visit to a T20, but they were about as high as they are ever likely to be. The sad truth is that, as a form of cricket, it mostly bores me – sad for me, that is, because it, as I am beginning to weary even myself by complaining, has already spread like a stain to cover what ought to be the prime months of the English season, and looks set, as it mutates, to swamp the rest of it. However, success in any format can have a tonic effect on a struggling club, and Leicestershire went into this game knowing that a win, after a late burst of four victories, would give them a reasonable chance of qualification for the quarter finals. Derbyshire were in a similar position, although their chances would be better still.

Leaving aside the cricket, it was an enjoyable afternoon. The crowd, still one Bank Holiday Monday away from the return to work, and the novelty of the heat having not yet quite worn off, were plentiful, relaxed and in jovial mood. The drinking was more for the purposes of dehydration than inebriation. At half-time one of the club’s volunteers had her hair cut for charity. I managed to carry a white Magnum back to my seat without it melting, and no-one threw a t-shirt at me. It was all good.

IMG_20190825_141537 (2)

The first half hour of Leicestershire’s innings was how T20 is sold in the advertisements. A little late in the season, Mark Cosgrove has managed to translate the excellent form that he’s in from his own head to the physical plane, and, greedily hogging the strike, made a virtuoso 45 from 26 balls, Harry Swindells playing Leach to his Stokes. Cosgrove has a fine understanding of the theatrical in cricket, his body language a stylised pantomime of how his innings is progressing, the contrast between his apparent bulk and the delicacy of timing worthy of W.C. Fields.

In one of the game’s less outlandish dismissals, Swindells was caught behind at the start of the fourth over, bringing Aaron Lilley to the crease. Lilley is a T20 specialist, otherwise to be found in the 2nd XI, whose entire raison d’être as a batsman seems to be to hit sixes (he has managed 11 so far this season). He promptly hit one, then was caught off what would have been another if it had travelled horizontally rather than vertically. Still, things seemed to be going reasonably well, and I could not complain of a lack of incident.

Cosgrove, promisingly, was now joined by Colin Ackermann, the classically-trained batsman who, probably to his surprise, now boasts the best bowling analysis in English T20 history. My theory that the two are incapable of batting together was soon confirmed. Ackermann cut the ball straight to backward point, and was regaining his poise for the next delivery when he looked up to see Cosgrove standing a few yards away, performing an eloquent dumbshow of ‘Aw mate, if I can run surely you can’, a perfect mixture of pathos and hilarity.

After this, things really fell apart. Lewis Hill, the only player other than Cosgrove to reach double figures, attempted an ambitious cut from in front of his stumps and was bowled for 16 (he was also the only other to record a boundary, apart from Lilley’s six). Ackermann was caught at long on, playing a stroke that was beneath his dignity ; Aadil Ali and Parkinson followed his lead, with less style, but the same result. The last two batsmen were run out, though by then the humour of this situation was wearing thin. I may not know much about T20, but I know what I don’t like – and the final total of 124-9 seemed unlikely to prove adequate.

When Derbyshire began their reply, England still required about 50 runs to win. I registered that the first two overs of spin (from Parkinson and the demon Ackermann) had been encouragingly economical, but that the third (from Dieter Klein) had resulted in 24 runs. After that, I was mentally translated to Leeds, and, as word spread of what was transpiring, the majority of the crowd seemed to join me. As the end approached, the reaction of the spectators bore a diminishing relation to what was happening on the pitch : a forward defensive from Billy Godleman would be greeted by howls of joy, a dot ball by Callum Parkinson with despairing groans, a break for drinks by spontaneous applause.

After the euphoria of victory had peaked, I returned to Grace Road to find that Derbyshire required seven runs from the last eighteen balls, with nine wickets in hand – but it would have been unreasonable to expect more than one miracle in an afternoon. It would be unfair to make comparisons between one of the best examples of one form of cricket, and a mediocre game in another, except that it suggested how although, or perhaps because, every aspect of T20 is contrived to produce excitement, I cannot believe it has ever produced it so intensely as that Test.

Incidentally, in a small vindication of being behind the times, my old long wave radio kept me informed of developments at Leeds at least five seconds before any of those who relied on digital means, so the first anyone knew of that last ball four would have been me punching the air and yelling ‘yes!’ (in a muted way, of course, as I would not have wanted to spoil the enjoyment of any hardcore T20 enthusiasts nearby).

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, Northampton, County Championship, 19th August 2019 (Day 2 only)

Leicestershire – barring a sequence of events more extraordinary than those at Headingley – will now progress no further in the T20, to add to a poor performance in the RL50 and a so far undistinguished series of results in the Championship, but, to their credit, they have yet to show signs of going to pieces in the way that sides sometimes do in the closing stages of the season. However, I detected signs of it when I caught the second day (there wasn’t much of a third day) of Worcestershire’s ten wicket defeat by Northamptonshire at Wantage Road.

When Worcestershire won by an innings at Grace Road in our first home game of the season, it confirmed the view of most good judges (as well as mine) that they were likely candidates for a swift re-entry to Division One. At the time of writing, they are five points above Leicestershire and now look more likely to pip us to the wooden spoon, having lost six games. Since Daryl Mitchell’s double century in Leicester, his runs have all but dried up, causing the same perplexity at New Road that the Nile drying up might have provoked in Ancient Egypt. Neither Riki Wessels nor Callum Ferguson (both new acquisitions) have contributed many to compensate, nor, with Kohler-Cadmore and Clarke gone, have their younger, home-grown batsmen.

The first day (which I missed) epitomised their problem : at one point they had been reduced to 58-7, with six of their top seven batsmen having made nine runs between them, and only recovered to make 186 thanks to a half century from Captain Joe Leach and some chippings-in from the other bowlers. One source of hope was the return of Moeen Ali, back in his old position at no. 3, who had made a (by all accounts) fallible-looking 42. Josh Tongue had also achieved a minor victory by forcing nightwatchman Buck to retire after a blow to the head : unfortunately, the bowler had also strained his side, which is set to keep him out for the rest of the season.

Because Buck had been concussed, Northants were able to substitute him with Blessing Muzarabani, whereas Worcestershire had to do without a bowler, putting them at a serious disadvantage. The medical logic of concussion replacements may be impeccable, but the sporting logic strikes me as questionable, and I wonder whether, if something similar happened in a Test, it would lead to calls for substitutions to be permitted for injuries of any kind.

With Northamptonshire beginning what promised to be a very hot day on 140-3, on a slow pitch, the three surviving seamers might have been forgiven for their seeming lack of enthusiasm for the task, which diminished further as Alex Wakely and Dwaine Pretorius put on another 120 before lunch. Wakely completed his first century of the season, to general rejoicing : Pretorius (who sounds like the result of a random Afrikaaner generator) was signed to play in the T20 but has stepped in as Northants’ third overseas player of the season (with a fourth – Kemar Roach – lined up to replace him). His innings of 111 was as good an example of T20-style batting as anything I saw at Grace Road, at one point hitting Moeen Ali (I think) out of the ground. To add to Moeen’s tribulations, Leach had dropped a simple catch off his bowling when Pretorius had been on 25.

Moeen had a trying day, bowling long spells (nearly forty overs in all) from the Lynn Wilson end, to no great effect : although there were a few full tosses, he did not exactly bowl badly, but he seemed, as out of form players often do, that he was performing an imitation of himself when in form. Moeen sometimes gives the impression that he regards his career as a front-line Test spinner as the result of some enchantment by a benign djinn : now that enchantment seems to have worn off, and he was back where he expects to be, on a county ground, making aesthete-pleasing runs at no. 3, and filling in uncomplainingly, as required, with the ball.

There was a curious incident, shortly before tea, when Moeen lengthened his run a little, the wicket-keeper (unnecessarily) stood back, and he bowled at medium pace. The batsman, Saif Zaib, concealing his surprise well, slog-swept (roughly) the first two balls, pitched on leg stump, to the boundary. Trying a different approach, Moeen bowled a wide outside off-stump, followed by three more which the batsman left, in the expectation that they would be called wide, but the Umpire erred on the side of mercy to the bowler. This experiment was soon discontinued. Late on, one delivery at last spun sharply and trapped Hutton LBW, followed shortly by two more tail-end wickets to provide some measurable recompense for his 39 overs, and the 126 runs he had conceded.

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes – or it prospers ; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two – is gone.

In their second innings, Worcestershire again collapsed, though less dramatically, and were defeated by ten wickets. It will be a relief to them (but not to me) that the Championship season is on the threshold of its final month.

Wantage Road

Lightness and Shades

Ladybird women's cricket

England Women (177) lost to Australia Women (178-8), ODI, Grace Road, 2nd July 2019

Teams of women still come from Australia to play matches, but nowadays they also play at less important grounds, such as Grace Road. This, the first of two one-day internationals against Australia there, was preceded by a game against the West Indies : I should have liked to watch all three, had they not been that perpetual bugbear of mine, day-night games. For once, the weather was pleasant enough to compensate for the additional expense and inconvenience, and I shall remember the afternoon into evening as a fleeting glimpse of light in what has otherwise seemed a dim-lit season.

Beyond the summer night on the river aspect, there is a quality of physical lightness about women’s cricket : a relief from the bang bang boys – bang-it-in seamers, bish bosh batting and pumped-up boundary acrobats crashing into the advertising hoardings. The women (some of them anyway) can seem to flicker to and fro. I also detected an infectious lightness of spirit.

By comparison with the men’s Ashes, the burdens of expectation and history seem to weigh less heavily on the players. If the English men were to be beaten as comprehensively by Australia as the women have been, a ton of bricks would seem feathery, compared to the opprobrium that would descend on their heads. Albeit the game at Grace Road was only the first of the series, no-one, not even the players, seemed to mind too much that the performance had been moderate, and the result a defeat : for all involved, it is still, perhaps, enough simply to be there, to see, or be, women being paid for playing in front of a reasonable crowd (of, I’d guess, about 700), on the television, still basking in the sunlight of official approval.

I sensed, though, a slight dip in mood as England lost their first four wickets in the first five overs, with the score only 19, perhaps as much because it meant the match might end before the expected late afternoon influx of spectators could arrive (and, for once, they did arrive, many of them after-schoolers), as because England might lose. The sharpest dip came when opener Tammy Beaumont, who had promised a Roy-style opening salvo with a trio of fours, chopped an attempted cut on to her stumps.

With a fifth wicket lost on 44 (to an LBW decision which the replay on the big screen tactlessly suggested had hit the glove), England made the best of a bad job by switching to the slow lane : Natalie Sciver, batting less adventurously than I remember from the World Cup, made the top score of 64 ; Sophie Ecclestone, with the end of the innings nigh, hit five fours in her 27. I was doubtful whether the total of 177 was a good score or not, but it looked sufficient for the game to extend into the evening, which was good enough.

Having yet to adjust fully to the customs of the women’s game, I half expected Australia to launch a furious assault, with the intention of finishing the game off quickly, thus establishing psychological dominance for the series. Instead, they chose to motor along at comfortably, but not dramatically, above the required rate, shedding a wicket from time to time, like sweet wrappers. Arriving at their destination ahead of schedule, with 27 required from the last 16 overs and, three wickets remaining, Jess Jonassen and Delissa Kimmince (who I think shares her name with Lidl’s range of textured vegetable protein) killed their speed further, almost literally getting them in singles, at the rate of one an over.

Ten overs later, with nine runs required, Jonassen departed to an inexplicable hoick : Kimmince, deciding that valour was now the better part of discretion, struck a four over mid-wicket. With exactly five required, veteran seamer Katharine Brunt obligingly bowled five wides down the leg-side to gift Australia the game. If James Anderson were to do this in similar circumstances later this Summer I would be braced for an outbreak of mass hysterics, but perhaps hysteria is more a feature of the men’s than the women’s game.

I don’t know whether the lightness of spirit has yet been darkened as the series unfolded woefully for England, or for how long simply being there will be enough to engender such sunny goodwill, but, on the evening, it was impossible not to feel buoyed up by it. Purely on the playing side, I was most impressed by Sarah Taylor’s wicket-keeping, enabled by the moderate bowling speeds to stand up in a fashion reminiscent of the Edwardian era, and by two front foot sixes flicked over mid-wicket by Alyssa Healy : they must have been hit with considerable force, but seemed to fly to the boundary on gossamer wings.

Women's cricket, Grace Road

Leicestershire (212 & 273) lost to Durham (117 & 487-7 dec.) by 119 runs, County Championship, Grace Road, 7-10 July 2019

Durham sly cake

Speaking of strings of poor results, Leicestershire continue to trudge through their season with all the lightness of a diplodocus that has strayed into a particularly viscous swamp. At this distance (I have hitherto been prevented from writing about it by various interruptions, mostly unwelcome) it might be better to leave the Durham game in the decent obscurity of an ancient score book, but some misplaced sense of duty compels me to disinter it.

It started well, with Durham (who had chosen to bat) being bowled out for 117 (Wright 5-30), and Leicestershire on 124-4 at the close : Durham didn’t look to have much batting (once past the openers Bancroft and Lees), Mohammad Abbas had bowled them out twice in a day in the last Championship fixture at Grace Road, and the only (figurative) cloud on the horizon was that Hassan Azad had suffered a rare failure. However, supporters of consistently unsuccessful sides learn not to feel too much elation at good beginnings.

With the form Dearden and Hill have been in, and Tom Taylor still absent through injury, the Foxes’ brush effectively started at no. six : the last six batsmen contributed 55 runs between them, slightly fewer than Ackermann, who remained unbeaten on 62. You might think that Ben Raine would have shown some gratitude to his old club for releasing him from his contract early, but he remained the personification of bristling hostility, which, with Chris Rushworth bowling at the other end, meant a lot of hostile bristles. On the positive side, his return meant the reinstatement of his dad’s dog in his old snoozing ground (no hostility from him).

Pascal once advanced the theory that if Cleopatra’s nose had been a few inches shorter (or was it longer?) the whole course of history might have been different. If Harry Dearden’s right arm had been two feet longer the course of this game might have been different (although he would also have to share a tailor with orang-utans). In the first over of Durham’s second innings, Bancroft edged Mohammad Abbas slightly too far to his right to make it worthwhile diving (perhaps a kind interpretation) : by the time the extra slip had been inserted, the horse had bolted and was galloping away in the direction of a century and an opening stand of 187 with Lees.

I was pleased, by the way, not to hear any allusions to sandpaper from the home supporters (or, audibly, from the team). Twice, when Bancroft claimed low catches in the slips, the batsmen spread their arms in appeal to the Umpire, as if to say ‘with his reputation?’, but otherwise there was no more spoken about the Regrettable Incident.

In other circumstances, I would have been pleased to see Lees make runs. I remember seeing him in his best years putting on an invincible double century opening stand for Yorkshire at Trent Bridge, and facing down the Australian paceman for the Lions at Northampton, and it has been puzzling to follow his decline since, particularly when England have been carrying a vacancy (or a series of vacancies) for an opener. Presumably marked by bad experiences, his batting now looks wary and suspicious, like a cat that’s pawed a hedgehog.

Bearing in mind the apparent weakness of the Durham middle order, there was a faint gleam of hope when Bancroft was dismissed shortly before the close of the second day, and Nathan Rimmington emerged as nightwatchman. This Rimmington, sporting dark glasses and an absurd, obviously false, beard, resembled the kind of shifty, stateless individual you might expect to find lurking in a dark corner of a bar in Tangiers in 1942 (come to think of it, ‘Nathan Rimmington’ must be an assumed name). He appears to be a peripatetic T20 specialist, originally from Queensland, who has presumably qualified to play for Durham on forged papers. In the first innings he had batted at nine, and his bowling had provided some respite from Rushworth and Raine. In the second innings, without whipping off the false whiskers, he revealed himself to be a batsman : not a particularly attractive one, but effective enough to make 92 in taking Durham to 349-3 (Lees, slightly to my disappointment, had also fallen slightly short of his century).

Hope gleamed faintly again when two more wickets fell without further addition, but Leicestershire supporters have learned not to be misled by these will’o’the wisps ; a seventh wicket partnership of 103 between Liam Trevaskis (oddly, not a Cornishman) and Ned Eckersley was enough to extinguish it. Under little pressure, Eckersley was free to indulge his sense of style, though I would have derived more pleasure from watching it if he were still a Leicestershire player.

Set 393 to win, Leicestershire’s response of 273 (not bad, but never in danger of being good enough), unfolded in the now-customary way. Hassan Azad batted for a little under three and a half hours : while he was in it was not obviously deluded to dream of a draw, but, when he was on 62 and the score 178-3, our two ex-employees conspired to remove him (c. Eckersley b. Raine). Raine’s reaction to the wicket was so frenzied he seemed in danger of having apoplexy, or, at least, being reported to the ECB once again.

Cosgrove made a few runs (60), so Ackermann did not (it is usually one or the other, not both) ; the last five wickets fell for 63 runs and the innings faded away a few minutes after the appointed time for tea. The wickets had been shared by the ‘3 Rs’ – Rushworth, Rimmington and Raine (who took nine in the match). I couldn’t begrudge them to him, given the dog, and his years of good service.

There was a slightly wistful, Autumnal feel to the final day, given that it was the last day of Championship cricket at Grace Road until 10th September, by which time it will, of course, be inescapably Autumn. We shall have to hope that Leicestershire’s recent upturn in fortunes in the T20 has invigorated, rather than exhausted, them when they return.

Chewed-up Balls

Leicestershire (36-3) v Middlesex, Grace Road, County Championship, 10-13 June 2019 (theoretically) – Match drawn

Yesterday, upon the square
I saw a game that wasn’t there!
It wasn’t there again today.
Oh how I wish it’d go away!

Unless you have spent at least one day at a cricket ground in the rain, waiting in vain for some play, you cannot hope to understand the true spirit of English cricket. I imagine that if you were to spend four whole days in contemplation of a soggy outfield and periodic, futile, pitch inspections you might achieve some kind of satori, where all the deep mysteries of the game are suddenly made clear, but, avid as I am for enlightenment, I am afraid that I gave up on this match after a couple of hours.

Had I stuck it out, I would have found my meditations interrupted by eleven overs of cricket late on the third day, enough time for Leicestershire to reproduce their season so far in microcosm. Hassan Azad carried his bat, Paul Horton (presumably feeling that two a half days in the dressing room had not been enough) ran himself out for a duck in the third over, and Mark Cosgrove, having started brightly, was caught behind for 13. I suppose having played Middlesex twice without being beaten is an achievement of sorts, although it seemed a shame to gift them a bonus point.

Leicestershire (487 & 211-0 dec.) v Gloucestershire (571), Grace Road, County Championship, 17-20 June 2019 – Match drawn

Gloucestershire have been a bogey side for Leicestershire in recent seasons, in the sense of a side who should not be able to beat us, but usually do (as opposed to the sides who ought to be able to do so, and frequently do). However, there were grounds for optimism, in that they have suffered as badly from predation by richer clubs as we have : in particular, two of their seam bowlers, Miles and (particularly) Liam Norwell have been ‘took by the fox’ (as they say in these parts), or rather by Bears, since last season.

In their places were the one bowler Warwickshire turned their nose up at, David Payne (not the one who used to play the saxophone for Ian Dury), and two whose unnumbered shirts indicated that they had been hurriedly enlisted to cover for unexpected absences. These were Chadd (sic) Sayers, whose one appearance for Australia against South Africa had rather been lost in the excitement over sandpaper, and Josh Shaw, on loan from Yorkshire (I picture these loan players hanging around in gangs on street corners waiting to be hired, like day labourers during the Great Depression).

Gloucestershire clearly had enough faith in this scratch crew to exercise their right to bowl first ; they might also reasonably have expected that a pitch that had been in soak for close to a week would have a little life in it. Initially, they appeared to have reason to congratulate themselves on their good judgement, as an outswinger from Sayers lured Horton into guiding the ball into the gloves of the leaping wicket-keeper. Shortly after tea, with another 320 runs scored, they must have been lamenting the fickleness of the English wicket.

In an interview before the game, Mark Cosgrove had said :

‘Hassan [Azad] has been fantastic, he loves to bat time and that lets some of us play a little bit more freely, as you do when you have someone at the other end who is happy to chew up balls. Don’t just look at his scores, look at the partnerships he’s been involved with – there’s a lot of big ones.’

This proved to be prophetic.

The partnership between Azad and Neil Dexter reached 150 at roughly the same time as Dexter’s 100 and Azad’s 50, Dexter playing freely and Azad chewing up balls (I haven’t come across this expression before, but it conveys how whatever the Gloucestershire bowlers aimed at him seemed to disappear into some sort of industrial mincer). Azad, like Charles Augustus Fortescue, shows what everybody might become by SIMPLY DOING RIGHT (head still, watch the ball on to the bat, don’t chase wide ones) ; all Dexter’s troubles (which have been keeping him out of the team) seemed so far away.

A number of records (perhaps a record number of records) were set : on 153 Leicestershire’s record stand against Gloucestershire, on 289 our record Championship second wicket stand, and eventually the record first-class stand, set by Ateeq Javid and … Hassan Azad against Loughborough in the first game of this season. An awful lot of balls have been chewed up since then.

Gloucestershire’s seamers faced hard labour on a pitch that revealed itself to be a poor, lifeless thing, on what may have been the first and last warm and cloudless day this June. Sayers, reputed to be a swing bowler, must be doubting the stories he has heard about ‘English conditions’ ; Payne and Shaw were sweatingly workmanlike ; Higgins’ medium pace and van Buuren’s slow left armers were enough to tempt even Azad to gamble a little (albeit responsibly).

Once Azad had been dismissed (for 137), the edifice built on his foundations began to sway alarmingly : Dexter was one of five catches for wicket-keeper Roderick, for a rejuvenating personal best of 180 ; Cosgrove, who insists – as all gamblers do – that ‘the big one is definitely around the corner’, gambled irresponsibly after one run, and was another. Two nightwatchmen were employed, only one of whom survived their vigil. 343-5 at the close.

The second day revealed one of the differences between those who watch cricket and those who play it professionally : we watchers are keen observers of the weather forecast, whereas the players, I am convinced, would not recognise Carol Kirkwood if she sashayed into the Fox Bar. Another is that we followers are prone to spinning hopeful fantasies of how a game might work out, whereas the player – like alcoholics – prefer to take the game one day at a time.

The forecast was that rain would arrive early on the second afternoon, and not depart until after close of play on the third. My view (quite forcefully expressed to anyone who would listen) was that Leicestershire should dash to 400 and declare, in the hope that Mohammad Abbas might bowl the opposition twice (unlikely, but not impossible). Leicestershire’s view seemed to be that they should carry on batting for as long as possible, and then see how it went. As the second new ball approached its dotage, and the cloud cover descended invitingly, Colin Ackermann delivered a pro-forma 50, Harry Dearden took a little over an hour to make 26 (‘it’s the way he plays’), and only Lewis Hill (a characteristically chancy 44) suggested any sense of urgency.

Mohammad Abbas eventually made his appearance at about the time when the rain was due to descend in earnest, unfortunately with a bat in his hand. Any one of the seamers would have welcomed his wicket as a reward for their graft, but Captain Dent, an occasional bowler in the sense that the Andean Condor is an occasional summer visitor, chose to bowl himself, and snatched the wicket from under their noses with his fourth ball.

Before play was finally abandoned for the day, through a combination of continuous rain and very dim light, Abbas only had time to take 3-10. The third wicket fell with the score on 16, though some looser bowling from the other end allowed them to edge gingerly, as if along a mountain ledge, to 41. Another couple of hours of bowling in those conditions and they might have been six or seven down. But – as Horts would be the first to point out – what might have been is an abstraction remaining a possibility only in a world of speculation.

Although the third day remained a nasty, dingy grey, it did not actually rain once (Horton 1 Kirkwood 0). As it progressed, the question ceased to be whether Leicestershire had left enough time to bowl Gloucestershire out twice and became whether we would be capable of bowling them out at all. The first error was that none of the batsmen dismissed on the second afternoon had been Chris Dent, whose main strength as a batsman is that, once established, he is as hard to get rid of as an infestation of nits. Another was dropping him when he was on 15 (I shan’t mention the culprit, but he shares his initials with an Imagist poet).

The prospect of a quick victory receded as Dent and Howell (also dropped by the Imagist) put on 67 for the fourth wicket, but that of any victory slowly evaporated during the course of a stand of 318 for the sixth wicket between Dent (176) and Ryan Higgins (whose own bowling had been treated with similar disdain earlier). This set its own slew of records, and rather cast a retrospective shadow over Azad and Dexter’s monumental effort. By the close, Gloucester had overtaken Leicestershire for the loss of six wickets, and another possibility entered the world of speculation – that Leicestershire might lose.

A packed Grace Road rises to applaud Ryan Higgins’ historic 199

In the context of this game, Leicestershire did well to restrict Gloucestershire to 571 on the last day (Higgins, in a small victory, was bowled for 199). The visitors made only a token attempt to dismiss Leicestershire for less than 84 (Payne bowled only four overs), before surrendering to clock watching, as keen for 5.00 to arrive as any office worker on a Friday afternoon, while Azad chewed up their balls ; both he and Paul Horton made exactly 100 apiece before sending them home early with a declaration. Azad’s was, of course, his second of the match, and was one, you felt, he would have made in exactly the same fashion against more earnest bowling. Horton’s average (and possibly his self-confidence) has been greatly improved.

Every member of the Gloucestershire side, bar the wicket-keeper, bowled in the second innings. A slightly poignant note is that one of the comedy bowlers was Jack Taylor, who began his career as a specialist off-break bowler, before being banned for throwing (very happily he has managed to save his career by reinventing himself as a specialist batsman). His action could not have been more smooth, although he failed to take a wicket.

Leicestershire (293) v Northamptonshire (299 & 206-6 dec.), Wantage Road, County Championship, 24-27 June 2019 – Match drawn

In advance, I should have liked to visit Wantage Road (ground of my fathers) for all four days of this match, but considerations of cost (exasperatingly, we have no reciprocal agreement) meant that I was only there for the third day, by which time the game had been spavined by the rain that washed out the second day, and reduced it to another grind for bonus points. On the first day, Northamptonshire had been bowled out for 299 (one short of the glittering prize of a third batting point), which would have set a four day game up nicely, given that both sides are rather stronger in their bowling (but I am straying again into that world of speculation).

The Leicestershire contingent was not large, but then neither was the home contingent (at the start of play I counted 87 adults). There were, however, at least three large parties of school children, who kept up a crescendo, high-pitched, squeal as the bowlers approached the crease, and a chorus of ‘ooh’s as the ball proceeded harmlessly into the wicket-keeper’s gloves. This occupied most of their visit, as they watched Hassan Azad leave the majority of the deliveries he received in the five hours and ten minutes he occupied the crease, a trout resolutely untickled.

I have to admire their connoisseurship, although fans of stroke play might have been more inclined to squeal at Mark Cosgrove’s innings of 63, which suggested that his big one might, indeed, be around the corner. It is a pity he does not play like this more often at Grace Road. The children reserved their loudest squeals for the fall of a wicket (of which there were seven in the course of the day) : if they had stayed past tea, it might have sounded as if One Direction had reformed and put on an impromptu show in the outfield, as – almost more extraordinarily – Hassan Azad stumbled into a leg-trap, when eight short of his third successive century.

I gave the final day a miss, when Leicestershire, like their hosts, narrowly failed to achieve their target of 300. After that, with the serious business of bonus points concluded, it was again a question of how to pass the time until they could knock off and head for home (or the bar), which they managed to do at ten to five. I understand the weather had improved.

The latest recruit to the Wantage Road Home for the Generously Proportioned is the increasingly have-boots-will-travel Matt Coles, another in the gang of day-labourer seamers (he is on loan from Essex). The problem of finding a shirt big enough for him had been solved by giving him Ben Cotton’s old jersey (Cotton has, I think, been disposed of for being a bit too generously proportioned). The letters TTON had been removed, and LES written in with black marker pen. I feel that this says something about Northants’ current ‘brand of cricket’, although I am not quite sure what that might be.

 

Darkness Visible

Leicestershire (120 & 168) v Derbyshire (139 & 214), Grace Road, County Championship, 27-30 May 2019

Derbyshire won by 65 runs

If a marketing department, charged with devising a new cricket-flavoured product that would appeal to a wider audience, were asked to describe the antithesis of what they were after, this match would have had most of the essential elements. A four day game that would have been over in three, had it not been stretched by frequent breaks for rain, played mostly under lights because of low-lying cloud ; one fifty, and only three other innings of over forty (all compiled methodically by the same two batsmen) ; only one total of over 200 ; no sixes – a scorecard from a past era.  So, I should have enjoyed it.

I would have enjoyed it more had Leicestershire ever seemed likely to approach close enough to their fourth innings target of 234 to provide some element of dramatic tension (or ‘jeopardy’, as the moderns have it) ; instead, they fell short by 65 runs, leaving me to thumb through the thesaurus in search of synonyms for ‘weary sense of inevitability’, and look for something else to do, with what, frustratingly, was a perfect afternoon for cricket, after three days of darkness and showers.

Leicestershire spirits were at their highest, perhaps, at the end of Derbyshire’s first innings ; having chosen to bat, the visitors were bowled out for 139, which seemed, at the time, to be a testament to the (undeniable) strength of our seam bowling. By the end of the day, with Leicestershire on 55-4, and Ackermann already dismissed, it seemed more a tribute to the inability of batsmen on both sides to cope with some good, but not truly outstanding, fast-medium seam bowling in what were helpful, but not unusual, conditions for England in May. It would be a low-scoring game.

When play resumed the next day, there was some hope that Leicestershire might achieve a first innings lead, but only if Hassan Azad and Harry Dearden could stay in. The ability to stay in has, until recently, been Dearden’s most obvious talent, but on this occasion it deserted him with the score on 82 (perhaps he should now be classed as a ‘one-day specialist’). With Tom Taylor missing through injury, and Dieter Klein (a hit or miss batsman) unusually high in the order at eight, this exposed a last five who managed thirteen runs between them. Hassan Azad, in his fourth Championship match, was forced to play the elder statesman, and must have been tactfully exasperated to be left stranded on 46 not out, having as good as carried his bat. The total was 120.

The bowlers whom Leicestershire had found so hard to play were Antonio ‘Tony’ Palladino (5-29) and Logan van Beek (3-20). Palladino is nearly thirty-six and an archetype of the kind of English seam bowler who is expected to take wickets in the English early season ; although I appreciate that it is easier said than done, you would have thought that anyone with aspirations to play County cricket would have evolved some strategy to play bowlers of his type. Hassan Azad’s seems to have been to listen to all the favourite truisms of junior coaches of the old school – ‘keep your head still’, ‘watch the ball on to the bat’, ‘straight bat’, ‘wait for the bad ball’ … but if I carry on too far down that route I shall find myself saying ‘it’s not rocket science’ (and smoking a pipe).

Another heavy shower (in real time this narrative would have been punctuated by them) after tea prompted me to leave for home : the prospect of play resuming, if it ever did, seemed likely to promise only a few hours in near-drizzle, watching Derbyshire, having been let off the hook, wriggle off to swim to a comfortable lead (they reached 106-2). In fact, as usually happens in these circumstances, Leicestershire offered enough hope to make returning the next day seem worthwhile by taking six quick wickets in a final session that extended well into the early evening (ah, the roller-coaster of emotions!). I would not, though, in all honesty, say that I regretted my decision.

As sure as night follows day, a successful evening session was followed, the next morning, by the Derbyshire tail-enders being allowed to stretch the target for victory from 179 to 234 (Palladino and van Been – those maverick NYC crime-fighters – again being the culprits).

The most memorable aspect of Leicestershire’s reply were two – in the circumstances – culpably unnecessary strokes from Horton and Cosgrove that must have had Hassan Azad, who was again forced to watch helplessly from the other end, averting his eyes to avoid embarrassing his seniors.  In fairness, Horton’s shot seemed marginally more explicable in the replay than it had from the mid-wicket boundary ; from there he had looked to have been bowled trying to smash a straight delivery over long off, missed and been bowled (in fact, it had pitched outside off and he had edged it on to his stumps).

Cosgrove’s looked poor from any angle. He had taken the lead in putting on 58 with Azad, negotiating the seam in a composed and responsible fashion, when Derbyshire invited Wayne Madsen to bowl a few overs of his net-quality off-breaks (four overs of which comprised the only spin of the game). Setting a trap, so ill-disguised that it should not have snared a partially sighted heffalump, Madsen allowed Cosgrove to loft one drive into the sight screen, in the sure and certain hope that he would try to repeat the stroke two balls later and be caught at long on. When precisely this occurred, even Cosgrove did not have the effrontery to perform his usual dumbshow of disbelief, but traipsed off shame-faced, while his young partner took a keen interest in the buckling of his pads. Cosgrove ought to be – and generally is – a better batsman than that.

Even so, and even when Ackermann was bowled by a genuinely fine swinging delivery from the mellifluous Luis Reece, a disinterested observer would still have backed Leicestershire, on 110-4 at the close of play, to overhaul the target of 234 on the final day. Not being disinterested, I would have settled for a couple of sessions in the sun (and, at last, there was sun) watching my side make a valiant attempt at the total, even if they were to fall slightly short. But, in place of hope, there was that ‘weary sense of inevitability’ I mentioned earlier (or perhaps ‘fatigued feeling of inescapability’, by way of variation).

Hassan Azad and Harry Dearden, who again bore the burden of reviving the innings on their youthful shoulders, offered a brief respite from the sense of hopelessness by still occupying the crease at 11.30, but both fell to Reece shortly afterwards (the lifting of the cloud cover did not seem to have inhibited his ability to swing the ball). None of the later batsmen had anything to offer, and the game ground to a halt at 12.30, leaving me time to catch the second half of the 2nd XI game at Kibworth on the way home, so at least I had my afternoon in the sun. Many of the spectators had cut their losses by going straight there.

This game was the first of six Championship games in seven weeks, three of them at home and one at Northampton, before we are thrown out of the T20 window. They find us in the odd position of having two sets of good seam bowlers (Gavin Griffiths, bowling well in the Toose, must be champing on the bit), but very little batting, which is like having two nice shirts, but no trousers.

As I write, we are battling (not unvaliantly, in fairness) to avoid an innings defeat against Lancashire : I see we have abandoned the experiment of opening with Ateeq Javid (I hope he can find some other role), and adopted my pre-season suggestion of substituting Swindells for Hill in four-day cricket. There have been hints of revival from Horton and Cosgrove, and we must hope for a long, hot Indian Summer from both, and the returning Dexter, otherwise, barring some shrewd activity in the loan market, I may find the prospect of not returning to Grace Road until late September (or at all) more of a relief than I would wish.

See you on the other side (probably).