A Win is a Win is a Win

Leicestershire v Worcestershire, Grace Road, 30 April 2017

Leicestershire v Warwickshire, Grace Road, 2 May 2017

Leicestershire v Northamptonshire, Grace Road, 12 May 2017

Leicestershire v Derbyshire, Grace Road, 14 May 2017

As you may have noticed, although I’m pretty good at taking photos of empty stands, action photography is not really my forte, but Charlie Dryden has been kind enough to allow me to reproduce some of his excellent photographs from the games against Worcestershire and Warwickshire.  The full selection can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/56864674@N02/albums/with/72157683321347786

(and now from the Northants and Derbyshire games at https://chasdryden.myportfolio.com/projects)

As any football manager will tell you, “A win is a win”. Or even, as Gertrude Stein liked to say during her brief spell in the hot seat at Turf Moor “A win is a win is a win”. So, my lasting memory of Leicestershire’s campaign in this year’s Royal London One-Day Cup will be that we won the last home game (against Derbyshire) and that I was there to see it (the first of these is less rare than the second) ; the resulting euphoria is enough to cast a retrospective endorphin glow over what was, in any case, an encouraging set of performances.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with it, it is easier to explain what the RLDOC is than quite why it is what it is. The only one day competition in this year’s County calendar, it is played over 50 overs a side. The Counties are divided into two groups, on roughly geographical lines (Leicestershire are in the North group) and play each other once. The sides finishing top of these groups proceed to a home semi-final, whereas the sides finishing second and third play what is either a quarter-final or a play-off, depending on how you look at it, before proceeding to an away semi-final and then a final at Lord’s. The group stages (and this is fairly crucial) are played in a “block” during the last week of April and the first two weeks of May.

(I wouldn’t bother trying to memorise any of this, by the way. It will all be completely different next year.)

The tournament is apparently played in a “block” because the players dislike having to switch between formats, and over 50 overs because that is the format in international cricket. The timing is because the whole of July and August is reserved for T20 and June for the Champions’ Trophy (not to mention the Womens’ World Cup, which will be occupying four County grounds, including Grace Road, for three weeks from June to July).

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What seems not to be remotely a consideration here is the opinion of people who enjoy watching one-day cricket, who would, I would suggest (it’s been suggested to me often enough), fairly universally, prefer a 40-over league played throughout the season on Sunday afternoons, with, if possible, a 50-over knock-out cup thrown in.

Two of Leicestershire’s home games (the ones against Worcestershire and Derbyshire) were played during daylight hours (11.00-6.45) on Sundays, and attracted respectable numbers of the kinds of people who used to watch the Sunday leagues (multi-generational, amiable, unfanatical, though without the hardcore piss artists, who are presumably saving themselves for the T20). The other two games (against Warwickshire and Northants), played on Tuesday and Friday respectively, were blighted by the ECB’s latest craze – day-night cricket.

These games are scheduled to last from 2.00 to 9.45, the idea being to allow spectators to drop in after work. This is, in itself, an admirable aim, but would probably work better in a country with a hot climate (such as Australia), or in a month when there was a reasonable chance of a warm evening (such as August). It might also work in a city which has a system of public transport which operates late enough to allow the spectators to get home (such as London). As it was, both games were poorly attended, mostly by the same people who watch Championship matches, many of whom went home, as usual, at about 5.00. There was certainly no visible after-work influx to replace them although, to be fair, rain had already set in at the Northants game and, at the other, though dry, the cold was purgatorial.

Paradoxically, I suppose, the fact that I am no longer working does allow me, public transport permitting, to watch the whole of games, as opposed to one or two days of a Championship match, or the first half of a one day game. One effect has been to make me more conscious of the narratives of games, rather than individual players and performances, more fixated on the result and, therefore, more partisan, and more inclined to hang on until the bitterly cold end of games in the hope of witnessing a Leicestershire victory.

Playing the games as a block does also lend the competition a degree of narrative coherence and allows an overall assessment of Leicestershire’s performance, which has, given their recent dismal showing in this form of the game, been surprisingly. Two wins, a defeat and an abandonment (plus three defeats and a rain-aided win away from home) may not sound like a triumph, but there have been no outright capitulations, every player has put in at least one outstanding performance and have otherwise performed consistently well.

The first two games followed the pattern of the side batting first (Worcestershire, then Leicestershire against Warwickshire) posting their record scores in List A cricket (361 and 363 respectively), leaving the side batting second (after the first ten overs) bearing the same relationship to the DL target (which now mocks them from the new scoreboard) as a greyhound does to the electric hare.

Worcestershire are currently the romantic’s choice in Division 2 : apart from Moeen Ali, they have a selection of young, locally produced players (mostly sourced from the Public Schools), and, though only Moeen made a really significant score (90), all, with the exception of Kohler-Cadmore, run out by a deft sidestep by Zak Chappell, made runs and any real hope of restricting them to a feasible total vanished when Hastings and Bernard scored 46 off the last 20 balls (Whitely had earlier smashed a hole in the boundary fence with a straight drive, which I thought he should have been billed for – we aren’t made of money).

No real blame attaches to the Leicestershire bowlers for this, on a pitch that was helpful to neither seam nor spin, though only Griffiths managed to maintain a more than respectable economy rate. Apart from his nifty footwork to remove Kohler-Cadmore, Chappell had Moeen caught behind (he hasn’t taken many wickets yet, but they’ve been good ones), but a desperately inexperienced bowler who relies on sheer pace is always likely to be expensive in this form of cricket, and it was probably prudent to omit him from the side for the last two games. What he needs is a full season’s bowling, but it is hard to see how he is going to get that when so much of the calendar is given over to T20, another form of the game in which he is never likely to be the safest option.

Zak does still have some way to go before he is quite the finished article as a nasty fast bowler.  I think I detected a hint of a vulpine lope, but, when a plastic bag (Tesco, I think) blew across his path at the start of his delivery run, he picked it up, trotted back to the pavilion and handed it to a steward. I can’t picture “Terror” Thomson in his prime being quite so public-spirited.

At the break, with Leicestershire set to chase 361, it didn’t seem likely that the major gratifications of watching one day cricket this year were going to come from on the pitch, but, with the weather warm enough to risk an ice-cream, it felt that there were worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon, a fact brought home when it was announced that there was a serious blockage in the lavatories behind the Meet, and a bloke was summoned to spend the rest of the day trying to unblock it.  Sooner him than me.

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Astonishingly (I was astonished, anyway), the Foxes almost matched Worcestershire’s total, the difference being that they were bowled out in the 48th over, at the point when Worcestershire were about to add the 46 runs that separated the sides. I’m afraid I didn’t have enough faith to hang around to witness the final overs, but baled out in search of a bus when Aadil Ali (who had been given the licence to play with the kind of aggression and fluency that’s always come easily to him in club cricket) was run out for 88.

If Leicestershire couldn’t match Worcestershire’s 361 on the Sunday, they overhauled it on the Tuesday against Warwickshire, making 363 (another club record). This day-night match was played in front of a small crowd for a game against a neighbouring County, though, for the first hour, the atmosphere was enlivened by a party of about 500 schoolchildren. Hopes were raised of an influx of Warwickshire supporters when a fleet of coaches arrived in mid-afternoon, but it turned out they had come to take the schoolchildren away. After that an eerie silence descended on the ground.

If one problem with the Leicestershire bowlers is a lack of experience, the problem with Warwickshire’s (and the team generally) looks to be too much of it. Leicestershire have put their two biggest eggs in one basket by opening with their two one-day specialists, Pettini and Delport. Against Worcestershire Delport had somehow contrived to be stumped early on off the bowling of Joe Leach, but this time the tactic came off triumphantly, the openers making 72 off the first seven overs, allowing them to promote Aadil Ali ahead of retrenchment specialist Eckersley and introduce death-or-glory boy Tom Wells early to lead an assault that brought over 100 off the last ten overs.

Pettini made a club-record 159, playing, unlike Delport or Wells, with the rapier, or possibly sabre, rather than the cudgel. He has been playing like a man possessed this year, having been a marginal figure last season, though whether this is the result, as is popularly supposed, of having been rapped by tough-talking boss De Bruyn in a clear-the-air-session, I couldn’t say. If he carries on like this I might even stop confusing him with Tony Palladino.

Warwickshire’s reply was hobbled at the outset, as was the unfortunate batsman, when a vicious yorker from our secret weapon Dieter Klein hit Porterfield on the instep plumb in front of the wicket. Hain (a batsman I perhaps over-rate because he makes a century every time I see him) and Ambrose made runs, but not quickly enough ; Trott and Bell look increasingly like a band who haven’t made a decent record in years, but have every half-decent effort hailed as a return to form, and the visitors’ last five wickets fell for 14 runs.

So, a famous victory, which, of course, I wasn’t there to see, having left to catch the last bus home (which leaves the city centre soon after 8.00). I’d be surprised if many were : the crowd was already sparse when I left, many of the regulars having left in the interval, and I think the only new arrivals had been a party of polar bears who said they’d come down from the Arctic to cool off.

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Such was my determination to see the end of a game that, for the match against Northants (another day-night affair), I splashed out and came by train (the last train home leaves Leicester shortly before 10.00).  The forecast was equivocal about the prospect of rain, but, I thought, even if it came down to a 10-over thrash at 8.00, I could say I was there.

The afternoon started well, in sunshine, and with Klein repeating his trick by bowling Duckett in the first over for 0 (I would normally feel ambivalent about this, because I enjoy watching Duckett bat, but, by now, cup fever was upon me).  It then took on an ominous aspect, as Levi and Newton made half-centuries apiece, and the clouds gathered.  The first rain fell at 3.00, and, apart from a ten-minute reprise at 5.15, that was it.  The game was finally called off at 7.15, which did, at least, give me time to have some of Mr. Stew’s excellent shepherd’s pie for dinner, though I needn’t have bothered with the train ticket.

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The crowd for this, by the way, was lower than you would normally expect for a County Championship game.  Admittedly the forecast was unpromising, but it cannot help that, to travel from Northampton to Leicester by train (a distance of about 40 miles) you would have to go via Birmingham or London.

And so to the last game, against Derbyshire (which was well-attended, with a substantial Derbyshire contingent).  I did have a suspicion that the visitors, who looked a depressed side last year, might be much-improved this season : Gary Wilson, Luis Reece and particularly “Hardus” Viljoen sounded like handy signings, and Harvey Hosein, a wicket-keeper batsmen, had impressed me as a useful prospect when he played against us at Derby.  In the event, they looked a poor side throughout. Neither Wilson nor Hosein played (quasi-Kolpak Daryn Smit, listed as an “occ WK” in Playfair, was behind the stumps) and it was only thanks to 98* by Alex Hughes (playing the “anchor role” that I thought was now outmoded) that they reached the total of 219, which would not have been overly impressive in 1976.

Viljoen’s first couple of overs raised the spectre that I might be making it home early, without seeing a Leicestershire win, being rapid enough to have Pettini caught behind and induce Delport and Eckersley (who can be a nervous starter) to play and miss more than once. However, his fire seemed to die down as the innings progressed and the only real threat came from Ben Cotton (a tall, “raw-boned” seamer of the kind that Derbyshire used, apocryphally, to be able to whistle up from the nearest pit, though, in fact, he seems to come from Stoke), who bowled 9 overs for 18 runs and briefly re-summoned that spectre by removing Cosgrove and Aadil Ali with Leicestershire still 100 short.

However, as you may remember from the spoiler at the beginning of this piece, Eckersley, permitted by the circumstances of the match to play an only slightly accelerated version of his preferred game, and Lewis Hill, whose unorthodoxy can sometimes stray into comedy (he has a tendency to fall over), but who is nothing if not determined, steered the ship safely to within one run of the harbour, when Eckersley was run out.

The entire Leicestershire contingent, who had gathered in front of the pavilion to applaud the two heroes off the field, had first to applaud Eckersley off solo,

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and then reconvene to celebrate the victory itself, which we did with much jubilation.  Supporters of more successful sides may be blasé about this kind of scene, but I can assure you that it was well worth waiting for.  And, as it had only taken them 40 overs, I was even home in time for dinner.

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Not Entirely Pointless

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, LVCC, Grace Road, 21-24 April 2017

A while ago, writing about match-fixing, I wrote the following :
“Any sport consists of an elaborate system of rules that constructs an artificial world within which it is possible to have an authentic experience. As anyone who has watched a lot of County cricket, or lower league football, will attest, that experience is rarely obviously thrilling, or even interesting (it is not spectacular), but, even if it not “real” in the sense that bull-fighting is real, it is and must be known to be authentic. When something genuinely marvellous happens (such as Botham in 1981) it reassures us that miracles can occasionally happen in real life, and not only in fiction.”
I suppose this match was a good example of what I had in mind. Only two of the passages of play (the morning session on the first day and the afternoon and evening sessions on the fourth) were particularly compelling in themselves. In between there were a few interesting moments, some worthy performances and touches of humour, but the main interest was in trying to anticipate the denouement, which, in the event, was never revealed.

Although there were several points when one side seemed to have the advantage, by the end of each day equilibrium had reasserted itself (Leicester ended the first day on 275-5, Glamorgan were 281-4 by the end of the second ; Leicester were 200-3 at the end of the third, Glamorgan 144-4 at the close). (This state of equilibrium may have been the result of the game – as a man in front of me put it – being a case of a resistible force meeting a moveable object.)

A journeyman scriptwriter would have repeated the ending to last season’s match between the two sides, when, in the last game of the season, McKay and Shreck had taken Glamorgan’s last five wickets for ten runs when they required only 36 more to win (not quite Botham in ’81, but a satisfying conclusion). Instead we had a sort of nouveau roman policier, in which, having established numerous suspects, the detective concludes that he cannot work out who the murderer is and simply gives up and goes home for dinner.

The match was unusual, in that the most significant delivery of the four days was one that no-one in the crowd could see, it being the ball in the nets that had (apparently) bruised Zak Chappell’s shoulder and rendered him incapable of bowling in Glamorgan’s first innings. This is not because I would expect him to run through them like a dose of salts (those days may come, but not yet, and probably not, I’m afraid, for Leicestershire), but because it meant that we were left with only three front line bowlers, McKay, Raine and Shreck, who, in benign conditions for batting, were compelled to bowl 27, 30.5 and 29 overs respectively. As a result, I imagine, neither McKay (back) nor Raine (sidestrain) were able to bowl more than a few overs on the last afternoon, though Chappell was able to bowl, alongside the apparently indefatigable Shreck.

The first session of the first day was, as I say, compelling to watch, as the Lancastrian duo of Horton and Dearden opened together for the fourth time this season. Horton was in fragile form at the end of last season and has a highest score this of 20, with four single figure scores. Dearden was averaging 11 and their highest opening partnership against a County had been 10. It might not be true that they were anxious for their places, as, with Robson having absconded, there is no obvious alternative opener, but Horton (at 34) might have been worrying that he is facing something worse than a temporary dip in form and Dearden (19) that he is out of his depth.

Friday was a bitterly cold and overcast morning, and it was something of a test of character simply to stay out on the pitch for the opening session, when there was the option of a warm dressing room to retreat to, but the pair dug in (the phrase implies some of the dogged physical effort that seemed to be involved) and were still together at lunch. The pitch seemed generally true, but with the nasty quirk that balls just short of a length sometimes reared up alarmingly, and Horton was hit painfully more than once. Glamorgan, too, seemed a bowler short (there was no van der Gugten, nor cricket’s answer to Robbie Savage, Graham Wagg), and their opening pair Michael Hogan (a “rangy” Australian who looks somehow under-dressed without a Drizabone) and Lukas Carey (a 19-year old from the same Swansea school as Aneurin Donald) were only intermittently threatening, but the sense of relief when the beleaguered pair returned to the pavilion, with the score on 81-0 was almost tangible.

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At lunch, to illustrate my point about anticipating possible futures, a century opening partnership, and an individual century for at least one of the openers seemed on the cards. By about 2.00, with Horton out for 41 (he returned to a standing ovation from the home balcony, indicating that spirit within the team is good, whatever their alleged relationship with the coach), followed swiftly by Dexter first ball and Captain for the day Eckersley for 1, thoughts (my thoughts anyway) had turned to a card-house collapse and how Chappell might be hard to play in the fading light of the final session. (I must, incidentally, get out of the habit of taking pictures of batsman as they return to the pavilion, which makes me feel too much like a tricoteux cackling at the foot of the tumbril.)


In the event, equilibrium was restored by Dearden (who fell 13 frustrating runs short of a maiden century) and Mark Pettini, who has been the least convincing of the “experienced” imports, but who made important runs in both innings here ; the balanced then tipped in favour of Leicestershire as the last five wickets, in what has become something of a pattern, more than doubled the score to finish on 420.

The last 61 of those runs came from a last wicket stand on the second morning between those knights of the long handle McKay and Shreck ; they were clearly enjoying themselves enormously at the time

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but might have been less pleased if they had known quite how many overs they would have to bowl over the course of the next two sunny days, on a pitch which had mellowed so much that it might as well have fired up a joint and stuck some James Taylor on the stereo.

Spirits first sank at the sight of Tom Wells taking the field. Not that there is anything wrong with Wells per se, but because it soon dawned that he was fielding as a substitute for Chappell, leaving, as support for the three main bowlers, Dearden (who had not, I think, previously bowled with a red ball even for the 2nd XI), Dexter (whose medium pace surprisingly often breaks partnerships, but is not suited to long spells) and Delport (supposedly on a one day contract, but drafted in here (any Delport in a storm) to purvey his big maximums and little wobblers).

The bulk of Glamorgan’s reply came from young opener Selman (117) and the mature Kolpak Ingram (137). I can remember little of their stand of 161, except being torn between wanting it to stop and being secretly relieved that the game would, at least, outlast the weekend. Once that stand was broken, wickets fell at regular, but widely spaced, intervals and Glamorgan finally crept six runs in front (equilibrium restored again).  Another responsible, as well as stylish, innings by Pettini (a century this time) and a similar effort from Eckersley ensured that defeat was out of the question, but the timing of the declaration, which left Glamorgan 355 to make off a possible 57 overs, meant that something extraordinary would be required for a home victory.

What we saw (the thirty or so who were left by the end) was, in a way, extraordinary, but not in the way required to win. To set the scene, by mid-afternoon the sky was, at its most colourful, battleship grey, and the only things that seemed to be preventing it snowing were the intense cold and the biting wind. If it weren’t for the floodlights we would all have been home by lunchtime.

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McKay bowled his first over like a man who is a martyr to lumbago, and it must have been clear to Glamorgan that last year’s bogeyman would not be troubling them again (he only managed one more over).  Raine, a player who would, as the saying goes, run through brick walls for the club (and probably does so for fun on his days off) was forced to leave the field after, heroically, bowling seven overs and taking two wickets.  Which (without a recognised, or recognisable, spinner in the side) left Shreck and Chappell. Shreck, a man closer in age to me than he is to Chappell, managed another 13 overs to go with the 29 he had bowled in the first innings (perhaps his enforced rest period had done him good) but posed no real threat to batsmen who were looking only to survive.

Chappell, though, in light that seemed pretty dim even with the floodlights on, bowled fast enough to endanger the physical safety of the batsmen, even if he did not often enough threaten their wickets (Cooke looked thoroughly uncomfortable, particularly when he was hit somewhere in the region of his solar plexus).  He also posed some threat to his wicket-keeper and slip cordon, and even a St. John Ambulance lady who was sheltering from the wind behind the sightscreen (a bouncer had flown as far over Lewis Hill’s head as a lecture on Hegel and trampolined over the screen off a hoarding angled at 45 degrees).  In fact, for once, the only person he did not look likely to injure was himself.

The more sensible element in the crowd had called it a day when there was a brief interruption for bad light,

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but I hung on to the end, in the faint hope that the extraordinary thing, the thing you don’t see every day, might happen, which, in a way, it did.  A ball from Chappell to Rudolph, slightly short of a length, instead of veering harmlessly off towards the slips, cut back viciously and skinned his glove on its way through to Hill.  A whole possible future glimpsed in a single ball.

To maintain the equilibrium, both Leicestershire and Glamorgan have now earned 20 points this season though, after deductions, we only have four left.  So, not entirely pointless, at least.

 

 

 

 

Insults and Injuries

Leicestershire v Nottinghamshire, Grace Road, 7-9 April 2017

Firstly, I should like to offer my apologies to anyone who took my advice that “if you feel short-changed if a match ends early, you know where to head this season”, meaning Wantage Road. If you had done so last Friday, you would have found that Northants had beaten Glamorgan by tea-time on Saturday afternoon. In mitigation, I should point out that I also described Glamorgan last season as being “on the verge of degenerating into a rabble”. It might be fairer to say that are a young side with one or two senior players who have surely reached the end of the line, who looked demoralised and lacking in leadership, but it doesn’t sound as though there has been much improvement this season. Which does, at least, mean that Leicestershire should be reasonably sure of finishing above one other County, even starting the season with a 16 point handicap. Which brings me to l’affaire Shreck.

If you had read my account of Leicestershire’s game against Loughborough very carefully you would have noticed that I said that Charlie Shreck had been “preparing for his expected translation into a coaching role by offering the students plenty of unsolicited advice about their batting technique”. A mild joke, and about all the notice this non-incident merited. To the naked eye, Shreck had become a little frustrated with opener Hasan Azad’s persistent refusal to play any stroke other than the forward defensive and the leave (as you may remember, he made 80 in 302 minutes) and, as is his wont, the “lanky paceman” had strayed down the wicket to address a few remarks to him. After Shreck had done this a couple of times, the Umpire had spoken to him, presumably suggesting that he desist, and that (you might have thought) would have been the end of it.

However, as you may be aware, “the Umpires” (presumably O’Shaughnessy, who has form for this, rather than Middlebrook in his first game) had reported the incident to the ECB. As this was, apparently, our fifth “Level 1” offence in twelve months, their “Disciplinary Panel” (Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Judge Jeffreys, Mrs. Grundy and the Chairman of Nottinghamshire) decided to fine the club £5,000, ban Mark Cosgrove (held to be responsible, as Captain) for one match and – incredibly – impose a 16 point penalty in the County Championship, with another eight points suspended (the club had already suspended Shreck for a fortnight).

To add insult to injury, ‘The Times’ published a highly-coloured report the next day claiming that “a source” had revealed that Shreck had become “enraged” by the opener playing a “flamingo shot” (invisible to me) and had threatened to kill him. Shreck vehemently denies this allegation which, even if it were true, would hardly constitute what the police refer to as a “credible threat” (for an earlier example of his Pathetic Shark-like sledging see here for my account of his failed attempt to intimidate Callum Parkinson (now of Leicestershire) last season).

Some of the criticism has implied that there was something particularly reprehensible about the incident because it involved “students”, implying that these are beardless youths, taking time off between lectures to play a bit of cricket. In fact, they are mostly players who have not yet quite succeeded in establishing themselves with a County, and see playing for an MCCU as a way of showcasing their skills, while hedging their bets by acquiring an academic qualification.

Has(s)an Azad, for instance (the object of Shreck’s ire), is 23 and has (amongst a long list of achievements listed on his LinkedIn profile) played for Nottinghamshire 2nd XI. Basil Akram (who took most of the wickets) is 24 and has been round the houses with Essex, Hampshire, Northants and Nottinghamshire. Nitish Kumar has been representing Canada in ODIs since the age of 15, not to mention a spell with the St. Lucia Zouks. Even among the genuine youngsters, James Bracey has played a game for Gloucestershire and Sam Evans (who admittedly looks about 12) was offered a Leicestershire contract during the course of the match. They would, surely, have felt more insulted if Shreck had patronisingly applauded their efforts, rather than acknowledging the extent to which they had succeeded in frustrating him, in the way that he would do with full-time professionals.

There are several aspects to this business that I find dispiriting. One is simply that it had seemed to me that the match had generally been played in what used to be referred to as “the right spirit”, and I would be surprised if anyone present at the ground (except Steve O’Shaughnessy, apparently) felt differently. It had been a pleasant and fruitful three days for all concerned, and it seemed a great pity that the mood had to be soured so soon. Another is the willingness of those who can have no first-hand knowledge of the matter to make pronouncements about Leicestershire’s on field behaviour over the last year (as one who has seen all of their home games in that time, I should say they were no worse than anyone else).

The worst aspect, though, is the imposition of a sixteen point penalty. Apart from the illogic of imposing a penalty in a competition of which the match concerned was not a part (why not the 50 over competition, or the T20?), the ECB must be aware that imposing such a handicap on the eve of the season must inevitably have a depressing effect on a club who have recently been struggling, with some success, to revive, not only their own fortunes, but the interest in cricket in what should be fertile territory. Furthermore, the imposition of a points penalty for any reason other than points having been illegitimately acquired (by fielding an ineligible player, perhaps, or blatant time-wasting) devalues the competition, by making it a question not of how well the teams have performed on the pitch, but of how well-behaved they have been in the eyes of the governing body.

I would not go quite as far as those conspiracy theorists who believe that the ECB is deliberately trying to force Leicestershire out of business, but it does feel as though the relationship between the ECB and the smaller Counties is now roughly that of wanton boys to flies (they kill us, or not, for their sport).

As a result of all this, Leicestershire took the field on the first day of the match against Nottinghamshire under something of a pall, knowing that, even if they managed to pull off a surprise victory against the ante-post favourites, they would be awarded no points for it ; the players must sometimes feel that they are wasting their time (and I know I do). The pall had lifted by mid-afternoon on the Saturday, when balmy weather and a good crowd (larger on the Friday than the Saturday, and with a sizeable contingent from Nottinghamshire)

saw the sides on roughly equal terms (Nottinghamshire on 167-7 in reply to Leicestershire’s 251), with hopes of Leicestershire going into the third day (predicted to be the hottest day of the year) with a first innings lead, but it had crashed down again, like badly-secured garage doors, by the end of the day, when Leicestershire required 27 to make Nottinghamshire bat again, with four wickets remaining.

The match did, at least, lend a little more credibility to my predictive powers. I had predicted that Leicestershire’s strength this season would be in its pace bowling, its major weakness the fragility of the top order. I had not expected that the pace bowlers would be required to do most of the batting as well, but so it had proved in the first innings, with Chappell (30), Raine (55*) and McKay (35) dragging the innings to its feet after the batsmen (Cosgrove excepted) had allowed it to collapse to 135-7. I also predicted that we would be the most unpredictable County in Division 2, though I really had in mind that would be over the course of the season, rather than a single afternoon (what exactly happened in the fateful last hour on the second day I cannot report, as I was following the second, more dramatic, collapse to 51-6, with mounting horror, on my ‘phone on the way home).

Of the pace bowlers, Ben Raine had said that they were planning to “bowl around Zak”, and so it proved. Chappell had seemingly been instructed simply to bowl fast and he succeeded in discomfiting some of the Nottinghamshire batsmen, while, at the same time, forcing wicket-keeper Eckersley into some not always effectual gymnastics behind the stumps. His bowling was expensive, taking 1-78 off 19 overs, but had at least three catches dropped in what was, after all, only his fifth first-class match, and the really significant figure (for anyone who has watched him gingerly stepping in to bowl a couple of overs so as not to wreck various parts of his physique) is that 19 overs.

26 of those 78 runs were scored by Stuart Broad off 16 balls, with three fours tipped over the slips and one straight-driven off a rare full delivery. When Chappell went round the wicket, Broad carted him for six over mid-wicket and then should have been caught attempting to repeat the stroke, resulting in a huge steepler bearing down on McKay out of the sun, like a Messerschmidt (if the day had been seasonably dull he might well have held it).


Raine, meanwhile, took 6-66, to add to his first innings runs. Raine is a snappy, tenacious Muttley of a player who has, since his arrival from Durham, provided some bite (and bark) to a side who have sometimes (whatever the ECB think) often appeared too well-bred and diffident, and it would be a pity if he felt obliged to curb his instincts so as not to incur another points deduction.

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Raine (l), Chappell (r)

 

There was, I thought, a surprisingly large crowd on the Sunday morning, given that there was little prospect of the game lasting more than an hour, if that (most, I think, were Nottinghamshire supporters who had stayed overnight in the hope of making a weekend of it).

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Leicestershire just managed to make the opposition bat again, thanks to a six from the fight-to-the-death Raine and four overthrows from Luke Fletcher (who, unless my ears were deceiving me, had advised Chappell to “fook off” on his dismissal, though this was, no doubt, inaudible to the Umpires). Requiring four to win, ex-Fox Greg Smith added another insult to our injuries by lofting Paul Horton for a straight six, narrowly avoiding braining an innocent hound, and smashing a window in the Charles Palmer Suite, leaving the Nottinghamshire supporters to bask in the glory, and the glorious afternoon.

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Snap me while you can!

In itself, this was not a disastrous result. The truth is that Broad and, particularly, Pattinson were simply too good for us, as they are likely to prove for most for most of the sides they face this season (for as long as Pattinson is available, and Broad is allowed to play by the caprices of the ECB). Gloucestershire, in the game starting this weekend, should be beatable, and Glamorgan, in the next home game, really must be beaten. However, this week came news of another, this time self-inflicted, injury.

Angus Robson had not been selected against Nottinghamshire, and it came as no great surprise to learn that he and the club have now parted “by mutual consent”. Again, this is not, in itself, a disaster (although, if young Harry Dearden falters, there is no obvious replacement, it may be possible to whistle up reinforcements from the Republic of Kolpakia, or, if we are looking for solidity in the face of intolerable pressure, perhaps we could see how Hasan Azad is fixed). It does, though, lend credence to the belief that there may be tensions between new coach, discipline enthusiast Pierre de Bruyne, and some of the more fun-loving elements in the side (he has, it is said, banned mobile ‘phones in the dressing room and, presumably, in Robson’s case, had confiscated his fags).

If true, this does not bode well. I’d say we have quite have enough on our plate at the moment fighting the ECB, without fighting amongst ourselves as well.

 

As I Walked Out One March Morning

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The Way to Wantage Road

Leicestershire v Loughborough MCCU, Grace Road, 28-30 March 2017

Northamptonshire v Loughborough MCCU, County Ground, Northampton, 3 April 2017

The first day of a new season is (if you are lucky) a little like the first week of a new school year.  I don’t mean that it is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of foreboding and a crushing sense of futility in the face of inevitable failure. No, I mean that it is nice to be back, to see your old friends and colleagues again, to note what has changed and what has not, and to ease yourself back into the old routines before the serious business of the year begins.

It helps, I think, to be returning after a good, long, break, and I must admit that I have been paying little attention to cricket over the Winter (apart from a couple of hours of TMS and the tinnitus of Twitter).  The old, re-discovered, routines, the relief of allowing yourself to become absorbed by small narratives again, afford the pleasures of both familiarity and freshness, as if you have, by chance, re-encountered a once-favourite, half-forgotten book or piece of music.

By August, you might be planning a circuitous route around the ground to avoid those dreadful bores X and Y ; in March you are relieved to find that they are still alive.   Quirks of the game, such as leaving the pitch for bad light and then returning half an hour later when the light has not visibly improved

can be irksome in August, charming in April.  Showers falling, glimpsed through the windows of the Fox Bar, stir memories of Springs past, and, in March, there are, of course, still hopes of sunnier days to come.

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Even the collapse of Leicestershire’s top order, unanticipated but at once instantly familiar, prompts bittersweet remembrance of times gone by.

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There are even some pleasant new routines, such as the unfurling of the parasols (however swiftly repurposed as umbrellas)

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In comparing the start of the season to the beginning of the school year, I am, of course, picturing myself in the role, not of a pupil, but of a rather elderly master (Mr. Chips, perhaps) who has, in his time, seen an awful lot of boys (that is to say, players) come and go, and it is not a trick of the mind that they come and go rather more quickly than they used to.  There is no-one left at Grace Road from the Leicestershire squad at the time I began to write this blog in April 2009 (Ned Eckersley, who made his debut in 2011, is the longest serving) and only four of them (Buck, Cobb, Greg Smith and Allenby) are still playing first-class cricket.

The illusion is that we spectators (who return year after year) stand still while the players pass by, but the truth is that we are passing each other on opposite sides of an escalator ; ours is moving too, slowly, almost imperceptibly, but inexorably.  Players who have passed by us do, however, sometimes pass by again in different guises, and I was pleased to see James Middlebrook (Semper Eadem) make his debut as an Umpire, alongside the apparently changeless Steve O’Shaughnessy.

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A glance at the new scoreboard above (underneath which, palimpsestically, lies the old electronic scoreboard, and underneath that the old manual scoreboard), or the final scorecard (Leicestershire 194 and 113-3 ; Loughborough 278) might induce a certain pessimism about Leicestershire’s prospects for the season, but that would be premature (not wrong, necessarily, but a little too early).

Leicestershire have been preparing for the new season in South Africa, which might help explain why the first five wickets were all clean bowled, all apparently surprised to discover that balls may deviate in line in England on a misty March morning (Cosgrove was visibly baffled, as if a sleight-of-hand artiste had surreptitiously contrived to remove his braces).  The Skip had, however, regained his composure by the second innings and Ned Eckersley combined responsibility and fluency to pleasing effect, but apart from those two, Dexter, and the much-heralded but, as yet, unseen Colin Ackermann*, the batting reserves look a little low. In particular, if the openers Horton and Robson were to prove consistently fallible, it is hard to see who would replace them.

On the other hand (and this is a significant advance), we do seem to have assembled a numerically formidable battery of seam bowlers.  In addition to Clint McKay (who should have enough fuel left to be good for another 50 wickets) and Ben Raine (always hostile, in one way or another), we have Charlie Shreck (who seemed to be preparing for his expected translation into a coaching role by offering the students plenty of unsolicited advice about their batting technique) and Dieter Klein (who, used in small doses, should surprise a lot of batsmen, as he surprised Alastair Cook last season).

We also have the reliable Richard Jones (lately of Warwickshire), two young stinkers in Gavin Griffiths (who bowled well against Loughborough) and Will Fazakerley, and, of course, Zak Chappell, who, as long-time readers will know, has been my Tip for the Top for a couple of years now.  He did not bowl exceptionally well against Loughborough, but, crucially, he did look fit, and ready to bowl at full pace without having to worry about his legs giving way.  Given a full season’s bowling, he should have put on a little more speed, acquired some guile and a taste for blood, and become the formidable bowler he is capable of being.

Other than that we have James Burke (on loan from Surrey), who just about qualifies as an all-rounder, and Tom Wells, a genuine all-rounder who may yet surprise me by adapting his game to the four-day format (against Loughborough he made 20 off four balls then slog-hooked one straight to backward square leg, but bowled surprisingly well).  As spinners, we have Rob Sayer, a steady off-spinner who relies as much on drift and swerve as spin, Callum Parkinson (half-inched from Derbyshire in dubious circumstances), and James Sykes, who may, I am afraid, have to find another outlet for his undoubted ability to make the ball turn.

The problem in selecting a side from this lot does seem to revolve around the difficulty of exploiting the strength in pace bowling without leaving an unconscionably long tail.  For what it’s worth (assuming we have prepared a seaming wicket) my first choice side would be : Horton, Robson, Ackermann, Cosgrove, Dexter, Eckersley, Aadil Ali, Raine, Chappell, Klein, McKay.  I suspect, though, we may see more of Shreck and Jones than Chappell or Klein, and Lewis Hill keeping wicket, with Eckersley playing as a specialist batsman.

As for Prospects for the Season, the best I can do is that Leicestershire will be the most unpredictable side in Division 2.  If you would like to know what is most likely to happen (but won’t, quite), then consult the odds being offered by the bookies.  They are in agreement that Nottinghamshire and Sussex (the two “big clubs”, presumed to have the most money) should be promoted, with Kent and Worcestershire (the sides with the young talent) their main competition.  Derbyshire (who looked thoroughly depressed last season) and Glamorgan (who were on the verge of degenerating into a rabble) will struggle, with the severely handicapped Durham, the anonymous but well-organised Gloucestershire, Northants (who have a plan) and Leicestershire somewhere in the middle.

My visit to Wantage Road (I caught one day of Loughborough’s visit there) established, beyond too much doubt, what Northamptonshire’s plan is going to be, and that is the same as last season’s : prepare pitches that ought to be reported to the coroner rather than the pitch inspector, pile up some high scoring draws, then nick a couple of games on the break at the end of the season by preparing a few turners.  In three days at Grace Road (with only brief interruptions for rain or bad light) 585 runs were scored for the loss of 23 wickets (the highest score being an admirably painstaking 305 minute 80 by Hasan Azad).  A week later, at Wantage Road, three days involving the same side resulted in 1173 runs being scored, for the loss of 15 wickets, with six centuries (three of them fine innings by Loughborough’s Thurston, Kumar and Leicestershire Academy product Sam Evans).  So, if you feel short-changed if a match ends early, you know where to head this season …

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Calling it a day …

* Apparently no relation to Hylton Ackermann (whom I watched at Wantage Road in the ’60s) and H.D. Ackermann (Leicestershire’s main source of runs in the middle years of last decade) or even Jan, the guitarist with Focus, (though he does have a Dutch passport).

 

 

Happy Days and End Games

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All time is no time, when time is past …

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The Business End of a Squeaky Bum

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** Wishful thinking. Actually three times.

Eckersley in Excelsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PTDC2044

Borrowed shamelessly from the Cricket Paper

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

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

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

Ripeness is all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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