Carnivalesque

Leicestershire (243-5) beat Durham (240) by 5 wickets, RLD50, Grace Road, 7th June 

Leicestershire (217 & 217-4) beat Northamptonshire (204 & 229) by 6 wickets, County Championship, County Ground, Northampton, 9-11th June

It is meant to be a comfort in time of trouble to remember that there is always someone who is worse off than you are. This consolation has not always been available to Leicestershire supporters over the last five years or so, because, quite often, there hasn’t been. These two victories, though, both comfortable and well-deserved, came against sides whose supporters have good reason currently to feel disgruntled. I will come to Northamptonshire in due course, but first to Durham.

Having been led on by the ECB to spend money they could not afford on developing a ground fit for Test cricket, Durham had their immediate future wrecked by being relegated and having 48 points deducted by the same body. As a result, they have been ruthlessly asset-stripped of their best players (Stoneman, Jennings, Onions, Borthwick, and even their ewe lamb, the promising all-rounder Paul Coughlin). Last season they would have finished last in the Championship, if it had not been for Leicestershire : this season they would have not won a Championship game, had it not been for Leicestershire.

All that was at stake in this game was to decide who was to finish last in the Northern group, and neither side had put out their strongest XI (I’m not sure what Durham’s strongest one-day side would be, but there was no sign of Collingwood, Steel, Rushworth or Weighell). The players who had made the trip didn’t look as if they particularly wanted to be there, and, unsurprisingly, given that the game was due to finish at 9.45 on a Thursday night, few of their supporters were either.

Durham’s innings at least had the merit that it was not immediately obvious who was going to win after ten overs. A few of their players made starts (sending me flicking through Playfair to find out who they were), but the scoring rate was moderate : at 106-4, the game could have gone either way. With the score on 125, though, four wickets fell for the addition of only 13 runs, first that of the Irish wicket-keeper Poynter, then three to Zak Chappell, returning for a second spell.

I have been predicting that Chappell will one day run through a side for so long now, without it ever quite happening, that I am beginning to feel like a man who has spent twenty years parading Oxford Street with a sandwich board predicting that the end is nigh, but here he combined accuracy and nous with his natural pace. He did not exactly rip the heart out of the batting, but, perhaps, some organs a little lower down, and I had hopes, at 137-8, that I would be able to leave the ground having witnessed a Leicestershire victory (I certainly was not prepared to hang around until a quarter to ten to see it). Almost inevitably, though, Leicestershire’s habitual flaw of being unable to finish sides off allowed Davies and McCarthy, with Chappell bowled out, to prolong the afternoon, by making exactly 100 for the ninth wicket.

It was not a foregone conclusion that Leicestershire would make the modest 241 required to win, though Durham’s general demeanour in the field suggested that they thought it was (and that they weren’t overly bothered). There was an early example of self-sabotage when Raine, coming in at number 3, as non-striker, charged for a quick single, without noticing that the striker Delport had shown no inclination to move, but Delport (who prefers to make his runs in boundaries) went on to play the kind of innings (122 from 128 balls) that Leicestershire had desperately lacked earlier in the tournament. When he was out, in the 37th over, with only 36 to win and seven wickets in hand, the remaining spectators were consulting their bus timetables and collecting the deposits on their glasses. I took the opportunity to dash for the last train, though it took another seven overs and the loss of two wickets for the end to come (Harry Dearden, making his white ball debut, is not the obvious man to finish a game quickly).

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At the time, this game seemed a frustrating coda to the one-day campaign, suggesting, too late, what might have been. In retrospect, though aspects of it, particularly Chappell’s bowling, made it more of a prologue to what occurred at Wantage Road over the weekend.

If the source of Durham’s troubles is easy to identify, it is harder to say quite what has happened to Northamptonshire, who were only denied promotion last season by a points deduction, but, at the time of writing, have lost four of their five Championship games, with the other being a washout, and only finished above Leicestershire in their 50-over group by virtue of a superior run rate. It is not surprising that a failing team should lack confidence, but what is striking is the contrast with the impression they made in the games at the end of last season (when they beat both Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire), when they seemed to be a side propelled mainly by impregnable self-belief.

No-one exemplifies this better than Ben Duckett, who is having a terrible season (233 runs in 16 innings), and seems so bereft of his old swagger that he has even started to wear his cap the right way round. I now feel lucky to have seen so much of him in 2016 (his annus mirabilis), when the secret to his success seemed that he was prepared to back his unorthodox technique to succeed more often than it failed (even in that season he made plenty of single figure scores). He now seems torn between his instincts and attempting to play in a more conventional way, with the result that, when he does play his strokes, he does so in a half-hearted, inhibited way. He might be well-advised to follow Jos Buttler’s example and write ‘Duckett‘ on the end of his bat handle, in an attempt to recover his true identity as a batsman.

Duckett’s achievements in 2016 were made easier by what seemed to be a deliberate tactic of preparing doped pitches (Northants had not appeared to have much in the way of bowling at the start of the season). Last season, they were livelier, and now the entire pitch has been relaid over the Winter. The outfield has a strange, almost astroturfed, appearance, and the low scoring in this game was partly due to its extraordinary slowness : even firmly hit strokes ran out of steam short of the boundary. The square, while not quite a green top, was favourable to pace, with considerable movement off the seam (as well as in the air), and some variable bounce.

In these conditions, the openers were understandably wary, given his newly acquired reputation, of Mohammad Abbas, but it was Ben Raine who took the first wicket, of a very disconsolate, Daddles-like, Duckett. Newton and Ricardo Vasconcelos (a 20-year-old South African with a Portuguese passport, making his debut) had gingerly fended their way to 51, when Zak Chappell, who had come on first change, bowled him with a full and fast delivery that swung in sharply and late. Chappell has bowled these deliveries before, but they have tended to be isolated incidents, too often followed by a rash of byes to the leg-side boundary. This time he soon followed it with another quick delivery that swung away from Alex Wakely, finding an edge on its way to Mark Cosgrove, who took the catch with a cat-like agility reminiscent of Gordon Banks saving from Pele in the Mexico World Cup.

At lunch, with the score on 128-3, both sides had reason to be satisfied, or, given the natural propensities of the two sets of supporters, pessimistic : the Northamptonshire supporters were convinced that a collapse was just around the corner, the Foxes’ fans that they would fail to capitalise on their early wickets.

Soon after the afternoon session began, the Northampton Carnival procession began to pass down Wantage Road, on its way to the Racecourse. This used to be a rather sedate affair, but in recent years it has acquired a Caribbean accent and a more authentically carnivalesque air (this year, as announced by the police sirens that followed the floats, it resulted in several stabbings). The afternoon session was played out to the accompaniment of a loud medley of musical exotica, and various curious sights visible through the Wantage Road gates, including, at one point, a giant red patent leather, fetishistic, boot.

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Something of the spirit of the carnivalesque, the temporary suspension of normal life, animated the play, particularly Zak, who seemed (perhaps temporarily) transformed into an avenging angel, sculpted by Arno Brecker. Returning for a second spell, he took 3-19 in six overs, with Vasconcelos and Keogh caught behind off deliveries that, on a less enchanted afternoon, they might have played inside. Kleinveldt, who has an ability to wreck bowlers’ figures second only to Mr. Stew’s rhubarb crumble, briefly looked ominous, guiding two balls from Chappell off his hip for four to fine leg, before attempting to repeat the trick and losing his exposed leg stump. Chappell’s sixth wicket came as he clean bowled one of his predecessors as Leicestershire’s fast bowling hope, Nathan Buck. With the help of the tireless Raine, who claimed three victims, Northants were bowled out for 204 in time for tea.

 

As the afternoon approached its end, the Carnival had processed on to its disorderly conclusion, and sombre normality (for Leicestershire fans, anyway) reasserted itself, with the Foxes losing three wickets for 64 by the close. Northamptonshire’s bowling looked better than its batting, even without the injured Gleason, and has been reinforced, temporarily, by Ben ‘Dot’ Cotton (so-called on account of his miserly economy rate). Cotton, who has, rather surprisingly, been released by Derbyshire (he always looked a decent prospect to me), has grown into a very big lad, big enough even to fill Richard Levi’s shirt (which he had borrowed), so he fits in well with the general Northamptonshire aesthetic.

I wasn’t able to be present on the Sunday, so, eager to return on the Monday, I followed the scores in an Augustinian spirit ‘O Lord, make Leicestershire win, but not yet’. I was not surprised that Leicestershire made only 217, that Chappell (still in a state of enchantment) had made 40, or that Cotton was Northamptonshire’s most economical bowler. I was, guiltily, quite relieved when Northants closed the day on 165-3, with a lead of 152.

What occurred on the third day came, I think, as more of a surprise to the Leicestershire supporters present than those of the hosts. From a Leicestershire perspective, they bowled with ruthless efficiency, to bowl Northants out for 229, before cruising serenely to victory with six wickets to spare : from a Northamptonshire one, their side collapsed pathetically, before limply conceding in the field. There was some truth in both interpretations. Mohammad Abbas, Raine and Griffiths all bowled tightly, and made good use of what life was left in the pitch (the spell seemed to have worn off Chappell a little, and he was rubbing his shopping-lifting shoulder in ominous fashion), and the fielding was excellent, (particularly by substitute Ateeq Javid).

It was not surprising that there never seemed much doubt in the minds of the home supporters that Leicestershire would win, but more so that that belief seemed to be shared by their bowlers. The innings had not started well, with Harry Dearden bowled for nought, but Horton and Lewis Hill, who had come in as a kind of lunch-watchman, brought the hundred up with no alarms, and it was pleasant to speculate on the possibility of a nine-wicket victory to compensate for the recent sequence of nine-wicket defeats. Even when Horton fell, with the score on 148, the calm head (and, as it turned out) broken finger, of Colin Ackermann seemed likely to shepherd Hill over the finishing line.

There was a token attempt to cock things up at the last minute : Hill was understandably keen to complete his second first-class hundred, while Ackermann had a fifty in his sights. Hill attempted a misguided sweep against Saif Zaib and, to his obvious disappointment, was LBW for 85. Mark Cosgrove attempted to hit his fifth ball out of the ground, but only succeeded in making the day of the youthful substitute fieldsman (one W. J. Heathfield, who had earlier appealed vociferously for a catch off a bump ball) on the mid-wicket boundary. Ackermann did not quite make his fifty, but he and Dexter ensured that no-one would have to return to Wantage Road in the morning.

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The reaction of the few Northamptonshire supporters left at the end surprised me a little (though not a lot, given my long experience of them) : I overheard one say ‘Getting beat by this lot is like Liverpool getting beat by Cobblers’. It is a natural reaction (particularly in Kettering) to assume that a defeat is due to your own team being poor, rather than the quality of the opposition, but, in this case, I’m not so sure. Leicestershire are now third in the table, and that is no fluke (if they had not thrown away the game against Durham they would be second). It is true that they have so far played some of the weaker sides in the division, but the fact that there are so many weaker sides to play is indicative of Leicestershire’s relative strength.

The game set a couple of modest records, it being the first time since 2010 that Leicestershire had either won two Championship games in succession, or beaten Northamptonshire. Looking back, that was in the first game of the season, and Leicestershire won, thanks, in part, to an 88 from James Taylor, who was to go on to have something of an ‘annus mirabilis’ himself that year.  The future seemed brightening, but was clouded by the creeping likelihood that Taylor would soon be poached by a larger County.

Remembering that, it is hard to feel unmixed joy at Chappell’s blooming, given that his contract runs out at the end of the season, and that Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and Surrey (the usual hyaenas) are already circling him. Leicestershire are, obviously, keen to persuade him to stay, but (I’m told) are being hampered by his agent, who has demanded that they pay £5,000 before they can even speak to him (whether to the agent or the player I’m not sure). Agents have a lot to answer for, I feel.

Another looming cloud is that Michael Carberry is, apparently, considering legal action against the club, on the grounds that his contract specifies that he was appointed to the Captaincy. The loss of Carberry as a player would be a pity, but the prospect of having to pay him substantial compensation would be a more serious blow. Appoint in haste, repent at leisure, as the saying goes.

Still, while the sky is still relatively cloudless, we have two more Championship fixtures, before the competition hibernates (or aestivates) for the T20 interval, a home match against Middlesex, and a day-nighter at Derby (which I don’t think I can face). Middlesex, the ante-post favourites, have been curiously ailing this season, and a third win in succession does not seem out of the question. If we could beat Derby as well, we might even be able to persuade Zak that he should stay on to play First Division cricket next season (even if we have to do it by slipping a note under his door).

 

 

 

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No Fun

Leicestershire (316-9) v Nottinghamshire (409-7), Grace Road, 23rd May (Leicestershire lost by 93 runs)

Leicestershire (293-9) v Yorkshire (295-1), Grace Road, 27th May (Leicestershire lost by 9 wickets)

Leicestershire (172) v Lancashire (174-1), Oakham School, 31st May (Leicestershire lost by 9 wickets)

All in the Royal London One-day Cup

Leicestershire’s official Twitter feed summarised the game against Yorkshire as follows : ‘A crowd approaching 3,000 enjoyed an entertaining day’s cricket at our Family Funday, but unfortunately Leicestershire Foxes lost by nine wickets to Yorkshire Vikings‘, which epitomises much of life under the current regime at Grace Road – something close to a triumph off the field, but, too often, closer to that other imposter on it.

Anyone attending the game might have been forgiven for assuming that they had been projected into the future and were attending a game in the ‘Hundred’ (as envisaged by the ECB) : at a rough estimate, three-quarters of that crowd were families with young children. Apart from the cricket, attractions included ‘arts & crafts, the Red Monkey Play area, and a guest appearance from some snakes and frogs at the Animal Experience’. During the interval the crowd was allowed onto the pitch, and supplied with the orange plastic bats and luminous tennis balls of the All Stars experience. There were free ice-creams for the children and a mobile gin bar (not free) for the ‘Mums’. You could, if you wished, have your photograph taken with Charlie Fox, or a furry yellow star waving an orange plastic bat. Leicestershire are very good at this kind of thing these days, and you would have had to be very churlish not to have had the promised fun (the endless childish prattle did start to get on my nerves after a while, but then the Test finished early and I stopped listening to TMS)*.

No-one’s fun seemed to be spoiled by the complexity of the scoring system, or the length of the day : I doubt whether many of the crowd were paying much attention to the score, and they simply went home when they had had enough (at that point in the day, familiar to parents of young children, when laughter seems likely to turn to tears). If you had never seen a cricket match before, the thought might well have been ‘O brave new world, that has such people in’t!’. Unfortunately, if, like me, you have seen an awful lot of 50-over games, it is difficult not to respond with a weary ‘’Tis new to thee’.

There are not, in truth, many possible narrative variations in a 50-over game, and all three of these fell into the too-large category where the outcome is predictable after the first ten overs of the first innings, and almost certain after the first ten overs of the second. Nottinghamshire, who batted first, were 69-0 at the end of the first power play, and went on to make 409-7 (Nash, Wessels and Moores all made fifties and Samit Patel a hundred). This was the largest 50-over total ever made at Grace Road and should have felt extraordinary, but, in fact, felt entirely routine. The pitch was flat, and it did not require too much effort for the batsmen to deflect the efforts of the faster bowlers through and over the field to the boundary.

By the end of 10 overs, Leicestershire, in reply, had made 59, but had, crucially, lost three wickets. Last year, they achieved a measure of success in this competition by opening with Cameron Delport and Mark Pettini. This year, with Delport in attendance (but not playing) at the IPL, and Pettini mysteriously out of favour, they opened with their regular 4-day pair of Carberry and Horton (who had not appeared at all in white ball cricket last year). Carberry, ill-cast, these days, in the role he was asked to play, attempted to drive his third ball from Jake Ball back over the bowler’s head, but succeeded only in deflecting the ball onto his stumps.

In the third over Ackermann gamely attempted some kind of lofted drive off Ball (in an eccentric one-legged posture that made him look like he was posing for the statue of ‘Eros’ in Picadilly Circus), but achieved more vertical than lateral movement and was caught. With Cosgrove gone too in the seventh over, any attempt to overhaul the total was abandoned, and, rather than risk a truly abject capitulation, Leicestershire concentrated on playing positively, but circumspectly (even Tom Wells only hit one six in his 69), to achieve the eminently respectable, but entirely inadequate, score of 316-9.

Although there were some impressive individual performances, it is fair to say that the day was lacking in dramatic tension. Between them, the two sides made 725 runs over the course of a day : against Glamorgan in the Championship, the three days and four innings yielded had yielded only 853. Wessels’ 74 off 44 balls was almost as fast as de Lange’s 90 off 45, but, given the context, both the game and the innings were about a tenth as interesting.

Given that it was being played on a weekday, the crowd was largely composed of the usual County regulars, though there were three separate contingents of schoolchildren, who had, presumably, been given free tickets (leading to the curious effect known as ‘Women’s World Cup Syndrome’, whereby a large proportion of the crowd vanishes at 3.00). At one point, the group nearest me were given the option of going off to play cricket, instead of watching. They all chose to play, with the exception of a few girls who seemed very attached to their teacher, and a studious looking boy in an authentic cricket cap, who alternated a close scrutiny of the action with a study of his ‘phone. This, I thought, is the cricket-watcher of the future, if the ECB doesn’t find some way to discourage him in the meantime.

In between the Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire games, Michael Carberry was ‘relieved’ of the Captaincy. As I suggested in my pre-season preview, I was surprised that he had been offered the Captaincy at all, and particularly that he had been appointed before a new coach had been found. Although he appeared, at the start of the season, to be making a great effort at active captaincy, he seemed to have lost control against Glamorgan and, as I said, looked in a terrible state as he left the pitch (it cannot help that various rival claimants – Eckersley, Cosgrove, Horton and Ackermann – tend to congregate behind the stumps). Although sacking him this early in the season may appear brutal, I suspect ‘relieved’ may be the operative word. He is officially expected to return as a batsman, but I have my doubts.

The Yorkshire game was a mirror image of the previous one. Leicestershire batted first and were 39-3 by the ninth over. Cosgrove, Eckersley and Dexter all made well-crafted, but conventional, fifties (they tend to play in a more unbuttoned way in white ball cricket, but only in the sense of wearing open-necked shirts with their suits), to achieve another respectable total (293-9). With no particular incentive to hurry, Yorkshire had passed that total, for the loss of a single wicket, in the 46th over.

I suppose it is a sign of the levelling effect of this type of cricket (and a very flat pitch and some moderate bowling) that Lyth (a player who, by general consent, was found out at Test level), Pujara (a Test batsman of some quality) and Kohler-Cadmore (one of the, I suspect, very large number of players who would not look out of place in Test cricket, without quite convincing), all appeared equally at ease. It is a good job that there was so much fun available off the pitch, because there wasn’t a lot to be had on it.

The fixture at Oakham School should have been another, perhaps more adult, kind of fun. Leicestershire last played there ten years ago, but I remember it as a regular fixture in the calendar. My memories of it include Stuart Broad, making his debut against Somerset, not long after leaving the school, and already a kind of minor princeling, attended by a retinue of pashmina-ed girls, and boys with the collars of their polo shirts turned up (for such, readers, were the fashions of the time). I also remember sheltering from the rain in an old-fashioned beer tent, which has been supplanted by the now traditional prosecco wagon, and some pop-up tents of the kind that people buy in Millets when they are going to music festivals. They also have a new pavilion, that would not look out of place at a County ground.

Although there was a reasonable crowd, and the odd floaty dress, some of the more exotic creatures may have been deterred by the weather forecast, which was for thunderstorms in the early afternoon. At the start of play, the atmosphere was heavy, vaguely sulphurous and clearly conducive to seam. Inevitably, Leicestershire were asked to bat and inevitably (you can probably complete this sentence for yourself), they had lost both openers for five runs by the third over. This time, even the middle order failed to consolidate (though the mercifully predictable Cosgrove managed another fifty), and the innings took a full 49 overs to creep to 172.

The damage had been done not, as you might expect in the conditions, by Lancashire’s international seamers, Onions and Mennie, but by the spin of Stephen Parry and Matt Parkinson, both of whom bowled their ten overs for 30 runs apiece, Parry taking two wickets and Parkinson four. The first time I saw this Parkinson twin bowl, for the 2nd XI at Desborough last year, he took 9 Leicestershire wickets in an innings and (I believe) 14 in the match. It is, perhaps, understandable that the 2nd XI, who rarely encounter leg-spin, had no idea how to play him, but he seemed to have the same effect on our competent and experienced middle order. Ackermann failed to pick his googly and was bowled, Dexter was induced to tap his third delivery to mid-off, and even the wily Cosgrove was lured out of his crease and stumped. Given the tendency of talented young English spinners to die like lice in a Russian’s beard (or turn into batsmen), I am hesitant to predict too bright a future for him, but if England cannot find any use for his talent, it will be a terrible waste.

Perhaps not overestimating the threat posed by the Leicestershire bowling, Lancashire opened with Haseeb Hameed, who has recently been recuperating in the 2nd XI. He groped his way gingerly to a half-century, like a man feeling his way downstairs in the middle of the night, but, having lost his opening partner with the score on 42, he was joined by Liam Livingstone, who took a little over an hour to finish the game. To begin with, it seemed as though Livingstone, who might have a part-share in the prosecco wagon, was artificially prolonging the afternoon, treating Aaron Varon with respect, and, at one point, narrowly avoiding playing on with a half-arsed ramp shot, but it was only a matter of how soon he would choose to finish it and, when he chose to accelerate, the end came quickly, the only question being whether he could hit the ball out of the ground so frequently without damaging any venerable architecture. His unbeaten 90 contained six fours and seven sixes, and the total was overhauled in the 25th over, half the time it had taken Leicestershire.

It would be an understatement to say that Leicestershire’s 50-over campaign has been a dispiriting disappointment, particularly after reaching the quarter-finals last year. Among our misadventures away from home, we have made our highest ever 50-over score, but then failed to defend it, and suffered a third successive 9 wicket defeat to Warwickshire, whom we had memorably beaten last year. In every match against First Division opposition, we were, in truth, outclassed.

As I think I might have mentioned, one glaring problem was losing early wickets. Our success last year was largely built on aggressive opening partnerships by Pettini and Delport : this year, Delport’s presence in a non-playing role at the IPL meant that he had not played a competitive game since February (in Dubai), and his impact, when he joined the side for the last four games, was minimal. Why Pettini was not chosen I struggle to understand : he appears to be persona non grata at the club, but, if he is not going to play in white ball cricket, there seems little point in keeping him on the payroll.

Another difference is that Clint McKay has been replaced as our overseas bowler by Varun Aaron. McKay might have lost the ability to take wickets, but he was rarely uneconomical. Aaron, who was, of course, our third choice, is not well-suited to this type of cricket, though it should be remembered that his bowling played a significant part in the victory over Glamorgan. In case you are wondering what has happened to Zak Chappell, by the way, he has made a couple of guest appearances, but missed most of the tournament having (according to George Dobell) strained his shoulder picking up some heavy shopping for his Mother, which, I’m sure, says something complimentary about his moral character.

There is still one match to go in this competition, which, as it is against Durham, may offer some hope of a consolation victory, and some redemption for the snafu against them in the Championship. After that, the Championship makes a brief return, with a game at Wantage Road, which ought to be an opportunity to prevent the season coming completely off the rails : Northants, who have been riding their luck for a while now, have been struggling badly this year. If Carberry fails to reappear, Harry Dearden has recovered from injury unexpectedly early, and should be available to open with Horton, and, more significantly, Mohammad Abbas, with his reputation now much enhanced, is expected to return in place of Aaron. Lose that game and, I am afraid, the rest of the season could turn out to a whole load of no fun for all concerned.

*A little unfair – it was one of their better episodes.

 

 

 

 

The Chances were Slender, the Beauties may not be Brief

Leicestershire (381) v Derbyshire (251-8 dec.), Grace Road, County Championship, 27-30 April 2018

Match drawn

There were times, watching this game, when I was forced to contemplate the possibility that I may now be supporting a competitive side, and even that I might have to upgrade that to ‘a successful one’. As a supporter, I am naturally pleased, but as a blogger I am confronted by the problem of what tone to adopt when describing success, if my default setting of low comedy is no longer available. ‘Happiness writes white’ they say, and so, perhaps, does success. If it obvious that we no longer have any interest in a game, my mind is free to wander, sometimes in more scenic directions : if we are still in the chase, I seem to spend most of my time doing mental arithmetic.

The first two and a half days of the match were lost to rain, or – to put it more positively – one and a half days were reclaimed from the rain, with the heroic ingenuity of seventeenth century Dutch engineers reclaiming land from the sea. As late as the third morning, the chances of play seemed slender, and the forecast for the fourth would have caused Noah some anxiety. When it was announced that play would begin at 1.45, I cannot say that my heart sang, but, I reasoned, if they were making the effort, then so should I (I was not quite alone in following this line of thought).

I was impressed by the generally single-minded way in which Leicestershire attempted to make the most of what seemed likely to be a single afternoon’s play to scrape as many bonus points as possible, implying, as it did, that they hope to be in a position at the end of the season where an extra bonus point or two might matter. I’d say there have been times in recent seasons when they would have been more likely to give it up as a bad job and go to the pub.

Football managers of a certain vintage used to be given to questioning how much the big time Charlies and fancy Dans would fancy it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke, and one might ask the same of Derbyshire’s imported pace bowlers in relation to a cold Sunday afternoon at Grace Road. Neither Rampaul (who cuts a portly figure these days), Viljoen nor Olivier bowled with much real intent, or to any great effect; most of the wickets fell to the euphonious medium pacer Luis Reece, and Will Davis, the only one of their Staffordshire-raised young seamers to survive the Winter cull.

With their minds fixed firmly on the target of 400 in 110 overs to secure a full bag of batting points, Horton, Ackermann and Eckersley all made half-centuries, with Carberry, Dexter and Raine only a few runs short. The last-named should have made 50, had he not succumbed to the only old school pratfall of the match, when he and Dieter Klein found themselves at the same end, and Klein declined to do the decent thing by surrendering his wicket. As Raine is much the better batsman, this allowed the elusive last point to escape Leicestershire’s grasp, finishing on 381.

To everyone’s surprise, but possibly no-one’s unmixed delight, a full day’s play was possible on the Monday. Once Leicestershire’s innings had finished, Raine had the opportunity to exorcise his frustrations by taking two early wickets. With no possibility of losing, I would have expected Derbyshire to set their sights on 300, but perhaps discouraged by their early losses, and hampered by some more dry bowling (particularly from Griffiths), they lowered their sights and crept past the 250 mark before declaring, to deny Leicestershire a final bowling point (a rather spiteful act, and, arguably, contrary to the playing regulations).

For those interested in the progress of young English qualified players, neither Harvey Hosein (a wicket-keeper and batsman of promise) nor Hamidullah Qadri were playing for Derbyshire, but I was impressed by Matthew Critchley, whose leg-breaks were merely economical, but who did much to shore up an innings that was in danger of collapse. He also frustrated Raine enough to induce the bowler to hurl the ball at him, on the pretext of running him out (I do wish Raine (and others) would stop doing this).

In between the two home games came the debacle in Durham, where Leicestershire forced their opponents to follow on, bowled them out twice, but failed to chase a target of 148. I was not there, but strong men who were seemed barely able to relate what they had witnessed, like the remnants of Napoleon’s Grande Armée who had survived the retreat from Moscow.

Leicestershire (191 & 237) v Glamorgan (178 and 247), Grace Road, County Championship, 11-13 May 2018

Leicestershire won (!) by 3 runs

If you would like to see some excellent photographs of this game (much better than anything I could do), kindly provided by Charlie Dryden, please follow this link – https://chasdryden.myportfolio.com/specsavers-cc-lccc-vs-glamorgan-may-11-2018

And so to the Glamorgan game, which Leicestershire won. It may be that having so rarely witnessed a Leicestershire victory in recent years means that doing so has had the same giddying effect on me as a bottle of vintage Champagne on a lifelong teetotaler, but I feel that this is no time for critical detachment. It was one of the best games I have ever seen (and, although I might have felt differently about it, it would have been so even if Leicestershire had lost). Almost every member of the Leicestershire side contributed significantly to the win, and some performances were positively heroic.

It had not begun well. Having chosen to bat, Leicestershire were soon reduced to 9-3, which before too long had become 67-6. Ateeq Javid had at least hung around for over an hour for his 13 and Callum Parkinson had some success with his tail-ender’s aggression (a foretaste of things to come), but it was only a calm and collected 87 from Neil Dexter, who has looked a new man (or his old self) this season, that dispelled the fear that Durham might have broken their spirits. By the close of play, Glamorgan had reached 82-0 in reply to our 191, and expectations were low.

The damage had been done by Glamorgan’s own trio of nationality-fluid seamers, Hogan, van Gugten and de Lange (Lukas Carey, the 19-year old from Pontardullais who had impressed me last year had joined Hosein and Hamidullah in being left on the sidelines). On the evidence of this game they look likely to be Glamorgan’s only real strength this season.

As the second day began, the majority view (based on long experience) was that Glamorgan would knock up at least 400, declare with an hour to go, then take a couple of cheap wickets to leave us facing defeat by Sunday tea-time. In the event, seven wickets had fallen before lunchtime, thanks to some fast, straight bowling by Varun Aaron and Gavin Griffiths, and some characteristic terrier work by Ben Raine. The majority fear, again based on precedent, was that we would allow the tail to wag, but it was swiftly removed, with only some slogging by van der Gugten a cloud on the horizon, no bigger than a man’s hand.

Leicestershire’s first innings lead of 13 was extended by a solid half-century opening partnership (I am so pleased to have the opportunity to type that sentence that I’m tempted to repeat it) and they finished the day on 119-2, with the in-form Ackermann and the reassuring figure of Cosgrove in occupation.

The vagaries of public transport meant that I arrived at Grace Road late on the Sunday and, as so often, I had to do a double take when I saw the scoreboard, which stood at 142-6 (the culprit being Michael Hogan, the vulpine veteran from New South Wales). Another dramatic reversal in fortune, the assumption at Grace Road being always that the last reversal would be in our opponents’ favour. Talk turned to ‘how much will be enough’ For any other club a target of 200 would do, but for us 250 seemed safer, and a long way away.

At the fall of the sixth wicket Ben Raine strode to the wicket (and he really does stride), beard jutting and bat swinging, like Desperate Dan setting out to rescue his Aunt Aggie from some troublesome varmints. Taking his cue from van der Gugten, he swung and swung again, and, with Parkinson as his sidekick, he dragged the score by the scruff of its neck to 250, having contributed 65. 251 to win (surely, surely …).

When Glamorgan batted again, we experienced the disorientating sensation of watching another side’s batting collapse, instead of our own. The opener Murphy and Chris Cooke offered a little resistance, but Raine, who seemed determined to win the match or die in the attempt, removed both. When a batsman is proving obdurate, Raine sometimes gives the impression that he won’t bother to release the ball, but is simply going to keep running and physically manhandle him off the pitch and he came uncomfortably close to doing so literally with Cooke.

139-8, 111 to win and the tail-enders de Lange and van der Gugten at the crease (career averages of 13 and 10 respectively). The only rational question seemed to be whether we could finish the game off that evening or whether it would be worthwhile returning for an hour the next morning to witness a Leicestershire victory (but still that little voice at the back of the mind – Surely? Surely not? Surely this time? Not again?).

The last hour (though it seemed somehow to be both longer and shorter) would have made an excellent case study for a sports psychologist studying the effects of a team not having won for a long time, and having a record of throwing games away from promising positions. De Lange and van der Gugten are big, strong men with good eyes and, crucially, nothing to lose, but a team who are used to winning would have allowed them to have a little fun and hit a boundary or two, but found a way to nip them in the bud before they came too close to the target.

Instead, Leicestershire appeared to freeze. In all, de Lange hit 90 from 45 balls, including 5 fours and 8 sixes. At least two of the sixes went out of the ground, and one ball was lost completely in the car park. A four ricocheted off the base of the sightscreen and smashed a hole in the window of the Umpire’s room. There were two dropped catches and a missed run out, when wicket-keeper Hill somehow failed to connect ball and stumps, with de Lange well out of his ground. It is amazing how quickly you can get from 139 to 251, if you are counting in multiples of six.

At the beginning of the 53rd over, with 75 still required, Carberry threw the ball to Parkinson, the young slow left-armer, who must have wished that he could throw it back again. His first ball to de Lange went for four, the fourth and fifth (a no-ball) for six. Off the last, however, he trapped van der Gugten LBW, which brought Michael Hogan to the crease. Hogan not only looks and bowls like Glen McGrath, but bats like him too. The obvious course would have been to try to keep him on strike and de Lange as far from it as possible, but so frozen did Carberry appear that this did not seem to occur to him, in spite of receiving plenty of advice to that effect from the crowd, and the frantic semaphore signals from his coach on the balcony.

The next over, from Varun Aaron, brought another six from de Lange, a squirted four from Hogan and a scrambled single to bring de Lange on strike for the start of Parkinson’s next over. The first ball went for six, as did the second (a gentle full toss). This brought calls of ‘take him off’ from the crowd, perhaps orchestrated by Parkinson himself. A single followed, then Hogan prodded out the rest of the over. Gavin Griffiths, so potent earlier, but now caught in the collective nightmare, was hit for two fours and a six.

With nine required to win in what looked certain to be the last over, the indomitable Raine seized the ball (perhaps the only man on the field who would have volunteered for the task). Another single from Hogan brought de Lange on strike for the third ball, which went for four. Four to win. The fourth was a low full toss (deliberate, no doubt), which de Lange, for once in the innings, did not quite strike cleanly. It flew high out of my field of vision behind the sightscreen, followed, after an agonising split-second, by Parkinson, who had taken the catch on the boundary, shooting into view towards his team-mates, screaming like a scalded cat.

As it was a day for superlatives, I don’t think that I have ever seen a side as affected by a result as Leicestershire were by this one. Carberry looked in a terrible state, and some of the younger players seemed on the verge of tears. We supporters were elated, of course, but at least most of us have been around for long enough to have experienced a Leicestershire victory before, which is not true of all of the players.

So, having at last removed this weighty and malodorous monkey from their backs, where do Leicestershire go from here? Well, for the moment, nowhere in particular in the County Championship, in this disjointed season (our next 4-day game begins on 9th June). We shall have to hope that they can carry the same spirit forward into the 50 over competition, which begins today : perhaps for that reason, much the same side that has played in the Championship has been chosen for the first game, with, unexpectedly, no place for white ball lovers such as Pettini, Wells or Aadil Ali. I have every confidence in them, almost.

Incidentally, Leicestershire were docked two of their hard-earned points for a slow over rate, and Glamorgan one. Even leaving aside the amount of time that had been lost retrieving the ball from neighbouring side-streets and removing shards of broken glass from it, the last thing any of the spectators would have had on their minds would have been the over rate, and I am fairly confident that no-one would have been asking for their money back. Sometimes the playing regulations really are a ass.

 

 

Few Alarms and Few Surprises

 

Leicestershire (429-9 dec.) v Sussex (438-8 dec. & 241/4 dec.), County Championship, Grace Road, 20-23 April 2018

Match drawn

Leicestershire’s first home match of the new Championship season was chiefly remarkable for its lack of incident.

 

It ended in a draw at the end of the fourth day, with minimal interruption by rain or bad light, with both sides having made 400 in their first innings before declaring, and Sussex having batted out the last day, with no serious prospect of any result other than a draw.

This was remarkable in the context of what has been occurring elsewhere in the first two rounds of the Championship : of the 30 games played so far, 27 have resulted in wins (most within three, or even two, days), one was washed out (because of the drains in Leeds) and only two have ended in draws (the other, also involving Sussex, was rain-affected). Much of the credit for Grace Road being such an oasis of calm in this sea of tumult (if you can have an oasis in a sea) must go to the ground staff for producing a pitch that was far from dead (as the slow rate of scoring attests), but not unnecessarily lively.

It was also remarkable in the context of Leicestershire’s recent performances, in which dramatic turnarounds in fortune (in the wrong direction) have become a wearisomely predictable feature. If, in cartoons, you can spot a rake lying on the ground, it is a safe bet that someone will step on it : if Leicestershire make a reasonable start, a calamitous collapse is sure to follow ; if we score some telling blows against the top order, the tail is sure to wag gaily. Although there was a little of the latter, it was something a relief to make it to the end of a fourth day with no truly unpleasant shocks to the system.

The first session of a new season always compels close attention, if only because it is the last time when anything is possible. Sussex had chosen to bat, a little surprisingly, given that the early morning had been overcast and there looked to be moisture in the wicket. Leicestershire’s selection (Chappell and Klein had been omitted in favour of Griffiths) hinted at the strategy they seem to have adopted of ‘bowling dry’ (which might be Nixon’s idea, or something Carberry picked up from his spell with England).

Last season, Zak fired away fast and furiously with the new ball to an attacking field, which could be thrilling to watch, but could also result in the opposition having 50 on the board by the end of the first half hour. Mohammad Abbas (or, as his sweater described him ‘Abass’ – perhaps our kit manufacturers have strong views on the correct transliteration of Urdu) and Griffiths set the tone for the day by bowling with scrupulous accuracy (and hostility, in Abbas’s case) to an astutely set field. Luke Wells was the first wicket to fall, with the first bowling change in the ninth over, caught behind off Raine, when he had made 2, and the score was 23. Fellow-opener Salt, who had been a little more productive, was out in the same way two runs later (I suppose Zak could have peppered him with bouncers, but we are in no position to throw away an early advantage for the sake of a cheap pun).

The same pattern persisted until the early afternoon, with all the bowlers (save Raine) bowling almost as many maidens as not. Every time a bowling change was made a wicket fell (as with the field placings, I prefer to put this down to Carberry’s astuteness, rather than beginner’s luck). Parkinson removed van Zyl with his second ball (which was to prove his last wicket, though he bowled another 50 overs), with the score on 115-4. The bowling remained as dry as a kookaburra’s khyber, but the gap between wickets was lengthening.

As the afternoon wore on, the heat increased, the ball softened, and Leicestershire must have felt that they were in danger of losing this war of attrition. Carberry had six front-line bowlers at his disposal (all-rounder Ateeq Javid had replaced Eckersley (‘niggle’)), and he tried them all in turn, like a man with too many pockets searching for a misplaced bus ticket. Ben Brown and Luke Wright became a little expansive, and tea and the new ball seemed a long way off. In the evening session, fortified by the new ball (and one of Mr. Stew’s excellent teas), Abbas had Brown caught behind, and Raine, who sometimes seems able to take wickets through sheer force of will, took two in two balls to leave Sussex on 254-7 at the close of play.

Anyone unfamiliar with Leicestershire (and a few hopeful souls who are all too familiar) would have been expecting, when play resumed the next morning, that, with only one recognised batsman left, the Sussex tail would be neatly and bloodlessly docked. But, I am afraid, Leicestershire reverted to type and the same two batsmen, Michael Burgess and Ishant Sharma, were still at the crease in mid-afternoon, with Burgess approaching his century and the total approaching 400. What makes this more galling (and may have added a couple of inches in height to his celebratory air-punching) is that Burgess was released by Leicestershire in 2016 .

As soon as he had made his century, Sussex declared on 438-8, the skies darkened and a shower of rain arrived to freshen up the wicket like a quick squirt of Trumper’s Extract of Limes. On the resumption, Paul Horton, who may be in for a very long (or very short) season, was trapped lbw by Sharma without scoring, to be replaced by Colin Ackermann, who had inherited the vexed position of no. 3, in the absence of the niggled Eckerlsey.

Ackermann is, by the standards of the modern cricketer, of medium height and build, with an unremarkable haircut and no visible tattoos, and rather looks as though he should be walking to the crease in a business suit, carrying an attaché case containing a packed lunch and a copy of ‘The Times’. Although he made two centuries last season (including a heroic one in the legendary day-night match at Northampton), he has sometimes given the impression that he only feels contractually obliged to make 30. Carberry (again a study in concentration) was, like his opening partner, snared by Sharma shortly before the close for 32, but, by then, he and Ackermann had deftly sidestepped the obvious rakes to finish on 112-2.

The Sunday had something of ‘while the cats are away, the mice will play’ about it. Last season, Sussex had come to the game armed with the near Test-quality bowling of Philander, Archer and Jordan. With Archer and Jordan away at the IPL (and Garton apparently injured), the Leicestershire batsmen must have felt like Wyatt Earp taking on a Clanton gang who had left their six-shooters back at the ranch : of the bowlers, only Sharma offered any real threat, and the pitch, by now slightly sluggish and lacking in bounce, offered him little assistance.

I even felt sufficiently confident that there would be no ‘unexpected‘ collapses to leave at 3.00, secure in the knowledge that there would be a fourth day worth returning for. Cosgrove (who has now, including the warm-up matches, made fifties in eight out of his last ten innings) made 64 to escort Ackermann into safe waters, like a sturdy tugboat escorting a stately liner out from the harbour. With Dexter and Raine in supporting roles, Ackermann made 186, one short of his career best, which he achieved over our Winter in South Africa. He may yet be discovered to have a superhero outfit lurking under that business suit.

Leicestershire’s total of 422-9 (for once, we had the luxury of declaring) was enough to put the match beyond Sussex and – barring a really surprising turn of events – ourselves. There might have been a brief quickening of the pulse when Abbas bowled opener Salt with the score on 27, and a flutter when van Styl followed shortly before lunch, but the tone for the day had been set by opener Luke Wells, who took 70 minutes to add to his overnight score, in the face of some more Martini-dry Leicestershire bowling. He later sped up sufficiently to complete an undefeated century.

Wells is not a player I have ever given much thought to, beyond knowing that he was one of the Wells brothers’ son (Alan, apparently). A tall left-hander, he employed a limited range of shots with great efficiency, though he hinted at a wider range when he went after Callum Parkinson in the late afternoon, presumably anxious to get his hundred before the shaking of hands. I thought he reminded me of someone, and Brian Carpenter correctly suggested it might be Alastair Cook : he might well be the kind of previously underestimated player Ed Smith is hoping to discover when he gets to work with his magic moneyballs.

I also note from Cricinfo that Wells is ‘the most sledged cricketer in England’, so it was good to hear that Leicestershire did not allow themselves to be audibly provoked by his frustrating adhesion. It was also to their credit that they continued to bowl and field as if it mattered, long past the point when it did, with only Griffiths betraying a hint of dampness. The drawback to his having a ‘repeatable action’ is that he can become locked into an extended groove, an admirable quality if auditioning for the Famous Flames, but less so in a seamer.

Our next fixture begins on Friday, against Derbyshire, who may prove to be another rake concealed in the long grass. With Archer and Jordan absent, April was the right time to play Sussex, but it may be a cruel month to play Derby, whose strength looks to lie in their imported seam attack of Viljoen, Rampaul and Olivier. It would be reasonable to expect at least one of them to have broken down by mid-season, but, for the moment, they all appear to be fit, and all too capable of causing some unwanted alarms and surprises.  Mohammad Abbas will also have been replaced by Varun Aaron, who is, by reputation, more fire than earth.

As a statistical footnote, Sussex fielded six players with monosyllabic surnames : Wells, Salt, Finch, Wright, Brown and Beer (all names from a village war memorial), and eight if you include van Zyl and Wiese. I wonder if, perhaps, this might be a record?

 

 

 

Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings

Leicestershire v Nottinghamshire (5-6 April 2018), Yorkshire (9-10 April 2018), Loughborough MCCU (13-15 April 2018)

Ideally, the start of the English cricket season resembles some shy woodland creature, emerging from its burrow after its long Winter hibernation to sniff the soft air of Spring. Too often, though, it sneaks out unobserved, like a rat from its hole.

Like the Renaissance, it can be hard to define quite when and where the English season started. The earliest first-class fixture, between the Champion County and the MCC, was on the 27th March, but, as that was played in Barbados, it can only in the most technical of senses be said to be part of the English season. The first first-class fixtures on English soil, a wave of University matches, were scheduled to be on 1st April and the first round of County Championship games took take place on 13th April. On the other hand, some hardy souls have brought back reports from non first-class University matches at Loughborough in March, when the snows had barely melted.

I had to start it somewhere, and so I started it, predictably, at Grace Road, where Leicestershire were playing a pre-season friendly against Nottinghamshire. A brief stroll around the ground revealed that the only new addition to it over the Winter was this apparently comically unstable structure, which I shall, no doubt, find some metaphorical use for, as the season progresses.

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These friendlies are not ‘real games’ and, in the sense that the scores leave no statistical trace, I suppose they might as well not have taken place at all. As the aim is to give as many players as possible some practice, it can be hard to keep track of who is playing at any given time, and player-recognition was made more difficult by many of Leicestershire’s players wearing someone else’s kit : the departed Jason Burke and Angus Robson’s sweaters made appearances, as did Rob Sayers’ sweater and shirt (which, I’m afraid, is more than their owner is likely to do this season).

To compound the sense of unreality, the electronic scoreboard remained blank and its manual partner seemed to have been commandeered by some kind of magic realist (one of the openers began his innings on 300, at one point the score started going backwards). It also seemed unreal that the weather on the first day was warm and sunny : one fine day is about as much as we can generally hope for in the English Summer, and it seemed a cruel trick to have used it up before the season had even started.

I have to say that I missed the first ball to be bowled at Grace Road this season : so keen were the players to get the season underway (a keenness not always to be observed later in the year) that they had begun ahead of schedule, at 10.30. Nottinghamshire batted first and had reached 394-6 by the close of play, a score which I think might convey to their supporters a slightly over-optimistic impression of their batting strength.

Most of the bowlers, on both sides, seemed, at this stage of season, to be in that state most of us are in before we have had our first coffee (or gin, or whatever) of the morning, and a few looked as if they had not yet managed to locate their glasses : some bowled entire spells of looseners. Leicestershire used nine bowlers in all : Klein, Raine, Chappell, Griffiths, Dexter, Ateeq Javid and Parkinson from the named 12, with a few overs from newcomers Tom Taylor and Ben Mike, a young Academy player.

Chappell seemed concerned about his footholds (there was a lot of sawdust about, though not from any underhand use of sandpaper), understandably so, given that he has spent most of his first three seasons on the sidelines with various leg and back ailments. In his first spell, he was characteristically expensive (though not reassuringly so, like Stella Artois) ; his second was more controlled and he reminded me a little of (Chris, not Maurice) Tremlett .

Our most threatening bowlers were Callum Parkinson and Gavin Griffiths. I had rather unkindly put Griffiths down for some ‘donkey-work‘ this season, but in all these games he hinted at more thoroughbred qualities, having put on at least a few inches of pace, and might be preferred to Klein (or even Chappell) when the season proper begins.  Parkinson, too, seems to have acquired guile beyond his years, and may prove to be a higher class of bowler than I had suspected.

All the Nottinghamshire batsmen made some kind of start, their leading run-makers being the oldish faithful Mullaney (85), and Billy Root, who retired on 81. As one who watches a lot of 2nd XI cricket, Root seems to have been around for a long time, with various counties (including Leicestershire), but he has not yet, at the age of 25, established himself in the Nottinghamshire 1st XI. He does not seek to compete with his brother in terms of style (he is one of those whose bat makes a hollow clonking sound), but he hits the ball hard and would, in normal circumstances, have deserved his century.

My first impression of Carberry as Captain was that he is more active and cerebral than his predecessor : Cosgrove was generally content to plant himself in the slips and offer verbal encouragement, whereas Carberry has a liking for avant-garde field placings (particularly when Parkinson was bowling), insisting on having everyone standing just so before an over could begin, like a fussy wedding photographer.

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He seemed to have less of a liking for the old school position third man, with the result that two of Chappell’s first three deliveries were tipped over the slips for four. Given how many analysis-ruining runs he leaks in this fashion, I think, if I were Chappell, I should request one.

Those of you who read my last piece may remember that I had misgivings about Carberry’s appointment, but his performance on the second day, when Leicestershire batted, went some way towards allaying my anxieties. Having the air of a man working hard to make a good impression, he conscientiously avoided the more hazardous balls and, taking full advantage of one child-sized boundary, made 52, putting on an opening stand of 50 with Paul Horton, of which Carberry made 29 and his partner 8 (the other 13 being generously donated in extras by, mostly by Mark Footitt).

Footitt looked heavier than I remember him at Derbyshire (perhaps he has given up smoking), and Ball and Fletcher seemed vaguely somnambulistic, like giants newly woken after a long sleep. Harry Gurney (who bowls in a similar style to Footitt) looked positively lively by comparison, and Luke Wood’s run-up continues to be a thing of beauty.

Horton and Dexter (batting at no. 3, which I’m not sure is the best place for him) had predeceased their Captain, when, shortly after lunch, he was rather unluckily given out LBW to Samit Patel (as I was sheltering in the Meet I could not judge the line, but he was a very long way down the pitch). Mark Cosgrove (the only batsman with nothing to prove) played a couple of twinkle-toed cover drives before sensibly taking refuge in the pavilion (the second day was reasonably fine, but the wind was bitter).

In the afternoon, I had to choose between being too far from the action to have a clear view of what was going on and freezing. I did my duty for as long as I could, but eventually retreated to a sheltered nook, from which I could observe two bearded and muffled figures (one masquerading as Rob Sayer) put on a century stand. I have to take it on trust that they were Ned Eckersley and Lewis Hill. Although Nottinghamshire were, by now, giving their second string bowlers a go with the ball, Hill, who made 82, should have made sure of his place in the side for the opening game alongside, or even instead of, Eckersley (they had earlier shared the wicket-keeping gloves).

Once they had reached their century, they were both recalled to the pavilion (I am not sure why Hill is searching so urgently inside his box, but it might have had something to do with the cold)

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to allow the bowlers some ‘time in the middle’.  Zak Chappell was promptly run out without scoring, swiftly followed by Raine and Klein : depending on how you interpret the retirements, this meant that we had lost five wickets for no runs in about ten minutes, at which point, developing a creeping sense of deja vu to go with the hypothermia, I called it a day. In my absence, the last pair, Ateeq Javid and Callum Parkinson (who bagged a 50 to add to his impressive bowling) put on a partnership of 85, though whether this had something to do with the Nottinghamshire bowlers needing more practice I cannot say.

The second friendly, against Yorkshire, was arranged at short notice at their request. Even given the depradations of England and the lure of the white ball, Yorkshire have a strong line-up on paper, but on paper is where they have so far had to remain, owing, I believe to the inadequacy of the drains in Leeds. In the event, only 60 overs of play were possible, or, given the state of the weather, desirable. The idea was that each side would bat for 50 overs on the first day, but this was not 50-over cricket as we generally know it. Leicestershire batted and made 139-8, with Yorkshire making 38 for no wicket before the rain offered a merciful release. Although not too much can be deduced from that total (tail-enders were moved up the order to give them some practice), the struggles of our top order brought back some more unwelcome memories.

It was, perhaps, as well for Yorkshire that the game did not proceed further. David Willey, who was named on the scoresheet, had absconded to the IPL shortly before the game began (to join Plunkett) and Matthew Fisher pulled up with a strain after a couple of overs (joining Coad on the sick list). Most counties would be pleased to be ‘reduced’ to Brooks, Bresnan, Patterson and Shaw as a pace quartet (though none of them are quite in their prime) ; they may have proved too good for Leicestershire, but any further reductions might leave them struggling.

I was not entirely sorry to have an excuse for an afternoon off, but it did mean that I didn’t get to see much of Alex Lees. When I saw him bat in 2014 (particularly for the Lions against Australia) he had greatly impressed me (and many others) : his – at times – drastic loss of form since then, at a time when there is an obvious vacancy for an opener in the England team, has puzzled me. What struck me, from my brief sight of him, is that, whereas, in the past, everything about his stance has been exaggeratedly upright and straight-lined (I once described him as batting inside an invisible sentry box), he has now adopted a strangely slanted, crouching posture at the crease. Whether that is a cause of his decline, or (as I suspect) an attempt to halt it, I am unsure.

The final warm-up game, against Loughborough MCCU, occupied, to the use the fashionable term, a kind of ‘liminal space’ between the unreal world of the friendlies and the real world of the season proper. It was played according to the usual rules, with eleven a side, and Leicestershire wore their own kit. On the other hand, for reasons that elude me, it did not have First Class status, and so the scores made will vanish as if they had never been (and the electronic scoreboard was still not working). Intended to be a three day game, it was halved by rain.

The side picked saw the bright butterfly of the Leicestershire 1st XI first emergence from its chrysalis. As I had predicted (as anyone would have predicted, really) on the basis of the friendlies, Griffiths and Parkinson were selected , with Chappell relegated to Twelfth Man to make way for the debut of Mohammad Abbas. In a reversal of last season’s roles, Eckersley kept wicket, with Lewis Hill playing as a specialist batsman.

The first danger to be avoided was of our bright butterfly flying straight into some flypaper (you may remember that last season’s fixture against Loughborough led to us starting the season with a 16 point deduction). We did not start well, losing our first four wickets for 16 runs (Horton, Eckersley, Ackermann and Carberry all being dismissed for the addition of a single). In fairness, there was some life in the pitch and the bowlers (Sanders of Lancashire and Pereira of Surrey), but lively pitches and bowlers are what top order batsmen are paid to deal with, and I could sense the uncomfortable frisson of collapses past running around the ground.

As predictably as Spring follows Winter (eventually), the collapse was followed by a near-century by Cosgrove (91), with some useful support from Hill (36), Dexter (66*) and Raine (50*). Though he rather threw his wicket away, Hill continued to impress as a batsman, and Dexter looks much happier at six than three. The trouble with that is that Eckersley, who had been promoted to three and was out shouldering arms first ball, also looks happier further down the order. Unless Cosgrove or Ackermann fancy doing it (which they, presumably, do not), the position could present a problem.

When it was their turn to bat, the students showed that they had learned from the professionals by losing their first four wickets (including that of Leicestershire’s Sam Evans) for 17 runs. Our butterfly now fluttered perilously close to the flypaper as Hasan Azad, the adhesive opener who, last year, had survived the alleged assassination attempt by Charlie Shreck, shored up the innings with Adam Tillcock. A couple of histrionic displays of frustration at umpiring decisions from Ben Raine, a lot of unseemly merriment when one of the batsmen sustained a painful blow in the box, and an unnecessarily high level of background chirruping might have been enough to get Steve O’Shaughnessy reaching for his notebook.

Happily, the noise seemed to subside after lunch (perhaps Nick Cook, a sensible Umpire, had had a quiet word). Tillcock had been bowled by Mohammad Abbas shortly before the interval, and, after it, Griffiths and Parkinson (it was those men again), assisted by some intelligent field placings by Carberry, averted the danger of further embarrassment by removing the pesky opener and the remaining batsmen for 155. With no possibility of a result, Carberry seemed keen for some more batting practice, but the rain had other ideas.

Mohammad Abbas seemed to enjoy his first taste of early season English conditions

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or, at least, did not hurry  to catch the first ‘plane back to Pakistan. At first sight he did not look devastatingly quick, or a vast swinger of the ball, but he clean bowled two batsmen and did nothing to spoil the expectation that he should be a consistent wicket-taker (when he is available).

While this match was going on, reports were coming in of some ridiculous (in the ordinary sense, not the specialised sense in which modern cricketers tend to use it) scores in the first round of Championship games (for one, Nottinghamshire’s bowlers, other than Footitt, had obviously woken up). These may have helped to put some of the low-scoring at Grace Road into context, but the impression remains that our bowling currently inspires more confidence than our batting. If the sun which has emerged as I write has not burnt the moisture out of the pitch, our first fixture against Sussex may be a short one.

By the way, the crowd on the first, fine, day of our pseudo-season had been surprisingly large for an unreal game, and even on the other days, inhospitable to man and beast as they were, there had been more than the proverbial one man and a dog, though I was pleased to see that they had made an appearance anyway.

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The Field of Miracles

A few weeks ago, I happened to be in the ‘Piazza [or Campo] dei Miracoli’ in Pisa, when something made me think of the County Championship. What could have reminded me of a competition that is said to be built on inadequate foundations, is not self-supporting, would never have been designed in the same way if it were being set up today, and would have collapsed long ago if a lot of time and money had not been put into keeping it artificially intact? But, perhaps, you are ahead of me :

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Given that the Leaning Tower, however misconceived, is widely regarded as being one of the Wonders of the World, this would be a cheering comparison, were it not for the fact that it is under the care of the Opera della Primaziale Pisana (O₽A), rather than the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB).  Left to their own devices, the ECB would have “rationalised” the tower by straightening it out, or allowed it to collapse, to be replaced by a more “vibrant” structure, better suited to the needs of the 21st Century.

I also couldn’t help feeling, as a County member, that I am in a similar position to those tourists who have themselves photographed apparently preventing the tower collapsing, which, with respect to the Championship, we know to be an unconvincing optical illusion.

But enough about my holidays, and on to the prospects for the season.

Prospects for the season’ used to imply a consideration of how a chosen side were likely to perform, with the preferred tone being guarded optimism. Now the more pressing questions seem to be what the prospects are of being able to see very much cricket in the coming season, and whether there are likely to be many more seasons after that. In both cases, my feelings are of qualified pessimism.

To take the first question first : Leicestershire have two home Championship games in April, one in May, one in June (by which time it might have stopped snowing), one in August and two in September, which is a slightly more even distribution than last season. There are, though, none between the Middlesex game, which starts on 20th June and the Kent game, beginning 19th August. I have complained about this so often now that I am beginning to bore myself, but there does now seem some faint possibility that the situation may be addressed, given how many have blamed the distribution of fixtures for England’s loss of the Ashes (which is all that a lot of people seem to care about).

On a brighter note, there are various other attractions at Grace Road : a pre-season friendly, a University match, three 50 over games (and one – praise the Lord! – at Oakham), three tourist matches, an England Lions game and a women’s one-dayer. I might even make the Sunday T20 against Nottinghamshire, which promises to be a lively affair, at least off the pitch.

We have revived our reciprocal agreement with Nottinghamshire, so I hope to make at least one trip to Trent Bridge. In fact, I can only see three weeks during the season when there are no games I can plausibly watch ; I really shouldn’t complain, although all three of those are in July and August and, however attractive some of the grounds, I can envisage my attention wandering as I enter my eighth successive week of watching 2nd XI cricket. As with most things, so with cricket – the real enemy is not anger (if you are still angry you still care), but boredom and indifference.

To turn from the short-range forecast to the medium-term, there have been a few encouraging indications recently that the turkeys (in the shape of the Counties) might be reconsidering their votes for Christmas : the problem here being that eight of those turkeys have reasonable hopes of being invited to the Christmas dinner, and the others can see no source of nutrition other than the farmer.

Speaking of which, in a less well-reported development, in November, the club held an SGM to vote on the ECB’s proposed new rules, under which five of the seven Board members currently elected by the Members would be replaced by five nominated by ‘the Nominations Panel’. This is seen by some as meaning the end of Leicestershire as a Members’ Club, and the imposition of a kind of direct rule by the ECB. I could not attend the meeting, but according to a letter sent out to Members, ‘most of those attending … were clearly unhappy’, and no vote was taken. There are two ‘consultation meetings’ scheduled for the Summer and ‘at some point the SGM will be reconvened and a reviewed/revised resolution put to the vote’. If, as I think quite likely, the Members continue to reject the new rules, we have been warned that ‘the makeup of a Board of Directors could impact on funding received by County Cricket Clubs in the future’. So we can’t say that we haven’t been warned.

And so, at last, on to the cricket.

This season Leicestershire will have a new coach, Paul Nixon, and a new Captain, in the shape of Michael Carberry, who has been appointed as such for all formats on a two-year contract. It is fair to say that one of these appointments has been greeted with more enthusiasm than the other.

Nixon has been the Foxes’ Prince over the Water since his retirement in 2011 (the large mural featuring his picture and the quote ‘once a Fox always a Fox’ that appeared on the side of the pavilion last season can hardly have increased his predecessor’s sense of job security). His coaching experience has been limited, but successful (his Jamaica Tallawahs have twice won the Caribbean Premier League), and his enthusiasm, energy and commitment are unquestionable : these may not be sufficient qualifications for a successful coach, but should be enough to instil some of those qualities into a side who have too often given the impression of listlessness and apathy. Whatever the results, his presence at the ground should help to lift the spirits of the crowd, who have had good reason to feel listless and apathetic themselves recently.

I know I am not the only one to find Carberry’s appointment puzzling. In his day, he was, of course, a ‘class act‘, and an exceptionally unlucky cricketer. Class, alas, (however the saying goes) is not permanent ; he is now 37 years old and will be almost 39 when he finishes his contract. In his four matches on loan at the end of last season he scored 59 runs in eight innings (and made another low score in the non first-class Tour Game). The most hopeful interpretation is that he had been expecting to retire at the end of the season before the call to Grace Road came, and had not bothered to keep in any sort of form. If those who signed him have some reason to believe that he has it in him to return to something of his former self, his signing as a batsman makes sense.

More puzzling, though, is the offer of the captaincy – particularly if, as I believe is the case, Mark Cosgrove was reluctant to relinquish it. I am not aware (though I am willing to be contradicted) that Carberry has any previous experience of captaincy. Our recent policy of bringing in experienced players, but inexperienced Captains, from outside to captain the side has not, to put it mildly, brought any great success : Sarwan was hopeless ; Hoggard (though a great man) was predictably eccentric ; Cosgrove might just have been growing into the role when he was relieved of it. If Carberry is struggling with his own form, a potentially mutinous and free-scoring Cosgrove walking out to replace him will be the last thing he needs to see as he returns to the pavilion.

It is also curious that Carberry was appointed between the dismissal of de Bruyn and the appointment of Nixon.  Given the problems we had last season, it would be helpful to be sure that the Captain and Coach will have a harmonious working relationship.  But I’m sure that they will.

Moving on to the rest of the side, it is hard to avoid too-frequent recourse to those fine old cricketing half-euphemisms ‘decent‘ and ‘useful’, not to mention liberal applications of ‘if‘ and ‘potentially‘.

The lack of a ‘strong and stable’ opening partnership has long been a weakness, making it doubly unfortunate when we contrived to lose our most successful opener of recent times, Angus Robson. Given that Harry (‘the Tottington Tortoise’) Dearden is predicted to miss the early part of the season through injury, and the other younger candidate, Sam Evans, will not be available until his term at Loughborough finishes, Carberry is likely to find himself opening with Paul Horton, another who must have glimpsed ‘time’s winged chariot’ in his wing mirror, hurrying a little too near for comfort.

The middle order is potentially a little more than useful and decent. Mark Cosgrove was our only significantly successful batsman last year, and we must hope that the loss of the captaincy has not diminished his enthusiasm. Last season, Colin Ackermann and Ned Eckersley responded to Pierre de Bruyn’s challenge that ‘We can’t be accepting batsmen averaging in the mid-20s any more‘ by averaging 32.52 and 29.83 respectively : both (Ackermann in particular) will know that they can do better. Provided Neil Dexter is in the right frame of mind, he still has much to contribute with bat and ball, and might still, as I expected, prove the most astute of our recent late-career signings.

Ben Raine, fitness permitting, will continue to be Ben Raine (though not a spectacular bowler, he was our leading wicket-taker last season and topped the bowling averages). Lewis Hill proved me wrong by establishing himself as our first-choice wicket-keeper, and shamed some of our specialist batsmen with his run-making. If we play a specialist spinner, it is likely to be Callum Parkinson (brother of the, I suspect, soon-to-be better-known Matt) : he is potentially pretty useful, given more overs than he is likely to get on helpful surfaces..

Long-time readers will know my opinion of Zak Chappell : he is a potential England player in the sense that a glass of water is potential steam, even if he has not yet reached much above 30 degrees C. Over the Winter, he has benefited from the clamour to find an English bowler who can bowl at 90 mph (which he can certainly do) by being sent on a development course and being chosen to play for the North against the South. In the coming season, he will be working with a new bowling coach, Matt Mason, who will, one hopes, enable him to work out what kind of bowler he really wants to be. What he needs, though is unlikely to want or get, is to bowl enough to learn his craft (he is still desperately inexperienced, even in club cricket). This season is unlikely to make or (I hope) break him, but we should have a better idea of where his career is heading by the end of it (even if, as I fear, that takes him away from Grace Road).

Our two new overseas signings, Mohammad Abbas and Sohail Khan look, on paper, to be shrewd acquisitions. Mohammad Abbas is due to play in the first fixture (when he will, presumably, be acclimatising to English conditions), returning after the end of the Test series, when, provided he doesn’t develop some ailment and go home, he should be acclimatised enough to take some wickets in the second half of the season. Sohail, though he’s no Darren Stevens, sounds as though he should be well-suited to England in April and May.

[No sooner had I written this than I discovered that Sohail had dropped out through injury and been replaced by Varun Aaron, the Indian speedster best known for breaking Stuart Broad’s nose. With him bowling in tandem with Zak, there should be some nervous batsmen at Grace Road, not to mention nervous wicket-keepers, fourth slips and St. John Ambulance ladies.]

Looking past the first team, we find ourselves getting deep into the realms of the decent and useful. Dieter Klein, newly a German international, is a dangerous bowler, if not overbowled. I hope to see something of the elusive Richard Jones before he comes to the end of his contract. Mark Pettini, whom I am a little surprised to see is still on the staff (given that he seemed to go AWOL half way through last season), may have a couple of his occasional fine innings left in him, but, like Tom Wells, Aadil Ali, Rob Sayer and new acquisition Ateeq Javid, he is likely to contribute more to the white ball effort (which – especially given that it was always Nixon’s forte – is probably our best hope for success, if not trophies).

Of our other new acquisitions, Tom Taylor from Derbyshire is, as his name seems to imply, an honest-as-the-day-is-long county seamer, who, along with Gavin Griffiths, may have some donkey work to do. I can’t say too much about our two academy products, Sam Evans and wicket-keeper Harry Swindells, except that they look … potentially decent and useful. The player who would have been my One to Watch, Will Fazakerley, has frustrated me by retiring at the age of 19, preserving his – in its way – perfect record of ‘Matches – 1 Innings 2 – Runs 0 – Average 0.00’. He might want to consider appearing on ‘Pointless’.

As I so rarely watch it, I cannot comment on our T20 prospects, though we have signed Mohammad Nabi, of Afghanistan, who is trailed as ‘the best all-rounder in the world’. I suppose it is a sign of how cricket has disintegrated that not only have I never seen him play, I have never heard of him. Nonetheless, I wish him and the team all the best in my absence.

One reason for early season cheer is that it does not seem possible that we can have a worse start than last year. Provided we behave ourselves in the game against Loughborough, we should start the campaign on no points, rather than minus points. Although our first game is against Sussex (probably the most plausible challengers to Middlesex and Warwickshire for promotion), they will be without our prime nemesis in the last two seasons, Jofra Archer, who will be absent, together with Chris Jordan, on IPL ‘duty’. We then have two home fixtures against fellow-stragglers Derbyshire and Glamorgan, and an away trip to Durham, who have continued to shed quality players like an HGV with an unsecured load. There must, surely, be a chance of a win in there somewhere.

Spring pipe-dreams aside, I’d say it will take something more miraculous than anything I saw in Pisa for us to be promoted this year : a cheerful team, a couple of wins, not finishing last in the Championship, and some kind of showing with the snow-white rambler is probably the most (and least) we can hope for. But that, together, of course, with some decent weather and some more virtuoso displays of the ways of a man with a chicken by Mr. Stew, should be enough to assure the Foxes of my continuing support …

 

All’s Well That Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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