Apocalypse Postponed

Leicestershire CCC (302 & 233) v Worcestershire CCC (553-6 dec.), County Championship, Grace Road, 11-14 April 2019 Worcestershire won by an innings & 18 runs

Leicestershire CCC (377-4) v Worcestershire CCC (339 all out), RL50, Grace Road, 21st April, 2019 Leicestershire won by 38 runs

Strolling around Grace Road before the Championship game began, I happened to observe a tabby cat having a rather elaborate crap in the Milligan Road flowerbeds (I bet you don’t get that quality of pre-match entertainment at the IPL). It is a pity that Leicestershire’s management team did not have an augur on hand to interpret this omen before choosing to bat (I had been expecting to see Worcestershire bowl, but a game of after-you-Cecil-no-after-you-Claude had led to a toss, which Leicestershire had won). Apparently coach Nixon and captain Horton had wanted to bat, bowling coach Mason to bowl : I accept that you would not generally want to pick an argument with Matt Mason, but, in retrospect, it was a pity Nixon and Horton did not press their case harder.

For the first few overs, the point had seemed moot. Fresh from his success against Sussex, Tom Taylor seemed to finding a little movement out of the air, and openers Mitchell and Fell were appropriately respectful. The first changes in the bowling brought apparent vindication for Mason : Fell seemed to be beaten for pace by Davis and Ben Mike had his replacement, D’Oliveira, caught in the slips. Mike is still at the new puppy stage where every new experience is a joy and he expects everything he attempts to succeed. This belief must have been sorely tested throughout a long morning and afternoon of bowling at Daryl Mitchell and Hamish Rutherford, who put on 166 between them.

In my preview of the season, without the aid of augurs, I feared that, in the absence of Mohammad Abbas, a batsman who could play one of our seamers could play all of them, and that man was Daryl Mitchell. A pack of English seamers pursuing Mitchell across the wastes of Grace Road has the quality of a pack of wild dogs pursuing a wildebeest for hours across the Serengeti, with the difference that the unfortunate ruminant will eventually tire, whereas, in Mitchell’s case, it tends to be the bowlers. His centuries (this was the 36th of his career) resemble a volley from a firing squad, in that, although none of the individual shots may stick in the mind, the over all effect is devastating. His innings ended with the third ball after tea, when he absent-mindedly (perhaps still savouring the after-taste of one of Mr. Stew’s macaroons) flicked an off-break from Ackermann to slip.

By now, the newly-laid pitch, enigmatic at the start, had revealed its true character as a bit of a pudding, and the Worcestershire batsman queued up, as tray-bearers at a cafeteria, to eat their fill. Rutherford completed his own century, and Wessels made 43. There was a second moment of triumph for Ben Mike as he had Whitely tripping over his own feet in being trapped lbw on 49 : the exuberance of his celebration gave reassurance that his spirit had not been entirely crushed. As the game entered far into the second day, and a nasty, insinuating north wind crept into every corner of the ground, penetrating the stoutest of anoraks, Worcestershire’s acting Captain Ben Cox deferred declaring until he had made a century of his own : this having been duly completed, the innings closed on 553-6, leaving Leicestershire needing 403 to avoid the follow-on.

With the options being an innings defeat, or dying from a lampreyish surfeit of runs of the kind that was being served up at Sophia Gardens, the postponed Brexitapocalypse that had been scheduled for Friday evening might have provided a welcome distraction. As it was, Leicestershire without batting especially badly in either innings, never looked capable of accumulating enough runs to avoid defeat, which was postponed for just long enough to allow the crowd to enjoy their Sunday lunches.

With the exception of Captain Paul Horton, all of the top five batsmen made one half century and one single figure score. In the first innings, Ateeq Javid showed a good grasp of what was required by taking close to five hours to score 67 : a nervy character, who never looks entirely comfortable at the crease, he has adapted to his new role as an opener by adopting (or exaggerating) a square-on, bottom-handed gouging style of batting, that will be forgiven for as long as it is effective. Apart from his century against Loughborough, this was only his second half century for the Foxes, and, in the second innings, Morris found a way through his determined defence to bowl him for five.

Hassan Azad, on the other hand, makes a virtue of his limited range of strokes (his Twitter handle is ‘Bat pad man’) : in the first innings he had little opportunity to show what is incapable of, falling lbw to Morris off his fifth ball, but in the second he accumulated with a prudence that would have impressed Mr. Dawes Junior to make a second Championship half-century. As Charlie Shreck will attest, his chaste resistance to temptation brings out the devil in fast bowlers, and Tongue subjected him to a succession of unusually threatening bouncers, all of which he prudently swayed away from, until the nastiest of the lot struck him on the glove on its way to the gully.

Leicestershire have two batsmen of genuine quality – Cosgrove and Ackermann – who rarely seem to make substantial scores in the same innings : Cosgrove managed 67 and 0, Ackermann 5 and 69. If the scoring rate had been recorded by a heart monitor, the spike at the start of Cosgrove’s innings would have brought the medics running, as he hit Wayne Parnell for eight boundaries off nine balls. Giving the impression that he feels he is in the form of his life, he attempted something similar off his fifth ball of the second innings, but saw it ping straight to the cover fieldsman.

Cosgrove and Ackermann display contrasting attitudes to dismissal : whereas Ackermann exhibits an indifference to the vicissitudes of fortune that Marcus Aurelius might have considered excessive, Cosgrove moves from denial (remaining immobile at the crease for as long as decently possible) to rage, cursing his way back to the pavilion, while the younger players make themselves scarce on the balcony, like children forewarned that their Dad has pranged his car on the way home.

Of the others, poor Harry Dearden was relegated to no. 7 in both innings by the insertion of a nightwatchman, and seems to be getting the worse of the swap with Ateeq Javid. Lewis Hill now has the honour of a burger in the Meet named after him (containing chorizo)

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: I was tempted to say you could at least guarantee that it wouldn’t give you the runs, but that would be too much scatology for one post, and anyway he did make a few.

Leicestershire can sometimes use the term ‘all-rounder’ too loosely, but Tom Taylor batted well enough to justify it. His rival for the title ‘New Ben Raine’ (as eagerly awaited as once was the ‘New Botham‘), Ben Mike’s sense of youthful invincibility led him to aim a great hoick at a ball when he was on one that attained more height than distance, and was caught. He was more circumspect in the second : he had, perhaps, been reminded of his responsibilities, or had his e-numbers monitored.

Worcestershire’s bowling, even in the absence of captain-talisman Joe Leach, was good enough to make me relieved that, thanks to the daft schedule for this competition, we only have to play them once. The last time I saw Josh Tongue he was tall but spindly, and didn’t look terribly threatening : he has now, as all grand-parents like to say, grown into ever such a big boy and bowled with considerable pace. James Taylor was at the ground, perhaps to cast an eye over him (unless he was just there to collect the unsold copies of his book). He would also have witnessed Charlie Morris, a name previously unknown to me, and possibly him, and not a regular in the side, take 7-45, whose ‘whippy’, dog-thrower, pace had been too much for our tail, openers and Mark Cosgrove.

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Still, to slip on the gaffer’s sheepskin (or El Cap’s natty crew neck), if we had been offered 25 points after the first two games at the start of the season, we would have taken that. The very welcome news that Mohammad Abbas should be available, as far as we know, for the rest of the season, gives me confidence that the win over Sussex will not be the last, although, given the strength of our batting, I should expect them to be in low scoring games, even on this pitch.

The Championship game was followed, with the intervention of a couple of one-day defeats for Leicestershire, by a 50-over game between the same two sides, as a satyr play would sometimes follow a tragedy.  I was only able to watch the first couple of hours, which was a pity, because Leicestershire victories are not so common that I can afford to shun the opportunity to witness one.

Initially, with Leicestershire on 5-2, the second game seemed likely to be a continuation of the first ; in the stands there was disquiet that the planned day out in the sun might be prematurely terminated.  Then, as the unseasonable sun shone on a pitch which might euphemistically be described as ‘true’, the world was turned upside down : the Worcestershire seamers, irresistible lords of creation one Sunday, the next became the helpless playthings of the batsmen they had once disdained.

Ackermann, unsurprisingly, made 152* (though it seems curmudgeonly to say so, it might have been more useful if he could have done so in the first game) ; Lewis Hill, perhaps buoyed by the popularity of his burgers, made a maiden limited overs century, and Harry Dearden, who had led the way in turning the tide, was, at last, able to demonstrate why Leicestershire have thought it worthwhile persisting with him (it was a shame that he could not quite complete his own hundred).

On the face of it, it would be a shame, too, if players like Dearden and Hill, and the side as a whole, began to flower in this form of cricket at the exact point when it is about to be devalued.  On the other hand, if ‘development competition‘ turns out to mean only that the players chosen for the ‘Hundred’ will not be available in the RL50, then the outcome may be that Leicestershire wins, and runs for Dearden, might become less of a rarity.

Though the ground was far from full, there was a very reasonable turnout for the one-day game (certainly as compared to the Saturday and Sunday of the four-day game, when I have seen bigger crowds gathered at the sites of minor road traffic accidents).  I wonder, again, whether it would have been any smaller if Dearden and Hill had been making merry against a Worcestershire side trimmed of its stars, given the sun, the Bank Holiday mood, and the quality of the catering.

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Suffice Unto the Day

Leicestershire CCC (545-5 dec.) v Loughborough MCCU (153 & 151), Grace Road, 26-28 March 2019 

Leicestershire won by an innings and 220 runs

When the date for the first fixture of the season was announced, it was scheduled to end on the day before the U.K. was due to ‘crash out’ of the European Union. I pictured one of those illustrations that you see of dinosaurs wallowing happily in a swamp, oblivious to the asteroid, just visible, that is poised to make its descent to obliterate them.

Project Fear, Mate!

In the event, the Eve of Destruction (or Liberation, if you prefer) had been postponed, and I was able to enjoy three ‘Brexit’-free days : given ‘Brexit”s ability to leak out into every aspect of public life, like waste from a ruptured slurry tank, this was a remarkable tribute to cricket’s continuing ability to conjure up an enchanted oval, insulated from the woes of the world outside (it helped that the wi-fi has not improved since last season).  Leicestershire’s finances are, as usual, another potential source of anxiety, but suffice unto the day is the evil thereof.

I felt slightly more cheerful about the County’s prospects (I had to be careful there not to type ‘Country’s’) after the game than I had before, which has not always been the case with these University fixtures: you may remember that we lost to Leeds-Bradford in 2013, and then in 2017 there was the Shreck affair, which led to a points deduction that stymied our season before it had begun – but there was enough said about that at our Edie’s wedding.

Leicestershire chose to bowl first, giving us a chance to assess our bowling strength, which had looked likely to be a case of Mohammad Abbas, plus full supporting cast. Now that our star performer seems likely to be representing Pakistan in the World Cup, it may be more a case of full supporting cast, with guest appearances by Mohammad Abbas. In his absence, at least three of the four seamers used (I’d be surprised if Ben Mike didn’t elbow his way in) seem likely to feature. Chris Wright, 33, has joined from Warwickshire, where he played a significant, if not stellar, role in their successes of a few years ago. Will Davis has joined from Derbyshire, joining Tom Taylor, who took the same route last season, but hardly featured due to injury. Gavin Griffiths, so much improved last year, looked a little below his best.

Although their individual characteristics will, no doubt, emerge in the course of the season (Davis is reputed to be capable of real speed), all four bowl in a similar style, and, on an unhelpful pitch, one fears that a batsman who could play one could play all of them. Luckily, few of Loughborough’s batsmen could play any of them with confidence. The longest stand was between Louis Kimber and Captain Adam Tillcock, who put on 32 for the fourth wicket. Kimber, a tall youth from Scunthorpe, looked relaxed at the crease, taking over an hour to make 19, and still looked fairly relaxed as he made his way back to the pavilion (I suspect he’s generally fairly relaxed), having been bowled by Taylor, followed two balls later by his captain, caught behind off the same bowler.

Joe Kendall (who, to declare an interest, played for my club for a while) was the top scorer, with 37*, batting at no. 6 : it was a pity that the lizard-like frangibility of the tail prevented him making a maiden first-class 50. He has played a few games for both the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire 2nd XIs, and last year made a double century for Lincolnshire : like any number of players, he might have the talent to play first-class class cricket (he is a sort of less gifted, but sober, Duckett), but is at the point where he may prefer to cut his losses and pursue an alternative career rather than persist too long in touting his wares around the 2nd XI trial circuit.

For those who choose not to give up on the dream, Leicestershire’s second wicket partnership, which lasted over six hours, offered a lesson in the virtue of dogged persistence. At the end of last season, Leicestershire experimented by moving Ateeq Javid, who had made little positive impression since his move from Warwickshire (like all this side, except for Lewis Hill, he is drinking in the second chance saloon), up the order to open, and they seem set to stick with this plan. After Captain Paul Horton was bowled by Chris Sanders in the sixth over (a brief flare of false hope for the students, a little ominous for home supporters), he was joined by Hasan Azad, in a partnership that was to last a little over six hours, and was only ended by the batsmen retiring simultaneously at tea.

The name Hasan Azad might not ring a bell, but he was the batsman whose obdurate refusal to surrender his wicket led to Charlie Shreck’s unfortunate outburst in the corresponding fixture two years ago. In his time he has played for the Nottinghamshire 2nd XI, as well as those of Essex, Northants and finally Leicestershire, on whom he has made enough of an impression to be offered a contract, although, confusingly, he still appears to be studying for an MSc in chemical engineering. As his innings entered its seventh hour, the bowlers would have been forgiven for harbouring homicidal, Shreck-like, thoughts about him, as might some of the spectators (it was only when the second new ball was taken that the run rate had crept up to three).

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Their stand was eventually worth 309, with Ateeq and Azad on 143 and 139 respectively, a record for the second wicket for Leicestershire, which means that three of our top-six record wicket stands have now been made in this fixture. I don’t begrudge the students their first-class appearances, but some of those whose records had been set in more exacting circumstances might be added to the list of the disgruntled.

If you were hoping for some free-flowing strokeplay after the doggedness, the sight of Harry Dearden making his way to the wicket would not normally make your heart leap, but being moved down the order (and the circumstances) had given him licence to indulge his normally well-subdued cavalier side. He made a positively frisky 56 and Neil Dexter fell just short of knocking off a casual century, before Leicestershire gave themselves the afternoon to finish the game off, which they achieved by bowling the students out for two fewer than they had managed in their first innings.

This time it was Nick Welch, a native of Harare who has played for Surrey’s 2nd XI, who fell narrowly short of a merited fifty. Lewis Hill, who had dropped Joe Kendall early on in the first innings, redeemed himself with a diving leg-side catch to break the potentially frustrating stand the same batsman had been developing with wicket-keeper Adam King. King’s ‘keeping had, incidentally, been impressively tidy (and I had plenty of time to study it during that record stand). Of the other students, Will Pereira did well to concede only 60 runs from his 26 overs, and was unlucky not to take a wicket.

Wright, Taylor and Davis all bowled as relentlessly as they had in the first innings (Taylor and Davis claiming three wickets apiece), and we had our first sight of off-spinner Aaron Lilley, another recruit from Lancashire, where he had mostly been employed as a T20 specialist.  As the two forms of the game are now so distinct, watching him adept to red ball cricket was rather like watching a player recently converted from Rugby League to Union. At first, I wasn’t sure whether he was employing cunning T20-style variations, or just couldn’t find his line, but whatever he was doing seemed effective : he had Welch caught, trying, with the rashness of youth, to bring up his fifty with a six over the Meet, and Tillcock was caught behind stretching to reach an off-side delivery at the very limits of the crease. Given his reputed ability with the bat, I suspect Lilley, rather than Parkinson, will provide the spin option this year.

At one point during Loughborough’s innings, Neil Dexter embarked on a bout of unusually vocal encouragement of his colleagues during which, as a possibly back-handed compliment, he told Lewis Hill that his ‘keeping was ‘better than last year’, which, when we turn, briefly, to Leicestershire’s prospects for the season, would be a plausible ambition in the Championship, although I’m not expecting much in the shorter formats.

It is hard to see anyone other than Ackermann and Cosgrove scoring heavily (another woeful yield for Cosgrove would be as disastrous as a poor harvest in a mediaeval village), but, between them, Ateeq and Dearden (in their new roles) or Hasan Azad (when not at his books) may provide some stickier cement to hold the innings together. In reserve, Harry Swindells has talent with the bat, and could challenge Hill for the wicket-keeper’s role. Injuries or unexpected resignations may offer an opportunity for Sam Evans, or even Aadil Ali (who, otherwise, looks to be in danger of slipping out of the game entirely).

With the arrival of Taylor and Davis, we do, at least, start the season with a quiver full of competent seamers, even if the fitness records of those two verge on the Chappellian ; we must hope that Matt Mason (and the physio) can work the same magic on them as he did last season with Chappell and Griffiths. Ben Mike, if he can continue in the robust way he began last year, has enough attitude to make up for the loss of Ben Raine, and Dieter Klein would provide some variety. But, as I have implied, I expect us to win a lot more games with Mohammad Abbas than without him : I don’t suppose it would be proper for their new Chairman to exert some influence on the Pakistan selectors (for old times’ sake), but that might be our best hope of a successful season.

For one season only, there will be three sides promoted this year from Division 2, which gives it something of a last-helicopter-out-of-Saigon quality. It would take a brave local patriot to predict that anyone other than Lancashire, Middlesex, Worcestershire or Sussex will have made their escape come late September : which one will miss out may depend (see above) on which of their best bowlers are available (Archer and Jordan for Sussex, Roland-Jones and Finn for Middlesex). Of the others, Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire have had their best players poached by bigger counties, Durham are still recuperating from their injuries, Derbyshire look a moderate side, and Glamorgan worse than moderate. We should be capable of beating them all.

Leicestershire’s first home game in the Championship begins next Thursday, which means that the next possible day for ‘crashing out’ will fall on the second day of the match.

Do you think they’ll declare after tea?

But, as I say, suffice unto the day.  On a more cheerful note, I’m not usually in favour of playing cricket in March, but it was nice to be at the ground while the forsythia was still in bloom.  I don’t think I knew we had any forsythia.
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The Art of Falling Apart

Leicestershire CCC  (100 & 196) v Warwickshire CCC (400-9 dec.), Grace Road, 10-12 September 2018 (Warwickshire won by an innings and 104 runs) 

Leicestershire CCC (321) v Durham CCC (61 & 66), Grace Road, 18-19 September 2018 (Leicestershire won by an innings and 194 runs)

I ended my last post by expressing the hope (hope against hope) that neither Leicestershire’s season, nor the team, would fall apart in September. The first has certainly happened : having lost only two games, both very narrowly, in the first half of the season, since the defeat against Kent we have lost five times, by margins varying from 132 to 328 runs. It is some compensation that we are not alone in having made a succession of low totals. The last month of the season increasingly resembles the climax to an episode of ‘Wacky Races’, filled with spectacular crashes, bits falling off the competitors and some improbable leaps. Predictably so, some would say, if that month is September.

The defeat against Warwickshire was nothing if not predictable. The soon-to-be Champions featured five players with Test experience, and the Division’s three leading run-scorers (three of only four to have averaged over 40). Leicestershire’s cobbled-together side featured two bowlers brought in from Minor Counties, to replace the soon-to-be permanently absent Raine and Chappell, and the injured Griffiths (the regular 2nd XI seamers, too, were injured). Unsurprisingly, Warwickshire exercised their prerogative to bowl first (the game was to be largely played under lights), and, to no-one’s surprise, Leicestershire were bowled out for exactly 100. Barker and Woakes were too swinging for the top order, and Stone, though sparingly used, was too fast for the tail.

There was, at least, an element of comedy to the dismissal of Mark Cosgrove (for the spectators, if not the batsman). Neil Dexter had looked to get off the mark with a single that would have been ambitious had his partner been Speedy Gonzales. Cosgrove is capable of a surprising turn of speed, but it takes him a while to achieve terminal velocity, achieving it, in this case, roughly as he entered the pavilion, the wicket having long since been broken by Woakes in his follow through. If Woakes had really been ‘the nicest man in cricket’, he might have taken pity and deliberately thrown wide.

I left early, having been called away (I have been called away a lot recently, for one reason or another), but stayed long enough to see opener Dominic Sibley (who seems to have grown since I last saw him play for Surrey) make 50 off 49 balls (mostly off one of our Minor Counties seamers, who was quickly removed from the attack). By the end of the day, Sibley had made more runs than Leicestershire on his own, and Warwickshire had nearly doubled our total for the loss of three wickets.

It rained overnight, and for most of the morning. When play began at 2.00, in front of an understandably sparse crowd, the conditions, with the wicket freshly-spritzed, were ideally suited to the seam of Dexter and Abbas. Jonathan Trott resumed on 34, and took forty minutes to make another eight, before mis-timing a pull. This would be the last time that any of us would see Trott in action at Grace Road, and it seemed an appropriate way for him to take his leave, mostly unapplauded, but having seen off the (slight) threat to his side. As conditions eased and Leicestershire’s bowling resources were stretched too thin, Ambrose, Hain and Woakes moved easily to within sight of 400, a target that was reached first thing the next morning, followed by a declaration.

Although Leicestershire offered slightly more resistance in their second innings, the result seemed a formality, and most of the day was spent speculating about comings and goings : amongst other things, I was told that Chappell was definitely moving to Nottinghamshire, which turned out to be true, and that Keith Barker, who had taken eight wickets, would be joining us at Leicestershire, which, unfortunately, turned out not to be.

A ray of light in the gloom

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was the performance of Ben Mike, in his second game, who stuck to his task with the ball to take three wickets, and was the top scorer in both innings. Having struck Patel, in a feather-ruffling act of lèse-majesté, for two straight sixes, his was the last wicket to fall, attempting bravely to pull Stone for another six. Like Ben Raine, for whom he looks a plausible replacement, he strikes me as someone who can always be counted upon to go down fighting, which is a useful characteristic for a Leicestershire player to possess.

In contrast to Trott, who had slipped out unnoticed by the back door, as it were, Paul Collingwood’s every move, in his last appearance at Grace Road, was greeted with a standing ovation, to the point where, given his performance, it might, though motivated by genuine affection, have become a slight embarrassment to him. The first ovation came when he led his side on to the field, having, not unreasonably, chosen to field.

Leicestershire opened with the novel pairing of Sam Evans and Atiq Javid : at first, I assumed that regular opener Harry Dearden must have missed his bus, but it was revealed to be a deliberate tactical switch, and a successful one, with Atiq, whose average in the Championship prior to this game was in single figures, allowed to give free rein to his defensive instincts to make a maiden fifty at Grace Road. Dearden too, when he batted at five, appeared more at ease, as if the move had allowed him to loosen his stays a little.

Though Atiq’s was the only fifty of the innings, all of Leicestershire’s batsmen reached double figures, to finish the day on a hopeful 316-8. Most creditably, Mark Cosgrove, who is struggling through an unprecedented loss of form, managed to gouge out 38 painfully acquired runs, persistently attempting to play his favourite off-side strokes to balls that didn’t really invite them. If a slimmer batsmen, or one who has less hope of recovering his form, was struggling so to do what had been used to doing effortlessly, the effect would be more tragical.

Leicestershire’s total would have been smaller had Collingwood not dropped two catches in the slips (though, needless to say, he received a standing ovation as he left the field).

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Of the bowlers, the mountainous Rushworth

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deserved more than his two wickets. Mark Wood, though apparently pained by his ankles, was treated respectfully, watched by James Taylor, presumably there with his scout’s cap on (unless he, too, was there to say goodbye to Collingwood).

Whatever else you can say about this season at Grace Road, it has rarely been dull, and what turned out to be the last day there this year coincided with the arrival of Storm Ali. At the storm’s height, the players paused to gaze anxiously at one of the floodlights, which had begun to sway alarmingly : the only way that the season could have ended any more dramatically would have been if it had blown over and demolished the Meet.

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The day had begun with a slight disappointment for Leicestershire, their last two wickets falling with the total still short of the 350 required for another bonus point (Mohammad Abbas later apologised for having played a “lazy shot”). It was at this point that the wind really began to get up (particularly the Durham batsmen). With his fourth delivery, Abbas, bowling with the swelling gale behind him, a rider on the storm, took the wicket of Cameron Steel (who had scored a double century in the same fixture last year) ; by the end of the eleventh over he had taken five wickets, with the score on 18. Bowling into the gale, Neil Dexter had bowled five consecutive maidens.

Abbas’s last victim had been that of Paul Collingwood, who was cheered to the wicket, and cheered back again one ball later.

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On another day, I would have expected the visitors to have found some way to recover a little ground, even if only through the thrashing of the tail, but, as the gale reached its peak, the batsmen seemed as spooked as cats in a thunderstorm. Though efforts were made to tether it, the bell that is rung to signal the start of play began to ring of its own accord, like the ghostly church bells of a drowned village, tolling the knell for each departing batsman, and, at times, it seemed as if the sightscreen might blow over, flattening them before they could reach the wicket.

Like jackals finishing off a lion’s kill, Dexter (whose figures were 7-6-1-1), Griffiths and Mike polished off the remaining batsmen. Alex Lees, who had, at least, battened down the hatches while others abandoned ship, narrowly missed carrying his bat for a single figure score. Research soon revealed that the total of 61 was Durham’s lowest first-class score, a record that was in danger of being broken when they batted again, until a last wicket stand of seven between Rushworth and Wood enabled them to reach the comparative respectability of 66.

Mohammad Abbas, who may not have been quite unplayable, but was certainly largely unplayed, had taken another five wickets (his powers perhaps enhanced by his newly awarded “gold fox“),

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to give him 10-52 in the match. Collingwood received his final ovation, about two hours after his previous one (including the lunch interval), as he left the field for the last time, having been bowled by Abbas for five. His expression as he left the field was hard to read, but I don’t think it signalled unmixed delight.

 

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There was further applause as Collingwood was the first to congratulate Abbas, as he (modest to the last) had to be pushed into leading the Leicestershire players from the pitch.

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From the Leicestershire dressing room soon came the merry, if unmelodious, sound of Paul Nixon leading the community singing, and the prising off of beer bottle tops : from the Durham side, a silence so deep and ominous that it could be felt half way down Milligan Road.

The last few games of a season, as departing players are left out and new players introduced, sometimes reminds me of the publishing fad of printing the first chapter of its sequel at the end of a novel, as an inducement to buy. The sequel to Leicestershire’s season seems a lot more enticing if it will feature Mohammad Abbas (as, happily, it should), rather than the Abbas-less sequel suggested by the last game of the season (a defeat away to, of all people, Glamorgan).

Although the endless love-smothering of Collingwood felt a little incongruous in the circumstances, it does suggest an understandable desire not to allow players to slip from sight without some appropriate farewell. It seems a pity that Ned Eckersley, whose release was announced shortly before the Durham game, was not allowed one last home game. Rather as when someone has died unexpectedly, I tried to recall my final sight of him in Leicestershire colours, which must have been of him being bowled by Keith Barker for a perfectly honourable 77-minute 23. If I’d known at the time, I would have clapped a lot longer and harder.

It seems churlish to complain about an excess of excitement, but I do sometimes yearn for the kind of season’s end we used to have in the days of a one division Championship, when sides with nothing to play for would drift off into the close season through somnolent draws, as if in a mildly opiated haze (which, at least, allowed some space for reflection).

With Leicestershire down in the valleys, I tried a day at Northampton, where Northants, who have had a season that has been poor even by Leicestershire’s recent standards, were taking on Sussex, badly deflated by having been overtaken at the last minute by Kent, but even here there was no peace to be found : again, twenty wickets fell in the day, though, on this occasion, ten from each side, and both sides managed to creep into three figures.

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Bye!

The very last day of the season took me to Trent Bridge, where Nottinghamshire were due to resume their second innings needing another 215 to avoid an innings defeat, with seven wickets remaining. Clearly, there was little chance of Nottinghamshire saving the match, but I hoped they might spin things out for long enough for me to see some of those long shadows on the County Ground.

As I was contemplating where to sit, Ben Slater was caught behind by Trescothick from the bowling of Craig Overton. As I took my seat, Samit Patel was out in the same way to his first ball (prompting an unimpressed Nottinghamshire supporter to shout “Why not give him a standing ovation?”). Overton’s first ball to Wessels was identical to the previous two, and there seemed nothing the batsman could do other than nick it to Trescothick. It was a good job that Trescothick had announced that he wouldn’t be retiring for another year, or we would never have got home for all the ovations.

My season ended shortly before lunch, with the sun still high in the sky, and the shadows only slightly lengthening.

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Back in the Groove

Leicestershire v Kent, County Championship, Grace Road, 19-22 August 2018

It had been so long since the last Championship match at Grace Road, which had begun on the 20th of June, that, when the regulars reconvened at last, it had the feeling of the start of a season, with all its pleasures of rediscovery and recognition. By the time it had finished, it felt like the beginning of the season’s end.

The progress of the game was largely determined by the weather, the first two days having been played under floodlights from beginning to end. The leaves (apart from some twirling samaras from the sycamores)

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and temperature suggested Summer, but the light and the low cloud hinted at early Spring, or late Autumn. The weather brightened a little on the third morning, and, at lunch, the clouds dispersed altogether to uncover a blue sky suggesting flaming June.

The first two, damp and artificially illuminated, days produced totals of 220, 195 and 227. Chasing what had seemed an ambitious target of 253 on the third, sunlit, afternoon, Kent’s Dickson and Kuhn put on an unbeaten partnership of 215 between them for the third wicket. On the first two days, a wicket seemed always on the verge of falling ; on the last afternoon there seemed no reason why the pair should not continue batting indefinitely.

On the first morning, the eternal verities of Championship cricket seemed to have reasserted themselves as Darren Stevens took the new ball in light drizzle, particularly when he switched to the Bennett End, where some quirk of the air conditioning in the indoor school meant that he came in accompanied by an evocative gust of disinfectant and old socks.

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It is one of the minor tragedies of Leicestershire cricket that Stevens, the quintessential Leicestershire cricketer, son of Hinckley, the natural heir to George Geary, should have played most of his career for Kent. I cannot remember much lamentation when he left (at the time he seemed a stodgy middle-order batsman who bowled a bit of occasional medium pace), but he has given us plenty of cause to lament since (as late as last season he took a career-best 8-75 against us in Canterbury).

There have been few signs this season, at the age of 42, of his strong enchantments failing : his 26 wickets have cost him a little over 20 runs apiece, and just over a quarter of his overs have been maidens. The abolition of the toss, which was intended specifically to disempower the likes of Stevens, meant, here, that he was in his natural element (inevitably, Kent chose to bowl). In he came through the friendly murk, setting off at a gentle jog, then slowing almost to a stroll, steadying himself, cocking his wrist and then with a flick of it sending down ball after ball that pitched on off and moved away in the direction of the slips, with the grooved smoothness of a skilled framework knitter.

His first victim was young Harry Dearden, born in the year that Stevens first played for Leicestershire. Like a child venturing into a dark wood, he must have been warned of the enchanter’s wiles, but after some brave flourishes (he continues to emerge tentatively from his tortoise-shell), the left-hander was lured to his doom by a ball that moved into him (perhaps more sharply than usual, perhaps not, perhaps not at all).

Stevens’ new ball partner was Podmore, fleetingly creating the illusion that the archetypal English bits-and-pieces player was bowling with his parodic doppelganger. This Podmore (Harry, late of Middlesex), was clean-cut and svelte, but still a frank medium pacer, who I would not expect to see taking the new ball in normal conditions, but then these were not normal conditions. Without the lights I doubt they would have been playing at all, which was good news for the spectators and seamers, but less so for the batsmen, who must have been pining for the bright lights of the pavilion, winking in the distance.

Although progress was slow (opener Horton took ten overs to make two runs), on the cusp of the twentieth Horton and the prolific Ackermann had seen off both the sorcerer and his apprentice, and had inched gingerly across the minefield to 47, when Ackermann fell LBW to first change bowler Grant Stewart, a muscular Australian with an Italian mother.

Mark Cosgrove, who, like many out-of-form batsmen, manages to find ever more inventive ways to get out, then attempted to cut a ball from Ivan Thomas that appeared to be moving in at him and played on. Thomas, whom I vaguely remember as a fresh-faced youth bowling for Leeds/Bradford MCCU, has now grown a full red beard that ought be accessorised with a coonskin cap. He is 6’4” and seemed to put on pace as his spell progressed : although the pitch (a used one that had been substituted at the last minute for one deemed excessively green) might not quite have attracted the attention of late Princess of Wales’ excellent charity, the unpredictability of its bounce exaggerated the already considerable threat from his persistently short-pitched bowling.

In about the only sighting of spin before the last day, Joe Denly was given the last over before lunch. Ateeq Javid, who is yet to make much of a positive impression since his move from Warwickshire, edged one of his deceptively harmless looking leg breaks to slip, a sucker punch that sent Leicestershire into lunch on 79-4, although that didn’t seem too bad in the circumstances.

After lunch, with the gloom, if anything, deepening, Ned Eckersley briefly released his inner cavalier to hit three fours before young Podmore, who had looked the least threatening of the bowlers, trapped him LBW playing back to a ball that nibbled in a way that must have made Stevens’ heart glad. A similar delivery next ball resulted in the loss of Ben Raine’s middle stump and, in his next over, Horton played on, one short of a hard-won half century.

At the other end, Thomas was bowling with enough pace to make being nibbled to death by Darren Stevens seem an attractive prospect. Parkinson, who is capable of brave defiance, edged him to the wicket-keeper, leaving Chappell, whose height, hair, and upright stance remind me a little of Tony Grieg, to attempt a counter-attack. When he had reached 31, a leaping ball from Thomas was met with the reassuring sound of the ball hitting the meat of the bat : this, unfortunately turned out to have come from his head. Ten minutes of rubbing and shaking, and a few drinks of water, failed to restore him, and he left the field.

In the past, he would probably have returned, if necessary, and plotted revenge on Thomas when his turn came to bowl. In these more enlightened days, it was decided that he might have suffered concussion, and that Dieter Klein would replace him for the remainder of the match. The loss of Chappell’s batting was a blow, that of his bowling would prove to be a more serious one.

That the tail-enders, who went on a measured offensive, managed to extend the score to 220 seemed a minor triumph (it was the sort of game where every run seemed a victory over the odds), and Leicestershire hastened to let Mohammad Abbas, who seemed likely to be unplayable, at the openers, while the light was still barely playable. By the close, three wickets had fallen for 53, with two for Abbas and one for Raine : if play had not been curtailed by what felt like the premature arrival of an October evening, it might have been significantly more.

Leicestershire were pleased to find that the conditions had not improved on the second morning. By early afternoon Kent had been dismissed for 197, with six wickets for Abbas and four for Raine. The only significant resistance had come from Denly, who made 62, and who had, ominously, shared in a sixth wicket stand of 57, when the change bowlers, Griffiths and Klein, had relieved Abbas and Raine, and, unfortunately, the pressure. Griffiths has a tendency to bowl loosely when he first comes on, and conceded four fours in his first over ; at his best, particularly if roused by a blow to the bonce, Chappell would not have been so lightly treated. Five of the wickets to fall had been caught by Eckerlsey, the balletic elegance of whose wicket-keeping has not always been matched by its reliability.

By the close of the day, the match seemed to be hurtling towards an early conclusion, Leicestershire having collapsed from 82-1 to 126-5, in the face of renewed hostility from Thomas, who took four wickets in light that was not detectably better than that of the previous evening.  It would have been very much to Leicestershire’s advantage to have come off at the same time as on the first day.

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The third day dawned ominously bright, with some cloud, but not enough for the floodlights to have been turned on. Harry Dearden, who had resumed on 61, seemed to be on course for his first first-class century, and the laurels of a tortoiseshell hero, when he aimed an uncharacteristic, and unbusinesslike, cut at a delivery from Stevens and top-edged to slip, for a 74 which had taken him a little over three-and-a-half hours. At the time, it seemed as though this might prove a match-winning innings, which would have been a just reward for the most sustained display of concentration and good judgement of the game. In an, as it turned out, perfidious sign from the Gods that they were on his side, a shy at the stumps had even rebounded from Dearden as he made his ground, and made its way to the boundary for a gratuitous, and welcome, four.

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Under the illusion, as we were, that every run was precious, the forty runs that the boldly striking Klein put on with Griffiths and Abbas for the last two wickets, to push the target beyond 250, were greeted with wild enthusiasm (or as close to it as we get at Grace Road), as were the two Kent wickets that quickly fell to Abbas. The first of these was Bell-Drummond, who had looked badly out of sorts in both innings, the second Grant Stewart, who had batted at number ten in the first innings. The thinking behind this unorthodox, but shrewd, promotion became clear in the afternoon, as the last of the cloud vanished, the sun shone benignly on the newly-docile pitch, and Abbas and Raine, who had been treated with decent respect, approached the end of their opening spells.

The afternoon session, as you will see if you re-examine the figures at the beginning of this piece (an unbeaten third wicket stand of 215), seemed to have been cut-and-pasted from another season entirely, both in meteorological terms, and in the sense that we were unwillingly dragged back to one of the too numerous seasons of recent years when Leicestershire went through many a long afternoon with no sniff of a wicket.

Griffiths, who has improved greatly this season, but may be tiring, again bowled loosely in his first overs, feeding Dickson and Kuhn a succession of deliveries on or outside leg stump, and Parkinson was the victim of a premeditated assault, which did not quite knock him out of the attack, but, judging by the consoling arms placed around his shoulders by a kindly Cosgrove, had dented his confidence. Having been deserted by the elements, and with Abbas apparently slightly niggled (he spent some time just outside the boundary, waving his legs in the air like a dying ant), Horton was eventually reduced to giving Mark Cosgrove his first over of the season. Apart from that, there seemed to be nothing to be done, apart from trying to enjoy the sunshine, while it lasted.  Dickson, who had a head start, completed his century ; Kuhn was left one boundary short.

This defeat (the first of the season by any significant margin) felt like the end of Leicestershire’s promotion hopes : having begun the game on roughly equal terms with Kent, we are now some way behind them, and even further from the leaders. We have two, perhaps three, games (against Gloucestershire, Glamorgan, and Durham) that we should win, two (against leaders Warwickshire and Sussex) that, by the same token, we ought to lose. The hope has to be that our season does not fall apart in the way that it did in 2016, as we enter the silly September season of declarations, contrived finishes, and sporting pitches, as we all scramble after points through the deepening gloom.

Even more urgently, having caught a glimpse of a possible future that looked worryingly like the recent past, we have to hope that the team does not fall apart too. Our success this season had been based on our fast bowling (only Ackermann has been prolific with the bat) : the indications are that Chappell will be leaving, as might Raine (assuming that we are not promoted), and there is no certainty that Abbas will be returning (he is apparently keen to do so, but no terms have been agreed, and, if we are still paying Carberry close to £100,000 for doing nothing, we may not be able to afford him). To lose one fast bowler would be a misfortune, to lose three would be a disaster.

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Dog Days Afternoons

 

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Leicestershire (180-9) v Nottinghamshire (199), Grace Road, T20, 8th July 2018

England Women (219) v New Zealand Women (224-6), Grace Road, ODI, 13th July 2018

Derbyshire v Northamptonshire, Chesterfield, County Championship, 23rd July 2018 (day 2 of 4)

The last few weeks have been very quiet, in my world of cricket, at least.

Elsewhere, contemporary English readers will be well aware of what has been happening. For the benefit of any future historians who may be reading, though, a brief resumé :

– we have been enjoying, or enduring, a heatwave and drought of such duration and intensity that there have been frequent sightings of the traces of ancient settlements reappearing in the parched soil (something similar has been visible at our cricket grounds).

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– the England football team reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, before being beaten by Croatia. Many commentators, particularly those with only a passing previous interest in football, have expressed the view that the team have ‘united a divided nation’ and embodied the hope of a new and better England. Gareth Southgate, the manager, has been elevated to the status of a waistcoated Confucius, and has been much praised for his ‘decency’, as opposed to the indecency of, for instance, Roy Hodgson.

– there have been developments relating to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. How momentous these turned out to be will be clearer to you, O future historian, than they are at present, but it is currently hard to see how things can end well : combining with the heat and the football, they have created an atmosphere it would be fair to describe as ‘febrile’.

I would not describe the atmosphere at any of the three games I have attended as ‘febrile’ : as the heat has intensified, discouraging exertion of any kind, the temper of the crowds has moved from the merely sedate to apparently sedated.  In a topsy-turvy way, I have been shunning the sun-traps I normally seek out, in favour of the shady spots I usually shun.

My annual T20 game (the only one to take place in an afternoon) came when hopes for the World Cup were at their highest (England had won their quarter final the day before). The official attendance at Grace Road was given as 6,774, which is close to a full house. Certainly, having abandoned my seat in the sun in search of some refreshment and shade, I found it hard to find another, and spent most of the afternoon flitting between sunlight and shadow, propped up against various walls.

I was more aware of the crowd than anything that was occurring on the pitch, but then attending a live T20 for the ‘skills’ is rather like, to use a comparison that probably hasn’t been made for about 30 years, reading Playboy for the articles. Those 6,774 were in genial mood, clearly enjoying their beer, ice cream, chips and the various amusements on offer around the ground. The fact that there was a game of cricket taking place seemed incidental to the fun : the whole scene could have been translated to Blackpool beach with no great incongruity.

A reason often given why T20 should be played in a block is that the players find it hard to adjust between different formats. This spectator, as one habituated to four-day cricket, found he had the same problem, with everything appearing to happen at an absurdly accelerated pace, like the closing scenes of ‘The Benny Hill Show’. In the time it took me to buy a pint of Pedigree (that biscuity, slightly soapy, brew that always reminds me of watching cricket), find some shade, drink the pint and collect the deposit on my plastic glass, Samit Patel had made a half century. In the time it took to make a circuit of the pitch in search of a seat, Dan Christian had fallen just short of another.

No sooner had I found a tolerable place to sit, than the Nottinghamshire innings ended on 199, having, without any obviously spectacular hitting, scored at ten an over ; as a neophyte, I was unsure whether this was a good total or not. I had only really been impressed by Chappell’s bowling : he had taken 3-25, with two bowled in his last over (both batsmen attempting dreadful head-up yahoos), although the T20 aficionado might have been more struck by his 14 ‘dot balls’. He also ran a long way to parry a catch upwards from the boundary to be caught by a colleague, which seemed to excite the crowd more than anything achieved with bat or ball.

A combination of the heat, the Pedigree, and having been forced into a spot a long way from the action, meant that Leicestershire’s reply rather passed me by, although I was aware of a lot of scuffed, mistimed shots, and the required run rate creeping rapidly upwards from the merely challenging to the frankly impossible. Again, the only really memorable moment was a piece of fielding, when a strongarm pull from Mark Cosgrove to his second ball was plucked from the air by Steven Mullaney, like a chameleon flicking its tongue out to catch a fly. They fell short by 19 runs, which, in 4-day cricket would have been a close result, but, in the small margins world of T20, felt like a drubbing.

I rather felt that by getting mildly pissed, briefly donning a furry red halo,

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and not paying too much attention to the game, I was entering into the spirit of the live T20 experience. Anyone with a genuine interest in the finer points (and I am aware that there are many good and learned arguments that they exist) might be better advised to watch it on the television. The same might apply to the ECB’s proposed ‘Hundred’ : I am not convinced that everyone in the crowd would have noticed if they had slipped in a ten ball over, and I don’t think anyone would have wished the day any shorter.

For slightly different reasons, the women’s match against New Zealand might also have been better viewed on TV. (As it was a televised game, I found the cameramen’s habit of picking out individual members of the crowd to show on the big screen a strong disincentive to dropping off, or reading a newspaper during the occasional longeur.)

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My palate may have become desensitised by watching too much limited overs cricket recently, but there was little in the game that was obviously spectacular (between them the two sides managed two sixes, both by New Zealand opener Sophie Devine, as compared to the ten the men had hit in the T20), and the subtleties of the women’s game are a little lost in the vastness of Grace Road, like Joni Mitchell doing an acoustic set in a sports stadium. My impression was that the boundaries had not been brought in as far as they were for last year’s World Cup games, but the fielders, let alone the square, still seemed a very long way away.

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England began well, though at a pace that seemed Deardenesque, after some of the run debauches I have witnessed recently. By the 20th over, openers Amy Jones and Tammy Beaumont had put on 100 without loss (by which point, you may remember, India A had made 200), before Beaumont was out, fluffing a reverse sweep. Against an attack mostly comprising spin, the run rate progressively slumped and the innings wilted, like an unwatered plant. Once Jones was stumped, charging off-spinner Jenkin, the last seven wickets fell for 53 runs, and the innings ended on 219 in the 47th over. ‘Gun bat’ Nat Sciver had been run out for 11, after a review that took so long I thought ‘Should I Stay?’ was about to segue into ‘Rock the Casbah’.

I didn’t stay for New Zealand’s reply (they won, thanks mostly to a century by Devine), not because I was particularly bored, but because the game was another day-nighter, and I needed to get home. This might help to explain the modest crowd, which was about the same as one of our better-attended Championship matches. It didn’t help that England had already won the series, that Leicestershire had their own T20 game at Edgbaston, and that it was the last day of term in Leicestershire, meaning that there were none of the usual parties of schoolchildren to inflate the crowd.

Women’s cricket had its own World Cup moment last year, of course, albeit on a smaller scale, creating the impression, in the minds of some commentators, that the women’s game was close to gaining parity with the men’s. That kind of euphoria is difficult to sustain (as Gareth Southgate will probably find out soon enough) : although I think women’s cricket has a bright, if not necessarily permanent, future as a participatory, recreational sport, it is less clear how much of one it has as a professional spectator sport, without continuing, generous, subsidy from the ECB (the same, as I am only too aware, being true of County cricket).

This was the last Women’s International of an undramatic domestic season : it will be interesting to see whether the Editor of Wisden thinks that any of the women have done enough to justify being chosen as a Player of the Year (I thought choosing three last year was rather offering a hostage to fortune, in that, if he chooses none this year, last year’s choice may seem like a flash in the pan, but, if he chooses a woman who has not performed spectacularly, he might be accused of tokenism).

In truth, I had felt a little out of place at both games : both forms have their own audience, without, I suspect, much overlap between the two, or with the habitual followers of County cricket. At Chesterfield, for the second day of a four-day fixture, I felt I had met up with my tribe. As I have often written about Queen’s Park before, it is a ground ideally suited to Championship cricket, and I was pleased to find that it had not changed at all since my last visit. Frederick’s ice-cream (a single cone a meal in itself) was available from more than one outlet, and the miniature railway was running again.

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The heatwave had reached its peak (I hope) by then, and the official advice was to stay out of the sun. The crowd had mostly followed this, setting their chairs up in the shade of the trees that line the ground,

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but the players had not (although it might have accounted for one or two of the dismissals). The Derbyshire seamer ‘Hardus’ Viljoen, who bowled some very long spells for little reward, earned my particular admiration for his indefatigability.

It was a game that unfolded absorbingly over the four days : I caught only the slow second movement. By the end of the day, Northants had made 289, in reply to Derbyshire’s 260, with most of those runs coming from Wakely (106) and Crook (60) ; their stand of 120, spanning the hottest part of the day, was received with the gentlest of murmurs from the home crowd, punctuated by occasional whoops and whistling from the miniature railway.  Their greatest enthusiasm was reserved for Ben Cotton, the popular seamer who was released last year, when he came on as a substitute fieldsman for Northants.

Wakely was responsible for the day’s only extravagant expenditures of energy : hitting Hamidullah Qadri back over his head for two sixes when he was first brought on to bowl, one of which was high enough to risk going over the protective netting and endanger the children’s playground next door, and his century celebration, which suggested he had either been driven mad by the heat, or trodden on a scorpion.

One positive side to the drought might be that spin bowlers find themselves in their proper element at last : certainly, the match was won by Derbyshire, on the last day, by the legspinner Critchley, who took ten wickets in the match and Hamiddulah, recovering from his harsh treatment in the first innings.

The day’s only other excitement was when, during the tea interval, a cloud that might have been dark enough to contain rain passed briefly over the sun, but that soon passed.

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The real action, which I missed, was taking place at Canterbury, where Leicestershire defeated Kent inside two days. My central narrative is due to resume, after these distractions, when they meet again at Grace Road on 19th August, if, that is, civilisation has not ended before then.

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An outfield, last week

Reasons to be Rueful

Leicestershire (427 & 186) v Middlesex (233 & 383-9), Grace Road, County Championship, 20-23 June 2018

Middlesex won by 1 wicket

I have never been very sympathetic to the perpetual complaints from cricketers that there is too much cricket. I have no doubt that accountants feel that there is too much accountancy, and that, if they only had to work alternate weeks, they would approach their spreadsheets with greater freshness and enthusiasm. I am, however, beginning to see their point.

It is not so much that there is too much cricket, but that the cricket of the type that I want to watch is condensed into too short a space of time, with too long a period when there is only the type that I don’t much want to watch. I will shortly be withdrawing to the backwaters to watch Second XI cricket for six or seven weeks, while the professionals (or most of them) are occupied with the most intense part of their season, the “Vitality Blast” (not some dubious herbal remedy for erectile dysfunction, but the new name for the T20 competition).

Leicestershire aren’t helping. No sooner have I reported on a defeat, than I find they have won. No sooner have I have reported on a victory, than I find they have lost. As soon as I began to write about their defeat by Middlesex, I found they had beaten Derbyshire in three days (a match I would have attended, had it not been a day-night fixture – £40 (including the train fare) being too high a price to pay for half a day’s cricket).

After two days, Leicestershire had been in a winning position against Middlesex too, and still contrived to lose : it was the second time this season that they have been in a position to enforce the follow on, but lost. The natural cliché in these circumstances is that Leicestershire “must be rueing those eight dropped catches” (I only counted six, but Captain Horton, who was responsible for a couple of them, thought there were eight), but, although they looked a little sheepish as they left the field, they clearly didn’t waste much time feeling rueful, preferring to make amends by beating Derbyshire.

Leicestershire’s supporters, though, may be forgiven a smidgeon of ruefulness. On the one hand, we have now played all but three of the Counties in our division, and competed on at least equal terms with all of them. For two days we were the superior side against a team who had won the Championship in 2016. But one more wicket against Middlesex and a second innings total of 147 against Durham would have meant that we would now have been leading the table, with promotion a realistic prospect. The time for ruefulness may come at the end of the season.

The game seemed haunted by a spectre that only occasionally showed itself – ‘the one that kept low’. I was a little surprised that Middlesex opted to have a toss, and that Leicestershire, having won it, chose to bat. The first morning was the only part of the game that was played under cloud, before the heatwave set in, and Middlesex’s bowling included Finn, Harris and Murtagh. The decision may have been influenced by the fact that the same pitch had been used the previous day for a one-day game against India A, when the odd one had appeared to keep low, and the suspicion that the demons of lowness would emerge on what would effectively be the fifth day of use.

The same fear, I think, underlay the decision not to enforce the follow on, and dictated the general tone of straight-batted watchfulness adopted by both sides’ batsmen. Unexpectedly, although the bounce was a little low at times on the last day, it was mostly an even and predictable lowness that could easily be catered for. A win of the toss does not abolish chance, as Mallarmé perhaps meant to write.

The bulk of Leicestershire’s total of 427 came from an epically watchful, but refined, unbeaten innings of 197 by Colin Ackermann, who came to the wicket early and was only denied a deserved double century when his last escort, Mohammad Abbas, to his evident remorse, was not quite able to keep him company to the end of his journey. He had earlier received useful support from Dexter, Raine, and, to his obvious pride, Gavin Griffiths, who had batted for close to two hours for his career-best 40.

With the exception of Murtagh, who bowled 11 maidens and took five wickets, and lacking Roland-Jones, the Middlesex bowling was surprisingly ineffectual. Finn looked, frankly, bored, and took longer to traipse back to the start of his shortened run-up than he used to when he came in off 20 paces. It has always been something of a mystery to me why Murtagh had to wait for Ireland’s recent elevation to play Test cricket : perhaps it is because, however often he outperforms Finn, he does not look, to the naked eye, as much like our idea of what a Test match bowler ought to be.

The only part of what seemed like a very long match that I missed was the last hour on the second day. Unfortunately, this was the most dramatic passage of the game, as Middlesex collapsed from 200-3 to 233 all out, with Chappell taking another three wickets to add to an early rearrangement of Eskinazi’s stumps that had the batsman looking back, seemingly unable to comprehend what could have happened. Having taken three early wickets, Leicestershire had been frustrated by Dawid Malan, Paul Stirling (an Irishman whose full red beard makes him look as if he is auditioning for the role of a leprechaun on a fruit machine), and Australian utility player Hilton Cartwright ; they were also frustrated by their own inability to take catches (Gavin Griffiths, off whose bowling two were missed, seemed to be suffering the torments of the damned).

Overnight, Middlesex were, apparently, told a few home truths by their coach. It might have been that which accounted for Leicestershire’s low second innings total of 186, though the batsmen’s fear of the pitch (and the Ones That Keep Low) seemed a factor as well. Paul Horton (whose shirt, in a nod to his Australian roots, now reads ‘Hoon’) was bowled fifth ball by a delivery from Harris that was suspected of keeping low. Ackermann carried on where he had left off, making three to bring up his double century, before, again, being bowled by Harris. Harry Dearden, meanwhile, retreated into his tortoise-shell, making six in a little short of an hour and a half, before being caught behind.

Mark Cosgrove, who has been uncharacteristically unproductive recently, was LBW to an occasional off-break from Max Holden (Cosgrove always reacts to being given out as if he has been the victim of a baffling conjuring trick, but this time his surprise seemed genuine). Neil Dexter, in a rare display of absent-mindedness, strolled out of his crease to a delivery from Murtagh, and was stumped by a lob from behind the stumps : he, too, looked surprised. Raine (aggressively) and Chappell (more diffidently) combined, with some useful assistance from Griffiths, to take the total to 186.

In itself, this was a disappointing total, but raised hopes that Middlesex might find batting equally hard in pursuit of a fourth innings target of 381 on a pitch that was expected to disintegrate at any minute. On the subject of the pitch, Sam Robson, at one point, had plonked himself down a few seats away from me to fiddle with the strapping on his finger. His view was that ‘one or two are doing a bit’, which might have been laconic Australian understatement, but was probably an accurate statement of fact. When Malan was caught behind in the dying minutes of the day, to leave Middlesex on 79-3, the Foxes could head off into the still sultry evening, bright-eyed, bushy-brushed, and incautiously optimistic.

As final days on which the batting side overhaul a total of 381, with one wicket and five overs remaining, go, the last day was undramatic (after the Glamorgan game, we at Grace Road have grown blasé about dramatic finishes). The pitch, like an attack dog that rolls over to have its tummy tickled, failed to live up to its reputation. There were no de Lange-style heroics, only a couple of surprising twists, and there was nothing obvious that Leicestershire could have done to achieve a different result.

Until mid-afternoon, the worst prospect was that Middlesex would hold on for a draw (throughout the day, the likelihood of the four results shuffled their order like the teams in a World Cup qualifying group graphic). Steven ‘Vladimir’ Askenazi and the useful utility player Cartwright had made slow but sure progress to 197-5, with the former himself on 97. The seam bowling had been parsimonious, but suggested little prospect of producing five wickets. Some of the more vocal elements in the crowd had been agitating loudly for the introduction of the spinner Parkinson, and when Captain Hoon took their advice, the results were immediate. The batsmen (Cartwright seemingly more at fault) made the mistake of underestimating Ben Raine by running for a misfield by him, and(shying, for once, at the stumps rather than the batsman), Raine ran Askenazi out.

At tea, Middlesex required 105 from 33 overs, with four wickets remaining. With Horton apparently reluctant to bowl Parkinson (perhaps haunted by thoughts of the pasting he had taken against Glamorgan), a last throw of the dice was required. Chappell had not bowled all day, but, during the interval, the bowling coach, Matt Mason, went on to the pitch to torment him with a giant elastic band and a small beach ball. Chappell seemed to be trying to convey, through a dumb show of grimacing and wincing, that he did not think he was fit to bowl, whereas Mason, an Australian, who, as P. G. Wodehouse said in another context, looks as if he might kill rats with his teeth and gargle with broken glass, remained unmoved.

Chappell, manfully, if reluctantly, bowled the first three overs after tea, all wicketless, still wincing and grimacing, before he left the field, leaving the three seamers to bowl with creditable accuracy to two batsmen, the contrite Cartwright and James Harris, who, with commendable restraint, blocked the straight balls and pushed away the occasional wider delivery, to stay slightly above the required run rate of four an over. The game seemed to be leaking away slowly, but inexorably, like some valuable oil through a very small crack in an amphora.

Mark Cosgrove, though not obviously injured, had not returned to the field after tea, his place at second slip being taken by Ateeq Javid, who had taken two memorable catches against Northamptonshire. With Harris on 23, having already been put down once, he flashed hard at a wide delivery from Raine. Ateeq did well to get a hand to it, but … it went to earth, and with it, perhaps, the game. Hopes were briefly raised when the One that Kept Low at last showed itself and removed Cartwight, LBW to Raine. With Finn caught behind down the leg side, Harris and last man Murtagh required seven to win, which, until the final flourish of a boundary, they got in singles.

Oddly, the crowd had seemed more excited by the prospect of seeing a tie (which no-one seemed to have seen before), rather than either side winning, which is, I suppose, an indication of how much progress we have made this season. If a side hasn’t won for two years, then a victory is a cause for wild elation, a narrow defeat for despair : a side who expect to win more they lose can accept defeat with greater equanimity. Nevertheless, that dropped catch, that one wicket, those missing points, may come to be a cause of more than the usual ruefulness when the Autumn leaves are falling.

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So, as the currently popular saying goes, I am not getting carried away just yet.

Leicestershire (177) v India A (458-4), Grace Road, 19 June

India A won by 281 runs

England Lions (207) v India A (309-6), Grace Road, 26 June

India A won by 102 runs

 

The Middlesex game was preceded and followed by two 50-over games featuring India A. One was against a weakened Leicestershire 2nd XI, featuring four Academy players (at least two of whom I’d never heard of, and one who I only knew because he plays for my club), the other against the England Lions. At times it would have been difficult to tell which was which.

Against Leicestershire, India made what was (for about an hour) the second highest List A total in history (until it was superseded by England later that afternoon). Leicestershire were, clearly, in no position to chase this (they opened with Harry Dearden), and, in the  circumstances, did well to make 177.

Against the Lions, India looked on course to match even their previous total, with the score in the 34th over on 207-1, but the Lions bowlers (who had been made to look very ordinary) got a slight grip, the lower order fell away, and they finished on a more modest 309-6. The Lions, inevitably, did not refuse to get carried away, and lost three early wickets. Kohler-Cadmore and Hain were both bowled, charging fast bowlers in an attempt to hit them into the car park (a trick, which, like limbo dancing with a flaming sambuca on your head, has the potential to make you look very silly, if it doesn’t come off).

In other circumstances, Livingstone might have matched the six-hitting feats of the Indians, but, in these, he had to exercise unnatural restraint, and the Lions only just managed to exceed Leicestershire’s total. Liam Dawson was both the highest scorer and the most economical bowler, which will not have told the England selectors anything that they wanted to hear.

It is hard to say whether the Indian batsmen are quite as good as they were made to look, but, if so, Agarwal (not, I think, the one who played for Oxford a few years ago), Shubman Gil, Vihari and Prithvi Shaw are names to bear in mind. The fast bowling and fielding (under the eye of Rahul Dravid) were tigerish too, which has not always been the case with Indian sides. Most of these names were quite unknown to me, but evidently not so to that half of the crowd who were supporting India (the other half being the inevitable parties of schoolchildren), who, I deduce, would have known them mainly for their recent exploits in the IPL.

Judging by the amount of hair-swishing and giggling going on near the boundary, the younger Indian players are clearly teenage heart-throbs in a way that English players rarely are (Liam Dawson, for instance, failed to provoke the same excitement). A particular favourite appeared to be Rishabh Pant, a 20-year old wicket-keeper/batsman, widely touted as the next M.S. Dhoni. Unfortunately, he made very small scores in both games, so we were only treated to a brief glimpse of Pant.

(Ed. – Am I allowed to say this ‘in the current climate’? Please check.)

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).