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.

 

 

 

 

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Festivals of Insignificance

England Lions v South Africa A, Northampton, 3 June 2017

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, 9-12 June 2017

It has sometimes occurred to me that the ideal reader of this blog has not yet been born. This is not because, like Friedrich Nietzsche or Martin Peters, I imagine myself to be ahead of my time, but because, I hope, it may serve as a record of a way of life that, I suspect, will have long since ceased to exist. There may still be a game played with bats and balls ; it may be called cricket ; but I do not expect that the County game or the longer forms generally will have survived. So, if anyone out there in the future is interested in knowing what it felt like to watch cricket in the Summer of 2017, it felt, to me, like this.

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Anything in the paper?

I am not yet convinced that 2017 will prove to be a memorable date in English history, and I doubt whether anyone will be able to relate what I have written about cricket to the any event that might make it so. Contemporary accounts of cricket in – say – the Summers of 1914 or 1939 have acquired a retrospective poignancy, in that you would rarely be able to tell from reading them what was about to happen, and we assume from this that the crowds did not know what that would be. It might equally be that they knew, or suspected, perfectly well, but hoped to find in cricket a zone of exclusion, where the horrors could temporarily be forgotten, or, at least, not decently alluded to. (As I have often said, a large part of the appeal of sport is that it offers us the opportunity to lose ourselves in something that, ultimately, doesn’t matter at all.)

So, for the benefit of my readers in 2117, the Lions’ match against South Africa A took place 12 days after an Islamist suicide bomber had killed 23 people (including himself) at a concert in Manchester, mainly attended by young women and girls, and on the day when, in the evening, a group of three terrorists killed eight people in London by driving a van at them and then attacking them with knives. I have seen some fine pieces, written in the aftermath of these events, which have managed to connect them to games of cricket, but, for my part, the only connection I feel is that the game was not quite absorbing enough to mask a deep, dull, sense of disquiet. In the Briggs and Forrester Family Stand, I could connect nothing with nothing.

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My ability to concentrate on the game was not aided by the fact that Northamptonshire had chosen it for a Community Day (our old friend the Family Fun Day under another name), with the result that the crowd consisted largely of parents with young children, who, as usual, were more interested in their own games (more fidget spinners* and simple fidgets than spinners ) than anything occurring on the pitch. In the circumstances, earnestly studying the cricket felt like being a Professor of Zoology visiting a safari park on a Bank Holiday, as if I were rather missing the point.

It also didn’t help that, although the Lions’ opponents were billed as South Africa A, it would not be hard to assemble at least one better XI from South Africans currently playing County cricket, under various flags. Only two of them made much of an impression (the opening bowler Duanne Olivier and off-breaking all-rounder Aiden Markram), and I imagine you can expect to see those two appearing at a County ground near you soon enough.

Another crypto-South African, Dawid Malan, opened the batting with Ben Duckett. In the corresponding fixture against Sri Lanka A last year, Duckett, in what I hope does not turn out to have been his brief pomp, made an inventive 62 and I grew so bored by Malan hitting sixes that I was moved to compare him to “Buns” Thornton. This time Duckett made only 2, before he was caught at mid-wicket off another indeterminate stroke. Last year his strokes could be hard to describe because he was busy inventing exciting new hybrids ; this year he seems unsure himself quite which one he is intending to play.

Bell-Drummond and Vince (two players seemingly stuck in development hell) also departed cheaply, leaving Malan (a restrained 84, until he inexplicably leaped out half way down the wicket and was stumped) and Liam Livingstone (129 off 83 balls) to push the game beyond plausible reach (the final total was 349-7). Given how many openers England have tried recently, it is hard to see why Malan has been ignored : perhaps an almost 30-year old South African is not the kind of player they would ideally wish to be seen employing. Livingstone, whose innings was equally appealing to the Mums, Dads, kiddiz, and even old miseries like me, has the curious quality of batting, in a long-levered style, like a man much taller than his Playfair-billed height of 6’1” (I was quite surprised when I checked). He would fit into England’s one-day line-up well, if they can find the space for him.

South Africa’s reply began brightly, but was half-hearted in the face of some economical, if not overly incisive, bowling, and petered out on a paltry 205. The bowler who impressed most was George Garton, a hostile left-armer from Sussex, who has now played almost as often for the Lions as he has first-class games for Sussex. I did not stay to the end, drifting away at about the same time as most of the families had tired of the entertainment, but returned home in reasonably good spirits (not, of course, to survive long into the evening).

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There are blue skies just around the corner

Leicestershire’s game against Kent began on the morning after the General Election, which you – O gentle retrospect – may have to look up in a book, if you still have such things (it was the first of the year). The campaign had been as long drawn out, painful and unedifying to observe as a man with chronic constipation attempting a crap, and had culminated in a result which should have pleased no-one. It might have been a hangover from that, the weather (overcast, with a chill wind and rain threatening) or pessimism about Leicestershire’s prospects, but I thought I detected at least a mild whiff of what the Argentinians call bronca abroad (a sort of sullen anger).

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I was generally successful in evading the election through the course of the four days, although the combination of free wi-fi and a smart ‘phone sometimes led me to log into Twitter, releasing a thousand “hot takes” to buzz around my ears like angry wasps after my sandwiches. The only time I heard anyone allude to it directly was when a man read out from his ‘phone : “Theresa May will be going to the Palace this afternoon”. If I were Neville Cardus, I would claim that, with the ready wit that comes naturally to Leicestershire supporters, someone responded “I thought the football season had finished” but, in fact, everyone roundly ignored it.

Looking at the scores (Leicestershire 340 and 175 ; Sussex 284 and 234-5), you might suppose that this game was a good advertisement for 4-day cricket : from a neutral’s perspective (or that of the substantial contingent who had swapped good old Sussex-by-the-Sea for Leicester-by-the-Soar) you would be right. The outcome was not quite certain until the last afternoon, there was a mid-game reversal of fortune and one outstanding performance from a new starlet, in the person of Jofra Archer. But Leicestershire supporters are already far too familiar with this storyline to be much beguiled by it.

Leicestershire’s 340 had been hard-won, in the face of a near-international attack comprising Philander, Jordan, Archer, Briggs and David Wiese. (Leaving aside its effect on South African cricket, I am generally agnostic about the recent influx of South Africans, but Wiese does seem a gratuitous signing, given that Garton (who had impressed me for the Lions) was relegated to twelfth man, and Sussex also have Whittingham, Robinson, Ajmal Shahzad and part-timer Tymal Mills on their books).

Now that Horton and Dearden have passed through their early season pain barrier, they have emerged as a moderately reassuring opening partnership : in the first innings Dearden only made 8, but managed to stick around until the 18th over in doing so. Horton contributed 71, Cosgrove (whose excellence I take too much for granted) 128, and Zak Chappell, who seems to have found his feet as a batsman (almost literally so, in that he sometimes plays like someone who has not quite come to terms with being exceptionally tall), a handy 44.

When Sussex were reduced to 156-7, or even 201-9 (thanks mainly to Clint McKay, who has previously been economical this season without taking many wickets), a naive observer would have thought that the advantage lay with Leicestershire. A seasoned observer (and there are some pretty highly-seasoned, not to mention well-pickled, ones in and around the Fox Bar) would not have been surprised when Philander and Briggs (who batted just under two hours for his 27) elongated the score to 284, with a last wicket stand of 83, nor that Leicestershire’s reply soon subsided to 107-7, before a late rally enabled them to go into the last day with a lead of 232.

I have to say that no real blame attaches to Leicestershire’s batsmen, even against an attack depleted by Philander twisting his ankle during a display of over-athletic fielding, and Wiese unable to bowl because of some unspecified ailment. Jofra Archer, a slim 22-year-old with a nonchalant approach to the wicket but an explosive shoulder action, took 6-70 to go with the 5-65 he had taken in the first innings and would have troubled anyone. The last time I saw him (at Grace Road last September) I was impressed by his ability to swing the ball at speed ; this time his chief weapon was the delivery that rose sharply from just short of a length. He looked a better bowler than either Jordan or Philander, or, for that matter, any of the Lions’ pace bowlers ; he is, apparently, waiting to be approached before deciding whether he is English or West Indian, and, if I were Trevor Bayliss, I’d be approaching him pretty sharpish.

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Excuse me, Jofra, could I have a word?

The last morning proceeded to a Sussex win with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, if little of the jollity. The only batsmen to play a significant innings, Luke Wells, was dropped by the wicket-keeper off Chappell, and it does not help in defending a total of 232 to concede 43 extras, including 35 byes and leg-byes. Having said that, I would resist the temptation to remove the gloves from Eckersley, as I suspect his main problem as a ‘keeper, apart from Chappell’s high-speed unpredictability, is lack of match practice.

So, six games played, three draws and three defeats. The top five now seem solid and the four pace bowlers who played here (McKay, Raine, Chappell and Klein) would be my choices. I would be tempted to replace Pettini (who seems to be reverting to last season’s four-day form) with Adil Ali, who is champing at the bit for another bite at four-day cricket, and Tom Wells, who made some useful runs, but was only trusted to bowl four overs, with one of our three spinners (probably Sayer, though they all have their virtues). I still look forward to seeing Chappell, who is very much having to learn his craft in public, run through a side, as he is surely capable of doing, and I remain hopeful that a victory will come before the end of the season (or, preferably, sooner). I should only be pleasantly astonished if it came against a Pattinson-less Nottinghamshire next week.

And, of course, at least puzzling over all this gives me something to worry about that doesn’t really matter at all.

*A toy, very popular in 2017, for some reason.