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.
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).
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.
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.