Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As I Walked Out One March Morning

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The Way to Wantage Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Calling it a day …

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