All is Ripeness : Ripeness is All. Pt. 1. A Hardy Perennial

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Nottinghamshire v Somerset, Trent Bridge, County Championship, 18th July 2016 (Day 2)

Edgar : “What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure

Their going hence, even as their coming hither:

Ripeness is all.”

Well, this is it (or, perhaps, that was it). This week the sun has (as per Cardus) been “ample”, and the season, like “a rich part of the garden of an English summertime”, has ripened. Readers of Keats will know what comes after ripeness, but, for the moment, ripeness suffices, and if, as Cardus recommends, we close our eyes for a while (preferably without dozing off), we may be seduced into thinking warm days will never cease.

As the season ripens, I have seen some cricketers who are enjoying their “coming hither” (inevitably, Ben Duckett) and a few who don’t know whether they are coming hither or going hence (Leicestershire’s 2nd XI), but, first, one who should, by rights, have “gone hence” some time ago, but seems reluctant to take his cue : Marcus Trescothick, who dominated the second day at Trent Bridge on Monday, as he dominated the match, from the moment he came in to bat at about midday.

Before that we had the tail-end of Nottinghamshire’s innings of 401, chiefly notable for Luke Fletcher’s performance as “nightwatchman” (a role he might suit in Macbeth). The “Bulwell Buffalo” is, as you might expect, quite capable of the village Flintoff style of batting, but his other manner (when he has been promoted up the order) is a self-consciously responsible mix of judicious leaves and delicate nudges. This is hugely entertaining for the crowd, like watching a bear play the harpsichord, but infuriating for the bowlers.

Overton (Craig of that ilk, I think) wasted much time and energy firing in short balls outside off stump, at which Fletcher turned up his nose, like a model waving away a sweet trolley, when a simple Yorker would have sufficed to remove the nuisance. Fletcher eventually returned to the pavilion, to warm applause, with 32 runs to his name. This was not to be the last time he left the field (it was a hot day, and he is a very big man), but the last time he would have done so with much satisfaction.

I cannot pretend to have made a close study of Marcus Trescothick’s batting technique, but, for all that, and for all that I know his nickname derives from his fondness for sausages, a hint of the rustic, of the leaden-footed village banger still attaches to his name, and, though there are other, better reasons, I suspect that has contributed to his continuing popularity with English crowds throughout the land. It does not, though, explain his longevity (he is now in his fortieth year and his twenty-third season).

Wilfred Rhodes is said to have eschewed the cut, on the grounds that “it nivver were a business stroke” : Trescothick now seems to have cut out all off-side strokes, and pared his game down to a minimal three. One is the nudge off his hip, which, with his weight behind it, often goes for four ; anything short he pulls (and these he genuinely bangs) ; to anything else, whether on middle stump or wide to the off, he offers an almost French cricket-style full-faced bat in front of his stumps, before wandering halfway to square leg to attend to some notional divot.

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The first time I saw Nottinghamshire this season (on what felt like the coldest day of the year) their pace bowlers were Broad, Bird, Ball and Gurney (they also had Hales and James Taylor in the side). For differing reasons, all of those bar Gurney have gone, and Gurney’s first spell here was wild, dragging stuff : the burden of the bowling, on what was the hottest so far, fell on Brett Hutton, Imran Tahir and the Buffalo himself.

When a player comes in to bat, or a bowler to bowl, the scoreboards at Trent Bridge display huge mugshots of them, and a brief description. Not all of these are flattering (Chris Read’s portrait makes him look like a 19th century Punch cartoon of a Fenian agitator). Most gallingly, Brett Hutton’s describes his bowling as “right medium”, which can only encourage the batsman, and discourage a bowler who, from his body language, aspires to a higher pace.

Poor Fletcher looks, even on the coldest day, like a man bowling to sweat out last night’s ale and though, as always, every ounce of his weight was going into his bowling, he really looked to be suffering in the heat. Frequently, as the weary afternoon wore on, he took refuge in the pavilion, where, one imagines, his trainer threw a bucket of water over him, like a racehorse.

Have-beard-will-travel leggie Imran Tahir has been brought in, one imagines, as a proven wicket-taker, to bolster a depleted attack, in a side who have some reason to fear relegation. Though he earned his corn (taking 7-112), Somerset may have been surprised not to be facing the young spinner, Matthew Carter, who took 7-56 (and 10-195 in the match) against them last year, on what has so far been his only first-class appearance. Carter is just 20, the younger brother of Fletcher’s old partner-in-crime Andrew, and was, I thought, the most promising English spinner I have seen this season when I saw him in a 2nd XI match at Hinckley. Unless he learns to bat, he might be well-advised to put in a transfer request to a less well-funded county.

Unusually, I watched the day out to the end, from in front of the pavilion, waiting, I suppose, for Trescothick to get his hundred, which he did, and then to get out, which he did not (until the next day, when he had made 218). I suppose I was waiting for sentimental reasons, in the original sense of wanting to enjoy the experience of fine feelings, in this case the pathos of seeing the last of a fine career. This may have been the last time I see him make a hundred, it might even be the last he makes, but, though Trescothick is a sensitive man, I doubt he is a sentimental one.  He has proved his ability to evade conventional narratives of decline, and prolong ripeness past the usual time of decay, and I suspect he will continue as long as his strokes continue to do good business.

Nonetheless, as he left the field, as the shadows lengthened, to a standing ovation from the home members, I think I must have had something in my eye …

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If I did, it would probably have been an ant. One of the subplots of the day was that it was the Day of the Flying Ants in the New Stand : ants in the air, ants in your Playfair, ants in your sandwiches, ants in your hair. This prompted the following overheard conversation, which I offer, for free, to anyone hoping to write a situation comedy in the style of Roy Clarke :

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The Ant on the Hat

Elderly Notts supporter 1 : “I saw a programme once, you know, where some professor proved that, if they were ten times the size, ants would take over the world.”

Elderly Notts supporter 2 (thoughtfully) : “You know what you’d want in that situation? An anteater.”

Gloucester : And that’s true too.

[Exeunt.]

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Some small gnats, opposite Trent Bridge

Nymphs and Shepherds Gone Away : Finals and Finales

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s much-quoted crack about there being “no second acts in American lives” is often misinterpreted to mean that there are no second chances, no comebacks in American lives.  In fact, he was thinking of the structure of the traditional “well-made” three-act play, where the second act represents a period of plot development in between the dramatic opening and the tragic or comic conclusion. American lives, he was implying, have no period of maturity.

This season’s County Championship has been a little like that, at least from my vantage point.  There was a first act (two home games in April) and a final act (or, as the Greeks say, catastrophe) with two games in September, but not much of any substance in between.

This year there wasn’t even much of a catastrophe to speak of.  At Grace Road in September I saw the first day against Gloucestershire, when only 43 overs were bowled, and what would have been the second day against Essex, had it not been entirely rained off.  There was an element of bad luck about this, of course.  If I had chosen different days I might have seen some tight (if artificially engineered) finishes, or Zakk Chappell making 96 on his debut, but if half the home Championship games are played in April and September the chances of choosing the wrong days are high.

This season I have taken at least as much pleasure from watching club cricket as I have the first-class game.  One reason for this (there are others) is that the structure of the season makes sense – it is comprehensible, it coheres.  The County Championship starts too early and ends too late, it stalls for weeks and then shoots forward like a clown car.  One day games spring out at you from nowhere and arrive in an unwanted clump on Tuesday afternoons in August, either famine or glut.

The Leicestershire League begins when the days are getting lighter and finishes with the arrival of Autumn.  There is a league structure with enough sides in it  to provide variety and the potential for some legible narratives to emerge over the course of a season.  The league games are always played on Saturday afternoons, so watching them becomes the enjoyable part of a weekly routine, with a knock-out cup on Sundays to provide (perhaps) an element of surprise and distraction.  (In all of this I suppose it resembles the football season, at least at the lower levels.)

How the season ought, ideally, to end I’m not sure, but it should mark a definite end and be, in some way, a festive celebration.  The County season used to finish, with the serious business of the Championship decided by the end of August, with the carnivalesque seaside festivals at Scarborough, Hastings, Bournemouth, Blackpool and elsewhere.  More recently, the final of the Gillette Cup at Lord’s fulfilled a similar function.

More by luck than intention I managed, this year, to construct a mini portfolio festival of my own by attending the finals of various competitions being hosted locally – the 2nd XI Championship at Radlett, the Leicestershire County Cup and the Leicestershire U-19s T20 at Grace Road and – the grand finale – the Women’s national club 50-over final at Kibworth.

Of the four, the least satisfying was the 2nd XI final between Nottinghamshire and Middlesex (one day of a four day match).  Radlett is a lovely ground in high Autumn (I know this because I pass it on my way into work) but the season had only begun nibbling at the hedges on the dull day when I attended

Radlett

but the main problem, by contrast with the amateur games, was that few of the players can have really wanted to be there.  For instance, Nottinghamshire played the three seamers – Luke Fletcher, Andy Carter and Will Gidman – I had seen playing for their First XI in the first game of the season.  Gidman must, I think, be wondering – on the principle of “better an old man’s darling than a young man’s fool” whether it might not have been better to stay a king pin at Gloucestershire rather than a spare part at a “big county”.

Fletcher and Carter have been in and out of the Notts side for years now.  Fletcher, the “Bulwell Buffalo” (on the left)

Luke Fletcher

has often cropped up in these chronicles before, Carter

Carter

is an equally tall, vulpine character who (perhaps because he’s from Lincolnshire) I can picture loping into a country pub with a couple of ill-concealed pheasants in his pockets and a lurcher at his heels.  As a pair they resemble the rascally cloth-capped villains in a Disney cartoon who stuff the kittens into a sack and drive off meaningfully  in the direction of the river.  Both look (from the boundary) like they’d be nasty to face, and would no doubt terrify most club batsmen, but always seem to end the season back in the 2nds playing at somewhere like Radlett.*

Another who falls into the same category (though he also had injury problems) is Luke Evans, the 6’8″ ex-Durham and Northants bowler who proved the main difference between Kibworth (for whom he now plays) and Lutterworth in the County Cup final.  This was a low-scoring affair, as these finals often are: club players struggle to find the boundaries in the prairie vastnesses of Grace Road and the rules of the competition make the clubs’ respective batting stars (Lewis Hill of Lutterworth and Aadil Ali of Kibworth) ineligible.

Kibworth won the game (as they also won the League), but it’s fair to say a good time was had by all, particularly the large contingent from Lutterworth, who made up the majority of a crowd as large as some I’ve seen for Leicestershire’s games, composed of all ages and sexes and mostly not the same faces who attend the County games.  If the new management are looking to “grow” the club they might find fertile soil here.

Kibworth v Lutterworth

And so to the finale of my season, a double-header of the Leicestershire U-19s T20 Finals Day at Grace Road and the final of the national Women’s 50-over competition at Kibworth.  Both finals were hugely one-sided affairs, dominated by sides batting first and decided by players who were genuinely (a subject I was pondering earlier in the season) “on another level“.

In the case of the U-19s, the player who won the match for the Houghton & Thurnby Hurricanes by a display of six-hitting only equalled at Grace Road this season by Peter Trego, followed by a few overs of 85 mph yorkers in dubious light that reduced the Ashby Strikers to 30-6, seemed not only to belong on a different level, but in a different age group entirely, a fact delicately alluded to by a section of the crowd, who sang (to the tune of ‘Mrs. Brown’s Boys’) “He’s 23 / he’s 23 / he’s not 19 / he’s not 19 / he’s 23”.

U-19

He’s not 19. He’s 23

Still, no-one seemed to mind much and there was some attempt to even up the cosmic balance by using a 9-year old in shorts as a substitute fielder

U-19

The last word on this season goes, perhaps unexpectedly, to the ladies of Bath and Stoke. Bath batted first and amassed a huge total, thanks to the England player Anya Shrubsole (who hurt her hand and had to retire early) and Sophie Luff (apparently an England Academician) who batted superbly to score 150 (with, again the difference between the sides, any number of boundaries).

La Shrubsole (no.5) is, in the parlance of the men’s game, quite a “Big Unit”, but light on her feet

Shrubsole

with an attractive habit of placing herself in the field by skipping from side to side, with her hands extended horizontally, as though dancing to a rendition of “Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away” only she can hear.

There is a picture in this month’s “Cricketer” of the England women’s team following their defeat in the Ashes, where Shrubsole looks particularly slumped and dejected, quite different from the high-spirited figure she cut at Kibworth.  I wonder if she, too, might be wondering if the professional game is quite all it’s cracked up to be?

It’s always good to end the season on a note of laughter and celebration, so take it away, the Ladies of Bath! Winter well, one and all.

Bath Ladies at Kibworth

Bath Ladies at Kibworth

*As a postscript, this turned out to be Carter’s last game for Nottinghamshire. As of next season he will be playing for Derbyshire instead (well, it’s worked well for Footitt).