Deviation, Repetition, Desperation

Leicestershire v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Grace Road, 5-8 September 2017

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As anyone who is likely to be interested will know by now, Leicestershire coach Pierre de Bruyn has left the club, by what the official website, amongst other periphrases, described as “mutual consent”. And, as every commentator observed, this came as no surprise.

Peering through the thicket of euphemism, the problem appears to have been the inability of de Bruyn and Captain Mark Cosgrove to work together. Matters seem to have come to a head on the last morning against Kent. Promotion outsiders Kent were keen to contrive a result : Cosgrove was agreeable, but de Bruyn was not (given Cosgrove’s apparent reluctance to declare last season under the old regime, there is a certain irony about this), leading to the Captain’s otherwise puzzling six-ball 24. There followed, one may infer, a “him or me” ultimatum to the Committee from Cosgrove, followed by de Bruyn “mutually consenting” to pack his bags and biltong and seek pastures new.

De Bruyn was in an unenviable position from the start. An inexperienced coach, with a respectable, but unspectacular, playing record, he took charge of a club with a group of experienced players, brought together by the previous coach, who might have been expecting to be left to play out the remainder of their careers in a convivial atmosphere, and had been doing with some degree of success. To make matters worse, the core of this group were Australian, as had been the previous Coach, Andrew MacDonald, and de Bruyn is, of course, South African. “Intense” is the word most frequently applied to describe De Bruyn, whereas the previous atmosphere at the club might best be described as “relaxed”.  His previous experience as coach of the Namibia Under-19s will not have been the ideal preparation.

The coach did little to ingratiate himself before the season started, publicly upbraiding his senior players for having a “culture of underperformance”, naming and shaming Paul Horton, Mark Pettini and Angus Robson (younger, but, perhaps as an Australian, cut a fair amount of slack). Robson “mutually consented” to leave immediately, Pettini seems to have vanished into thin air, and Horton is currently averaging 26.52, which is worse than the “underperforming” 34.92 he managed last year. De Bruyn’s approach might have been vindicated had his “culture of performance” improved performances, but, some success in limited overs cricket aside, results have been poor, and the only player to have had an unequivocally successful season has been Mark Cosgrove.

This is not the first time de Bruyn has been involved in similar situations, albeit it on the other side of the divide. He was one of a group of senior players (including H.D. Ackerman and Andrew Hall) released by Dolphins in 2010, to make room for younger, home-grown talent. Before that, having been released by Titans, he claimed that he and Alfonso Thomas had been “chased away from the Titans like dogs”, and criticised coach Richard Pybus as “one-dimensional” and “a very boring coach”, who relied on “yoga and other nonsense”, claiming that “the players get so drained from this that on completion one does not know where you are”. While playing for Easterns, he was once suspended for “acts of misconduct and using crude and abusive language”. He is clearly something of a stormy petrel, and I should be a little concerned if he alighted anywhere near my club.

Anyone unaware of the weekend’s events might have wondered, on arriving at the ground on the first day, why Cosgrove and Clint McKay (the Australian seamer who acts as one-day Captain and the skipper’s mate, in the full Australian sense) seemed to be in such cheerful moods. Graeme Welch and John Sadler, the ex-Derbyshire duo who have taken over as interim coaches, looked pretty chipper too. Otherwise, there seemed few grounds for optimism. After rain overnight, and more in the morning, it came as a surprise that play began shortly after lunch. With Leicestershire forced to bat on a moist, green-tinged pitch under low cloud, the only people who seemed less comfortable in the conditions than the batsmen were the spectators.

Had Kenneth Williams been seated behind the bowler’s arm (an improbable scenario, I admit), he could have been taken the opportunity to shout “deviation!” after almost every delivery, as the visitors’ four seamers achieved exaggerated movement, both in the air and off the pitch. A Leicestershire supporter might have added a weary sigh of “repetition”, as both openers (Dearden and Carberry) were dismissed, having mustered 3 runs between them.

Leave the gate open

(You may be surprised to learn that Carberry is playing for Leicestershire : he has been having a poor season for Hampshire and has been loaned to us, supposedly for the remainder of the season, though there is credible talk (or incredible talk from a credible source) that he may be offered a contract and even the Captaincy. If that comes as a surprise to you, that surprise is shared by most Leicestershire supporters and, I imagine, by Carberry himself.)

The rest of the first innings was an unwelcome repetition of too many this season. After a poor start, Cosgrove made 92, with some support from Ackermann or Eckersley (the former here), and an effort, at least, from Lewis Hill, before the innings closed on 222. But let us go back to Cosgrove for a minute : he has made the bulk of the runs so often that I have become accustomed to taking him for granted, but the weekend’s hint that he might not always be with us made me concentrate, for once, on his batting.

In a game of word association, the first word that might occur in connection with Cosgrove is “fat”. There have been times in his career when he has been overweight, but he currently looks as fit as a man with his constitution is ever likely to be : he is, though, an unusual, top-heavy, shape, as though his torso were too large for his legs. Certainly no-one who remembers Colin Milburn in his prime (or has seen Richard Levi recently) would say that Cosgrove bats like a fat man. He is capable of the fat man’s pull (legs apart, power coming from the belly), but inside this fat batsman there is clearly a thin one trying to get out, perhaps even that epitome of the “elegant left-hander”, Frank Woolley. His favoured off-side strokes may be hit with great force, but are executed with all the delicacy and precision of a Japanese calligrapher. He is always determined to make runs, but, in this match, that determination seemed to amount almost to desperation.

The second afternoon of the game seemed to belong to another game entirely, or another season. The sun shone, a soft breeze blew, the ale left over from the weekend beer festival was being sold off cheaply, and was eventually given away to the Members (although only in half-pints). It was the last of the Summer ale, and felt like the last day of a Summer that had never quite arrived. Unfortunately, it was also the afternoon when Gloucestershire batted.

Gloucestershire are a star-free side but, unlike Leicestershire, they make the most of their talents. Their highest score was 63 (by the same James Bracey who had made an impression on Charlie Shreck and others for Loughborough MCCU earlier in the season), but there were two other fifties and no score of fewer than 22 by the top seven. The demons in the pitch had taken the afternoon off (perhaps in the beer tent), and the bowlers were unable to summon up any of their own. Clint McKay bowled at little more than medium pace : he has the best economy rate of any bowler in the Division, but he can no longer be relied upon to take 50 wickets a season. Gloucestershire continued their innings into the third morning, when they finished on 368.

Leicestershire’s second innings was a repetition of their first, except that the conditions were even worse, and they made fewer runs. The only hope of avoiding defeat was for Cosgrove and Eckersley, who put on a fourth-wicket partnership of 79

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to hang on for grim life until the game was finally extinguished by rain or bad light. As so often this season, the sky was dark and the floodlights on by lunchtime. The batsmen were clearly have difficulties seeing the ball, and Cosgrove raged hard against this dying of the light, and in favour of coming off the pitch. Unfortunately this was in the hearing of the Umpires, who, in spite of endless fiddling about with light meters, seemed determined to stay on at all costs.

Eckersley fell to a swooping delivery from the normally innocuous medium-pacer Noema-Barnett. Cosgrove desperately chased a wide one from the strapping, rapid Norwell, and was given out by Umpire Nigel Cowley, a decision which seemed to be more in response to his uninvited views about the light than an honest opinion about whether he had made contact (had there been any daylight, there would have been about an inch of it between bat and ball). Sitting by the players’ entrance to the pavilion, I wondered at quite how eloquent an Australian of Scouse heritage can be while using but a single word.

There were, I think, fifteen spectators in the ground (plus Ben Raine’s Dad’s golden retriever) on the last day, which began with Leicestershire nine runs ahead, with three wickets remaining. I suppose we were hoping it would rain. However, Nigel Cowley, who has been a useful player and decent Umpire in his time, but only has one match to go before he retires, seemed keen for the match to end as soon as possible. Gloucestershire, having hit lucky with Cosgrove, acted as though they had come across a faulty cash dispenser, and appealed frantically and continuously for anything. McKay was caught behind, having made as much contact with the ball as Cosgrove. Opinions differed about last man Klein’s dismissal : it looked to me like a bump ball, whereas my companion thought it had come off his boot. The whole thing, even including a brief interruption for rain and Gloucestershire’s formality of a reply, was over in less than an hour.

Liam Norwell, who admittedly bowled well, finished with 8-43 : I doubt he will ever take as many as easily again. This gave him 10 wickets in the match, for the second time this season against Leicestershire, placing him slightly ahead of Jofra Archer, who has taken 18, and James Pattinson (16). In addition to having been (forgivably) beaten twice by Nottinghamshire and Sussex, who are strong bowling sides, we have now lost twice to Gloucestershire, on paper a weaker team, by an innings and by 10 wickets. At least we can look forward a tight finish to the return fixture against Northants, I suppose (though not, I hope, in the middle of the night this time).

It isn’t always the hope that kills you, you know.  Sometimes it’s the repetition.

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Drift Dodgers

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Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream …

Some time on the morning of the first day of Leicestershire’s match against Kent (which, in the event, saw no play at all), Richard Rae of the BBC tweeted a quotation from ‘The Cricketer’ in 1926, to the effect that Leicestershire were “engaged in floating complacently down the streams of Time”. This led me to thinking (there was plenty of time for thought that day) of how the governing principle of County Cricket is drift (a little like Thomas Pynchon’s conception of entropy).

Innings accumulate slowly, grain by grain, flake by flake, imperceptibly, like sand or snow-drifts. Games drift to a conclusion, drift towards a draw. Clubs are said be drifting ; overly passive Captains are accused of letting games drift ; players’ careers start to drift, they drift out of the game. Crowds drift around the ground (particularly when it’s raining) and start to drift away after tea. Clouds drift over and away again. Afternoons, days, games, seasons drift by, and with them the years.

This drift is seductive (what could be more pleasant that floating effortlessly downstream on a Summer’s afternoon?) as long as you don’t think too hard about where the current is taking you. Resistance is ultimately futile (the greatest players, as the least, are carried away in the end), but temporary victories depend on fighting the drift and swimming upstream against the current.

Leicestershire v Kent, Grace Road, 19-22 May 2017

The first day of the Kent game was, as I say, a washout. It had rained heavily overnight and the rain returned intermittently throughout the day. No-one at the ground (some small parties from Kent and the usual suspects) seriously expected that there would be any play, though there were the usual teasing announcements about inspections and what might happen if there were no further rain. You can (and I have) spent days such as these at Grace Road, drifting aimlessly round the ground, playing spot the wheelbarrow

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observing the dark clouds drift over and drift away again, watching the rain fall through the big picture windows of the Fox Bar, barely conscious of the hours, of life, drifting away, not unpleasantly but inexorably, but, for once, I chose to fight the drift and, after a quick lunch, spent the afternoon at an exhibition about the Anglo-Sikh Wars.

The second day was an affair of showers, interrupted by scattered outbreaks of cricket, and, by its end, it already seemed likely that the natural direction of drift was towards a draw. I am not suggesting any element of conscious collusion, but a slow drift to the eventual conclusion (a draw with maximum bonus points each) would not have struck either side as an outcome to be struggled against too determinedly.

Kent are a side I still think of as being, like Worcestershire, made up of young, locally-produced talent, but this is to ignore the slow drift of time. Sam Billings (26 in June) was away with England ; Sam Northeast, now in his 10th year of first-class cricket, is 27 ; Adam Riley (25), seen by good judges not so long ago as the future of English spin, only made two first-class appearances last season and may be drifting out of the game altogether. Matt Coles (27) has drifted away to Hampshire (apparently adrift on a tide of alcohol) and back again. James Harris (27), ten years after his debut, has unexpectedly drifted in from Middlesex on loan. Daniel Bell-Drummond (24 in August) still fits the description, but, given the competition for the England openers’ berths, may soon find that he’s missed that particular boat. Fabian Cowdrey, apparently, has given it up for music and a free electric band.

Having said that, a side made up of players in their prime who are not quite good, or lucky, enough to play for England (and Kent also have nearly men of a different generation, in Denly, Tredwell and Gidman) is one route to success in County cricket. They should, by rights, have been promoted last season and came into this game having won their first three matches, but may be well advised to catch the tide before the drift catches up with them.

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Play began on time, under low cloud and continued, through some light drizzle, until roughly lunchtime. Horton and Dearden opened ; both Lancastrians, they are beginning to forge the kind of safety-first partnership that drove Cardus to lyrical peaks of exasperation when writing about Lancashire’s Hallows and Makepeace in the 1920s. Horton, who was a little more expansive, departed when the score was 58, leaving Dearden to make 34 off 108 balls, having taken 12 overs to reach double figures.

They were permitted to take this approach by Coles, whom I have seen bowl well, but who looked sluggish here, bowling a few showy bouncers, but few balls that did not give the batsmen the option of leaving them, but compelled to do so by Darren Stevens, whose first ten overs resulted in roughly the same number of runs. Stevens, a brazenly nibbly medium pacer, who, at 41, looks like the sort of bloke you’d expect find in B&Q on a Saturday morning, is so much the embodiment of the kind of cricketer who is officially frowned upon that the toss was abolished to discourage him from taking wickets ; he still went into this game as both the leading run-scorer and the leading wicket-taker in Division 2. When he switched to the Bennett End, and came in with a stiff breeze at his back, scented by the familiar whiff of disinfectant and old socks, he was in his element, as threatening in his way as Thommo at the WACA.

A combination of Stevens’ miserliness and the rain that washed out the afternoon, before a brief four over reprise at 5.45 (by which time I’d drifted off home), meant that Leicestershire began the third day on 127-2 with another 63 overs to reach the 400 they needed to achieve maximum batting points. Colin Ackermann played his first innings of any substance at Grace Road, making 89 in a little over four hours (I thought a quick burst of “Sylvia” over the PA might have been in order when he reached 50). A slight, neatly turned out figure, he seems something of a throwback, playing in an unobtrusively stylish, through scrupulously orthodox style, as if he’d learned to play by following the MCC Coaching Manual while observing himself in the mirror. Together with Cosgrove (39) and Eckersley (33) he provided the middle-order solidity that he seemed to promise when he first signed.

However, with those three, plus Pettini (who didn’t look in the mood) and debutant Callum Parkinson out cheaply, the score stood on 278-7 after 91 overs. Although there was no prospect of losing, it seemed unlikely that a fourth, let alone a fifth, batting point would be secured. It occurs to me that an observer unfamiliar with the scoring of bonus points would have been puzzled by what happened next, which was that Tom Wells, Clint McKay and Dieter Klein began to flex their muscles, making 139 off the last 19 overs (a quite reasonable T20 score). Even Darren Stevens was forced to concede 44 off his 21 overs, though Matt Hunn (a tall young seamer with a disappointing lack of nicknames, given the options) bore the brunt, going for 110 off his 22.

Having left soon after 5.00, I missed the one point in the game where it seemed that the drift to a draw might be reversed, that the extraordinary thing might happen, as Dieter Klein took four wickets and Tom Wells one to reduce Kent to 144-5, in a session that did not end until 7.30. The man to re-establish it the next morning was, inevitably, Stevens, who had begun to turn the tide with a counter-attacking 50 the evening before. He went on to make exactly 100 (cheered on by the Ultras in the Stench & Benno Stand, who can’t have been quite wasted enough at that time of the morning to have forgotten that he was now playing for Kent), making the follow-on, and thus a result, unachievable by about lunchtime.

After that, the innings ended with a mirror image of Leicestershire’s, as the Kent lower order secured the fifth bonus point with 20 overs to spare. With the serious business concluded, they continued clubbing the bowling (Coles taking 26 off an over from a visibly shaken Parkinson) long after the point where it had begun to seem merely gratuitous. Leicestershire’s reply, in which Harry Dearden scored 17 in 72 minutes represented an exercise in Zen pointlessness, although young Hunn did have the consolation of returning figures of 1-2.

You may have noticed, incidentally, that this report is uncharacteristically reliant on figures (which I have borrowed from Cricinfo). Even at the distance of little over a week, much of my memory of the game has been erased by the sand-drifts of time : in fact, what I remembered most clearly about it (and this you couldn’t find on Cricinfo) was the remarkable mackerel sky on the Sunday afternoon.

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Picture yourself on a boat on a river …

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, Wantage Road, 26 May 2017

I have not renewed my Membership at Northamptonshire this year. Technically, no-one has, because Membership has been reduced to Season Ticket Holder-ship, and, with the sentimental motive removed, I have chosen not to buy one because three of Northamptonshire’s home matches coincide with Leicestershire’s (a fourth, the one against Leicestershire, is a day-night game, so I am unlikely to see much of that either).

As a result, this single day, the first of a low-scoring contest which Worcestershire won in three days, lacked context, though it drifted by enjoyably enough. What I remember best is, rather ignobly, hoping that the young Worcestershire seamer Josh Tongue would fall over, so that I could make a joke about “a slip of the Tongue” and the stroke of doubtful heritage (perhaps a kind of paddle-pull over his shoulder) that removed Ben Duckett after a watchful 28, caught behind off the said Tongue (and not even by a slip). Last season Duckett would have played this stroke without hesitation and sent it over the boundary ; he is a “confidence player”, if ever there was one, and his misadventures with England over the Winter may have depleted even his considerable reserves of that quantity.

The Memorial Garden looked lovely in the sunshine, I must say.

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Derbyshire v Leicestershire, Derby, 27 May 2017

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Two Derbyshire supporters

The following day I visited Derby. The ground is not, these days, one that you would choose to visit without some strong motive (even the once adequate tea-room has now been replaced by a burger van). Mine was that there was an outside chance that Leicestershire might win (the extraordinary thing), with the chance of sheet lightning thrown in (which, in the event, might have livened the game up a bit).

On the first two days, Leicestershire had made 619, chiefly because they could (in that unattractive phrase). On a Slumberdown of a pitch, and with Derbyshire lacking Viljoen and Cotton (the two bowlers who had threatened in their RLDOC match), Ackermann, Cosgrove and Eckersley all waxed fat to the tune of a large century apiece. Any chance of a result depended on Derbyshire being made to follow on. When Godelman and Thakor (another couple of drifters) began the day on 154-1 this seemed unlikely ; when, by the early afternoon, they had a century apiece and were collectively on 323-1, the direction of drift was clear.

The promised sheet lightning, which was meant to be sweeping up from the South-West (like the Duke of Monmouth), had failed to materialise during the morning, which was warm, but with a strong wind providing an undertone of unease. After lunch, though, the sky darkened and the wind rose further, coinciding with the arrival of the second new ball. McKay removed Thakor and Madsen ; Klein snared Hughes ; Chappell, who always seems to be bowl best in Wagnerian conditions, finally yorked Godelman in a moment of catharsis that had at least one spectator* leaping to his feet and punching the air. At 384-5, the extraordinary thing still seemed a possibility.

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The sheet lightning never arrived, and neither did the extraordinary thing. Although Chappell subjected Smit and Wilson to a fearful battering in Stygian light (breaking Wilson’s bat, to his annoyance), they weathered the storm, which had never quite arrived, and the total drifted on past the 469 required to avert the follow on, thus killing the game late on the third day.

Cricinfo headlined their account of this match “Dull draw ends Derbyshire’s run of defeats”.

And so the season drifts on. Leicestershire stand 8th in Division 2 (without the points deduction they would be 6th). Ned Eckersley is the leading run scorer in Division 2, with Cosgrove not far behind ; Ackermann would be third in the averages (if they still had such things), and Leicestershire have more batting points than any side bar leaders Nottinghamshire. Zak has taken his first four wicket haul, which should give him confidence.

On the other hand, we have played five games and have yet to win. Nine to go.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily – Life is but a dream!

* Me.

The Business End of a Squeaky Bum

Leicestershire v Essex, Grace Road, County Championship, Thursday 25th August 2016

 

 

There are various ways of approaching the end of a season. Cardus, amongst other Paterian elegancies, wrote of it “August finds the game, like the sun itself, on the wane.  Now the sands are running out every evening as the match moves towards its close in yellow light; autumnal colours darken play at this time of the year; cricketers are getting weary in limb, and even the spirit has lost the first rapture.”  Football managers prefer the more prosaic term”business end“, or even the regrettably graphic “squeaky bum time“.

Cardus was able to contemplate the pathos of the dying fall in peace because he was writing about the period between the wars when there was only one Division, and the Counties knew their place.  Yorkshire would usually be Champions (12 times between 1919 and 1939), and always finished in the top five.  The other five of the “Big Six” – Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Middlesex and Kent – would finish in the top half of the table (only once, three, three, six times and twice respectively did they fail to do so) : Northamptonshire, Glamorgan, Leicestershire, Somerset and Worcestershire would occupy the lowest rungs of the ladder.

After the War, as the rules regarding qualification were relaxed, the ancien regime began to totter, and, after the introduction of overseas players, mere anarchy was loosed upon the Championship : Yorkshire frequently finished in the bottom five, and even Leicestershire won the title four times***. This situation could not be allowed to continue, and the tendency, since the introduction of two divisions, has been for a gradual slide towards the segregation of the “Big Six” (with Warwickshire replacing Kent) in Division 1 (plus Durham and one or two anomalies, such as Somerset and Sussex) from the lesser Counties, who are confined to the lower Division.  Such is progress.

The two main arguments in favour of this division are as outlined (by no means for the first time – they have been around since the nineteenth century) by Roy Webber in 1958.* The first is that it would “be of benefit in finding a better strain of county cricketer” ; the second is that it “would undoubtedly keep interest high right through to the end of the season … I imagine that we would have “house full” signs if, say, Worcestershire and Leicestershire were playing each other in the last match of the season with promotion to Division One at stake”. The first is an argument for another time, but I am doubtful whether the second has worked out quite as Webber anticipated.

Relegation, it is true, is feared by the bigger counties (particularly by their coaches, who usually get the sack). On the other hand, they can reasonably count on being promoted again, if not at the first attempt, then the second. For the smaller clubs, the brief elation of promotion is usually followed by a season of humiliation and immediate relegation (as Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and – although they managed to hang on for a second season – Worcestershire have recently found out). Mike Newell (the coach of Nottinghamshire, who look likely to be relegated) may be worried about his future, but those of the smaller counties still in contention for promotion may equally be feeling some ambivalence about theirs.

Although it is also not impossible that the scenario envisaged by Webber (of a climactic do-or-die shoot out) might happen (Essex and Kent, who, at the time of writing, are first and second, play each other in the last round of matches), the complexity of the points scoring system and the glacial speed at which things happen in Championship cricket militate against it. It is more likely, that Essex -say – will be promoted if they take two bonus points from their last match, unless Sussex take maximum points from theirs (and, of course, if the rain doesn’t make the decision for them).

All of which is a preamble to my account of last week’s game against Essex, and some attempt to compensate for the fact that I missed most of it, due to family commitments. Essex began the match in first place, Leicestershire in second. If Leicestershire had won, they would have been in serious contention for promotion ; if they drew, it would still have been possible ; if, as actually happened, they lost by an innings within three days, then that hope would be reduced to a mere “mathematical possibility”.

There have been various points throughout the season, which I have previously noted, where Leicestershire have failed to press home their advantage (not enforcing the follow on at home against Northants being the most glaring), but the final, fatal, one seems to have occurred on the second day. Leicestershire made 238 (thanks, largely, to Cosgrove, who has been huge this season). Our secret weapon, our midget submarine, our V2, Dieter Klein, soon had Essex “reeling” at 68-5 (his four wickets included Alistair Cook, yorked for 4), but, in the absence of Clint McKay (or a spinner) to deliver a knock-out blow, they soon stopped reeling, and pulled themselves together enough to make 368-8  by the close of play.

The weather for the third day looked promising, with heavy showers forecast all afternoon, but, in the event, it proved to be the kind of day – low cloud, some overnight rain to freshen the pitch – on which you would least fancy your chances against the side with three of the top six wicket-takers in Division 2 (Napier, Porter and Bopara), and the leader in the bowling averages (the – unfortunately – evergreen ex-Fox David Masters).**

But we tried, we really did. With the score on 53-2, and some light drizzle in the air, Mark Cosgrove gave a masterclass in time wasting, apparently suffering, at the same time, an attack of restless leg syndrome that compelled him to wander out to square leg between every ball, and some kind of obsessive syndrome that meant he had to remove every speck of dirt from the wicket before he could face the next delivery. We in the stands did our bit : we opened umbrellas, looked mournfully to the skies, shook our heads, held out our palms, took shelter from the rain (one of the player’s mothers gave a particularly convincing performance, I thought). We won a brief respite of half an hour or so, but it was no use and – as I have said – the innings defeat arrived shortly after tea.

So that is it, I suppose. There are still three games to play : Leicestershire could finish anywhere between second and, not impossibly, last in the table, but I now feel I can return to my contemplation of the dying fall in peace.  There was little drama, no displays of wild emotion, no-one burst into tears (of joy or despair), and there were no squeaky bums in evidence (though, thanks to the wet seats, there were – topically – a few soggy bottoms).

I was, by the way, impressed by what I saw of Alastair Cook ; not on the pitch (where his contribution this season has been significant for Essex), but by his friendly relationship with the visiting supporters, and his patient dealings with various autograph-hunters and selfie-seekers, some senescent, some juvenile : one young Indian boy (wearing a Union Jack t-shirt) seemed particularly overjoyed to have had a picture taken with him.

Late on in the afternoon he had evidently been called away on some important business (which turned out to be about the tour to Bangladesh).  He had just packed away his kit in his (quite modest) 4×4, and started his engine, when a steward approached with a Mother and child in tow. He turned the engine off again, dismounted, and submitted good-humouredly to another lengthy photo-session.  He didn’t really have to do this, and (however awkward his press conferences might be), I was impressed.

* ‘The County Cricket Championship’ : Sportsman’s Book Club, 1958.

** Precisely the sort of “typically English seamers“, of course, that the ECB is determined to discourage. We shall endure.

*** Wishful thinking. Actually three times.

Veni, Vidi, Leachy

Leicestershire v Worcestershire, Grace Road, County Championship, 22-24 May 2016

One of the more plausible solutions to the mystery of the ‘Mary Celeste’ is as follows.  A small fire and a strong smell of fumes had led the ship’s Captain to believe that his entire cargo of denatured alcohol was about to catch fire and explode.  He panicked and ordered the crew to abandon ship.  If he had remained calm, the fire could easily have been extinguished and the cargo made safe.  As it was, neither he nor the crew were ever seen again.

Anyone dropping in at Grace Road at tea on Tuesday afternoon would have been confronted by a similar mystery.  The ground was deserted, the covers were on with no sign of rain, and still warm trays of chips and recently discarded lolly sticks indicated that it had been hurriedly and unexpectedly abandoned.

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Nothing in the ship’s log of the ‘Mary Celeste’ offered a clue as to the coming disaster, and nothing in the scorebook for the first two days’ play suggested much untoward at Grace Road.  Leicestershire had begun more than comfortably at 243-3.  There were some signs that batting was not as easy as the Leicestershire top order had made it seem (some balls kept a little low) when Joe Leach took five wickets to bowl them out for 313 and Worcestershire, in turn, could only muster 274.

I had felt some slight sense of foreboding when I had woken at 5.00 to a carpet of fog (even the best covers can do little to prevent fog creeping under them), but it had burnt off by breakfast-time and, on my way to the ground, I was considering writing about the difficulty of finding the right tone in which to write about a Leicestershire victory.  If the pitch was playing up a little, then 200, or even 150 to add to their first-innings lead should do, and a side as experienced as ours should have no difficulty with that (I thought).

The first Leicestershire wicket to fall (Horton snicking an outswinger to slip) was regrettable, but no great cause for alarm.  The second, though, was the equivalent of that small fire in the ‘Mary Celeste’.  A ball from Leach sprang up alarmingly, caught Neil Dexter’s bat on the splice and spiralled to point.  This seemed to lead them to believe that the pitch was deteriorating rapidly and panic set in.

Cosgrove played an inexplicably airy drive at a straight ball and was bowled for 0 to take them to 4-3 with their three best batsmen already gone.  Robson and Wells were trapped LBW, apparently paralysed with fear by balls that kept slightly low. Pettini and Aadil Ali, perhaps thinking that suicidal singles were their only hope of scoring, ran themselves out.  Niall O’Brien did his best to stem the lemming-flow, but it was a hopeless task and the innings closed , shortly before lunch, on 43.

(If there were scenes of panic in the dressing room, by the way, they were mirrored in the stands as the Members, fearful that the game might end before lunchtime, made a rush for the Meet and Mr. Stew’s delicious lunch-time special.)

Most of the damage (when not purely self-inflicted) was caused by Joe “Leachy” Leach, who finished with match figures of 9-109 .  Cricinfo uses one of the obvious words to describe him, which is “bustling“; another would be “burly“.  He bustles, he hustles, he doesn’t shave too often and he likes to return the ball to the wicket-keeper as close to the batsman’s head as possible.  I don’t remember him going in for too many verbals, but – given that he has a degree in French and philosophy – he might have chosen to instill a sense of existential dread in the batsmen’s minds by flinging a few of the more uncomfortable thoughts from “L’être et le néant” at them.

"All human actions are equivalent and all are on principle doomed to failure - YOU TWAT"

“All human actions are equivalent and all are on principle doomed to failure – YOU TWAT”

Leach is the kind of player whom County supporters adore, if only because he looks, from the boundary, as if he might be one of them.  In reality he is 6’1″ and built like a prop forward, but, compared to the wand-like gymn-bunny physiques of most modern players, he is shaped roughly like Benny the Ball.  Or, as one of the gatemen (a keen student of the game) said to me “He shouldn’t be taking all these wickets – he’s just a stock bowler.  Look at his backside!”.

Worcestershire have a victory song (Leicestershire have one too, but there’s hasn’t been much need recently to translate it from the original Middle English), which is sung to the tune ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ and contains a line about “Leachy” getting in the drinks.  One imagines he took the hint and put this into practice after the game, once he had finished accepting tribute from the conquered Foxes,

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(or perhaps he confounded Cosgrove further by engaging him in a conversation about whether Pascal’s Wager is covered by the ICC’s anti-corruption regulations).

Cosgrove gave a fairly acute assessment of the game in an interview with the ‘Leicester Mercury’: “It was not acceptable … there was definitely a bit of panic … no-one was up to the task … including myself, and it bit us in the backside“.  It is a truism, and I think true, that one freakishly low score is easier to recover from than a persistent string of ordinarily poor ones, but this defeat has come at an inconvenient time.

Tuesday morning was the first session I have seen this season where Leicestershire were not in control ; they have played five matches and dominated four of them, but have only one win to show for it.  After one more 4-day fixture (trickily away at Canterbury), the season then enters the Bermuda Triangle where the odd Championship match is slotted in amongst a slew of 20 and 50 over games, and they may struggle to keep their bearings.

I have (almost) every confidence that they will be able to regain their early season strength when the Championship reconvenes properly in August, but I’m afraid there are some Members who do not share my faith, and who think that, once again, there are dark clouds gathering above Grace Road.

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Old Mother Cricket and Old Father Time

(Trigger warning – contains mild gender stereotyping.)

Leicestershire v Northamptonshire, Grace Road, County Championship, 8-11 May 2016

I mentioned in the last post that I had picked up a copy of Alan Gibson’s ‘Growing Up with Cricket’ in the Supporters’ Club bookshop at Wantage Road the last time I was there.  None of Gibson’s books show him at his best (most of his genius was wasted on journalism) and this one was written under particularly unhappy circumstances, but it has its happier moments, amongst them a description of his attempts, as a child, to find a game that would allow him to generate a precise facsimile of a game of professional cricket by himself in his living room.

He experimented with  various combinations of toy soldiers, spinning discs, cards and pencils, before arriving at an adapted version of a card-based game called ‘Stumpz‘, that was apparently popular in the 1930s.

“I kept at this for years, constantly introducing new subtleties, and in the end managed to produce a game which, I think, set down ball by ball in a scorebook, could not be distinguished from a real one.  It was, naturally, completely unmarketable, but it comforted me especially during the early years of war, when so little cricket was going on …

Interruptions from the weather solved themselves.  In  a small house it was not often possible to keep my apparatus, which covered a medium-sized table, intact between sessions.  Mother would descend and remove it, and cards would have to be reshuffled later, and a new start made from the moment of interruption.  Mother represented the weather.

I developed a complicated system, depending chiefly on the throwing of dice, to decide a light shower, nothing more than a ten-minute break, or anything above it right up to the disaster of “match abandoned”.  She was a forbearing mother, and on the whole my table summers were bedevilled less by rain than a normal English one.”

There is something resonant and suggestive in that phrase “Mother represented the weather“.  It occurs to me that, for the “cricket family” (an often fractious, dysfunctional and, frankly, childish brood), the English weather, in many respects, does resemble a Mother.  Without it the game would not exist, and at times we bask happily, often unexpectedly, in the warmth of its approval.  On the other hand, it can, as arbitrarily and capriciously, remove that warmth and put a sudden stop to our childish pleasures.  A wise child soon learns to anticipate and navigate these variations in the emotional climate, and knows, above all, when not to push its luck.*

It is a measure of how far Leicestershire have advanced, and Northamptonshire declined,  that it is possible to say that a game that the former could, and should, have won inside two days proceeded much as expected, and even to suspect the Foxes of a degree of complacency.   On the first two days the sun shone so brightly on a notably large and festive crowd (mostly Leicestershire supporters, although Northants’ Members had been offered free admission) that our stately pleasure domes provided shade, not shelter.

By the end of the first day Leicestershire had reached 311-5, thanks to runs from Angus Robson (who has otherwise looked a little edgy this season), “Ted” Dexter (who has few obvious distinguishing characteristics, other than being very effective) and the unmistakable figure of Mark Cosgrove (no. 55), who shuffled through most of his runs as though wearing carpet slippers.

PTDC0614

The only vague threat to their equanimity had come from the ever-promising Oli Stone (who bowls with heart and pace and demonstrative gestures, but has managed barely 20 first-class appearances since his debut in 2012) ; at present, Northants’ is a “four-pronged pace attack” that would struggle to spear a soggy chip, and, with Panesar beginning to take wickets again, I should be surprised and disappointed if he were not soon called in to provide some alternative to this relentless and largely futile  seam. (I should also point out that – even without Duckett keeping wicket – they conceded a remarkable 60 extras, mostly in byes.)

On the second day Leicestershire displayed, perhaps, that element of complacency I mentioned earlier by losing their last five wickets for only 28 runs, but – no matter – because they had bowled Northants out for 151 by half past three.  Duckett, the visitors’ best hope, only made 2, and spent the rest of the day wandering about looking like a boy whose Mother had – for no reason that he could understand – locked all his action figures away in a drawer until he had tidied his bedroom.

There cannot have been a spectator in the ground who had not studied the weather forecast, or who was expecting to return on either of the last two days (when rain was predicted), and none I spoke to who could understand why Leicestershire did not enforce the follow on and – with Northamptonshire in clear disarray – stand a fine chance of having victory wrapped up by the end of play.

The only explanation I can suggest is that Leicestershire’s “management team” is from sunny South Australia, where the weather (and, for all I know, the Mothers) are – though sometimes harsh – less capricious, and where batting again (as they chose to do) might have been a more plausible strategy.  In the event, they batted on indifferently under what were already darkening skies to 132-6, before spending the last two days watching the rain fall.

I believe (I wasn’t there) that they finally made it back on to the pitch in time to bowl seven overs at Northants in failing light, the only incident of note being poor Duckett going for a second ball duck (at which point he must have felt as though his Mother had not only locked his action figures away, but accidentally hoovered up his Darth Vader).

If the weather is the Mother of English cricket, then (as any visitor to Lord’s will know) its Father is old and carries a scythe.  He may not be capricious, but stern and inflexible he most certainly is and, if he has decreed that a match is to last four days, then four days it is, and no amount of pleading “but we haven’t finished the game yet!” or “can’t we just have one more innings?” will sway him.  It is a wise child that knows its own parents, as I say, and a wise Captain that keeps an eye on the weather, and a weather eye on the time.

* I’m pleased to say that my own Mother – like Gibson’s – was nothing like this. Many are though, I ‘m told.

 

Slip Slidin’ Away

Leicestershire v Northants, Grace Road, LVCC, 26 & 28 April 2015

Slip slidin’ away
Slip slidin’ away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip slidin’ away*

April over, May just begun and one sixth of the Season gone.  Or, to look at it another way, one eighth of Leicestershire’s County Championship campaign (and a quarter of their home fixtures) over. One draw and one defeat and already the first intimations that the prospect of a successful season is slipping away and even a win sliding out of our grasp. A strange feeling, this slipping and sliding, but familiar, I think, to anyone who has played cricket or followed a team.

To look at it another way, compare the seven hours of the day (11.00-6.00, omitting the Lunch interval) to the six months of the Season (April to September).  April is the first hour, when anything is possible and all attention is on the cricket,

New day

May the second session when the first advantage has been gained, but no loss beyond recovery.  June and July are a long afternoon session, when the attention begins to wander and the game begins to slide, the day and the Summer to slip away. By the first session after tea the crowd is slipping away, by August the first leaves of Autumn are on the outfield, Winter sports are encroaching and, however hard you try to avert your gaze, the end is in sight. The last session may be the best part of the day, September a glorious Indian Summer or a damp, dimly-lit fading away, but it is a time for looking back, not forwards, because there is nothing to look forward to but the next season.

This slipping away has a dream-like quality to it, an inexorable dream-logic against which reason and will seem useless, all physical action reduced to slow motion. In this game Leicestershire, in the bright confident mornings of the first two days, had established a first-innings lead of 54 and by lunch on the third day had five Northants wickets down for little more than 150. Cosgrove must have emerged after lunch with happy thoughts of a three-day win (and, perhaps, a few well-deserved beers in celebration)

Post-prandial Cosgrove

By the time he and his battered team took refuge in the pavilion for tea,

Tea-time

he and they must have been wondering if Mr. Stew had slipped something funny into their lunch, if the afternoon had been just the illusory result of some troubled post-prandial snooze. First Newton and Cobb took away the advantage, then Willey and Kleinveldt had played like batsmen in a comic (THWACK! BIFF!) to take the score over 400.  At least six or seven balls went just to hand and slipped out again or clipped fingertips on the way to the boundary, huge clouts aimed over mid-wicket spiralled over the third man boundary or returned to earth, covered in ice, somewhere in the region of an absent extra cover. As we old hands in the stands shook our heads sadly (“they’re letting it slide it’s slipping away“) the faster the totals on the scoreboard whirred round like the pages of a calendar in a cartoon, the faster Ollie Freckingham hurtled to the wicket

Freck, hurtling

the slower the balls seemed to come out and the faster they flew down the abyss of the leg side.

So, yes, we lost, but it is barely May and tomorrow (or today, as I type) is another day, another bright confident morning. Even in September, there is the comfort that it is only the end of one season and we know another will come, if not for us all. Compare, though, the hours of a cricketing day to the three-score years and ten of a man’s life.  The first two sessions are childhood and adolescence, the long afternoon middle age (when we tend to find things slip slidin’ away). The after tea session is, as I have said, when our friends start slipping away early and the last session … well, I am personally at about 4.25 and furtively consulting my bus timetable, so I won’t have to wait too long to find out.  And, of course, there is no next game, no new season to look forward to, or, as the poet put it (rather well, I feel) “soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux, nox est perpetua una dormienda”**.

With that cheering thought in mind, I look forward to proceeding to Luton tomorrow for some Minor Counties cricket.

* from Paul Simon’s “Slip slidin’ away”. Not a song I particularly liked at the time, but, as it’s come to me unbidden after close to 40 years, it must have something to say to me.

** Suns may set and rise again, but, when once our brief light is extinguished, we must sleep through an everlasting night” – Gaius Valerius Catullus.

Groundhog Day at Grace Road

Leicestershire v Leicestershire, Grace Road, 1st April 2015 (Intra-club friendly)

Is Winter over? Is Spring here? Has the season started yet?

I can report that a crowd of many tens turned out at Grace Road on Wednesday in search of answers to these questions.  According to the time-honoured ritual, that lovable ol’ marsupial Punxsutawney Cozzie was expected to emerge from his burrow.  If he stayed out, Spring was here – if he returned to the warmth of the pavilion, then not.

After an hour of warmish sunshine, things were looking good.  Cozzie emerged at about 12.30, sniffed the air and played a couple of strokes …

Cosgrove 4

before (showing a commendable turn of speed) he was driven back by a sudden hailstorm.

Cosgrove 1

Hopes rose again after an early (though never too early) lunch …

Cosgrove 2

… but were dashed again a couple of balls later as he, very sensibly, turned tail and headed back to his burrow.

Cosgrove 3

 So, when will the season start? Maybe next week, maybe …

(I should point out that, in spite of the adverse conditions, I did see 20 overs of cricket.  Some consider that a whole innings these days.)