Darkness Visible

Leicestershire (120 & 168) v Derbyshire (139 & 214), Grace Road, County Championship, 27-30 May 2019

Derbyshire won by 65 runs

If a marketing department, charged with devising a new cricket-flavoured product that would appeal to a wider audience, were asked to describe the antithesis of what they were after, this match would have had most of the essential elements. A four day game that would have been over in three, had it not been stretched by frequent breaks for rain, played mostly under lights because of low-lying cloud ; one fifty, and only three other innings of over forty (all compiled methodically by the same two batsmen) ; only one total of over 200 ; no sixes – a scorecard from a past era.  So, I should have enjoyed it.

I would have enjoyed it more had Leicestershire ever seemed likely to approach close enough to their fourth innings target of 234 to provide some element of dramatic tension (or ‘jeopardy’, as the moderns have it) ; instead, they fell short by 65 runs, leaving me to thumb through the thesaurus in search of synonyms for ‘weary sense of inevitability’, and look for something else to do, with what, frustratingly, was a perfect afternoon for cricket, after three days of darkness and showers.

Leicestershire spirits were at their highest, perhaps, at the end of Derbyshire’s first innings ; having chosen to bat, the visitors were bowled out for 139, which seemed, at the time, to be a testament to the (undeniable) strength of our seam bowling. By the end of the day, with Leicestershire on 55-4, and Ackermann already dismissed, it seemed more a tribute to the inability of batsmen on both sides to cope with some good, but not truly outstanding, fast-medium seam bowling in what were helpful, but not unusual, conditions for England in May. It would be a low-scoring game.

When play resumed the next day, there was some hope that Leicestershire might achieve a first innings lead, but only if Hassan Azad and Harry Dearden could stay in. The ability to stay in has, until recently, been Dearden’s most obvious talent, but on this occasion it deserted him with the score on 82 (perhaps he should now be classed as a ‘one-day specialist’). With Tom Taylor missing through injury, and Dieter Klein (a hit or miss batsman) unusually high in the order at eight, this exposed a last five who managed thirteen runs between them. Hassan Azad, in his fourth Championship match, was forced to play the elder statesman, and must have been tactfully exasperated to be left stranded on 46 not out, having as good as carried his bat. The total was 120.

The bowlers whom Leicestershire had found so hard to play were Antonio ‘Tony’ Palladino (5-29) and Logan van Beek (3-20). Palladino is nearly thirty-six and an archetype of the kind of English seam bowler who is expected to take wickets in the English early season ; although I appreciate that it is easier said than done, you would have thought that anyone with aspirations to play County cricket would have evolved some strategy to play bowlers of his type. Hassan Azad’s seems to have been to listen to all the favourite truisms of junior coaches of the old school – ‘keep your head still’, ‘watch the ball on to the bat’, ‘straight bat’, ‘wait for the bad ball’ … but if I carry on too far down that route I shall find myself saying ‘it’s not rocket science’ (and smoking a pipe).

Another heavy shower (in real time this narrative would have been punctuated by them) after tea prompted me to leave for home : the prospect of play resuming, if it ever did, seemed likely to promise only a few hours in near-drizzle, watching Derbyshire, having been let off the hook, wriggle off to swim to a comfortable lead (they reached 106-2). In fact, as usually happens in these circumstances, Leicestershire offered enough hope to make returning the next day seem worthwhile by taking six quick wickets in a final session that extended well into the early evening (ah, the roller-coaster of emotions!). I would not, though, in all honesty, say that I regretted my decision.

As sure as night follows day, a successful evening session was followed, the next morning, by the Derbyshire tail-enders being allowed to stretch the target for victory from 179 to 234 (Palladino and van Been – those maverick NYC crime-fighters – again being the culprits).

The most memorable aspect of Leicestershire’s reply were two – in the circumstances – culpably unnecessary strokes from Horton and Cosgrove that must have had Hassan Azad, who was again forced to watch helplessly from the other end, averting his eyes to avoid embarrassing his seniors.  In fairness, Horton’s shot seemed marginally more explicable in the replay than it had from the mid-wicket boundary ; from there he had looked to have been bowled trying to smash a straight delivery over long off, missed and been bowled (in fact, it had pitched outside off and he had edged it on to his stumps).

Cosgrove’s looked poor from any angle. He had taken the lead in putting on 58 with Azad, negotiating the seam in a composed and responsible fashion, when Derbyshire invited Wayne Madsen to bowl a few overs of his net-quality off-breaks (four overs of which comprised the only spin of the game). Setting a trap, so ill-disguised that it should not have snared a partially sighted heffalump, Madsen allowed Cosgrove to loft one drive into the sight screen, in the sure and certain hope that he would try to repeat the stroke two balls later and be caught at long on. When precisely this occurred, even Cosgrove did not have the effrontery to perform his usual dumbshow of disbelief, but traipsed off shame-faced, while his young partner took a keen interest in the buckling of his pads. Cosgrove ought to be – and generally is – a better batsman than that.

Even so, and even when Ackermann was bowled by a genuinely fine swinging delivery from the mellifluous Luis Reece, a disinterested observer would still have backed Leicestershire, on 110-4 at the close of play, to overhaul the target of 234 on the final day. Not being disinterested, I would have settled for a couple of sessions in the sun (and, at last, there was sun) watching my side make a valiant attempt at the total, even if they were to fall slightly short. But, in place of hope, there was that ‘weary sense of inevitability’ I mentioned earlier (or perhaps ‘fatigued feeling of inescapability’, by way of variation).

Hassan Azad and Harry Dearden, who again bore the burden of reviving the innings on their youthful shoulders, offered a brief respite from the sense of hopelessness by still occupying the crease at 11.30, but both fell to Reece shortly afterwards (the lifting of the cloud cover did not seem to have inhibited his ability to swing the ball). None of the later batsmen had anything to offer, and the game ground to a halt at 12.30, leaving me time to catch the second half of the 2nd XI game at Kibworth on the way home, so at least I had my afternoon in the sun. Many of the spectators had cut their losses by going straight there.

This game was the first of six Championship games in seven weeks, three of them at home and one at Northampton, before we are thrown out of the T20 window. They find us in the odd position of having two sets of good seam bowlers (Gavin Griffiths, bowling well in the Toose, must be champing on the bit), but very little batting, which is like having two nice shirts, but no trousers.

As I write, we are battling (not unvaliantly, in fairness) to avoid an innings defeat against Lancashire : I see we have abandoned the experiment of opening with Ateeq Javid (I hope he can find some other role), and adopted my pre-season suggestion of substituting Swindells for Hill in four-day cricket. There have been hints of revival from Horton and Cosgrove, and we must hope for a long, hot Indian Summer from both, and the returning Dexter, otherwise, barring some shrewd activity in the loan market, I may find the prospect of not returning to Grace Road until late September (or at all) more of a relief than I would wish.

See you on the other side (probably).

 

 

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Apocalypse Postponed

Leicestershire CCC (302 & 233) v Worcestershire CCC (553-6 dec.), County Championship, Grace Road, 11-14 April 2019 Worcestershire won by an innings & 18 runs

Leicestershire CCC (377-4) v Worcestershire CCC (339 all out), RL50, Grace Road, 21st April, 2019 Leicestershire won by 38 runs

Strolling around Grace Road before the Championship game began, I happened to observe a tabby cat having a rather elaborate crap in the Milligan Road flowerbeds (I bet you don’t get that quality of pre-match entertainment at the IPL). It is a pity that Leicestershire’s management team did not have an augur on hand to interpret this omen before choosing to bat (I had been expecting to see Worcestershire bowl, but a game of after-you-Cecil-no-after-you-Claude had led to a toss, which Leicestershire had won). Apparently coach Nixon and captain Horton had wanted to bat, bowling coach Mason to bowl : I accept that you would not generally want to pick an argument with Matt Mason, but, in retrospect, it was a pity Nixon and Horton did not press their case harder.

For the first few overs, the point had seemed moot. Fresh from his success against Sussex, Tom Taylor seemed to finding a little movement out of the air, and openers Mitchell and Fell were appropriately respectful. The first changes in the bowling brought apparent vindication for Mason : Fell seemed to be beaten for pace by Davis and Ben Mike had his replacement, D’Oliveira, caught in the slips. Mike is still at the new puppy stage where every new experience is a joy and he expects everything he attempts to succeed. This belief must have been sorely tested throughout a long morning and afternoon of bowling at Daryl Mitchell and Hamish Rutherford, who put on 166 between them.

In my preview of the season, without the aid of augurs, I feared that, in the absence of Mohammad Abbas, a batsman who could play one of our seamers could play all of them, and that man was Daryl Mitchell. A pack of English seamers pursuing Mitchell across the wastes of Grace Road has the quality of a pack of wild dogs pursuing a wildebeest for hours across the Serengeti, with the difference that the unfortunate ruminant will eventually tire, whereas, in Mitchell’s case, it tends to be the bowlers. His centuries (this was the 36th of his career) resemble a volley from a firing squad, in that, although none of the individual shots may stick in the mind, the over all effect is devastating. His innings ended with the third ball after tea, when he absent-mindedly (perhaps still savouring the after-taste of one of Mr. Stew’s macaroons) flicked an off-break from Ackermann to slip.

By now, the newly-laid pitch, enigmatic at the start, had revealed its true character as a bit of a pudding, and the Worcestershire batsman queued up, as tray-bearers at a cafeteria, to eat their fill. Rutherford completed his own century, and Wessels made 43. There was a second moment of triumph for Ben Mike as he had Whitely tripping over his own feet in being trapped lbw on 49 : the exuberance of his celebration gave reassurance that his spirit had not been entirely crushed. As the game entered far into the second day, and a nasty, insinuating north wind crept into every corner of the ground, penetrating the stoutest of anoraks, Worcestershire’s acting Captain Ben Cox deferred declaring until he had made a century of his own : this having been duly completed, the innings closed on 553-6, leaving Leicestershire needing 403 to avoid the follow-on.

With the options being an innings defeat, or dying from a lampreyish surfeit of runs of the kind that was being served up at Sophia Gardens, the postponed Brexitapocalypse that had been scheduled for Friday evening might have provided a welcome distraction. As it was, Leicestershire without batting especially badly in either innings, never looked capable of accumulating enough runs to avoid defeat, which was postponed for just long enough to allow the crowd to enjoy their Sunday lunches.

With the exception of Captain Paul Horton, all of the top five batsmen made one half century and one single figure score. In the first innings, Ateeq Javid showed a good grasp of what was required by taking close to five hours to score 67 : a nervy character, who never looks entirely comfortable at the crease, he has adapted to his new role as an opener by adopting (or exaggerating) a square-on, bottom-handed gouging style of batting, that will be forgiven for as long as it is effective. Apart from his century against Loughborough, this was only his second half century for the Foxes, and, in the second innings, Morris found a way through his determined defence to bowl him for five.

Hassan Azad, on the other hand, makes a virtue of his limited range of strokes (his Twitter handle is ‘Bat pad man’) : in the first innings he had little opportunity to show what is incapable of, falling lbw to Morris off his fifth ball, but in the second he accumulated with a prudence that would have impressed Mr. Dawes Junior to make a second Championship half-century. As Charlie Shreck will attest, his chaste resistance to temptation brings out the devil in fast bowlers, and Tongue subjected him to a succession of unusually threatening bouncers, all of which he prudently swayed away from, until the nastiest of the lot struck him on the glove on its way to the gully.

Leicestershire have two batsmen of genuine quality – Cosgrove and Ackermann – who rarely seem to make substantial scores in the same innings : Cosgrove managed 67 and 0, Ackermann 5 and 69. If the scoring rate had been recorded by a heart monitor, the spike at the start of Cosgrove’s innings would have brought the medics running, as he hit Wayne Parnell for eight boundaries off nine balls. Giving the impression that he feels he is in the form of his life, he attempted something similar off his fifth ball of the second innings, but saw it ping straight to the cover fieldsman.

Cosgrove and Ackermann display contrasting attitudes to dismissal : whereas Ackermann exhibits an indifference to the vicissitudes of fortune that Marcus Aurelius might have considered excessive, Cosgrove moves from denial (remaining immobile at the crease for as long as decently possible) to rage, cursing his way back to the pavilion, while the younger players make themselves scarce on the balcony, like children forewarned that their Dad has pranged his car on the way home.

Of the others, poor Harry Dearden was relegated to no. 7 in both innings by the insertion of a nightwatchman, and seems to be getting the worse of the swap with Ateeq Javid. Lewis Hill now has the honour of a burger in the Meet named after him (containing chorizo)

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: I was tempted to say you could at least guarantee that it wouldn’t give you the runs, but that would be too much scatology for one post, and anyway he did make a few.

Leicestershire can sometimes use the term ‘all-rounder’ too loosely, but Tom Taylor batted well enough to justify it. His rival for the title ‘New Ben Raine’ (as eagerly awaited as once was the ‘New Botham‘), Ben Mike’s sense of youthful invincibility led him to aim a great hoick at a ball when he was on one that attained more height than distance, and was caught. He was more circumspect in the second : he had, perhaps, been reminded of his responsibilities, or had his e-numbers monitored.

Worcestershire’s bowling, even in the absence of captain-talisman Joe Leach, was good enough to make me relieved that, thanks to the daft schedule for this competition, we only have to play them once. The last time I saw Josh Tongue he was tall but spindly, and didn’t look terribly threatening : he has now, as all grand-parents like to say, grown into ever such a big boy and bowled with considerable pace. James Taylor was at the ground, perhaps to cast an eye over him (unless he was just there to collect the unsold copies of his book). He would also have witnessed Charlie Morris, a name previously unknown to me, and possibly him, and not a regular in the side, take 7-45, whose ‘whippy’, dog-thrower, pace had been too much for our tail, openers and Mark Cosgrove.

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Still, to slip on the gaffer’s sheepskin (or El Cap’s natty crew neck), if we had been offered 25 points after the first two games at the start of the season, we would have taken that. The very welcome news that Mohammad Abbas should be available, as far as we know, for the rest of the season, gives me confidence that the win over Sussex will not be the last, although, given the strength of our batting, I should expect them to be in low scoring games, even on this pitch.

The Championship game was followed, with the intervention of a couple of one-day defeats for Leicestershire, by a 50-over game between the same two sides, as a satyr play would sometimes follow a tragedy.  I was only able to watch the first couple of hours, which was a pity, because Leicestershire victories are not so common that I can afford to shun the opportunity to witness one.

Initially, with Leicestershire on 5-2, the second game seemed likely to be a continuation of the first ; in the stands there was disquiet that the planned day out in the sun might be prematurely terminated.  Then, as the unseasonable sun shone on a pitch which might euphemistically be described as ‘true’, the world was turned upside down : the Worcestershire seamers, irresistible lords of creation one Sunday, the next became the helpless playthings of the batsmen they had once disdained.

Ackermann, unsurprisingly, made 152* (though it seems curmudgeonly to say so, it might have been more useful if he could have done so in the first game) ; Lewis Hill, perhaps buoyed by the popularity of his burgers, made a maiden limited overs century, and Harry Dearden, who had led the way in turning the tide, was, at last, able to demonstrate why Leicestershire have thought it worthwhile persisting with him (it was a shame that he could not quite complete his own hundred).

On the face of it, it would be a shame, too, if players like Dearden and Hill, and the side as a whole, began to flower in this form of cricket at the exact point when it is about to be devalued.  On the other hand, if ‘development competition‘ turns out to mean only that the players chosen for the ‘Hundred’ will not be available in the RL50, then the outcome may be that Leicestershire wins, and runs for Dearden, might become less of a rarity.

Though the ground was far from full, there was a very reasonable turnout for the one-day game (certainly as compared to the Saturday and Sunday of the four-day game, when I have seen bigger crowds gathered at the sites of minor road traffic accidents).  I wonder, again, whether it would have been any smaller if Dearden and Hill had been making merry against a Worcestershire side trimmed of its stars, given the sun, the Bank Holiday mood, and the quality of the catering.

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The Art of Falling Apart

Leicestershire CCC  (100 & 196) v Warwickshire CCC (400-9 dec.), Grace Road, 10-12 September 2018 (Warwickshire won by an innings and 104 runs) 

Leicestershire CCC (321) v Durham CCC (61 & 66), Grace Road, 18-19 September 2018 (Leicestershire won by an innings and 194 runs)

I ended my last post by expressing the hope (hope against hope) that neither Leicestershire’s season, nor the team, would fall apart in September. The first has certainly happened : having lost only two games, both very narrowly, in the first half of the season, since the defeat against Kent we have lost five times, by margins varying from 132 to 328 runs. It is some compensation that we are not alone in having made a succession of low totals. The last month of the season increasingly resembles the climax to an episode of ‘Wacky Races’, filled with spectacular crashes, bits falling off the competitors and some improbable leaps. Predictably so, some would say, if that month is September.

The defeat against Warwickshire was nothing if not predictable. The soon-to-be Champions featured five players with Test experience, and the Division’s three leading run-scorers (three of only four to have averaged over 40). Leicestershire’s cobbled-together side featured two bowlers brought in from Minor Counties, to replace the soon-to-be permanently absent Raine and Chappell, and the injured Griffiths (the regular 2nd XI seamers, too, were injured). Unsurprisingly, Warwickshire exercised their prerogative to bowl first (the game was to be largely played under lights), and, to no-one’s surprise, Leicestershire were bowled out for exactly 100. Barker and Woakes were too swinging for the top order, and Stone, though sparingly used, was too fast for the tail.

There was, at least, an element of comedy to the dismissal of Mark Cosgrove (for the spectators, if not the batsman). Neil Dexter had looked to get off the mark with a single that would have been ambitious had his partner been Speedy Gonzales. Cosgrove is capable of a surprising turn of speed, but it takes him a while to achieve terminal velocity, achieving it, in this case, roughly as he entered the pavilion, the wicket having long since been broken by Woakes in his follow through. If Woakes had really been ‘the nicest man in cricket’, he might have taken pity and deliberately thrown wide.

I left early, having been called away (I have been called away a lot recently, for one reason or another), but stayed long enough to see opener Dominic Sibley (who seems to have grown since I last saw him play for Surrey) make 50 off 49 balls (mostly off one of our Minor Counties seamers, who was quickly removed from the attack). By the end of the day, Sibley had made more runs than Leicestershire on his own, and Warwickshire had nearly doubled our total for the loss of three wickets.

It rained overnight, and for most of the morning. When play began at 2.00, in front of an understandably sparse crowd, the conditions, with the wicket freshly-spritzed, were ideally suited to the seam of Dexter and Abbas. Jonathan Trott resumed on 34, and took forty minutes to make another eight, before mis-timing a pull. This would be the last time that any of us would see Trott in action at Grace Road, and it seemed an appropriate way for him to take his leave, mostly unapplauded, but having seen off the (slight) threat to his side. As conditions eased and Leicestershire’s bowling resources were stretched too thin, Ambrose, Hain and Woakes moved easily to within sight of 400, a target that was reached first thing the next morning, followed by a declaration.

Although Leicestershire offered slightly more resistance in their second innings, the result seemed a formality, and most of the day was spent speculating about comings and goings : amongst other things, I was told that Chappell was definitely moving to Nottinghamshire, which turned out to be true, and that Keith Barker, who had taken eight wickets, would be joining us at Leicestershire, which, unfortunately, turned out not to be.

A ray of light in the gloom

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was the performance of Ben Mike, in his second game, who stuck to his task with the ball to take three wickets, and was the top scorer in both innings. Having struck Patel, in a feather-ruffling act of lèse-majesté, for two straight sixes, his was the last wicket to fall, attempting bravely to pull Stone for another six. Like Ben Raine, for whom he looks a plausible replacement, he strikes me as someone who can always be counted upon to go down fighting, which is a useful characteristic for a Leicestershire player to possess.

In contrast to Trott, who had slipped out unnoticed by the back door, as it were, Paul Collingwood’s every move, in his last appearance at Grace Road, was greeted with a standing ovation, to the point where, given his performance, it might, though motivated by genuine affection, have become a slight embarrassment to him. The first ovation came when he led his side on to the field, having, not unreasonably, chosen to field.

Leicestershire opened with the novel pairing of Sam Evans and Atiq Javid : at first, I assumed that regular opener Harry Dearden must have missed his bus, but it was revealed to be a deliberate tactical switch, and a successful one, with Atiq, whose average in the Championship prior to this game was in single figures, allowed to give free rein to his defensive instincts to make a maiden fifty at Grace Road. Dearden too, when he batted at five, appeared more at ease, as if the move had allowed him to loosen his stays a little.

Though Atiq’s was the only fifty of the innings, all of Leicestershire’s batsmen reached double figures, to finish the day on a hopeful 316-8. Most creditably, Mark Cosgrove, who is struggling through an unprecedented loss of form, managed to gouge out 38 painfully acquired runs, persistently attempting to play his favourite off-side strokes to balls that didn’t really invite them. If a slimmer batsmen, or one who has less hope of recovering his form, was struggling so to do what had been used to doing effortlessly, the effect would be more tragical.

Leicestershire’s total would have been smaller had Collingwood not dropped two catches in the slips (though, needless to say, he received a standing ovation as he left the field).

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Of the bowlers, the mountainous Rushworth

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deserved more than his two wickets. Mark Wood, though apparently pained by his ankles, was treated respectfully, watched by James Taylor, presumably there with his scout’s cap on (unless he, too, was there to say goodbye to Collingwood).

Whatever else you can say about this season at Grace Road, it has rarely been dull, and what turned out to be the last day there this year coincided with the arrival of Storm Ali. At the storm’s height, the players paused to gaze anxiously at one of the floodlights, which had begun to sway alarmingly : the only way that the season could have ended any more dramatically would have been if it had blown over and demolished the Meet.

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The day had begun with a slight disappointment for Leicestershire, their last two wickets falling with the total still short of the 350 required for another bonus point (Mohammad Abbas later apologised for having played a “lazy shot”). It was at this point that the wind really began to get up (particularly the Durham batsmen). With his fourth delivery, Abbas, bowling with the swelling gale behind him, a rider on the storm, took the wicket of Cameron Steel (who had scored a double century in the same fixture last year) ; by the end of the eleventh over he had taken five wickets, with the score on 18. Bowling into the gale, Neil Dexter had bowled five consecutive maidens.

Abbas’s last victim had been that of Paul Collingwood, who was cheered to the wicket, and cheered back again one ball later.

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On another day, I would have expected the visitors to have found some way to recover a little ground, even if only through the thrashing of the tail, but, as the gale reached its peak, the batsmen seemed as spooked as cats in a thunderstorm. Though efforts were made to tether it, the bell that is rung to signal the start of play began to ring of its own accord, like the ghostly church bells of a drowned village, tolling the knell for each departing batsman, and, at times, it seemed as if the sightscreen might blow over, flattening them before they could reach the wicket.

Like jackals finishing off a lion’s kill, Dexter (whose figures were 7-6-1-1), Griffiths and Mike polished off the remaining batsmen. Alex Lees, who had, at least, battened down the hatches while others abandoned ship, narrowly missed carrying his bat for a single figure score. Research soon revealed that the total of 61 was Durham’s lowest first-class score, a record that was in danger of being broken when they batted again, until a last wicket stand of seven between Rushworth and Wood enabled them to reach the comparative respectability of 66.

Mohammad Abbas, who may not have been quite unplayable, but was certainly largely unplayed, had taken another five wickets (his powers perhaps enhanced by his newly awarded “gold fox“),

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to give him 10-52 in the match. Collingwood received his final ovation, about two hours after his previous one (including the lunch interval), as he left the field for the last time, having been bowled by Abbas for five. His expression as he left the field was hard to read, but I don’t think it signalled unmixed delight.

 

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There was further applause as Collingwood was the first to congratulate Abbas, as he (modest to the last) had to be pushed into leading the Leicestershire players from the pitch.

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From the Leicestershire dressing room soon came the merry, if unmelodious, sound of Paul Nixon leading the community singing, and the prising off of beer bottle tops : from the Durham side, a silence so deep and ominous that it could be felt half way down Milligan Road.

The last few games of a season, as departing players are left out and new players introduced, sometimes reminds me of the publishing fad of printing the first chapter of its sequel at the end of a novel, as an inducement to buy. The sequel to Leicestershire’s season seems a lot more enticing if it will feature Mohammad Abbas (as, happily, it should), rather than the Abbas-less sequel suggested by the last game of the season (a defeat away to, of all people, Glamorgan).

Although the endless love-smothering of Collingwood felt a little incongruous in the circumstances, it does suggest an understandable desire not to allow players to slip from sight without some appropriate farewell. It seems a pity that Ned Eckersley, whose release was announced shortly before the Durham game, was not allowed one last home game. Rather as when someone has died unexpectedly, I tried to recall my final sight of him in Leicestershire colours, which must have been of him being bowled by Keith Barker for a perfectly honourable 77-minute 23. If I’d known at the time, I would have clapped a lot longer and harder.

It seems churlish to complain about an excess of excitement, but I do sometimes yearn for the kind of season’s end we used to have in the days of a one division Championship, when sides with nothing to play for would drift off into the close season through somnolent draws, as if in a mildly opiated haze (which, at least, allowed some space for reflection).

With Leicestershire down in the valleys, I tried a day at Northampton, where Northants, who have had a season that has been poor even by Leicestershire’s recent standards, were taking on Sussex, badly deflated by having been overtaken at the last minute by Kent, but even here there was no peace to be found : again, twenty wickets fell in the day, though, on this occasion, ten from each side, and both sides managed to creep into three figures.

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Bye!

The very last day of the season took me to Trent Bridge, where Nottinghamshire were due to resume their second innings needing another 215 to avoid an innings defeat, with seven wickets remaining. Clearly, there was little chance of Nottinghamshire saving the match, but I hoped they might spin things out for long enough for me to see some of those long shadows on the County Ground.

As I was contemplating where to sit, Ben Slater was caught behind by Trescothick from the bowling of Craig Overton. As I took my seat, Samit Patel was out in the same way to his first ball (prompting an unimpressed Nottinghamshire supporter to shout “Why not give him a standing ovation?”). Overton’s first ball to Wessels was identical to the previous two, and there seemed nothing the batsman could do other than nick it to Trescothick. It was a good job that Trescothick had announced that he wouldn’t be retiring for another year, or we would never have got home for all the ovations.

My season ended shortly before lunch, with the sun still high in the sky, and the shadows only slightly lengthening.

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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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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.