The End of the Tunnel

Leicestershire CCC (308 & 189) v Northamptonshire CCC (357 & 142-3), County Championship, Grace Road, 10-13 September 2019

Leicestershire lost by 7 wickets

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Keeping the flag flying

The cliché that comes to mind, as Leicestershire’s season approaches its end, is the one about light at the end of the tunnel. Watching their progress has certainly too often resembled stumbling through the deep gloom of an abandoned railway tunnel, although – to be fair – with less danger of being run into by a manic cyclist, or bitten by a rat. As always, at the end of a season, the optimist will glimpse some points of light, some hope that next year might be better than this : the pessimist may feel that the main cause for optimism is that we will not have to witness another Leicestershire defeat for the next six months.

The brightest point of light in the season past, by some measure, has been the form of Hassan Azad, who, at the time of writing, has made more runs than any other English batsman* (and, according to one keen statistician, occupied the crease for longer). Given that he was only offered a contract at the start of the season, at the age of 25, this is remarkable. However, batsmen who have remarkable first seasons tend to attract attention, with plans being devised to counter them, and, in spite of the fact that he made 86 in the first innings, I thought there were worrying signs that Northamptonshire had discovered a key to snuffing his light out.

Although the precise configuration of the field varied, Northants’ strategy, in the first innings, was to offer Hassan the chance to play his two favourite scoring strokes – the clip off his hips and the off-side steer – but only through narrow channels through a phalanx of slips and gullies (on both leg and off sides). For close to four hours, he found those channels with what football commentators describe as ‘slide-rule precision’ (a metaphor that has survived the obsolescence of the technology), miscalculating only once, when he was dropped at leg gully by Dougie Bracewell.

Azad field

We’ve got you surrounded!

Bracewell, summoned from New Zealand as a last minute replacement for Kemar Roach, appeared still to be recovering from the flight, the waywardness of his bowling a temptation even to Hassan, let alone the now conspicuously in-form Cosgrove. Bracewell’s beard and general swarthiness do, however, mean that he fits in well with Northants’ battery of brisk-to-medium pacers (Sanderson, Proctor, Hutton and the newly arrived Berg), who would not look out of place crewing a pirate ship on the Spanish main.

Leicestershire’s innings followed the overly familiar script. Paul Horton lasted two balls and Ackermann (it being Cosgrove’s turns to make the runs) patted Berg’s first ball to point. When Cosgrove and Azad had taken the score to 150-2, Cosgrove, to his apparent astonishment, was bowled by Sanderson, and Hassan, to the astonishment of everyone, was bowled shortly afterwards by Proctor. Dexter, who seems to be fading out of the game like a ghost, was only visible for one ball. 183-5.

At this point there was a welcome variation in the script. George Rhodes, a recent acquisition from Worcestershire, was described by Paul Nixon as having been signed to ‘add a bit of grit to the middle order’, which, as he correctly diagnosed, has been lacking it recently. Watched by his father Steve, he displayed the requisite grit by batting for a little over four hours to make an unbeaten 61 ; the lower order chipped in to take the total to 308.

If Rhodes represented a pinprick of light (it was good that he made a career best score on his debut, less encouraging that 61 is his career best), a brighter flare was the debut of Alex Evans. An academy product and student at Loughborough, currently rather gangling, with a long run and a whirling action, he followed a nervously loose first over with the early wickets of Newton and Wakely.  If nothing else, it was a delight to see someone whose wickets seemed to bring him so much pleasure.

There followed one of those long, balmily soporific, afternoons when nothing much seems to happen and thoughts, along with early Autumn leaves, start to drift, that, in some ways, epitomise the pleasures of watching County cricket. Unfortunately, when I awoke from my reverie (or doze), the nothing that had happened was Leicestershire not taking the wickets of Keogh or Rossington, the pair having put on a stand of 148 to take the score from 156-4 to 304-5, and the game away from Leicestershire’s loose grasp. To their credit, the bowlers restricted the final total to 357, encouragingly short of my prediction of 400. I don’t believe, though, that a single Leicestershire supporter would, if attached to a lie-detector, have predicted a home victory.

Leicestershire’s second innings was the same again, only with the unwelcome subtraction of runs from Hassan Azad. This time, Northants, rather than offering opportunities for risky runs, blocked up his channels completely by inserting a fine leg and third man, and invaded his personal space with a silly point and a short leg. Blocked in, like a badger in his sett, and with no opportunities for risk-free runs, he stopped scoring altogether, making a solitary run from the first ten overs. In the twelfth over, a ball from Berg leaped up at him a little and he edged to slip.

Northants also seemed to have an idea that he might be vulnerable to the short ball, and he received a few from over the wicket (as a left-hander). As Charlie Shreck discovered to his cost, attempting to intimidate Hassan can have unwelcome consequences, but they succeeded in hitting him twice, once on the shoulder, turning his back on the ball, and once on the helmet, ducking into one that kept a little low (luckily he came through the concussion protocol, because we would have had difficulty finding a like-for-like replacement). I hope none of the other Counties were taking notes (or reading this), or he (and we) may have a testing time next season.

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Come out with your hands on your head!

After that … well you could, if you felt so inclined, write it yourself. Horton lasted half as long as he had in the first innings.  Cosgrove looked certain of a big score before – to his horrified amazement – being given out LBW for 8. Ackermann (it being his turn) made a cultured and responsible 60, there was a stand of 51 between Dexter and Parkinson that ensured the game would stretch to a fourth day, and there was a slight twitch of the tail – 187 all out. Dexter’s 42 earned him an appreciative but subdued response : if, as seems possible, that was his last first-class innings, the end was in keeping with what has been a fine, but, I think, sometimes under-appreciated career.

The Umpires distinguished themselves in this innings by equalling the world record for LBWs given (eight). One consequence of the introduction of DRS has been to demonstrate how difficult it is for even experienced Umpires to adjudicate accurately on LBWs from 22 yards away, so, from the boundary and a variety of oblique angles, I could not argue with their decisions, but, equally, I do wonder whether all of them would have survived close scrutiny. Only Cosgrove expressed much surprise at having been given out, but no more so than he usually does when he has been bowled.

On the last day, Leicestershire did not suggest much awareness that they were defending a target of 141, as opposed to 341. Slow left-armer Callum Parkinson, who is inexorably turning into a white ball specialist, was given a longer spell than usual, and bowled economically – but that seemed rather beside the point. With Mohammad Abbas absent, and unreplaced, the best chance of bowling Northants out might have been the wild debutant Evans : encouragingly he took a wicket in his two overs – less encouragingly, he was ruled out from the next game with a strain. Cannily, the Umpires delayed lunch until Northants had won, prompting Wakely and noted trencherman Richard Levi (who had earlier struck an interesting fashion note by wearing a cap on top of his sunhat) to polish the innings off.

As I write, Northamptonshire have won again against Durham, and look very likely to be promoted (while Leicestershire are feebly attempting to stave off the inevitable in Cardiff **). I am pleased for Northants (if nothing else, with Nottinghamshire relegated, it means that I will have some Division One cricket within reasonable travelling distance), but it does prompt the question of why they can do it and we cannot – given that there is no obvious reason why they should have better resources, and indeed, like us, have had their best players (Duckett and Gleason) filched by richer counties.

One factor might be that, when Northants recruit from other Counties, they find players who are in the prime of their careers, rather than at the end, or the beginning, as Leicestershire tend to do. They have also made canny use of the loan system to supplement a small squad. However, the major difference seems to come down to intangibles, such as momentum and team spirit : strict rationalists may consider both to be phooey, but – like a fragment of the True Cross – it doesn’t half put a spring in the step of sides who believe that they possess them. I would have thought the one thing that Paul Nixon could be relied upon to instil in his sides would be spirit, but, it appears, we haven’t had that kind of spirit here since 1998.

* He has since been overtaken by Sibley.

** They failed.

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Look, I told you – light!

Lighting a Little Hour or Two

Leicestershire (124-9) lost to Derbyshire (128-1) by 9 wickets, T20, Grace Road, 25th August 2019

I cannot remember when I was last privileged to be part of a crowd so united in rapt attention, experiencing as one a rising sense of cautious hope, the passing dejection of temporary reversals, and, finally, an explosive expression of collective joy at the moment of victory. Games like these are what sport is all about, why we keep coming back! Unfortunately, the game in question was the last day of the Test Match at Headingley, which most of the spectators were following by various means, rather than the game in front of us on the pitch, which, I am afraid, was pretty ordinary.

I would not say that my expectations were high for my annual visit to a T20, but they were about as high as they are ever likely to be. The sad truth is that, as a form of cricket, it mostly bores me – sad for me, that is, because it, as I am beginning to weary even myself by complaining, has already spread like a stain to cover what ought to be the prime months of the English season, and looks set, as it mutates, to swamp the rest of it. However, success in any format can have a tonic effect on a struggling club, and Leicestershire went into this game knowing that a win, after a late burst of four victories, would give them a reasonable chance of qualification for the quarter finals. Derbyshire were in a similar position, although their chances would be better still.

Leaving aside the cricket, it was an enjoyable afternoon. The crowd, still one Bank Holiday Monday away from the return to work, and the novelty of the heat having not yet quite worn off, were plentiful, relaxed and in jovial mood. The drinking was more for the purposes of dehydration than inebriation. At half-time one of the club’s volunteers had her hair cut for charity. I managed to carry a white Magnum back to my seat without it melting, and no-one threw a t-shirt at me. It was all good.

IMG_20190825_141537 (2)

The first half hour of Leicestershire’s innings was how T20 is sold in the advertisements. A little late in the season, Mark Cosgrove has managed to translate the excellent form that he’s in from his own head to the physical plane, and, greedily hogging the strike, made a virtuoso 45 from 26 balls, Harry Swindells playing Leach to his Stokes. Cosgrove has a fine understanding of the theatrical in cricket, his body language a stylised pantomime of how his innings is progressing, the contrast between his apparent bulk and the delicacy of timing worthy of W.C. Fields.

In one of the game’s less outlandish dismissals, Swindells was caught behind at the start of the fourth over, bringing Aaron Lilley to the crease. Lilley is a T20 specialist, otherwise to be found in the 2nd XI, whose entire raison d’être as a batsman seems to be to hit sixes (he has managed 11 so far this season). He promptly hit one, then was caught off what would have been another if it had travelled horizontally rather than vertically. Still, things seemed to be going reasonably well, and I could not complain of a lack of incident.

Cosgrove, promisingly, was now joined by Colin Ackermann, the classically-trained batsman who, probably to his surprise, now boasts the best bowling analysis in English T20 history. My theory that the two are incapable of batting together was soon confirmed. Ackermann cut the ball straight to backward point, and was regaining his poise for the next delivery when he looked up to see Cosgrove standing a few yards away, performing an eloquent dumbshow of ‘Aw mate, if I can run surely you can’, a perfect mixture of pathos and hilarity.

After this, things really fell apart. Lewis Hill, the only player other than Cosgrove to reach double figures, attempted an ambitious cut from in front of his stumps and was bowled for 16 (he was also the only other to record a boundary, apart from Lilley’s six). Ackermann was caught at long on, playing a stroke that was beneath his dignity ; Aadil Ali and Parkinson followed his lead, with less style, but the same result. The last two batsmen were run out, though by then the humour of this situation was wearing thin. I may not know much about T20, but I know what I don’t like – and the final total of 124-9 seemed unlikely to prove adequate.

When Derbyshire began their reply, England still required about 50 runs to win. I registered that the first two overs of spin (from Parkinson and the demon Ackermann) had been encouragingly economical, but that the third (from Dieter Klein) had resulted in 24 runs. After that, I was mentally translated to Leeds, and, as word spread of what was transpiring, the majority of the crowd seemed to join me. As the end approached, the reaction of the spectators bore a diminishing relation to what was happening on the pitch : a forward defensive from Billy Godleman would be greeted by howls of joy, a dot ball by Callum Parkinson with despairing groans, a break for drinks by spontaneous applause.

After the euphoria of victory had peaked, I returned to Grace Road to find that Derbyshire required seven runs from the last eighteen balls, with nine wickets in hand – but it would have been unreasonable to expect more than one miracle in an afternoon. It would be unfair to make comparisons between one of the best examples of one form of cricket, and a mediocre game in another, except that it suggested how although, or perhaps because, every aspect of T20 is contrived to produce excitement, I cannot believe it has ever produced it so intensely as that Test.

Incidentally, in a small vindication of being behind the times, my old long wave radio kept me informed of developments at Leeds at least five seconds before any of those who relied on digital means, so the first anyone knew of that last ball four would have been me punching the air and yelling ‘yes!’ (in a muted way, of course, as I would not have wanted to spoil the enjoyment of any hardcore T20 enthusiasts nearby).

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, Northampton, County Championship, 19th August 2019 (Day 2 only)

Leicestershire – barring a sequence of events more extraordinary than those at Headingley – will now progress no further in the T20, to add to a poor performance in the RL50 and a so far undistinguished series of results in the Championship, but, to their credit, they have yet to show signs of going to pieces in the way that sides sometimes do in the closing stages of the season. However, I detected signs of it when I caught the second day (there wasn’t much of a third day) of Worcestershire’s ten wicket defeat by Northamptonshire at Wantage Road.

When Worcestershire won by an innings at Grace Road in our first home game of the season, it confirmed the view of most good judges (as well as mine) that they were likely candidates for a swift re-entry to Division One. At the time of writing, they are five points above Leicestershire and now look more likely to pip us to the wooden spoon, having lost six games. Since Daryl Mitchell’s double century in Leicester, his runs have all but dried up, causing the same perplexity at New Road that the Nile drying up might have provoked in Ancient Egypt. Neither Riki Wessels nor Callum Ferguson (both new acquisitions) have contributed many to compensate, nor, with Kohler-Cadmore and Clarke gone, have their younger, home-grown batsmen.

The first day (which I missed) epitomised their problem : at one point they had been reduced to 58-7, with six of their top seven batsmen having made nine runs between them, and only recovered to make 186 thanks to a half century from Captain Joe Leach and some chippings-in from the other bowlers. One source of hope was the return of Moeen Ali, back in his old position at no. 3, who had made a (by all accounts) fallible-looking 42. Josh Tongue had also achieved a minor victory by forcing nightwatchman Buck to retire after a blow to the head : unfortunately, the bowler had also strained his side, which is set to keep him out for the rest of the season.

Because Buck had been concussed, Northants were able to substitute him with Blessing Muzarabani, whereas Worcestershire had to do without a bowler, putting them at a serious disadvantage. The medical logic of concussion replacements may be impeccable, but the sporting logic strikes me as questionable, and I wonder whether, if something similar happened in a Test, it would lead to calls for substitutions to be permitted for injuries of any kind.

With Northamptonshire beginning what promised to be a very hot day on 140-3, on a slow pitch, the three surviving seamers might have been forgiven for their seeming lack of enthusiasm for the task, which diminished further as Alex Wakely and Dwaine Pretorius put on another 120 before lunch. Wakely completed his first century of the season, to general rejoicing : Pretorius (who sounds like the result of a random Afrikaaner generator) was signed to play in the T20 but has stepped in as Northants’ third overseas player of the season (with a fourth – Kemar Roach – lined up to replace him). His innings of 111 was as good an example of T20-style batting as anything I saw at Grace Road, at one point hitting Moeen Ali (I think) out of the ground. To add to Moeen’s tribulations, Leach had dropped a simple catch off his bowling when Pretorius had been on 25.

Moeen had a trying day, bowling long spells (nearly forty overs in all) from the Lynn Wilson end, to no great effect : although there were a few full tosses, he did not exactly bowl badly, but he seemed, as out of form players often do, that he was performing an imitation of himself when in form. Moeen sometimes gives the impression that he regards his career as a front-line Test spinner as the result of some enchantment by a benign djinn : now that enchantment seems to have worn off, and he was back where he expects to be, on a county ground, making aesthete-pleasing runs at no. 3, and filling in uncomplainingly, as required, with the ball.

There was a curious incident, shortly before tea, when Moeen lengthened his run a little, the wicket-keeper (unnecessarily) stood back, and he bowled at medium pace. The batsman, Saif Zaib, concealing his surprise well, slog-swept (roughly) the first two balls, pitched on leg stump, to the boundary. Trying a different approach, Moeen bowled a wide outside off-stump, followed by three more which the batsman left, in the expectation that they would be called wide, but the Umpire erred on the side of mercy to the bowler. This experiment was soon discontinued. Late on, one delivery at last spun sharply and trapped Hutton LBW, followed shortly by two more tail-end wickets to provide some measurable recompense for his 39 overs, and the 126 runs he had conceded.

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes – or it prospers ; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two – is gone.

In their second innings, Worcestershire again collapsed, though less dramatically, and were defeated by ten wickets. It will be a relief to them (but not to me) that the Championship season is on the threshold of its final month.

Wantage Road

Chewed-up Balls

Leicestershire (36-3) v Middlesex, Grace Road, County Championship, 10-13 June 2019 (theoretically) – Match drawn

Yesterday, upon the square
I saw a game that wasn’t there!
It wasn’t there again today.
Oh how I wish it’d go away!

Unless you have spent at least one day at a cricket ground in the rain, waiting in vain for some play, you cannot hope to understand the true spirit of English cricket. I imagine that if you were to spend four whole days in contemplation of a soggy outfield and periodic, futile, pitch inspections you might achieve some kind of satori, where all the deep mysteries of the game are suddenly made clear, but, avid as I am for enlightenment, I am afraid that I gave up on this match after a couple of hours.

Had I stuck it out, I would have found my meditations interrupted by eleven overs of cricket late on the third day, enough time for Leicestershire to reproduce their season so far in microcosm. Hassan Azad carried his bat, Paul Horton (presumably feeling that two a half days in the dressing room had not been enough) ran himself out for a duck in the third over, and Mark Cosgrove, having started brightly, was caught behind for 13. I suppose having played Middlesex twice without being beaten is an achievement of sorts, although it seemed a shame to gift them a bonus point.

Leicestershire (487 & 211-0 dec.) v Gloucestershire (571), Grace Road, County Championship, 17-20 June 2019 – Match drawn

Gloucestershire have been a bogey side for Leicestershire in recent seasons, in the sense of a side who should not be able to beat us, but usually do (as opposed to the sides who ought to be able to do so, and frequently do). However, there were grounds for optimism, in that they have suffered as badly from predation by richer clubs as we have : in particular, two of their seam bowlers, Miles and (particularly) Liam Norwell have been ‘took by the fox’ (as they say in these parts), or rather by Bears, since last season.

In their places were the one bowler Warwickshire turned their nose up at, David Payne (not the one who used to play the saxophone for Ian Dury), and two whose unnumbered shirts indicated that they had been hurriedly enlisted to cover for unexpected absences. These were Chadd (sic) Sayers, whose one appearance for Australia against South Africa had rather been lost in the excitement over sandpaper, and Josh Shaw, on loan from Yorkshire (I picture these loan players hanging around in gangs on street corners waiting to be hired, like day labourers during the Great Depression).

Gloucestershire clearly had enough faith in this scratch crew to exercise their right to bowl first ; they might also reasonably have expected that a pitch that had been in soak for close to a week would have a little life in it. Initially, they appeared to have reason to congratulate themselves on their good judgement, as an outswinger from Sayers lured Horton into guiding the ball into the gloves of the leaping wicket-keeper. Shortly after tea, with another 320 runs scored, they must have been lamenting the fickleness of the English wicket.

In an interview before the game, Mark Cosgrove had said :

‘Hassan [Azad] has been fantastic, he loves to bat time and that lets some of us play a little bit more freely, as you do when you have someone at the other end who is happy to chew up balls. Don’t just look at his scores, look at the partnerships he’s been involved with – there’s a lot of big ones.’

This proved to be prophetic.

The partnership between Azad and Neil Dexter reached 150 at roughly the same time as Dexter’s 100 and Azad’s 50, Dexter playing freely and Azad chewing up balls (I haven’t come across this expression before, but it conveys how whatever the Gloucestershire bowlers aimed at him seemed to disappear into some sort of industrial mincer). Azad, like Charles Augustus Fortescue, shows what everybody might become by SIMPLY DOING RIGHT (head still, watch the ball on to the bat, don’t chase wide ones) ; all Dexter’s troubles (which have been keeping him out of the team) seemed so far away.

A number of records (perhaps a record number of records) were set : on 153 Leicestershire’s record stand against Gloucestershire, on 289 our record Championship second wicket stand, and eventually the record first-class stand, set by Ateeq Javid and … Hassan Azad against Loughborough in the first game of this season. An awful lot of balls have been chewed up since then.

Gloucestershire’s seamers faced hard labour on a pitch that revealed itself to be a poor, lifeless thing, on what may have been the first and last warm and cloudless day this June. Sayers, reputed to be a swing bowler, must be doubting the stories he has heard about ‘English conditions’ ; Payne and Shaw were sweatingly workmanlike ; Higgins’ medium pace and van Buuren’s slow left armers were enough to tempt even Azad to gamble a little (albeit responsibly).

Once Azad had been dismissed (for 137), the edifice built on his foundations began to sway alarmingly : Dexter was one of five catches for wicket-keeper Roderick, for a rejuvenating personal best of 180 ; Cosgrove, who insists – as all gamblers do – that ‘the big one is definitely around the corner’, gambled irresponsibly after one run, and was another. Two nightwatchmen were employed, only one of whom survived their vigil. 343-5 at the close.

The second day revealed one of the differences between those who watch cricket and those who play it professionally : we watchers are keen observers of the weather forecast, whereas the players, I am convinced, would not recognise Carol Kirkwood if she sashayed into the Fox Bar. Another is that we followers are prone to spinning hopeful fantasies of how a game might work out, whereas the player – like alcoholics – prefer to take the game one day at a time.

The forecast was that rain would arrive early on the second afternoon, and not depart until after close of play on the third. My view (quite forcefully expressed to anyone who would listen) was that Leicestershire should dash to 400 and declare, in the hope that Mohammad Abbas might bowl the opposition twice (unlikely, but not impossible). Leicestershire’s view seemed to be that they should carry on batting for as long as possible, and then see how it went. As the second new ball approached its dotage, and the cloud cover descended invitingly, Colin Ackermann delivered a pro-forma 50, Harry Dearden took a little over an hour to make 26 (‘it’s the way he plays’), and only Lewis Hill (a characteristically chancy 44) suggested any sense of urgency.

Mohammad Abbas eventually made his appearance at about the time when the rain was due to descend in earnest, unfortunately with a bat in his hand. Any one of the seamers would have welcomed his wicket as a reward for their graft, but Captain Dent, an occasional bowler in the sense that the Andean Condor is an occasional summer visitor, chose to bowl himself, and snatched the wicket from under their noses with his fourth ball.

Before play was finally abandoned for the day, through a combination of continuous rain and very dim light, Abbas only had time to take 3-10. The third wicket fell with the score on 16, though some looser bowling from the other end allowed them to edge gingerly, as if along a mountain ledge, to 41. Another couple of hours of bowling in those conditions and they might have been six or seven down. But – as Horts would be the first to point out – what might have been is an abstraction remaining a possibility only in a world of speculation.

Although the third day remained a nasty, dingy grey, it did not actually rain once (Horton 1 Kirkwood 0). As it progressed, the question ceased to be whether Leicestershire had left enough time to bowl Gloucestershire out twice and became whether we would be capable of bowling them out at all. The first error was that none of the batsmen dismissed on the second afternoon had been Chris Dent, whose main strength as a batsman is that, once established, he is as hard to get rid of as an infestation of nits. Another was dropping him when he was on 15 (I shan’t mention the culprit, but he shares his initials with an Imagist poet).

The prospect of a quick victory receded as Dent and Howell (also dropped by the Imagist) put on 67 for the fourth wicket, but that of any victory slowly evaporated during the course of a stand of 318 for the sixth wicket between Dent (176) and Ryan Higgins (whose own bowling had been treated with similar disdain earlier). This set its own slew of records, and rather cast a retrospective shadow over Azad and Dexter’s monumental effort. By the close, Gloucester had overtaken Leicestershire for the loss of six wickets, and another possibility entered the world of speculation – that Leicestershire might lose.

A packed Grace Road rises to applaud Ryan Higgins’ historic 199

In the context of this game, Leicestershire did well to restrict Gloucestershire to 571 on the last day (Higgins, in a small victory, was bowled for 199). The visitors made only a token attempt to dismiss Leicestershire for less than 84 (Payne bowled only four overs), before surrendering to clock watching, as keen for 5.00 to arrive as any office worker on a Friday afternoon, while Azad chewed up their balls ; both he and Paul Horton made exactly 100 apiece before sending them home early with a declaration. Azad’s was, of course, his second of the match, and was one, you felt, he would have made in exactly the same fashion against more earnest bowling. Horton’s average (and possibly his self-confidence) has been greatly improved.

Every member of the Gloucestershire side, bar the wicket-keeper, bowled in the second innings. A slightly poignant note is that one of the comedy bowlers was Jack Taylor, who began his career as a specialist off-break bowler, before being banned for throwing (very happily he has managed to save his career by reinventing himself as a specialist batsman). His action could not have been more smooth, although he failed to take a wicket.

Leicestershire (293) v Northamptonshire (299 & 206-6 dec.), Wantage Road, County Championship, 24-27 June 2019 – Match drawn

In advance, I should have liked to visit Wantage Road (ground of my fathers) for all four days of this match, but considerations of cost (exasperatingly, we have no reciprocal agreement) meant that I was only there for the third day, by which time the game had been spavined by the rain that washed out the second day, and reduced it to another grind for bonus points. On the first day, Northamptonshire had been bowled out for 299 (one short of the glittering prize of a third batting point), which would have set a four day game up nicely, given that both sides are rather stronger in their bowling (but I am straying again into that world of speculation).

The Leicestershire contingent was not large, but then neither was the home contingent (at the start of play I counted 87 adults). There were, however, at least three large parties of school children, who kept up a crescendo, high-pitched, squeal as the bowlers approached the crease, and a chorus of ‘ooh’s as the ball proceeded harmlessly into the wicket-keeper’s gloves. This occupied most of their visit, as they watched Hassan Azad leave the majority of the deliveries he received in the five hours and ten minutes he occupied the crease, a trout resolutely untickled.

I have to admire their connoisseurship, although fans of stroke play might have been more inclined to squeal at Mark Cosgrove’s innings of 63, which suggested that his big one might, indeed, be around the corner. It is a pity he does not play like this more often at Grace Road. The children reserved their loudest squeals for the fall of a wicket (of which there were seven in the course of the day) : if they had stayed past tea, it might have sounded as if One Direction had reformed and put on an impromptu show in the outfield, as – almost more extraordinarily – Hassan Azad stumbled into a leg-trap, when eight short of his third successive century.

I gave the final day a miss, when Leicestershire, like their hosts, narrowly failed to achieve their target of 300. After that, with the serious business of bonus points concluded, it was again a question of how to pass the time until they could knock off and head for home (or the bar), which they managed to do at ten to five. I understand the weather had improved.

The latest recruit to the Wantage Road Home for the Generously Proportioned is the increasingly have-boots-will-travel Matt Coles, another in the gang of day-labourer seamers (he is on loan from Essex). The problem of finding a shirt big enough for him had been solved by giving him Ben Cotton’s old jersey (Cotton has, I think, been disposed of for being a bit too generously proportioned). The letters TTON had been removed, and LES written in with black marker pen. I feel that this says something about Northants’ current ‘brand of cricket’, although I am not quite sure what that might be.

 

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).

 

 

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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