The Business End of a Squeaky Bum

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** Wishful thinking. Actually three times.

Veni, Vidi, Leachy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Old Mother Cricket and Old Father Time

(Trigger warning – contains mild gender stereotyping.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Slip Slidin’ Away

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

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

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

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

New day

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

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

Post-prandial Cosgrove

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

Tea-time

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

Freck, hurtling

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

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

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

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

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

Groundhog Day at Grace Road

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

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

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

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

Cosgrove 4

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

Cosgrove 1

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

Cosgrove 2

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

Cosgrove 3

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

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