First and Last

Leicestershire CCC (155 & 191-3 dec.) v Lancashire CCC (170), County Championship, Grace Road, 23-26th September 2019

Match drawn

Regular readers (if any) may have detected of note of disenchantment creeping into my writings about cricket this season. Not disillusion (I have few illusions about the future of cricket in this country, or the likely place of Leicestershire within it), nor disappointment (my expectations were low enough), but a loss of enchantment. Perhaps this suggests an image of Disney’s Tinkerbell sprinkling fairy dust from her wand over the Meet, transforming it into a fairy-tale castle, but that it is not quite what I mean : I mean simply some vital spark to transform what I am often uncomfortably aware are a moderately talented collection of sportsmen struggling from contract to contract into something a little less mundane.

This game looked to be an improbable source of re-enchantment, featuring the two sides in Division Two whose final position was already secure : Lancashire, whose role in the ‘title race’ has been that of the electric hare, were certain to be Champions, Leicestershire nailed firmly to the wooden spoon (completing their set of three for the season), but for some reason – the feeling that we had better make the best of it while it lasts, or that, given the weather forecast, we were lucky to be seeing anything at all – or some trick of the light (and natural light, for what felt like the first time this season), I thought I felt a faint, but definite twitch upon the thread. And in a certain light, you could say that Leicestershire, unexpectedly, had the better of the game.

After overnight rain, I was surprised that play began on time, but it was no surprise that Lancashire chose to bowl on a wicket that was presumably moist, nor that Paul Horton made a third successive duck at Grace Road (the last two of them golden). Lancashire (clearly not keen students of my blog) began with a conventional field for Hassan Azad, who confidently, and uncharacteristically, drove Bailey for four in the second over. In the third, however, Gleeson brought in a short leg, and Hassan, his style cramped, patted a gentle catch back to the bowler. Ackermann lashed himself to the mast, weathering two overs from Bailey without scoring, before being prised off by Gleeson, for a second duck.

At 16-3, Gleeson seemed set to take all ten wickets before lunch (his journey from the honest journeyman I saw make his debut for Northants in 2015 has been remarkable), but, mercifully, he was replaced by Liam Hurt, and with the less exacting Bailey continuing at the Pavilion end, Leicestershire could relax a little. Cosgrove perhaps relaxed a little too much, edging an attempted cut on to his stumps for 17 (as his prolonged examination of the toe of his bat indicated, this can only have been the result of some kind of sabotage of his equipment).

With Gleeson away, Harry Dearden and George ‘Gritty’ Rhodes enjoyed a brief mouse’s playtime, as pleasantly surprised, perhaps, as I was to see Liam Hurt’s name on the scoreboard. Although originally from Lancashire, Hurt was briefly on the staff at Leicestershire in 2015, making a single one-day appearance, since when he has been a fixture on the 2nd XI triallist circuit, appearing for seven different counties. Although he has made some headway for Lancashire in white ball cricket this season, this was his first-class debut. It is good to see persistence rewarded, though his muscular, rather guileless, seamers posed little threat.

Playtime (not, in truth, very playful, with Rhodes and Dearden at the crease) ended immediately after lunch with the return of Gleeson, who bowled both Rhodes and his immediate successor Swindells, with the score on 82. This introduced the main bout of the afternoon, Parkinson v Parkinson. Of these twins, Lancashire’s Matthew bowls leg-breaks, and is much the better bowler ; Callum bowls slow left-armers, and has the minor compensation of being the better batsman. Apparently it is common for even identical twins (and they are indistinguishable by sight) to have different dominant hands, but it must sometimes have occurred to Callum, as he suffered from his twin’s feats of dexterity on the back lawn, that he had drawn the short genetic straw.

Rhodes and Dearden, who cannot have seen much serious leg-spin, had played Parkinson (M.) with the wary watchfulness of early European explorers encountering a previously unknown snake. The pitch was not conducive to dramatic turn (which I have seen him achieve elsewhere), but his drift and dip was as mesmeric as a cobra’s. With Rhodes gone, Parkinson (C.) combined a grim determination not to be outdone with, perhaps, inside knowledge acquired in infancy to survive the afternoon session. Dearden, who had batted for over two hours for his 30 (a reversion to his earlier style), was undone by a momentary lapse, and a rare ball that turned dramatically ; Ben Mike, who had displayed mature impulse control against Parkinson, relaxed it to flip a self-styled leg-break from Liam Livingstone, the last before tea, to Parkinson (M.) at square leg.

At tea, Parkinson (C.) could feel that he was having the better afternoon. What he did not know, but most of the crowd did, was that Matthew had been called up by England to tour New Zealand while they were on the pitch. Whether Matthew knew I am not sure, but twelfth man Saqib Mahmood (who had been similarly honoured) might have mentioned it when he ran on to offer him a drink (of energy fluids, I imagine, rather than champagne). Shortly after tea, Matthew completed his triumph by trapping his twin LBW ; I happened to be standing by the players’ entrance when Callum returned to the pavilion. He motioned to smash his bat against a railing (or possibly my head), but stayed his hand at the last moment, and disappeared into the interior, howling primal oaths. I suppose being knocked unconscious in a fit of geminicidal fury would have made a dramatic finale to what has been rather a dull season.

Gleeson, who had the incentive of taking more wickets for the season than Onions (more wickets than Graham Onions, I mean, not that he has been filching vegetables), finished the innings by bowling Klein, to claim 6-43. With the skies lowering, we had a brief taste of what it must be like to watch test cricket, as Wright bowled Keaton Jennings first ball. Leicestershire were, understandably, keen to continue, but the Umpires were not, and the day was prematurely terminated. Bearing in mind the forecast, I thought that it was it for the season, and I said my goodbyes, external and internal.

The second day was entirely rained off, and I was surprised to find myself back at the ground for 2.00 on the third, feeling as if I had been granted an unexpected lease of life ; by the end of the day, in the early evening, I felt mildly enchanted (it’s those long shadows, you know, those darned long shadows), although I could not directly attribute that to anything that had occurred on the pitch. By the end of the day, there was still a faint hope that Leicestershire might achieve another of their freakish, consolatory, end of season victories, such as that against Glamorgan in 2016, or Durham last year, if only because Lancashire, with their Championship already securely in their bag, seemed to be adopting an increasingly half-hearted, if not half-arsed, attitude.

Following Jennings, none of Davies, Bohannon (Bohannon! Bohannon!), Livingstone, Jones or Vilas (who also dropped more than one catch) could muster more than 20 against Leicestershire’s depleted seamers (even Mark Cosgrove was granted an over, to general merriment). Ben Mike, who has only really impressed this season when on loan to Warwickshire, offered some hope for next season, but then he did that last year too. At 77-6, perhaps waking up to the possibility that they might lose their unbeaten record, Steven Croft and Liam Hurt (in his major contribution) knuckled down to compile an eighth wicket partnership of 80, to equal Leicestershire’s total.

When Matthew Parkinson appeared at no. 10, Callum Parkinson (perhaps the only player on the pitch (other than Gleeson) with any real motivation) was brought on to bowl, and immediately had him LBW, offering some fertile material for students of twin studies, and cricket statisticians. Callum’s 2-0, as opposed to his twin’s 2-32, may have granted him temporary seniority, within the family at least. With Leicestershire 40 without loss at the close, 25 ahead, there was still the faint hope that the last might fleetingly pose as first in another sense.

The loss of the first hour of the fourth day meant the probable end to any hope of a result. Leicestershire at least gestured in the direction of making a game of it : Hassan Azad, unmolested by short legs, leg gullies or silly points, moved serenely in the direction of a century, while Colin Ackermann took advantage of some indifferent bowling to fall slightly short of his half-century. Once it was clear that no early declaration would be forthcoming, the only questions were whether Hassan Azad could make another hundred, and Gleeson could claim a fourth wicket, to make it ten for the match, or six to make it 50 for the season. I thought this might, at least, mean that they span it out until five.

At four o’clock, a fine, final, rain began to fall, and Leicestershire declared, with Azad on 82, and Gleeson still with only three wickets. Some covert calculation allowed them to shake hands and head eagerly to the pavilion, Lancashire receiving an ovation from their impressive travelling support, for their performances over the season, presumably, rather than in this match. Hassan Azad received more subdued, if heartfelt, acclaim from the remaining Leicestershire supporters. As I had already said my goodbyes to the ground and the season, I set off for home without any particular emotion.

So … to be continued? Well, possibly. Even given their current financial state, which is apparently more parlous than usual, Leicestershire should be able to keep going for another season. If so, I hope to be there – although there would come a point, if the first-class schedule is further buggered about in the interests of accommodating ‘The Hundred’, where I would have to question whether it is worthwhile renewing my membership (I do know, as they say, when I am not wanted).

Even so, I am not sure whether I shall continue to write about it. As much as I complain about the players apparently going through the motions, I sometimes, uneasily, suspect that I am as guilty of that as they are, and – God knows – there are other things in the world to write about than cricket. But I shall have to see how I feel when the new season approaches, and wait for a firmer, more unmistakeable twitch upon that thread.

Winter well!

PTDC0869

No Fun

Leicestershire (316-9) v Nottinghamshire (409-7), Grace Road, 23rd May (Leicestershire lost by 93 runs)

Leicestershire (293-9) v Yorkshire (295-1), Grace Road, 27th May (Leicestershire lost by 9 wickets)

Leicestershire (172) v Lancashire (174-1), Oakham School, 31st May (Leicestershire lost by 9 wickets)

All in the Royal London One-day Cup

Leicestershire’s official Twitter feed summarised the game against Yorkshire as follows : ‘A crowd approaching 3,000 enjoyed an entertaining day’s cricket at our Family Funday, but unfortunately Leicestershire Foxes lost by nine wickets to Yorkshire Vikings‘, which epitomises much of life under the current regime at Grace Road – something close to a triumph off the field, but, too often, closer to that other imposter on it.

Anyone attending the game might have been forgiven for assuming that they had been projected into the future and were attending a game in the ‘Hundred’ (as envisaged by the ECB) : at a rough estimate, three-quarters of that crowd were families with young children. Apart from the cricket, attractions included ‘arts & crafts, the Red Monkey Play area, and a guest appearance from some snakes and frogs at the Animal Experience’. During the interval the crowd was allowed onto the pitch, and supplied with the orange plastic bats and luminous tennis balls of the All Stars experience. There were free ice-creams for the children and a mobile gin bar (not free) for the ‘Mums’. You could, if you wished, have your photograph taken with Charlie Fox, or a furry yellow star waving an orange plastic bat. Leicestershire are very good at this kind of thing these days, and you would have had to be very churlish not to have had the promised fun (the endless childish prattle did start to get on my nerves after a while, but then the Test finished early and I stopped listening to TMS)*.

No-one’s fun seemed to be spoiled by the complexity of the scoring system, or the length of the day : I doubt whether many of the crowd were paying much attention to the score, and they simply went home when they had had enough (at that point in the day, familiar to parents of young children, when laughter seems likely to turn to tears). If you had never seen a cricket match before, the thought might well have been ‘O brave new world, that has such people in’t!’. Unfortunately, if, like me, you have seen an awful lot of 50-over games, it is difficult not to respond with a weary ‘’Tis new to thee’.

There are not, in truth, many possible narrative variations in a 50-over game, and all three of these fell into the too-large category where the outcome is predictable after the first ten overs of the first innings, and almost certain after the first ten overs of the second. Nottinghamshire, who batted first, were 69-0 at the end of the first power play, and went on to make 409-7 (Nash, Wessels and Moores all made fifties and Samit Patel a hundred). This was the largest 50-over total ever made at Grace Road and should have felt extraordinary, but, in fact, felt entirely routine. The pitch was flat, and it did not require too much effort for the batsmen to deflect the efforts of the faster bowlers through and over the field to the boundary.

By the end of 10 overs, Leicestershire, in reply, had made 59, but had, crucially, lost three wickets. Last year, they achieved a measure of success in this competition by opening with Cameron Delport and Mark Pettini. This year, with Delport in attendance (but not playing) at the IPL, and Pettini mysteriously out of favour, they opened with their regular 4-day pair of Carberry and Horton (who had not appeared at all in white ball cricket last year). Carberry, ill-cast, these days, in the role he was asked to play, attempted to drive his third ball from Jake Ball back over the bowler’s head, but succeeded only in deflecting the ball onto his stumps.

In the third over Ackermann gamely attempted some kind of lofted drive off Ball (in an eccentric one-legged posture that made him look like he was posing for the statue of ‘Eros’ in Picadilly Circus), but achieved more vertical than lateral movement and was caught. With Cosgrove gone too in the seventh over, any attempt to overhaul the total was abandoned, and, rather than risk a truly abject capitulation, Leicestershire concentrated on playing positively, but circumspectly (even Tom Wells only hit one six in his 69), to achieve the eminently respectable, but entirely inadequate, score of 316-9.

Although there were some impressive individual performances, it is fair to say that the day was lacking in dramatic tension. Between them, the two sides made 725 runs over the course of a day : against Glamorgan in the Championship, the three days and four innings yielded had yielded only 853. Wessels’ 74 off 44 balls was almost as fast as de Lange’s 90 off 45, but, given the context, both the game and the innings were about a tenth as interesting.

Given that it was being played on a weekday, the crowd was largely composed of the usual County regulars, though there were three separate contingents of schoolchildren, who had, presumably, been given free tickets (leading to the curious effect known as ‘Women’s World Cup Syndrome’, whereby a large proportion of the crowd vanishes at 3.00). At one point, the group nearest me were given the option of going off to play cricket, instead of watching. They all chose to play, with the exception of a few girls who seemed very attached to their teacher, and a studious looking boy in an authentic cricket cap, who alternated a close scrutiny of the action with a study of his ‘phone. This, I thought, is the cricket-watcher of the future, if the ECB doesn’t find some way to discourage him in the meantime.

In between the Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire games, Michael Carberry was ‘relieved’ of the Captaincy. As I suggested in my pre-season preview, I was surprised that he had been offered the Captaincy at all, and particularly that he had been appointed before a new coach had been found. Although he appeared, at the start of the season, to be making a great effort at active captaincy, he seemed to have lost control against Glamorgan and, as I said, looked in a terrible state as he left the pitch (it cannot help that various rival claimants – Eckersley, Cosgrove, Horton and Ackermann – tend to congregate behind the stumps). Although sacking him this early in the season may appear brutal, I suspect ‘relieved’ may be the operative word. He is officially expected to return as a batsman, but I have my doubts.

The Yorkshire game was a mirror image of the previous one. Leicestershire batted first and were 39-3 by the ninth over. Cosgrove, Eckersley and Dexter all made well-crafted, but conventional, fifties (they tend to play in a more unbuttoned way in white ball cricket, but only in the sense of wearing open-necked shirts with their suits), to achieve another respectable total (293-9). With no particular incentive to hurry, Yorkshire had passed that total, for the loss of a single wicket, in the 46th over.

I suppose it is a sign of the levelling effect of this type of cricket (and a very flat pitch and some moderate bowling) that Lyth (a player who, by general consent, was found out at Test level), Pujara (a Test batsman of some quality) and Kohler-Cadmore (one of the, I suspect, very large number of players who would not look out of place in Test cricket, without quite convincing), all appeared equally at ease. It is a good job that there was so much fun available off the pitch, because there wasn’t a lot to be had on it.

The fixture at Oakham School should have been another, perhaps more adult, kind of fun. Leicestershire last played there ten years ago, but I remember it as a regular fixture in the calendar. My memories of it include Stuart Broad, making his debut against Somerset, not long after leaving the school, and already a kind of minor princeling, attended by a retinue of pashmina-ed girls, and boys with the collars of their polo shirts turned up (for such, readers, were the fashions of the time). I also remember sheltering from the rain in an old-fashioned beer tent, which has been supplanted by the now traditional prosecco wagon, and some pop-up tents of the kind that people buy in Millets when they are going to music festivals. They also have a new pavilion, that would not look out of place at a County ground.

Although there was a reasonable crowd, and the odd floaty dress, some of the more exotic creatures may have been deterred by the weather forecast, which was for thunderstorms in the early afternoon. At the start of play, the atmosphere was heavy, vaguely sulphurous and clearly conducive to seam. Inevitably, Leicestershire were asked to bat and inevitably (you can probably complete this sentence for yourself), they had lost both openers for five runs by the third over. This time, even the middle order failed to consolidate (though the mercifully predictable Cosgrove managed another fifty), and the innings took a full 49 overs to creep to 172.

The damage had been done not, as you might expect in the conditions, by Lancashire’s international seamers, Onions and Mennie, but by the spin of Stephen Parry and Matt Parkinson, both of whom bowled their ten overs for 30 runs apiece, Parry taking two wickets and Parkinson four. The first time I saw this Parkinson twin bowl, for the 2nd XI at Desborough last year, he took 9 Leicestershire wickets in an innings and (I believe) 14 in the match. It is, perhaps, understandable that the 2nd XI, who rarely encounter leg-spin, had no idea how to play him, but he seemed to have the same effect on our competent and experienced middle order. Ackermann failed to pick his googly and was bowled, Dexter was induced to tap his third delivery to mid-off, and even the wily Cosgrove was lured out of his crease and stumped. Given the tendency of talented young English spinners to die like lice in a Russian’s beard (or turn into batsmen), I am hesitant to predict too bright a future for him, but if England cannot find any use for his talent, it will be a terrible waste.

Perhaps not overestimating the threat posed by the Leicestershire bowling, Lancashire opened with Haseeb Hameed, who has recently been recuperating in the 2nd XI. He groped his way gingerly to a half-century, like a man feeling his way downstairs in the middle of the night, but, having lost his opening partner with the score on 42, he was joined by Liam Livingstone, who took a little over an hour to finish the game. To begin with, it seemed as though Livingstone, who might have a part-share in the prosecco wagon, was artificially prolonging the afternoon, treating Aaron Varon with respect, and, at one point, narrowly avoiding playing on with a half-arsed ramp shot, but it was only a matter of how soon he would choose to finish it and, when he chose to accelerate, the end came quickly, the only question being whether he could hit the ball out of the ground so frequently without damaging any venerable architecture. His unbeaten 90 contained six fours and seven sixes, and the total was overhauled in the 25th over, half the time it had taken Leicestershire.

It would be an understatement to say that Leicestershire’s 50-over campaign has been a dispiriting disappointment, particularly after reaching the quarter-finals last year. Among our misadventures away from home, we have made our highest ever 50-over score, but then failed to defend it, and suffered a third successive 9 wicket defeat to Warwickshire, whom we had memorably beaten last year. In every match against First Division opposition, we were, in truth, outclassed.

As I think I might have mentioned, one glaring problem was losing early wickets. Our success last year was largely built on aggressive opening partnerships by Pettini and Delport : this year, Delport’s presence in a non-playing role at the IPL meant that he had not played a competitive game since February (in Dubai), and his impact, when he joined the side for the last four games, was minimal. Why Pettini was not chosen I struggle to understand : he appears to be persona non grata at the club, but, if he is not going to play in white ball cricket, there seems little point in keeping him on the payroll.

Another difference is that Clint McKay has been replaced as our overseas bowler by Varun Aaron. McKay might have lost the ability to take wickets, but he was rarely uneconomical. Aaron, who was, of course, our third choice, is not well-suited to this type of cricket, though it should be remembered that his bowling played a significant part in the victory over Glamorgan. In case you are wondering what has happened to Zak Chappell, by the way, he has made a couple of guest appearances, but missed most of the tournament having (according to George Dobell) strained his shoulder picking up some heavy shopping for his Mother, which, I’m sure, says something complimentary about his moral character.

There is still one match to go in this competition, which, as it is against Durham, may offer some hope of a consolation victory, and some redemption for the snafu against them in the Championship. After that, the Championship makes a brief return, with a game at Wantage Road, which ought to be an opportunity to prevent the season coming completely off the rails : Northants, who have been riding their luck for a while now, have been struggling badly this year. If Carberry fails to reappear, Harry Dearden has recovered from injury unexpectedly early, and should be available to open with Horton, and, more significantly, Mohammad Abbas, with his reputation now much enhanced, is expected to return in place of Aaron. Lose that game and, I am afraid, the rest of the season could turn out to a whole load of no fun for all concerned.

*A little unfair – it was one of their better episodes.