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.

 

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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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Back in the Groove

Leicestershire v Kent, County Championship, Grace Road, 19-22 August 2018

It had been so long since the last Championship match at Grace Road, which had begun on the 20th of June, that, when the regulars reconvened at last, it had the feeling of the start of a season, with all its pleasures of rediscovery and recognition. By the time it had finished, it felt like the beginning of the season’s end.

The progress of the game was largely determined by the weather, the first two days having been played under floodlights from beginning to end. The leaves (apart from some twirling samaras from the sycamores)

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and temperature suggested Summer, but the light and the low cloud hinted at early Spring, or late Autumn. The weather brightened a little on the third morning, and, at lunch, the clouds dispersed altogether to uncover a blue sky suggesting flaming June.

The first two, damp and artificially illuminated, days produced totals of 220, 195 and 227. Chasing what had seemed an ambitious target of 253 on the third, sunlit, afternoon, Kent’s Dickson and Kuhn put on an unbeaten partnership of 215 between them for the third wicket. On the first two days, a wicket seemed always on the verge of falling ; on the last afternoon there seemed no reason why the pair should not continue batting indefinitely.

On the first morning, the eternal verities of Championship cricket seemed to have reasserted themselves as Darren Stevens took the new ball in light drizzle, particularly when he switched to the Bennett End, where some quirk of the air conditioning in the indoor school meant that he came in accompanied by an evocative gust of disinfectant and old socks.

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It is one of the minor tragedies of Leicestershire cricket that Stevens, the quintessential Leicestershire cricketer, son of Hinckley, the natural heir to George Geary, should have played most of his career for Kent. I cannot remember much lamentation when he left (at the time he seemed a stodgy middle-order batsman who bowled a bit of occasional medium pace), but he has given us plenty of cause to lament since (as late as last season he took a career-best 8-75 against us in Canterbury).

There have been few signs this season, at the age of 42, of his strong enchantments failing : his 26 wickets have cost him a little over 20 runs apiece, and just over a quarter of his overs have been maidens. The abolition of the toss, which was intended specifically to disempower the likes of Stevens, meant, here, that he was in his natural element (inevitably, Kent chose to bowl). In he came through the friendly murk, setting off at a gentle jog, then slowing almost to a stroll, steadying himself, cocking his wrist and then with a flick of it sending down ball after ball that pitched on off and moved away in the direction of the slips, with the grooved smoothness of a skilled framework knitter.

His first victim was young Harry Dearden, born in the year that Stevens first played for Leicestershire. Like a child venturing into a dark wood, he must have been warned of the enchanter’s wiles, but after some brave flourishes (he continues to emerge tentatively from his tortoise-shell), the left-hander was lured to his doom by a ball that moved into him (perhaps more sharply than usual, perhaps not, perhaps not at all).

Stevens’ new ball partner was Podmore, fleetingly creating the illusion that the archetypal English bits-and-pieces player was bowling with his parodic doppelganger. This Podmore (Harry, late of Middlesex), was clean-cut and svelte, but still a frank medium pacer, who I would not expect to see taking the new ball in normal conditions, but then these were not normal conditions. Without the lights I doubt they would have been playing at all, which was good news for the spectators and seamers, but less so for the batsmen, who must have been pining for the bright lights of the pavilion, winking in the distance.

Although progress was slow (opener Horton took ten overs to make two runs), on the cusp of the twentieth Horton and the prolific Ackermann had seen off both the sorcerer and his apprentice, and had inched gingerly across the minefield to 47, when Ackermann fell LBW to first change bowler Grant Stewart, a muscular Australian with an Italian mother.

Mark Cosgrove, who, like many out-of-form batsmen, manages to find ever more inventive ways to get out, then attempted to cut a ball from Ivan Thomas that appeared to be moving in at him and played on. Thomas, whom I vaguely remember as a fresh-faced youth bowling for Leeds/Bradford MCCU, has now grown a full red beard that ought be accessorised with a coonskin cap. He is 6’4” and seemed to put on pace as his spell progressed : although the pitch (a used one that had been substituted at the last minute for one deemed excessively green) might not quite have attracted the attention of late Princess of Wales’ excellent charity, the unpredictability of its bounce exaggerated the already considerable threat from his persistently short-pitched bowling.

In about the only sighting of spin before the last day, Joe Denly was given the last over before lunch. Ateeq Javid, who is yet to make much of a positive impression since his move from Warwickshire, edged one of his deceptively harmless looking leg breaks to slip, a sucker punch that sent Leicestershire into lunch on 79-4, although that didn’t seem too bad in the circumstances.

After lunch, with the gloom, if anything, deepening, Ned Eckersley briefly released his inner cavalier to hit three fours before young Podmore, who had looked the least threatening of the bowlers, trapped him LBW playing back to a ball that nibbled in a way that must have made Stevens’ heart glad. A similar delivery next ball resulted in the loss of Ben Raine’s middle stump and, in his next over, Horton played on, one short of a hard-won half century.

At the other end, Thomas was bowling with enough pace to make being nibbled to death by Darren Stevens seem an attractive prospect. Parkinson, who is capable of brave defiance, edged him to the wicket-keeper, leaving Chappell, whose height, hair, and upright stance remind me a little of Tony Grieg, to attempt a counter-attack. When he had reached 31, a leaping ball from Thomas was met with the reassuring sound of the ball hitting the meat of the bat : this, unfortunately turned out to have come from his head. Ten minutes of rubbing and shaking, and a few drinks of water, failed to restore him, and he left the field.

In the past, he would probably have returned, if necessary, and plotted revenge on Thomas when his turn came to bowl. In these more enlightened days, it was decided that he might have suffered concussion, and that Dieter Klein would replace him for the remainder of the match. The loss of Chappell’s batting was a blow, that of his bowling would prove to be a more serious one.

That the tail-enders, who went on a measured offensive, managed to extend the score to 220 seemed a minor triumph (it was the sort of game where every run seemed a victory over the odds), and Leicestershire hastened to let Mohammad Abbas, who seemed likely to be unplayable, at the openers, while the light was still barely playable. By the close, three wickets had fallen for 53, with two for Abbas and one for Raine : if play had not been curtailed by what felt like the premature arrival of an October evening, it might have been significantly more.

Leicestershire were pleased to find that the conditions had not improved on the second morning. By early afternoon Kent had been dismissed for 197, with six wickets for Abbas and four for Raine. The only significant resistance had come from Denly, who made 62, and who had, ominously, shared in a sixth wicket stand of 57, when the change bowlers, Griffiths and Klein, had relieved Abbas and Raine, and, unfortunately, the pressure. Griffiths has a tendency to bowl loosely when he first comes on, and conceded four fours in his first over ; at his best, particularly if roused by a blow to the bonce, Chappell would not have been so lightly treated. Five of the wickets to fall had been caught by Eckerlsey, the balletic elegance of whose wicket-keeping has not always been matched by its reliability.

By the close of the day, the match seemed to be hurtling towards an early conclusion, Leicestershire having collapsed from 82-1 to 126-5, in the face of renewed hostility from Thomas, who took four wickets in light that was not detectably better than that of the previous evening.  It would have been very much to Leicestershire’s advantage to have come off at the same time as on the first day.

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The third day dawned ominously bright, with some cloud, but not enough for the floodlights to have been turned on. Harry Dearden, who had resumed on 61, seemed to be on course for his first first-class century, and the laurels of a tortoiseshell hero, when he aimed an uncharacteristic, and unbusinesslike, cut at a delivery from Stevens and top-edged to slip, for a 74 which had taken him a little over three-and-a-half hours. At the time, it seemed as though this might prove a match-winning innings, which would have been a just reward for the most sustained display of concentration and good judgement of the game. In an, as it turned out, perfidious sign from the Gods that they were on his side, a shy at the stumps had even rebounded from Dearden as he made his ground, and made its way to the boundary for a gratuitous, and welcome, four.

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Under the illusion, as we were, that every run was precious, the forty runs that the boldly striking Klein put on with Griffiths and Abbas for the last two wickets, to push the target beyond 250, were greeted with wild enthusiasm (or as close to it as we get at Grace Road), as were the two Kent wickets that quickly fell to Abbas. The first of these was Bell-Drummond, who had looked badly out of sorts in both innings, the second Grant Stewart, who had batted at number ten in the first innings. The thinking behind this unorthodox, but shrewd, promotion became clear in the afternoon, as the last of the cloud vanished, the sun shone benignly on the newly-docile pitch, and Abbas and Raine, who had been treated with decent respect, approached the end of their opening spells.

The afternoon session, as you will see if you re-examine the figures at the beginning of this piece (an unbeaten third wicket stand of 215), seemed to have been cut-and-pasted from another season entirely, both in meteorological terms, and in the sense that we were unwillingly dragged back to one of the too numerous seasons of recent years when Leicestershire went through many a long afternoon with no sniff of a wicket.

Griffiths, who has improved greatly this season, but may be tiring, again bowled loosely in his first overs, feeding Dickson and Kuhn a succession of deliveries on or outside leg stump, and Parkinson was the victim of a premeditated assault, which did not quite knock him out of the attack, but, judging by the consoling arms placed around his shoulders by a kindly Cosgrove, had dented his confidence. Having been deserted by the elements, and with Abbas apparently slightly niggled (he spent some time just outside the boundary, waving his legs in the air like a dying ant), Horton was eventually reduced to giving Mark Cosgrove his first over of the season. Apart from that, there seemed to be nothing to be done, apart from trying to enjoy the sunshine, while it lasted.  Dickson, who had a head start, completed his century ; Kuhn was left one boundary short.

This defeat (the first of the season by any significant margin) felt like the end of Leicestershire’s promotion hopes : having begun the game on roughly equal terms with Kent, we are now some way behind them, and even further from the leaders. We have two, perhaps three, games (against Gloucestershire, Glamorgan, and Durham) that we should win, two (against leaders Warwickshire and Sussex) that, by the same token, we ought to lose. The hope has to be that our season does not fall apart in the way that it did in 2016, as we enter the silly September season of declarations, contrived finishes, and sporting pitches, as we all scramble after points through the deepening gloom.

Even more urgently, having caught a glimpse of a possible future that looked worryingly like the recent past, we have to hope that the team does not fall apart too. Our success this season had been based on our fast bowling (only Ackermann has been prolific with the bat) : the indications are that Chappell will be leaving, as might Raine (assuming that we are not promoted), and there is no certainty that Abbas will be returning (he is apparently keen to do so, but no terms have been agreed, and, if we are still paying Carberry close to £100,000 for doing nothing, we may not be able to afford him). To lose one fast bowler would be a misfortune, to lose three would be a disaster.

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Few Alarms and Few Surprises

 

Leicestershire (429-9 dec.) v Sussex (438-8 dec. & 241/4 dec.), County Championship, Grace Road, 20-23 April 2018

Match drawn

Leicestershire’s first home match of the new Championship season was chiefly remarkable for its lack of incident.

 

It ended in a draw at the end of the fourth day, with minimal interruption by rain or bad light, with both sides having made 400 in their first innings before declaring, and Sussex having batted out the last day, with no serious prospect of any result other than a draw.

This was remarkable in the context of what has been occurring elsewhere in the first two rounds of the Championship : of the 30 games played so far, 27 have resulted in wins (most within three, or even two, days), one was washed out (because of the drains in Leeds) and only two have ended in draws (the other, also involving Sussex, was rain-affected). Much of the credit for Grace Road being such an oasis of calm in this sea of tumult (if you can have an oasis in a sea) must go to the ground staff for producing a pitch that was far from dead (as the slow rate of scoring attests), but not unnecessarily lively.

It was also remarkable in the context of Leicestershire’s recent performances, in which dramatic turnarounds in fortune (in the wrong direction) have become a wearisomely predictable feature. If, in cartoons, you can spot a rake lying on the ground, it is a safe bet that someone will step on it : if Leicestershire make a reasonable start, a calamitous collapse is sure to follow ; if we score some telling blows against the top order, the tail is sure to wag gaily. Although there was a little of the latter, it was something a relief to make it to the end of a fourth day with no truly unpleasant shocks to the system.

The first session of a new season always compels close attention, if only because it is the last time when anything is possible. Sussex had chosen to bat, a little surprisingly, given that the early morning had been overcast and there looked to be moisture in the wicket. Leicestershire’s selection (Chappell and Klein had been omitted in favour of Griffiths) hinted at the strategy they seem to have adopted of ‘bowling dry’ (which might be Nixon’s idea, or something Carberry picked up from his spell with England).

Last season, Zak fired away fast and furiously with the new ball to an attacking field, which could be thrilling to watch, but could also result in the opposition having 50 on the board by the end of the first half hour. Mohammad Abbas (or, as his sweater described him ‘Abass’ – perhaps our kit manufacturers have strong views on the correct transliteration of Urdu) and Griffiths set the tone for the day by bowling with scrupulous accuracy (and hostility, in Abbas’s case) to an astutely set field. Luke Wells was the first wicket to fall, with the first bowling change in the ninth over, caught behind off Raine, when he had made 2, and the score was 23. Fellow-opener Salt, who had been a little more productive, was out in the same way two runs later (I suppose Zak could have peppered him with bouncers, but we are in no position to throw away an early advantage for the sake of a cheap pun).

The same pattern persisted until the early afternoon, with all the bowlers (save Raine) bowling almost as many maidens as not. Every time a bowling change was made a wicket fell (as with the field placings, I prefer to put this down to Carberry’s astuteness, rather than beginner’s luck). Parkinson removed van Zyl with his second ball (which was to prove his last wicket, though he bowled another 50 overs), with the score on 115-4. The bowling remained as dry as a kookaburra’s khyber, but the gap between wickets was lengthening.

As the afternoon wore on, the heat increased, the ball softened, and Leicestershire must have felt that they were in danger of losing this war of attrition. Carberry had six front-line bowlers at his disposal (all-rounder Ateeq Javid had replaced Eckersley (‘niggle’)), and he tried them all in turn, like a man with too many pockets searching for a misplaced bus ticket. Ben Brown and Luke Wright became a little expansive, and tea and the new ball seemed a long way off. In the evening session, fortified by the new ball (and one of Mr. Stew’s excellent teas), Abbas had Brown caught behind, and Raine, who sometimes seems able to take wickets through sheer force of will, took two in two balls to leave Sussex on 254-7 at the close of play.

Anyone unfamiliar with Leicestershire (and a few hopeful souls who are all too familiar) would have been expecting, when play resumed the next morning, that, with only one recognised batsman left, the Sussex tail would be neatly and bloodlessly docked. But, I am afraid, Leicestershire reverted to type and the same two batsmen, Michael Burgess and Ishant Sharma, were still at the crease in mid-afternoon, with Burgess approaching his century and the total approaching 400. What makes this more galling (and may have added a couple of inches in height to his celebratory air-punching) is that Burgess was released by Leicestershire in 2016 .

As soon as he had made his century, Sussex declared on 438-8, the skies darkened and a shower of rain arrived to freshen up the wicket like a quick squirt of Trumper’s Extract of Limes. On the resumption, Paul Horton, who may be in for a very long (or very short) season, was trapped lbw by Sharma without scoring, to be replaced by Colin Ackermann, who had inherited the vexed position of no. 3, in the absence of the niggled Eckerlsey.

Ackermann is, by the standards of the modern cricketer, of medium height and build, with an unremarkable haircut and no visible tattoos, and rather looks as though he should be walking to the crease in a business suit, carrying an attaché case containing a packed lunch and a copy of ‘The Times’. Although he made two centuries last season (including a heroic one in the legendary day-night match at Northampton), he has sometimes given the impression that he only feels contractually obliged to make 30. Carberry (again a study in concentration) was, like his opening partner, snared by Sharma shortly before the close for 32, but, by then, he and Ackermann had deftly sidestepped the obvious rakes to finish on 112-2.

The Sunday had something of ‘while the cats are away, the mice will play’ about it. Last season, Sussex had come to the game armed with the near Test-quality bowling of Philander, Archer and Jordan. With Archer and Jordan away at the IPL (and Garton apparently injured), the Leicestershire batsmen must have felt like Wyatt Earp taking on a Clanton gang who had left their six-shooters back at the ranch : of the bowlers, only Sharma offered any real threat, and the pitch, by now slightly sluggish and lacking in bounce, offered him little assistance.

I even felt sufficiently confident that there would be no ‘unexpected‘ collapses to leave at 3.00, secure in the knowledge that there would be a fourth day worth returning for. Cosgrove (who has now, including the warm-up matches, made fifties in eight out of his last ten innings) made 64 to escort Ackermann into safe waters, like a sturdy tugboat escorting a stately liner out from the harbour. With Dexter and Raine in supporting roles, Ackermann made 186, one short of his career best, which he achieved over our Winter in South Africa. He may yet be discovered to have a superhero outfit lurking under that business suit.

Leicestershire’s total of 422-9 (for once, we had the luxury of declaring) was enough to put the match beyond Sussex and – barring a really surprising turn of events – ourselves. There might have been a brief quickening of the pulse when Abbas bowled opener Salt with the score on 27, and a flutter when van Styl followed shortly before lunch, but the tone for the day had been set by opener Luke Wells, who took 70 minutes to add to his overnight score, in the face of some more Martini-dry Leicestershire bowling. He later sped up sufficiently to complete an undefeated century.

Wells is not a player I have ever given much thought to, beyond knowing that he was one of the Wells brothers’ son (Alan, apparently). A tall left-hander, he employed a limited range of shots with great efficiency, though he hinted at a wider range when he went after Callum Parkinson in the late afternoon, presumably anxious to get his hundred before the shaking of hands. I thought he reminded me of someone, and Brian Carpenter correctly suggested it might be Alastair Cook : he might well be the kind of previously underestimated player Ed Smith is hoping to discover when he gets to work with his magic moneyballs.

I also note from Cricinfo that Wells is ‘the most sledged cricketer in England’, so it was good to hear that Leicestershire did not allow themselves to be audibly provoked by his frustrating adhesion. It was also to their credit that they continued to bowl and field as if it mattered, long past the point when it did, with only Griffiths betraying a hint of dampness. The drawback to his having a ‘repeatable action’ is that he can become locked into an extended groove, an admirable quality if auditioning for the Famous Flames, but less so in a seamer.

Our next fixture begins on Friday, against Derbyshire, who may prove to be another rake concealed in the long grass. With Archer and Jordan absent, April was the right time to play Sussex, but it may be a cruel month to play Derby, whose strength looks to lie in their imported seam attack of Viljoen, Rampaul and Olivier. It would be reasonable to expect at least one of them to have broken down by mid-season, but, for the moment, they all appear to be fit, and all too capable of causing some unwanted alarms and surprises.  Mohammad Abbas will also have been replaced by Varun Aaron, who is, by reputation, more fire than earth.

As a statistical footnote, Sussex fielded six players with monosyllabic surnames : Wells, Salt, Finch, Wright, Brown and Beer (all names from a village war memorial), and eight if you include van Zyl and Wiese. I wonder if, perhaps, this might be a record?