Heart Rot and Purple Haze

Kent v Leicestershire, County Championship, Canterbury, 30th August 2017

Leicestershire v West Indies, Grace Road, 2nd September 2017

You’re very optimistic” the gate-woman at the St. Lawrence Ground observed, laughingly, as she trousered my £20 note in return for a ticket which is now, I imagine, something of a collector’s item (I am reasonably confident that I was the only purchaser). As a general character assessment “fatalistic” might be nearer the mark, but I suspect that she intended it as a euphemism for “silly”, given the prospects for play (and no doubt I am).

According to ‘The Cricket Paper’,

This three-day county game in leafy Canterbury must have felt like pure joy to those nostalgic followers of championship cricket

and I suppose it must, if they happened to have been there on one of those three days. On Monday, Leicestershire’s bristly nemesis Darren Stevens had threatened to take all ten of our wickets (he finished with 8-75), before Lewis Hill and Callum Parkinson broke the record for a tenth wicket partnership set by George Geary and Alec Skelding in 1925. On Tuesday, Neil Dexter (who still has time to become the new Darren Stevens) snaffled another five wickets, and, on the Thursday, Mark Cosgrove (for motives that have been much speculated-upon) hit 24 off the first five balls of an over from Matt Coles, before edging to the wicket-keeper off the sixth.

It was one of Leicestershire’s more encouraging performances, there was an innings I should like to have seen from Sam Northeast, and the weather (for two and a half days) was blissful. Unfortunately, the only day on which I could be there was the Wednesday. It started to rain shortly before the start of play (having, briefly, been fine enough in the morning to lure me in), gently at first, then heavily enough for the day and ground to have been abandoned by lunchtime. This not only spoilt my day, but the match, which was hastened to its all-but-inevitable, drawn, conclusion by the return of the rain on the afternoon of the fourth day.

Canterbury, like Worcester and Hove, has the reputation of being one of the more conventionally romantic of the Counties’ headquarters : with a little imagination, I could sense that it was somewhere I should enjoy watching cricket, if there were any cricket to be seen. The majority of the ground is ringed by low banks of seating, and enough trees to justify the soubriquet “leafy”, interspersed with some medium-rise buildings, none of them offensive. The inevitable “redevelopment” – some retirement flats and a branch of Sainsbury’s – struck me as unobtrusive, though whether I would think so if I remembered the ground in its heyday I don’t know.

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Another new development, The Lime Tree Cafe, though not a patch, in culinary terms, on our own dear Meet, offered a snug vantage point from which to observe the rain (or cricket, where applicable).IMG_20170830_105553 (2)

A few of the younger Leicestershire players had taken refuge there too, giving off the vague impression of children keeping out of the way while the grown-ups argued.  Thanks to the rain, I had plenty of opportunity to inspect both the interior and exterior of the Frank Woolley Stand, a two storey concrete structure which is, perhaps, best described as “venerable” or “imposing” rather than “elegant” in the style of its dedicatee. I think it is somewhere I should only choose to sit to escape from the elements (excessive sun, wind or rain), but then so many days at the cricket are afflicted by one of those three. The leaking roof, I thought, only enhanced its discreet charms, but I suspect it will be “redeveloped” as soon as funds allow.

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The ground’s best-known feature, the lime tree which used to grow inside the boundary, apparently died of “heart rot”, an ailment I imagine as a feeling of profound discouragement brought on by prolonged soaking. Though very wet by the time I returned to the city centre, I think I managed to escape a dose and, having taken a liking to both Canterbury and its cricket ground, I hope we will meet again (though, at present, I don’t know when), preferably on some sunnier day.

This has been quite the season for novelties (or things that, Miranda-like, are new to me), and there was another in the shape of the format for the tour match against the West Indies. It was intended to be a two-day game, with one innings a side ; the first innings to be limited to 100 overs, the second not. The novel twist was that the West Indies were allowed 15 players, Leicestershire only 11. The Leicestershire side, with the exceptions of Ned Eckersley (who was captaining) and Harry Dearden, were the squad members who had not played against Kent, with debuts for teenagers Sam Evans and Harry Swindells, and tentative returns from injury for Zak Chappell (who has, again, spent most of the Summer playing as a batsman for the 2nd XI), and Richard Jones (who has not been seen since April).

The intention was presumably to provide the tourists with some practice between Tests and when, as expected, they won the toss, they chose to bat. Until lunch, however, Leicestershire’s bowlers were uncooperative enough to make a game of it, reducing them, at one point, to 64-5. There had been a September dew in the early morning, and, perhaps, Klein and Chappell were a little sharper than they had been expecting : Klein often surprises batsmen who haven’t faced him before ; Zak was bowling at a little below full pace and, perhaps as a result, was more economical than usual (his first nine overs cost only eighteen runs).

Brathwaite and Hope (K.) were trapped lbw by Klein and Chappell, by balls that swung and dipped in respectively, for single-figure scores ; neither Chase nor Blackwood reached double figures either. I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing Hope (S.) bat, given the records he had set at Headingley, but statistics mean nothing when you play down the wrong line, as he did to a delivery from Richard Jones, edging the ball on to his stumps having made a 28 that had hinted at better things. It was two players who had not made much impression at Headingley, Kieran Powell and the wicket-keeper Dowrich, who returned the game to its expected course, with an initially circumspect sixth wicket partnership of 127.

The exception to that circumspection was provided by a single stroke from Powell which impressed itself on the mind like a clap of thunder on a cloudless day, but might well have impressed itself for different reasons. Zak Chappell had been afflicted by one of his usual trials, a slight tickle down the legside that just evaded the leaping ‘keeper and crashed into the sightscreen. His next delivery, predictably, was a textbook bouncer, which Powell chose not to evade, but hooked off the tip of his nose. The ball travelled horizontally at almost precisely 90 degrees to the wicket, at a tall man’s head height, over a boundary which was as short as I have seen at Grace Road, and had rebounded off the Meet with alarming force before anyone in the vicinity had moved a muscle. It must have passed over the heads of those sitting on the benches in front of the Meet, but if someone, as is usually the case, had been making their way to the ice-cream parlour, lavatories or bar, and the ball had hit them on the head, it might easily have killed them. Fortunately, one of the few things at Grace Road which is more robust than it used to be is the glass in the Meet’s windows (once notoriously frangible, and prone to producing showers of broken glass).

Talking of sore heads, the club, perhaps suspecting that the West Indies would not provide enough of an attraction in themselves, had chosen to combine the match with a real ale festival. I am not sure of the precise distinction between craft beer and real ale, except that the former is fashionable and comes in bottles, whereas the latter is less fashionable and comes on draught. Craft beer is, reputedly, drunk by hipsters with sculpted beards, and real ale is, supposedly, drunk by old hippies with untamed beards (as the names of some of the ales, among them “Tangerine Dream” and “Purple Haze” would suggest). The ale-fanciers made up slightly more of a fair-sized crowd the West Indies supporters, many of whom I recognised from the visit of their women’s team in July.

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Powell’s thunderbolt aside, the afternoon was balmy, and meandered on its way in relaxed fashion, until, as tea approached, West Indies stood on 161-7. With only the tail to come, the crowd could have anticipated seeing the Windies bowl before the close of play, but that would be to forget the unusual playing conditions. One or two hardened topers (and I am not speaking from personal experience here, you understand) might have felt that they had been overdoing the “Spin Me Round” (one of Roxy Music’s more underrated tracks) as a number nine, with the frankly improbable name of Shimron Odilon Hetmyer, raised the ghost of old-tyme calypso cricket with a gaily-struck unbeaten 128, featuring 17 fours and 5 sixes (mostly hit too high to be a danger to life and limb). This Hetmyer, you see, normally bats at three, and may have glimpsed, and grasped, an opportunity to supplant the faltering Hope (K.), by laying into a tiring attack.

I didn’t bother turning up for the second day. The forecast was dubious, and I suspected that the West Indians would be less keen on bowling practice in chilly conditions. I believe that the match was abandoned because of bad light shortly before lunch (in spite of the floodlights), though I trust that the beer festival was allowed to continue for rather longer.

(Talking of trimmed and unkempt beards, I feel I would be failing in my duty if I did not report on the latest developments with respect to Ned Eckersley’s grooming. For most of the season he has favoured a long, off-centre-parted style, resembling Richard le Gallienne after a couple of months on a tramp steamer, but, for this game, both hair and beard had been severely cropped (perhaps in acknowledgement of the responsibilities of Captaincy).)

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Drift Dodgers

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Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream …

Some time on the morning of the first day of Leicestershire’s match against Kent (which, in the event, saw no play at all), Richard Rae of the BBC tweeted a quotation from ‘The Cricketer’ in 1926, to the effect that Leicestershire were “engaged in floating complacently down the streams of Time”. This led me to thinking (there was plenty of time for thought that day) of how the governing principle of County Cricket is drift (a little like Thomas Pynchon’s conception of entropy).

Innings accumulate slowly, grain by grain, flake by flake, imperceptibly, like sand or snow-drifts. Games drift to a conclusion, drift towards a draw. Clubs are said be drifting ; overly passive Captains are accused of letting games drift ; players’ careers start to drift, they drift out of the game. Crowds drift around the ground (particularly when it’s raining) and start to drift away after tea. Clouds drift over and away again. Afternoons, days, games, seasons drift by, and with them the years.

This drift is seductive (what could be more pleasant that floating effortlessly downstream on a Summer’s afternoon?) as long as you don’t think too hard about where the current is taking you. Resistance is ultimately futile (the greatest players, as the least, are carried away in the end), but temporary victories depend on fighting the drift and swimming upstream against the current.

Leicestershire v Kent, Grace Road, 19-22 May 2017

The first day of the Kent game was, as I say, a washout. It had rained heavily overnight and the rain returned intermittently throughout the day. No-one at the ground (some small parties from Kent and the usual suspects) seriously expected that there would be any play, though there were the usual teasing announcements about inspections and what might happen if there were no further rain. You can (and I have) spent days such as these at Grace Road, drifting aimlessly round the ground, playing spot the wheelbarrow

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observing the dark clouds drift over and drift away again, watching the rain fall through the big picture windows of the Fox Bar, barely conscious of the hours, of life, drifting away, not unpleasantly but inexorably, but, for once, I chose to fight the drift and, after a quick lunch, spent the afternoon at an exhibition about the Anglo-Sikh Wars.

The second day was an affair of showers, interrupted by scattered outbreaks of cricket, and, by its end, it already seemed likely that the natural direction of drift was towards a draw. I am not suggesting any element of conscious collusion, but a slow drift to the eventual conclusion (a draw with maximum bonus points each) would not have struck either side as an outcome to be struggled against too determinedly.

Kent are a side I still think of as being, like Worcestershire, made up of young, locally-produced talent, but this is to ignore the slow drift of time. Sam Billings (26 in June) was away with England ; Sam Northeast, now in his 10th year of first-class cricket, is 27 ; Adam Riley (25), seen by good judges not so long ago as the future of English spin, only made two first-class appearances last season and may be drifting out of the game altogether. Matt Coles (27) has drifted away to Hampshire (apparently adrift on a tide of alcohol) and back again. James Harris (27), ten years after his debut, has unexpectedly drifted in from Middlesex on loan. Daniel Bell-Drummond (24 in August) still fits the description, but, given the competition for the England openers’ berths, may soon find that he’s missed that particular boat. Fabian Cowdrey, apparently, has given it up for music and a free electric band.

Having said that, a side made up of players in their prime who are not quite good, or lucky, enough to play for England (and Kent also have nearly men of a different generation, in Denly, Tredwell and Gidman) is one route to success in County cricket. They should, by rights, have been promoted last season and came into this game having won their first three matches, but may be well advised to catch the tide before the drift catches up with them.

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Play began on time, under low cloud and continued, through some light drizzle, until roughly lunchtime. Horton and Dearden opened ; both Lancastrians, they are beginning to forge the kind of safety-first partnership that drove Cardus to lyrical peaks of exasperation when writing about Lancashire’s Hallows and Makepeace in the 1920s. Horton, who was a little more expansive, departed when the score was 58, leaving Dearden to make 34 off 108 balls, having taken 12 overs to reach double figures.

They were permitted to take this approach by Coles, whom I have seen bowl well, but who looked sluggish here, bowling a few showy bouncers, but few balls that did not give the batsmen the option of leaving them, but compelled to do so by Darren Stevens, whose first ten overs resulted in roughly the same number of runs. Stevens, a brazenly nibbly medium pacer, who, at 41, looks like the sort of bloke you’d expect find in B&Q on a Saturday morning, is so much the embodiment of the kind of cricketer who is officially frowned upon that the toss was abolished to discourage him from taking wickets ; he still went into this game as both the leading run-scorer and the leading wicket-taker in Division 2. When he switched to the Bennett End, and came in with a stiff breeze at his back, scented by the familiar whiff of disinfectant and old socks, he was in his element, as threatening in his way as Thommo at the WACA.

A combination of Stevens’ miserliness and the rain that washed out the afternoon, before a brief four over reprise at 5.45 (by which time I’d drifted off home), meant that Leicestershire began the third day on 127-2 with another 63 overs to reach the 400 they needed to achieve maximum batting points. Colin Ackermann played his first innings of any substance at Grace Road, making 89 in a little over four hours (I thought a quick burst of “Sylvia” over the PA might have been in order when he reached 50). A slight, neatly turned out figure, he seems something of a throwback, playing in an unobtrusively stylish, through scrupulously orthodox style, as if he’d learned to play by following the MCC Coaching Manual while observing himself in the mirror. Together with Cosgrove (39) and Eckersley (33) he provided the middle-order solidity that he seemed to promise when he first signed.

However, with those three, plus Pettini (who didn’t look in the mood) and debutant Callum Parkinson out cheaply, the score stood on 278-7 after 91 overs. Although there was no prospect of losing, it seemed unlikely that a fourth, let alone a fifth, batting point would be secured. It occurs to me that an observer unfamiliar with the scoring of bonus points would have been puzzled by what happened next, which was that Tom Wells, Clint McKay and Dieter Klein began to flex their muscles, making 139 off the last 19 overs (a quite reasonable T20 score). Even Darren Stevens was forced to concede 44 off his 21 overs, though Matt Hunn (a tall young seamer with a disappointing lack of nicknames, given the options) bore the brunt, going for 110 off his 22.

Having left soon after 5.00, I missed the one point in the game where it seemed that the drift to a draw might be reversed, that the extraordinary thing might happen, as Dieter Klein took four wickets and Tom Wells one to reduce Kent to 144-5, in a session that did not end until 7.30. The man to re-establish it the next morning was, inevitably, Stevens, who had begun to turn the tide with a counter-attacking 50 the evening before. He went on to make exactly 100 (cheered on by the Ultras in the Stench & Benno Stand, who can’t have been quite wasted enough at that time of the morning to have forgotten that he was now playing for Kent), making the follow-on, and thus a result, unachievable by about lunchtime.

After that, the innings ended with a mirror image of Leicestershire’s, as the Kent lower order secured the fifth bonus point with 20 overs to spare. With the serious business concluded, they continued clubbing the bowling (Coles taking 26 off an over from a visibly shaken Parkinson) long after the point where it had begun to seem merely gratuitous. Leicestershire’s reply, in which Harry Dearden scored 17 in 72 minutes represented an exercise in Zen pointlessness, although young Hunn did have the consolation of returning figures of 1-2.

You may have noticed, incidentally, that this report is uncharacteristically reliant on figures (which I have borrowed from Cricinfo). Even at the distance of little over a week, much of my memory of the game has been erased by the sand-drifts of time : in fact, what I remembered most clearly about it (and this you couldn’t find on Cricinfo) was the remarkable mackerel sky on the Sunday afternoon.

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Picture yourself on a boat on a river …

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, Wantage Road, 26 May 2017

I have not renewed my Membership at Northamptonshire this year. Technically, no-one has, because Membership has been reduced to Season Ticket Holder-ship, and, with the sentimental motive removed, I have chosen not to buy one because three of Northamptonshire’s home matches coincide with Leicestershire’s (a fourth, the one against Leicestershire, is a day-night game, so I am unlikely to see much of that either).

As a result, this single day, the first of a low-scoring contest which Worcestershire won in three days, lacked context, though it drifted by enjoyably enough. What I remember best is, rather ignobly, hoping that the young Worcestershire seamer Josh Tongue would fall over, so that I could make a joke about “a slip of the Tongue” and the stroke of doubtful heritage (perhaps a kind of paddle-pull over his shoulder) that removed Ben Duckett after a watchful 28, caught behind off the said Tongue (and not even by a slip). Last season Duckett would have played this stroke without hesitation and sent it over the boundary ; he is a “confidence player”, if ever there was one, and his misadventures with England over the Winter may have depleted even his considerable reserves of that quantity.

The Memorial Garden looked lovely in the sunshine, I must say.

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Derbyshire v Leicestershire, Derby, 27 May 2017

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Two Derbyshire supporters

The following day I visited Derby. The ground is not, these days, one that you would choose to visit without some strong motive (even the once adequate tea-room has now been replaced by a burger van). Mine was that there was an outside chance that Leicestershire might win (the extraordinary thing), with the chance of sheet lightning thrown in (which, in the event, might have livened the game up a bit).

On the first two days, Leicestershire had made 619, chiefly because they could (in that unattractive phrase). On a Slumberdown of a pitch, and with Derbyshire lacking Viljoen and Cotton (the two bowlers who had threatened in their RLDOC match), Ackermann, Cosgrove and Eckersley all waxed fat to the tune of a large century apiece. Any chance of a result depended on Derbyshire being made to follow on. When Godelman and Thakor (another couple of drifters) began the day on 154-1 this seemed unlikely ; when, by the early afternoon, they had a century apiece and were collectively on 323-1, the direction of drift was clear.

The promised sheet lightning, which was meant to be sweeping up from the South-West (like the Duke of Monmouth), had failed to materialise during the morning, which was warm, but with a strong wind providing an undertone of unease. After lunch, though, the sky darkened and the wind rose further, coinciding with the arrival of the second new ball. McKay removed Thakor and Madsen ; Klein snared Hughes ; Chappell, who always seems to be bowl best in Wagnerian conditions, finally yorked Godelman in a moment of catharsis that had at least one spectator* leaping to his feet and punching the air. At 384-5, the extraordinary thing still seemed a possibility.

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The sheet lightning never arrived, and neither did the extraordinary thing. Although Chappell subjected Smit and Wilson to a fearful battering in Stygian light (breaking Wilson’s bat, to his annoyance), they weathered the storm, which had never quite arrived, and the total drifted on past the 469 required to avert the follow on, thus killing the game late on the third day.

Cricinfo headlined their account of this match “Dull draw ends Derbyshire’s run of defeats”.

And so the season drifts on. Leicestershire stand 8th in Division 2 (without the points deduction they would be 6th). Ned Eckersley is the leading run scorer in Division 2, with Cosgrove not far behind ; Ackermann would be third in the averages (if they still had such things), and Leicestershire have more batting points than any side bar leaders Nottinghamshire. Zak has taken his first four wicket haul, which should give him confidence.

On the other hand, we have played five games and have yet to win. Nine to go.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily – Life is but a dream!

* Me.

A Win is a Win is a Win

Leicestershire v Worcestershire, Grace Road, 30 April 2017

Leicestershire v Warwickshire, Grace Road, 2 May 2017

Leicestershire v Northamptonshire, Grace Road, 12 May 2017

Leicestershire v Derbyshire, Grace Road, 14 May 2017

As you may have noticed, although I’m pretty good at taking photos of empty stands, action photography is not really my forte, but Charlie Dryden has been kind enough to allow me to reproduce some of his excellent photographs from the games against Worcestershire and Warwickshire.  The full selection can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/56864674@N02/albums/with/72157683321347786

(and now from the Northants and Derbyshire games at https://chasdryden.myportfolio.com/projects)

As any football manager will tell you, “A win is a win”. Or even, as Gertrude Stein liked to say during her brief spell in the hot seat at Turf Moor “A win is a win is a win”. So, my lasting memory of Leicestershire’s campaign in this year’s Royal London One-Day Cup will be that we won the last home game (against Derbyshire) and that I was there to see it (the first of these is less rare than the second) ; the resulting euphoria is enough to cast a retrospective endorphin glow over what was, in any case, an encouraging set of performances.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with it, it is easier to explain what the RLDOC is than quite why it is what it is. The only one day competition in this year’s County calendar, it is played over 50 overs a side. The Counties are divided into two groups, on roughly geographical lines (Leicestershire are in the North group) and play each other once. The sides finishing top of these groups proceed to a home semi-final, whereas the sides finishing second and third play what is either a quarter-final or a play-off, depending on how you look at it, before proceeding to an away semi-final and then a final at Lord’s. The group stages (and this is fairly crucial) are played in a “block” during the last week of April and the first two weeks of May.

(I wouldn’t bother trying to memorise any of this, by the way. It will all be completely different next year.)

The tournament is apparently played in a “block” because the players dislike having to switch between formats, and over 50 overs because that is the format in international cricket. The timing is because the whole of July and August is reserved for T20 and June for the Champions’ Trophy (not to mention the Womens’ World Cup, which will be occupying four County grounds, including Grace Road, for three weeks from June to July).

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What seems not to be remotely a consideration here is the opinion of people who enjoy watching one-day cricket, who would, I would suggest (it’s been suggested to me often enough), fairly universally, prefer a 40-over league played throughout the season on Sunday afternoons, with, if possible, a 50-over knock-out cup thrown in.

Two of Leicestershire’s home games (the ones against Worcestershire and Derbyshire) were played during daylight hours (11.00-6.45) on Sundays, and attracted respectable numbers of the kinds of people who used to watch the Sunday leagues (multi-generational, amiable, unfanatical, though without the hardcore piss artists, who are presumably saving themselves for the T20). The other two games (against Warwickshire and Northants), played on Tuesday and Friday respectively, were blighted by the ECB’s latest craze – day-night cricket.

These games are scheduled to last from 2.00 to 9.45, the idea being to allow spectators to drop in after work. This is, in itself, an admirable aim, but would probably work better in a country with a hot climate (such as Australia), or in a month when there was a reasonable chance of a warm evening (such as August). It might also work in a city which has a system of public transport which operates late enough to allow the spectators to get home (such as London). As it was, both games were poorly attended, mostly by the same people who watch Championship matches, many of whom went home, as usual, at about 5.00. There was certainly no visible after-work influx to replace them although, to be fair, rain had already set in at the Northants game and, at the other, though dry, the cold was purgatorial.

Paradoxically, I suppose, the fact that I am no longer working does allow me, public transport permitting, to watch the whole of games, as opposed to one or two days of a Championship match, or the first half of a one day game. One effect has been to make me more conscious of the narratives of games, rather than individual players and performances, more fixated on the result and, therefore, more partisan, and more inclined to hang on until the bitterly cold end of games in the hope of witnessing a Leicestershire victory.

Playing the games as a block does also lend the competition a degree of narrative coherence and allows an overall assessment of Leicestershire’s performance, which has, given their recent dismal showing in this form of the game, been surprisingly. Two wins, a defeat and an abandonment (plus three defeats and a rain-aided win away from home) may not sound like a triumph, but there have been no outright capitulations, every player has put in at least one outstanding performance and have otherwise performed consistently well.

The first two games followed the pattern of the side batting first (Worcestershire, then Leicestershire against Warwickshire) posting their record scores in List A cricket (361 and 363 respectively), leaving the side batting second (after the first ten overs) bearing the same relationship to the DL target (which now mocks them from the new scoreboard) as a greyhound does to the electric hare.

Worcestershire are currently the romantic’s choice in Division 2 : apart from Moeen Ali, they have a selection of young, locally produced players (mostly sourced from the Public Schools), and, though only Moeen made a really significant score (90), all, with the exception of Kohler-Cadmore, run out by a deft sidestep by Zak Chappell, made runs and any real hope of restricting them to a feasible total vanished when Hastings and Bernard scored 46 off the last 20 balls (Whitely had earlier smashed a hole in the boundary fence with a straight drive, which I thought he should have been billed for – we aren’t made of money).

No real blame attaches to the Leicestershire bowlers for this, on a pitch that was helpful to neither seam nor spin, though only Griffiths managed to maintain a more than respectable economy rate. Apart from his nifty footwork to remove Kohler-Cadmore, Chappell had Moeen caught behind (he hasn’t taken many wickets yet, but they’ve been good ones), but a desperately inexperienced bowler who relies on sheer pace is always likely to be expensive in this form of cricket, and it was probably prudent to omit him from the side for the last two games. What he needs is a full season’s bowling, but it is hard to see how he is going to get that when so much of the calendar is given over to T20, another form of the game in which he is never likely to be the safest option.

Zak does still have some way to go before he is quite the finished article as a nasty fast bowler.  I think I detected a hint of a vulpine lope, but, when a plastic bag (Tesco, I think) blew across his path at the start of his delivery run, he picked it up, trotted back to the pavilion and handed it to a steward. I can’t picture “Terror” Thomson in his prime being quite so public-spirited.

At the break, with Leicestershire set to chase 361, it didn’t seem likely that the major gratifications of watching one day cricket this year were going to come from on the pitch, but, with the weather warm enough to risk an ice-cream, it felt that there were worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon, a fact brought home when it was announced that there was a serious blockage in the lavatories behind the Meet, and a bloke was summoned to spend the rest of the day trying to unblock it.  Sooner him than me.

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Astonishingly (I was astonished, anyway), the Foxes almost matched Worcestershire’s total, the difference being that they were bowled out in the 48th over, at the point when Worcestershire were about to add the 46 runs that separated the sides. I’m afraid I didn’t have enough faith to hang around to witness the final overs, but baled out in search of a bus when Aadil Ali (who had been given the licence to play with the kind of aggression and fluency that’s always come easily to him in club cricket) was run out for 88.

If Leicestershire couldn’t match Worcestershire’s 361 on the Sunday, they overhauled it on the Tuesday against Warwickshire, making 363 (another club record). This day-night match was played in front of a small crowd for a game against a neighbouring County, though, for the first hour, the atmosphere was enlivened by a party of about 500 schoolchildren. Hopes were raised of an influx of Warwickshire supporters when a fleet of coaches arrived in mid-afternoon, but it turned out they had come to take the schoolchildren away. After that an eerie silence descended on the ground.

If one problem with the Leicestershire bowlers is a lack of experience, the problem with Warwickshire’s (and the team generally) looks to be too much of it. Leicestershire have put their two biggest eggs in one basket by opening with their two one-day specialists, Pettini and Delport. Against Worcestershire Delport had somehow contrived to be stumped early on off the bowling of Joe Leach, but this time the tactic came off triumphantly, the openers making 72 off the first seven overs, allowing them to promote Aadil Ali ahead of retrenchment specialist Eckersley and introduce death-or-glory boy Tom Wells early to lead an assault that brought over 100 off the last ten overs.

Pettini made a club-record 159, playing, unlike Delport or Wells, with the rapier, or possibly sabre, rather than the cudgel. He has been playing like a man possessed this year, having been a marginal figure last season, though whether this is the result, as is popularly supposed, of having been rapped by tough-talking boss De Bruyn in a clear-the-air-session, I couldn’t say. If he carries on like this I might even stop confusing him with Tony Palladino.

Warwickshire’s reply was hobbled at the outset, as was the unfortunate batsman, when a vicious yorker from our secret weapon Dieter Klein hit Porterfield on the instep plumb in front of the wicket. Hain (a batsman I perhaps over-rate because he makes a century every time I see him) and Ambrose made runs, but not quickly enough ; Trott and Bell look increasingly like a band who haven’t made a decent record in years, but have every half-decent effort hailed as a return to form, and the visitors’ last five wickets fell for 14 runs.

So, a famous victory, which, of course, I wasn’t there to see, having left to catch the last bus home (which leaves the city centre soon after 8.00). I’d be surprised if many were : the crowd was already sparse when I left, many of the regulars having left in the interval, and I think the only new arrivals had been a party of polar bears who said they’d come down from the Arctic to cool off.

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Such was my determination to see the end of a game that, for the match against Northants (another day-night affair), I splashed out and came by train (the last train home leaves Leicester shortly before 10.00).  The forecast was equivocal about the prospect of rain, but, I thought, even if it came down to a 10-over thrash at 8.00, I could say I was there.

The afternoon started well, in sunshine, and with Klein repeating his trick by bowling Duckett in the first over for 0 (I would normally feel ambivalent about this, because I enjoy watching Duckett bat, but, by now, cup fever was upon me).  It then took on an ominous aspect, as Levi and Newton made half-centuries apiece, and the clouds gathered.  The first rain fell at 3.00, and, apart from a ten-minute reprise at 5.15, that was it.  The game was finally called off at 7.15, which did, at least, give me time to have some of Mr. Stew’s excellent shepherd’s pie for dinner, though I needn’t have bothered with the train ticket.

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The crowd for this, by the way, was lower than you would normally expect for a County Championship game.  Admittedly the forecast was unpromising, but it cannot help that, to travel from Northampton to Leicester by train (a distance of about 40 miles) you would have to go via Birmingham or London.

And so to the last game, against Derbyshire (which was well-attended, with a substantial Derbyshire contingent).  I did have a suspicion that the visitors, who looked a depressed side last year, might be much-improved this season : Gary Wilson, Luis Reece and particularly “Hardus” Viljoen sounded like handy signings, and Harvey Hosein, a wicket-keeper batsmen, had impressed me as a useful prospect when he played against us at Derby.  In the event, they looked a poor side throughout. Neither Wilson nor Hosein played (quasi-Kolpak Daryn Smit, listed as an “occ WK” in Playfair, was behind the stumps) and it was only thanks to 98* by Alex Hughes (playing the “anchor role” that I thought was now outmoded) that they reached the total of 219, which would not have been overly impressive in 1976.

Viljoen’s first couple of overs raised the spectre that I might be making it home early, without seeing a Leicestershire win, being rapid enough to have Pettini caught behind and induce Delport and Eckersley (who can be a nervous starter) to play and miss more than once. However, his fire seemed to die down as the innings progressed and the only real threat came from Ben Cotton (a tall, “raw-boned” seamer of the kind that Derbyshire used, apocryphally, to be able to whistle up from the nearest pit, though, in fact, he seems to come from Stoke), who bowled 9 overs for 18 runs and briefly re-summoned that spectre by removing Cosgrove and Aadil Ali with Leicestershire still 100 short.

However, as you may remember from the spoiler at the beginning of this piece, Eckersley, permitted by the circumstances of the match to play an only slightly accelerated version of his preferred game, and Lewis Hill, whose unorthodoxy can sometimes stray into comedy (he has a tendency to fall over), but who is nothing if not determined, steered the ship safely to within one run of the harbour, when Eckersley was run out.

The entire Leicestershire contingent, who had gathered in front of the pavilion to applaud the two heroes off the field, had first to applaud Eckersley off solo,

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and then reconvene to celebrate the victory itself, which we did with much jubilation.  Supporters of more successful sides may be blasé about this kind of scene, but I can assure you that it was well worth waiting for.  And, as it had only taken them 40 overs, I was even home in time for dinner.

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Not Entirely Pointless

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, LVCC, Grace Road, 21-24 April 2017

A while ago, writing about match-fixing, I wrote the following :
“Any sport consists of an elaborate system of rules that constructs an artificial world within which it is possible to have an authentic experience. As anyone who has watched a lot of County cricket, or lower league football, will attest, that experience is rarely obviously thrilling, or even interesting (it is not spectacular), but, even if it not “real” in the sense that bull-fighting is real, it is and must be known to be authentic. When something genuinely marvellous happens (such as Botham in 1981) it reassures us that miracles can occasionally happen in real life, and not only in fiction.”
I suppose this match was a good example of what I had in mind. Only two of the passages of play (the morning session on the first day and the afternoon and evening sessions on the fourth) were particularly compelling in themselves. In between there were a few interesting moments, some worthy performances and touches of humour, but the main interest was in trying to anticipate the denouement, which, in the event, was never revealed.

Although there were several points when one side seemed to have the advantage, by the end of each day equilibrium had reasserted itself (Leicester ended the first day on 275-5, Glamorgan were 281-4 by the end of the second ; Leicester were 200-3 at the end of the third, Glamorgan 144-4 at the close). (This state of equilibrium may have been the result of the game – as a man in front of me put it – being a case of a resistible force meeting a moveable object.)

A journeyman scriptwriter would have repeated the ending to last season’s match between the two sides, when, in the last game of the season, McKay and Shreck had taken Glamorgan’s last five wickets for ten runs when they required only 36 more to win (not quite Botham in ’81, but a satisfying conclusion). Instead we had a sort of nouveau roman policier, in which, having established numerous suspects, the detective concludes that he cannot work out who the murderer is and simply gives up and goes home for dinner.

The match was unusual, in that the most significant delivery of the four days was one that no-one in the crowd could see, it being the ball in the nets that had (apparently) bruised Zak Chappell’s shoulder and rendered him incapable of bowling in Glamorgan’s first innings. This is not because I would expect him to run through them like a dose of salts (those days may come, but not yet, and probably not, I’m afraid, for Leicestershire), but because it meant that we were left with only three front line bowlers, McKay, Raine and Shreck, who, in benign conditions for batting, were compelled to bowl 27, 30.5 and 29 overs respectively. As a result, I imagine, neither McKay (back) nor Raine (sidestrain) were able to bowl more than a few overs on the last afternoon, though Chappell was able to bowl, alongside the apparently indefatigable Shreck.

The first session of the first day was, as I say, compelling to watch, as the Lancastrian duo of Horton and Dearden opened together for the fourth time this season. Horton was in fragile form at the end of last season and has a highest score this of 20, with four single figure scores. Dearden was averaging 11 and their highest opening partnership against a County had been 10. It might not be true that they were anxious for their places, as, with Robson having absconded, there is no obvious alternative opener, but Horton (at 34) might have been worrying that he is facing something worse than a temporary dip in form and Dearden (19) that he is out of his depth.

Friday was a bitterly cold and overcast morning, and it was something of a test of character simply to stay out on the pitch for the opening session, when there was the option of a warm dressing room to retreat to, but the pair dug in (the phrase implies some of the dogged physical effort that seemed to be involved) and were still together at lunch. The pitch seemed generally true, but with the nasty quirk that balls just short of a length sometimes reared up alarmingly, and Horton was hit painfully more than once. Glamorgan, too, seemed a bowler short (there was no van der Gugten, nor cricket’s answer to Robbie Savage, Graham Wagg), and their opening pair Michael Hogan (a “rangy” Australian who looks somehow under-dressed without a Drizabone) and Lukas Carey (a 19-year old from the same Swansea school as Aneurin Donald) were only intermittently threatening, but the sense of relief when the beleaguered pair returned to the pavilion, with the score on 81-0 was almost tangible.

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At lunch, to illustrate my point about anticipating possible futures, a century opening partnership, and an individual century for at least one of the openers seemed on the cards. By about 2.00, with Horton out for 41 (he returned to a standing ovation from the home balcony, indicating that spirit within the team is good, whatever their alleged relationship with the coach), followed swiftly by Dexter first ball and Captain for the day Eckersley for 1, thoughts (my thoughts anyway) had turned to a card-house collapse and how Chappell might be hard to play in the fading light of the final session. (I must, incidentally, get out of the habit of taking pictures of batsman as they return to the pavilion, which makes me feel too much like a tricoteux cackling at the foot of the tumbril.)


In the event, equilibrium was restored by Dearden (who fell 13 frustrating runs short of a maiden century) and Mark Pettini, who has been the least convincing of the “experienced” imports, but who made important runs in both innings here ; the balanced then tipped in favour of Leicestershire as the last five wickets, in what has become something of a pattern, more than doubled the score to finish on 420.

The last 61 of those runs came from a last wicket stand on the second morning between those knights of the long handle McKay and Shreck ; they were clearly enjoying themselves enormously at the time

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but might have been less pleased if they had known quite how many overs they would have to bowl over the course of the next two sunny days, on a pitch which had mellowed so much that it might as well have fired up a joint and stuck some James Taylor on the stereo.

Spirits first sank at the sight of Tom Wells taking the field. Not that there is anything wrong with Wells per se, but because it soon dawned that he was fielding as a substitute for Chappell, leaving, as support for the three main bowlers, Dearden (who had not, I think, previously bowled with a red ball even for the 2nd XI), Dexter (whose medium pace surprisingly often breaks partnerships, but is not suited to long spells) and Delport (supposedly on a one day contract, but drafted in here (any Delport in a storm) to purvey his big maximums and little wobblers).

The bulk of Glamorgan’s reply came from young opener Selman (117) and the mature Kolpak Ingram (137). I can remember little of their stand of 161, except being torn between wanting it to stop and being secretly relieved that the game would, at least, outlast the weekend. Once that stand was broken, wickets fell at regular, but widely spaced, intervals and Glamorgan finally crept six runs in front (equilibrium restored again).  Another responsible, as well as stylish, innings by Pettini (a century this time) and a similar effort from Eckersley ensured that defeat was out of the question, but the timing of the declaration, which left Glamorgan 355 to make off a possible 57 overs, meant that something extraordinary would be required for a home victory.

What we saw (the thirty or so who were left by the end) was, in a way, extraordinary, but not in the way required to win. To set the scene, by mid-afternoon the sky was, at its most colourful, battleship grey, and the only things that seemed to be preventing it snowing were the intense cold and the biting wind. If it weren’t for the floodlights we would all have been home by lunchtime.

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McKay bowled his first over like a man who is a martyr to lumbago, and it must have been clear to Glamorgan that last year’s bogeyman would not be troubling them again (he only managed one more over).  Raine, a player who would, as the saying goes, run through brick walls for the club (and probably does so for fun on his days off) was forced to leave the field after, heroically, bowling seven overs and taking two wickets.  Which (without a recognised, or recognisable, spinner in the side) left Shreck and Chappell. Shreck, a man closer in age to me than he is to Chappell, managed another 13 overs to go with the 29 he had bowled in the first innings (perhaps his enforced rest period had done him good) but posed no real threat to batsmen who were looking only to survive.

Chappell, though, in light that seemed pretty dim even with the floodlights on, bowled fast enough to endanger the physical safety of the batsmen, even if he did not often enough threaten their wickets (Cooke looked thoroughly uncomfortable, particularly when he was hit somewhere in the region of his solar plexus).  He also posed some threat to his wicket-keeper and slip cordon, and even a St. John Ambulance lady who was sheltering from the wind behind the sightscreen (a bouncer had flown as far over Lewis Hill’s head as a lecture on Hegel and trampolined over the screen off a hoarding angled at 45 degrees).  In fact, for once, the only person he did not look likely to injure was himself.

The more sensible element in the crowd had called it a day when there was a brief interruption for bad light,

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but I hung on to the end, in the faint hope that the extraordinary thing, the thing you don’t see every day, might happen, which, in a way, it did.  A ball from Chappell to Rudolph, slightly short of a length, instead of veering harmlessly off towards the slips, cut back viciously and skinned his glove on its way through to Hill.  A whole possible future glimpsed in a single ball.

To maintain the equilibrium, both Leicestershire and Glamorgan have now earned 20 points this season though, after deductions, we only have four left.  So, not entirely pointless, at least.

 

 

 

 

Eckersley in Excelsis

Leicestershire v Derbyshire, Grace Road, LVCC, 4-7 August 2016

Those of us who follow cricket, in particular County cricket, are often accused of “living in the past“, or painting a “rose-tinted“, “sepia” picture of it (though what – in the age of Instagram filters – could be more modern?).  There is some truth in this (though I would argue that nostalgia, in the sense of homesickness and a consciousness of loss, is about the most profound experience the game has to offer), but what we are equally prone to do is to live in the future, and a rosy future at that.

As soon as a season’s fixtures are published, in the depths of Winter, we map out dream itineraries, new grounds to visit, old faces to re-encounter ; we dream of warm Springs,  high Summers, poignant Autumns.  A new face in the side sparks hope ; a few decent strokes and we are watching the next Gower, a hint of real pace from a debutant and he is giving the Aussies hell at the Gabba.  Needless to say, we are usually disappointed, but not for long, as there is always another season, and new new faces to look forward to.

What we do not often do, between looking back and looking forward, is to live in the present, but there is always one moment, one day in the season, when we would not wish to be anywhere else in time.  For many, I imagine, it would come at a Test, or at the moment of some personal triumph, but for me, this year, it came on the fourth day of what turned out to be a drawn game between Leicestershire and Derbyshire at Grace Road.

It helps that, for the first time since I began writing this blog in 2009, Leicestershire still have a realistic chance of being promoted at this stage of the season.  Unfortunately, due to the number of drawn games this year, so do five other Counties, but it does mean that, for once, thoughts at Grace Road have not yet begun to turn to the hope of better things next year.

I joined the game shortly before lunch on the third day, with Derbyshire about a hundred short of Leicestershire’s first innings total of 380, with eight wickets down.  This soon became nine and the Foxes must have been content to postpone their lunches in the expectation of polishing off the young debutant off-spinner, Callum Parkinson.  Unfortunately Parkinson (who, through rose-tinted spectacles, is clearly the new Graeme Swann) proved to be a wolf in rabbit’s clothing, and had no difficulty in holding them off until hunger drove them into the pavilion.

Over lunch it seemed to dawn on Leicestershire that this might be the precise moment when promotion slipped away from them, because they re-emerged with the seeming plan of trying to bully the youngster out.  “Let’s give him a nice easy game lads, lots of half volleys” came a voice from behind the stumps (which must have puzzled the lad, as this was pretty much what they had been doing for the previous half hour). “He’s only 19” bellowed Charlie Shreck from the boundary, menacingly, like the Great Long Legged Scissor Man. “Better than being 39“, retorted a nearby Derbyshire supporter, piquantly (the bowler pondered this melancholy truth in silence).

Parkinson was left stranded on 48*, having put on 73 for the last wicket to bring his side to within 18 of Leicestershire’s total. For the second time in the match, Leicestershire’s prospects looked bleak when Ned Eckersley came in at number 7, with the score at 103-5 (in their first innings, they had been 138-5 before he scored his first century).

Edmund “Ned” Eckersley has been weaving in and out of this chronicle since he made his first appearance as a triallist in 2011 (as “the man with no squad number” and an impressive portfolio of nicknames). In 2013 he scored over a thousand runs at an average of over 50, and was neck and neck with a certain Moeen Ali as the leading run scorer in Division 2. His highlight that season was scoring two centuries in the match against Worcestershire, many of them off the innocuous looking off-spin of the same Moeen.

After that, through the lean years, he seemed miscast as senior batsman and rock of the side at number three. He became introverted and crabbed, weighed down with responsibility, and began to exhibit Trott-like symptoms, such as obsessive crease-scratching. The runs dried up, his average declined (27 in 2014, 25.74 last year). He was said to crave a return to his native Smoke, he wrote a piece for the Cricketer and tried some work experience as a journalist. So far this season he has been sidelined with a broken finger (perhaps sustained through excessive typing).

Eckersley has a whiff of Bohemia about him : unusually for a modern cricketer, he would look more at home in the Cafe Royale than Nandos. My first mention in “Wisden” singled out a description of his beard, on its first appearance, as “scrubby” and “rabbinical”. Since then, it has been through an Assyrian phase, and a crypto-hipster one, before settling on an unstyled long hair and beard combo which makes him look, with the white-rimmed shades Leicestershire currently sport, like a Greenwich Village folksinger who has just discovered LSD and is about to go psychedelic, or, perhaps, Robert Powell in the role of Jesus of Nazareth.

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Borrowed shamelessly from the Cricket Paper

Being moved down to number 7, with six experienced batsmen above him, does seem to have allowed him to play as he would he choose to, freed from constraint. Early on he was watchful and fastidious in his choice of strokes ; as the danger receded, his top hand took over and was given free rein in the covers. By early afternoon he was approaching his second century, and Leicestershire were in a position where a declaration might have tempted Derbyshire into a hazardous run-chase. But Eckersley was allowed to bat on (it didn’t help that he was, through no fault of his own, stalled for 15 minutes on 99) and that moment passed.

Derbyshire were listing badly at 5-2,, but Madsen and Thakor righted the vessel and the two sides shook hands on a draw. I thought they did so a little prematurely, but then I noticed a barbie was already smouldering behind the pavilion (perhaps set up by the families of the Australian contingent, who sometimes turn sunny days at Grace Road into a scene from Home and Away). No doubt Eckersley, whose 27th birthday was the next day, would be offered the choicest cuts, but I hope they kept a sausage or two for young Parkinson.

Eckersley was allowed to lead the sides off the field : there is a wonderful photograph of that moment by Ed Melia, which suggests what made it, for me, the day of the season (you can see it here). Aside from its formal qualities, it seems to capture the precise moment when a player’s career is at its absolute zenith, neither promising nor declining, looking neither forward or back, the moment, perhaps never to be repeated, when he would not wish to be anywhere else.

Ripeness is all.

Northamptonshire v Leicestershire, County Ground, LVCC, 13-16 August 2016

I suggested, at the start of the season, that Northamptonshire’s strategy in the Championship seemed to be, bearing in mind that they have a reasonable batting side, but apparently weaker bowling, to prepare dead pitches, opt for high-scoring draws and hope to “nick one on the break” towards the end, when sides in contention for promotion might be inclined to make sporting declarations. That has proved accurate, the only game at Wantage Road that has not been drawn being the slightly freakish defeat by Worcestershire. This game was another that would have gone into its second week, had it not been for a sporting declaration : the surprise was that it came from Northants, and not Leicestershire.

In their first innings, Leicestershire compiled 519, with three centuries, including a third in three innings for Eckersley (which I missed, not being there on the Sunday). On the Monday, Northamptonshire had reached 397-7 (Newton 202*) when, to the surprise of all, they declared. On the Tuesday, to the surprise of most (but not me), Leicestershire batted on to set Northants a notional target of 405 in 51 overs.

The shadow-boxing on the Tuesday had the unfortunate effect of casting doubt on the validity of 18 year-old slow left armer Saif Zaib’s figures of 5-148 off a very long 26 overs. In fact, though some of his wickets did come off silly hoicks, he could easily have had five legitimate ones, if there had been more close catchers in place. It also, unfortunately, ruined Eckersley’s chances of equally C.B. Fry’s record of six centuries in succession, as he was caught at long on for 1, off a ball by – of all people – wicket-keeper David Murphy. He might have preferred to bat the day out.

Those who enjoy living in the past had an opportunity to re-enact it on the Monday, when various members of the side who won the Gillette Cup in 1976 were having a re-union (and those, like Mushtaq, who could not attend were there in spirit, on a big screen). Sarfraz Nawaz, looking only a little less like Omar Sharif than he did in his heyday, was cornered in the car park by the same men, I suspect, who, as boys, had cornered him there forty years ago. I don’t suppose they sang “Forty Years On”, though parts of it would have been appropriate.

Leicestershire will play the current leaders, Essex, at Grace Road this coming week, without their bowling talisman and leading wicket-taker, Clint McKay, who pulled up lame towards the end of Northamptonshire’s first innings (the chief reason they did not declare earlier). Defeat would make promotion for Leicestershire improbable, and though I would not underestimate the acumen of our Australian management team, they might – assuming they really want us to be promoted – find themselves looking back in regret at a few of the dies that they have declined to carpere over the course of the season.

On the other hand, though, young Zak Chappell looked about ready to bowl again, and, anyway, there’s always next year …