The Colin Milburn I Remember

The older I grow, the harder I find it to write about anything but memory. I picture it as a cloudy golden fluid, in which once solid, living, things, rather than being preserved like flies in amber, dissolve and fragment.” – Nicholas Faxton.

So, time for some memory work. Who was the Milburn I remember? Memory speaks :

“He was the first player I remember well, the first to really capture my imagination. Although I lived in Lancashire as a child, my family spent most of the Summer holidays staying with my Grandparents in Northamptonshire, and we spent a lot of time at Wantage Road, watching the cricket. I can picture my Mother’s Father driving my Dad (who didn’t drive) and I to the ground, and I particularly remember my Dad being anxious that we should arrive in time for the start of play, in case Northamptonshire batted first. He didn’t want to miss Milburn bat, you see, who I had been told was capable of doing extraordinary things – he might hit boundaries – even a six! – in the first over, or score a Century before lunch, which was considered a great achievement in those days.

Sometimes, of course, we would be unlucky. Northants would bowl first, and I would have to be content with watching Milburn fielding at short leg (his rear view was a source of great amusement), or bowling his underestimated medium-pacers. The best you could hope for would be that he would field in the outfield and have to pursue a ball to the boundary, urged on by the crowd as it accelerated away from him. But if were lucky, Northants would bat, and Milburn would open.

Milburn’s opening partner was always Roger Prideaux. I can see them now, walking down the steps of the old pavilion, Prideaux immaculately turned out in his Cambridge Blue cap and knotted silk ‘kerchief, Milburn, bare-headed, his belly already straining to remove his shirt tails from his trousers. My strongest memory of him is of sitting in the old West Stand and readying ourselves to take evasive action as Milburn pulled ball after ball to the boundary, often low and hard and straight into the stand itself, crashing into the wall and rebounding down the tiers of seats, scattering the spectators and upsetting our thermos flasks. By this stage, he would be sweating profusely and his belly would have freed itself from his shirt and his shirt tails from his trousers.

Of course, we all thought he should have played for England more often than he did. Another clear memory is of the announcement of the touring side to Pakistan in the Winter of 1968/9. In those days the composition of the party was announced over the radio at the end of the 2 o’clock news on the Sunday of the last Test of the Summer. I can picture us sitting in the dining room of my Grandparents’ house, dinner cleared away (and, I suspect, my Mother and Grandmother already doing the washing up), with the old Roberts radio already tuned in. We listened as the names were announced, the Captain first, then in alphabetical order – J, K (Knott?), then straight on to P for … Prideaux! The surprise that Prideaux had been chosen, and Milburn left out (which we probably blamed on some kind of class prejudice) quite obscured the fact that D’Oliveira had not been selected either.

Then, of course, came his accident …”

But let us stop for a moment, and ask how much of this is true. That is, how much of it is an accurate account of what I can remember, as opposed to simply writing, and how much of what I think I can remember might be true?

To begin with, Milburn’s accident occurred in May 1969, when I was eight years old, and I can remember very little of my earliest childhood. It is true that, in the mid-1960s, we used to stay with my Grandparents during the Summer holidays (there are photographs and even cine-films as proof), but I don’t think it would have been for all, or even most, of them (that belongs to a slightly later period), and I’m not sure that we spent all that much time watching cricket together at Northampton (if anything, we would have watched the games at Kettering, which I don’t remember at all).

Even if we had spent the whole of July and August in Kettering between 1966 and 1968 (I don’t think I would be capable of remembering anything before that), we could, according to Cricket Archive, have watched 21 home games (4 of those at Wellingborough or Kettering) : Milburn played in 11 of them, making 4 fifties (3 in 1967, 1 in 1968), with a highest score of 58 (in fact, Prideaux seems to have been the more prolific of the two). Looking at the scorecards, I can’t say any of them rings a particular bell : if I had to pick one out that might have lodged in my mind, it is quite likely that we would have watched the match against Nottinghamshire on 31st July 1968 (to see Gary Sobers), in which Milburn made 49, batting at no. 3, but that is pure conjecture.

In fact most of what I remember, or what I have claimed to remember, is conjecture, embellishment, or outright invention. Milburn often did open with Prideaux, though not always. I cannot, though, picture them walking down the steps of the old pavilion (in fact, looking at photographs of the pavilion at that time, I had quite forgotten what it looked like). I do not remember Prideaux wearing his Cambridge cap or a ‘kerchief round his neck (it’s the kind of thing he ought to have done, but if he did, it is something I have imported into my memory from photographs or books). I must have seen Milburn field, but the humorous aspect of his rear view is probably something I remember from the work of Roy Ullyett, the old Daily Express cartoonist, rather than life.

The vignette of being driven to the ground, which I can picture with suspicious clarity in my mind’s eye, is probably true, if only because I don’t think I can have borrowed it from anywhere else, and seems characteristic of both generations of parents. As for my most vivid memory, of being bombarded in the West Stand, it is very likely that something of the sort happened : if Milburn had been batting at the Pavilion End, his trademark pull would, indeed, have landed in or over that Stand. The only problem with this is that the stand is still there, and I often still sit in it (remembering, as I think, Milburn), and some of the details (the ball rebounding off the back wall, the upset Thermos flask) may date from as recently as last Summer, and a more modern batsman entirely.

Most of the third vignette, which again I can visualise quite clearly, must be pure invention. Touring parties were indeed given out in this way, and it is more than likely that I would have heard one being announced in those circumstances, but whether it was this particular one I have no idea (and, having looked the tour party up, Murray and Pocock would have intervened between the absent Milburn and Prideaux). As for the old Roberts radio (which I think might actually have been a Bush) and my washing up Grandmother, these, like Prideaux’s cap, are the kinds of concrete detail that help to make an untruthful narrative, or a fiction, convincing.

But back to the accident, which I cannot remember, though it must have occurred when I was back at school in Blackpool, and its aftermath.

 

I can remember pictures of Milburn, sitting up in bed, with his eye bandaged (like Pudsey the Bear), “joking with the nurses” and, I think, drinking a glass of champagne (though I may be confusing these with similar pictures of George Best). At this point, I don’t think it occurred to me that he might not play again. My Grandparents used to send us a copy of a now defunct local newspaper called “The Leader”, so that we could keep in touch with events in Northamptonshire, and this carried regular bulletins on his progress, his good spirits, his plans to return to the nets, his optimism that he would be returning to cricket soon, perhaps next season, perhaps the one after, a process that must have continued for all of four years. In the meantime he had a strange afterlife, inhabiting a limbo in which he was never quite absent, though his physical return was always postponed.

The same “Leader” had published a centrefold of Milburn, which I had pinned up on my bedroom wall (and would have been the last thing I saw before I fell asleep at night). It showed an artist’s impression of him, playing a pull shot (in the direction, perhaps, of the old West Stand), his shirt unbuttoned and his shirt tails flapping, perhaps his trousers split (and, no doubt, when I close my eyes and picture myself back in that stand, that is the image I see).

I was, at that time, a devotee of pencil cricket, in which England sides of my own devising played out various shadow series (often against Rest of the World XIs, which were then fashionable). My selections were rooted in the real world, but soon diverged from it, as players who were favoured by the roll of the pencil, or (to be frank) whom I liked (such as, puzzlingly, Dudley Owen-Thomas of Surrey) prospered and others (such as Geoffrey Boycott) failed. In this shadow world (which, at times, seemed more real to me than the real one), Milburn retained his eye, and his England place, and he continued to bombard the old West Stand, as the pencil, repeatedly and mysteriously, awarded him six after six.

As the years passed (four of them, a long time at that age), and Milburn’s bodily return seemed to be indefinitely postponed, the visions faded. I grew tired of pencil cricket, and the ikon on my wall was replaced by a poster of the Carillon at Bruges, or possibly Alice Cooper. By the time he did return (playing 16 first-class games in 1973, and 12 in 1974), I had almost forgotten him. He was, as everyone said, a shadow of his former self, not the player he had been, not what he was. I must have seen him play then, and this shadow-self should be the Milburn I remember well, but I find I can remember nothing. The truth is, the Milburn I remember was always already a memory, a golden absence, beyond recall.

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Happy Days and End Games

 

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On my first visit of the season, I complained that the inscription on the sundial in the Garden of Remembrance at the County Ground, Northampton had become illegible. I don’t know whether close to six months at Wantage Road has somehow cleansed my doors of perception, or whether they have shelled out to have it cleaned, but on my last visit I found I could read it clearly. It seems to read:

Make time, save time, while time lasts. All time is no time, when time is past.

This sounds like the sort of riddle contestants on 3-2-1 once had to solve to win a microwave oven, but, in fact, appears to have been borrowed from the 17th century monumental sculptor, Nicholas Stone. If the specifics are a little gnomic, the gist is clear : (depending on how you like your eggs) carpe diem, enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think … YOLO.

As September falls, a sense of an ending concentrates the minds of players, coaches and spectators alike, though unalike, according to their roles. Months of settling for high scoring draws (ensuring that the season will not be the kind of disaster that leads to the coach losing his job) give way to a desperate dash for results. In the previous five months of 4-day cricket at Grace and Wantage Roads I saw two results, in the last five weeks, I have seen five (two defeats and a win for Leicestershire, two wins for Northamptonshire).

For a few players, the end of the season will see their last game, some for their current club, for others anywhere or ever. The same goes for some of the crowd : we all hope to winter well, to see you next year, to have all the time in the world, but, as I was saying in the Spring, it does not do to take time for granted. And hovering at the back of our minds, at this season’s ending in particular, there skulks the baleful figure of the Angel of Death, in the shape of Colin Graves, and his plans for city-based cricket.  All time is no time, when time is past …

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, County Championship, 6-7 September 2016

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Should any of us have required a reminder of our mortality, the first day of this game had been designated as “Heart Attack Awareness Day” : praiseworthy, of course, though I found the sight of children simulating heart attacks in the outfield during the lunch interval did little to alleviate the sense of unease generated by another poor Leicestershire performance. They had gambled by preparing a green wicket against a side whose main strength looked to be its seam bowling, and who would have first use of that wicket. Not unpredictably, they were bowled out for 135 and 119 and, having allowed Sussex to recover from 156-7 to 313 (an inability to dock the tail has been a persistent problem), lost by an innings within two days. As if that were not punishment enough, the Umpires added to the insult by reporting the pitch to the ECB.

Little has gone right for Leicestershire recently ; what, precisely, has gone wrong is peculiarly hard to say, though the steep swan-dive in form has, at least, coincided with the confirmation that coach Andrew McDonald would be returning to Australia and the sudden departure of wicket-keeper and chief opposition-irritant Niall O’Brien. What goes on inside a professional cricket club is as mysterious to outsiders as what goes on inside a marriage : commentary is, at best, speculation, at worst gossip. It does appear to the outside observer, though, that the core of this side, mostly thirty-somethings of Australian or South African origin, are a rather introverted, self-sufficient group whose loyalty is (not unnaturally) to each other, rather than to Leicestershire per se, and who, without being actively unfriendly, see little need to build a rapport with outsiders.

There are also hints of a hierarchical split between the first-teamers (eight of whom have played in almost every four-day match this season) and the younger, local-ish players, reduced to the 2s and fetching and carrying (and who are gradually being shed from the staff). Zak Chappell, potentially the most talented, has been unable to bowl more than a few exploratory overs since he broke down in April, but returned against Sussex. Inevitably, given the long lay-off, his length and direction were awry (though he was quick enough to induce some balletics from Eckersley, who is nothing if not an elegant wicket-keeper). When he did finally find his range to finish the innings by clean bowling Jofra Archer, there seemed to be a marked lack of the usual back-slapping and high-fiving from his senior colleagues, and he was left out for the next game in favour of the ready-made Richard Jones. It would be a shame if he had to go elsewhere to find nurture.

Derbyshire 2nd XI v Glamorgan 2nd XI, Belper Meadows, 8th September 2016

The premature ending at Grace Road gave me a last chance to re-visit what is probably my favourite ground on the circuit, at Belper. I have tried to capture its charm in words before, but, as its appeal is largely aesthetic, it is probably best conveyed in pictures. I wondered why anyone would want to watch city-based cricket when they have the option of its De Chiroco shadows and distant prospects of the East Mill and the Derwent Valley.

(On the subject of intimations of mortality, during this match a Derbyshire batsman, completing his second run to reach 200, was struck on the head by a shy at the wicket. He lay motionless on the ground, and there was initially some concern that he was dead. Happily, it transpired that he was just having a larf (#topbantz!), but I wonder, if he had been killed instantly while out of his ground, but his momentum had carried his lifelless body over the crease, would the run have stood? Is it enough for the batsman’s body to complete the run, or does he need to be present in spirit? A question for Ask the Umpire, perhaps, or possibly a theologian.)

Leicestershire Over 50s v Essex Over 50s, Kibworth, 11h September 2016

The final of the Over 50s 50/50 Cup (I don’t think the Over 60s play 60 overs) saw the first of this season’s happy endings. Leicestershire (the underdogs) were struggling (as the shadows lengthened) at 108-9, in reply to Essex’s 167, when the last man arrived at the crease. He made the bulk of the runs to take us to victory, and, as darkness fell, he was sprayed with Champagne by his team-mates, and presented with the Man of the Match Award by the increasingly Tudor Mike Gatting. This is what is usually described as a “fairytale ending”, or “like something out of a Boy’s Own Comic” ; we instinctively mistrust them as too neat, too satisfying, as, in fiction, they would be. Which is why it matters that it actually happened, and that we can believe our eyes.

Derbyshire v Leicestershire, AAA Arena Derby, 12th September 2016

Of all the counties I know well, I’d say Derbyshire has the most attractive grounds – apart from Belper, there is Chesterfield, Buxton, Duffield and, no doubt, many more I have yet to visit. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the County choose to play all but one of their home games at the AAA Arena, which is rapidly transforming itself into one of the ugliest. It has long suffered from being surrounded by a system of ringroads that makes it perilous to approach and which keeps up a whooshing, grumbling, drone in the background, and is famously windswept. It used to have redeeming features, though, such as a well-stocked secondhand bookshop, decent ice-cream, and deckchairs rather than fixed seating around much of the boundary. Unfortunately, this section was cordoned off in connection with the building of a new media centre, which seems designed to complete the transformation from a cricket ground to a collection of multi-use industrial units (with a Travelodge looming over it all). I am not unaware of the commercial imperatives that lie behind this (and that something of the sort threatens at Grace Road), but the thought does occur that, if this is the future for the smaller counties, then a threatened alternative future of playing minor counties at, for instance, Belper, might well be preferable.

It didn’t help that the weather was dull, the crowd glum (as well they might, not having won a match all season), and it cost £18.00 to get in. On the field, it was another frustrating day for Leicestershire, who having ground Derbyshire down to 177-6, as usual allowed 19-year old wicket-keeper Harvey Hosein (83*) to drag the innings out to 307. Both sides looked weary, as though they felt that the season had gone on for too long, and as the gloaming descended in the late afternoon, I began to feel the same way. The most interesting feature of the day was that one of the home supporters had brought along a pet tortoise in a cardboard box, which was allowed to graze just outside the boundary fence ; on the whole I found watching that more entertaining than what was going on inside it.

Northamptonshire v Gloucestershire, County Ground, 12-15 September 2016

Moving from Derby to Northampton was to move from gloom into bright light (once the early mist had burned off). Since their T20 victory, Northamptonshire have been sealed in a golden bubble of happiness, on a winning streak where every gamble they take pays off, where they only have to hope for something to make it happen, much as it must seem to their talisman Duckett (who, while Leicester and Derby had been toiling, had knocked off 208 in a victory over Kent). In this match he could only manage a 70, mostly backhand-smashed off Gloucestershire’s quartet of season-weary back-of-a-length merchants, though he was presented with the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year Award (not to mention being called up by England).

On the final day, Gloucestershire had been set 441 to win. At 286-5 with time shortening, logic suggested a draw, but dream logic demanded that Northants should bowl them out, and that Ben Sanderson (a plucked-from-obscurity fairy story in himself), should take eight wickets to do it. After that it was beers on the balcony, and precious, sweaty, kit flung over it to the faithful, who lingered as long at the ground as they decently could. Make time, save time, while time lasts …

Northamptonshire’s Members too, seem to be locked in a golden bubble of happiness, to the extent that they have allowed themselves to be persuaded to surrender control of the club to a “group of investors” (I voted against this). The current investors appear to be amiable and well-intentioned, and, in the short-term, the future may well appear bright. In the longer term, though, when those investors grow old, or need some cash, the ex-Members may discover that it is harder to regain control of a club than to surrender it, at least until it goes bust (as the supporters of more than local football club will testify).

On the other hand, the long term is too far ahead to look for some of the older Members. As I heard one say “Oh, well. There’ll be cricket here next year … and maybe the year after”. Carpe diem … and let the future look after itself.

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, Grace Road, 20-22 September 2016

And so to the end, and a bitter end it looked to be, when Leicestershire were bowled out for 96 on the first morning (on what Andrew McDonald described as one of the worst days of first-class cricket he had ever seen). I won’t bore you with what led them to this position, but Gloucestershire found themselves, at lunch on the third day, needing 35 to win with 6 wickets in hand. There followed a fairytale ending, of the kind in which the big bad wolves (in the shape of Clint McKay and Charlie Shreck) gobble up the little piggies, as they lost those six wickets for ten runs, to give Leicestershire their first home win since 2012. It somehow happened too quickly to quite take in, and, after a brief explosion of disbelief and relief, I was left with the realisation that, after close to six months, and God knows how many thousands of words, it was all over, finished, gone, and I could think of nothing to say about it at all.

All time is no time, when time is past …

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Mildly Surprised by Joy

Northamptonshire v Glamorgan, County Ground Northampton, County Championship, 31st August-3rd September 2016

I don’t want to say I told you so …” is not a phrase that is often sincerely meant.  Where cricket is concerned, though, it has an ambiguous force.  On the one hand, it is only human to take pleasure in being able, retrospectively, to prove one’s perspicacity : on the other, predictability is a notorious kill-joy.

It depends a little, of course, on the nature of the prediction.  If I had predicted, for instance, at the beginning of the 2013 season, that Leicestershire would not win another Championship game until 2015, it would have been cold comfort to have been proved right. Though there are some (particularly at Northampton) who, perversely, seem to take the opposite view, we generally prefer our optimistic prophecies to come true, and our more gloomy prognostications to be refuted.

I would, for instance, have expected this to be a predictable game, but I am delighted to say that I would have been quite wrong.  I predicted early in the season that Northamptonshire would continue to produce dead, flat wickets and that most of their home games would be high-scoring draws, and I have been proved correct : all but one have been drawn.  I also predicted that, if they wanted to win games, their best hope would be to return to their strategy of the 1950s, prepare turning pitches, and play at least two of their four spinners (this more a pious hope than a prediction).

Until the last ball before lunch, the match proceeded predictably enough.  Northants were on 140-0, with Ben Duckett on 80 (and it is a sign of what an extraordinary player Duckett has become that I can describe making close to a century before lunch as predictable).  He then tried to sweep a very full ball from a debutant, part-time off-spinner called Carlson off middle-and-leg, missed, and was bowled.  This seemed likely to be only a temporary, if disappointing, interruption to their expected progress to a large total. In the afternoon, however, Carlson, who looked to be flighting the ball quite nicely, took 5 (mostly lower order) wickets for 25, and Owen Morgan, another inexperienced spinner, chipped in with 2-37, to dismiss Northants for 269.

This low total was dismissed as a predictable consequence of a hangover from the T20 victory and a depleted batting line-up, and Carlson’s figures as an amusing novelty. By lunch on the second day, however, Rob Keogh, generally seen as a batsman who bowls a bit, had taken 9-52 (the best bowling figures by a living Northamptonshire bowler) and Glamorgan were all out for 124.  So hapless had the batsmen appeared that anxiety grew about a visit from the Pitch Inspector, so, at lunch time, most of the crowd wandered out to inspect it for themselves.

What they found was a pitch that was bare of grass, rutted where batsmen had scratched their marks, scuffed a little by bowlers’ footmarks (particularly the left-armer Wagg), but hard and solid looking (I didn’t dare poke it), and devoid of cracks. It was precisely the kind of wicket that you would hope to see in August, when spinners traditionally came into their own, but far too seldom do now. Still, however, the shadow of the Pitch Inspector and a points deduction hung over the ground, as Duckett and Newton walked out to bat.

Within an over or two, the shadow dispersed, along with the field, which soon came to resemble the closing overs of a Gillette Cup match in the days before fielding restrictions. It helped that Carlson (whose best day may already be behind him) bowled two full tosses to Duckett in his first over, both of which ended up in the groundsman’s hut (D’Oliveira had successfully employed the same tactic to dismiss him earlier in the season, but I don’t think Carlson was doing it deliberately). Duckett went on to make 50 off 30 balls and, in the course of a rare, golden afternoon, 185 off 159 balls, before a tired shot saw him return to a standing ovation and a pair of green wellingtons (whose meaning was obscure) balanced on the dressing room balcony.

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On the third day Glamorgan, chasing a fanciful 451, again disintegrated (unlike the pitch), to Keogh (who took 4-73) and the precise, dandified left armers of Graeme White (6-44), both bowling with the rare luxury of a packed close field.

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Glamorgan only slightly exceeded their first innings total, making 132, and were beaten by 318 runs, shortly before tea. In the course of the match Glamorgan had made 256 runs, Duckett 265. 31 of the 37 wickets to fall had fallen to spin, including all 20 of Glamorgan’s. Keogh finished with 13 wickets, and White 7.

To repeat myself, there was nothing freakishly venomous about this pitch, it was simply one that offered the spinners the help that they would once have taken as their due at this stage of this season (and in April at Northampton, if dear old Claude Woolley was on good form). If proper pitches like this became commonplace again, then only proper batsmen (or batsmen who play spin properly), like Duckett, would be able to make runs, and the flat track, “big” bat bullies would have to learn to adapt, to become better-rounded players.

Players like Keogh would have the incentive to become spinners who bat a bit, rather than vice-versa. Specialists like White might find themselves with a regular red ball gig, and a chance to express their full range of talents, rather than being reduced to mere, miserly, dot ball merchants in the T20. Young bowlers, whose careers are currently deformed (like that of Briggs), or at risk of being snuffed out altogether (like Riley’s), would stand a chance of reaching their potential peaks. England would, when preparing a squad to tour India, know who could play spin, and who was best capable of bowling it. They might even feel the need to employ a specialist wicket-keeper (such as David Murphy, whose swift and sure glovework played a significant part in White and Keogh’s success).

If all, or any, of that comes to pass, I shall be very pleasantly surprised. I shall also, unashamedly, take great pleasure in saying “I told you so”.

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I’m sure Claude Woolley never drove one of these

 

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 …

 

 

 

 

 

 

England’s Fitful Dozing

On the Sunday afternoon of the Worcestershire game at Wantage Road, I found myself sitting in the back row of the Briggs & Forrester Family Stand.  If there is any sun, this stand traps it (several tattooed men had stripped to the waist, closed their eyes and were using it as a cheap alternative to a tanning salon) ; there was also a strong south-easterly wind.  A few rows in front of me sat a ruddy-faced man from Worcestershire (I like to think he was a retired pear-farmer) wearing a broad-brimmed canvas hat.

Perhaps nine times in the hour I sat there the wind blew the hat off his head.  Sometimes it lifted it vertically, like a Harrier jump-jet, and flipped it backwards on to the seat behind ; sometimes it spun off horizontally like a Frisbee ; once it cartwheeled away and came to rest four or five rows back.  Every time, the man patted his head to confirm his headgear had gone, before, with a look of mild puzzlement, trotting patiently back to retrieve it and replace it on his head. It did not seem to occur to him to take his hat off, or move to a less blowy location.

Something about this scene seemed to me to suggest the mentality of the regular watcher of County cricket : the dogged persistence, in the face of considerable experience to the contrary,  in believing that, if you turn up day after day after day, you will eventually be rewarded with the discovery of whatever it is you have come there to find.  I say “you”, but, of course, what I really mean is “me”.

I have often referred to Cardus’s visions of the ideal, Platonic season (In “Prelude” and “the Summer Game” and elsewhere), where “when June arrives, cricket grows to splendour like a rich part of the garden of an English summertime” and “if the sun be ample and you close your eyes for a while you will see a vision of all the cricket fields in England at that very minute” and I would count myself unlucky if I did not, at least once a year, surprise, or be surprised by, some midsummer spirit of cricket (and often in some of the less looked-for places, such as here, or even here).

Whether, if ever, the season, like a budding English garden, blooms and “grows to splendour” depends on that elemental, but banal quantity, the English weather.  Midsummer should be England’s dreamtime, but this year it has struggled to emerge from a fitful, interrupted sleep.  Or, to put it more prosaically, we have had an awful lot of rain and, if not rain, then cloud.

On my return from Scarborough, I had been intending to eke out the holiday feeling by pursuing the spirit of cricket to one of its likelier hiding places, the Cricket Festival at Queen’s Park, Chesterfield, which, with its fish and chips and miniature railway, is the nearest the East Midlands has to offer to the seaside.  There was little rain during the Festival but, thanks to some heavy rain the week before, there was no cricket either.  I do not know whether this was because of exceptionally poor drainage, or over-caution on the part of the Umpires, but I fear I may have to look elsewhere for my Festival spirit and chips in coming seasons.

Leicestershire v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Grace Road, 27-30 June 2016

The week before Scarborough I had watched Leicestershire play Gloucestershire. Consulting the photographs I had taken as an aide-memoire, I found several of Chris Dent (the Gloucestershire batsman and occasional wicket-keeper), a few of the patterns of light dancing on the back of the score box, several of the boundary fence and two or three of some copulating ducks, which were pretty much the salient points over the four days.

As anyone who had consulted the weather forecast knew (and I believe Leicestershire Captain Cosgrove has now picked up this Pommy habit) there was little chance of a result from the outset.  By lunchtime on day 2, Leicestershire had made 334. By the time play resumed at the beginning of the fourth day, the first question was whether both sides would forfeit an innings to set Gloucestershire a target of 335.

Perhaps mindful of the last time Leicestershire made a sporting declaration against Gloucestershire, which resulted in the defenestration (almost literally so, I’ve heard) of the previous Captain, Ronnie Sarwan, Cosgrove was, understandably, reluctant.  In the event, this was just as well, as Chris Dent made a good-looking 165 to take Gloucestershire to 403-2.  (It is hard not to look good when making 165, but then it is hard to make 165 if you aren’t any good.)

The ducks had made their appearance late on the first day, making a horrible racket as they frolicked shamelessly in the outfield, to a running commentary from the Leicestershire balcony.  Ducks are never a welcome sight on a cricket field, but this was a disgraceful performance.

Nottinghamshire v Lancashire, County Championship, Trent Bridge, 6th July 2016

There were no ducks (or low comedy of any kind) at Trent Bridge, where I witnessed another day of “proper cricket”, the fourth day of the game between Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. Nottinghamshire began the day with victory in sight, a vision that slowly faded as Lancashire batted out the day, led by an obdurate, but not inelegant century from nineteen-year-old Boltonian opener Haseeb Hameed (who might, at some point, make a good opening partner for Alex Lees). If the keynotes of the day were Stoical restraint from the batsmen and mounting frustration for the Nottinghamshire crowd, there was also one moment of cathartic relief, as Stuart Broad bowled the best ball I’ve seen this season to send Petersen’s middle stump cartwheeling, like my pear-farmer’s hat.

Pakistan A v Sri Lanka A, Grace Road, 5th July

My companion for the day at Grace Road (the Last Gnome) had predicted the likely crowd level as “pauper’s funeral” and, by those standards, there wasn’t a bad turnout. At the start of play there were just the two of us, but, at its height, the crowd had swelled to eleven paying customers (including one professional autograph merchant and two small children), watched over by eight stewards and four St. John Ambulance personnel. In the lunch hour a steward was posted to prevent a pitch invasion ; the Gnome and I thought of running on from different sides of the pitch in a pincer movement, but calculated that, in the five minutes it would take us to reach the square, the steward would have had time to call for reinforcements.

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At these A games, the hope is always to spot some future great in embryo, some budding Waqar or infant Murali, but, if I did, I had the experience but missed the meaning (as the poet hath it). Pakistan (this was the third day of four) had, as you might expect, four nippy seamers who bowled a little too short, a spinner who might have been very effective against English batsmen, and Sri Lanka two or three top-order batsmen who seemed to be under orders to play sensibly “in English conditions”. The main source of entertainment was to see whether the run-rate on the scoreboard was going to dip below one an over (a thing I’ve only seen once before, at a Women’s Test against India). It came close to it shortly after lunch, but accelerated to just over two slightly after tea, before the innings inexplicably collapsed, like a shanty town in an earthquake.

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, County Championship, Wantage Road, 10-13 July 2016

When Adam Rossington and Richard Levi walked out to resume Northamptonshire’s first innings on 60-3 at the beginning of the second day against Worcestershire, they were greeted with a barrage of high-pitched squealing and shrieking of an intensity last heard when the Beatles made their debut at the Shea Stadium.  It was Schools Day at Wantage Road.

If the intention was to introduce the children to cricket, they must have formed the impression that it is a game that is played in brief bursts of about thirty minutes, before a tall man in a white coat (Alex “the Terminator” Wharf) waves his arms about and they all go back into the pavilion, to re-emerge about ten minutes later.  Sometimes the men in green hats seemed reluctant to leave and hung around expectantly on the edge of the pitch, while the men in maroon caps seemed to want to get off the pitch as quickly as they could and seemed very reluctant to come out again.

The children left at lunchtime, which was just as well, as there was very little lunch available.  The Pic’n’Mix stall was open, as was Gallone’s ice-cream van (incongruously staffed by what appeared to be Anna Sharapova’s more attractive younger sister).  For members there was a perfectly palatable chicken supreme available in the pavilion, (though in very small quantities), but, as the announcer put it “the Speckled Hen Lounge does not appear to be serving lunch”.  This might not be unconnected to a 2nd XI match against Derbyshire having being abandoned due to nine of the players and an umpire going down with food poisoning, but a ground that cannot rustle up a plate of chips or a cheese roll for its patrons does not convey the impression that it is prioritising its traditional clientele.

It is a cliché that games are won by the side “that wants it more”.  If “it” is promotion, then Worcestershire do want it (and seem well-equipped to attain it), Northamptonshire do not and don’t really need this competition at all, while they are (very successfully)putting all their very limited resources into “white ball cricket”. The incessant delays for rain only delayed the inevitable trouncing, which arrived late on the third day, with Northamptonshire bowled out by Mighty Joe Leach and Matt Henry for 148 and 142.

Ben Duckett had been made Captain for this game.  If this was in an effort to encourage him to stay with Northamptonshire, it may have been counter-productive.  As a 21-year-old with a background in dressing room pranking, he seemed to be struggling to impose his authority on some of the more experienced members of his side.

In Worcestershire’s first innings, he explained, with hand-signals, some cunning stratagem he had devised to bowler Panesar, who listened as patiently as a cat. He then positioned himself at short mid-on.  The next ball was driven hard and straight into his gut, and then straight out again.  In the second, the Sri Lankan Prasanna, in particular, took as much notice of his semaphored field directions as a seagull.

In his first innings he had failed (trapped LBW by Leach for 4) but, when he opened Northants’ second innings shortly before lunch on the third day, the romantic optimists in the crowd (less common at Wantage Road than Ukrainian beauty queens though we are) might have been anticipating an epic, match-saving Captain’s innings.

Duckett comfortably rode out the opening blast from Henry and Leach.  Then, predictably, Worcestershire brought on D’Oliveira Minimus (who has added about three inches to his height with a Little Richard style pompadour) to bowl his heritage leg-breaks for an over before lunch. The first two balls were full-tosses, which he slop-swept imperiously for four, the third a better-pitched ball, which he blocked.  The fourth he tried to sweep again, but scuffed it up just short of one of the two deeply silly short legs he had been engaging in conversation. The fifth an exact repeat of the fourth, except that he was caught.

Very late on an elderly man returned to the ground (shortly before Worcestershire won by 311 runs) and announced “I’ve just been to the dentist’s … I wish I’d stayed there now”.  It’s being so cheerful as keeps us going, you know.

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Fun, Fun, Fun (Until Arriva Takes the Buses Away)

Leicestershire v Durham, Grace Road, 5th June / Northamptonshire v Lancashire, Wantage Road, 8th June / Northamptonshire v Leicestershire, Wantage Road, 12th June (all the Royal London One-day Cup)

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Didn’t we have a lovely time, the day we went to Leicester?

(I repeat myself? Very well, I repeat myself.)

If you have been following this blog since the start of the season, you may have detected a pattern. One week Leicestershire play a County Championship match from Sunday to Wednesday, the next it is Northamptonshire’s turn. (I don’t know whether it is a coincidence that they don’t play at home at the same time, but, if so, it is a happy one.)

It is like following a league in football or rugby. Leaders and stragglers, themes, narratives and characters have emerged. If you want to watch a game you know the date and time; it may have become part of your weekly routine. At the beginning of June, however, anyone hoping to navigate their way through the season enters a sort of Bermuda Triangle, where the instruments go haywire, landmarks disappear and the course ahead is hard to see.

The Championship disappears, only to reappear, briefly and randomly, before disappearing again. Leicestershire next play a 4-day game on 27th June (just to keep us on our toes, from Monday to Thursday), then nothing until 4th August (Thursday to Sunday). Northamptonshire have nothing in June, one game from 10-13 July (Sunday to Wednesday), then nothing until Saturday 13th August.

In the meantime, there is, of course, 20/20. If you watch this exclusively then the season assumes a different pattern. It begins towards the end of May, when the football season is ending, and continues until it begins again in August. You have to keep your wits about you, as games can crop on any random day of the week, but most are played on Friday evenings, so, if T20 is your bag, Friday night is cricket night.

Apart from that, there is 2nd XI cricket (where the hardcore of County regulars take refuge), Minor Counties and a ragbag of international fixtures (Grace Road have a women’s ODI, Northants host Pakistan A v Sri Lanka A and an England U-19 game). Then there is the Royal London One Day Cup, which this year is played in two “blocks”, in the first two weeks of June and the last week of July.

Few things divide cricket’s “overground” from its “underground” more sharply than their attitudes to one-day cricket. By “overground” I mean the administrators, the players and coaches, national journalists and that section of the cricketing public who are most audible (or legible) on social media: by “underground” I mean the people who go to the matches (and their allies, the County Chairmen).

For some time after it became clear that 20/20 would be a popular success, “overground” opinion was that one-day cricket had had its day; it was a “tired old format”, with “no place in a crowded schedule”. As it is a core belief of this group that the only purpose of domestic cricket is to produce a successful England side, one-day county cricket was run down to the point where all that was left was a few scattered midweek 40-over matches. Then, at about the time England performed badly in the last World Cup, the wind changed and it became common wisdom that ODIs should be given the same priority as Test cricket, and that the Counties should play more 50-over cricket, as that is the format England play.

The people who go the matches, by contrast, never lost their enthusiasm for one-day games. If asked (and plenty will tell you this unasked) they would like to see 40-over matches on Sundays (in effect, the old John Player League) and a 50-over knock-out competition (in effect, the old Gillette Cup). There are some who enjoy the format for its own sake (though few, I suspect, who prefer it to both 4-day cricket and 20/20) and some (those who work from Monday to Friday) for whom it is a matter of practicality. The greatest attraction though, is that a one-day match represents that great English institutioni, the Good Day Out.

Historically, the Good Day Out has taken different forms: the railway excursion, the charabanc trip, the family outing by car. There are many types of day out (the zoo, the seaside, the stately home, the fair, the countryside), but there will always be the journey there, a bit of lunch, a few drinks, a bag of chips, some laughs, the journey home, a bit of a sing-song. Whatever the ostensible purpose of the trip, it will be remembered by some amusing incident (not “the day we saw the Rembrandts”, but “the day Elsie got a wasp in her drawers”)ii. Four-day cricket is a way of life, 20/20 a night out (with the lads or otherwise), but, as a look around any crowd will confirm, a one-day game is a Good Day Out.

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We don’t care how late it is, we’re not going home, because we’re having a lovely time.

Out of this conflict of interests has emerged this season’s One-Day Cup, a strange hybrid beast, neither league nor cup, which entirely satisfies no-one.  The players dislike playing it, clubs like Leicestershire find it a distraction from the Championship (in which they have been making some progress) and T20 (which they need to make an effort with for financial reasons).  As soon as is decent (certainly when they have no chance of qualifying) most will put out weakened sides (as Lancashire rested their leading bowlers for their trip to Wantage Road last week).

As for the trippers, the 50-over format means that the Sunday games begin at 11.00 (too early) and, in a new complication, the midweek games begin at 2.00.  In theory, this is to allow people to drop in after work (at half-price) to watch the second innings under floodlights.   In practice, at Wantage Road, it meant that there were few Lancashire supporters and there was a mass exodus at 5.30, many of them (like me) hurrying to catch the last bus home.  Whether an evening shift arrived to replace us I don’t know.

Although it was only last week that I saw these games, I struggle to remember much about any of them. In fact, however much I may have enjoyed them at the time, I struggle to remember much about any of the limited overs matches I’ve seen in the time I’ve been writing this blog. I can remember some early sightings of Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes (the competition does give those of us who follow Second Division Counties a chance to see some of the younger First Division stars in action) and a few amusing incidents, such as James Taylor taking four wickets with his leg-breaks (my equivalent, I suppose, of Elsie getting a wasp caught in her drawers).

The only matches I can remember in their entirety are Buttler (and Cobb)’s match referred to above (the last time I saw Leicestershire win with my own eyes), and a pathetic performance by Leicestershire against Somerset last season, which was over by 12.30.  I have seldom seen such an angry crowd and not, as you might expect, only the home supporters (the travelling Somerset contingent had also, you see, been denied their Good Day Out).

The Leicestershire game was well-attended (a lot of Durham supporters had travelled down for the previous day’s T20, thus turning a Good Day Out into a Weekend Away) and most were pleased when their openers, Stoneman and Mustard, put on 180 for the first wicket.  You might be surprised that Leicestershire supporters were pleased too, but it meant, you see, that the game would last until, at least, the late afternoon.  Stoneman and Borthwick are often mentioned as being in contention for England call-ups (usually in the form “why do Stoneman and Borthwick never get a mention?”) and both made runs, though not very memorably.  Unlike Buttler or Stokes, you need to see their figures to know how good they are.

I cannot report on most of Leicestershire’s reply, as the last bus home on Sundays leaves at 5.45, and I cannot report on any of Lancashire’s reply to Northamptonshire on Wednesday as I had to leave the ground at 5.30, along (as I have said) with many others in the crowd.

There were two memorable things about this game: Ben Duckett’s latest  innings (an imperious 98) and Lancashire’s ridiculous kit, a lime-green affair with a smiley face on the front that made them look as if they had just dropped in on their way to Shoom in 1988.

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Top one! Sorted!

Duckett made his name as a T20 finisher, and his weakness as an opener in 4-day cricket has been a tendency to play uncalled-for shots too early.  The 50-over format has the advantage that, as a no. 3, he is obliged to construct an innings of substance, rather than go in with all guns blazing.  His excellence lies in being able always to select the ideal shot for any given ball, rather than Buttler’s  wild flights of avant-garde invention or Stokes’ elemental brutishness, but it is, nonetheless, as visible to the naked eye, whereas Borthwick’s is not.

I had no problems with the buses at Wantage Road last Sunday, and managed to catch the entire match, which lasted from 4.00 to 4.07 (not even long enough for Duckett to get out to a rash shot).  There weren’t many there, but those who were gave a heroic demonstration of Not Allowing a Bit of Rain to Spoil a Good Day Out.  Some sat out in the pouring rain, sheathed in polythene, for all the world as if they were sitting in a shelter in Cleveleys, staring out at the Irish sea.

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A family were having a picnic of Edwardian extravagance in the West Stand, and were rewarded by a song and dance routine from mascot Steeler the Dog

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children practised happily in the wet nets, the Pick’n’Mix stall never closed, nor did Gallone’s ice-cream van or the Memsahib curry stall.  And for those who regard watching cricket as the point of a Good Day Out, rather than a pretext for one, the Test Match was on the TV in the Pavilion, although, for myself, I chose to sit and contemplate the rain fall on the covers.

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(I offer all this, by the way, as a few, mere, benign Notes from Under the Floorboards, at a time when the gap between the English Over- and Under-ground has seldom been wider (and not just in the world of cricket), and there are some pretty rough beasts slouching their way out above ground, seemingly convinced their time has come.)

Friday Night and Saturday Morning

Northamptonshire v Essex, County Championship, County Ground, 28-31 May 2016

In an interesting new blog “Notes from a Cricket Novice”, the author makes the following observation:

I have started to get used to the regimented nature of the day; it’s remarkably similar to employment. Clock on in the morning, after a few hours it’s time for lunch, another short break when you’ve completed a set amount of work and then optional overtime after six if the production quota hasn’t been fulfilled. All very much like a job, albeit a very pleasant one.”

This hadn’t occurred to me in those terms before, but he is quite right, and I think that part of the appeal of Championship cricket to the retired (who make up the bulk of the crowd) is that it offers one of the pleasures of work, a structured day, with none of the pains.  If a game is similar to employment for the spectators, it is, of course, literally work for the players, and very hard work it can be too, not least for the poor bloody infantry – those seamers.

Chris Silverwood, the Essex coach, was a Yorkshire seamer himself in his day and his explanation of why he had left his leading seam bowlers (Masters and Porter) out for this game was couched in the language of the factory floor:

“Our guys are all working hard and putting in good shifts … Both of those guys have been superb for us and have put in some really good shifts but we’ve got a lot of cricket coming up in the next few weeks and it’s important to keep them fresh.”

These days, too, with 20 over games on Friday evenings and, as here, a Championship match starting on the Saturday, there tends to be a night shift and a day shift, among both players and (I think – I don’t watch T20) the spectators, with the day shift arriving on the Saturday a little as though turning up for a beetle drive the morning after the Church Hall has been used for a Youth Club disco, hoping that there hasn’t been too much damage and no-one’s been sick in the flowerbeds.

In addition to Masters and Porter, Essex had left out their other leading bowler Jesse Ryder (their fourth, Napier, was to limp off with what might have been a tactical groin niggle after seven overs) and Northants were without their top T20 bat Levi and regular seamers Kleinveldt and Azarullah.  Apart from wanting to keep the bowlers fresh for the limited overs competitions, which seem to take precedence for both these clubs, there must have seemed little point in exposing them to pointless punishment on the Wantage Road pitch.

Without labouring the point (which I’ve made before) or launching into a full-scale Monty Python routine, this is a pitch which has handed in its dinner pail, kicked up its toes and gone to the join the Silent Majority. I have (as Les Dawson used to say) seen more life in a tramp’s vest.  With (as everyone knew) rain forecast for the last day, it was clear that there would be no result almost from the outset and the two shifts I put in (on the Saturday and Monday afternoons) consisted mainly of an exhibition of batsmanship from Ben Duckett on the first day and one of something closer to seal-clubbing from Ryan ten Doeschate on the third.

Duckett (who eventually made 189 from 255 balls) is a short, angular man with a pugnaciously jutting jaw and a hint of the dandy about him (in the field he favours a baggy baker’s boy cap, off it, regrettably, a snap brim baseball cap worn back to front).  He reminds me slightly of a young James Cagney.

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To describe him or his batting as “elegant” would imply a misleading element of languidity, but there is an impression of artistry in the way that he seems to have the time to select precisely the right shot for each ball in the same way that an artist might stroke his beard before selecting just the right colour from his palette before applying it to the canvas. The Whistler of batting, perhaps, or even – though his legs aren’t quite as short – the Toulouse-Lautrec.

By contrast, Ryan Ten Doeschate’s innings on the Monday afternoon was about as artistic as someone smashing up a greenhouse with a baseball bat.  He was eventually run out for 145 off 149 balls, with James Foster adding 113 off 95.  They had passed the Northants total of 444 with only four wickets down and, after that, with no more bonus points to gain and, as it seemed, no prospect of a result, the battering they handed out to the bowlers seemed merely gratuitous.  One of them nearly scored a direct hit on a man seated in the disabled seating area and they seemed particularly set on trying to hit poor Monty Panesar back out of the game again (he went for 0-133 off 22 overs).

We know from T20 that people will pay good money to watch big boundaries being hit off moderate bowling on doped pitches, but I can’t say it’s much to my taste and, by the end, I was beginning to find the front of the scoreboard

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less interesting than the rear view, which reminds me rather of an old-fashioned transistor radio with the back taken off:

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In the event, the Imp of the Perverse, mostly in the shape of Ravi Bopara, provoked Northants to collapse to 75-5 and they might have lost, if the last day had not, as expected, been washed out.  Would that have served Northants right?  Well perhaps, but not their poor bloody seamers – Gleason and Sanderson, lately plucked from the Minor Counties – who had put in a combined shift of 63 overs, with no overtime.

How does the old song go? “You bowl for sixteen years, and what do you get? Mighty frustrated and covered in sweat” and, as many an old seamer will tell you, dodgy knees, arthritis and a “weatherbeaten” face to boot.

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