The End of the Tunnel

Leicestershire CCC (308 & 189) v Northamptonshire CCC (357 & 142-3), County Championship, Grace Road, 10-13 September 2019

Leicestershire lost by 7 wickets

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Keeping the flag flying

The cliché that comes to mind, as Leicestershire’s season approaches its end, is the one about light at the end of the tunnel. Watching their progress has certainly too often resembled stumbling through the deep gloom of an abandoned railway tunnel, although – to be fair – with less danger of being run into by a manic cyclist, or bitten by a rat. As always, at the end of a season, the optimist will glimpse some points of light, some hope that next year might be better than this : the pessimist may feel that the main cause for optimism is that we will not have to witness another Leicestershire defeat for the next six months.

The brightest point of light in the season past, by some measure, has been the form of Hassan Azad, who, at the time of writing, has made more runs than any other English batsman* (and, according to one keen statistician, occupied the crease for longer). Given that he was only offered a contract at the start of the season, at the age of 25, this is remarkable. However, batsmen who have remarkable first seasons tend to attract attention, with plans being devised to counter them, and, in spite of the fact that he made 86 in the first innings, I thought there were worrying signs that Northamptonshire had discovered a key to snuffing his light out.

Although the precise configuration of the field varied, Northants’ strategy, in the first innings, was to offer Hassan the chance to play his two favourite scoring strokes – the clip off his hips and the off-side steer – but only through narrow channels through a phalanx of slips and gullies (on both leg and off sides). For close to four hours, he found those channels with what football commentators describe as ‘slide-rule precision’ (a metaphor that has survived the obsolescence of the technology), miscalculating only once, when he was dropped at leg gully by Dougie Bracewell.

Azad field

We’ve got you surrounded!

Bracewell, summoned from New Zealand as a last minute replacement for Kemar Roach, appeared still to be recovering from the flight, the waywardness of his bowling a temptation even to Hassan, let alone the now conspicuously in-form Cosgrove. Bracewell’s beard and general swarthiness do, however, mean that he fits in well with Northants’ battery of brisk-to-medium pacers (Sanderson, Proctor, Hutton and the newly arrived Berg), who would not look out of place crewing a pirate ship on the Spanish main.

Leicestershire’s innings followed the overly familiar script. Paul Horton lasted two balls and Ackermann (it being Cosgrove’s turns to make the runs) patted Berg’s first ball to point. When Cosgrove and Azad had taken the score to 150-2, Cosgrove, to his apparent astonishment, was bowled by Sanderson, and Hassan, to the astonishment of everyone, was bowled shortly afterwards by Proctor. Dexter, who seems to be fading out of the game like a ghost, was only visible for one ball. 183-5.

At this point there was a welcome variation in the script. George Rhodes, a recent acquisition from Worcestershire, was described by Paul Nixon as having been signed to ‘add a bit of grit to the middle order’, which, as he correctly diagnosed, has been lacking it recently. Watched by his father Steve, he displayed the requisite grit by batting for a little over four hours to make an unbeaten 61 ; the lower order chipped in to take the total to 308.

If Rhodes represented a pinprick of light (it was good that he made a career best score on his debut, less encouraging that 61 is his career best), a brighter flare was the debut of Alex Evans. An academy product and student at Loughborough, currently rather gangling, with a long run and a whirling action, he followed a nervously loose first over with the early wickets of Newton and Wakely.  If nothing else, it was a delight to see someone whose wickets seemed to bring him so much pleasure.

There followed one of those long, balmily soporific, afternoons when nothing much seems to happen and thoughts, along with early Autumn leaves, start to drift, that, in some ways, epitomise the pleasures of watching County cricket. Unfortunately, when I awoke from my reverie (or doze), the nothing that had happened was Leicestershire not taking the wickets of Keogh or Rossington, the pair having put on a stand of 148 to take the score from 156-4 to 304-5, and the game away from Leicestershire’s loose grasp. To their credit, the bowlers restricted the final total to 357, encouragingly short of my prediction of 400. I don’t believe, though, that a single Leicestershire supporter would, if attached to a lie-detector, have predicted a home victory.

Leicestershire’s second innings was the same again, only with the unwelcome subtraction of runs from Hassan Azad. This time, Northants, rather than offering opportunities for risky runs, blocked up his channels completely by inserting a fine leg and third man, and invaded his personal space with a silly point and a short leg. Blocked in, like a badger in his sett, and with no opportunities for risk-free runs, he stopped scoring altogether, making a solitary run from the first ten overs. In the twelfth over, a ball from Berg leaped up at him a little and he edged to slip.

Northants also seemed to have an idea that he might be vulnerable to the short ball, and he received a few from over the wicket (as a left-hander). As Charlie Shreck discovered to his cost, attempting to intimidate Hassan can have unwelcome consequences, but they succeeded in hitting him twice, once on the shoulder, turning his back on the ball, and once on the helmet, ducking into one that kept a little low (luckily he came through the concussion protocol, because we would have had difficulty finding a like-for-like replacement). I hope none of the other Counties were taking notes (or reading this), or he (and we) may have a testing time next season.

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Come out with your hands on your head!

After that … well you could, if you felt so inclined, write it yourself. Horton lasted half as long as he had in the first innings.  Cosgrove looked certain of a big score before – to his horrified amazement – being given out LBW for 8. Ackermann (it being his turn) made a cultured and responsible 60, there was a stand of 51 between Dexter and Parkinson that ensured the game would stretch to a fourth day, and there was a slight twitch of the tail – 187 all out. Dexter’s 42 earned him an appreciative but subdued response : if, as seems possible, that was his last first-class innings, the end was in keeping with what has been a fine, but, I think, sometimes under-appreciated career.

The Umpires distinguished themselves in this innings by equalling the world record for LBWs given (eight). One consequence of the introduction of DRS has been to demonstrate how difficult it is for even experienced Umpires to adjudicate accurately on LBWs from 22 yards away, so, from the boundary and a variety of oblique angles, I could not argue with their decisions, but, equally, I do wonder whether all of them would have survived close scrutiny. Only Cosgrove expressed much surprise at having been given out, but no more so than he usually does when he has been bowled.

On the last day, Leicestershire did not suggest much awareness that they were defending a target of 141, as opposed to 341. Slow left-armer Callum Parkinson, who is inexorably turning into a white ball specialist, was given a longer spell than usual, and bowled economically – but that seemed rather beside the point. With Mohammad Abbas absent, and unreplaced, the best chance of bowling Northants out might have been the wild debutant Evans : encouragingly he took a wicket in his two overs – less encouragingly, he was ruled out from the next game with a strain. Cannily, the Umpires delayed lunch until Northants had won, prompting Wakely and noted trencherman Richard Levi (who had earlier struck an interesting fashion note by wearing a cap on top of his sunhat) to polish the innings off.

As I write, Northamptonshire have won again against Durham, and look very likely to be promoted (while Leicestershire are feebly attempting to stave off the inevitable in Cardiff **). I am pleased for Northants (if nothing else, with Nottinghamshire relegated, it means that I will have some Division One cricket within reasonable travelling distance), but it does prompt the question of why they can do it and we cannot – given that there is no obvious reason why they should have better resources, and indeed, like us, have had their best players (Duckett and Gleason) filched by richer counties.

One factor might be that, when Northants recruit from other Counties, they find players who are in the prime of their careers, rather than at the end, or the beginning, as Leicestershire tend to do. They have also made canny use of the loan system to supplement a small squad. However, the major difference seems to come down to intangibles, such as momentum and team spirit : strict rationalists may consider both to be phooey, but – like a fragment of the True Cross – it doesn’t half put a spring in the step of sides who believe that they possess them. I would have thought the one thing that Paul Nixon could be relied upon to instil in his sides would be spirit, but, it appears, we haven’t had that kind of spirit here since 1998.

* He has since been overtaken by Sibley.

** They failed.

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Look, I told you – light!

Lighting a Little Hour or Two

Leicestershire (124-9) lost to Derbyshire (128-1) by 9 wickets, T20, Grace Road, 25th August 2019

I cannot remember when I was last privileged to be part of a crowd so united in rapt attention, experiencing as one a rising sense of cautious hope, the passing dejection of temporary reversals, and, finally, an explosive expression of collective joy at the moment of victory. Games like these are what sport is all about, why we keep coming back! Unfortunately, the game in question was the last day of the Test Match at Headingley, which most of the spectators were following by various means, rather than the game in front of us on the pitch, which, I am afraid, was pretty ordinary.

I would not say that my expectations were high for my annual visit to a T20, but they were about as high as they are ever likely to be. The sad truth is that, as a form of cricket, it mostly bores me – sad for me, that is, because it, as I am beginning to weary even myself by complaining, has already spread like a stain to cover what ought to be the prime months of the English season, and looks set, as it mutates, to swamp the rest of it. However, success in any format can have a tonic effect on a struggling club, and Leicestershire went into this game knowing that a win, after a late burst of four victories, would give them a reasonable chance of qualification for the quarter finals. Derbyshire were in a similar position, although their chances would be better still.

Leaving aside the cricket, it was an enjoyable afternoon. The crowd, still one Bank Holiday Monday away from the return to work, and the novelty of the heat having not yet quite worn off, were plentiful, relaxed and in jovial mood. The drinking was more for the purposes of dehydration than inebriation. At half-time one of the club’s volunteers had her hair cut for charity. I managed to carry a white Magnum back to my seat without it melting, and no-one threw a t-shirt at me. It was all good.

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The first half hour of Leicestershire’s innings was how T20 is sold in the advertisements. A little late in the season, Mark Cosgrove has managed to translate the excellent form that he’s in from his own head to the physical plane, and, greedily hogging the strike, made a virtuoso 45 from 26 balls, Harry Swindells playing Leach to his Stokes. Cosgrove has a fine understanding of the theatrical in cricket, his body language a stylised pantomime of how his innings is progressing, the contrast between his apparent bulk and the delicacy of timing worthy of W.C. Fields.

In one of the game’s less outlandish dismissals, Swindells was caught behind at the start of the fourth over, bringing Aaron Lilley to the crease. Lilley is a T20 specialist, otherwise to be found in the 2nd XI, whose entire raison d’être as a batsman seems to be to hit sixes (he has managed 11 so far this season). He promptly hit one, then was caught off what would have been another if it had travelled horizontally rather than vertically. Still, things seemed to be going reasonably well, and I could not complain of a lack of incident.

Cosgrove, promisingly, was now joined by Colin Ackermann, the classically-trained batsman who, probably to his surprise, now boasts the best bowling analysis in English T20 history. My theory that the two are incapable of batting together was soon confirmed. Ackermann cut the ball straight to backward point, and was regaining his poise for the next delivery when he looked up to see Cosgrove standing a few yards away, performing an eloquent dumbshow of ‘Aw mate, if I can run surely you can’, a perfect mixture of pathos and hilarity.

After this, things really fell apart. Lewis Hill, the only player other than Cosgrove to reach double figures, attempted an ambitious cut from in front of his stumps and was bowled for 16 (he was also the only other to record a boundary, apart from Lilley’s six). Ackermann was caught at long on, playing a stroke that was beneath his dignity ; Aadil Ali and Parkinson followed his lead, with less style, but the same result. The last two batsmen were run out, though by then the humour of this situation was wearing thin. I may not know much about T20, but I know what I don’t like – and the final total of 124-9 seemed unlikely to prove adequate.

When Derbyshire began their reply, England still required about 50 runs to win. I registered that the first two overs of spin (from Parkinson and the demon Ackermann) had been encouragingly economical, but that the third (from Dieter Klein) had resulted in 24 runs. After that, I was mentally translated to Leeds, and, as word spread of what was transpiring, the majority of the crowd seemed to join me. As the end approached, the reaction of the spectators bore a diminishing relation to what was happening on the pitch : a forward defensive from Billy Godleman would be greeted by howls of joy, a dot ball by Callum Parkinson with despairing groans, a break for drinks by spontaneous applause.

After the euphoria of victory had peaked, I returned to Grace Road to find that Derbyshire required seven runs from the last eighteen balls, with nine wickets in hand – but it would have been unreasonable to expect more than one miracle in an afternoon. It would be unfair to make comparisons between one of the best examples of one form of cricket, and a mediocre game in another, except that it suggested how although, or perhaps because, every aspect of T20 is contrived to produce excitement, I cannot believe it has ever produced it so intensely as that Test.

Incidentally, in a small vindication of being behind the times, my old long wave radio kept me informed of developments at Leeds at least five seconds before any of those who relied on digital means, so the first anyone knew of that last ball four would have been me punching the air and yelling ‘yes!’ (in a muted way, of course, as I would not have wanted to spoil the enjoyment of any hardcore T20 enthusiasts nearby).

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, Northampton, County Championship, 19th August 2019 (Day 2 only)

Leicestershire – barring a sequence of events more extraordinary than those at Headingley – will now progress no further in the T20, to add to a poor performance in the RL50 and a so far undistinguished series of results in the Championship, but, to their credit, they have yet to show signs of going to pieces in the way that sides sometimes do in the closing stages of the season. However, I detected signs of it when I caught the second day (there wasn’t much of a third day) of Worcestershire’s ten wicket defeat by Northamptonshire at Wantage Road.

When Worcestershire won by an innings at Grace Road in our first home game of the season, it confirmed the view of most good judges (as well as mine) that they were likely candidates for a swift re-entry to Division One. At the time of writing, they are five points above Leicestershire and now look more likely to pip us to the wooden spoon, having lost six games. Since Daryl Mitchell’s double century in Leicester, his runs have all but dried up, causing the same perplexity at New Road that the Nile drying up might have provoked in Ancient Egypt. Neither Riki Wessels nor Callum Ferguson (both new acquisitions) have contributed many to compensate, nor, with Kohler-Cadmore and Clarke gone, have their younger, home-grown batsmen.

The first day (which I missed) epitomised their problem : at one point they had been reduced to 58-7, with six of their top seven batsmen having made nine runs between them, and only recovered to make 186 thanks to a half century from Captain Joe Leach and some chippings-in from the other bowlers. One source of hope was the return of Moeen Ali, back in his old position at no. 3, who had made a (by all accounts) fallible-looking 42. Josh Tongue had also achieved a minor victory by forcing nightwatchman Buck to retire after a blow to the head : unfortunately, the bowler had also strained his side, which is set to keep him out for the rest of the season.

Because Buck had been concussed, Northants were able to substitute him with Blessing Muzarabani, whereas Worcestershire had to do without a bowler, putting them at a serious disadvantage. The medical logic of concussion replacements may be impeccable, but the sporting logic strikes me as questionable, and I wonder whether, if something similar happened in a Test, it would lead to calls for substitutions to be permitted for injuries of any kind.

With Northamptonshire beginning what promised to be a very hot day on 140-3, on a slow pitch, the three surviving seamers might have been forgiven for their seeming lack of enthusiasm for the task, which diminished further as Alex Wakely and Dwaine Pretorius put on another 120 before lunch. Wakely completed his first century of the season, to general rejoicing : Pretorius (who sounds like the result of a random Afrikaaner generator) was signed to play in the T20 but has stepped in as Northants’ third overseas player of the season (with a fourth – Kemar Roach – lined up to replace him). His innings of 111 was as good an example of T20-style batting as anything I saw at Grace Road, at one point hitting Moeen Ali (I think) out of the ground. To add to Moeen’s tribulations, Leach had dropped a simple catch off his bowling when Pretorius had been on 25.

Moeen had a trying day, bowling long spells (nearly forty overs in all) from the Lynn Wilson end, to no great effect : although there were a few full tosses, he did not exactly bowl badly, but he seemed, as out of form players often do, that he was performing an imitation of himself when in form. Moeen sometimes gives the impression that he regards his career as a front-line Test spinner as the result of some enchantment by a benign djinn : now that enchantment seems to have worn off, and he was back where he expects to be, on a county ground, making aesthete-pleasing runs at no. 3, and filling in uncomplainingly, as required, with the ball.

There was a curious incident, shortly before tea, when Moeen lengthened his run a little, the wicket-keeper (unnecessarily) stood back, and he bowled at medium pace. The batsman, Saif Zaib, concealing his surprise well, slog-swept (roughly) the first two balls, pitched on leg stump, to the boundary. Trying a different approach, Moeen bowled a wide outside off-stump, followed by three more which the batsman left, in the expectation that they would be called wide, but the Umpire erred on the side of mercy to the bowler. This experiment was soon discontinued. Late on, one delivery at last spun sharply and trapped Hutton LBW, followed shortly by two more tail-end wickets to provide some measurable recompense for his 39 overs, and the 126 runs he had conceded.

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes – or it prospers ; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two – is gone.

In their second innings, Worcestershire again collapsed, though less dramatically, and were defeated by ten wickets. It will be a relief to them (but not to me) that the Championship season is on the threshold of its final month.

Wantage Road

Chewed-up Balls

Leicestershire (36-3) v Middlesex, Grace Road, County Championship, 10-13 June 2019 (theoretically) – Match drawn

Yesterday, upon the square
I saw a game that wasn’t there!
It wasn’t there again today.
Oh how I wish it’d go away!

Unless you have spent at least one day at a cricket ground in the rain, waiting in vain for some play, you cannot hope to understand the true spirit of English cricket. I imagine that if you were to spend four whole days in contemplation of a soggy outfield and periodic, futile, pitch inspections you might achieve some kind of satori, where all the deep mysteries of the game are suddenly made clear, but, avid as I am for enlightenment, I am afraid that I gave up on this match after a couple of hours.

Had I stuck it out, I would have found my meditations interrupted by eleven overs of cricket late on the third day, enough time for Leicestershire to reproduce their season so far in microcosm. Hassan Azad carried his bat, Paul Horton (presumably feeling that two a half days in the dressing room had not been enough) ran himself out for a duck in the third over, and Mark Cosgrove, having started brightly, was caught behind for 13. I suppose having played Middlesex twice without being beaten is an achievement of sorts, although it seemed a shame to gift them a bonus point.

Leicestershire (487 & 211-0 dec.) v Gloucestershire (571), Grace Road, County Championship, 17-20 June 2019 – Match drawn

Gloucestershire have been a bogey side for Leicestershire in recent seasons, in the sense of a side who should not be able to beat us, but usually do (as opposed to the sides who ought to be able to do so, and frequently do). However, there were grounds for optimism, in that they have suffered as badly from predation by richer clubs as we have : in particular, two of their seam bowlers, Miles and (particularly) Liam Norwell have been ‘took by the fox’ (as they say in these parts), or rather by Bears, since last season.

In their places were the one bowler Warwickshire turned their nose up at, David Payne (not the one who used to play the saxophone for Ian Dury), and two whose unnumbered shirts indicated that they had been hurriedly enlisted to cover for unexpected absences. These were Chadd (sic) Sayers, whose one appearance for Australia against South Africa had rather been lost in the excitement over sandpaper, and Josh Shaw, on loan from Yorkshire (I picture these loan players hanging around in gangs on street corners waiting to be hired, like day labourers during the Great Depression).

Gloucestershire clearly had enough faith in this scratch crew to exercise their right to bowl first ; they might also reasonably have expected that a pitch that had been in soak for close to a week would have a little life in it. Initially, they appeared to have reason to congratulate themselves on their good judgement, as an outswinger from Sayers lured Horton into guiding the ball into the gloves of the leaping wicket-keeper. Shortly after tea, with another 320 runs scored, they must have been lamenting the fickleness of the English wicket.

In an interview before the game, Mark Cosgrove had said :

‘Hassan [Azad] has been fantastic, he loves to bat time and that lets some of us play a little bit more freely, as you do when you have someone at the other end who is happy to chew up balls. Don’t just look at his scores, look at the partnerships he’s been involved with – there’s a lot of big ones.’

This proved to be prophetic.

The partnership between Azad and Neil Dexter reached 150 at roughly the same time as Dexter’s 100 and Azad’s 50, Dexter playing freely and Azad chewing up balls (I haven’t come across this expression before, but it conveys how whatever the Gloucestershire bowlers aimed at him seemed to disappear into some sort of industrial mincer). Azad, like Charles Augustus Fortescue, shows what everybody might become by SIMPLY DOING RIGHT (head still, watch the ball on to the bat, don’t chase wide ones) ; all Dexter’s troubles (which have been keeping him out of the team) seemed so far away.

A number of records (perhaps a record number of records) were set : on 153 Leicestershire’s record stand against Gloucestershire, on 289 our record Championship second wicket stand, and eventually the record first-class stand, set by Ateeq Javid and … Hassan Azad against Loughborough in the first game of this season. An awful lot of balls have been chewed up since then.

Gloucestershire’s seamers faced hard labour on a pitch that revealed itself to be a poor, lifeless thing, on what may have been the first and last warm and cloudless day this June. Sayers, reputed to be a swing bowler, must be doubting the stories he has heard about ‘English conditions’ ; Payne and Shaw were sweatingly workmanlike ; Higgins’ medium pace and van Buuren’s slow left armers were enough to tempt even Azad to gamble a little (albeit responsibly).

Once Azad had been dismissed (for 137), the edifice built on his foundations began to sway alarmingly : Dexter was one of five catches for wicket-keeper Roderick, for a rejuvenating personal best of 180 ; Cosgrove, who insists – as all gamblers do – that ‘the big one is definitely around the corner’, gambled irresponsibly after one run, and was another. Two nightwatchmen were employed, only one of whom survived their vigil. 343-5 at the close.

The second day revealed one of the differences between those who watch cricket and those who play it professionally : we watchers are keen observers of the weather forecast, whereas the players, I am convinced, would not recognise Carol Kirkwood if she sashayed into the Fox Bar. Another is that we followers are prone to spinning hopeful fantasies of how a game might work out, whereas the player – like alcoholics – prefer to take the game one day at a time.

The forecast was that rain would arrive early on the second afternoon, and not depart until after close of play on the third. My view (quite forcefully expressed to anyone who would listen) was that Leicestershire should dash to 400 and declare, in the hope that Mohammad Abbas might bowl the opposition twice (unlikely, but not impossible). Leicestershire’s view seemed to be that they should carry on batting for as long as possible, and then see how it went. As the second new ball approached its dotage, and the cloud cover descended invitingly, Colin Ackermann delivered a pro-forma 50, Harry Dearden took a little over an hour to make 26 (‘it’s the way he plays’), and only Lewis Hill (a characteristically chancy 44) suggested any sense of urgency.

Mohammad Abbas eventually made his appearance at about the time when the rain was due to descend in earnest, unfortunately with a bat in his hand. Any one of the seamers would have welcomed his wicket as a reward for their graft, but Captain Dent, an occasional bowler in the sense that the Andean Condor is an occasional summer visitor, chose to bowl himself, and snatched the wicket from under their noses with his fourth ball.

Before play was finally abandoned for the day, through a combination of continuous rain and very dim light, Abbas only had time to take 3-10. The third wicket fell with the score on 16, though some looser bowling from the other end allowed them to edge gingerly, as if along a mountain ledge, to 41. Another couple of hours of bowling in those conditions and they might have been six or seven down. But – as Horts would be the first to point out – what might have been is an abstraction remaining a possibility only in a world of speculation.

Although the third day remained a nasty, dingy grey, it did not actually rain once (Horton 1 Kirkwood 0). As it progressed, the question ceased to be whether Leicestershire had left enough time to bowl Gloucestershire out twice and became whether we would be capable of bowling them out at all. The first error was that none of the batsmen dismissed on the second afternoon had been Chris Dent, whose main strength as a batsman is that, once established, he is as hard to get rid of as an infestation of nits. Another was dropping him when he was on 15 (I shan’t mention the culprit, but he shares his initials with an Imagist poet).

The prospect of a quick victory receded as Dent and Howell (also dropped by the Imagist) put on 67 for the fourth wicket, but that of any victory slowly evaporated during the course of a stand of 318 for the sixth wicket between Dent (176) and Ryan Higgins (whose own bowling had been treated with similar disdain earlier). This set its own slew of records, and rather cast a retrospective shadow over Azad and Dexter’s monumental effort. By the close, Gloucester had overtaken Leicestershire for the loss of six wickets, and another possibility entered the world of speculation – that Leicestershire might lose.

A packed Grace Road rises to applaud Ryan Higgins’ historic 199

In the context of this game, Leicestershire did well to restrict Gloucestershire to 571 on the last day (Higgins, in a small victory, was bowled for 199). The visitors made only a token attempt to dismiss Leicestershire for less than 84 (Payne bowled only four overs), before surrendering to clock watching, as keen for 5.00 to arrive as any office worker on a Friday afternoon, while Azad chewed up their balls ; both he and Paul Horton made exactly 100 apiece before sending them home early with a declaration. Azad’s was, of course, his second of the match, and was one, you felt, he would have made in exactly the same fashion against more earnest bowling. Horton’s average (and possibly his self-confidence) has been greatly improved.

Every member of the Gloucestershire side, bar the wicket-keeper, bowled in the second innings. A slightly poignant note is that one of the comedy bowlers was Jack Taylor, who began his career as a specialist off-break bowler, before being banned for throwing (very happily he has managed to save his career by reinventing himself as a specialist batsman). His action could not have been more smooth, although he failed to take a wicket.

Leicestershire (293) v Northamptonshire (299 & 206-6 dec.), Wantage Road, County Championship, 24-27 June 2019 – Match drawn

In advance, I should have liked to visit Wantage Road (ground of my fathers) for all four days of this match, but considerations of cost (exasperatingly, we have no reciprocal agreement) meant that I was only there for the third day, by which time the game had been spavined by the rain that washed out the second day, and reduced it to another grind for bonus points. On the first day, Northamptonshire had been bowled out for 299 (one short of the glittering prize of a third batting point), which would have set a four day game up nicely, given that both sides are rather stronger in their bowling (but I am straying again into that world of speculation).

The Leicestershire contingent was not large, but then neither was the home contingent (at the start of play I counted 87 adults). There were, however, at least three large parties of school children, who kept up a crescendo, high-pitched, squeal as the bowlers approached the crease, and a chorus of ‘ooh’s as the ball proceeded harmlessly into the wicket-keeper’s gloves. This occupied most of their visit, as they watched Hassan Azad leave the majority of the deliveries he received in the five hours and ten minutes he occupied the crease, a trout resolutely untickled.

I have to admire their connoisseurship, although fans of stroke play might have been more inclined to squeal at Mark Cosgrove’s innings of 63, which suggested that his big one might, indeed, be around the corner. It is a pity he does not play like this more often at Grace Road. The children reserved their loudest squeals for the fall of a wicket (of which there were seven in the course of the day) : if they had stayed past tea, it might have sounded as if One Direction had reformed and put on an impromptu show in the outfield, as – almost more extraordinarily – Hassan Azad stumbled into a leg-trap, when eight short of his third successive century.

I gave the final day a miss, when Leicestershire, like their hosts, narrowly failed to achieve their target of 300. After that, with the serious business of bonus points concluded, it was again a question of how to pass the time until they could knock off and head for home (or the bar), which they managed to do at ten to five. I understand the weather had improved.

The latest recruit to the Wantage Road Home for the Generously Proportioned is the increasingly have-boots-will-travel Matt Coles, another in the gang of day-labourer seamers (he is on loan from Essex). The problem of finding a shirt big enough for him had been solved by giving him Ben Cotton’s old jersey (Cotton has, I think, been disposed of for being a bit too generously proportioned). The letters TTON had been removed, and LES written in with black marker pen. I feel that this says something about Northants’ current ‘brand of cricket’, although I am not quite sure what that might be.

 

Shades of the Prison House

Leicestershire CCC (312-8) lost to Derbyshire CCC (266-3) by DLS

Leicestershire CCC (261-9) lost to Northamptonshire CCC (290-6) by 29 runs

Leicestershire CCC (340) beat Warwickshire CCC (304) by 36 runs

All at Grace Road in the RL50, 24th April, 4th May & 6th May 2019

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I was originally expecting to miss most of this competition through enforced attendance at Leicester Crown Court (I shall tell you about my secret life as a criminal mastermind another time)*, so that I managed to catch the majority of the home games lent a pleasing feeling of stolen pleasures to what might otherwise have been a forgettable and soon-forgotten series of games. Being among people who would not wish to be anywhere other than where they are is a mood-enhancing aspect of days at the cricket, but having something to contrast them with accentuates it : work used to do the job nicely, a few days in court worked well too.

I felt that there should have seemed something momentous about what were, it appears, likely to be the last series of one-day games to be contested by full county sides : the shades of Ted Dexter, David Hughes, Brian Langford and other luminaries should have hovered mournfully over the ground, softly lamenting golden days gone by – but not so.

The format of the one-day competition has been mucked about with so frequently over the last twenty or so years that there is now no sense of continuity about it. Supporters of the winning team in the County Championship are at least dimly aware that they are part of a line that stretches back to 1890 (or 1873, if you prefer) :  if Somerset were to win it this year, their supporters would know that it would be for the first time. It is hard to say whether the RL50 is the inheritor of the old Gillette Cup, or the John Player League (or even the superfluous Benson and Hedges Cup, the one it most resembles in terms of format, and – this year – its iceland slot in April). Any fule kno that Yorkshire has won the most Championships : I doubt whether the most persistent badger could tell you who has won the most one-day trophies**.

The current format also meant that none of the competitors in Leicestershire’s last two home games had any chance of qualifying for the next round : not only was there a lack of dramatic tension, but Warwickshire, at least, jumped the gun on fielding a ‘development’ team by omitting most of their senior players.

I am not certain, in any case, how many of those who turned up for the ‘Family Fun Day’ on the Saturday, or even the Bank Holiday Monday game, would have been aware of the ECB’s plans for next season, or that they were witnessing a mildly historic occasion. They were trying bravely, in the face of mild hostility from the weather (the most consistent performer in this year’s competition was N.E. Wind), to have a good day out for a pound, and I imagine they’ll be back next year too, ‘development competition’ or not, as long as one side is billed as ‘Leicestershire’, there are enough juvenile distractions, and Towcester cheesecake still for tea. We all dream of the platonic day at the cricket (in whatever form), and we are not that easily discouraged.

Leicestershire saved their really abject defeats for the away games, so a purely home supporter’s impression of their performance would not have been be too unfavourable : two wins, two defeats (and neither by shameful margins). The Derbyshire game was one that I was expecting to miss in its entirety, but managed to catch the Leicestershire innings : given the confidence with which the forecasters had predicted rain, I was not expecting there to be a Derbyshire innings, and I’m not sure they did either. When I had to leave, they seemed to be taking care to keep slightly ahead of the DLS target (helpfully displayed on the scoreboard) : in the event, I believe, the rain did arrive, but cleared unexpectedly, and Derbyshire were left to scramble for their win off the last ball, as if they had arrived early for a train, but had lingered too long in the café. They had lost only three wickets, and only one to a Leicestershire bowler.

In the innings I did see, Leicestershire had made 312-8, 119 of them by Colin Ackermann, who currently looks to belong in a different class to his colleagues (perhaps the one that will be drafted into ‘The Hundred’). Harry Dearden will have been disappointed to make only 36 (not a sentence I could have imagined writing a year ago), and Aaron Lilley hit two successive sixes, in an innings of 23 that would have been better suited to a T20, before knocking down his own wicket. Otherwise, Leicestershire’s batsmen mostly brought their own demise against a motley attack, which began with Wayne Madsen’s sluggish part-time off-spin, joined by two teenage seamers and some more batting than bowling all-rounders, whom Captain Godelman shuffled almost by the over, perhaps to create the impression that he had more bowlers than there really were.

The Northamptonshire game (which had been chosen for the Family Fun Day) saw the reappearance of Mohammad Abbas, whose return has been awaited with the fervour that messianic sects reserve for the return of their saviour. He bowled well enough, if a little in need of a squirt of WK40. It also saw the disappearance of Paul Horton, replaced as Captain by Colin Ackermann : I have not dwelled on Horton’s form, but, although he may still have a few fifties left in him, I would not be surprised if the replacement became permanent in other forms of the game in due course.

Northants, who batted first, fielded a potentially explosive top three in Vasconcelos, Levi and Cobb (no longer in the Mr. Creosote sense, in Levi’s case, as he seems to have slimmed down a little). Dieter Klein, whose effectiveness can decline the longer he bowls, bowled Vasconcelos in his first over, and Levi, rumbling like Vesuvius, drove Abbas straight to mid-off. Josh Cobb, in the ‘it’s-the-way-I-play’ style we remember well from his days at Grace Road, tried to silence Stench’s airhorn with a massive hack at Klein, when on one : unfortunately, the only sunlight of the day happened to be in Harry Dearden’s eyes, and he was dropped, as he was in similar fashion by Mike when he had made two.

Having been dropped twice, Cobb continued to menace low-flying birds, with some success, until a firmly hit drive was plucked from the air by Harry Munsey, the young Scotsman who had been drafted in to replace Paul Horton (his most significant achievement in the two games he was to play). Captain Wakely, who had steadied his ship after the early turbulence, was LBW to Callum Parkinson, who was flighting the ball nicely, and must have been relieved to bowl so economically, after some of the pastings he took last year.

During the most significant partnership of the day, of 156 between Keogh and Tom Curran, more of the crowd were inside than out, coinciding, as it did, with a hail storm, and the height of the ‘fun’ (including a display of exotic animals in the Bennett End bar, to rival the usual one in the Fox Bar). It also coincided with lunch time, and I am not ashamed to say that I spent most of it in The Meet enjoying another Lewis Hill Burger. My view of the action was largely obscured, but whatever Keogh and Curran were doing on the field was obviously effective.

By the time Leicestershire began their reply, the hail had cleared, the temperature was merely uncomfortably chilly, and the families, beginning to tire of the ‘fun’, were drifting home for tea : by the fifth over, with only 15 runs on the board and both openers gone, anyone desperate for a home win must have been tempted to follow them. There are sides, packed with middle-order ‘gun bats’, who would have been capable of simultaneously consolidating and accelerating from such a poor start, but ours are low-calibre, and, in spite of some worthy contributions from Ackermann, Taylor and Mike, the total traipsed along behind the required run-rate, at a respectful distance, to a 29 run defeat.

The final game, against Warwickshire felt more like a foretaste of things to come than a fitting end to the one-day era. Warwickshire were lacking Bell, Ambrose, Hain, Brookes, Sidebottom, Norwell, Stone and Woakes (some through injury) : Leicestershire, mindful that another defeat would be a blow to morale, fielded their first choice team. The crowd was meagre for a Bank Holiday : some, no doubt, deterred by the deadness of the rubber and the absence of stars, but most, I’d guess, by the greyness of the skies and the lack of sun.

The bulk of Leicestershire’s 340 runs came from the three batsmen who have most impressed this year. The word ‘imperious’ does not naturally attached itself to Harry Dearden, but there was something of that quality about his handling of the seamers, whom he punched blithely through the covers on his way to 69. He is, understandably, more wary of spin, and was characteristically unlucky to receive the ball of the tournament from Jeetan Patel, one which Dearden quite reasonably expected to hit leg stump (if that) but straightened to removed his off peg instead.

Ackermann’s 74 came as no surprise, and it took Patel himself to remove him. I had no idea that Tom Taylor was such an accomplished batsman (I’ll refrain from saying the same about Dearden), and it was only a piece of low comedy that prevented him making a maiden century. A straight drive to take him from 98 to 100 was deflected by the bowler on to non-striker Parkinson’s stumps, bringing last man Mohammad Abbas to the crease in the last over. Abbas may be one of the world’s ten best bowlers, but he is also one of the ten worst batsman, and was bowled before he could return the strike to Taylor.

Warwickshire opened with Sibley and Pollock, like a greengrocer putting his best fruit at the top of the pile to conceal the lower quality produce beneath (not that the batsmen to follow were rotten, just mostly unripe). Unusually, it was not clear until about the twentieth over who was going to win. The openers began fluently, but Sibley was cut off in full flow by a toe-crusher from Klein, and Pollock, the man most likely to accelerate the scoring above the required rate, was bowled by a ball from Parkinson that Jeetan Patel might, in other circumstances, have appreciated .

Rob Yates, however, an auspicious 19-year-old debutant, seemed worryingly at ease with the bowling, and was only removed by fellow youth Ben Mike inadvertently obstructing him as he turned for a second run, when on 66. After that, the innings began to run down like a clockwork rabbit powered by cheap batteries, and with it the match, and the competition.

Given that Leicestershire had narrowly shaded Northants for the wooden spoon, that ending felt surprisingly hopeful. Morale will not have been broken, as we turn gratefully to an extended period of Championship cricket : apart from Ackermann, Dearden and Taylor, Klein finished as the leading wicket-taker, Lewis Hill made a century, Ben Mike had a few good moments and Parkinson bowled well enough to have had a better return. Mark Cosgrove’s form is the major concern : that opening salvo against Worcestershire now looks less like a man in the form of his life than one trying to bluff his way out of a slump.

Looking forward to next year, I am not sure that the prospects for one-day cricket are too bleak, from a purely selfish point of view (I understand why supporters of the larger counties would not agree) . Although, in the long term, I think the advent of ‘The Hundred’ can only damage the smaller counties (indeed, that may be one of its primary purposes), in the short term, a competition stripped of its stars will, at least, improve Leicestershire’s chances of winning. It will also be nice for T20 deniers to have some cricket to watch at the height of Summer, when the prospects of a wind-free day of ‘Family Fun’ will also be increased.

Anyway, I am sure it will be a lot more enjoyable than being in prison.

* Actually, jury service.

** For the record, it’s Lancashire, with 16.

The Art of Falling Apart

Leicestershire CCC  (100 & 196) v Warwickshire CCC (400-9 dec.), Grace Road, 10-12 September 2018 (Warwickshire won by an innings and 104 runs) 

Leicestershire CCC (321) v Durham CCC (61 & 66), Grace Road, 18-19 September 2018 (Leicestershire won by an innings and 194 runs)

I ended my last post by expressing the hope (hope against hope) that neither Leicestershire’s season, nor the team, would fall apart in September. The first has certainly happened : having lost only two games, both very narrowly, in the first half of the season, since the defeat against Kent we have lost five times, by margins varying from 132 to 328 runs. It is some compensation that we are not alone in having made a succession of low totals. The last month of the season increasingly resembles the climax to an episode of ‘Wacky Races’, filled with spectacular crashes, bits falling off the competitors and some improbable leaps. Predictably so, some would say, if that month is September.

The defeat against Warwickshire was nothing if not predictable. The soon-to-be Champions featured five players with Test experience, and the Division’s three leading run-scorers (three of only four to have averaged over 40). Leicestershire’s cobbled-together side featured two bowlers brought in from Minor Counties, to replace the soon-to-be permanently absent Raine and Chappell, and the injured Griffiths (the regular 2nd XI seamers, too, were injured). Unsurprisingly, Warwickshire exercised their prerogative to bowl first (the game was to be largely played under lights), and, to no-one’s surprise, Leicestershire were bowled out for exactly 100. Barker and Woakes were too swinging for the top order, and Stone, though sparingly used, was too fast for the tail.

There was, at least, an element of comedy to the dismissal of Mark Cosgrove (for the spectators, if not the batsman). Neil Dexter had looked to get off the mark with a single that would have been ambitious had his partner been Speedy Gonzales. Cosgrove is capable of a surprising turn of speed, but it takes him a while to achieve terminal velocity, achieving it, in this case, roughly as he entered the pavilion, the wicket having long since been broken by Woakes in his follow through. If Woakes had really been ‘the nicest man in cricket’, he might have taken pity and deliberately thrown wide.

I left early, having been called away (I have been called away a lot recently, for one reason or another), but stayed long enough to see opener Dominic Sibley (who seems to have grown since I last saw him play for Surrey) make 50 off 49 balls (mostly off one of our Minor Counties seamers, who was quickly removed from the attack). By the end of the day, Sibley had made more runs than Leicestershire on his own, and Warwickshire had nearly doubled our total for the loss of three wickets.

It rained overnight, and for most of the morning. When play began at 2.00, in front of an understandably sparse crowd, the conditions, with the wicket freshly-spritzed, were ideally suited to the seam of Dexter and Abbas. Jonathan Trott resumed on 34, and took forty minutes to make another eight, before mis-timing a pull. This would be the last time that any of us would see Trott in action at Grace Road, and it seemed an appropriate way for him to take his leave, mostly unapplauded, but having seen off the (slight) threat to his side. As conditions eased and Leicestershire’s bowling resources were stretched too thin, Ambrose, Hain and Woakes moved easily to within sight of 400, a target that was reached first thing the next morning, followed by a declaration.

Although Leicestershire offered slightly more resistance in their second innings, the result seemed a formality, and most of the day was spent speculating about comings and goings : amongst other things, I was told that Chappell was definitely moving to Nottinghamshire, which turned out to be true, and that Keith Barker, who had taken eight wickets, would be joining us at Leicestershire, which, unfortunately, turned out not to be.

A ray of light in the gloom

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was the performance of Ben Mike, in his second game, who stuck to his task with the ball to take three wickets, and was the top scorer in both innings. Having struck Patel, in a feather-ruffling act of lèse-majesté, for two straight sixes, his was the last wicket to fall, attempting bravely to pull Stone for another six. Like Ben Raine, for whom he looks a plausible replacement, he strikes me as someone who can always be counted upon to go down fighting, which is a useful characteristic for a Leicestershire player to possess.

In contrast to Trott, who had slipped out unnoticed by the back door, as it were, Paul Collingwood’s every move, in his last appearance at Grace Road, was greeted with a standing ovation, to the point where, given his performance, it might, though motivated by genuine affection, have become a slight embarrassment to him. The first ovation came when he led his side on to the field, having, not unreasonably, chosen to field.

Leicestershire opened with the novel pairing of Sam Evans and Atiq Javid : at first, I assumed that regular opener Harry Dearden must have missed his bus, but it was revealed to be a deliberate tactical switch, and a successful one, with Atiq, whose average in the Championship prior to this game was in single figures, allowed to give free rein to his defensive instincts to make a maiden fifty at Grace Road. Dearden too, when he batted at five, appeared more at ease, as if the move had allowed him to loosen his stays a little.

Though Atiq’s was the only fifty of the innings, all of Leicestershire’s batsmen reached double figures, to finish the day on a hopeful 316-8. Most creditably, Mark Cosgrove, who is struggling through an unprecedented loss of form, managed to gouge out 38 painfully acquired runs, persistently attempting to play his favourite off-side strokes to balls that didn’t really invite them. If a slimmer batsmen, or one who has less hope of recovering his form, was struggling so to do what had been used to doing effortlessly, the effect would be more tragical.

Leicestershire’s total would have been smaller had Collingwood not dropped two catches in the slips (though, needless to say, he received a standing ovation as he left the field).

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Of the bowlers, the mountainous Rushworth

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deserved more than his two wickets. Mark Wood, though apparently pained by his ankles, was treated respectfully, watched by James Taylor, presumably there with his scout’s cap on (unless he, too, was there to say goodbye to Collingwood).

Whatever else you can say about this season at Grace Road, it has rarely been dull, and what turned out to be the last day there this year coincided with the arrival of Storm Ali. At the storm’s height, the players paused to gaze anxiously at one of the floodlights, which had begun to sway alarmingly : the only way that the season could have ended any more dramatically would have been if it had blown over and demolished the Meet.

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The day had begun with a slight disappointment for Leicestershire, their last two wickets falling with the total still short of the 350 required for another bonus point (Mohammad Abbas later apologised for having played a “lazy shot”). It was at this point that the wind really began to get up (particularly the Durham batsmen). With his fourth delivery, Abbas, bowling with the swelling gale behind him, a rider on the storm, took the wicket of Cameron Steel (who had scored a double century in the same fixture last year) ; by the end of the eleventh over he had taken five wickets, with the score on 18. Bowling into the gale, Neil Dexter had bowled five consecutive maidens.

Abbas’s last victim had been that of Paul Collingwood, who was cheered to the wicket, and cheered back again one ball later.

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On another day, I would have expected the visitors to have found some way to recover a little ground, even if only through the thrashing of the tail, but, as the gale reached its peak, the batsmen seemed as spooked as cats in a thunderstorm. Though efforts were made to tether it, the bell that is rung to signal the start of play began to ring of its own accord, like the ghostly church bells of a drowned village, tolling the knell for each departing batsman, and, at times, it seemed as if the sightscreen might blow over, flattening them before they could reach the wicket.

Like jackals finishing off a lion’s kill, Dexter (whose figures were 7-6-1-1), Griffiths and Mike polished off the remaining batsmen. Alex Lees, who had, at least, battened down the hatches while others abandoned ship, narrowly missed carrying his bat for a single figure score. Research soon revealed that the total of 61 was Durham’s lowest first-class score, a record that was in danger of being broken when they batted again, until a last wicket stand of seven between Rushworth and Wood enabled them to reach the comparative respectability of 66.

Mohammad Abbas, who may not have been quite unplayable, but was certainly largely unplayed, had taken another five wickets (his powers perhaps enhanced by his newly awarded “gold fox“),

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to give him 10-52 in the match. Collingwood received his final ovation, about two hours after his previous one (including the lunch interval), as he left the field for the last time, having been bowled by Abbas for five. His expression as he left the field was hard to read, but I don’t think it signalled unmixed delight.

 

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There was further applause as Collingwood was the first to congratulate Abbas, as he (modest to the last) had to be pushed into leading the Leicestershire players from the pitch.

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From the Leicestershire dressing room soon came the merry, if unmelodious, sound of Paul Nixon leading the community singing, and the prising off of beer bottle tops : from the Durham side, a silence so deep and ominous that it could be felt half way down Milligan Road.

The last few games of a season, as departing players are left out and new players introduced, sometimes reminds me of the publishing fad of printing the first chapter of its sequel at the end of a novel, as an inducement to buy. The sequel to Leicestershire’s season seems a lot more enticing if it will feature Mohammad Abbas (as, happily, it should), rather than the Abbas-less sequel suggested by the last game of the season (a defeat away to, of all people, Glamorgan).

Although the endless love-smothering of Collingwood felt a little incongruous in the circumstances, it does suggest an understandable desire not to allow players to slip from sight without some appropriate farewell. It seems a pity that Ned Eckersley, whose release was announced shortly before the Durham game, was not allowed one last home game. Rather as when someone has died unexpectedly, I tried to recall my final sight of him in Leicestershire colours, which must have been of him being bowled by Keith Barker for a perfectly honourable 77-minute 23. If I’d known at the time, I would have clapped a lot longer and harder.

It seems churlish to complain about an excess of excitement, but I do sometimes yearn for the kind of season’s end we used to have in the days of a one division Championship, when sides with nothing to play for would drift off into the close season through somnolent draws, as if in a mildly opiated haze (which, at least, allowed some space for reflection).

With Leicestershire down in the valleys, I tried a day at Northampton, where Northants, who have had a season that has been poor even by Leicestershire’s recent standards, were taking on Sussex, badly deflated by having been overtaken at the last minute by Kent, but even here there was no peace to be found : again, twenty wickets fell in the day, though, on this occasion, ten from each side, and both sides managed to creep into three figures.

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Bye!

The very last day of the season took me to Trent Bridge, where Nottinghamshire were due to resume their second innings needing another 215 to avoid an innings defeat, with seven wickets remaining. Clearly, there was little chance of Nottinghamshire saving the match, but I hoped they might spin things out for long enough for me to see some of those long shadows on the County Ground.

As I was contemplating where to sit, Ben Slater was caught behind by Trescothick from the bowling of Craig Overton. As I took my seat, Samit Patel was out in the same way to his first ball (prompting an unimpressed Nottinghamshire supporter to shout “Why not give him a standing ovation?”). Overton’s first ball to Wessels was identical to the previous two, and there seemed nothing the batsman could do other than nick it to Trescothick. It was a good job that Trescothick had announced that he wouldn’t be retiring for another year, or we would never have got home for all the ovations.

My season ended shortly before lunch, with the sun still high in the sky, and the shadows only slightly lengthening.

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Dog Days Afternoons

 

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Leicestershire (180-9) v Nottinghamshire (199), Grace Road, T20, 8th July 2018

England Women (219) v New Zealand Women (224-6), Grace Road, ODI, 13th July 2018

Derbyshire v Northamptonshire, Chesterfield, County Championship, 23rd July 2018 (day 2 of 4)

The last few weeks have been very quiet, in my world of cricket, at least.

Elsewhere, contemporary English readers will be well aware of what has been happening. For the benefit of any future historians who may be reading, though, a brief resumé :

– we have been enjoying, or enduring, a heatwave and drought of such duration and intensity that there have been frequent sightings of the traces of ancient settlements reappearing in the parched soil (something similar has been visible at our cricket grounds).

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– the England football team reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, before being beaten by Croatia. Many commentators, particularly those with only a passing previous interest in football, have expressed the view that the team have ‘united a divided nation’ and embodied the hope of a new and better England. Gareth Southgate, the manager, has been elevated to the status of a waistcoated Confucius, and has been much praised for his ‘decency’, as opposed to the indecency of, for instance, Roy Hodgson.

– there have been developments relating to the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. How momentous these turned out to be will be clearer to you, O future historian, than they are at present, but it is currently hard to see how things can end well : combining with the heat and the football, they have created an atmosphere it would be fair to describe as ‘febrile’.

I would not describe the atmosphere at any of the three games I have attended as ‘febrile’ : as the heat has intensified, discouraging exertion of any kind, the temper of the crowds has moved from the merely sedate to apparently sedated.  In a topsy-turvy way, I have been shunning the sun-traps I normally seek out, in favour of the shady spots I usually shun.

My annual T20 game (the only one to take place in an afternoon) came when hopes for the World Cup were at their highest (England had won their quarter final the day before). The official attendance at Grace Road was given as 6,774, which is close to a full house. Certainly, having abandoned my seat in the sun in search of some refreshment and shade, I found it hard to find another, and spent most of the afternoon flitting between sunlight and shadow, propped up against various walls.

I was more aware of the crowd than anything that was occurring on the pitch, but then attending a live T20 for the ‘skills’ is rather like, to use a comparison that probably hasn’t been made for about 30 years, reading Playboy for the articles. Those 6,774 were in genial mood, clearly enjoying their beer, ice cream, chips and the various amusements on offer around the ground. The fact that there was a game of cricket taking place seemed incidental to the fun : the whole scene could have been translated to Blackpool beach with no great incongruity.

A reason often given why T20 should be played in a block is that the players find it hard to adjust between different formats. This spectator, as one habituated to four-day cricket, found he had the same problem, with everything appearing to happen at an absurdly accelerated pace, like the closing scenes of ‘The Benny Hill Show’. In the time it took me to buy a pint of Pedigree (that biscuity, slightly soapy, brew that always reminds me of watching cricket), find some shade, drink the pint and collect the deposit on my plastic glass, Samit Patel had made a half century. In the time it took to make a circuit of the pitch in search of a seat, Dan Christian had fallen just short of another.

No sooner had I found a tolerable place to sit, than the Nottinghamshire innings ended on 199, having, without any obviously spectacular hitting, scored at ten an over ; as a neophyte, I was unsure whether this was a good total or not. I had only really been impressed by Chappell’s bowling : he had taken 3-25, with two bowled in his last over (both batsmen attempting dreadful head-up yahoos), although the T20 aficionado might have been more struck by his 14 ‘dot balls’. He also ran a long way to parry a catch upwards from the boundary to be caught by a colleague, which seemed to excite the crowd more than anything achieved with bat or ball.

A combination of the heat, the Pedigree, and having been forced into a spot a long way from the action, meant that Leicestershire’s reply rather passed me by, although I was aware of a lot of scuffed, mistimed shots, and the required run rate creeping rapidly upwards from the merely challenging to the frankly impossible. Again, the only really memorable moment was a piece of fielding, when a strongarm pull from Mark Cosgrove to his second ball was plucked from the air by Steven Mullaney, like a chameleon flicking its tongue out to catch a fly. They fell short by 19 runs, which, in 4-day cricket would have been a close result, but, in the small margins world of T20, felt like a drubbing.

I rather felt that by getting mildly pissed, briefly donning a furry red halo,

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and not paying too much attention to the game, I was entering into the spirit of the live T20 experience. Anyone with a genuine interest in the finer points (and I am aware that there are many good and learned arguments that they exist) might be better advised to watch it on the television. The same might apply to the ECB’s proposed ‘Hundred’ : I am not convinced that everyone in the crowd would have noticed if they had slipped in a ten ball over, and I don’t think anyone would have wished the day any shorter.

For slightly different reasons, the women’s match against New Zealand might also have been better viewed on TV. (As it was a televised game, I found the cameramen’s habit of picking out individual members of the crowd to show on the big screen a strong disincentive to dropping off, or reading a newspaper during the occasional longeur.)

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My palate may have become desensitised by watching too much limited overs cricket recently, but there was little in the game that was obviously spectacular (between them the two sides managed two sixes, both by New Zealand opener Sophie Devine, as compared to the ten the men had hit in the T20), and the subtleties of the women’s game are a little lost in the vastness of Grace Road, like Joni Mitchell doing an acoustic set in a sports stadium. My impression was that the boundaries had not been brought in as far as they were for last year’s World Cup games, but the fielders, let alone the square, still seemed a very long way away.

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England began well, though at a pace that seemed Deardenesque, after some of the run debauches I have witnessed recently. By the 20th over, openers Amy Jones and Tammy Beaumont had put on 100 without loss (by which point, you may remember, India A had made 200), before Beaumont was out, fluffing a reverse sweep. Against an attack mostly comprising spin, the run rate progressively slumped and the innings wilted, like an unwatered plant. Once Jones was stumped, charging off-spinner Jenkin, the last seven wickets fell for 53 runs, and the innings ended on 219 in the 47th over. ‘Gun bat’ Nat Sciver had been run out for 11, after a review that took so long I thought ‘Should I Stay?’ was about to segue into ‘Rock the Casbah’.

I didn’t stay for New Zealand’s reply (they won, thanks mostly to a century by Devine), not because I was particularly bored, but because the game was another day-nighter, and I needed to get home. This might help to explain the modest crowd, which was about the same as one of our better-attended Championship matches. It didn’t help that England had already won the series, that Leicestershire had their own T20 game at Edgbaston, and that it was the last day of term in Leicestershire, meaning that there were none of the usual parties of schoolchildren to inflate the crowd.

Women’s cricket had its own World Cup moment last year, of course, albeit on a smaller scale, creating the impression, in the minds of some commentators, that the women’s game was close to gaining parity with the men’s. That kind of euphoria is difficult to sustain (as Gareth Southgate will probably find out soon enough) : although I think women’s cricket has a bright, if not necessarily permanent, future as a participatory, recreational sport, it is less clear how much of one it has as a professional spectator sport, without continuing, generous, subsidy from the ECB (the same, as I am only too aware, being true of County cricket).

This was the last Women’s International of an undramatic domestic season : it will be interesting to see whether the Editor of Wisden thinks that any of the women have done enough to justify being chosen as a Player of the Year (I thought choosing three last year was rather offering a hostage to fortune, in that, if he chooses none this year, last year’s choice may seem like a flash in the pan, but, if he chooses a woman who has not performed spectacularly, he might be accused of tokenism).

In truth, I had felt a little out of place at both games : both forms have their own audience, without, I suspect, much overlap between the two, or with the habitual followers of County cricket. At Chesterfield, for the second day of a four-day fixture, I felt I had met up with my tribe. As I have often written about Queen’s Park before, it is a ground ideally suited to Championship cricket, and I was pleased to find that it had not changed at all since my last visit. Frederick’s ice-cream (a single cone a meal in itself) was available from more than one outlet, and the miniature railway was running again.

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The heatwave had reached its peak (I hope) by then, and the official advice was to stay out of the sun. The crowd had mostly followed this, setting their chairs up in the shade of the trees that line the ground,

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but the players had not (although it might have accounted for one or two of the dismissals). The Derbyshire seamer ‘Hardus’ Viljoen, who bowled some very long spells for little reward, earned my particular admiration for his indefatigability.

It was a game that unfolded absorbingly over the four days : I caught only the slow second movement. By the end of the day, Northants had made 289, in reply to Derbyshire’s 260, with most of those runs coming from Wakely (106) and Crook (60) ; their stand of 120, spanning the hottest part of the day, was received with the gentlest of murmurs from the home crowd, punctuated by occasional whoops and whistling from the miniature railway.  Their greatest enthusiasm was reserved for Ben Cotton, the popular seamer who was released last year, when he came on as a substitute fieldsman for Northants.

Wakely was responsible for the day’s only extravagant expenditures of energy : hitting Hamidullah Qadri back over his head for two sixes when he was first brought on to bowl, one of which was high enough to risk going over the protective netting and endanger the children’s playground next door, and his century celebration, which suggested he had either been driven mad by the heat, or trodden on a scorpion.

One positive side to the drought might be that spin bowlers find themselves in their proper element at last : certainly, the match was won by Derbyshire, on the last day, by the legspinner Critchley, who took ten wickets in the match and Hamiddulah, recovering from his harsh treatment in the first innings.

The day’s only other excitement was when, during the tea interval, a cloud that might have been dark enough to contain rain passed briefly over the sun, but that soon passed.

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The real action, which I missed, was taking place at Canterbury, where Leicestershire defeated Kent inside two days. My central narrative is due to resume, after these distractions, when they meet again at Grace Road on 19th August, if, that is, civilisation has not ended before then.

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An outfield, last week

Carnivalesque

Leicestershire (243-5) beat Durham (240) by 5 wickets, RLD50, Grace Road, 7th June 

Leicestershire (217 & 217-4) beat Northamptonshire (204 & 229) by 6 wickets, County Championship, County Ground, Northampton, 9-11th June

It is meant to be a comfort in time of trouble to remember that there is always someone who is worse off than you are. This consolation has not always been available to Leicestershire supporters over the last five years or so, because, quite often, there hasn’t been. These two victories, though, both comfortable and well-deserved, came against sides whose supporters have good reason currently to feel disgruntled. I will come to Northamptonshire in due course, but first to Durham.

Having been led on by the ECB to spend money they could not afford on developing a ground fit for Test cricket, Durham had their immediate future wrecked by being relegated and having 48 points deducted by the same body. As a result, they have been ruthlessly asset-stripped of their best players (Stoneman, Jennings, Onions, Borthwick, and even their ewe lamb, the promising all-rounder Paul Coughlin). Last season they would have finished last in the Championship, if it had not been for Leicestershire : this season they would have not won a Championship game, had it not been for Leicestershire.

All that was at stake in this game was to decide who was to finish last in the Northern group, and neither side had put out their strongest XI (I’m not sure what Durham’s strongest one-day side would be, but there was no sign of Collingwood, Steel, Rushworth or Weighell). The players who had made the trip didn’t look as if they particularly wanted to be there, and, unsurprisingly, given that the game was due to finish at 9.45 on a Thursday night, few of their supporters were either.

Durham’s innings at least had the merit that it was not immediately obvious who was going to win after ten overs. A few of their players made starts (sending me flicking through Playfair to find out who they were), but the scoring rate was moderate : at 106-4, the game could have gone either way. With the score on 125, though, four wickets fell for the addition of only 13 runs, first that of the Irish wicket-keeper Poynter, then three to Zak Chappell, returning for a second spell.

I have been predicting that Chappell will one day run through a side for so long now, without it ever quite happening, that I am beginning to feel like a man who has spent twenty years parading Oxford Street with a sandwich board predicting that the end is nigh, but here he combined accuracy and nous with his natural pace. He did not exactly rip the heart out of the batting, but, perhaps, some organs a little lower down, and I had hopes, at 137-8, that I would be able to leave the ground having witnessed a Leicestershire victory (I certainly was not prepared to hang around until a quarter to ten to see it). Almost inevitably, though, Leicestershire’s habitual flaw of being unable to finish sides off allowed Davies and McCarthy, with Chappell bowled out, to prolong the afternoon, by making exactly 100 for the ninth wicket.

It was not a foregone conclusion that Leicestershire would make the modest 241 required to win, though Durham’s general demeanour in the field suggested that they thought it was (and that they weren’t overly bothered). There was an early example of self-sabotage when Raine, coming in at number 3, as non-striker, charged for a quick single, without noticing that the striker Delport had shown no inclination to move, but Delport (who prefers to make his runs in boundaries) went on to play the kind of innings (122 from 128 balls) that Leicestershire had desperately lacked earlier in the tournament. When he was out, in the 37th over, with only 36 to win and seven wickets in hand, the remaining spectators were consulting their bus timetables and collecting the deposits on their glasses. I took the opportunity to dash for the last train, though it took another seven overs and the loss of two wickets for the end to come (Harry Dearden, making his white ball debut, is not the obvious man to finish a game quickly).

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At the time, this game seemed a frustrating coda to the one-day campaign, suggesting, too late, what might have been. In retrospect, though aspects of it, particularly Chappell’s bowling, made it more of a prologue to what occurred at Wantage Road over the weekend.

If the source of Durham’s troubles is easy to identify, it is harder to say quite what has happened to Northamptonshire, who were only denied promotion last season by a points deduction, but, at the time of writing, have lost four of their five Championship games, with the other being a washout, and only finished above Leicestershire in their 50-over group by virtue of a superior run rate. It is not surprising that a failing team should lack confidence, but what is striking is the contrast with the impression they made in the games at the end of last season (when they beat both Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire), when they seemed to be a side propelled mainly by impregnable self-belief.

No-one exemplifies this better than Ben Duckett, who is having a terrible season (233 runs in 16 innings), and seems so bereft of his old swagger that he has even started to wear his cap the right way round. I now feel lucky to have seen so much of him in 2016 (his annus mirabilis), when the secret to his success seemed that he was prepared to back his unorthodox technique to succeed more often than it failed (even in that season he made plenty of single figure scores). He now seems torn between his instincts and attempting to play in a more conventional way, with the result that, when he does play his strokes, he does so in a half-hearted, inhibited way. He might be well-advised to follow Jos Buttler’s example and write ‘Duckett‘ on the end of his bat handle, in an attempt to recover his true identity as a batsman.

Duckett’s achievements in 2016 were made easier by what seemed to be a deliberate tactic of preparing doped pitches (Northants had not appeared to have much in the way of bowling at the start of the season). Last season, they were livelier, and now the entire pitch has been relaid over the Winter. The outfield has a strange, almost astroturfed, appearance, and the low scoring in this game was partly due to its extraordinary slowness : even firmly hit strokes ran out of steam short of the boundary. The square, while not quite a green top, was favourable to pace, with considerable movement off the seam (as well as in the air), and some variable bounce.

In these conditions, the openers were understandably wary, given his newly acquired reputation, of Mohammad Abbas, but it was Ben Raine who took the first wicket, of a very disconsolate, Daddles-like, Duckett. Newton and Ricardo Vasconcelos (a 20-year-old South African with a Portuguese passport, making his debut) had gingerly fended their way to 51, when Zak Chappell, who had come on first change, bowled him with a full and fast delivery that swung in sharply and late. Chappell has bowled these deliveries before, but they have tended to be isolated incidents, too often followed by a rash of byes to the leg-side boundary. This time he soon followed it with another quick delivery that swung away from Alex Wakely, finding an edge on its way to Mark Cosgrove, who took the catch with a cat-like agility reminiscent of Gordon Banks saving from Pele in the Mexico World Cup.

At lunch, with the score on 128-3, both sides had reason to be satisfied, or, given the natural propensities of the two sets of supporters, pessimistic : the Northamptonshire supporters were convinced that a collapse was just around the corner, the Foxes’ fans that they would fail to capitalise on their early wickets.

Soon after the afternoon session began, the Northampton Carnival procession began to pass down Wantage Road, on its way to the Racecourse. This used to be a rather sedate affair, but in recent years it has acquired a Caribbean accent and a more authentically carnivalesque air (this year, as announced by the police sirens that followed the floats, it resulted in several stabbings). The afternoon session was played out to the accompaniment of a loud medley of musical exotica, and various curious sights visible through the Wantage Road gates, including, at one point, a giant red patent leather, fetishistic, boot.

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Something of the spirit of the carnivalesque, the temporary suspension of normal life, animated the play, particularly Zak, who seemed (perhaps temporarily) transformed into an avenging angel, sculpted by Arno Brecker. Returning for a second spell, he took 3-19 in six overs, with Vasconcelos and Keogh caught behind off deliveries that, on a less enchanted afternoon, they might have played inside. Kleinveldt, who has an ability to wreck bowlers’ figures second only to Mr. Stew’s rhubarb crumble, briefly looked ominous, guiding two balls from Chappell off his hip for four to fine leg, before attempting to repeat the trick and losing his exposed leg stump. Chappell’s sixth wicket came as he clean bowled one of his predecessors as Leicestershire’s fast bowling hope, Nathan Buck. With the help of the tireless Raine, who claimed three victims, Northants were bowled out for 204 in time for tea.

 

As the afternoon approached its end, the Carnival had processed on to its disorderly conclusion, and sombre normality (for Leicestershire fans, anyway) reasserted itself, with the Foxes losing three wickets for 64 by the close. Northamptonshire’s bowling looked better than its batting, even without the injured Gleason, and has been reinforced, temporarily, by Ben ‘Dot’ Cotton (so-called on account of his miserly economy rate). Cotton, who has, rather surprisingly, been released by Derbyshire (he always looked a decent prospect to me), has grown into a very big lad, big enough even to fill Richard Levi’s shirt (which he had borrowed), so he fits in well with the general Northamptonshire aesthetic.

I wasn’t able to be present on the Sunday, so, eager to return on the Monday, I followed the scores in an Augustinian spirit ‘O Lord, make Leicestershire win, but not yet’. I was not surprised that Leicestershire made only 217, that Chappell (still in a state of enchantment) had made 40, or that Cotton was Northamptonshire’s most economical bowler. I was, guiltily, quite relieved when Northants closed the day on 165-3, with a lead of 152.

What occurred on the third day came, I think, as more of a surprise to the Leicestershire supporters present than those of the hosts. From a Leicestershire perspective, they bowled with ruthless efficiency, to bowl Northants out for 229, before cruising serenely to victory with six wickets to spare : from a Northamptonshire one, their side collapsed pathetically, before limply conceding in the field. There was some truth in both interpretations. Mohammad Abbas, Raine and Griffiths all bowled tightly, and made good use of what life was left in the pitch (the spell seemed to have worn off Chappell a little, and he was rubbing his shopping-lifting shoulder in ominous fashion), and the fielding was excellent, (particularly by substitute Ateeq Javid).

It was not surprising that there never seemed much doubt in the minds of the home supporters that Leicestershire would win, but more so that that belief seemed to be shared by their bowlers. The innings had not started well, with Harry Dearden bowled for nought, but Horton and Lewis Hill, who had come in as a kind of lunch-watchman, brought the hundred up with no alarms, and it was pleasant to speculate on the possibility of a nine-wicket victory to compensate for the recent sequence of nine-wicket defeats. Even when Horton fell, with the score on 148, the calm head (and, as it turned out) broken finger, of Colin Ackermann seemed likely to shepherd Hill over the finishing line.

There was a token attempt to cock things up at the last minute : Hill was understandably keen to complete his second first-class hundred, while Ackermann had a fifty in his sights. Hill attempted a misguided sweep against Saif Zaib and, to his obvious disappointment, was LBW for 85. Mark Cosgrove attempted to hit his fifth ball out of the ground, but only succeeded in making the day of the youthful substitute fieldsman (one W. J. Heathfield, who had earlier appealed vociferously for a catch off a bump ball) on the mid-wicket boundary. Ackermann did not quite make his fifty, but he and Dexter ensured that no-one would have to return to Wantage Road in the morning.

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The reaction of the few Northamptonshire supporters left at the end surprised me a little (though not a lot, given my long experience of them) : I overheard one say ‘Getting beat by this lot is like Liverpool getting beat by Cobblers’. It is a natural reaction (particularly in Kettering) to assume that a defeat is due to your own team being poor, rather than the quality of the opposition, but, in this case, I’m not so sure. Leicestershire are now third in the table, and that is no fluke (if they had not thrown away the game against Durham they would be second). It is true that they have so far played some of the weaker sides in the division, but the fact that there are so many weaker sides to play is indicative of Leicestershire’s relative strength.

The game set a couple of modest records, it being the first time since 2010 that Leicestershire had either won two Championship games in succession, or beaten Northamptonshire. Looking back, that was in the first game of the season, and Leicestershire won, thanks, in part, to an 88 from James Taylor, who was to go on to have something of an ‘annus mirabilis’ himself that year.  The future seemed brightening, but was clouded by the creeping likelihood that Taylor would soon be poached by a larger County.

Remembering that, it is hard to feel unmixed joy at Chappell’s blooming, given that his contract runs out at the end of the season, and that Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and Surrey (the usual hyaenas) are already circling him. Leicestershire are, obviously, keen to persuade him to stay, but (I’m told) are being hampered by his agent, who has demanded that they pay £5,000 before they can even speak to him (whether to the agent or the player I’m not sure). Agents have a lot to answer for, I feel.

Another looming cloud is that Michael Carberry is, apparently, considering legal action against the club, on the grounds that his contract specifies that he was appointed to the Captaincy. The loss of Carberry as a player would be a pity, but the prospect of having to pay him substantial compensation would be a more serious blow. Appoint in haste, repent at leisure, as the saying goes.

Still, while the sky is still relatively cloudless, we have two more Championship fixtures, before the competition hibernates (or aestivates) for the T20 interval, a home match against Middlesex, and a day-nighter at Derby (which I don’t think I can face). Middlesex, the ante-post favourites, have been curiously ailing this season, and a third win in succession does not seem out of the question. If we could beat Derby as well, we might even be able to persuade Zak that he should stay on to play First Division cricket next season (even if we have to do it by slipping a note under his door).