All’s Well That Ends

Northamptonshire (194 & 270) v Nottinghamshire (151 & 189), County Ground Northampton, 19-22 September 2017

Leicestershire (128 & 270) v Northamptonshire (202 & 197-4), Grace Road, 25-28 September 2017 

I have never been good at endings, but then neither is cricket. The satisfactory conclusion, all ends tied up and justice done, seems trite. Last minute twists are corny or unbelievable. The true-to-life ending (inconclusive, ambiguous or abrupt) satisfies no-one. Perhaps the best we can hope for is an ending that seems, in retrospect, to have been inevitable.

You may remember I was a Member at Northamptonshire last season. This season, as most of their home games coincided with Leicestershire’s, I chose to put loyalty before pleasure and follow the Foxes (an often weary and reluctant hound), so can offer no first-hand account of how they came to play the last two games of their season with the real prospect of promotion before them.

It has been said of Northants that they “continue to defy predictions”, and they have certainly defied mine at the start of the season, that they would “struggle to pull off the same trick twice”. They may have failed to pull off quite the same tricks in white ball cricket, but in the Championship they have abandoned their old trick of preparing dead pitches and playing for the bonus points, and found the better one of winning the matches they did not lose (in the end, they won nine, lost three and drew only twice).

Their small squad (sixteen registered at the start of the season) has featured a core of locally produced players in the prime of their careers, one exceptional, if erratic talent (Duckett), two experienced seamers sourced from the Minor Counties, two refugees from Grace Road who never fulfilled their promise there, a shifting cast of loanees and triallists, and two South Africans who, from a distance, look as though they ought to be packing down for the Bagford Vipers, one a T20 specialist, the other whose Test career was interrupted by a suspension for smoking marijuana.

This does not sound like an obvious recipe for success ; the best explanation I can offer is that they appear to be an exceptionally happy team, led by a Captain who enjoys a good relationship with his Coach and who “play without fear”. A poor cliché, no doubt, but the truth of it is striking if you have spent the rest of the season watching another side who appear to enjoy none of those advantages.

Whatever their secret, they appear to be in that happy state that teams and individuals sometimes attain (however briefly) where they succeed in everything they attempt, and their victories in these, their last two games, always seemed inevitable, even when a glance at the scorecard might suggest otherwise. It also felt, however, somehow inevitable that they would not be promoted (although even that might prove to be a blessing in light disguise).

Their rivals for promotion, and their opponents in their first game, Nottinghamshire looked a different side from the one that had obliterated Leicestershire twice early in the season. That is because they were a completely different side. The early season Notts had boasted a Test-quality attack featuring Pattinson, Broad and Ball, supported by a slimline Luke Fletcher. The pace bowling against Northants consisted of Mullaney, Luke Wood and Brett Hutton (all, accurately, described by Playfair as medium-pacers) and Harry Gurney, who, in this game, looked less like an international bowler than his one-time rival at Grace Road, Nathan Buck.

Also missing were batsmen Alex Hales (otherwise occupied), Michael Lumb, Brendan Taylor and Greg Smith (all of whom seem to have packed it in mid-season). In their place were an assortment of players I have often watched playing 2nd XI cricket, and Cheteshwar Pujara, who, on this showing, looked as though he ought to be doing so (fine player though he has shown himself to be in other contexts).

Being asked to bat first at 10.30 in late September is to have drawn the short straw (not that, for the home side, there is much likelihood of being offered the option of a long one). Duckett, who opened with Robbie Newton, will have been aware of the need to bat responsibly ; a responsibility that chafed like a stiff collar on a younger brother under orders to behave himself at his sister’s wedding. Off the third ball he received he almost forgot, then restrained, himself, with the unhappy effect that he offered a simple catch to the bowler. I think this is the fourth time this season in as many innings that I have seen him caught somewhere near, but not behind, the wicket, playing a half-checked shot : he would be better advised to, as the hashtag has it, #gohardorgohome, as he did to such effect, one way or the other, last season.

Luke Wood had removed both openers with the score on only 12. Wood is an all-rounder who sticks in the mind (I remember him playing for the England Under-19s at this ground some years ago) because of his platinum blond hair (currently worn in a sort of 1920s short back-and-sides), and his very long run up, perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing on the County circuit. With his bony face, which seems to belong under an outsize cloth cap, he would be an excellent choice for the lead in ‘The Harold Larwood Story’, provided that the camera cut away as he reached his delivery stride, as his left-arm medium-pacers do not fulfil the promise of their lengthy preamble. Nonetheless, he bowled (and later batted) very well in the conditions (though not as effectively as Broad or Ball, let alone Pattinson, might have done).

In this situation some other Counties (mentioning no names) would have collapsed, but as the last of the mist and dew evaporated and the sun shone (this match often seemed to be played in a sort of over-saturated Technicolor),

 

Richard Levi came to the wicket, and the possibility of prudent retrenchment, let alone retreat, vanished. There is a fine line between batting forcefully and slogging, which Levi bestrides (mostly on the right side) like a hog roast-fuelled colossus ; it is possible that he could play in some other way, but no-one, surely, would want him to. The scorecard records that he made only 35 from 30 balls (with 7 fours), but his innings restored the psychological balance of the match to the home side’s advantage. An only slightly more subdued innings of 43 by Rory Kleinveldt, in which he received uncharacteristically dutiful support from one-time Grace Road starlets Cobb and Buck, allowed them to reach a first-innings total of 194.

For another side, or in another season, 194 would not have sounded enough, but between tea and the close of play Kleinveldt reassured the home supporters that it would prove to be so by taking four wickets (Buck, again playing a supporting role, took one) to leave Notts on 80-5. Kleinveldt is at an opposite pole from Wood, in the sense that his perfunctory lumber to the wicket – like an out of condition no. 8 arriving late at a ruck – does nothing to warn of the purposeful violence of the delivery that is to follow.

The second day was the kind of rare, enchanted day when good players are permitted, fleetingly, to be great. Kleinveldt demolished the rest of the Nottinghamshire batting as simply as a wall of toy bricks with a coconut (he took 9-65), then Levi did the same to the bowling, scoring 115 off 104 balls, from a total of 270. Kleinveldt took advantage of this temporary suspension of reality to strike 48 from 41 and took two more wickets when Nottinghamshire batted again.

I missed the half day of play that was possible on Day 3, when the spell was, apparently, temporarily broken and Nottinghamshire were able to come within 207 runs of the required total, with three wickets remaining. It is possible that I have the opposite effect on Northants to the one I have on Leicestershire, who never perform well when I am watching them (or when I am not, recently).

Rationally, the game was evenly balanced at the start of Day 4, but it seemed to me a formality that Northants would win, and, indeed, it was all over bar the victory song by lunchtime (the game’s not over these days until the substantial lads have sung). The visitors’ last hope lay with Samit Patel, so majestic in his element against Leicestershire at Trent Bridge, but here something of a grounded albatross, and Chris Read, (who, like his counterpart David Murphy, is about to retire), when they came together on 152-7. Towards the end of one over Gleeson had made a great show of positioning two men on the boundary for the hook. Patel duly took note. In the following over, when Patel came to face, with the same field in place, Sanderson bowled him the kind of bouncer that is designed to be hit, not hit, and Patel sheepishly hit it into the waiting pouch of perpetual substitute Saif Zaib. When a trick that cornball comes off for you, you know the spirits are with you.

And so to Grace Road, for the last time, where it seemed, for once, as though things might get interesting. The precise mathematics of the situation no longer matter (I heard several different analyses, all different, all delivered with the same authority), but the gist of it was that Northants would be promoted if they won, provided that Nottinghamshire lost to Sussex at Hove. My impression is that there were few present (with the exception, one would hope, of the Leicestershire players) who did not want Northamptonshire to win. Apart from the overtly pro-Northants contingent (there in greater numbers than usual), there are some Leicestershire supporters who (like me) also have some attachment to Northants, and a larger number who have a strong antipathy to Nottinghamshire, and would be only too delighted to see them fall at the last hurdle in their promotion chase (and, preferably, be taken out to the paddock and shot).

The first day was entirely washed out. This had the potential to make the remaining three days more interesting, in that it might fall to Mark Cosgrove to decide whether to offer Northants a sporting declaration, which might, in turn, stymie Nottinghamshire (thus earning him the grateful thanks of two Counties, and the opprobrium of disinterested, high-minded, observers). This intriguing mirage had vanished within half an hour of the start of play on Tuesday, by which time Leicestershire had lost their first seven wickets for 26 runs. None of those seven batsmen had made double figures, with young Sam Evans (on his debut) top-scoring with eight. Northants’ official website tweeted excitably that there were “unbelievable scenes at Grace Road”, but, as the weary sighing of the regulars confirmed, they were, in fact, all too believable.

In mitigation for this debacle, I should acknowledge that, for the first half hour, conditions were hazardous for batting : there is an argument that play should not begin as early as 10.30 in the last week of September, and a stronger one that Championship matches should be played in the Summer rather than late Autumn (but I grow weary of makingit). However, the conditions were hardly worse than those that had faced Northants on the first morning against Notts and, as we have seen, they managed to make a reasonable fist of it.

If they had required any encouragement to take heart, they might have taken it from the sight of the enchanter Kleinveldt limping off at the start of his second over (his great frame apparently buckling under the weight of something or other), leaving the seam bowling in the hands of Sanderson and Gleeson (suppliers by appointment of furniture polish and saddle soap). Once the moisture had burnt off a little, it was certainly possible to make runs, as a visibly irked Raine and Chappell proved by putting on 88 for the eighth wicket. The innings closed on 128, with Gleeson and Sanderson, bowling virtually unchanged, having taken five wickets each (reaping the reward for simply bowling a consistently good line and length, a skill that is often underestimated, because it is not generally appreciated how fiendishly difficult it is to do).

The only questions that remained (it being perfectly obvious that Northants were going to win) was whether Nottinghamshire were going to oblige by losing, and how many batting points Northants needed to accumulate. At this point the signs from Hove were hopeful, and the consensus seemed to be that Northants would easily have time to make 400 and still have time to bowl Leicestershire out again. By the time they had reached 90 without loss (thanks mostly to Luke Proctor, who has shrewdly been borrowed from Lancashire), and then 168-2, as the evening grew dark, that seemed a formality, and I took the liberty of sloping off into the gloaming in search of a bus.

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Inevitably, Northamptonshire’s last eight wickets fell for 34 runs. Instinctively, I attributed this to the fact that it was the one hour of play I did not see, but, more rationally, it might have been because the last hour in late September can sometimes be as inhospitable to batsmen as the first. Ben Raine took five wickets and Callum Parkinson three. Even the “indefatigable” Raine may eventually grow fatigued by shoring up a losing side, and we will do well to dissuade him from returning to his native Durham (who may now be ruing turning their nose up at him in their fat years).

Leicestershire’s second innings began less calamitously than their first. There was a minor outbreak of applause (at least semi-ironic, I’m afraid) when Carberry reached double figures, and an even more minor one when he returned to the pavilion for 16. In fact, they batted quite well and, as Cosgrove and Aadil Ali constructed a moderately substantial fourth wicket partnership (with Sanderson and Gleeson seen off and no Kleinveldt to come), it seemed once again as though Leicestershire might have a part in deciding the question of promotion. It was at about this point, though, that the bad news was confirmed from Hove that Nottinghamshire had avoided the follow-on, and thus defeat, and the game visibly wilted and died before our eyes.

Overnight rain meant that no play was possible on the morning of the fourth day. In the afternoon, for the record, Northamptonshire made the 197 they needed to win for the loss of four wickets, and the season passed away, peacefully, in its sleep at around tea-time. It had been a bright afternoon, though a cold wind seemed to be impatient for the beginning of Winter. The man who makes the announcements over the Tannoy used it to announce that he was retiring (at least I think that is what he said – it wasn’t very clear). The inhabitants of the Stench and Benno (who I think must have been smoking some of the seasonal toadstools growing at the Bennett End

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were claiming loudly and improbably that they weren’t going home because they were having a lovely time, and singing “Halleluia – it’s Raine-ing Ben”, which has the kind of nice, fuzzy, logic to it that only makes sense to the epically stoned.

The Northants team sang their victory song again and threw their shirts over the balcony to their travelling supporters, who, perhaps shrewdly, did not seem too disheartened by the loss of promotion.

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Leicestershire, needless to say, were not singing (they only sing when they’re winning), although, perhaps, if they commissioned some sort of dismal, discordant, defeat-dirge to sing, it might discourage them from losing quite so often. Only Stench and Benno seemed interested in their shirts.

After one last look around, I left without too much regret, an indifferent end to an indifferent season. But then, as I said at the beginning, I’m afraid that I have never been very good at endings.

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Diversity and Disintegration

Nottinghamshire v Leicestershire, Trent Bridge, 19th June 2017

Northamptonshire v Leicestershire, County Ground, Northampton, 26th & 29th June 2017

It is odd, or not, how certain words seem to spring to mind repeatedly at certain times, in connection with cricket, and more generally. A few weeks ago, you may remember, that word was drift : more recently it has been superseded by disintegration. On the simplest level, my season has, until now, consisted of an orderly succession of four-day Championship games at Grace Road (interrupted, it is true, by the one-day cup, which, I suppose, had its own integrity), but, as we have approached midsummer and mid-season, with only one more home four-day match before the end of August, it has disintegrated, or, to use a phrase which claims more positive connotations, diversified (and like love and marriage, I believe, you cannot have diversity without disintegration, or vice-versa).

In the last fortnight I have seen the following : a semi-final of the Leicestershire League Cup ; the first day of Leicestershire’s Championship match at Trent Bridge ; Day 2 of a Leicestershire 2nd XI game and Day 3 of a Northamptonshire one ; a 2nd XI club game at Harborough ; the afternoon of the first day of Leicestershire’s day-night game at Wantage Road ; a Women’s World Cup game at Grace Road and the fourth, concluding, day and night at Northampton. In every one of them there was something out of the ordinary : a village side containing ten “Asians” coming within a few runs of beating the mighty Kibworth ; Samit Patel ; a leg-spinner taking ten wickets, including that of his identical twin ; a four-hour walk around a reservoir to a ground with a small Greek temple-cum-mausoleum, the match played to the accompaniment of peacocks and Spitfires ;

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an 11-year old playing an innings of Tayloresque precocity* ; a century before high tea by an apparently reinvigorated Duckett ; an eau-de-nil prosecco bar in a horsebox, and finally, almost, but not, excruciatingly, quite, the extraordinary thing itself.

I intend to return to these happy scenes of diversity on another occasion, but for the moment I will attempt to disentangle the less glittering strand, what, at one time, appeared likely to be the disintegration of Leicestershire’s season, and the disintegration of the team into its constituent parts.

I always approach Trent Bridge hopeful of an enjoyable day, but will doing so less this season because, as part of what sometimes feels like a concerted plan to prevent me watching first-class cricket, Nottinghamshire no longer have a reciprocal agreement with Leicestershire (if you are interested in the economics, an off-peak return to Nottingham costs £19.50 and entry to the ground is £17.00, so I shan’t be visiting too often). On the other hand, my expectations of a favourable result for Leicestershire could hardly have been lower, particularly when I saw that Pattinson, Broad and Ball were available for selection, and that a small heatwave was forecast that made rain an improbable escape route.

My expectations fell further when I saw Leicestershire’s team selection. The gloves had been removed from Eckersley (perhaps due to his Ancient Mariner-style attitude to byes against Sussex), which meant that, with Lewis Hill at no. 7, there was room for only four front-line bowlers, all seamers (and none of them Zak Chappell, who was out with what the OWS described as “a groin”). Pettini was still at no. 6 and there was no sign of Aadil Ali. Choosing to bowl first cannot, in the circumstances, have been a popular decision with the bowlers, and suggested that the Captain had about as much faith in his batting against Pattinson and his posse as I did.

As the temperature rose, my hopes evaporated when Ben Raine, who had just returned from injury, pulled up at the start of his fourth over and returned to the pavilion with his head in his hands (it was his side, not his head, that was ailing, but he also seemed to be experiencing considerable mental anguish). The remaining three seamers (Klein, McKay and Griffiths) cannot have been feeling too chilled either at the prospect of sharing out Raine’s overs on a day when any strenuous activity seemed likely to result in dramatic weight loss by (in spite of which Mark Cosgrove chose to bring himself on early).

In the event, Leicestershire’s bowlers acquitted themselves well by, at the end of the first day, restricting Notts to only 345-4. McKay, who seems to have mislaid his ability to take wickets, but is still treated warily by sensible batsmen, bowled 28.4 overs for 78 runs, and Griffiths, who is a grafter, if nothing else, stuck uncomplainingly to his task. Dieter Klein, who usually aims, like Byron’s tiger, to kill with his first spring, showed hyena-like persistence and was rewarded with 6-142 off his 31 overs. Colin Ackermann offered some welcome relief, if little threat, with 31 overs of his dutiful, minimalist, offspin.

The bulk of Nottinghamshire’s 548 runs were provided by Samit Patel, whose 247 suggested an experienced camel making its progress across the Sahara, not conventionally beautiful, but serene in its natural habitat and self-assured in its mastery of conditions in which most would wilt. Richard Rae described the crowd as “impressively sizeable” and, to be fair, there were some very big lads in the sun-trap of the Hound Road stand, many of whom decided to strip down to their smalls ; for most of us, though, it was a day for flitting between sun and shade, and feeling thankful that we were not in the field.

(These photographs may suggest an attempt at a blue period, or a strong subconscious urge for cool, but, in fact, I had been forced to revert to an old pocket camera and had forgotten to alter the settings. I rather like the effect.)

In the following days, I was not surprised to learn (from afar) that Nottinghamshire had declared on 548, nor that Leicestershire had been bowled out twice, by a piquant statistical quirk, for 134, nor that Pattinson had returned match figures of 8-71, nor that this was Leicestershire’s heaviest innings defeat for 85 years.

I was, though, surprised to learn that Pierre de Bruyn had reacted to the defeat by signing Arun Harinath and Matt Pillans on a short-term loan from Surrey, which seemed to be a frank admission of panic. Harinath is a decent enough opener and might have been a useful acquisition at the start of the season, but to sign him now, with two games to go before the start of the T20 campaign, means that Harry Dearden, who has finally shown signs of establishing himself in the side after a baptism of ice, will now be relegated to the 2nd XI until at least the end of August. Pillans I had, frankly, never heard of, though I was interested to note that he is one of the seven bowlers currently registered in England whom Playfair considers genuinely fast.**

Both, predictably, went straight into the side for the match against Northants at Wantage Road, Harinath replacing Dearden and Pillans the unhappy Raine (Dexter was in for Pettini and Sayer for Griffiths). My expectations of this match were low too, not so much, this time, with respect to Leicestershire’s prospects, but in the sense that I was not expecting to be able to watch very much of it, the ECB having decreed that this round of games should be day-night affairs, played with a bubblegum pink ball. (I think I have made my views on this topic clear quite often enough already, so will not bore you by repeating them.)

The first afternoon, the only part of the match I was expecting to see, was pleasant enough, though somnolent, as though we were starting play three hours late because we had all overslept. It divided into roughly two halves (before and after what I have seen variously referred to as lunch, dinner and tea). In the first half, Ben Duckett smashed (for once that word seems unavoidable) 112 runs from 102 balls, 84 of them coming in fours. He seemed to have, correctly, I think, identified that his problems this season have stemmed from half-heartedness and over-elaboration, and, while eschewing some of his more experimental strokes, concentrated on hitting any vaguely hittable delivery very hard in the direction of the boundary. Four of his fours came off the first over by Pillans, leaving me to wonder if that F in ‘Playfair’ might not stand for “Filth”, rather than “Fast” (though after that he bowled well). When Duckett did go, just in time for tea (or whatever)***, he was caught at short fine leg, off another insufficiently full-blooded lap-slog-sweep.

The second half seemed to consist mostly of Max Holden blocking deliveries from Rob Sayer. Holden is a highly-regarded 19-year-old batsman, on loan from Middlesex, who is described by Cricinfo as having “a strong work ethic” ; Sayer an off-break bowler whose forte is containment. It was a hard to say who was on top in this encounter : Holden seemed to be holding out against a more attacking bowler than Sayer, and Sayer bowling to contain a more aggressive batsman than Holden, who was still inching his way towards a second first-class century, which he was not quite to achieve, when I, without too much regret, left to catch the last bus.

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It was a pleasant evening and there was a small shoal of lads, wearing what used to be called bermuda shorts, arriving as I left, making a bee-line for the bar and the burger stand, which was, unfortunately, shut, as were all the other sources of nourishment. I also spotted a father and son arriving, providing some vindication of the day-night concept, and some compensation for the slightly larger numbers leaving the ground as they arrived.

I followed the evening session, and the next two days and nights of the game from elsewhere, and none of it came as any great surprise. As soon as I had left, Leicestershire (mainly in the person of Dieter Klein, who took another six wickets) had sprung into life, reducing Northants from 211-3 to 261 all out (whether this had anything to do with the pink ball under lights I cannot say). On the Tuesday, Leicestershire had recovered from 87-7 to 157 all out, thanks mainly to a rearguard action by Lewis Hill and the mysterious Pillans. On Wednesday, which was mostly washed out, the game continued until shortly before ten o’clock, and I congratulated myself, as I prepared for bed, on not being at Wantage Road at that time on a cold, damp evening, a prospect which struck me as being about as attractive as spending the evening in a storm drain.

So it is fair to say that when I arrived at 2.00 on Thursday I was not expecting the unexpected. Northamptonshire had declared to set Leicestershire 393 to win, which would have been their highest-ever winning fourth innings total. In fact, I was expecting that Leicestershire would have lost, perhaps ignominiously, well in time for me to catch the last bus home. I was not expecting still to be there at close to nine o’clock, with Leicestershire’s two last men in and only 2 runs required to win. But that is what happened, on an evening which had such a hallucinatory quality that I am not quite certain, in retrospect, that it actually happened.

I had, in fact, been hovering on the point of quitting the ground, as expected, at six o’clock, when Leicestershire had made roughly 200 for 3. Cosgrove had gone, but Ackerman and Eckersley were still in and the lure of witnessing the extraordinary, unexpected thing , the small, nagging, voice of faith, was enough to persuade me to turn around and join a fellow-Fox, who had kindly offered me a lift home, in front of the pavilion.

I shan’t relate the events of the evening blow-by-blow, but it was largely thanks to Colin Ackermann, who batted for a couple of minutes short of five hours for his 105, that we found ourselves, peering through the gloaming, on 357-7, with victory, rationally, more probable than not. There had been several points in the innings where the expected had threatened to reassert its unlovely self, and it loomed into view again when first Ackermann

and then McKay were dismissed, leaving the last two batsmen, Dieter Klein and the Horatian Pillans, 25 short of victory. Pillans, as the stronger of two, expertly farmed the strike and counter-attacked until, having made 56, only those two, final, paltry, excruciating, runs were required, at which point … well, the memory is too fresh and painful to dwell on, but, as you probably know, we lost.

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We could be heroes , just for one evening

I don’t suppose it was quite what the ECB had in mind when they instituted day-night cricket (perhaps beautiful young urban professionals sipping prosecco as the sun sets radiantly over the Oval), but it certainly contributed to the heroic quality of the evening that it was played out in front of, at most, about fifty spectators, the hardest of the hardcore, in dank conditions, long after any source of food, drink or public transport had vanished (if it were not for the presumed “heritage” of the leading participants, I might describe it as being a bit like the Siege of Mafeking). On the other hand, I am not sure I would wish to see the experiment repeated : better to leave that evening lingering as a solitary, shining, memory.

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What effect this will have on the team remains to be seen. It has been said that team spirit is “an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory” ; we shall have to hope that it can also be glimpsed in the aftermath of certain kinds of defeat. But, even if Matthew Pillans picks up a bit of a niggle and has to go straight back to Surrey, never to play for us again, his name will live long in Leicestershire folklore, and the tale of how he almost beat Northamptonshire will grow in the telling, whenever two or more Foxes are gathered together round a campfire, spinning yarns of yore.

* I don’t want to jinx the lad, but his initials are VS.

** The others are Mohammed Amir, Mark Wood, Tymal Mills, Hardus Viljoen, Brydon Carse and Matt Dixon (the last two, in case you’ve never heard of them either, are signed to Durham and Essex respectively).

***The caterers seemed to have got round the problem of which meals the players were meant to be eating by providing an all-you-can-eat buffet. Probably wise to get in the queue early, given the appetites of some of the Northamptonshire staff.

Larks on the Wing, Worms in the Bud

Worcestershire v Nottinghamshire, RLODC, New Road, Worcester, 27th April 2017

In his essay ‘Prelude‘ Neville Cardus wrote that

Cricket, as I know and love it, is part of that holiday time which is the Englishman’s heritage – a playtime in a homely countryside.”

Leaving the rest of this aside for a moment (or longer), the significant words here are “holiday time”. Watching professional cricket has always, for most people, been associated with being on holiday and from that derives a significant part of its appeal. Some are on a permanent holiday : historically, this group would have included the progressively dwindling minority who had private incomes large enough not to need to work, but is now mostly made up of people who, like me, are retired. You might also once have included in this fortunate band resting actors and the unemployed (in the happy days, long gone, when that involved nothing more strenuous than signing on once a fortnight and going to the Post Office to cash your giro*).

There were workers who managed to combine employment with watching cricket on a regular basis : vicars, postmen and those who worked nights (some of whom had chosen their line of work specifically for that reason), but for most it was a holiday occupation. Bank Holiday matches attracted huge crowds, particularly for derby games such as the Roses Match and Surrey v Kent at the Oval, which were timed to coincide with them. Teachers, schoolchildren and students could, if they chose, spend their long Summer holidays at the cricket. Then there were Saturdays (or Saturday afternoons in the early days), half-day early closing (when the factories often shut to allow their works teams to play) and – sweetest of all, in my experience – the snatched day off work.

Then there are those who choose to combine their annual holidays with watching cricket, which would once have offered seaside resorts to suit every taste (Blackpool, Scarborough, Eastbourne, Hastings, Southend), Cathedral and University cities (Canterbury, Gloucester, Worcester, Oxford, Cambridge) and spa towns (Tunbridge Wells, Harrogate, Cheltenham, Buxton). Some of those venues have been ripped from the calendar, but some remain, and there are still those who choose to spend their annual holiday allowance following their team around what remains of the circuit, even if that involves spending three nights in a Travelodge in Chelmsford. (If you ask them how their trip went, as with any other holiday, the answer will include the quality of the hotel, the journey, the weather, the food and perhaps some comment such as … “the cricket wasn’t much cop”.)

I cannot aspire to that level of devotion, but I do sometimes yearn to deviate a little more from my East Midlands beat to take in some of the diverse glories of the English scene, which is how I found myself, the other week, staying in Malvern Spa the night before a match at Worcester.

As this is a cricket blog and not a travelogue, I won’t linger too long over my description of Great Malvern, except to say that I liked it very much and hope to return. The same is true of my hotel (the Foley Arms, now a branch of J.D. Wetherspoon)

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though, as this is not TripAdvisor, I won’t linger too long on that either. The town can boast a priory,

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some restful and elevating late-Victorian architecture, numerous literary and musical associations (C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and Auden, who watched over me benignly as I ate my reasonably priced Traditional Breakfast

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Elgar, who is commemorated by a statue, and Cher Lloyd, who is not). There was also the chance to climb a reasonably inclined hill to view the original source of Malvern water, St. Ann’s Well. Those who insist on finding a worm in every bud will note the sign attached to the well, saying that the water had “failed recent bacteriological tests and should be boiled before drinking” ;

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although I am confident that the bottled Malvern water sold by Mr. Wetherspoon is perfectly safe to drink, I decided to take no chances that evening and opted for the very reasonable offer of 3 bottles of Sol for £5.00.

The day dawned bright and clear (as they say in the kind of novel I rather felt I was living in) and I made sure to arrive early enough at the well-preserved railway station to buy a cup of coffee in Lady Foley’s Tea-Room (Lady Edith Foley, who essentially owned Malvern when it was at its height as a spa, once had this room reserved for her personal use). I felt this was what Cardus would have done, on one of his much-relished forays out of Manchester, though I suppose he would have ordered a cup of tea and a bun rather than a cafe latte in a paper cup. I did not notice any larks, but, if there were, I am confident that they would have been on the wing, likewise any snails on the thorn.

I have sometimes pondered the paradox that some of the chief glories of Europe’s architecture – its spa towns – own their existence to what was, at best, Bad Science, and, at worst, conscious fraud ; some (not I) would say the same about the Church of England, whose Cathedral famously provides the backdrop to cricket at Worcester (this is one of two things everyone knows about New Road, the other being that it is subject to periodic flooding by the River Severn).

If you sit in the right position, it is still possible to see the Cathedral as a backdrop (and that word, with its suggestion of painted theatrical scenery, seems somehow appropriate):

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but if you require, as it were, the classic Worcester experience, you would have to look at the painted version which still seems to be used to advertise the ground to potential corporate clients

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or buy one of the greeting cards sold in the Supporters’ Club Shop, neither of which feature the large hotel that has been built in a corner of the ground, nor the cluster of rectangular buildings that adjoin it.

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The presence of a hotel would be less incongruous if it were the Foley Arms, or indeed the Grand in Scarborough, or any building more in keeping with the spirit of the place ; its design is, however, as one of the various bodies who objected to its being built, “simplistic”, as though the architect had given a three-year-old a crayon, asked it to draw a house, and passed the resulting arrangement of rectangles straight to the builders. I am only too well aware of the financial imperatives involved, but it does sometimes feel as though the County circuit is being turned into a giant Monopoly board, the aim of the game being to build as many hotels as possible on the prime properties.

Cardus also once described the spirit of cricket in Worcestershire as being “as genial and magnanimous as the English landscape”, but I’m not sure that was quite the vibe around the ground when I visited. When I was making a preliminary perambulation a rather grim-faced man in search of a parking space tooted his horn impatiently at me, and my purchase of a greetings card was delayed by a tetchy exchange between a man representing the Supporters’ Association and the Chief Executive (“You may have apologised to him, but you haven’t apologised to me” – “Don’t tell me how to run a cricket club”). (I am uneasy about recording these kinds of eavesdroppings, but do feel that this kind of conversation is significantly symptomatic of the uneasy relationships County Members often have with those who run them, and not just at Worcester.)

When play started, I began by sitting in the spot that offered what I have referred to as the classic Worcester view, which happened to be in the Ladies’ Pavilion. I was unsure whether, not being a Lady, I should have been there at all, but was reassured by the presence of one or two other Gentlemen, and took my seat, inscribed in memory of Rev. Prebendary W.R. Chignell, W.C.S.A. President 1977-1994 (until 2006 the ground was owned by the Cathedral). To my right I had my eye on some wooden benches, in the shade (or, as seemed likely to be more useful) under the shelter of some trees.

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The drawback to this arrangement was that, although I had a good view of the Cathedral, the square had been pitched so far over to the river side of the ground that I had little idea of what was happening on the pitch, except that the Worcestershire seamers were restricting the scoring of the Nottinghamshire batsmen without having much success in removing them.

As I have said, the day had dawned bright and clear and dry : after the first half hour it was still dry, but no longer bright or clear, and by noon it was no longer dry. When the first shower started, I thought to retreat into the interior of the Ladies’ Pavilion ; I must have looked as though I was considering sitting on a particular canvas chair on the verandah, as a Lady politely, but firmly, informed me that, although I could, if I wished, bring one of the plastic chairs in the Pavilion out on to the verandah, the canvas chair, and a cluster of armchairs inside it, were reserved for Lady Members. I write this, by the way, in a spirit of admiration, rather than mockery : if anyone embodies the quixotic spirit of County cricket, it is those Ladies fiercely defending their hard-worn privileges by sitting cosy in their armchairs, admiring the view of the Cathedral.

When the shower relented, I left the Ladies to their privileges and switched to the ubiquitous plastic bucket seats nearest the (very) short boundary. From there I had a good view, which only served to confirm the impression I had formed from the Ladies’ Pavilion that neither side were obviously in the ascendancy. The Worcestershire seamers (the useful quartet of Mighty Joe Leach, John Wayne Hastings, Ed Barnard and Shantry) bowled accurately enough ; the Nottinghamshire batsmen scored off the loose balls, whilst periodically losing wickets. Lumb played what used to be known as “the anchor role”, making a handy, but entirely unmemorable, century and there was a brief flurry of sixes from Samit Patel. Over all, it went to show quite how uninvolving 50-over cricket can be to the disinterested observer, particularly if he is chilled to the marrow.

The rain returned, drizzly at first, then briefly torrential, with Nottinghamshire’s innings not quite complete. During the drizzly spells I watched, of all people, Bob Geldof performing on the new scoreboard (the Boomtown Rats are soon to appear at New Road) and discovered what must have been the old scoreboard, now beached by the advancing tide of modernity and bucket seats (I suppose Geldof and his Rats would have had to stick their heads out of the flaps).

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When it turned torrential I passed up the chance to buy an ice-cream from the splendidly-named Cow Corner (staffed by a shivering goth),

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discovered that, whatever their merits as sunshades, the trees offered little protection from the rain, and finally holed up in an internally, if not externally, attractive new cafe called Foley’s (the Foley family, as well as owning Malvern, played an important part in Worcestershire’s early years).

I stayed long enough to see Nottinghamshire conclude their innings (on a marginally below par 273-6), then cut and ran for the station at about 4.45. The last train that would be sure to get me home was the 6.20, it was damp, painfully cold and very dark (one of the penalties of an aesthetically pleasing ground is that it is hard to erect floodlights), and I could see little prospect of a result. In the event, play did resume and Worcestershire won, by making 169-5 (this doesn’t sound better to me than 273-6, but then I am neither Duckworth nor Lewis). Cricinfo’s correspondent admitted that the first three hours had been “humdrum”, which I can vouch for, but described the game over all as “a minor classic” ; I imagine he could not have had much company at the ground by the end of it.

So, how was my holiday? The hotel was nice, the food was good, the weather was awful … and the cricket wasn’t much cop. I should like to return to Malvern, and Worcester, perhaps when mid-Summer shows it to better advantage, though, I suppose, if the Ladies take my comments the wrong way, I may have to do so wearing false whiskers.

*Author’s memory.

Insults and Injuries

Leicestershire v Nottinghamshire, Grace Road, 7-9 April 2017

Firstly, I should like to offer my apologies to anyone who took my advice that “if you feel short-changed if a match ends early, you know where to head this season”, meaning Wantage Road. If you had done so last Friday, you would have found that Northants had beaten Glamorgan by tea-time on Saturday afternoon. In mitigation, I should point out that I also described Glamorgan last season as being “on the verge of degenerating into a rabble”. It might be fairer to say that are a young side with one or two senior players who have surely reached the end of the line, who looked demoralised and lacking in leadership, but it doesn’t sound as though there has been much improvement this season. Which does, at least, mean that Leicestershire should be reasonably sure of finishing above one other County, even starting the season with a 16 point handicap. Which brings me to l’affaire Shreck.

If you had read my account of Leicestershire’s game against Loughborough very carefully you would have noticed that I said that Charlie Shreck had been “preparing for his expected translation into a coaching role by offering the students plenty of unsolicited advice about their batting technique”. A mild joke, and about all the notice this non-incident merited. To the naked eye, Shreck had become a little frustrated with opener Hasan Azad’s persistent refusal to play any stroke other than the forward defensive and the leave (as you may remember, he made 80 in 302 minutes) and, as is his wont, the “lanky paceman” had strayed down the wicket to address a few remarks to him. After Shreck had done this a couple of times, the Umpire had spoken to him, presumably suggesting that he desist, and that (you might have thought) would have been the end of it.

However, as you may be aware, “the Umpires” (presumably O’Shaughnessy, who has form for this, rather than Middlebrook in his first game) had reported the incident to the ECB. As this was, apparently, our fifth “Level 1” offence in twelve months, their “Disciplinary Panel” (Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Judge Jeffreys, Mrs. Grundy and the Chairman of Nottinghamshire) decided to fine the club £5,000, ban Mark Cosgrove (held to be responsible, as Captain) for one match and – incredibly – impose a 16 point penalty in the County Championship, with another eight points suspended (the club had already suspended Shreck for a fortnight).

To add insult to injury, ‘The Times’ published a highly-coloured report the next day claiming that “a source” had revealed that Shreck had become “enraged” by the opener playing a “flamingo shot” (invisible to me) and had threatened to kill him. Shreck vehemently denies this allegation which, even if it were true, would hardly constitute what the police refer to as a “credible threat” (for an earlier example of his Pathetic Shark-like sledging see here for my account of his failed attempt to intimidate Callum Parkinson (now of Leicestershire) last season).

Some of the criticism has implied that there was something particularly reprehensible about the incident because it involved “students”, implying that these are beardless youths, taking time off between lectures to play a bit of cricket. In fact, they are mostly players who have not yet quite succeeded in establishing themselves with a County, and see playing for an MCCU as a way of showcasing their skills, while hedging their bets by acquiring an academic qualification.

Has(s)an Azad, for instance (the object of Shreck’s ire), is 23 and has (amongst a long list of achievements listed on his LinkedIn profile) played for Nottinghamshire 2nd XI. Basil Akram (who took most of the wickets) is 24 and has been round the houses with Essex, Hampshire, Northants and Nottinghamshire. Nitish Kumar has been representing Canada in ODIs since the age of 15, not to mention a spell with the St. Lucia Zouks. Even among the genuine youngsters, James Bracey has played a game for Gloucestershire and Sam Evans (who admittedly looks about 12) was offered a Leicestershire contract during the course of the match. They would, surely, have felt more insulted if Shreck had patronisingly applauded their efforts, rather than acknowledging the extent to which they had succeeded in frustrating him, in the way that he would do with full-time professionals.

There are several aspects to this business that I find dispiriting. One is simply that it had seemed to me that the match had generally been played in what used to be referred to as “the right spirit”, and I would be surprised if anyone present at the ground (except Steve O’Shaughnessy, apparently) felt differently. It had been a pleasant and fruitful three days for all concerned, and it seemed a great pity that the mood had to be soured so soon. Another is the willingness of those who can have no first-hand knowledge of the matter to make pronouncements about Leicestershire’s on field behaviour over the last year (as one who has seen all of their home games in that time, I should say they were no worse than anyone else).

The worst aspect, though, is the imposition of a sixteen point penalty. Apart from the illogic of imposing a penalty in a competition of which the match concerned was not a part (why not the 50 over competition, or the T20?), the ECB must be aware that imposing such a handicap on the eve of the season must inevitably have a depressing effect on a club who have recently been struggling, with some success, to revive, not only their own fortunes, but the interest in cricket in what should be fertile territory. Furthermore, the imposition of a points penalty for any reason other than points having been illegitimately acquired (by fielding an ineligible player, perhaps, or blatant time-wasting) devalues the competition, by making it a question not of how well the teams have performed on the pitch, but of how well-behaved they have been in the eyes of the governing body.

I would not go quite as far as those conspiracy theorists who believe that the ECB is deliberately trying to force Leicestershire out of business, but it does feel as though the relationship between the ECB and the smaller Counties is now roughly that of wanton boys to flies (they kill us, or not, for their sport).

As a result of all this, Leicestershire took the field on the first day of the match against Nottinghamshire under something of a pall, knowing that, even if they managed to pull off a surprise victory against the ante-post favourites, they would be awarded no points for it ; the players must sometimes feel that they are wasting their time (and I know I do). The pall had lifted by mid-afternoon on the Saturday, when balmy weather and a good crowd (larger on the Friday than the Saturday, and with a sizeable contingent from Nottinghamshire)

saw the sides on roughly equal terms (Nottinghamshire on 167-7 in reply to Leicestershire’s 251), with hopes of Leicestershire going into the third day (predicted to be the hottest day of the year) with a first innings lead, but it had crashed down again, like badly-secured garage doors, by the end of the day, when Leicestershire required 27 to make Nottinghamshire bat again, with four wickets remaining.

The match did, at least, lend a little more credibility to my predictive powers. I had predicted that Leicestershire’s strength this season would be in its pace bowling, its major weakness the fragility of the top order. I had not expected that the pace bowlers would be required to do most of the batting as well, but so it had proved in the first innings, with Chappell (30), Raine (55*) and McKay (35) dragging the innings to its feet after the batsmen (Cosgrove excepted) had allowed it to collapse to 135-7. I also predicted that we would be the most unpredictable County in Division 2, though I really had in mind that would be over the course of the season, rather than a single afternoon (what exactly happened in the fateful last hour on the second day I cannot report, as I was following the second, more dramatic, collapse to 51-6, with mounting horror, on my ‘phone on the way home).

Of the pace bowlers, Ben Raine had said that they were planning to “bowl around Zak”, and so it proved. Chappell had seemingly been instructed simply to bowl fast and he succeeded in discomfiting some of the Nottinghamshire batsmen, while, at the same time, forcing wicket-keeper Eckersley into some not always effectual gymnastics behind the stumps. His bowling was expensive, taking 1-78 off 19 overs, but had at least three catches dropped in what was, after all, only his fifth first-class match, and the really significant figure (for anyone who has watched him gingerly stepping in to bowl a couple of overs so as not to wreck various parts of his physique) is that 19 overs.

26 of those 78 runs were scored by Stuart Broad off 16 balls, with three fours tipped over the slips and one straight-driven off a rare full delivery. When Chappell went round the wicket, Broad carted him for six over mid-wicket and then should have been caught attempting to repeat the stroke, resulting in a huge steepler bearing down on McKay out of the sun, like a Messerschmidt (if the day had been seasonably dull he might well have held it).


Raine, meanwhile, took 6-66, to add to his first innings runs. Raine is a snappy, tenacious Muttley of a player who has, since his arrival from Durham, provided some bite (and bark) to a side who have sometimes (whatever the ECB think) often appeared too well-bred and diffident, and it would be a pity if he felt obliged to curb his instincts so as not to incur another points deduction.

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Raine (l), Chappell (r)

 

There was, I thought, a surprisingly large crowd on the Sunday morning, given that there was little prospect of the game lasting more than an hour, if that (most, I think, were Nottinghamshire supporters who had stayed overnight in the hope of making a weekend of it).

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Leicestershire just managed to make the opposition bat again, thanks to a six from the fight-to-the-death Raine and four overthrows from Luke Fletcher (who, unless my ears were deceiving me, had advised Chappell to “fook off” on his dismissal, though this was, no doubt, inaudible to the Umpires). Requiring four to win, ex-Fox Greg Smith added another insult to our injuries by lofting Paul Horton for a straight six, narrowly avoiding braining an innocent hound, and smashing a window in the Charles Palmer Suite, leaving the Nottinghamshire supporters to bask in the glory, and the glorious afternoon.

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Snap me while you can!

In itself, this was not a disastrous result. The truth is that Broad and, particularly, Pattinson were simply too good for us, as they are likely to prove for most for most of the sides they face this season (for as long as Pattinson is available, and Broad is allowed to play by the caprices of the ECB). Gloucestershire, in the game starting this weekend, should be beatable, and Glamorgan, in the next home game, really must be beaten. However, this week came news of another, this time self-inflicted, injury.

Angus Robson had not been selected against Nottinghamshire, and it came as no great surprise to learn that he and the club have now parted “by mutual consent”. Again, this is not, in itself, a disaster (although, if young Harry Dearden falters, there is no obvious replacement, it may be possible to whistle up reinforcements from the Republic of Kolpakia, or, if we are looking for solidity in the face of intolerable pressure, perhaps we could see how Hasan Azad is fixed). It does, though, lend credence to the belief that there may be tensions between new coach, discipline enthusiast Pierre de Bruyne, and some of the more fun-loving elements in the side (he has, it is said, banned mobile ‘phones in the dressing room and, presumably, in Robson’s case, had confiscated his fags).

If true, this does not bode well. I’d say we have quite have enough on our plate at the moment fighting the ECB, without fighting amongst ourselves as well.

 

All is Ripeness : Ripeness is All. Pt. 1. A Hardy Perennial

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Nottinghamshire v Somerset, Trent Bridge, County Championship, 18th July 2016 (Day 2)

Edgar : “What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure

Their going hence, even as their coming hither:

Ripeness is all.”

Well, this is it (or, perhaps, that was it). This week the sun has (as per Cardus) been “ample”, and the season, like “a rich part of the garden of an English summertime”, has ripened. Readers of Keats will know what comes after ripeness, but, for the moment, ripeness suffices, and if, as Cardus recommends, we close our eyes for a while (preferably without dozing off), we may be seduced into thinking warm days will never cease.

As the season ripens, I have seen some cricketers who are enjoying their “coming hither” (inevitably, Ben Duckett) and a few who don’t know whether they are coming hither or going hence (Leicestershire’s 2nd XI), but, first, one who should, by rights, have “gone hence” some time ago, but seems reluctant to take his cue : Marcus Trescothick, who dominated the second day at Trent Bridge on Monday, as he dominated the match, from the moment he came in to bat at about midday.

Before that we had the tail-end of Nottinghamshire’s innings of 401, chiefly notable for Luke Fletcher’s performance as “nightwatchman” (a role he might suit in Macbeth). The “Bulwell Buffalo” is, as you might expect, quite capable of the village Flintoff style of batting, but his other manner (when he has been promoted up the order) is a self-consciously responsible mix of judicious leaves and delicate nudges. This is hugely entertaining for the crowd, like watching a bear play the harpsichord, but infuriating for the bowlers.

Overton (Craig of that ilk, I think) wasted much time and energy firing in short balls outside off stump, at which Fletcher turned up his nose, like a model waving away a sweet trolley, when a simple Yorker would have sufficed to remove the nuisance. Fletcher eventually returned to the pavilion, to warm applause, with 32 runs to his name. This was not to be the last time he left the field (it was a hot day, and he is a very big man), but the last time he would have done so with much satisfaction.

I cannot pretend to have made a close study of Marcus Trescothick’s batting technique, but, for all that, and for all that I know his nickname derives from his fondness for sausages, a hint of the rustic, of the leaden-footed village banger still attaches to his name, and, though there are other, better reasons, I suspect that has contributed to his continuing popularity with English crowds throughout the land. It does not, though, explain his longevity (he is now in his fortieth year and his twenty-third season).

Wilfred Rhodes is said to have eschewed the cut, on the grounds that “it nivver were a business stroke” : Trescothick now seems to have cut out all off-side strokes, and pared his game down to a minimal three. One is the nudge off his hip, which, with his weight behind it, often goes for four ; anything short he pulls (and these he genuinely bangs) ; to anything else, whether on middle stump or wide to the off, he offers an almost French cricket-style full-faced bat in front of his stumps, before wandering halfway to square leg to attend to some notional divot.

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The first time I saw Nottinghamshire this season (on what felt like the coldest day of the year) their pace bowlers were Broad, Bird, Ball and Gurney (they also had Hales and James Taylor in the side). For differing reasons, all of those bar Gurney have gone, and Gurney’s first spell here was wild, dragging stuff : the burden of the bowling, on what was the hottest so far, fell on Brett Hutton, Imran Tahir and the Buffalo himself.

When a player comes in to bat, or a bowler to bowl, the scoreboards at Trent Bridge display huge mugshots of them, and a brief description. Not all of these are flattering (Chris Read’s portrait makes him look like a 19th century Punch cartoon of a Fenian agitator). Most gallingly, Brett Hutton’s describes his bowling as “right medium”, which can only encourage the batsman, and discourage a bowler who, from his body language, aspires to a higher pace.

Poor Fletcher looks, even on the coldest day, like a man bowling to sweat out last night’s ale and though, as always, every ounce of his weight was going into his bowling, he really looked to be suffering in the heat. Frequently, as the weary afternoon wore on, he took refuge in the pavilion, where, one imagines, his trainer threw a bucket of water over him, like a racehorse.

Have-beard-will-travel leggie Imran Tahir has been brought in, one imagines, as a proven wicket-taker, to bolster a depleted attack, in a side who have some reason to fear relegation. Though he earned his corn (taking 7-112), Somerset may have been surprised not to be facing the young spinner, Matthew Carter, who took 7-56 (and 10-195 in the match) against them last year, on what has so far been his only first-class appearance. Carter is just 20, the younger brother of Fletcher’s old partner-in-crime Andrew, and was, I thought, the most promising English spinner I have seen this season when I saw him in a 2nd XI match at Hinckley. Unless he learns to bat, he might be well-advised to put in a transfer request to a less well-funded county.

Unusually, I watched the day out to the end, from in front of the pavilion, waiting, I suppose, for Trescothick to get his hundred, which he did, and then to get out, which he did not (until the next day, when he had made 218). I suppose I was waiting for sentimental reasons, in the original sense of wanting to enjoy the experience of fine feelings, in this case the pathos of seeing the last of a fine career. This may have been the last time I see him make a hundred, it might even be the last he makes, but, though Trescothick is a sensitive man, I doubt he is a sentimental one.  He has proved his ability to evade conventional narratives of decline, and prolong ripeness past the usual time of decay, and I suspect he will continue as long as his strokes continue to do good business.

Nonetheless, as he left the field, as the shadows lengthened, to a standing ovation from the home members, I think I must have had something in my eye …

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If I did, it would probably have been an ant. One of the subplots of the day was that it was the Day of the Flying Ants in the New Stand : ants in the air, ants in your Playfair, ants in your sandwiches, ants in your hair. This prompted the following overheard conversation, which I offer, for free, to anyone hoping to write a situation comedy in the style of Roy Clarke :

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The Ant on the Hat

Elderly Notts supporter 1 : “I saw a programme once, you know, where some professor proved that, if they were ten times the size, ants would take over the world.”

Elderly Notts supporter 2 (thoughtfully) : “You know what you’d want in that situation? An anteater.”

Gloucester : And that’s true too.

[Exeunt.]

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Some small gnats, opposite Trent Bridge

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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Cricket, Proper and Improper

Nottinghamshire v Yorkshire, Trent Bridge, County Championship, 3rd May 2016

Northamptonshire v Derbyshire, County Ground, County Championship, 4th May 2016

I’m sure you’ve heard the distinction made before between “the cricket” and “a day at the cricket” (John Woodcock said that, whereas he wrote about the first, Alan Gibson wrote about the second).  “Good day at the cricket?” is not the same question as “Cricket good today?”.

On Tuesday, for instance, when I went to Trent Bridge to watch Notts play Yorkshire, the cricket was good, right enough.  In fact, as George Dobell wrote on Cricinfo, it was “a perfect advert for Championship cricket”.  I can’t speak for those who were there on the other three days, but, as a “day at the cricket“, the third day was little short of purgatorial.

It was a match  with everything : quality players (seven on each side with international experience (and two more, Lees and Ball,

Jake Ball

likely to join them), Hales and Broad starring for Notts,  Ballance, Root, Bairstow and Plunkett for Yorkshire) ; context (the current Champions taking on one of their most plausible challengers and historic rivals) ; narrative – an even contest where the advantage changed hands by the hour, both sides capable of winning as they went into the last session and the result in doubt to the last ball – yes, all of that.

Anyone who was following the game on TV, or online, must have wished they could be at the ground to see it.  Anyone who turns to the relevant page of Wisden in years to come will wish they had been there.  It must even have looked good from the warmth of the pressbox.  As a game, it made for great reading, and, for those with the ability to concentrate exclusively on what went on between the wickets (the cameraman’s view), great viewing.

Trent Bridge TV

It even began well ; at the start of play I was in the middle tier of the Radcliffe Road Stand and down to one layer, but by lunch a leaden pall of grey cloud had covered the sun and the cooling breeze had turned into a nasty, insidious little north-westerly wind that seemed to be trying to insinuate itself into any gap in the spectators’ layers of insulation.

Not everyone would agree, of course.  Most of those who had begun in the Radcliffe Road (Middle or Lower) stuck it out there all day and were probably rooted to the same spot for all four days.

Radcliffe Road

Without wishing to stereotype the Yorkshire crowd too much, they must have been sustained (in addition to a proper cap and muffler and frequent recourse to the thermos) by the fact that the afternoon session was proper cricket.  After the loss of two quick wickets, Alex Hales and Michael Lumb (two notorious sloggers, of course) dug in good and proper against some relentlessly accurate seam bowling from, in particular, Jack Brooks and Steven Patterson

Hales forward defensive

The first 20 overs yielded 32 runs, which must have puzzled anyone whose previous experience of cricket was of the 20 over variety.

It was an afternoon for the purist, a day for the connoisseur, and, if it had only been a little warmer, it would have been a day for me.  As it was, I took what turned out to be a brief abandonment for bad light and drizzle as a sign that I should make my excuses (“sorry – I’m not from Yorkshire“) and scuttle off back to the warmth of the Railway Station and Leicestershire.

The Trent Bridge match vindicates one of the arguments of those who favour a Two Division Championship.  There were no easy, devalued, runs against two attacks with four near Test-quality seamers (Willey, Brooks, Patterson and Plunkett on the one side ; Ball, Broad, Gurney and Bird on the other).  The drawback is that the concentration of the top bowlers in the First Division (Brooks and Willey were lured from Northamptonshire, Broad and Gurney from Leicestershire) threatens to leave the Second Division as an environment stripped of its apex predators, in which some fairly unfit-to-survive batsmen can graze and thrive.

Wednesday at Wantage Road was, I suppose, in the wider scheme of things, a nothing match between two nothing-in-particular teams.  Derbyshire have been de-fanged by the loss of Footitt to Surrey (their opening bowlers were those old partners-in-crime Fletcher and Carter, last seen at Radlett https://newcrimsonrambler.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/304/) . Northants’ bowling, with Ollie Stone sidelined, might as well have left its dentures in a glass at the side of the bed.  The first three days had seen a glut of runs, elongated by rain, and the chances of a result were slim or none when I arrived, but so too – oh the relief! – were the chances of bad weather.

Slim left town shortly after lunch, by which time Derbyshire had reached 100 for no wicket and – armed with a copy of Alan Gibson’s ‘Growing Up With Cricket’, which I had found in the Supporters’ Club bookshop, and a delicious vanilla cone from that Queen of its Species, the Gallone’s ice-cream van

Note gardener’s thumbnail

I settled down, high in the new stands on the Eastern side, far from the action but catching most of the warmth and light, to bask like a sand lizard, secure in the knowledge that the players wouldn’t be allowed to come off the pitch until 5.00.

Shortly before tea, when both openers (Chesney Hughes and Billy Godleman) were making stately progress towards their centuries, all Hell broke loose (or as much Hell as about a hundred elderly people can raise).  I hadn’t caught what had happened (I may have been absorbed in my book, I might have dozed off), so I asked my nearest neighbours (about ten yards away) what all the fuss was about, but they hadn’t seen it either.  Eventually it transpired that Jake Libby (on loan from Nottinghamshire) had claimed a catch on the boundary, but the batsman (Godleman) was doubting his word and refusing to go.

In a televised match the incident would have replayed and analysed endlessly and inconclusively, in an Ashes Test it would have led to a week-long Twitter war between pro- and anti- Spirit of Cricket factions.  As there were no cameras here, and the Umpires seemed to feel unqualified  to make a decision without their assistance, it led to a ten minute argument out in the middle, to the accompaniment of slow handclapping and cries of “disgraceful” from those in the crowd who had been nearer to the incident than they had.

In the event, the Spirit of Cricket was to have her revenge on Godleman.  On 94, with time running out, he looked to reach his 100 by aiming a majestic heave at one of the aggrieved Libby’s strictly occasional off-spinners, but succeeded only in wrecking his own wicket.  He returned to the pavilion to the accompaniment of what the official web site politely described as “catcalls“.

At ten to five, as I was making my way to the exit, the final sign that the Muse of Comedy had taken over came with the solemn announcement that Josh Cobb would be taking over the gloves from Ben Duckett*.  Duckett would be bowling.  Chesney Hughes (who had already reached his hundred) prodded forward respectfully to his second delivery, the ball spiralled gently into the lap of first slip, who juggled and dropped it like an electric eel, at which point they shook hands (grudgingly) and called it a day.

“Proper cricket” be damned.  I haven’t had so much fun in ages.

*(I maligned Duckett in an earlier post by describing him as a “rotten wicket-keeper”, by the way.  He ‘kept very well in this match.)