No Fun

Leicestershire (316-9) v Nottinghamshire (409-7), Grace Road, 23rd May (Leicestershire lost by 93 runs)

Leicestershire (293-9) v Yorkshire (295-1), Grace Road, 27th May (Leicestershire lost by 9 wickets)

Leicestershire (172) v Lancashire (174-1), Oakham School, 31st May (Leicestershire lost by 9 wickets)

All in the Royal London One-day Cup

Leicestershire’s official Twitter feed summarised the game against Yorkshire as follows : ‘A crowd approaching 3,000 enjoyed an entertaining day’s cricket at our Family Funday, but unfortunately Leicestershire Foxes lost by nine wickets to Yorkshire Vikings‘, which epitomises much of life under the current regime at Grace Road – something close to a triumph off the field, but, too often, closer to that other imposter on it.

Anyone attending the game might have been forgiven for assuming that they had been projected into the future and were attending a game in the ‘Hundred’ (as envisaged by the ECB) : at a rough estimate, three-quarters of that crowd were families with young children. Apart from the cricket, attractions included ‘arts & crafts, the Red Monkey Play area, and a guest appearance from some snakes and frogs at the Animal Experience’. During the interval the crowd was allowed onto the pitch, and supplied with the orange plastic bats and luminous tennis balls of the All Stars experience. There were free ice-creams for the children and a mobile gin bar (not free) for the ‘Mums’. You could, if you wished, have your photograph taken with Charlie Fox, or a furry yellow star waving an orange plastic bat. Leicestershire are very good at this kind of thing these days, and you would have had to be very churlish not to have had the promised fun (the endless childish prattle did start to get on my nerves after a while, but then the Test finished early and I stopped listening to TMS)*.

No-one’s fun seemed to be spoiled by the complexity of the scoring system, or the length of the day : I doubt whether many of the crowd were paying much attention to the score, and they simply went home when they had had enough (at that point in the day, familiar to parents of young children, when laughter seems likely to turn to tears). If you had never seen a cricket match before, the thought might well have been ‘O brave new world, that has such people in’t!’. Unfortunately, if, like me, you have seen an awful lot of 50-over games, it is difficult not to respond with a weary ‘’Tis new to thee’.

There are not, in truth, many possible narrative variations in a 50-over game, and all three of these fell into the too-large category where the outcome is predictable after the first ten overs of the first innings, and almost certain after the first ten overs of the second. Nottinghamshire, who batted first, were 69-0 at the end of the first power play, and went on to make 409-7 (Nash, Wessels and Moores all made fifties and Samit Patel a hundred). This was the largest 50-over total ever made at Grace Road and should have felt extraordinary, but, in fact, felt entirely routine. The pitch was flat, and it did not require too much effort for the batsmen to deflect the efforts of the faster bowlers through and over the field to the boundary.

By the end of 10 overs, Leicestershire, in reply, had made 59, but had, crucially, lost three wickets. Last year, they achieved a measure of success in this competition by opening with Cameron Delport and Mark Pettini. This year, with Delport in attendance (but not playing) at the IPL, and Pettini mysteriously out of favour, they opened with their regular 4-day pair of Carberry and Horton (who had not appeared at all in white ball cricket last year). Carberry, ill-cast, these days, in the role he was asked to play, attempted to drive his third ball from Jake Ball back over the bowler’s head, but succeeded only in deflecting the ball onto his stumps.

In the third over Ackermann gamely attempted some kind of lofted drive off Ball (in an eccentric one-legged posture that made him look like he was posing for the statue of ‘Eros’ in Picadilly Circus), but achieved more vertical than lateral movement and was caught. With Cosgrove gone too in the seventh over, any attempt to overhaul the total was abandoned, and, rather than risk a truly abject capitulation, Leicestershire concentrated on playing positively, but circumspectly (even Tom Wells only hit one six in his 69), to achieve the eminently respectable, but entirely inadequate, score of 316-9.

Although there were some impressive individual performances, it is fair to say that the day was lacking in dramatic tension. Between them, the two sides made 725 runs over the course of a day : against Glamorgan in the Championship, the three days and four innings yielded had yielded only 853. Wessels’ 74 off 44 balls was almost as fast as de Lange’s 90 off 45, but, given the context, both the game and the innings were about a tenth as interesting.

Given that it was being played on a weekday, the crowd was largely composed of the usual County regulars, though there were three separate contingents of schoolchildren, who had, presumably, been given free tickets (leading to the curious effect known as ‘Women’s World Cup Syndrome’, whereby a large proportion of the crowd vanishes at 3.00). At one point, the group nearest me were given the option of going off to play cricket, instead of watching. They all chose to play, with the exception of a few girls who seemed very attached to their teacher, and a studious looking boy in an authentic cricket cap, who alternated a close scrutiny of the action with a study of his ‘phone. This, I thought, is the cricket-watcher of the future, if the ECB doesn’t find some way to discourage him in the meantime.

In between the Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire games, Michael Carberry was ‘relieved’ of the Captaincy. As I suggested in my pre-season preview, I was surprised that he had been offered the Captaincy at all, and particularly that he had been appointed before a new coach had been found. Although he appeared, at the start of the season, to be making a great effort at active captaincy, he seemed to have lost control against Glamorgan and, as I said, looked in a terrible state as he left the pitch (it cannot help that various rival claimants – Eckersley, Cosgrove, Horton and Ackermann – tend to congregate behind the stumps). Although sacking him this early in the season may appear brutal, I suspect ‘relieved’ may be the operative word. He is officially expected to return as a batsman, but I have my doubts.

The Yorkshire game was a mirror image of the previous one. Leicestershire batted first and were 39-3 by the ninth over. Cosgrove, Eckersley and Dexter all made well-crafted, but conventional, fifties (they tend to play in a more unbuttoned way in white ball cricket, but only in the sense of wearing open-necked shirts with their suits), to achieve another respectable total (293-9). With no particular incentive to hurry, Yorkshire had passed that total, for the loss of a single wicket, in the 46th over.

I suppose it is a sign of the levelling effect of this type of cricket (and a very flat pitch and some moderate bowling) that Lyth (a player who, by general consent, was found out at Test level), Pujara (a Test batsman of some quality) and Kohler-Cadmore (one of the, I suspect, very large number of players who would not look out of place in Test cricket, without quite convincing), all appeared equally at ease. It is a good job that there was so much fun available off the pitch, because there wasn’t a lot to be had on it.

The fixture at Oakham School should have been another, perhaps more adult, kind of fun. Leicestershire last played there ten years ago, but I remember it as a regular fixture in the calendar. My memories of it include Stuart Broad, making his debut against Somerset, not long after leaving the school, and already a kind of minor princeling, attended by a retinue of pashmina-ed girls, and boys with the collars of their polo shirts turned up (for such, readers, were the fashions of the time). I also remember sheltering from the rain in an old-fashioned beer tent, which has been supplanted by the now traditional prosecco wagon, and some pop-up tents of the kind that people buy in Millets when they are going to music festivals. They also have a new pavilion, that would not look out of place at a County ground.

Although there was a reasonable crowd, and the odd floaty dress, some of the more exotic creatures may have been deterred by the weather forecast, which was for thunderstorms in the early afternoon. At the start of play, the atmosphere was heavy, vaguely sulphurous and clearly conducive to seam. Inevitably, Leicestershire were asked to bat and inevitably (you can probably complete this sentence for yourself), they had lost both openers for five runs by the third over. This time, even the middle order failed to consolidate (though the mercifully predictable Cosgrove managed another fifty), and the innings took a full 49 overs to creep to 172.

The damage had been done not, as you might expect in the conditions, by Lancashire’s international seamers, Onions and Mennie, but by the spin of Stephen Parry and Matt Parkinson, both of whom bowled their ten overs for 30 runs apiece, Parry taking two wickets and Parkinson four. The first time I saw this Parkinson twin bowl, for the 2nd XI at Desborough last year, he took 9 Leicestershire wickets in an innings and (I believe) 14 in the match. It is, perhaps, understandable that the 2nd XI, who rarely encounter leg-spin, had no idea how to play him, but he seemed to have the same effect on our competent and experienced middle order. Ackermann failed to pick his googly and was bowled, Dexter was induced to tap his third delivery to mid-off, and even the wily Cosgrove was lured out of his crease and stumped. Given the tendency of talented young English spinners to die like lice in a Russian’s beard (or turn into batsmen), I am hesitant to predict too bright a future for him, but if England cannot find any use for his talent, it will be a terrible waste.

Perhaps not overestimating the threat posed by the Leicestershire bowling, Lancashire opened with Haseeb Hameed, who has recently been recuperating in the 2nd XI. He groped his way gingerly to a half-century, like a man feeling his way downstairs in the middle of the night, but, having lost his opening partner with the score on 42, he was joined by Liam Livingstone, who took a little over an hour to finish the game. To begin with, it seemed as though Livingstone, who might have a part-share in the prosecco wagon, was artificially prolonging the afternoon, treating Aaron Varon with respect, and, at one point, narrowly avoiding playing on with a half-arsed ramp shot, but it was only a matter of how soon he would choose to finish it and, when he chose to accelerate, the end came quickly, the only question being whether he could hit the ball out of the ground so frequently without damaging any venerable architecture. His unbeaten 90 contained six fours and seven sixes, and the total was overhauled in the 25th over, half the time it had taken Leicestershire.

It would be an understatement to say that Leicestershire’s 50-over campaign has been a dispiriting disappointment, particularly after reaching the quarter-finals last year. Among our misadventures away from home, we have made our highest ever 50-over score, but then failed to defend it, and suffered a third successive 9 wicket defeat to Warwickshire, whom we had memorably beaten last year. In every match against First Division opposition, we were, in truth, outclassed.

As I think I might have mentioned, one glaring problem was losing early wickets. Our success last year was largely built on aggressive opening partnerships by Pettini and Delport : this year, Delport’s presence in a non-playing role at the IPL meant that he had not played a competitive game since February (in Dubai), and his impact, when he joined the side for the last four games, was minimal. Why Pettini was not chosen I struggle to understand : he appears to be persona non grata at the club, but, if he is not going to play in white ball cricket, there seems little point in keeping him on the payroll.

Another difference is that Clint McKay has been replaced as our overseas bowler by Varun Aaron. McKay might have lost the ability to take wickets, but he was rarely uneconomical. Aaron, who was, of course, our third choice, is not well-suited to this type of cricket, though it should be remembered that his bowling played a significant part in the victory over Glamorgan. In case you are wondering what has happened to Zak Chappell, by the way, he has made a couple of guest appearances, but missed most of the tournament having (according to George Dobell) strained his shoulder picking up some heavy shopping for his Mother, which, I’m sure, says something complimentary about his moral character.

There is still one match to go in this competition, which, as it is against Durham, may offer some hope of a consolation victory, and some redemption for the snafu against them in the Championship. After that, the Championship makes a brief return, with a game at Wantage Road, which ought to be an opportunity to prevent the season coming completely off the rails : Northants, who have been riding their luck for a while now, have been struggling badly this year. If Carberry fails to reappear, Harry Dearden has recovered from injury unexpectedly early, and should be available to open with Horton, and, more significantly, Mohammad Abbas, with his reputation now much enhanced, is expected to return in place of Aaron. Lose that game and, I am afraid, the rest of the season could turn out to a whole load of no fun for all concerned.

*A little unfair – it was one of their better episodes.

 

 

 

 

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Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings

Leicestershire v Nottinghamshire (5-6 April 2018), Yorkshire (9-10 April 2018), Loughborough MCCU (13-15 April 2018)

Ideally, the start of the English cricket season resembles some shy woodland creature, emerging from its burrow after its long Winter hibernation to sniff the soft air of Spring. Too often, though, it sneaks out unobserved, like a rat from its hole.

Like the Renaissance, it can be hard to define quite when and where the English season started. The earliest first-class fixture, between the Champion County and the MCC, was on the 27th March, but, as that was played in Barbados, it can only in the most technical of senses be said to be part of the English season. The first first-class fixtures on English soil, a wave of University matches, were scheduled to be on 1st April and the first round of County Championship games took take place on 13th April. On the other hand, some hardy souls have brought back reports from non first-class University matches at Loughborough in March, when the snows had barely melted.

I had to start it somewhere, and so I started it, predictably, at Grace Road, where Leicestershire were playing a pre-season friendly against Nottinghamshire. A brief stroll around the ground revealed that the only new addition to it over the Winter was this apparently comically unstable structure, which I shall, no doubt, find some metaphorical use for, as the season progresses.

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These friendlies are not ‘real games’ and, in the sense that the scores leave no statistical trace, I suppose they might as well not have taken place at all. As the aim is to give as many players as possible some practice, it can be hard to keep track of who is playing at any given time, and player-recognition was made more difficult by many of Leicestershire’s players wearing someone else’s kit : the departed Jason Burke and Angus Robson’s sweaters made appearances, as did Rob Sayers’ sweater and shirt (which, I’m afraid, is more than their owner is likely to do this season).

To compound the sense of unreality, the electronic scoreboard remained blank and its manual partner seemed to have been commandeered by some kind of magic realist (one of the openers began his innings on 300, at one point the score started going backwards). It also seemed unreal that the weather on the first day was warm and sunny : one fine day is about as much as we can generally hope for in the English Summer, and it seemed a cruel trick to have used it up before the season had even started.

I have to say that I missed the first ball to be bowled at Grace Road this season : so keen were the players to get the season underway (a keenness not always to be observed later in the year) that they had begun ahead of schedule, at 10.30. Nottinghamshire batted first and had reached 394-6 by the close of play, a score which I think might convey to their supporters a slightly over-optimistic impression of their batting strength.

Most of the bowlers, on both sides, seemed, at this stage of season, to be in that state most of us are in before we have had our first coffee (or gin, or whatever) of the morning, and a few looked as if they had not yet managed to locate their glasses : some bowled entire spells of looseners. Leicestershire used nine bowlers in all : Klein, Raine, Chappell, Griffiths, Dexter, Ateeq Javid and Parkinson from the named 12, with a few overs from newcomers Tom Taylor and Ben Mike, a young Academy player.

Chappell seemed concerned about his footholds (there was a lot of sawdust about, though not from any underhand use of sandpaper), understandably so, given that he has spent most of his first three seasons on the sidelines with various leg and back ailments. In his first spell, he was characteristically expensive (though not reassuringly so, like Stella Artois) ; his second was more controlled and he reminded me a little of (Chris, not Maurice) Tremlett .

Our most threatening bowlers were Callum Parkinson and Gavin Griffiths. I had rather unkindly put Griffiths down for some ‘donkey-work‘ this season, but in all these games he hinted at more thoroughbred qualities, having put on at least a few inches of pace, and might be preferred to Klein (or even Chappell) when the season proper begins.  Parkinson, too, seems to have acquired guile beyond his years, and may prove to be a higher class of bowler than I had suspected.

All the Nottinghamshire batsmen made some kind of start, their leading run-makers being the oldish faithful Mullaney (85), and Billy Root, who retired on 81. As one who watches a lot of 2nd XI cricket, Root seems to have been around for a long time, with various counties (including Leicestershire), but he has not yet, at the age of 25, established himself in the Nottinghamshire 1st XI. He does not seek to compete with his brother in terms of style (he is one of those whose bat makes a hollow clonking sound), but he hits the ball hard and would, in normal circumstances, have deserved his century.

My first impression of Carberry as Captain was that he is more active and cerebral than his predecessor : Cosgrove was generally content to plant himself in the slips and offer verbal encouragement, whereas Carberry has a liking for avant-garde field placings (particularly when Parkinson was bowling), insisting on having everyone standing just so before an over could begin, like a fussy wedding photographer.

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He seemed to have less of a liking for the old school position third man, with the result that two of Chappell’s first three deliveries were tipped over the slips for four. Given how many analysis-ruining runs he leaks in this fashion, I think, if I were Chappell, I should request one.

Those of you who read my last piece may remember that I had misgivings about Carberry’s appointment, but his performance on the second day, when Leicestershire batted, went some way towards allaying my anxieties. Having the air of a man working hard to make a good impression, he conscientiously avoided the more hazardous balls and, taking full advantage of one child-sized boundary, made 52, putting on an opening stand of 50 with Paul Horton, of which Carberry made 29 and his partner 8 (the other 13 being generously donated in extras by, mostly by Mark Footitt).

Footitt looked heavier than I remember him at Derbyshire (perhaps he has given up smoking), and Ball and Fletcher seemed vaguely somnambulistic, like giants newly woken after a long sleep. Harry Gurney (who bowls in a similar style to Footitt) looked positively lively by comparison, and Luke Wood’s run-up continues to be a thing of beauty.

Horton and Dexter (batting at no. 3, which I’m not sure is the best place for him) had predeceased their Captain, when, shortly after lunch, he was rather unluckily given out LBW to Samit Patel (as I was sheltering in the Meet I could not judge the line, but he was a very long way down the pitch). Mark Cosgrove (the only batsman with nothing to prove) played a couple of twinkle-toed cover drives before sensibly taking refuge in the pavilion (the second day was reasonably fine, but the wind was bitter).

In the afternoon, I had to choose between being too far from the action to have a clear view of what was going on and freezing. I did my duty for as long as I could, but eventually retreated to a sheltered nook, from which I could observe two bearded and muffled figures (one masquerading as Rob Sayer) put on a century stand. I have to take it on trust that they were Ned Eckersley and Lewis Hill. Although Nottinghamshire were, by now, giving their second string bowlers a go with the ball, Hill, who made 82, should have made sure of his place in the side for the opening game alongside, or even instead of, Eckersley (they had earlier shared the wicket-keeping gloves).

Once they had reached their century, they were both recalled to the pavilion (I am not sure why Hill is searching so urgently inside his box, but it might have had something to do with the cold)

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to allow the bowlers some ‘time in the middle’.  Zak Chappell was promptly run out without scoring, swiftly followed by Raine and Klein : depending on how you interpret the retirements, this meant that we had lost five wickets for no runs in about ten minutes, at which point, developing a creeping sense of deja vu to go with the hypothermia, I called it a day. In my absence, the last pair, Ateeq Javid and Callum Parkinson (who bagged a 50 to add to his impressive bowling) put on a partnership of 85, though whether this had something to do with the Nottinghamshire bowlers needing more practice I cannot say.

The second friendly, against Yorkshire, was arranged at short notice at their request. Even given the depradations of England and the lure of the white ball, Yorkshire have a strong line-up on paper, but on paper is where they have so far had to remain, owing, I believe to the inadequacy of the drains in Leeds. In the event, only 60 overs of play were possible, or, given the state of the weather, desirable. The idea was that each side would bat for 50 overs on the first day, but this was not 50-over cricket as we generally know it. Leicestershire batted and made 139-8, with Yorkshire making 38 for no wicket before the rain offered a merciful release. Although not too much can be deduced from that total (tail-enders were moved up the order to give them some practice), the struggles of our top order brought back some more unwelcome memories.

It was, perhaps, as well for Yorkshire that the game did not proceed further. David Willey, who was named on the scoresheet, had absconded to the IPL shortly before the game began (to join Plunkett) and Matthew Fisher pulled up with a strain after a couple of overs (joining Coad on the sick list). Most counties would be pleased to be ‘reduced’ to Brooks, Bresnan, Patterson and Shaw as a pace quartet (though none of them are quite in their prime) ; they may have proved too good for Leicestershire, but any further reductions might leave them struggling.

I was not entirely sorry to have an excuse for an afternoon off, but it did mean that I didn’t get to see much of Alex Lees. When I saw him bat in 2014 (particularly for the Lions against Australia) he had greatly impressed me (and many others) : his – at times – drastic loss of form since then, at a time when there is an obvious vacancy for an opener in the England team, has puzzled me. What struck me, from my brief sight of him, is that, whereas, in the past, everything about his stance has been exaggeratedly upright and straight-lined (I once described him as batting inside an invisible sentry box), he has now adopted a strangely slanted, crouching posture at the crease. Whether that is a cause of his decline, or (as I suspect) an attempt to halt it, I am unsure.

The final warm-up game, against Loughborough MCCU, occupied, to the use the fashionable term, a kind of ‘liminal space’ between the unreal world of the friendlies and the real world of the season proper. It was played according to the usual rules, with eleven a side, and Leicestershire wore their own kit. On the other hand, for reasons that elude me, it did not have First Class status, and so the scores made will vanish as if they had never been (and the electronic scoreboard was still not working). Intended to be a three day game, it was halved by rain.

The side picked saw the bright butterfly of the Leicestershire 1st XI first emergence from its chrysalis. As I had predicted (as anyone would have predicted, really) on the basis of the friendlies, Griffiths and Parkinson were selected , with Chappell relegated to Twelfth Man to make way for the debut of Mohammad Abbas. In a reversal of last season’s roles, Eckersley kept wicket, with Lewis Hill playing as a specialist batsman.

The first danger to be avoided was of our bright butterfly flying straight into some flypaper (you may remember that last season’s fixture against Loughborough led to us starting the season with a 16 point deduction). We did not start well, losing our first four wickets for 16 runs (Horton, Eckersley, Ackermann and Carberry all being dismissed for the addition of a single). In fairness, there was some life in the pitch and the bowlers (Sanders of Lancashire and Pereira of Surrey), but lively pitches and bowlers are what top order batsmen are paid to deal with, and I could sense the uncomfortable frisson of collapses past running around the ground.

As predictably as Spring follows Winter (eventually), the collapse was followed by a near-century by Cosgrove (91), with some useful support from Hill (36), Dexter (66*) and Raine (50*). Though he rather threw his wicket away, Hill continued to impress as a batsman, and Dexter looks much happier at six than three. The trouble with that is that Eckersley, who had been promoted to three and was out shouldering arms first ball, also looks happier further down the order. Unless Cosgrove or Ackermann fancy doing it (which they, presumably, do not), the position could present a problem.

When it was their turn to bat, the students showed that they had learned from the professionals by losing their first four wickets (including that of Leicestershire’s Sam Evans) for 17 runs. Our butterfly now fluttered perilously close to the flypaper as Hasan Azad, the adhesive opener who, last year, had survived the alleged assassination attempt by Charlie Shreck, shored up the innings with Adam Tillcock. A couple of histrionic displays of frustration at umpiring decisions from Ben Raine, a lot of unseemly merriment when one of the batsmen sustained a painful blow in the box, and an unnecessarily high level of background chirruping might have been enough to get Steve O’Shaughnessy reaching for his notebook.

Happily, the noise seemed to subside after lunch (perhaps Nick Cook, a sensible Umpire, had had a quiet word). Tillcock had been bowled by Mohammad Abbas shortly before the interval, and, after it, Griffiths and Parkinson (it was those men again), assisted by some intelligent field placings by Carberry, averted the danger of further embarrassment by removing the pesky opener and the remaining batsmen for 155. With no possibility of a result, Carberry seemed keen for some more batting practice, but the rain had other ideas.

Mohammad Abbas seemed to enjoy his first taste of early season English conditions

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or, at least, did not hurry  to catch the first ‘plane back to Pakistan. At first sight he did not look devastatingly quick, or a vast swinger of the ball, but he clean bowled two batsmen and did nothing to spoil the expectation that he should be a consistent wicket-taker (when he is available).

While this match was going on, reports were coming in of some ridiculous (in the ordinary sense, not the specialised sense in which modern cricketers tend to use it) scores in the first round of Championship games (for one, Nottinghamshire’s bowlers, other than Footitt, had obviously woken up). These may have helped to put some of the low-scoring at Grace Road into context, but the impression remains that our bowling currently inspires more confidence than our batting. If the sun which has emerged as I write has not burnt the moisture out of the pitch, our first fixture against Sussex may be a short one.

By the way, the crowd on the first, fine, day of our pseudo-season had been surprisingly large for an unreal game, and even on the other days, inhospitable to man and beast as they were, there had been more than the proverbial one man and a dog, though I was pleased to see that they had made an appearance anyway.

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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