England’s Fitful Dozing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Time to Join the Real World”?

England v Pakistan, Women’s Limited Overs International, Grace Road, 19-20 June 2016

 

Welcome to the Real World!

Welcome to the Real World!

This was the fourth day of women’s international cricket that I have seen in the last ten years : in that time I’ve seen two days of the international men’s game.  I wouldn’t say that I prefer women’s cricket (their games were played locally, and were affordable), but there are aspects of it that I do prefer : it makes a pleasant change, for instance, to see batting that is based on technique, rather than the cult of upper-body strength, and a relief not to have to endure too much of the monotonous thud of leather on  upper-tier seating.

More importantly, the women’s game has, until now, avoided the significance-bloat that blights most elite professional sport : the hype, the hysteria, the Twitter-storms, the vicariously enjoyed psychodramas, the angst.  It was small-scale, proportionate and communicated that sense of fun that sport can provide for those who play it as a diversion from the anxieties of daily life.  In short, it revived the best of that unfashionable phantom, the amateur spirit.

Now, however, we are led to believe, all that has changed.  The England side are full-time professionals.  The ECB has invested large sums in the women’s game, and it will expect some return on its investment. At the recreational level, the women’s game is thriving where male cricket is wavering, helped by the very considerable cash inducements made available to clubs who promote women’s cricket.  Sky are (I’m told) increasing their coverage and the BBC sometimes manages to convey the impression that cricket is, in this country, a game played principally by women.

England have a new coach (the old Northants seamer and rabbit, Mark Robinson) who has decided that the England team “aren’t fit enough” and need to “toughen up“.  We have had a grim “presser” (dread word!), where tough-talking boss Robinson rapped ashen-faced Captain Charlotte Edwards before “axing” her, thus earning himself, apparently some “abuse on social media“.  Wicket-keeper Sarah Taylor has now followed Jonathan Trott and others by taking some time out from cricket, due to “anxiety issues” and Lydia Greenaway has also chosen to bow out gracefully before her time.

So, what of the future? Having described the past of the women’s game as “cosy” and the era of culottes as “twee” (two cardinal sins), Mike Selvey (in the Guardian) went on to say:

“More miles into legs; better beep-test scores demanded; dietary programmes alongside strength and conditioning. He will drive them hard and cast the net wider. Some will go but that goes with the territory of being a modern, professional cricketer. It is time to join the real world.”

This week’s game at Grace Rd. (the first of this season’s limited over internationals) offered an early opportunity to test how this migration to the “real world” of professional sport is progressing : rather neatly, as no play was possible on the Monday, and the game was played on the reserve day, the first day represented the hype, and the second the reality.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt quite as out of place at Grace Road as I did on Monday, chiefly because it was filled, for the most part, with parties of schoolgirls : it was rather like being at a Taylor Swift gig, except that I don’t suppose you would find Jackie Birkenshaw having his lunch at one of those.  The Loughborough Lightning (the new women’s T20 franchise) were there, as were numerous people of uncertain purpose with Waitrose written all over them (Waitrose also had a stall where you could make your own fruit smoothie)

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As with any event involving England, the ECB were out in force, in the shape of an army of young men in chinos with lanyards round their necks, as were Sky, the BBC and the press (not always easy to tell from the ECB).  Laura Wright (“the sporting soprano“) gave us her sweet-toned rendition of “Jerusalem” and a number she had written especially for the England women called “Heroes” (not, unfortunately, the old Bowie tune with new words).

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There was a big screen and a DJ who seemed to have brought a “Now That’s What I Call Music” from 2006 (roughly when most of the crowd were born) and, disconcertingly, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (and if you had told me, at the time of that tune’s release, that I would one day hear it played over the Tannoy at Grace Road, while a crocodile of Muslim schoolgirls filed into the Multi-faith Prayer Room, I would have suggested that it was time to lay off the old jazz woodbines for a bit).

There was all of that, a whole brave new world, but, unfortunately there wasn’t any cricket.  In a sign, I suppose, that they are attracting a new audience, many in the crowd seemed genuinely surprised that the match was called off after a second inspection at 5.00 (the game was meant to be a day-night affair, ending well after most in the crowd’s bedtime), but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the next day had been set aside as that old-fashioned thing, a reserve day.

By Tuesday the schoolgirls were gone, the lanyard-men, the big screen, the music, the sporting soprano and most of the cameras had gone too, but there was a full day’s play.  If the previous day had something of a Gulliver-in-Lilliput quality for me, it lingered on into the second day.  Grace Road has a huge playing area, and the boundaries had been brought in so far that, from some vantage points, you needed binoculars to see as far as the rope, let alone the players:

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Most of the Pakistan team, too, seemed exceptionally small, roughly the size of an Under-14 boys’ team,

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and I’m afraid they played at roughly that level too, whereas England resembled an exceptionally talented County Academy side.  If Geoffrey Boycott had been watching, no doubt he would have said “It’s women against girls out there“.

I might have expected Pakistan (who batted first) to be most troubled by the opening bowlers Anya Shrubsole and “Barnsley Bombshell” Katherine Blunt, who are fast by women’s standards, but they coped with them well enough, mostly by means of some textbook forward defensive shots, though there were also some decent straight drives and some more agricultural shovelling, mostly from opener Sidra Ameen, who finished on 52 out of a total of 165.

In fact, the damage was mostly done by the slow, looping off-breaks of new Captain Heather Knight.  Her figures of 5-26 flatter her slightly (the last two came when tail-enders tried to give her whatever the Urdu is for “some tap” and succeeded only in looping some fairly gentle catches to fielders about half way from that Lilliputian boundary) ;  it might, though, be some indication of a new spirit in the England camp that she had shrewdly deviated from the plan to bowl Shrubsole at the death and had reintroduced herself.

If women’s cricket were subject to the same level of scrutiny as male Test cricket we would still be hearing about the first ball of England’s reply.  New opener Lauren Whitfield edged a ball to slip, where Nain Abidi claimed a catch.  Whitfield walked off, but stopped half way when Kathy Brunt, supported by her colleagues from the England balcony, very audibly shouted “Go back! She’s dropped it and picked it up!”. 

Whitfield turned on her heel and walked back to the crease, where the huddling Pakistanis gave her some Hard Stares and a display of double-teapotting.  Presumably acting on advice from the Umpires, she moped off again, with the demeanour of Daddles the Duck, in the face of continuing contrary advice from the balcony.  Substitute Hales and Anderson for Whitfield and Brunt in this scenario in the next Lord’s Test against Pakistan, and imagine the reaction.

After that brief setback, Tammy Beaumont and Heather Knight had little difficulty in overhauling Pakistan’s total, against some innocuous bowling.  Pakistan have overcome many obstacles to be here at all, and should be congratulated for that, but I’d be wary of hailing any kind of “new era” on the basis of a performance against such a weak side.

Tammy Beaumont (who is clearly very talented) has been playing for Hinckley in the Leicestershire Premier League this season.  When she played against my club I happened to be sitting near the boundary where she was fielding and she asked me whether I had come to watch my son play.  At the time I was a little miffed that she hadn’t assumed I was our much-feared strike bowler sidelined with a niggle, but I now realise that she is used to playing, even for England, to a crowd that is largely composed of the players’ friends and family (you can work out whose families is whose by the cheering whenever they touch the ball in the field).

Apart from that, the crowd (which might have reached 200) was made up of a smattering of the regulars and other connoisseurs, a few parties from women’s clubs, pairs of what looked like retired games mistresses and a few of those amiable eccentrics who always attach themselves to cricket.  (This pair, for instance, seemed to be a kind of two-woman Rainbow Alliance, and made a point of beerily embracing the most visibly Muslim of the visiting support in a heartening display of inter-community solidarity)

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I have no doubt that many of the girls who were there on the first day will have formed the impression that cricket is a game that they can and should be playing (even if they didn’t get to see the game played) and that women’s cricket will continue to thrive as a recreational sport (provided the ECB don’t switch off the money supply).  It is not too far-fetched to suggest that cricket might even, one day, become a game principally played by women.

I shall continue to watch it when I get the chance, but I have to say that what I appreciated most about this game was much the same small-scale and even (whisper who dares) amateur quality that I first enjoyed ten years ago.  Whether it has a future as a mass spectator sport at a time when cricket is increasingly marketed on the basis of naked aggression and brute force (a quality that, barring some serious funny business in the chemistry department, is always likely to be in short supply) is questionable.  I wonder, too, whether all of the players, even, are entirely convinced by the idea that playing with bats and balls should make up a mature human being’s “real world“, rather than an escape from it?

(Though I suppose there are the sponsored cars to take into account …)

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