Chewed-up Balls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This proved to be prophetic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Darkness Visible

Leicestershire (120 & 168) v Derbyshire (139 & 214), Grace Road, County Championship, 27-30 May 2019

Derbyshire won by 65 runs

If a marketing department, charged with devising a new cricket-flavoured product that would appeal to a wider audience, were asked to describe the antithesis of what they were after, this match would have had most of the essential elements. A four day game that would have been over in three, had it not been stretched by frequent breaks for rain, played mostly under lights because of low-lying cloud ; one fifty, and only three other innings of over forty (all compiled methodically by the same two batsmen) ; only one total of over 200 ; no sixes – a scorecard from a past era.  So, I should have enjoyed it.

I would have enjoyed it more had Leicestershire ever seemed likely to approach close enough to their fourth innings target of 234 to provide some element of dramatic tension (or ‘jeopardy’, as the moderns have it) ; instead, they fell short by 65 runs, leaving me to thumb through the thesaurus in search of synonyms for ‘weary sense of inevitability’, and look for something else to do, with what, frustratingly, was a perfect afternoon for cricket, after three days of darkness and showers.

Leicestershire spirits were at their highest, perhaps, at the end of Derbyshire’s first innings ; having chosen to bat, the visitors were bowled out for 139, which seemed, at the time, to be a testament to the (undeniable) strength of our seam bowling. By the end of the day, with Leicestershire on 55-4, and Ackermann already dismissed, it seemed more a tribute to the inability of batsmen on both sides to cope with some good, but not truly outstanding, fast-medium seam bowling in what were helpful, but not unusual, conditions for England in May. It would be a low-scoring game.

When play resumed the next day, there was some hope that Leicestershire might achieve a first innings lead, but only if Hassan Azad and Harry Dearden could stay in. The ability to stay in has, until recently, been Dearden’s most obvious talent, but on this occasion it deserted him with the score on 82 (perhaps he should now be classed as a ‘one-day specialist’). With Tom Taylor missing through injury, and Dieter Klein (a hit or miss batsman) unusually high in the order at eight, this exposed a last five who managed thirteen runs between them. Hassan Azad, in his fourth Championship match, was forced to play the elder statesman, and must have been tactfully exasperated to be left stranded on 46 not out, having as good as carried his bat. The total was 120.

The bowlers whom Leicestershire had found so hard to play were Antonio ‘Tony’ Palladino (5-29) and Logan van Beek (3-20). Palladino is nearly thirty-six and an archetype of the kind of English seam bowler who is expected to take wickets in the English early season ; although I appreciate that it is easier said than done, you would have thought that anyone with aspirations to play County cricket would have evolved some strategy to play bowlers of his type. Hassan Azad’s seems to have been to listen to all the favourite truisms of junior coaches of the old school – ‘keep your head still’, ‘watch the ball on to the bat’, ‘straight bat’, ‘wait for the bad ball’ … but if I carry on too far down that route I shall find myself saying ‘it’s not rocket science’ (and smoking a pipe).

Another heavy shower (in real time this narrative would have been punctuated by them) after tea prompted me to leave for home : the prospect of play resuming, if it ever did, seemed likely to promise only a few hours in near-drizzle, watching Derbyshire, having been let off the hook, wriggle off to swim to a comfortable lead (they reached 106-2). In fact, as usually happens in these circumstances, Leicestershire offered enough hope to make returning the next day seem worthwhile by taking six quick wickets in a final session that extended well into the early evening (ah, the roller-coaster of emotions!). I would not, though, in all honesty, say that I regretted my decision.

As sure as night follows day, a successful evening session was followed, the next morning, by the Derbyshire tail-enders being allowed to stretch the target for victory from 179 to 234 (Palladino and van Been – those maverick NYC crime-fighters – again being the culprits).

The most memorable aspect of Leicestershire’s reply were two – in the circumstances – culpably unnecessary strokes from Horton and Cosgrove that must have had Hassan Azad, who was again forced to watch helplessly from the other end, averting his eyes to avoid embarrassing his seniors.  In fairness, Horton’s shot seemed marginally more explicable in the replay than it had from the mid-wicket boundary ; from there he had looked to have been bowled trying to smash a straight delivery over long off, missed and been bowled (in fact, it had pitched outside off and he had edged it on to his stumps).

Cosgrove’s looked poor from any angle. He had taken the lead in putting on 58 with Azad, negotiating the seam in a composed and responsible fashion, when Derbyshire invited Wayne Madsen to bowl a few overs of his net-quality off-breaks (four overs of which comprised the only spin of the game). Setting a trap, so ill-disguised that it should not have snared a partially sighted heffalump, Madsen allowed Cosgrove to loft one drive into the sight screen, in the sure and certain hope that he would try to repeat the stroke two balls later and be caught at long on. When precisely this occurred, even Cosgrove did not have the effrontery to perform his usual dumbshow of disbelief, but traipsed off shame-faced, while his young partner took a keen interest in the buckling of his pads. Cosgrove ought to be – and generally is – a better batsman than that.

Even so, and even when Ackermann was bowled by a genuinely fine swinging delivery from the mellifluous Luis Reece, a disinterested observer would still have backed Leicestershire, on 110-4 at the close of play, to overhaul the target of 234 on the final day. Not being disinterested, I would have settled for a couple of sessions in the sun (and, at last, there was sun) watching my side make a valiant attempt at the total, even if they were to fall slightly short. But, in place of hope, there was that ‘weary sense of inevitability’ I mentioned earlier (or perhaps ‘fatigued feeling of inescapability’, by way of variation).

Hassan Azad and Harry Dearden, who again bore the burden of reviving the innings on their youthful shoulders, offered a brief respite from the sense of hopelessness by still occupying the crease at 11.30, but both fell to Reece shortly afterwards (the lifting of the cloud cover did not seem to have inhibited his ability to swing the ball). None of the later batsmen had anything to offer, and the game ground to a halt at 12.30, leaving me time to catch the second half of the 2nd XI game at Kibworth on the way home, so at least I had my afternoon in the sun. Many of the spectators had cut their losses by going straight there.

This game was the first of six Championship games in seven weeks, three of them at home and one at Northampton, before we are thrown out of the T20 window. They find us in the odd position of having two sets of good seam bowlers (Gavin Griffiths, bowling well in the Toose, must be champing on the bit), but very little batting, which is like having two nice shirts, but no trousers.

As I write, we are battling (not unvaliantly, in fairness) to avoid an innings defeat against Lancashire : I see we have abandoned the experiment of opening with Ateeq Javid (I hope he can find some other role), and adopted my pre-season suggestion of substituting Swindells for Hill in four-day cricket. There have been hints of revival from Horton and Cosgrove, and we must hope for a long, hot Indian Summer from both, and the returning Dexter, otherwise, barring some shrewd activity in the loan market, I may find the prospect of not returning to Grace Road until late September (or at all) more of a relief than I would wish.

See you on the other side (probably).

 

 

The Chances were Slender, the Beauties may not be Brief

Leicestershire (381) v Derbyshire (251-8 dec.), Grace Road, County Championship, 27-30 April 2018

Match drawn

There were times, watching this game, when I was forced to contemplate the possibility that I may now be supporting a competitive side, and even that I might have to upgrade that to ‘a successful one’. As a supporter, I am naturally pleased, but as a blogger I am confronted by the problem of what tone to adopt when describing success, if my default setting of low comedy is no longer available. ‘Happiness writes white’ they say, and so, perhaps, does success. If it obvious that we no longer have any interest in a game, my mind is free to wander, sometimes in more scenic directions : if we are still in the chase, I seem to spend most of my time doing mental arithmetic.

The first two and a half days of the match were lost to rain, or – to put it more positively – one and a half days were reclaimed from the rain, with the heroic ingenuity of seventeenth century Dutch engineers reclaiming land from the sea. As late as the third morning, the chances of play seemed slender, and the forecast for the fourth would have caused Noah some anxiety. When it was announced that play would begin at 1.45, I cannot say that my heart sang, but, I reasoned, if they were making the effort, then so should I (I was not quite alone in following this line of thought).

I was impressed by the generally single-minded way in which Leicestershire attempted to make the most of what seemed likely to be a single afternoon’s play to scrape as many bonus points as possible, implying, as it did, that they hope to be in a position at the end of the season where an extra bonus point or two might matter. I’d say there have been times in recent seasons when they would have been more likely to give it up as a bad job and go to the pub.

Football managers of a certain vintage used to be given to questioning how much the big time Charlies and fancy Dans would fancy it on a wet Tuesday night in Stoke, and one might ask the same of Derbyshire’s imported pace bowlers in relation to a cold Sunday afternoon at Grace Road. Neither Rampaul (who cuts a portly figure these days), Viljoen nor Olivier bowled with much real intent, or to any great effect; most of the wickets fell to the euphonious medium pacer Luis Reece, and Will Davis, the only one of their Staffordshire-raised young seamers to survive the Winter cull.

With their minds fixed firmly on the target of 400 in 110 overs to secure a full bag of batting points, Horton, Ackermann and Eckersley all made half-centuries, with Carberry, Dexter and Raine only a few runs short. The last-named should have made 50, had he not succumbed to the only old school pratfall of the match, when he and Dieter Klein found themselves at the same end, and Klein declined to do the decent thing by surrendering his wicket. As Raine is much the better batsman, this allowed the elusive last point to escape Leicestershire’s grasp, finishing on 381.

To everyone’s surprise, but possibly no-one’s unmixed delight, a full day’s play was possible on the Monday. Once Leicestershire’s innings had finished, Raine had the opportunity to exorcise his frustrations by taking two early wickets. With no possibility of losing, I would have expected Derbyshire to set their sights on 300, but perhaps discouraged by their early losses, and hampered by some more dry bowling (particularly from Griffiths), they lowered their sights and crept past the 250 mark before declaring, to deny Leicestershire a final bowling point (a rather spiteful act, and, arguably, contrary to the playing regulations).

For those interested in the progress of young English qualified players, neither Harvey Hosein (a wicket-keeper and batsman of promise) nor Hamidullah Qadri were playing for Derbyshire, but I was impressed by Matthew Critchley, whose leg-breaks were merely economical, but who did much to shore up an innings that was in danger of collapse. He also frustrated Raine enough to induce the bowler to hurl the ball at him, on the pretext of running him out (I do wish Raine (and others) would stop doing this).

In between the two home games came the debacle in Durham, where Leicestershire forced their opponents to follow on, bowled them out twice, but failed to chase a target of 148. I was not there, but strong men who were seemed barely able to relate what they had witnessed, like the remnants of Napoleon’s Grande Armée who had survived the retreat from Moscow.

Leicestershire (191 & 237) v Glamorgan (178 and 247), Grace Road, County Championship, 11-13 May 2018

Leicestershire won (!) by 3 runs

If you would like to see some excellent photographs of this game (much better than anything I could do), kindly provided by Charlie Dryden, please follow this link – https://chasdryden.myportfolio.com/specsavers-cc-lccc-vs-glamorgan-may-11-2018

And so to the Glamorgan game, which Leicestershire won. It may be that having so rarely witnessed a Leicestershire victory in recent years means that doing so has had the same giddying effect on me as a bottle of vintage Champagne on a lifelong teetotaler, but I feel that this is no time for critical detachment. It was one of the best games I have ever seen (and, although I might have felt differently about it, it would have been so even if Leicestershire had lost). Almost every member of the Leicestershire side contributed significantly to the win, and some performances were positively heroic.

It had not begun well. Having chosen to bat, Leicestershire were soon reduced to 9-3, which before too long had become 67-6. Ateeq Javid had at least hung around for over an hour for his 13 and Callum Parkinson had some success with his tail-ender’s aggression (a foretaste of things to come), but it was only a calm and collected 87 from Neil Dexter, who has looked a new man (or his old self) this season, that dispelled the fear that Durham might have broken their spirits. By the close of play, Glamorgan had reached 82-0 in reply to our 191, and expectations were low.

The damage had been done by Glamorgan’s own trio of nationality-fluid seamers, Hogan, van Gugten and de Lange (Lukas Carey, the 19-year old from Pontardullais who had impressed me last year had joined Hosein and Hamidullah in being left on the sidelines). On the evidence of this game they look likely to be Glamorgan’s only real strength this season.

As the second day began, the majority view (based on long experience) was that Glamorgan would knock up at least 400, declare with an hour to go, then take a couple of cheap wickets to leave us facing defeat by Sunday tea-time. In the event, seven wickets had fallen before lunchtime, thanks to some fast, straight bowling by Varun Aaron and Gavin Griffiths, and some characteristic terrier work by Ben Raine. The majority fear, again based on precedent, was that we would allow the tail to wag, but it was swiftly removed, with only some slogging by van der Gugten a cloud on the horizon, no bigger than a man’s hand.

Leicestershire’s first innings lead of 13 was extended by a solid half-century opening partnership (I am so pleased to have the opportunity to type that sentence that I’m tempted to repeat it) and they finished the day on 119-2, with the in-form Ackermann and the reassuring figure of Cosgrove in occupation.

The vagaries of public transport meant that I arrived at Grace Road late on the Sunday and, as so often, I had to do a double take when I saw the scoreboard, which stood at 142-6 (the culprit being Michael Hogan, the vulpine veteran from New South Wales). Another dramatic reversal in fortune, the assumption at Grace Road being always that the last reversal would be in our opponents’ favour. Talk turned to ‘how much will be enough’ For any other club a target of 200 would do, but for us 250 seemed safer, and a long way away.

At the fall of the sixth wicket Ben Raine strode to the wicket (and he really does stride), beard jutting and bat swinging, like Desperate Dan setting out to rescue his Aunt Aggie from some troublesome varmints. Taking his cue from van der Gugten, he swung and swung again, and, with Parkinson as his sidekick, he dragged the score by the scruff of its neck to 250, having contributed 65. 251 to win (surely, surely …).

When Glamorgan batted again, we experienced the disorientating sensation of watching another side’s batting collapse, instead of our own. The opener Murphy and Chris Cooke offered a little resistance, but Raine, who seemed determined to win the match or die in the attempt, removed both. When a batsman is proving obdurate, Raine sometimes gives the impression that he won’t bother to release the ball, but is simply going to keep running and physically manhandle him off the pitch and he came uncomfortably close to doing so literally with Cooke.

139-8, 111 to win and the tail-enders de Lange and van der Gugten at the crease (career averages of 13 and 10 respectively). The only rational question seemed to be whether we could finish the game off that evening or whether it would be worthwhile returning for an hour the next morning to witness a Leicestershire victory (but still that little voice at the back of the mind – Surely? Surely not? Surely this time? Not again?).

The last hour (though it seemed somehow to be both longer and shorter) would have made an excellent case study for a sports psychologist studying the effects of a team not having won for a long time, and having a record of throwing games away from promising positions. De Lange and van der Gugten are big, strong men with good eyes and, crucially, nothing to lose, but a team who are used to winning would have allowed them to have a little fun and hit a boundary or two, but found a way to nip them in the bud before they came too close to the target.

Instead, Leicestershire appeared to freeze. In all, de Lange hit 90 from 45 balls, including 5 fours and 8 sixes. At least two of the sixes went out of the ground, and one ball was lost completely in the car park. A four ricocheted off the base of the sightscreen and smashed a hole in the window of the Umpire’s room. There were two dropped catches and a missed run out, when wicket-keeper Hill somehow failed to connect ball and stumps, with de Lange well out of his ground. It is amazing how quickly you can get from 139 to 251, if you are counting in multiples of six.

At the beginning of the 53rd over, with 75 still required, Carberry threw the ball to Parkinson, the young slow left-armer, who must have wished that he could throw it back again. His first ball to de Lange went for four, the fourth and fifth (a no-ball) for six. Off the last, however, he trapped van der Gugten LBW, which brought Michael Hogan to the crease. Hogan not only looks and bowls like Glen McGrath, but bats like him too. The obvious course would have been to try to keep him on strike and de Lange as far from it as possible, but so frozen did Carberry appear that this did not seem to occur to him, in spite of receiving plenty of advice to that effect from the crowd, and the frantic semaphore signals from his coach on the balcony.

The next over, from Varun Aaron, brought another six from de Lange, a squirted four from Hogan and a scrambled single to bring de Lange on strike for the start of Parkinson’s next over. The first ball went for six, as did the second (a gentle full toss). This brought calls of ‘take him off’ from the crowd, perhaps orchestrated by Parkinson himself. A single followed, then Hogan prodded out the rest of the over. Gavin Griffiths, so potent earlier, but now caught in the collective nightmare, was hit for two fours and a six.

With nine required to win in what looked certain to be the last over, the indomitable Raine seized the ball (perhaps the only man on the field who would have volunteered for the task). Another single from Hogan brought de Lange on strike for the third ball, which went for four. Four to win. The fourth was a low full toss (deliberate, no doubt), which de Lange, for once in the innings, did not quite strike cleanly. It flew high out of my field of vision behind the sightscreen, followed, after an agonising split-second, by Parkinson, who had taken the catch on the boundary, shooting into view towards his team-mates, screaming like a scalded cat.

As it was a day for superlatives, I don’t think that I have ever seen a side as affected by a result as Leicestershire were by this one. Carberry looked in a terrible state, and some of the younger players seemed on the verge of tears. We supporters were elated, of course, but at least most of us have been around for long enough to have experienced a Leicestershire victory before, which is not true of all of the players.

So, having at last removed this weighty and malodorous monkey from their backs, where do Leicestershire go from here? Well, for the moment, nowhere in particular in the County Championship, in this disjointed season (our next 4-day game begins on 9th June). We shall have to hope that they can carry the same spirit forward into the 50 over competition, which begins today : perhaps for that reason, much the same side that has played in the Championship has been chosen for the first game, with, unexpectedly, no place for white ball lovers such as Pettini, Wells or Aadil Ali. I have every confidence in them, almost.

Incidentally, Leicestershire were docked two of their hard-earned points for a slow over rate, and Glamorgan one. Even leaving aside the amount of time that had been lost retrieving the ball from neighbouring side-streets and removing shards of broken glass from it, the last thing any of the spectators would have had on their minds would have been the over rate, and I am fairly confident that no-one would have been asking for their money back. Sometimes the playing regulations really are a ass.

 

 

Not Entirely Pointless

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, LVCC, Grace Road, 21-24 April 2017

A while ago, writing about match-fixing, I wrote the following :
“Any sport consists of an elaborate system of rules that constructs an artificial world within which it is possible to have an authentic experience. As anyone who has watched a lot of County cricket, or lower league football, will attest, that experience is rarely obviously thrilling, or even interesting (it is not spectacular), but, even if it not “real” in the sense that bull-fighting is real, it is and must be known to be authentic. When something genuinely marvellous happens (such as Botham in 1981) it reassures us that miracles can occasionally happen in real life, and not only in fiction.”
I suppose this match was a good example of what I had in mind. Only two of the passages of play (the morning session on the first day and the afternoon and evening sessions on the fourth) were particularly compelling in themselves. In between there were a few interesting moments, some worthy performances and touches of humour, but the main interest was in trying to anticipate the denouement, which, in the event, was never revealed.

Although there were several points when one side seemed to have the advantage, by the end of each day equilibrium had reasserted itself (Leicester ended the first day on 275-5, Glamorgan were 281-4 by the end of the second ; Leicester were 200-3 at the end of the third, Glamorgan 144-4 at the close). (This state of equilibrium may have been the result of the game – as a man in front of me put it – being a case of a resistible force meeting a moveable object.)

A journeyman scriptwriter would have repeated the ending to last season’s match between the two sides, when, in the last game of the season, McKay and Shreck had taken Glamorgan’s last five wickets for ten runs when they required only 36 more to win (not quite Botham in ’81, but a satisfying conclusion). Instead we had a sort of nouveau roman policier, in which, having established numerous suspects, the detective concludes that he cannot work out who the murderer is and simply gives up and goes home for dinner.

The match was unusual, in that the most significant delivery of the four days was one that no-one in the crowd could see, it being the ball in the nets that had (apparently) bruised Zak Chappell’s shoulder and rendered him incapable of bowling in Glamorgan’s first innings. This is not because I would expect him to run through them like a dose of salts (those days may come, but not yet, and probably not, I’m afraid, for Leicestershire), but because it meant that we were left with only three front line bowlers, McKay, Raine and Shreck, who, in benign conditions for batting, were compelled to bowl 27, 30.5 and 29 overs respectively. As a result, I imagine, neither McKay (back) nor Raine (sidestrain) were able to bowl more than a few overs on the last afternoon, though Chappell was able to bowl, alongside the apparently indefatigable Shreck.

The first session of the first day was, as I say, compelling to watch, as the Lancastrian duo of Horton and Dearden opened together for the fourth time this season. Horton was in fragile form at the end of last season and has a highest score this of 20, with four single figure scores. Dearden was averaging 11 and their highest opening partnership against a County had been 10. It might not be true that they were anxious for their places, as, with Robson having absconded, there is no obvious alternative opener, but Horton (at 34) might have been worrying that he is facing something worse than a temporary dip in form and Dearden (19) that he is out of his depth.

Friday was a bitterly cold and overcast morning, and it was something of a test of character simply to stay out on the pitch for the opening session, when there was the option of a warm dressing room to retreat to, but the pair dug in (the phrase implies some of the dogged physical effort that seemed to be involved) and were still together at lunch. The pitch seemed generally true, but with the nasty quirk that balls just short of a length sometimes reared up alarmingly, and Horton was hit painfully more than once. Glamorgan, too, seemed a bowler short (there was no van der Gugten, nor cricket’s answer to Robbie Savage, Graham Wagg), and their opening pair Michael Hogan (a “rangy” Australian who looks somehow under-dressed without a Drizabone) and Lukas Carey (a 19-year old from the same Swansea school as Aneurin Donald) were only intermittently threatening, but the sense of relief when the beleaguered pair returned to the pavilion, with the score on 81-0 was almost tangible.

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At lunch, to illustrate my point about anticipating possible futures, a century opening partnership, and an individual century for at least one of the openers seemed on the cards. By about 2.00, with Horton out for 41 (he returned to a standing ovation from the home balcony, indicating that spirit within the team is good, whatever their alleged relationship with the coach), followed swiftly by Dexter first ball and Captain for the day Eckersley for 1, thoughts (my thoughts anyway) had turned to a card-house collapse and how Chappell might be hard to play in the fading light of the final session. (I must, incidentally, get out of the habit of taking pictures of batsman as they return to the pavilion, which makes me feel too much like a tricoteux cackling at the foot of the tumbril.)


In the event, equilibrium was restored by Dearden (who fell 13 frustrating runs short of a maiden century) and Mark Pettini, who has been the least convincing of the “experienced” imports, but who made important runs in both innings here ; the balanced then tipped in favour of Leicestershire as the last five wickets, in what has become something of a pattern, more than doubled the score to finish on 420.

The last 61 of those runs came from a last wicket stand on the second morning between those knights of the long handle McKay and Shreck ; they were clearly enjoying themselves enormously at the time

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but might have been less pleased if they had known quite how many overs they would have to bowl over the course of the next two sunny days, on a pitch which had mellowed so much that it might as well have fired up a joint and stuck some James Taylor on the stereo.

Spirits first sank at the sight of Tom Wells taking the field. Not that there is anything wrong with Wells per se, but because it soon dawned that he was fielding as a substitute for Chappell, leaving, as support for the three main bowlers, Dearden (who had not, I think, previously bowled with a red ball even for the 2nd XI), Dexter (whose medium pace surprisingly often breaks partnerships, but is not suited to long spells) and Delport (supposedly on a one day contract, but drafted in here (any Delport in a storm) to purvey his big maximums and little wobblers).

The bulk of Glamorgan’s reply came from young opener Selman (117) and the mature Kolpak Ingram (137). I can remember little of their stand of 161, except being torn between wanting it to stop and being secretly relieved that the game would, at least, outlast the weekend. Once that stand was broken, wickets fell at regular, but widely spaced, intervals and Glamorgan finally crept six runs in front (equilibrium restored again).  Another responsible, as well as stylish, innings by Pettini (a century this time) and a similar effort from Eckersley ensured that defeat was out of the question, but the timing of the declaration, which left Glamorgan 355 to make off a possible 57 overs, meant that something extraordinary would be required for a home victory.

What we saw (the thirty or so who were left by the end) was, in a way, extraordinary, but not in the way required to win. To set the scene, by mid-afternoon the sky was, at its most colourful, battleship grey, and the only things that seemed to be preventing it snowing were the intense cold and the biting wind. If it weren’t for the floodlights we would all have been home by lunchtime.

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McKay bowled his first over like a man who is a martyr to lumbago, and it must have been clear to Glamorgan that last year’s bogeyman would not be troubling them again (he only managed one more over).  Raine, a player who would, as the saying goes, run through brick walls for the club (and probably does so for fun on his days off) was forced to leave the field after, heroically, bowling seven overs and taking two wickets.  Which (without a recognised, or recognisable, spinner in the side) left Shreck and Chappell. Shreck, a man closer in age to me than he is to Chappell, managed another 13 overs to go with the 29 he had bowled in the first innings (perhaps his enforced rest period had done him good) but posed no real threat to batsmen who were looking only to survive.

Chappell, though, in light that seemed pretty dim even with the floodlights on, bowled fast enough to endanger the physical safety of the batsmen, even if he did not often enough threaten their wickets (Cooke looked thoroughly uncomfortable, particularly when he was hit somewhere in the region of his solar plexus).  He also posed some threat to his wicket-keeper and slip cordon, and even a St. John Ambulance lady who was sheltering from the wind behind the sightscreen (a bouncer had flown as far over Lewis Hill’s head as a lecture on Hegel and trampolined over the screen off a hoarding angled at 45 degrees).  In fact, for once, the only person he did not look likely to injure was himself.

The more sensible element in the crowd had called it a day when there was a brief interruption for bad light,

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but I hung on to the end, in the faint hope that the extraordinary thing, the thing you don’t see every day, might happen, which, in a way, it did.  A ball from Chappell to Rudolph, slightly short of a length, instead of veering harmlessly off towards the slips, cut back viciously and skinned his glove on its way through to Hill.  A whole possible future glimpsed in a single ball.

To maintain the equilibrium, both Leicestershire and Glamorgan have now earned 20 points this season though, after deductions, we only have four left.  So, not entirely pointless, at least.