Dog Days Afternoons

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An outfield, last week

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.