As I Walked Out One March Morning

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The Way to Wantage Road

Leicestershire v Loughborough MCCU, Grace Road, 28-30 March 2017

Northamptonshire v Loughborough MCCU, County Ground, Northampton, 3 April 2017

The first day of a new season is (if you are lucky) a little like the first week of a new school year.  I don’t mean that it is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of foreboding and a crushing sense of futility in the face of inevitable failure. No, I mean that it is nice to be back, to see your old friends and colleagues again, to note what has changed and what has not, and to ease yourself back into the old routines before the serious business of the year begins.

It helps, I think, to be returning after a good, long, break, and I must admit that I have been paying little attention to cricket over the Winter (apart from a couple of hours of TMS and the tinnitus of Twitter).  The old, re-discovered, routines, the relief of allowing yourself to become absorbed by small narratives again, afford the pleasures of both familiarity and freshness, as if you have, by chance, re-encountered a once-favourite, half-forgotten book or piece of music.

By August, you might be planning a circuitous route around the ground to avoid those dreadful bores X and Y ; in March you are relieved to find that they are still alive.   Quirks of the game, such as leaving the pitch for bad light and then returning half an hour later when the light has not visibly improved

can be irksome in August, charming in April.  Showers falling, glimpsed through the windows of the Fox Bar, stir memories of Springs past, and, in March, there are, of course, still hopes of sunnier days to come.

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Even the collapse of Leicestershire’s top order, unanticipated but at once instantly familiar, prompts bittersweet remembrance of times gone by.

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There are even some pleasant new routines, such as the unfurling of the parasols (however swiftly repurposed as umbrellas)

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In comparing the start of the season to the beginning of the school year, I am, of course, picturing myself in the role, not of a pupil, but of a rather elderly master (Mr. Chips, perhaps) who has, in his time, seen an awful lot of boys (that is to say, players) come and go, and it is not a trick of the mind that they come and go rather more quickly than they used to.  There is no-one left at Grace Road from the Leicestershire squad at the time I began to write this blog in April 2009 (Ned Eckersley, who made his debut in 2011, is the longest serving) and only four of them (Buck, Cobb, Greg Smith and Allenby) are still playing first-class cricket.

The illusion is that we spectators (who return year after year) stand still while the players pass by, but the truth is that we are passing each other on opposite sides of an escalator ; ours is moving too, slowly, almost imperceptibly, but inexorably.  Players who have passed by us do, however, sometimes pass by again in different guises, and I was pleased to see James Middlebrook (Semper Eadem) make his debut as an Umpire, alongside the apparently changeless Steve O’Shaughnessy.

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A glance at the new scoreboard above (underneath which, palimpsestically, lies the old electronic scoreboard, and underneath that the old manual scoreboard), or the final scorecard (Leicestershire 194 and 113-3 ; Loughborough 278) might induce a certain pessimism about Leicestershire’s prospects for the season, but that would be premature (not wrong, necessarily, but a little too early).

Leicestershire have been preparing for the new season in South Africa, which might help explain why the first five wickets were all clean bowled, all apparently surprised to discover that balls may deviate in line in England on a misty March morning (Cosgrove was visibly baffled, as if a sleight-of-hand artiste had surreptitiously contrived to remove his braces).  The Skip had, however, regained his composure by the second innings and Ned Eckersley combined responsibility and fluency to pleasing effect, but apart from those two, Dexter, and the much-heralded but, as yet, unseen Colin Ackermann*, the batting reserves look a little low. In particular, if the openers Horton and Robson were to prove consistently fallible, it is hard to see who would replace them.

On the other hand (and this is a significant advance), we do seem to have assembled a numerically formidable battery of seam bowlers.  In addition to Clint McKay (who should have enough fuel left to be good for another 50 wickets) and Ben Raine (always hostile, in one way or another), we have Charlie Shreck (who seemed to be preparing for his expected translation into a coaching role by offering the students plenty of unsolicited advice about their batting technique) and Dieter Klein (who, used in small doses, should surprise a lot of batsmen, as he surprised Alastair Cook last season).

We also have the reliable Richard Jones (lately of Warwickshire), two young stinkers in Gavin Griffiths (who bowled well against Loughborough) and Will Fazakerley, and, of course, Zak Chappell, who, as long-time readers will know, has been my Tip for the Top for a couple of years now.  He did not bowl exceptionally well against Loughborough, but, crucially, he did look fit, and ready to bowl at full pace without having to worry about his legs giving way.  Given a full season’s bowling, he should have put on a little more speed, acquired some guile and a taste for blood, and become the formidable bowler he is capable of being.

Other than that we have James Burke (on loan from Surrey), who just about qualifies as an all-rounder, and Tom Wells, a genuine all-rounder who may yet surprise me by adapting his game to the four-day format (against Loughborough he made 20 off four balls then slog-hooked one straight to backward square leg, but bowled surprisingly well).  As spinners, we have Rob Sayer, a steady off-spinner who relies as much on drift and swerve as spin, Callum Parkinson (half-inched from Derbyshire in dubious circumstances), and James Sykes, who may, I am afraid, have to find another outlet for his undoubted ability to make the ball turn.

The problem in selecting a side from this lot does seem to revolve around the difficulty of exploiting the strength in pace bowling without leaving an unconscionably long tail.  For what it’s worth (assuming we have prepared a seaming wicket) my first choice side would be : Horton, Robson, Ackermann, Cosgrove, Dexter, Eckersley, Aadil Ali, Raine, Chappell, Klein, McKay.  I suspect, though, we may see more of Shreck and Jones than Chappell or Klein, and Lewis Hill keeping wicket, with Eckersley playing as a specialist batsman.

As for Prospects for the Season, the best I can do is that Leicestershire will be the most unpredictable side in Division 2.  If you would like to know what is most likely to happen (but won’t, quite), then consult the odds being offered by the bookies.  They are in agreement that Nottinghamshire and Sussex (the two “big clubs”, presumed to have the most money) should be promoted, with Kent and Worcestershire (the sides with the young talent) their main competition.  Derbyshire (who looked thoroughly depressed last season) and Glamorgan (who were on the verge of degenerating into a rabble) will struggle, with the severely handicapped Durham, the anonymous but well-organised Gloucestershire, Northants (who have a plan) and Leicestershire somewhere in the middle.

My visit to Wantage Road (I caught one day of Loughborough’s visit there) established, beyond too much doubt, what Northamptonshire’s plan is going to be, and that is the same as last season’s : prepare pitches that ought to be reported to the coroner rather than the pitch inspector, pile up some high scoring draws, then nick a couple of games on the break at the end of the season by preparing a few turners.  In three days at Grace Road (with only brief interruptions for rain or bad light) 585 runs were scored for the loss of 23 wickets (the highest score being an admirably painstaking 305 minute 80 by Hasan Azad).  A week later, at Wantage Road, three days involving the same side resulted in 1173 runs being scored, for the loss of 15 wickets, with six centuries (three of them fine innings by Loughborough’s Thurston, Kumar and Leicestershire Academy product Sam Evans).  So, if you feel short-changed if a match ends early, you know where to head this season …

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Calling it a day …

* Apparently no relation to Hylton Ackermann (whom I watched at Wantage Road in the ’60s) and H.D. Ackermann (Leicestershire’s main source of runs in the middle years of last decade) or even Jan, the guitarist with Focus, (though he does have a Dutch passport).

 

 

An Occasional, Seasonal, Dream

Trigger warning : if you are one of those who believes that other people’s dreams are always and inherently boring, then look away now …
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Every year, at about the same time, I notice that the daffodils that grow perennially in the flowerbeds that border my patio have begun to poke their tips through the topsoil. In fact, I can be more precise. In 2014, I first noticed them on the 2nd of November, in 2015 on 11th November, and this year, on my return from a short holiday in Spain, on 27th November. And, every year, I think that they have come too early.

It may be that I am over-sensitive to the probability of “climate change” (although I am not sure whether this “small data” supports that) : I think, though, my reluctance to see these green shoots too early has more to do with not feeling ready, with the last leaves still clinging bravely to the trees, to think about the Spring quite yet. These shoots, I feel, should be nudging hopefully against an eiderdown of snow, not snuggled under a blanket of fallen leaves.

I felt much the same way when, while in Spain, I was visited prematurely by a recurrent dream that usually saves its first appearance for the darkest nights of Winter, the dream of the forgotten cricket ground.

The most commonly reported dreams involving sport, I’m told, fall into two categories. One includes those where the dreamer finds themselves called upon to play, (often at a higher level than they are used to), and finds that they can perform either much better than they can in real life, or only embarrassingly badly. I have occasionally had dreams of this kind, in which I find that I am incapable of bowling, (the aspect of the game I used to have some slight talent for), in more than slow motion, or, alternatively, that I have been magically transformed into a high-class batsman (which, in real life, was far from the case). But these “performance anxiety” dreams are commonplace enough, easily explicable, and do not concern us here.

The second kind are those dreams involving well-known sporting personalities. These are, apparently, common too, but I seem largely immune to them, in the same way that I don’t think that I have never dreamed about meeting the Queen (or any other member of the Royal Family)*. The only memorable exception was one in which I watched James Taylor compete in a game of wheelchair football, using one of those little carts that amputees seemed to use in continental Europe between the wars (you sometimes see them in films by Luis Bunuel, for instance). I remember feeling in something of a quandary, at the time, as to whether I should expose him as able-bodied. But, vivid as this dream was, it can be explained rationally, in that I had recently watched wheelchair football (or rugby) on the television, and Taylor “warming up” by playing (non-wheelchair) football in the outfield. My subconscious had simply reassembled those elements, and added a dash of continental spice.

My recurrent dream falls into neither of those categories. What is striking about it, apart from the regularity of its occurrence, (at least once a year, as I have said, usually in January or February), is that it is always exactly the same in every particular, so that I can now relive it (or re-dream it) perfectly without even being asleep.

It always begins, on a Saturday afternoon, in the rain (not heavy rain, but steady drizzle), and I am standing outside the British Heart Foundation shop in Market Harborough (I accept this will mean little to you if you are not familiar with Market Harborough, but bear with me). I am feeling at a loose end, perhaps because the football season has ended. I then remember that the cricket season has started and it suddenly hits me that there might be a game on at the forgotten ground (I call it that because, in my dream, I appear to have forgotten its existence). I feel some sense of relief, but more of self-reproach (as well I might, given how often I seem to have forgotten it).

I then set off for the ground. One of the few verifiable aspects of this ground is its physical location, which is here :

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– a slightly sunken area of Welland Park which, in reality, contains a rose garden (there is no cricket pitch, and, as far as I know, never has been).

I approach the ground by a long passageway that leads between two tall hedges, (at this point followers of the good Dr. Freud may be adjusting their pince-nezs thoughtfully), and arrive at a narrow turnstile. I now remember that I have forgotten to renew my membership (more self-reproach) and will have to pay to get in. In the corner of the ground nearest the turnstile is a portakabin, which acts as a club shop and office. I think of renewing my membership there, but realise I don’t have enough money on me.

I am now standing on a terrace. This terrace is, in a way that would be impossible to construct physically, simultaneously an old-fashioned terrace and a roofed “scratching shed” of the type that you still find at the smaller football grounds. It is, though, as steeply raked as the seating in a Roman amphitheatre (the obvious trigger for this dream is that I had, that day, visited such a one in Malaga).

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The pitch itself is oblong, like a football pitch, (although they are clearly playing cricket on it), only sunk into the ground like an empty swimming pool. On the far right hand side there is a pavilion of sorts : on the other sides there are grassy banks, ringed with tall hedges. It continues to rain, and the light is poor, but the game continues. Everything is very indistinct, and I can remember nothing of the match. And that is it.

The ground certainly has elements in common with various grounds that I have visited. The long passageway has something in common with Rothwell Corinthians FC, and, perhaps, Tunbridge Wells. The portakabin is very like ones I have seen at Stamford and Belper. I have spent many an afternoon in many a scratching shed. There are still banked terraces at Scarborough (wood) and the smaller of the two grounds at Wardown Park in Luton (stone).

The curious thing, though, is that the dream-ground predates my visits to most of these, resulting in a faint, untraceable sense of deja vu, a sense of having been there before, when I do visit.

This dream, especially its persistence, frustrates me by its sheer banality. It is, at least, useful, in that it reminds me that the season is on its way, and that I need to remember to renew my membership, but I receive quite enough letters and e-mails reminding me to do that already. I would prefer it, on the whole, if the subconscious mind, which seems to offer others (or so I read) access to vast archetypal images and lurid psycho-sexual dramatics, did not settle, so bathetically, in my case, for behaving like a pop-up reminder of a meeting on Microsoft Office.

Thank you for bearing with me. Perhaps the simple act of writing about the dream-ground will somehow exorcise it. If not, I should welcome any suggestions as to :

a) Which actually existing ground I might be dreaming about (preferably one that was demolished in about 1942 – a hint of the supernatural would, I feel, add a touch of distinction)

or

b) Any symbolic interpretation, the more fanciful the better, but preferably of an encouraging nature.

Anyone who prefers to suggest that my dream means that I spend far too much of my time watching sport of only moderate quality in the East Midlands needn’t bother. I knows it.

 * With the possible exception of Camilla Parker-Bowles (but it was very dark in that dream, and there was an awful lot going on).

In LE2 did Wasim Khan a Stately Pleasure Dome Decree : Works in Progress

Leicestershire v Kent, County Championship, Grace Road, 24-27 April 2016

I never realised, until I retired, quite how many shades of Cuprinol there are.  Seasoned Oak and Deep Russet, of course, but then there’s Seagrass, Forget-me-not, Gated Forest, Mellow Moss, Mediterranean Glaze and many, many more.  It’s a whole new world to me, and I often find myself browsing the shelves in Homebase as avidly I once flicked through the racks of LPs in record shops.  I have, you see, decided to take up gardening.

It’s not that I’ve done nothing to the garden before, of course, but that was merely in the way of keeping what was already there under control – mowing the lawn, pruning the roses, weeding the flowerbeds – and it was something of a chore, to be fitted in around work and more enjoyable leisure time pursuits.  Now I have the time and a little money to be more creative, to have a “vision” of how I would like the garden to be and to attempt to put it into practice.

I say “the garden” but I am starting with a more manageable “space”, to wit the patio (the back garden will have to remain a “forgotten wilderness of boredom” for the time being).  I have cleared the ivy that was clogging one fence, cut down a holly bush that had grown up under another and was threatening to demolish it, and removed last year’s (still living) Christmas tree.  I have introduced sackloads of decorative white stone chippings and planters in every shape and material, to be filled with bulbs and seeds that will, in time, I hope, result in a sweetly fragrant riot of colour.  And I have of course, applied Cuprinol to the fences (Woodland Green only at the moment, though I am toying with the idea of adding some White Daisy or Arabian Sand to create an effect of Andalusian stripes).

The problem with all this is that unless you share my “vision” (i.e. have some idea of how it’s meant to look when it’s finished) it all looks rather bare and, frankly, a bit of a mess at present.  Another is that what I am working towards is somewhere that will be a  delight to sit in when the Summer comes, but only if we happen to have a heatwave and need to take refuge from the heat.

The root of the problem here is that word “patio“.  Originally a patio was an uncovered but shaded courtyard garden in the South of Spain, perfected by the Moorish rulers of Al-Andalus.  It would, typically, feature exquisite geometric tiling, delicately perfumed flowers and topiary, ingenious running water features and served both to remind believers of the pleasures of the heavenly gardens to come and provide refuge from the fierce Andalusian sun.

Needless to say, most English patios are not like this at all, but the word is a reminder of the reluctance of the English to embrace our – at best – temperate climate, a land of holly and ivy and mistletoe, and our urge to hanker always after something warmer, something more delicate, something more exotic, even if it means employing that contradiction in terms, a patio heater.

I mention all this because, after spending a few days at Grace Road this week, it appears to me that Leicestershire’s new go-ahead Chief Executive Wasim Khan has been spending a lot of time in Homebase as well recently, and, like me, has a vision for the ground that will be lovely when it’s finished, and when Summer comes.

He began last season by painting the roof of the dear old Meet, which still seemed to be stained with soot from its days at Aylestone Road, a delicate shade of Cambridge Blue (or Seagrass, as the Cuprinol colour chart describes it); you can just about make it out in the background here, beneath some skies that might have interested Turner (J.M.W., not Ken)

Grace Road

The venerable George Geary Stand has been given a coat of Mediterranean Glaze, and white canopies or parasols put up over two of the exposed stands (smaller than those over the Mound Stand at Lord’s, but larger than the ones you can buy in Homebase, for your patio)

Grace Road

The white pavilions seem to hover and billow like an encampment of the Great Khan himself.  Imagine retreating beneath their shade on a hot afternoon, in a geographically eclectic Orientalist fantasy, to sip Pimms to the accompaniment of a drowsy afternoon raga! Or, if you prefer, retreating from the rain on a wet Friday evening to sink five pints of Red Fox Bitter to the accompaniment of Stench’s airhorn!

As you can also see (somewhere through the murk), we now have floodlights installed, which loom over the ground, but do not currently illuminate it (thanks to some obscure administrative mix-up we cannot use them for Championship matches) and the Maurice Burrows Stand has been spruced up (though not yet opened to the public).

This, though, is only the beginning.  The Milligan Road wall has been demolished and the turnstiles shut, areas of seating are roped off and one of the new floodlights is positioned in what is now the outfield.  The plan seems to be to shift everything – the poor old George Geary, the boundary and all – inwards, to make room for – the last time I heard – some flats.  At the moment it is all a little disconcerting, but then, as I said earlier, we Men of Vision must expect to be misunderstood, and I have every faith it will look nice when it’s finished.

In developing a cricket team, as in building a garden, there is a slow, ecologically sound way and a quick and easy one.  The first is to plant your own seeds and bulbs and nurture them to maturity, the second to buy your plants in fully formed from elsewhere.  Since the turn of the decade Leicestershire have been pursuing the first approach, relying on young, locally produced talent (Broad, Taylor, Cobb, Smith, Thakor, Buck, Gurney et al.) and a fat lot of good it’s done us too.

To shift the metaphor to vegetable gardening, it’s as though we have been growing our own delicious organic lettuces, tomatoes and peas, only to find that, just as they were ripening, our bigger and richer neighbours have jumped over the garden fence and pinched them.  Having had enough of this, our recent recruitment policy has been the equivalent of saying “Sod it – let’s send out for a takeaway“.  In this scenario Horton, Pettini and Dexter are a pretty solid chicken tikka, pilau rice and naan bread meal deal, with Cosgrove, McKay, Shreck and O’Brien, I suppose, a four-pack of cold beer in the fridge.

From 2013-14 Leicestershire had no effective on-field leadership, effectively no overseas player (even when he was somewhere in the vicinity of the ground, Ronnie Sarwan created a double absence) and, at times, fielded seven or eight players under the age of 25.  It is hardly surprising, in the circumstances, that we never won a match.

The new side has a pretty hard-nosed, (metaphorically) hairy-arsed (though, no doubt warm-hearted) South Australian core of Cosgrove, McKay and Coach Andrew McDonald, and are an experienced and battle-hardened crew all round (eight of this week’s side were over thirty).

I make no predictions as to where they’ll finish this season, but anyone expecting them to roll over without a fight, as they too often did in the recent past, is in for a nasty shock.  They have already brushed Glamorgan aside by an innings and would have been odds-on to beat Kent this week, had the game not been endlessly interrupted by 57 varieties of Winter, and might have won anyway had it not been for a circumspect century by Daniel Bell-Drummond.

This side may be hard to beat, but nothing (apart from a “mystery” spinner) wins matches like a bowler of genuine pace and Leicestershire appear to think they have might have found one in the one young, home-grown member of the side, Zak Chappell.  Zak is a young-looking 19 (he looks young even to my daughter), who has so far managed to evade the England age group set-ups (I’m told he was a late developer at cricket).

He made his first-class debut last season, making 96 from no. 10 (he can bat too, in a “long-levered” way).  Before this match I had seen him bat for Harborough and bowl for the Seconds, when he always seemed to be stepping gingerly and bowling within himself (he has already been bedevilled by injuries), but, although I’ve been told that he is potentially genuinely quick (on the one occasion he was allowed to bowl for Harborough he took seven wickets in four overs), until Monday I’d never seen him do so.

His moment came when, late on in Kent’s first innings, he was given the second new ball.  He had been told to concentrate on bowling fast and that is what he did, with a fluency in his approach and delivery I’d not seen before.

Zak 1

There was a little spraying, but he had a difficult chance dropped in the gully, induced a mistimed flat-batted slap to mid-wicket and, finally, smashed the last man’s stumps with a straight full one.  They might bristle at the suggestion, but there was something almost touching about the way McKay and Shreck, positioned at mid-off and -on, offered advice and arm-round-the-shoulder encouragement to the young tyro, and how he was encouraged to lead the side off the field.

Zak 2

When Kent batted again, he came on in about the tenth over and carried on where he had left off, hurrying the top-order, but, after two balls of his second over, he seemed to pull up lame, in the way that racehorses do, and almost as distressingly (though he was led off the pitch by the physio for treatment rather than taken away to be destroyed ).

Even the least poetic of men (Lord Emsworth, for instance, or “Ticker” Mitchell), can sometimes reveal a softer side when it comes to nurturing vulnerable young blooms, and, no doubt, business considerations aside, the hard-nosed Leicestershire leadership must be hoping fervently that Zak’s Springtime promise has not been nipped in the bud by this cruel late frost.

Young rose

 

Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Season

Nottinghamshire v Leicestershire, Trent Bridge, 1st April 2016 & Warwickshire v Worcestershire, 5th April 2016 (both pre-season friendlies)

Some lines that have often come to mind, as I have looked around at my companions while watching County cricket, are Larkin’s “I know this is paradise / Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives” (from ‘High Windows’).  Not, as for Larkin, unlimited, guilt-free sexual congress (far from it), but the ability, after too many years tethered to a workplace, to watch cricket every Summer’s day for the rest of their lives.

I now find that I have, not unexpectedly, if a little prematurely, attained that paradise, having retired (or, strictly speaking, having been retired, like David Beckham’s football shirt).  Having reached it, though, I am slightly wary that it will turn out to be something of a fool’s paradise.  Part of the attraction of a day at the cricket for me has always been the feeling that I am on holiday, and, recently in particular, that I am on holiday when I ought to be at work, and now, of course, I have no work.

I can assuage this feeling a little by assiduously catching up on the gardening (or, for that matter, by writing this) on the days when I am not at the cricket, and suspect it is probably wise to build up slowly from two or three days a week, but, no doubt, by the end of the season, I shall have attained full badgerhood, and will find myself eagerly scanning the internet for news of one last Notts Academy game at Wellbeck Colliery before the Autumn sets in.

One sign that I haven’t yet fully transitioned is that I’ve passed up the opportunity to watch all but two days of this season’s pre-season friendlies, one at Trent Bridge and one at Edgbaston (the real hardcore will have already put in a solid three weeks cocooned in Gore-Tex and fleece by the time the County Championship begins next week).

Trent Bridge is a venue that I have often visited and have often written about in glowing terms.  Of all the Test-hosting grounds I’ve visited it best pulls off the difficult trick of being both grand and homely, of combining the traditional and the contemporary and of feeling as well-suited to County cricket as the bigger occasions.  It has about the best place I know to watch cricket on a fine day (the Radcliffe Road stand) and one of the best on a cold one – the interior of the Pavilion, which is cosy without being stuffy and has a sense of history, without allowing that history to become too much of a weight.

Trent Bridge Pavilion

(While there, I managed inadvertently to photograph, and later made the acquaintance of, Tony Hutton, a stalwart of the Northern circuit and one of the authors of the excellent blog “Cricket History of Calderdale and Kirklees“, which I would advise you to seek out and follow.  He is not the Rastafarian in the foreground, by the way.)

Edgbaston is as near to my home as Nottingham, but I had never been there before Tuesday, and I’m not sure I’m in any great hurry to go back, unless, perhaps, it was for a Test Match.  Whereas Trent Bridge seems to belong to Nottinghamshire CCC, who allow it to be used for Tests, Edgbaston makes no bones about primarily a Test Match stadium, with the Birmingham Bears a close second and Warwickshire a poor third.

Its architect seems to have been a man with one big idea – that you can never have too much reinforced concrete – and that, if you don’t like naked concrete, you can always paint it bright blue.

Edgbaston

Whereas Trent Bridge has kept its venerable pavilion and built the ground in harmony around it, Edgbaston seems to have erased any trace of its past, except for its “iconic” score box and, perhaps, this bear, clinging for dear life to its ragged staff to avoid getting swept away by the Winds of Change howling around the ground.

Bear and Ragged Staff

They are, I’m told, in the process of developing the ground (presumably to make it even bigger and more packed with reinforced concrete) and, perhaps as a result of this, the concourse around the ground is currently an extraordinary shantytown of tumbledown bars and fast food outlets, weedy waste ground and, in an unusual touch, a small evangelical church around the back of the R.E.S. Wyatt Stand.  In fact, the whole place is such a mixture of brutalism and edgelands that I wouldn’t have been too surprised to have spotted some earnest young man with a beard and tattoos tapping out a Tumblr about it.

But this is, I confess, a superficial impression, formed in unpropitious circumstances.  County cricket supporters are hardy organisms who, like lichen, can thrive in apparently inhospitable terrain and, if I became used to the ground, I’m sure I could, in time, carve out some homely niche for myself there.   In fact, when the sun came out briefly in the late afternoon I could picture the particular concrete terrace I was sitting in as the surrounds of a seaside lido, and the executive boxes as beach huts, the Members picking their way gingerly down to the pitch in their swimming costumes, shoes and towels in hand.  But that would have to be much later in the Summer, when Gore-Tex and fleece are but a distant memory.

As is usually the case in these games, the cricket itself was fairly negligible (their main purpose seems to be to reacclimatise the players to the English weather after their earlier pre-season warm-ups in Barbados or Dubai).  Both Bell and Trott (whom I had been wanting to see) were out before I arrived at Edgbaston, and it is no news that batsmen of the quality of James Taylor (seen here sizing up the opposition),

Taylor and Wells

Sam Hain or even Laurie Evans are not likely to be troubled by the second string attacks of Second Division Counties. The regulations allowed them to retire when they reached around 55 and they all seized the opportunity with some alacrity.  We should all be so lucky, eh readers?

A feature of Trent Bridge is that the doors to the pavilion have small portholes cut into them, to allow the gatemen to see when a player needs to be let back in.  I thought I would try to record the view through one, but all I seem to have photographed is air and light.

Window at Trent Bridge

How did that Larkin poem end again?

………………………… and immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:

The sun-comprehending glass,

And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows

Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

 

 

 

A Bit of a Blur

Some memorable happenings this month – the General Election, the Pietersen Fiasco VI (at least) – but, at the same time, eminently forgettable. What I’d like to remember (the memorandum) is the blossom, which had been as vivid and luxuriant as I can remember.  But how to record it?  Here are some photographs taken from the upper deck of the X3 bus to Leicester (on my way to watch the cricket, so not completely irrelevant).  The point, I suppose, where impressionism blurs into pure abstraction. Fleeting impressions of a fleeting thing.

 

May Blossom 2015

May blossom 2015

May 2015

 

 

Welcome to the Muppet Show #newera

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, LVCC, Grace Road, 12-15th April 2015

So, has it started yet?

Open Day

(Charlie Fox et al. sing)

It’s time to play the music!
It’s time to light the lights!
It’s time to meet the Muppets on the Muppet Show tonight!

It’s time to put on makeup!
It’s time to dress up right!
It’s time to raise the curtain on the Muppet Show tonight!

Statler and Waldorf

The Members (in the voices of Statler and Waldorf)

Why do we always come here?
I guess we’ll never know
It’s like a kind of torture
To have to watch the show

Determined to Succeed

Wazim Khan, Andrew McDonald et al. (in unison)

And now let’s get things started!

DSCF1266

Members (in unison)

Why don’t you get things started? Why can’t you get it right?

Charlie Fox, Wasim Khan, Andrew McDonald etc. (with gusto)

It’s time to get things started
On the most sensational inspirational celebrational Muppetational
This is what we call the Muppet Show!

Well, OK. I am forced to admit, curmudgeon as I am, that I was impressed.  I cannot really fault the concept or the execution of the Open Day, which marked the opening day of the season at Grace Road last Sunday.  As you may have read elsewhere, invitations had been sent out to local residents and a crowd of over 1,500 (mostly families with young children) were there to take advantage of the bouncy castle, pirate ship, free lollies and arts and crafts (not really of a kind that William Morris would have recognised).  Wasim Khan was, as advertised, on the gate and round and about to meet and greet and the positive impression he is reported to have made on the staff seems, on the basis of a few guarded conversations, to be a genuine one.

A few unformed minds should, at least, have come away with positive associations for a day at the cricket, though it may also have created some unrealistic expectations about what the average day of Championship cricket is likely to entail.  If a few of them are encouraged to pester their parents to take them to the cricket again, and a few of them in turn to become hooked on the game itself, the exercise will have been well worthwhile.

There were those of us there, of course, whose minds are far from unformed and by the close on Sunday evening, with Glamorgan having progressed to 294-2, a fair few of those were already resigned to what a rather splendid man with a West Country accent repeatedly announced would be “another long, hard, Zummer“.  The same man also insisted that he was never coming back again to Grace Road, but by Tuesday, when, inevitably – such is the nature of addiction – he was back in his familiar seat, things were looking up and Leicestershire responded to Glamorgan’s 513-9 dec. with a respectable 435 (Eckersley 147, Robson 83).

On the last day Leicestershire were set a tantalising but improbable 305 in an afternoon to win, finding themselves in a situation reminiscent of several games last season where, having maintained parity for most of the match, they collapsed painfully and pitifully, like a drunk on to a camp bed, on the last afternoon.  At 1-2, I imagine our friend from the West must have been going through his Cassandra routine again, but Captain Cosgrove saved the day with an innings of all the solidity his record and physique suggest to shepherd his nervous flock through to a comfortable draw.

Though I think Citizen Khan’s stated aim (for us to become “the best non-international side in the world“) is, frankly, crazy talk, there is no reason why we cannot win games and have a reasonably successful season.  I should be astonished if we were promoted, but surprised if we finished last again. We have three proven run-scorers in Robson, Eckersley and Cosgrove and some promising strokemakers in Redfern, Pinner and Aadil Ali.  Niall O’Brien still seems up for a scrap.  Freckingham and Atif Sheikh will take wickets, if used in short bursts, though they will concede runs too.  Shreck may adapt well to the role of a stock bowler and Raine, Taylor and Wells are all useful medium-fast all rounders (though perhaps too similar to be played together).  Naik can hold up an end and take wickets if offered a responsive surface.

In short, we have one good side and a few spares, if not the depth to survive any serious absences through injury or loss of form.  What we will struggle to do (and this is true of most of Division 2) is bowl sides out twice on docile surfaces.  One bowler of real quality would make a dramatic difference (think of Ajmal last year, Copeland the year before, or even Hogan at Glamorgan) and we must hope that Clint McKay turns out to be that man.  He is currently absent on honeymoon and we must hope, too, that he is conserving some of his Vital Energies for cricket.

I am not, incidentally, going to fall into the trap of saying that there is a buzz around Grace Road at the start of the season (I fell into that one too early last year and look what happened).  Except for the terminally curmudegeonly, there is always a buzz at the start of the season; it is only when there is still one at the end of it that it is worth making a song and dance about it.

Leaves from the Sporting Calendar : the Boat Race

Boat Race

And so the sporting year progresses to the Boat Race, which, as you can see from the date on this poster, is, like Easter, a Moveable Feast (in 1913 it was early, this year it seems late).  I don’t think I could explain why the date varies, any more than I could explain the timing of Easter, except that I imagine both have something to do with the moon and the tides.

It is not a sporting event that anyone would now invent, if it did not already exist.  I don’t have the impression that the small number of people who take a serious interest in rowing rate it that highly and there cannot be enough people who have a direct connection to either University to make it more significant these days than the “Varsity matches” in other sports.

In its heyday the importance of the race itself was overshadowed by the Night that followed it, which was a significant event in the police calendar as an occasion for drunken, violent disorder.  This was partly between rival parties of Varsity bloods: Bertie Wooster, for instance, famously spent a night in the cells for pinching a policeman’s helmet; on a more elevated level, T.E. Hulme was sent down from Cambridge for “over-stepping the limits of the traditional license allowed by the authorities on Boat Race night” in a brawl.

It was also, in the days before football hooliganism really took off, an excuse for “cockneys” (i.e. ordinary Londoners) to divide themselves into rival factions, watch a race that was, unlike most sporting events, free and then have an excuse for a punch-up afterwards, whether that was intra-cockney or cockney v toff (in 1984, for instance, an elderly “prole” reminisces fondly to Winston Smith about fighting a Varsity man who’d tried to push him off the pavement on Boat Race Night).

That aspect of the event must now, I imagine, be a thing of the past.  There will no doubt be drunken disorder in London tonight, but no more than on most Saturday nights.  There are few cockneys left in London and the large crowds the race continues to attract will, like the population of London itself, be made up largely of corporates and visitors from overseas, attracted to the Thames by an exotic spectacle, in the same way that they are by New Year’s Eve firework displays.

Finally, I think, the Boat Race falls into that officially unpopular and diminishing but – to my mind – necessary category of things that we do because we have always done them, and for me, in particular, it means that if the Boat Race is here can the Cricket Season be far behind? It cannot.

Come on Cambridge, by the way. Rah rah rah!