Festivals of Insignificance

England Lions v South Africa A, Northampton, 3 June 2017

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, 9-12 June 2017

It has sometimes occurred to me that the ideal reader of this blog has not yet been born. This is not because, like Friedrich Nietzsche or Martin Peters, I imagine myself to be ahead of my time, but because, I hope, it may serve as a record of a way of life that, I suspect, will have long since ceased to exist. There may still be a game played with bats and balls ; it may be called cricket ; but I do not expect that the County game or the longer forms generally will have survived. So, if anyone out there in the future is interested in knowing what it felt like to watch cricket in the Summer of 2017, it felt, to me, like this.


Anything in the paper?

I am not yet convinced that 2017 will prove to be a memorable date in English history, and I doubt whether anyone will be able to relate what I have written about cricket to the any event that might make it so. Contemporary accounts of cricket in – say – the Summers of 1914 or 1939 have acquired a retrospective poignancy, in that you would rarely be able to tell from reading them what was about to happen, and we assume from this that the crowds did not know what that would be. It might equally be that they knew, or suspected, perfectly well, but hoped to find in cricket a zone of exclusion, where the horrors could temporarily be forgotten, or, at least, not decently alluded to. (As I have often said, a large part of the appeal of sport is that it offers us the opportunity to lose ourselves in something that, ultimately, doesn’t matter at all.)

So, for the benefit of my readers in 2117, the Lions’ match against South Africa A took place 12 days after an Islamist suicide bomber had killed 23 people (including himself) at a concert in Manchester, mainly attended by young women and girls, and on the day when, in the evening, a group of three terrorists killed eight people in London by driving a van at them and then attacking them with knives. I have seen some fine pieces, written in the aftermath of these events, which have managed to connect them to games of cricket, but, for my part, the only connection I feel is that the game was not quite absorbing enough to mask a deep, dull, sense of disquiet. In the Briggs and Forrester Family Stand, I could connect nothing with nothing.


My ability to concentrate on the game was not aided by the fact that Northamptonshire had chosen it for a Community Day (our old friend the Family Fun Day under another name), with the result that the crowd consisted largely of parents with young children, who, as usual, were more interested in their own games (more fidget spinners* and simple fidgets than spinners ) than anything occurring on the pitch. In the circumstances, earnestly studying the cricket felt like being a Professor of Zoology visiting a safari park on a Bank Holiday, as if I were rather missing the point.

It also didn’t help that, although the Lions’ opponents were billed as South Africa A, it would not be hard to assemble at least one better XI from South Africans currently playing County cricket, under various flags. Only two of them made much of an impression (the opening bowler Duanne Olivier and off-breaking all-rounder Aiden Markram), and I imagine you can expect to see those two appearing at a County ground near you soon enough.

Another crypto-South African, Dawid Malan, opened the batting with Ben Duckett. In the corresponding fixture against Sri Lanka A last year, Duckett, in what I hope does not turn out to have been his brief pomp, made an inventive 62 and I grew so bored by Malan hitting sixes that I was moved to compare him to “Buns” Thornton. This time Duckett made only 2, before he was caught at mid-wicket off another indeterminate stroke. Last year his strokes could be hard to describe because he was busy inventing exciting new hybrids ; this year he seems unsure himself quite which one he is intending to play.

Bell-Drummond and Vince (two players seemingly stuck in development hell) also departed cheaply, leaving Malan (a restrained 84, until he inexplicably leaped out half way down the wicket and was stumped) and Liam Livingstone (129 off 83 balls) to push the game beyond plausible reach (the final total was 349-7). Given how many openers England have tried recently, it is hard to see why Malan has been ignored : perhaps an almost 30-year old South African is not the kind of player they would ideally wish to be seen employing. Livingstone, whose innings was equally appealing to the Mums, Dads, kiddiz, and even old miseries like me, has the curious quality of batting, in a long-levered style, like a man much taller than his Playfair-billed height of 6’1” (I was quite surprised when I checked). He would fit into England’s one-day line-up well, if they can find the space for him.

South Africa’s reply began brightly, but was half-hearted in the face of some economical, if not overly incisive, bowling, and petered out on a paltry 205. The bowler who impressed most was George Garton, a hostile left-armer from Sussex, who has now played almost as often for the Lions as he has first-class games for Sussex. I did not stay to the end, drifting away at about the same time as most of the families had tired of the entertainment, but returned home in reasonably good spirits (not, of course, to survive long into the evening).


There are blue skies just around the corner

Leicestershire’s game against Kent began on the morning after the General Election, which you – O gentle retrospect – may have to look up in a book, if you still have such things (it was the first of the year). The campaign had been as long drawn out, painful and unedifying to observe as a man with chronic constipation attempting a crap, and had culminated in a result which should have pleased no-one. It might have been a hangover from that, the weather (overcast, with a chill wind and rain threatening) or pessimism about Leicestershire’s prospects, but I thought I detected at least a mild whiff of what the Argentinians call bronca abroad (a sort of sullen anger).


I was generally successful in evading the election through the course of the four days, although the combination of free wi-fi and a smart ‘phone sometimes led me to log into Twitter, releasing a thousand “hot takes” to buzz around my ears like angry wasps after my sandwiches. The only time I heard anyone allude to it directly was when a man read out from his ‘phone : “Theresa May will be going to the Palace this afternoon”. If I were Neville Cardus, I would claim that, with the ready wit that comes naturally to Leicestershire supporters, someone responded “I thought the football season had finished” but, in fact, everyone roundly ignored it.

Looking at the scores (Leicestershire 340 and 175 ; Sussex 284 and 234-5), you might suppose that this game was a good advertisement for 4-day cricket : from a neutral’s perspective (or that of the substantial contingent who had swapped good old Sussex-by-the-Sea for Leicester-by-the-Soar) you would be right. The outcome was not quite certain until the last afternoon, there was a mid-game reversal of fortune and one outstanding performance from a new starlet, in the person of Jofra Archer. But Leicestershire supporters are already far too familiar with this storyline to be much beguiled by it.

Leicestershire’s 340 had been hard-won, in the face of a near-international attack comprising Philander, Jordan, Archer, Briggs and David Wiese. (Leaving aside its effect on South African cricket, I am generally agnostic about the recent influx of South Africans, but Wiese does seem a gratuitous signing, given that Garton (who had impressed me for the Lions) was relegated to twelfth man, and Sussex also have Whittingham, Robinson, Ajmal Shahzad and part-timer Tymal Mills on their books).

Now that Horton and Dearden have passed through their early season pain barrier, they have emerged as a moderately reassuring opening partnership : in the first innings Dearden only made 8, but managed to stick around until the 18th over in doing so. Horton contributed 71, Cosgrove (whose excellence I take too much for granted) 128, and Zak Chappell, who seems to have found his feet as a batsman (almost literally so, in that he sometimes plays like someone who has not quite come to terms with being exceptionally tall), a handy 44.

When Sussex were reduced to 156-7, or even 201-9 (thanks mainly to Clint McKay, who has previously been economical this season without taking many wickets), a naive observer would have thought that the advantage lay with Leicestershire. A seasoned observer (and there are some pretty highly-seasoned, not to mention well-pickled, ones in and around the Fox Bar) would not have been surprised when Philander and Briggs (who batted just under two hours for his 27) elongated the score to 284, with a last wicket stand of 83, nor that Leicestershire’s reply soon subsided to 107-7, before a late rally enabled them to go into the last day with a lead of 232.

I have to say that no real blame attaches to Leicestershire’s batsmen, even against an attack depleted by Philander twisting his ankle during a display of over-athletic fielding, and Wiese unable to bowl because of some unspecified ailment. Jofra Archer, a slim 22-year-old with a nonchalant approach to the wicket but an explosive shoulder action, took 6-70 to go with the 5-65 he had taken in the first innings and would have troubled anyone. The last time I saw him (at Grace Road last September) I was impressed by his ability to swing the ball at speed ; this time his chief weapon was the delivery that rose sharply from just short of a length. He looked a better bowler than either Jordan or Philander, or, for that matter, any of the Lions’ pace bowlers ; he is, apparently, waiting to be approached before deciding whether he is English or West Indian, and, if I were Trevor Bayliss, I’d be approaching him pretty sharpish.


Excuse me, Jofra, could I have a word?

The last morning proceeded to a Sussex win with all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, if little of the jollity. The only batsmen to play a significant innings, Luke Wells, was dropped by the wicket-keeper off Chappell, and it does not help in defending a total of 232 to concede 43 extras, including 35 byes and leg-byes. Having said that, I would resist the temptation to remove the gloves from Eckersley, as I suspect his main problem as a ‘keeper, apart from Chappell’s high-speed unpredictability, is lack of match practice.

So, six games played, three draws and three defeats. The top five now seem solid and the four pace bowlers who played here (McKay, Raine, Chappell and Klein) would be my choices. I would be tempted to replace Pettini (who seems to be reverting to last season’s four-day form) with Adil Ali, who is champing at the bit for another bite at four-day cricket, and Tom Wells, who made some useful runs, but was only trusted to bowl four overs, with one of our three spinners (probably Sayer, though they all have their virtues). I still look forward to seeing Chappell, who is very much having to learn his craft in public, run through a side, as he is surely capable of doing, and I remain hopeful that a victory will come before the end of the season (or, preferably, sooner). I should only be pleasantly astonished if it came against a Pattinson-less Nottinghamshire next week.

And, of course, at least puzzling over all this gives me something to worry about that doesn’t really matter at all.

*A toy, very popular in 2017, for some reason.



Happy Days and End Games



On my first visit of the season, I complained that the inscription on the sundial in the Garden of Remembrance at the County Ground, Northampton had become illegible. I don’t know whether close to six months at Wantage Road has somehow cleansed my doors of perception, or whether they have shelled out to have it cleaned, but on my last visit I found I could read it clearly. It seems to read:

Make time, save time, while time lasts. All time is no time, when time is past.

This sounds like the sort of riddle contestants on 3-2-1 once had to solve to win a microwave oven, but, in fact, appears to have been borrowed from the 17th century monumental sculptor, Nicholas Stone. If the specifics are a little gnomic, the gist is clear : (depending on how you like your eggs) carpe diem, enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think … YOLO.

As September falls, a sense of an ending concentrates the minds of players, coaches and spectators alike, though unalike, according to their roles. Months of settling for high scoring draws (ensuring that the season will not be the kind of disaster that leads to the coach losing his job) give way to a desperate dash for results. In the previous five months of 4-day cricket at Grace and Wantage Roads I saw two results, in the last five weeks, I have seen five (two defeats and a win for Leicestershire, two wins for Northamptonshire).

For a few players, the end of the season will see their last game, some for their current club, for others anywhere or ever. The same goes for some of the crowd : we all hope to winter well, to see you next year, to have all the time in the world, but, as I was saying in the Spring, it does not do to take time for granted. And hovering at the back of our minds, at this season’s ending in particular, there skulks the baleful figure of the Angel of Death, in the shape of Colin Graves, and his plans for city-based cricket.  All time is no time, when time is past …

Leicestershire v Sussex, Grace Road, County Championship, 6-7 September 2016


Should any of us have required a reminder of our mortality, the first day of this game had been designated as “Heart Attack Awareness Day” : praiseworthy, of course, though I found the sight of children simulating heart attacks in the outfield during the lunch interval did little to alleviate the sense of unease generated by another poor Leicestershire performance. They had gambled by preparing a green wicket against a side whose main strength looked to be its seam bowling, and who would have first use of that wicket. Not unpredictably, they were bowled out for 135 and 119 and, having allowed Sussex to recover from 156-7 to 313 (an inability to dock the tail has been a persistent problem), lost by an innings within two days. As if that were not punishment enough, the Umpires added to the insult by reporting the pitch to the ECB.

Little has gone right for Leicestershire recently ; what, precisely, has gone wrong is peculiarly hard to say, though the steep swan-dive in form has, at least, coincided with the confirmation that coach Andrew McDonald would be returning to Australia and the sudden departure of wicket-keeper and chief opposition-irritant Niall O’Brien. What goes on inside a professional cricket club is as mysterious to outsiders as what goes on inside a marriage : commentary is, at best, speculation, at worst gossip. It does appear to the outside observer, though, that the core of this side, mostly thirty-somethings of Australian or South African origin, are a rather introverted, self-sufficient group whose loyalty is (not unnaturally) to each other, rather than to Leicestershire per se, and who, without being actively unfriendly, see little need to build a rapport with outsiders.

There are also hints of a hierarchical split between the first-teamers (eight of whom have played in almost every four-day match this season) and the younger, local-ish players, reduced to the 2s and fetching and carrying (and who are gradually being shed from the staff). Zak Chappell, potentially the most talented, has been unable to bowl more than a few exploratory overs since he broke down in April, but returned against Sussex. Inevitably, given the long lay-off, his length and direction were awry (though he was quick enough to induce some balletics from Eckersley, who is nothing if not an elegant wicket-keeper). When he did finally find his range to finish the innings by clean bowling Jofra Archer, there seemed to be a marked lack of the usual back-slapping and high-fiving from his senior colleagues, and he was left out for the next game in favour of the ready-made Richard Jones. It would be a shame if he had to go elsewhere to find nurture.

Derbyshire 2nd XI v Glamorgan 2nd XI, Belper Meadows, 8th September 2016

The premature ending at Grace Road gave me a last chance to re-visit what is probably my favourite ground on the circuit, at Belper. I have tried to capture its charm in words before, but, as its appeal is largely aesthetic, it is probably best conveyed in pictures. I wondered why anyone would want to watch city-based cricket when they have the option of its De Chiroco shadows and distant prospects of the East Mill and the Derwent Valley.

(On the subject of intimations of mortality, during this match a Derbyshire batsman, completing his second run to reach 200, was struck on the head by a shy at the wicket. He lay motionless on the ground, and there was initially some concern that he was dead. Happily, it transpired that he was just having a larf (#topbantz!), but I wonder, if he had been killed instantly while out of his ground, but his momentum had carried his lifelless body over the crease, would the run have stood? Is it enough for the batsman’s body to complete the run, or does he need to be present in spirit? A question for Ask the Umpire, perhaps, or possibly a theologian.)

Leicestershire Over 50s v Essex Over 50s, Kibworth, 11h September 2016

The final of the Over 50s 50/50 Cup (I don’t think the Over 60s play 60 overs) saw the first of this season’s happy endings. Leicestershire (the underdogs) were struggling (as the shadows lengthened) at 108-9, in reply to Essex’s 167, when the last man arrived at the crease. He made the bulk of the runs to take us to victory, and, as darkness fell, he was sprayed with Champagne by his team-mates, and presented with the Man of the Match Award by the increasingly Tudor Mike Gatting. This is what is usually described as a “fairytale ending”, or “like something out of a Boy’s Own Comic” ; we instinctively mistrust them as too neat, too satisfying, as, in fiction, they would be. Which is why it matters that it actually happened, and that we can believe our eyes.

Derbyshire v Leicestershire, AAA Arena Derby, 12th September 2016

Of all the counties I know well, I’d say Derbyshire has the most attractive grounds – apart from Belper, there is Chesterfield, Buxton, Duffield and, no doubt, many more I have yet to visit. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the County choose to play all but one of their home games at the AAA Arena, which is rapidly transforming itself into one of the ugliest. It has long suffered from being surrounded by a system of ringroads that makes it perilous to approach and which keeps up a whooshing, grumbling, drone in the background, and is famously windswept. It used to have redeeming features, though, such as a well-stocked secondhand bookshop, decent ice-cream, and deckchairs rather than fixed seating around much of the boundary. Unfortunately, this section was cordoned off in connection with the building of a new media centre, which seems designed to complete the transformation from a cricket ground to a collection of multi-use industrial units (with a Travelodge looming over it all). I am not unaware of the commercial imperatives that lie behind this (and that something of the sort threatens at Grace Road), but the thought does occur that, if this is the future for the smaller counties, then a threatened alternative future of playing minor counties at, for instance, Belper, might well be preferable.

It didn’t help that the weather was dull, the crowd glum (as well they might, not having won a match all season), and it cost £18.00 to get in. On the field, it was another frustrating day for Leicestershire, who having ground Derbyshire down to 177-6, as usual allowed 19-year old wicket-keeper Harvey Hosein (83*) to drag the innings out to 307. Both sides looked weary, as though they felt that the season had gone on for too long, and as the gloaming descended in the late afternoon, I began to feel the same way. The most interesting feature of the day was that one of the home supporters had brought along a pet tortoise in a cardboard box, which was allowed to graze just outside the boundary fence ; on the whole I found watching that more entertaining than what was going on inside it.

Northamptonshire v Gloucestershire, County Ground, 12-15 September 2016

Moving from Derby to Northampton was to move from gloom into bright light (once the early mist had burned off). Since their T20 victory, Northamptonshire have been sealed in a golden bubble of happiness, on a winning streak where every gamble they take pays off, where they only have to hope for something to make it happen, much as it must seem to their talisman Duckett (who, while Leicester and Derby had been toiling, had knocked off 208 in a victory over Kent). In this match he could only manage a 70, mostly backhand-smashed off Gloucestershire’s quartet of season-weary back-of-a-length merchants, though he was presented with the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year Award (not to mention being called up by England).

On the final day, Gloucestershire had been set 441 to win. At 286-5 with time shortening, logic suggested a draw, but dream logic demanded that Northants should bowl them out, and that Ben Sanderson (a plucked-from-obscurity fairy story in himself), should take eight wickets to do it. After that it was beers on the balcony, and precious, sweaty, kit flung over it to the faithful, who lingered as long at the ground as they decently could. Make time, save time, while time lasts …

Northamptonshire’s Members too, seem to be locked in a golden bubble of happiness, to the extent that they have allowed themselves to be persuaded to surrender control of the club to a “group of investors” (I voted against this). The current investors appear to be amiable and well-intentioned, and, in the short-term, the future may well appear bright. In the longer term, though, when those investors grow old, or need some cash, the ex-Members may discover that it is harder to regain control of a club than to surrender it, at least until it goes bust (as the supporters of more than local football club will testify).

On the other hand, the long term is too far ahead to look for some of the older Members. As I heard one say “Oh, well. There’ll be cricket here next year … and maybe the year after”. Carpe diem … and let the future look after itself.

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, Grace Road, 20-22 September 2016

And so to the end, and a bitter end it looked to be, when Leicestershire were bowled out for 96 on the first morning (on what Andrew McDonald described as one of the worst days of first-class cricket he had ever seen). I won’t bore you with what led them to this position, but Gloucestershire found themselves, at lunch on the third day, needing 35 to win with 6 wickets in hand. There followed a fairytale ending, of the kind in which the big bad wolves (in the shape of Clint McKay and Charlie Shreck) gobble up the little piggies, as they lost those six wickets for ten runs, to give Leicestershire their first home win since 2012. It somehow happened too quickly to quite take in, and, after a brief explosion of disbelief and relief, I was left with the realisation that, after close to six months, and God knows how many thousands of words, it was all over, finished, gone, and I could think of nothing to say about it at all.

All time is no time, when time is past …