The Art of Falling Apart

Leicestershire CCC  (100 & 196) v Warwickshire CCC (400-9 dec.), Grace Road, 10-12 September 2018 (Warwickshire won by an innings and 104 runs) 

Leicestershire CCC (321) v Durham CCC (61 & 66), Grace Road, 18-19 September 2018 (Leicestershire won by an innings and 194 runs)

I ended my last post by expressing the hope (hope against hope) that neither Leicestershire’s season, nor the team, would fall apart in September. The first has certainly happened : having lost only two games, both very narrowly, in the first half of the season, since the defeat against Kent we have lost five times, by margins varying from 132 to 328 runs. It is some compensation that we are not alone in having made a succession of low totals. The last month of the season increasingly resembles the climax to an episode of ‘Wacky Races’, filled with spectacular crashes, bits falling off the competitors and some improbable leaps. Predictably so, some would say, if that month is September.

The defeat against Warwickshire was nothing if not predictable. The soon-to-be Champions featured five players with Test experience, and the Division’s three leading run-scorers (three of only four to have averaged over 40). Leicestershire’s cobbled-together side featured two bowlers brought in from Minor Counties, to replace the soon-to-be permanently absent Raine and Chappell, and the injured Griffiths (the regular 2nd XI seamers, too, were injured). Unsurprisingly, Warwickshire exercised their prerogative to bowl first (the game was to be largely played under lights), and, to no-one’s surprise, Leicestershire were bowled out for exactly 100. Barker and Woakes were too swinging for the top order, and Stone, though sparingly used, was too fast for the tail.

There was, at least, an element of comedy to the dismissal of Mark Cosgrove (for the spectators, if not the batsman). Neil Dexter had looked to get off the mark with a single that would have been ambitious had his partner been Speedy Gonzales. Cosgrove is capable of a surprising turn of speed, but it takes him a while to achieve terminal velocity, achieving it, in this case, roughly as he entered the pavilion, the wicket having long since been broken by Woakes in his follow through. If Woakes had really been ‘the nicest man in cricket’, he might have taken pity and deliberately thrown wide.

I left early, having been called away (I have been called away a lot recently, for one reason or another), but stayed long enough to see opener Dominic Sibley (who seems to have grown since I last saw him play for Surrey) make 50 off 49 balls (mostly off one of our Minor Counties seamers, who was quickly removed from the attack). By the end of the day, Sibley had made more runs than Leicestershire on his own, and Warwickshire had nearly doubled our total for the loss of three wickets.

It rained overnight, and for most of the morning. When play began at 2.00, in front of an understandably sparse crowd, the conditions, with the wicket freshly-spritzed, were ideally suited to the seam of Dexter and Abbas. Jonathan Trott resumed on 34, and took forty minutes to make another eight, before mis-timing a pull. This would be the last time that any of us would see Trott in action at Grace Road, and it seemed an appropriate way for him to take his leave, mostly unapplauded, but having seen off the (slight) threat to his side. As conditions eased and Leicestershire’s bowling resources were stretched too thin, Ambrose, Hain and Woakes moved easily to within sight of 400, a target that was reached first thing the next morning, followed by a declaration.

Although Leicestershire offered slightly more resistance in their second innings, the result seemed a formality, and most of the day was spent speculating about comings and goings : amongst other things, I was told that Chappell was definitely moving to Nottinghamshire, which turned out to be true, and that Keith Barker, who had taken eight wickets, would be joining us at Leicestershire, which, unfortunately, turned out not to be.

A ray of light in the gloom

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was the performance of Ben Mike, in his second game, who stuck to his task with the ball to take three wickets, and was the top scorer in both innings. Having struck Patel, in a feather-ruffling act of lèse-majesté, for two straight sixes, his was the last wicket to fall, attempting bravely to pull Stone for another six. Like Ben Raine, for whom he looks a plausible replacement, he strikes me as someone who can always be counted upon to go down fighting, which is a useful characteristic for a Leicestershire player to possess.

In contrast to Trott, who had slipped out unnoticed by the back door, as it were, Paul Collingwood’s every move, in his last appearance at Grace Road, was greeted with a standing ovation, to the point where, given his performance, it might, though motivated by genuine affection, have become a slight embarrassment to him. The first ovation came when he led his side on to the field, having, not unreasonably, chosen to field.

Leicestershire opened with the novel pairing of Sam Evans and Atiq Javid : at first, I assumed that regular opener Harry Dearden must have missed his bus, but it was revealed to be a deliberate tactical switch, and a successful one, with Atiq, whose average in the Championship prior to this game was in single figures, allowed to give free rein to his defensive instincts to make a maiden fifty at Grace Road. Dearden too, when he batted at five, appeared more at ease, as if the move had allowed him to loosen his stays a little.

Though Atiq’s was the only fifty of the innings, all of Leicestershire’s batsmen reached double figures, to finish the day on a hopeful 316-8. Most creditably, Mark Cosgrove, who is struggling through an unprecedented loss of form, managed to gouge out 38 painfully acquired runs, persistently attempting to play his favourite off-side strokes to balls that didn’t really invite them. If a slimmer batsmen, or one who has less hope of recovering his form, was struggling so to do what had been used to doing effortlessly, the effect would be more tragical.

Leicestershire’s total would have been smaller had Collingwood not dropped two catches in the slips (though, needless to say, he received a standing ovation as he left the field).

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Of the bowlers, the mountainous Rushworth

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deserved more than his two wickets. Mark Wood, though apparently pained by his ankles, was treated respectfully, watched by James Taylor, presumably there with his scout’s cap on (unless he, too, was there to say goodbye to Collingwood).

Whatever else you can say about this season at Grace Road, it has rarely been dull, and what turned out to be the last day there this year coincided with the arrival of Storm Ali. At the storm’s height, the players paused to gaze anxiously at one of the floodlights, which had begun to sway alarmingly : the only way that the season could have ended any more dramatically would have been if it had blown over and demolished the Meet.

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The day had begun with a slight disappointment for Leicestershire, their last two wickets falling with the total still short of the 350 required for another bonus point (Mohammad Abbas later apologised for having played a “lazy shot”). It was at this point that the wind really began to get up (particularly the Durham batsmen). With his fourth delivery, Abbas, bowling with the swelling gale behind him, a rider on the storm, took the wicket of Cameron Steel (who had scored a double century in the same fixture last year) ; by the end of the eleventh over he had taken five wickets, with the score on 18. Bowling into the gale, Neil Dexter had bowled five consecutive maidens.

Abbas’s last victim had been that of Paul Collingwood, who was cheered to the wicket, and cheered back again one ball later.

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On another day, I would have expected the visitors to have found some way to recover a little ground, even if only through the thrashing of the tail, but, as the gale reached its peak, the batsmen seemed as spooked as cats in a thunderstorm. Though efforts were made to tether it, the bell that is rung to signal the start of play began to ring of its own accord, like the ghostly church bells of a drowned village, tolling the knell for each departing batsman, and, at times, it seemed as if the sightscreen might blow over, flattening them before they could reach the wicket.

Like jackals finishing off a lion’s kill, Dexter (whose figures were 7-6-1-1), Griffiths and Mike polished off the remaining batsmen. Alex Lees, who had, at least, battened down the hatches while others abandoned ship, narrowly missed carrying his bat for a single figure score. Research soon revealed that the total of 61 was Durham’s lowest first-class score, a record that was in danger of being broken when they batted again, until a last wicket stand of seven between Rushworth and Wood enabled them to reach the comparative respectability of 66.

Mohammad Abbas, who may not have been quite unplayable, but was certainly largely unplayed, had taken another five wickets (his powers perhaps enhanced by his newly awarded “gold fox“),

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to give him 10-52 in the match. Collingwood received his final ovation, about two hours after his previous one (including the lunch interval), as he left the field for the last time, having been bowled by Abbas for five. His expression as he left the field was hard to read, but I don’t think it signalled unmixed delight.

 

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There was further applause as Collingwood was the first to congratulate Abbas, as he (modest to the last) had to be pushed into leading the Leicestershire players from the pitch.

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From the Leicestershire dressing room soon came the merry, if unmelodious, sound of Paul Nixon leading the community singing, and the prising off of beer bottle tops : from the Durham side, a silence so deep and ominous that it could be felt half way down Milligan Road.

The last few games of a season, as departing players are left out and new players introduced, sometimes reminds me of the publishing fad of printing the first chapter of its sequel at the end of a novel, as an inducement to buy. The sequel to Leicestershire’s season seems a lot more enticing if it will feature Mohammad Abbas (as, happily, it should), rather than the Abbas-less sequel suggested by the last game of the season (a defeat away to, of all people, Glamorgan).

Although the endless love-smothering of Collingwood felt a little incongruous in the circumstances, it does suggest an understandable desire not to allow players to slip from sight without some appropriate farewell. It seems a pity that Ned Eckersley, whose release was announced shortly before the Durham game, was not allowed one last home game. Rather as when someone has died unexpectedly, I tried to recall my final sight of him in Leicestershire colours, which must have been of him being bowled by Keith Barker for a perfectly honourable 77-minute 23. If I’d known at the time, I would have clapped a lot longer and harder.

It seems churlish to complain about an excess of excitement, but I do sometimes yearn for the kind of season’s end we used to have in the days of a one division Championship, when sides with nothing to play for would drift off into the close season through somnolent draws, as if in a mildly opiated haze (which, at least, allowed some space for reflection).

With Leicestershire down in the valleys, I tried a day at Northampton, where Northants, who have had a season that has been poor even by Leicestershire’s recent standards, were taking on Sussex, badly deflated by having been overtaken at the last minute by Kent, but even here there was no peace to be found : again, twenty wickets fell in the day, though, on this occasion, ten from each side, and both sides managed to creep into three figures.

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Bye!

The very last day of the season took me to Trent Bridge, where Nottinghamshire were due to resume their second innings needing another 215 to avoid an innings defeat, with seven wickets remaining. Clearly, there was little chance of Nottinghamshire saving the match, but I hoped they might spin things out for long enough for me to see some of those long shadows on the County Ground.

As I was contemplating where to sit, Ben Slater was caught behind by Trescothick from the bowling of Craig Overton. As I took my seat, Samit Patel was out in the same way to his first ball (prompting an unimpressed Nottinghamshire supporter to shout “Why not give him a standing ovation?”). Overton’s first ball to Wessels was identical to the previous two, and there seemed nothing the batsman could do other than nick it to Trescothick. It was a good job that Trescothick had announced that he wouldn’t be retiring for another year, or we would never have got home for all the ovations.

My season ended shortly before lunch, with the sun still high in the sky, and the shadows only slightly lengthening.

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Few Alarms and Few Surprises

 

Leicestershire (429-9 dec.) v Sussex (438-8 dec. & 241/4 dec.), County Championship, Grace Road, 20-23 April 2018

Match drawn

Leicestershire’s first home match of the new Championship season was chiefly remarkable for its lack of incident.

 

It ended in a draw at the end of the fourth day, with minimal interruption by rain or bad light, with both sides having made 400 in their first innings before declaring, and Sussex having batted out the last day, with no serious prospect of any result other than a draw.

This was remarkable in the context of what has been occurring elsewhere in the first two rounds of the Championship : of the 30 games played so far, 27 have resulted in wins (most within three, or even two, days), one was washed out (because of the drains in Leeds) and only two have ended in draws (the other, also involving Sussex, was rain-affected). Much of the credit for Grace Road being such an oasis of calm in this sea of tumult (if you can have an oasis in a sea) must go to the ground staff for producing a pitch that was far from dead (as the slow rate of scoring attests), but not unnecessarily lively.

It was also remarkable in the context of Leicestershire’s recent performances, in which dramatic turnarounds in fortune (in the wrong direction) have become a wearisomely predictable feature. If, in cartoons, you can spot a rake lying on the ground, it is a safe bet that someone will step on it : if Leicestershire make a reasonable start, a calamitous collapse is sure to follow ; if we score some telling blows against the top order, the tail is sure to wag gaily. Although there was a little of the latter, it was something a relief to make it to the end of a fourth day with no truly unpleasant shocks to the system.

The first session of a new season always compels close attention, if only because it is the last time when anything is possible. Sussex had chosen to bat, a little surprisingly, given that the early morning had been overcast and there looked to be moisture in the wicket. Leicestershire’s selection (Chappell and Klein had been omitted in favour of Griffiths) hinted at the strategy they seem to have adopted of ‘bowling dry’ (which might be Nixon’s idea, or something Carberry picked up from his spell with England).

Last season, Zak fired away fast and furiously with the new ball to an attacking field, which could be thrilling to watch, but could also result in the opposition having 50 on the board by the end of the first half hour. Mohammad Abbas (or, as his sweater described him ‘Abass’ – perhaps our kit manufacturers have strong views on the correct transliteration of Urdu) and Griffiths set the tone for the day by bowling with scrupulous accuracy (and hostility, in Abbas’s case) to an astutely set field. Luke Wells was the first wicket to fall, with the first bowling change in the ninth over, caught behind off Raine, when he had made 2, and the score was 23. Fellow-opener Salt, who had been a little more productive, was out in the same way two runs later (I suppose Zak could have peppered him with bouncers, but we are in no position to throw away an early advantage for the sake of a cheap pun).

The same pattern persisted until the early afternoon, with all the bowlers (save Raine) bowling almost as many maidens as not. Every time a bowling change was made a wicket fell (as with the field placings, I prefer to put this down to Carberry’s astuteness, rather than beginner’s luck). Parkinson removed van Zyl with his second ball (which was to prove his last wicket, though he bowled another 50 overs), with the score on 115-4. The bowling remained as dry as a kookaburra’s khyber, but the gap between wickets was lengthening.

As the afternoon wore on, the heat increased, the ball softened, and Leicestershire must have felt that they were in danger of losing this war of attrition. Carberry had six front-line bowlers at his disposal (all-rounder Ateeq Javid had replaced Eckersley (‘niggle’)), and he tried them all in turn, like a man with too many pockets searching for a misplaced bus ticket. Ben Brown and Luke Wright became a little expansive, and tea and the new ball seemed a long way off. In the evening session, fortified by the new ball (and one of Mr. Stew’s excellent teas), Abbas had Brown caught behind, and Raine, who sometimes seems able to take wickets through sheer force of will, took two in two balls to leave Sussex on 254-7 at the close of play.

Anyone unfamiliar with Leicestershire (and a few hopeful souls who are all too familiar) would have been expecting, when play resumed the next morning, that, with only one recognised batsman left, the Sussex tail would be neatly and bloodlessly docked. But, I am afraid, Leicestershire reverted to type and the same two batsmen, Michael Burgess and Ishant Sharma, were still at the crease in mid-afternoon, with Burgess approaching his century and the total approaching 400. What makes this more galling (and may have added a couple of inches in height to his celebratory air-punching) is that Burgess was released by Leicestershire in 2016 .

As soon as he had made his century, Sussex declared on 438-8, the skies darkened and a shower of rain arrived to freshen up the wicket like a quick squirt of Trumper’s Extract of Limes. On the resumption, Paul Horton, who may be in for a very long (or very short) season, was trapped lbw by Sharma without scoring, to be replaced by Colin Ackermann, who had inherited the vexed position of no. 3, in the absence of the niggled Eckerlsey.

Ackermann is, by the standards of the modern cricketer, of medium height and build, with an unremarkable haircut and no visible tattoos, and rather looks as though he should be walking to the crease in a business suit, carrying an attaché case containing a packed lunch and a copy of ‘The Times’. Although he made two centuries last season (including a heroic one in the legendary day-night match at Northampton), he has sometimes given the impression that he only feels contractually obliged to make 30. Carberry (again a study in concentration) was, like his opening partner, snared by Sharma shortly before the close for 32, but, by then, he and Ackermann had deftly sidestepped the obvious rakes to finish on 112-2.

The Sunday had something of ‘while the cats are away, the mice will play’ about it. Last season, Sussex had come to the game armed with the near Test-quality bowling of Philander, Archer and Jordan. With Archer and Jordan away at the IPL (and Garton apparently injured), the Leicestershire batsmen must have felt like Wyatt Earp taking on a Clanton gang who had left their six-shooters back at the ranch : of the bowlers, only Sharma offered any real threat, and the pitch, by now slightly sluggish and lacking in bounce, offered him little assistance.

I even felt sufficiently confident that there would be no ‘unexpected‘ collapses to leave at 3.00, secure in the knowledge that there would be a fourth day worth returning for. Cosgrove (who has now, including the warm-up matches, made fifties in eight out of his last ten innings) made 64 to escort Ackermann into safe waters, like a sturdy tugboat escorting a stately liner out from the harbour. With Dexter and Raine in supporting roles, Ackermann made 186, one short of his career best, which he achieved over our Winter in South Africa. He may yet be discovered to have a superhero outfit lurking under that business suit.

Leicestershire’s total of 422-9 (for once, we had the luxury of declaring) was enough to put the match beyond Sussex and – barring a really surprising turn of events – ourselves. There might have been a brief quickening of the pulse when Abbas bowled opener Salt with the score on 27, and a flutter when van Styl followed shortly before lunch, but the tone for the day had been set by opener Luke Wells, who took 70 minutes to add to his overnight score, in the face of some more Martini-dry Leicestershire bowling. He later sped up sufficiently to complete an undefeated century.

Wells is not a player I have ever given much thought to, beyond knowing that he was one of the Wells brothers’ son (Alan, apparently). A tall left-hander, he employed a limited range of shots with great efficiency, though he hinted at a wider range when he went after Callum Parkinson in the late afternoon, presumably anxious to get his hundred before the shaking of hands. I thought he reminded me of someone, and Brian Carpenter correctly suggested it might be Alastair Cook : he might well be the kind of previously underestimated player Ed Smith is hoping to discover when he gets to work with his magic moneyballs.

I also note from Cricinfo that Wells is ‘the most sledged cricketer in England’, so it was good to hear that Leicestershire did not allow themselves to be audibly provoked by his frustrating adhesion. It was also to their credit that they continued to bowl and field as if it mattered, long past the point when it did, with only Griffiths betraying a hint of dampness. The drawback to his having a ‘repeatable action’ is that he can become locked into an extended groove, an admirable quality if auditioning for the Famous Flames, but less so in a seamer.

Our next fixture begins on Friday, against Derbyshire, who may prove to be another rake concealed in the long grass. With Archer and Jordan absent, April was the right time to play Sussex, but it may be a cruel month to play Derby, whose strength looks to lie in their imported seam attack of Viljoen, Rampaul and Olivier. It would be reasonable to expect at least one of them to have broken down by mid-season, but, for the moment, they all appear to be fit, and all too capable of causing some unwanted alarms and surprises.  Mohammad Abbas will also have been replaced by Varun Aaron, who is, by reputation, more fire than earth.

As a statistical footnote, Sussex fielded six players with monosyllabic surnames : Wells, Salt, Finch, Wright, Brown and Beer (all names from a village war memorial), and eight if you include van Zyl and Wiese. I wonder if, perhaps, this might be a record?

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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

 

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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

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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 …

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