England’s Fitful Dozing

On the Sunday afternoon of the Worcestershire game at Wantage Road, I found myself sitting in the back row of the Briggs & Forrester Family Stand.  If there is any sun, this stand traps it (several tattooed men had stripped to the waist, closed their eyes and were using it as a cheap alternative to a tanning salon) ; there was also a strong south-easterly wind.  A few rows in front of me sat a ruddy-faced man from Worcestershire (I like to think he was a retired pear-farmer) wearing a broad-brimmed canvas hat.

Perhaps nine times in the hour I sat there the wind blew the hat off his head.  Sometimes it lifted it vertically, like a Harrier jump-jet, and flipped it backwards on to the seat behind ; sometimes it spun off horizontally like a Frisbee ; once it cartwheeled away and came to rest four or five rows back.  Every time, the man patted his head to confirm his headgear had gone, before, with a look of mild puzzlement, trotting patiently back to retrieve it and replace it on his head. It did not seem to occur to him to take his hat off, or move to a less blowy location.

Something about this scene seemed to me to suggest the mentality of the regular watcher of County cricket : the dogged persistence, in the face of considerable experience to the contrary,  in believing that, if you turn up day after day after day, you will eventually be rewarded with the discovery of whatever it is you have come there to find.  I say “you”, but, of course, what I really mean is “me”.

I have often referred to Cardus’s visions of the ideal, Platonic season (In “Prelude” and “the Summer Game” and elsewhere), where “when June arrives, cricket grows to splendour like a rich part of the garden of an English summertime” and “if the sun be ample and you close your eyes for a while you will see a vision of all the cricket fields in England at that very minute” and I would count myself unlucky if I did not, at least once a year, surprise, or be surprised by, some midsummer spirit of cricket (and often in some of the less looked-for places, such as here, or even here).

Whether, if ever, the season, like a budding English garden, blooms and “grows to splendour” depends on that elemental, but banal quantity, the English weather.  Midsummer should be England’s dreamtime, but this year it has struggled to emerge from a fitful, interrupted sleep.  Or, to put it more prosaically, we have had an awful lot of rain and, if not rain, then cloud.

On my return from Scarborough, I had been intending to eke out the holiday feeling by pursuing the spirit of cricket to one of its likelier hiding places, the Cricket Festival at Queen’s Park, Chesterfield, which, with its fish and chips and miniature railway, is the nearest the East Midlands has to offer to the seaside.  There was little rain during the Festival but, thanks to some heavy rain the week before, there was no cricket either.  I do not know whether this was because of exceptionally poor drainage, or over-caution on the part of the Umpires, but I fear I may have to look elsewhere for my Festival spirit and chips in coming seasons.

Leicestershire v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Grace Road, 27-30 June 2016

The week before Scarborough I had watched Leicestershire play Gloucestershire. Consulting the photographs I had taken as an aide-memoire, I found several of Chris Dent (the Gloucestershire batsman and occasional wicket-keeper), a few of the patterns of light dancing on the back of the score box, several of the boundary fence and two or three of some copulating ducks, which were pretty much the salient points over the four days.

As anyone who had consulted the weather forecast knew (and I believe Leicestershire Captain Cosgrove has now picked up this Pommy habit) there was little chance of a result from the outset.  By lunchtime on day 2, Leicestershire had made 334. By the time play resumed at the beginning of the fourth day, the first question was whether both sides would forfeit an innings to set Gloucestershire a target of 335.

Perhaps mindful of the last time Leicestershire made a sporting declaration against Gloucestershire, which resulted in the defenestration (almost literally so, I’ve heard) of the previous Captain, Ronnie Sarwan, Cosgrove was, understandably, reluctant.  In the event, this was just as well, as Chris Dent made a good-looking 165 to take Gloucestershire to 403-2.  (It is hard not to look good when making 165, but then it is hard to make 165 if you aren’t any good.)

The ducks had made their appearance late on the first day, making a horrible racket as they frolicked shamelessly in the outfield, to a running commentary from the Leicestershire balcony.  Ducks are never a welcome sight on a cricket field, but this was a disgraceful performance.

Nottinghamshire v Lancashire, County Championship, Trent Bridge, 6th July 2016

There were no ducks (or low comedy of any kind) at Trent Bridge, where I witnessed another day of “proper cricket”, the fourth day of the game between Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. Nottinghamshire began the day with victory in sight, a vision that slowly faded as Lancashire batted out the day, led by an obdurate, but not inelegant century from nineteen-year-old Boltonian opener Haseeb Hameed (who might, at some point, make a good opening partner for Alex Lees). If the keynotes of the day were Stoical restraint from the batsmen and mounting frustration for the Nottinghamshire crowd, there was also one moment of cathartic relief, as Stuart Broad bowled the best ball I’ve seen this season to send Petersen’s middle stump cartwheeling, like my pear-farmer’s hat.

Pakistan A v Sri Lanka A, Grace Road, 5th July

My companion for the day at Grace Road (the Last Gnome) had predicted the likely crowd level as “pauper’s funeral” and, by those standards, there wasn’t a bad turnout. At the start of play there were just the two of us, but, at its height, the crowd had swelled to eleven paying customers (including one professional autograph merchant and two small children), watched over by eight stewards and four St. John Ambulance personnel. In the lunch hour a steward was posted to prevent a pitch invasion ; the Gnome and I thought of running on from different sides of the pitch in a pincer movement, but calculated that, in the five minutes it would take us to reach the square, the steward would have had time to call for reinforcements.

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At these A games, the hope is always to spot some future great in embryo, some budding Waqar or infant Murali, but, if I did, I had the experience but missed the meaning (as the poet hath it). Pakistan (this was the third day of four) had, as you might expect, four nippy seamers who bowled a little too short, a spinner who might have been very effective against English batsmen, and Sri Lanka two or three top-order batsmen who seemed to be under orders to play sensibly “in English conditions”. The main source of entertainment was to see whether the run-rate on the scoreboard was going to dip below one an over (a thing I’ve only seen once before, at a Women’s Test against India). It came close to it shortly after lunch, but accelerated to just over two slightly after tea, before the innings inexplicably collapsed, like a shanty town in an earthquake.

Northamptonshire v Worcestershire, County Championship, Wantage Road, 10-13 July 2016

When Adam Rossington and Richard Levi walked out to resume Northamptonshire’s first innings on 60-3 at the beginning of the second day against Worcestershire, they were greeted with a barrage of high-pitched squealing and shrieking of an intensity last heard when the Beatles made their debut at the Shea Stadium.  It was Schools Day at Wantage Road.

If the intention was to introduce the children to cricket, they must have formed the impression that it is a game that is played in brief bursts of about thirty minutes, before a tall man in a white coat (Alex “the Terminator” Wharf) waves his arms about and they all go back into the pavilion, to re-emerge about ten minutes later.  Sometimes the men in green hats seemed reluctant to leave and hung around expectantly on the edge of the pitch, while the men in maroon caps seemed to want to get off the pitch as quickly as they could and seemed very reluctant to come out again.

The children left at lunchtime, which was just as well, as there was very little lunch available.  The Pic’n’Mix stall was open, as was Gallone’s ice-cream van (incongruously staffed by what appeared to be Anna Sharapova’s more attractive younger sister).  For members there was a perfectly palatable chicken supreme available in the pavilion, (though in very small quantities), but, as the announcer put it “the Speckled Hen Lounge does not appear to be serving lunch”.  This might not be unconnected to a 2nd XI match against Derbyshire having being abandoned due to nine of the players and an umpire going down with food poisoning, but a ground that cannot rustle up a plate of chips or a cheese roll for its patrons does not convey the impression that it is prioritising its traditional clientele.

It is a cliché that games are won by the side “that wants it more”.  If “it” is promotion, then Worcestershire do want it (and seem well-equipped to attain it), Northamptonshire do not and don’t really need this competition at all, while they are (very successfully)putting all their very limited resources into “white ball cricket”. The incessant delays for rain only delayed the inevitable trouncing, which arrived late on the third day, with Northamptonshire bowled out by Mighty Joe Leach and Matt Henry for 148 and 142.

Ben Duckett had been made Captain for this game.  If this was in an effort to encourage him to stay with Northamptonshire, it may have been counter-productive.  As a 21-year-old with a background in dressing room pranking, he seemed to be struggling to impose his authority on some of the more experienced members of his side.

In Worcestershire’s first innings, he explained, with hand-signals, some cunning stratagem he had devised to bowler Panesar, who listened as patiently as a cat. He then positioned himself at short mid-on.  The next ball was driven hard and straight into his gut, and then straight out again.  In the second, the Sri Lankan Prasanna, in particular, took as much notice of his semaphored field directions as a seagull.

In his first innings he had failed (trapped LBW by Leach for 4) but, when he opened Northants’ second innings shortly before lunch on the third day, the romantic optimists in the crowd (less common at Wantage Road than Ukrainian beauty queens though we are) might have been anticipating an epic, match-saving Captain’s innings.

Duckett comfortably rode out the opening blast from Henry and Leach.  Then, predictably, Worcestershire brought on D’Oliveira Minimus (who has added about three inches to his height with a Little Richard style pompadour) to bowl his heritage leg-breaks for an over before lunch. The first two balls were full-tosses, which he slop-swept imperiously for four, the third a better-pitched ball, which he blocked.  The fourth he tried to sweep again, but scuffed it up just short of one of the two deeply silly short legs he had been engaging in conversation. The fifth an exact repeat of the fourth, except that he was caught.

Very late on an elderly man returned to the ground (shortly before Worcestershire won by 311 runs) and announced “I’ve just been to the dentist’s … I wish I’d stayed there now”.  It’s being so cheerful as keeps us going, you know.

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Veni, Vidi, Leachy

Leicestershire v Worcestershire, Grace Road, County Championship, 22-24 May 2016

One of the more plausible solutions to the mystery of the ‘Mary Celeste’ is as follows.  A small fire and a strong smell of fumes had led the ship’s Captain to believe that his entire cargo of denatured alcohol was about to catch fire and explode.  He panicked and ordered the crew to abandon ship.  If he had remained calm, the fire could easily have been extinguished and the cargo made safe.  As it was, neither he nor the crew were ever seen again.

Anyone dropping in at Grace Road at tea on Tuesday afternoon would have been confronted by a similar mystery.  The ground was deserted, the covers were on with no sign of rain, and still warm trays of chips and recently discarded lolly sticks indicated that it had been hurriedly and unexpectedly abandoned.

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Nothing in the ship’s log of the ‘Mary Celeste’ offered a clue as to the coming disaster, and nothing in the scorebook for the first two days’ play suggested much untoward at Grace Road.  Leicestershire had begun more than comfortably at 243-3.  There were some signs that batting was not as easy as the Leicestershire top order had made it seem (some balls kept a little low) when Joe Leach took five wickets to bowl them out for 313 and Worcestershire, in turn, could only muster 274.

I had felt some slight sense of foreboding when I had woken at 5.00 to a carpet of fog (even the best covers can do little to prevent fog creeping under them), but it had burnt off by breakfast-time and, on my way to the ground, I was considering writing about the difficulty of finding the right tone in which to write about a Leicestershire victory.  If the pitch was playing up a little, then 200, or even 150 to add to their first-innings lead should do, and a side as experienced as ours should have no difficulty with that (I thought).

The first Leicestershire wicket to fall (Horton snicking an outswinger to slip) was regrettable, but no great cause for alarm.  The second, though, was the equivalent of that small fire in the ‘Mary Celeste’.  A ball from Leach sprang up alarmingly, caught Neil Dexter’s bat on the splice and spiralled to point.  This seemed to lead them to believe that the pitch was deteriorating rapidly and panic set in.

Cosgrove played an inexplicably airy drive at a straight ball and was bowled for 0 to take them to 4-3 with their three best batsmen already gone.  Robson and Wells were trapped LBW, apparently paralysed with fear by balls that kept slightly low. Pettini and Aadil Ali, perhaps thinking that suicidal singles were their only hope of scoring, ran themselves out.  Niall O’Brien did his best to stem the lemming-flow, but it was a hopeless task and the innings closed , shortly before lunch, on 43.

(If there were scenes of panic in the dressing room, by the way, they were mirrored in the stands as the Members, fearful that the game might end before lunchtime, made a rush for the Meet and Mr. Stew’s delicious lunch-time special.)

Most of the damage (when not purely self-inflicted) was caused by Joe “Leachy” Leach, who finished with match figures of 9-109 .  Cricinfo uses one of the obvious words to describe him, which is “bustling“; another would be “burly“.  He bustles, he hustles, he doesn’t shave too often and he likes to return the ball to the wicket-keeper as close to the batsman’s head as possible.  I don’t remember him going in for too many verbals, but – given that he has a degree in French and philosophy – he might have chosen to instill a sense of existential dread in the batsmen’s minds by flinging a few of the more uncomfortable thoughts from “L’être et le néant” at them.

"All human actions are equivalent and all are on principle doomed to failure - YOU TWAT"

“All human actions are equivalent and all are on principle doomed to failure – YOU TWAT”

Leach is the kind of player whom County supporters adore, if only because he looks, from the boundary, as if he might be one of them.  In reality he is 6’1″ and built like a prop forward, but, compared to the wand-like gymn-bunny physiques of most modern players, he is shaped roughly like Benny the Ball.  Or, as one of the gatemen (a keen student of the game) said to me “He shouldn’t be taking all these wickets – he’s just a stock bowler.  Look at his backside!”.

Worcestershire have a victory song (Leicestershire have one too, but there’s hasn’t been much need recently to translate it from the original Middle English), which is sung to the tune ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ and contains a line about “Leachy” getting in the drinks.  One imagines he took the hint and put this into practice after the game, once he had finished accepting tribute from the conquered Foxes,

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(or perhaps he confounded Cosgrove further by engaging him in a conversation about whether Pascal’s Wager is covered by the ICC’s anti-corruption regulations).

Cosgrove gave a fairly acute assessment of the game in an interview with the ‘Leicester Mercury’: “It was not acceptable … there was definitely a bit of panic … no-one was up to the task … including myself, and it bit us in the backside“.  It is a truism, and I think true, that one freakishly low score is easier to recover from than a persistent string of ordinarily poor ones, but this defeat has come at an inconvenient time.

Tuesday morning was the first session I have seen this season where Leicestershire were not in control ; they have played five matches and dominated four of them, but have only one win to show for it.  After one more 4-day fixture (trickily away at Canterbury), the season then enters the Bermuda Triangle where the odd Championship match is slotted in amongst a slew of 20 and 50 over games, and they may struggle to keep their bearings.

I have (almost) every confidence that they will be able to regain their early season strength when the Championship reconvenes properly in August, but I’m afraid there are some Members who do not share my faith, and who think that, once again, there are dark clouds gathering above Grace Road.

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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.