Super Heroes and Scary Creeps

There comes a point in every season when it starts to curdle.  In a hot Summer (which, in our case, we have not had), hot for too long, the grass scorches, flowers wilt and go to seed, rivers choke, tempers fray ; a feeling of satiety, and beyond satiety, excess. Too much heat, too much lager, too much sun, too much fun, just too much ; too much ice-cream, too many chips, too many runs, too many sixes, too much cricket.

The feeling will pass (has passed) : a palate-cleansing visit to an outground, a nip in the air, the first leaves of Autumn creeping on to the outfield, will makes the passing season seem precious again, but, while it lasts, the spell is broken and I see cricket through the eyes of one who cannot see the point.  What does it matter if those three little sticks get knocked down?  What is so clever about hitting that ball so far?  What is the point?

I usually reach this point at about this time, and it’s often at a 50 over game : this year, I pushed my luck by watching three in the space of six days.  I witnessed two (I believe) record-breaking innings and more sixes than you could have seen in an average season forty years ago, and, with the exception of one multi-faceted gem, my overwhelming feeling was one of futility, satiety, just too much.

England Lions v Sri Lanka A, Wantage Road, 21st July

Lions fixtures attract unpredictable crowds.  I once, for instance, saw Joe Root play one of the best innings I’ve seen, against a strong New Zealand side, in front of a crowd of about 20 at Grace Road ; a few months later, he was playing much the same innings with tens of thousands all ROOOOTing  loudly for him. Perhaps because it was a one-day match, perhaps even because it was a day-night match, or perhaps just because it was free, there was an unusually good turnout at Wantage Road for the visit of a poor Sri Lanka A (I’m not sure I want to see Sri Lanka B).

There were quite a few children there (who, as children will, seemed more interested in their own games than the one on the pitch). There were clean-cut young men with a certain swagger, a lot of Jack Wills and Abercrombie and Fitch and yah-ing (and these can’t all have been friends and team-mates of the players).  Mr.and Mrs. Percival Bell-Drummond were there, as always, dressed as if for a garden party at Buckingham Palace. The Northamptonshire loyalists had turned out specifically to see Ben Duckett, and then there were a few “passionate England fans”.

On my way in, I passed a couple of elderly regulars, packing their kit up into their old carrier bags and shuffling off, like tramps moved on by the police.  One said to the other “imagine having that in your ear all afternoon“.  In their usual roost behind the bowler’s arm sat a fat man in a replica shirt bawling into his ‘phone in an estuarine accent “so he said the £40 million was all down to Brexit, so I put the ‘phone down on him“. I didn’t wait to find out whether he did keep it up all afternoon, but I imagine what followed was his idea of a good time.

The first ten overs (the “powerplay”) followed the usual formula.  Bell-Drummond played well enough, placing the ball accurately through the gaping holes Sri Lanka were forced to leave in the outfield, most memorably with the sort of bottom-handed gouge that now rivals the traditional cover drive.  He is a good player, but this, against some moderate pace bowling, was like playing tennis with no net.  Fortuitously, he was stumped for 52 soon after the powerplay had ended and the spinners (Sri Lanka employed four) had come on.  This brought the man whom the crowd (including me) had come to see to the crease, to much applause.

This was the second time this season I have seen Ben Duckett play a one-day innings of any length.  I have consulted his “waggon wheel” to confirm my memory of it, and there it is, like some exquisite tropical fish, with a fan tail of straight drives and two feathery fins square of the wicket, composed of dismissal-defying cuts, sweeps and reverse sweeps, mostly from turning balls in front of his stumps.  Of his eight fours, four were behind square on the off side, as well as two scoop-cum-ramps back over his head off a returning paceman.  Once or twice he missed or mis-hit, but, with the luck of the brave, he survived, only to fall to a tame caught-and-bowled, for 61 (which seemed a bit like Al Capone being done for tax evasion).

Duckett is not, as both the Northamptonshire police and Brett D’Oliveira will attest, always innocent of displays of gratuitous bravado, but the beauty of his innings was that the match situation enabled him to put his undoubted virtuosity at the service of the needs of the team, to avoid getting bogged down in the slough of the middle overs.  It seemed, as the best batting does, successful against the odds, even if only the narrow ones of some better than inept bowling on a wicket that was taking a little turn.

It was at the same time modern and reminiscent of Jack Hobbs in his fleet-footed pre-War prime, when his party trick was to skip out to leg and cut the ball to the boundary off middle-stump (for which he, like Duckett, was often berated by sober critics for showing off).  It was also, unlike those that followed, an innings that he could have played with a Herbert Sutcliffe Autograph. What followed was Dawid Malan’s innings (with Sam Billings in a supporting role).

The facts are that Malan scored 185* off 126 balls, with 8 sixes and 16 fours, the most memorable of which were struck off the front foot back over the bowler’s head. It is a style of batting that would have been entirely familiar to “Buns” Thornton in the 1870s, and would have been warmed the heart of that redoubtable proponent of Golden Age batting, E.H.D. Sewell. The difference is that dear old “Buns”, unlike Malan, would not have been armed with a G&M Maxi F4.5 (or similar) and would have expected to perish somewhere in the outfield before he had reached 50.

E.H.D. Sewell

E.H.D. Sewell

The crowd, who did not seem to have been drinking too heavily, seemed rather blasé about this record-breaking innings, though there were a few murmurs of “Yah, gun bat” from the Jack Wills crew, and the children were distracted from their games when they had to scatter to avoid being brained by one of Malan’s sixes. I found it as entertaining a sporting spectacle as someone taking a twelve-bore to a farrowing shed, and was not too sorry when I had to leave before Sri Lanka began their hopeless attempt to overhaul England’s total of 393-5, as the clouds that were to curtail the evening began to loom.

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Leicestershire v Yorkshire, Royal London Cup, Grace Road, 24th July 2016

This Sunday had been designated as Superhero Day. Other than Charlie Fox (who was dressed as Superman), only about ten people had come in costume, but there was something appropriate about the theme, in so far as superhero films represent something essentially infantile, but hyper-inflated by technology and hype.

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Yorkshire’s innings started entertainingly enough, with Adam Lyth run out in the first over for 2 (he consoled himself by buying a bacon cob from the burger van), and Alex Lees (upright as always) making 32.

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After that, Travis Head (who sounds like a permed AOR one-hit wonder from 1978, but is actually an Australian), and Jack Leaning played essentially the same innings as Malan, only this time in stereo. Again the statistics tell the whole story : Head made 175 off 139 balls (4 sixes and 18 fours) and Leaning 131* off 110, with 5 sixes and 7 fours. Yorkshire finished on 376-3. A few years ago these figures would have been extraordinary, but today are anything but.

In the interval Charlie Fox raced a bear, representing a local charity, and various groups of (mainly Muslim) schoolgirls played organised games in the outfield.

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It was all very inclusive, and accessible, and sweet, but it seemed, as we settled down on the pop side after the break, that it had not met with universal approval. Two women wearing niqab walked by. “It’s a disgrace. Shouldn’t be allowed” was one loudly voiced opinion from a group of Yorkshire supporters. Shortly afterwards, I heard a woman (whom I did not recognise) complaining to a steward. The only part of her complaint I could hear was “It’s just horrible”.

Another, larger, male steward was summoned and spoke to a well-dressed man, who received the news that he was being asked to leave impassively, as though being thrown out of the ground were an unavoidable, minor irritant of the cricket-watching life, on a par with rain, or bad light. He drained his pint and handed the glass to the steward (without even asking for the £1 deposit back). “I’ll just get me things” said his wife, and off they went.

The fact that their side was taking a drubbing did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of Leicestershire’s Ultras.  Early season favourites “Jamie Vardy’s Having a Party” and “We Want Our Country Back” had been mothballed, but any tentative chant of “York-sheer” was met with “Flat Caps and Whippets” and “You Haven’t Even Got a Football Team“.  There was some mirthful stuff about burkas, and AIDS ; it wasn’t “racist” (apart from anything else it’s a multiracial group), not even “offensive”, because none of it made any sense.

A woman with short, bleached hair walked past, accompanied by what might have been her grand-children, on the way to the ice-cream parlour.  An imagined resemblance to Annie Lennox was spotted, and, on her way back, she was met with a loud chorus of “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”.  She looked embarrassed, the man in front of me was literally crying with laughter, and I’d had enough.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the far side of the ground, a long way from the action, but pleasantly sunlit, as Leicestershire went through the motions of a reply before subsiding, chiefly to Adil Rashid and Aseem Rafiq, after 33 overs.  “Leicestershire La La La“sounded quite soothing from over there.

Leicestershire v Lancashire, Grace Road, Royal London Cup, 26th July

I’m not quite sure why I turned up for this one.  In the morning, I had to see a woman about a dog,

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so only caught Lancashire’s reply to Leicestershire’s 307, which struggled to get going against a makeshift attack devoid of conventional straight-up-and-down pace (Neil Dexter’s medium pace claimed 4-22, and even Paul Horton took a wicket).  If I had stayed to the end, I would have seen Leicestershire win by 131 runs (their first 50-over victory for two years), though their interest in this competition (small as it was) ended some time ago.

One source of the batsmen’s discomfort was the debut of Dieter Klein, the German-South African who bowls briskly off five paces, and still has the element of surprise.  At one point, he fielded a firmly struck cover drive off his own bowling and was back at his mark before the batsmen had decided whether to run or not. If nothing else (and he did take 2-38), he offers a one-man solution to slow over rates.

I was also intrigued by the appearance of a half familiar bearded figure, a cross between Bob Dylan and a Renaissance Christ, acting as a substitute fielder for Leicestershire.

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Who was this apparition?  Well, that’s a story for next time.

Bittersweet Summers : Seaside Special

Yorkshire v Middlesex, Scarborough, County Championship, Sunday 3rd July 2016

“While I have had the best of cricket in my lifetime, there will be lifetimes to come when it will be good enough.” – J.M. Kilburn

I have left it late in life to watch cricket in Scarborough ; also, at least, forty years too late.  At the ground on Sunday I bought a copy of “Sweet Summers“, a compilation of the writings of J.M. Kilburn, for many years the Cricket Correspondent of the Yorkshire Post (owing to some terrible mix-up it had been signed by Geoffrey Boycott, but I kept it anyway).  Kilburn was the Laureate of Yorkshire cricket, and, in particular, the Laureate of Scarborough and its Festival, which sometimes tempted him into a slight relaxation of his scrupulously decorous prose style.

In an essay originally published in 1937 Kilburn wrote:

“Not to be concerned with cricket in the first days of September is to be an outcast in Scarborough, a stranger in a strange land without reason or justification for existence.  There are cricket dances, cricket banquets, cricket celebrations of every possible kind, cricket is first and last in the mind of every public entertainer.”

This was not the case over the week-end (the entertainer in our hotel, a Doncaster songbird, seemed more concerned with the deficiencies in her love-life) and I doubt whether it is any longer even true during what is left of the Festival proper, now shrunk to five days in August.

 

We stayed in the Grand Hotel (historically, an essential part of the Festival experience).  So intense was the interest in the players who were staying there that a special room (“the Cricketers’ Room”) was set aside for them to escape pestering.  It closed in 1979, by which time public interest in cricketers had, presumably, subsided sufficiently to allow them to eat their breakfast unmolested.  In 2016 I doubt whether even Joe Root would be greeted by more than a flicker of recognition over his cornflakes, and I wonder how many visitors would be able to name this character, who gazes, all lordly, down at them as they make their way to their rooms.

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lf I am forty years late for the heyday of the cricket festival, I am about a hundred and forty late for that of the Grand, which, after various changes of ownership, now combines the architecture and décor of a Belle Epoque spa hotel with the ambience and amenities of an English holiday camp (a sort of L’Année dernière à Pontins effect, “grand” in both the French and the George Formby senses).

In a small history of the hotel on sale from reception Nikolaus Pevsner describes it as

“a High Victorian gesture of assertion and confidence, of denial of frivolity and insistence on substance than which none more telling can be found in the land.”

I was initially puzzled by that phrase “denial of frivolity” (the Grand struck me as a vast monument to frivolity), but I suppose what he means is an undertaking that is essentially frivolous, yet taken entirely seriously.  Which brings us neatly on to Yorkshire cricket (and Kilburn’s writing about it).

In a series of tributes at the end of “Sweet Summers“, David Frith writes that he prefers Kilburn to his Lancastrian contemporary Neville Cardus “for the simple reason that he did not indulge himself in fantasy”, nor, he might have added, whimsy, comedy or aestheticism.  Yorkshire cricket (in the person of Kilburn) demands that the game be respected as an essentially serious undertaking : Lancashire cricket (in the writings of Cardus) has a deep-lying sense of its own essential absurdity.*

Lancashire cricket has accommodated exquisites such as Reggie Spooner, who would be dismissed as poseurs in Yorkshire, irresponsible egotists like Archie MacLaren, who would be taken down a peg or two, buffoons of genius like Flintoff, amateurs, dilettantes, piss-artists and assorted comedians who would all be regarded with grave suspicion the other side of the Pennines.

It has also (perhaps because its two main cities are ports and its main industry relied on an import) been more outward-looking and accommodating to outsiders : Lloyd and Engineer looked no more out of place than Ted McDonald had fifty years before.

Yorkshire is not simply inward-looking, but it does have a sense of unselfconscious mental self-sufficiency that is, I think, found nowhere else in England.  (Kilburn, unlike Cardus, never left his native county, and never saw any reason to.)  If Scarborians are insular, that is forgivable in a setting where the sense of living on an island is so intense, where Europe seems so far away and the open sea so inescapable.

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The atmosphere at North Marine Road is not, perhaps, entirely representative of the Yorkshire attitude (Scarborough is, as Kilburn says “Yorkshire cricket on holiday”) but there was no mistaking that it was a Yorkshire crowd ; not unthinkingly partisan, but, as he suggests elsewhere, more deeply and personally identified with the fortunes of their team than the supporters of other English counties.

The ground itself was larger than I had expected, with a capacity roughly equal to that of Grace Road (apparently the crowd on Sunday was 3,500, Yorkshire’s largest of the season) and more modern.  There was one wooden stand (where I spent most of the day), and an expanse of wooden banking (where the rowdier element congregated), but there were also new stands with plastic tip-up seats and, rather to my disappointment, no deckchairs (and no brass band).

The first ball of the day saw Adam Lyth play the archetypical Yorkshire opener’s shot – the leave.  Unfortunately, the ball, from Tim Murtagh, moved in at him, kissed the face of his bat and dropped neatly into the wicket-keeper’s gloves.  This brought Kane Williamson (appreciated in the same way as a good club professional, though I don’t suppose he is expected to help roll the wicket) in to join the other opener, Alex Lees.

Everything about Lees (one of those players to whom I have a not entirely rational attachment) is ramrod straight, from his stance at the crease

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to the arc of his strokes.  He bats as if inside an invisible sentry box and, if (perish the thought!), he had walk-on music, it should be “The British grenadiers” (“Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules“).  He hits his boundaries with a crack like a pistol shot, whereas Williamson strokes them silently, as if batting with a giant feather.

Lees and Williamson’s partnership proved the most enjoyable part of the day (though not, I think, the crowd’s favourite).  Williamson was out in exactly the same way as Lyth, which brought Gary Ballance to the crease.  Lees had not looked in great form, but compared to Ballance, he seemed to be batting as if in a dream.  Ballance is always an awkward, limited player but, at the beginning of this innings, he seemed like a child playing with a bat two sizes too big for him.  Observing his slow progress to a century (shortly before the close) was like watching a three-legged donkey giving rides on the beach : inelegant, at times painful to watch, but astonishing to see it done at all.

After Lees had gone (for 63), and Gale soon after, Ballance was joined by Tim Bresnan.  Although Ballance is an old Harrovian from Zimbabwe, he embodies enough of the stubbornness of the stereotypical Yorkshireman, and makes enough runs, to have won the goodwill of the crowd : Bresnan is echt-Yorkshire and claims it as his birthright.  As the day wore on (and, between Ballance’s scratching and poking and Roland-Jones’s lackadaisical traipse back to his far-distant mark, it might have seemed a long afternoon in less pleasant surroundings) Pevsner, had he dropped by, would have detected many of the same “gesture[s] of assertion and confidence” in the crowd as he had in the architecture of the Grand Hotel.

As it was, Ballance’s painstakingly constructed platform was, eventually, to be washed away, like an afternoon’s sandcastle erased by an evening tide.  I should also say that, as on every occasion I have seen them bowl together, Tim Murtagh was more effective than either Finn or Toby Roland-Jones.  I have never heard Murtagh mentioned as a potential England player (and now he never will be), whereas, as I have learned  while writing this, both Finn and Roland-Jones (not to mention Ballance) have been included in the squad for the next Test match.  Murtagh, I suppose, “doesn’t look like a Test bowler“.

I walked back to the Grand, not, as I had arrived, along North Marine Road, but along the seafront.  A woman, having drained the weekend to the dregs, had collapsed outside a pub and was receiving medical attention on the pavement, some Italian goths were photographing Anne Bronte’s grave, another drunk was groping blindly in the gutter for something to throw at his companion and, at the hotel, a man in an MCC panama, with the glint of happier days in his eyes, was checking.

And on all of this, it being only July, the evening sun shone brightly and high in the sky ; there were no long shadows on the outfield, no sun setting over the bays, no chill in the air, none of what Cardus called “the ache of festival cricket“.  If I want that, I suppose, I shall have to come back later in the year, or another year, which I should like, if it is not too late.

*(A declaration of interest : I spent most of my childhood in the vicinity of Blackpool.  Although I have never considered myself a proper Lancastrian, no doubt some of their influence has rubbed off on me.  I prefer Cardus.)

 

Cricket, Proper and Improper

Nottinghamshire v Yorkshire, Trent Bridge, County Championship, 3rd May 2016

Northamptonshire v Derbyshire, County Ground, County Championship, 4th May 2016

I’m sure you’ve heard the distinction made before between “the cricket” and “a day at the cricket” (John Woodcock said that, whereas he wrote about the first, Alan Gibson wrote about the second).  “Good day at the cricket?” is not the same question as “Cricket good today?”.

On Tuesday, for instance, when I went to Trent Bridge to watch Notts play Yorkshire, the cricket was good, right enough.  In fact, as George Dobell wrote on Cricinfo, it was “a perfect advert for Championship cricket”.  I can’t speak for those who were there on the other three days, but, as a “day at the cricket“, the third day was little short of purgatorial.

It was a match  with everything : quality players (seven on each side with international experience (and two more, Lees and Ball,

Jake Ball

likely to join them), Hales and Broad starring for Notts,  Ballance, Root, Bairstow and Plunkett for Yorkshire) ; context (the current Champions taking on one of their most plausible challengers and historic rivals) ; narrative – an even contest where the advantage changed hands by the hour, both sides capable of winning as they went into the last session and the result in doubt to the last ball – yes, all of that.

Anyone who was following the game on TV, or online, must have wished they could be at the ground to see it.  Anyone who turns to the relevant page of Wisden in years to come will wish they had been there.  It must even have looked good from the warmth of the pressbox.  As a game, it made for great reading, and, for those with the ability to concentrate exclusively on what went on between the wickets (the cameraman’s view), great viewing.

Trent Bridge TV

It even began well ; at the start of play I was in the middle tier of the Radcliffe Road Stand and down to one layer, but by lunch a leaden pall of grey cloud had covered the sun and the cooling breeze had turned into a nasty, insidious little north-westerly wind that seemed to be trying to insinuate itself into any gap in the spectators’ layers of insulation.

Not everyone would agree, of course.  Most of those who had begun in the Radcliffe Road (Middle or Lower) stuck it out there all day and were probably rooted to the same spot for all four days.

Radcliffe Road

Without wishing to stereotype the Yorkshire crowd too much, they must have been sustained (in addition to a proper cap and muffler and frequent recourse to the thermos) by the fact that the afternoon session was proper cricket.  After the loss of two quick wickets, Alex Hales and Michael Lumb (two notorious sloggers, of course) dug in good and proper against some relentlessly accurate seam bowling from, in particular, Jack Brooks and Steven Patterson

Hales forward defensive

The first 20 overs yielded 32 runs, which must have puzzled anyone whose previous experience of cricket was of the 20 over variety.

It was an afternoon for the purist, a day for the connoisseur, and, if it had only been a little warmer, it would have been a day for me.  As it was, I took what turned out to be a brief abandonment for bad light and drizzle as a sign that I should make my excuses (“sorry – I’m not from Yorkshire“) and scuttle off back to the warmth of the Railway Station and Leicestershire.

The Trent Bridge match vindicates one of the arguments of those who favour a Two Division Championship.  There were no easy, devalued, runs against two attacks with four near Test-quality seamers (Willey, Brooks, Patterson and Plunkett on the one side ; Ball, Broad, Gurney and Bird on the other).  The drawback is that the concentration of the top bowlers in the First Division (Brooks and Willey were lured from Northamptonshire, Broad and Gurney from Leicestershire) threatens to leave the Second Division as an environment stripped of its apex predators, in which some fairly unfit-to-survive batsmen can graze and thrive.

Wednesday at Wantage Road was, I suppose, in the wider scheme of things, a nothing match between two nothing-in-particular teams.  Derbyshire have been de-fanged by the loss of Footitt to Surrey (their opening bowlers were those old partners-in-crime Fletcher and Carter, last seen at Radlett https://newcrimsonrambler.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/304/) . Northants’ bowling, with Ollie Stone sidelined, might as well have left its dentures in a glass at the side of the bed.  The first three days had seen a glut of runs, elongated by rain, and the chances of a result were slim or none when I arrived, but so too – oh the relief! – were the chances of bad weather.

Slim left town shortly after lunch, by which time Derbyshire had reached 100 for no wicket and – armed with a copy of Alan Gibson’s ‘Growing Up With Cricket’, which I had found in the Supporters’ Club bookshop, and a delicious vanilla cone from that Queen of its Species, the Gallone’s ice-cream van

Note gardener’s thumbnail

I settled down, high in the new stands on the Eastern side, far from the action but catching most of the warmth and light, to bask like a sand lizard, secure in the knowledge that the players wouldn’t be allowed to come off the pitch until 5.00.

Shortly before tea, when both openers (Chesney Hughes and Billy Godleman) were making stately progress towards their centuries, all Hell broke loose (or as much Hell as about a hundred elderly people can raise).  I hadn’t caught what had happened (I may have been absorbed in my book, I might have dozed off), so I asked my nearest neighbours (about ten yards away) what all the fuss was about, but they hadn’t seen it either.  Eventually it transpired that Jake Libby (on loan from Nottinghamshire) had claimed a catch on the boundary, but the batsman (Godleman) was doubting his word and refusing to go.

In a televised match the incident would have replayed and analysed endlessly and inconclusively, in an Ashes Test it would have led to a week-long Twitter war between pro- and anti- Spirit of Cricket factions.  As there were no cameras here, and the Umpires seemed to feel unqualified  to make a decision without their assistance, it led to a ten minute argument out in the middle, to the accompaniment of slow handclapping and cries of “disgraceful” from those in the crowd who had been nearer to the incident than they had.

In the event, the Spirit of Cricket was to have her revenge on Godleman.  On 94, with time running out, he looked to reach his 100 by aiming a majestic heave at one of the aggrieved Libby’s strictly occasional off-spinners, but succeeded only in wrecking his own wicket.  He returned to the pavilion to the accompaniment of what the official web site politely described as “catcalls“.

At ten to five, as I was making my way to the exit, the final sign that the Muse of Comedy had taken over came with the solemn announcement that Josh Cobb would be taking over the gloves from Ben Duckett*.  Duckett would be bowling.  Chesney Hughes (who had already reached his hundred) prodded forward respectfully to his second delivery, the ball spiralled gently into the lap of first slip, who juggled and dropped it like an electric eel, at which point they shook hands (grudgingly) and called it a day.

“Proper cricket” be damned.  I haven’t had so much fun in ages.

*(I maligned Duckett in an earlier post by describing him as a “rotten wicket-keeper”, by the way.  He ‘kept very well in this match.)