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Grace Road Autumn

Leicestershire v Essex, Grace Road, County Championship

Northamptonshire v Sussex, Wantage Road, County Championship (both September 2014)

September in cricket?  I’m not convinced there should be any.  My ideal season would end with the Championship wrapped up by the end of August, the last Test on August Bank Holiday and only a week or two of festival cricket at the seaside to come.  Of course, we would lament the absence of cricket, what with the weather being so lovely and everything, but really it is the Summer Game and it should end with Summer.

Both Leicestershire and Northamptonshire’s seasons had effectively ended well before the August hiatus in the Championship anyway.  Neither had won a match nor looked likely to, so having to play another couple of matches in September felt a little like a boxer who’d already thrown in the towel being shoved back into the ring to take a few more rounds of punishment.

The end of the season is, of course, the time for goodbyes, and, in cricket, these are seldom easy or handled well.  Ideally the faithful old retainer would, after many long years of service, acknowledge that his leg cutter no longer had quite the nip it used to and regretfully inform the Secretary of his intention to retire.  After brushing aside attempts to dissuade him “But Joe, the old place just won’t be the same without you” he would leave to a rousing chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” and invest the takings from his benefit in a little public house (where he would not, of course, become too fond of his own wares and decline into alcoholism).

But that is not often how it is handled these days.  Although there will be many players bidding farewell to both Grace and Wantage Roads at the end of this season, their circumstances are a little different.  At Leicestershire the best young players are trying to leave against the wishes of the club, and at Northants the club are retiring their older players, in some cases against their wishes.

Before the match against Essex had started Nathan Buck was known to be fleeing for Lancashire, Shiv Thakor for Derbyshire and, during the course of it, Captain Cobb announced that he would be decamping to Wantage Rd. (perhaps to be nearer to his florist’s shop)

Cobbys the Florist

Since then Greg Smith has announced that he’s leaving for Nottinghamshire, where I think he might be seeing a lot of Lady Bay (works in the tea bar underneath the scoreboard on Thursdays, nice lass), which leaves only Ned Eckersley still frantically sending out a “come and get me plea”

Come and get me! Please!

Come and get me! Please!

 

My two penn’orth on what is wrong with Leicestershire and what can be done about it will have to wait for another day, but I would say that the most dispiriting aspect of what turned out to be the last day of the season at Grace Rd. (Leicestershire having lost by an innings within two days) was that there were so few Leicestershire supporters there to see it and so many from Essex.  Put a few deckchairs out and we could have been on the seafront at Clacton.

Considered rationally, Northants have had an even worse season than Leicestershire (albeit at a higher level).  Leicestershire at least held their own over the first two days in most of their games (on the basis of bonus points alone they would have finished fifth) whereas Northants have been thoroughly outclassed in almost every match.  In spite of that the atmosphere at Wantage Road seemed rather more cheerful.  I’m not convinced the regulars there really enjoy being successful, for one thing.  For another, none of the more promising young players are making desperate attempts to tunnel their way out and those who are leaving can at least say they’ve had a good innings (or be told that by others) and leave with the blessings of the stalwarts (as, here, do James Middlebrook and Andrew Hall)

Godbye to Middlebrook and Hall

Talking of exits, this may have been Peter Willey’s last match as an Umpire (subject to legal action). I’m not certain that I saw him play on this ground in his debut season (1966), but it’s more than likely that I did, in which case I’ve been watching him, in one capacity or another, for almost half a century.  I must say he’s aged a lot better than I have.

Willey leaves the field

For every exit there’s an entrance, more or less, of course, and here – waiting to make his – is 16-year-old Saif Zaib, who’s been signed on a three-year contract.  Haven’t seen him play, but I’m told he’s quite useful.

Waiting to make an entry

I first saw Willey play in the company of my Dad.  I like to keep track of the peregrinations of his memorial bench when I’m at Wantage Road and, on this occasion, he had his back to the action and was securing a temporary sightscreen. I suppose that might be what he would have wanted.

 

Memorial bench

Ah well.  That’s me done. For another year, anyway.

 

“The days dwindle down to a precious few … September …”

I’m afraid that this has been an undesirably busy month.  “My September in Cricket” will have to wait until October, or possibly even the further into the depths of Winter, when – after all – I shall have little else to write about.  But – just to dispel any impression that this blog has finally turned up its toes and handed in its dinner pail – here, almost exactly six months after the end of the Rugby and football seasons and the beginning of the cricket season, is my last look back at the the cricket:

Fairfield Rd in Autumn 2

Fairfield Rd in Autumn 1

and my first sight of the football:

On the way to football in Autumn

I think the main change since the Spring is that the gravestone in the right foreground, bearing the inscription from Tennyson

Then let wise Nature work her will,

And on my clay her darnels grow,

Come only when the days are still,

And at my head-stone whisper low,

And tell me if the woodbines blow

 has become a little obscured by ivy.

Middlesex 2nd XI v Hampshire 2nd XI, Radlett, 5th August 2014

Sussex 2nd XI v Gloucs 2nd XI, Hove, 12th August 2014

Radlett Aug 2014

August.  From one point of view, when the season reaches its climax (or a series of climaxes).  We’ve had the climax of the Test series, the knock-out stages of the T20 climaxing at Edgbaston and, for lovers of the traditional one-day form of the game, the Royal London 50 over competition, which is, as I write, building to its climax at Lord’s in September.  As the County Championship has been pretty much in suspension since July, my August has, since my moment of revelation on the Rec, been a bit of an anti-climax, though not without its own subtle jouissances.

I’ve mostly been watching 2nd XI cricket, which is a funny old beast.  Leicestershire take it seriously and usually field a side which is barely distinguishable from their 1st XI.  As a result, we have already won the T20 Cup and are in the Finals of the 50 over and 3-day competitions.  Other counties mostly use it to give players who are out of nick or who aren’t used in one-day cricket a chance to get back into and keep in form, or to have a look at triallists and Academy players.  You might occasionally spot an interesting new talent (such as Sam Hain the other week) or you might, as I did in these two matches, see some competent professionals such as Sean Terry, Joe Gatting and young Tavare (all second generation cricketers) making some untroubled runs against some occasionally ropy bowling.

I don’t think it adds to the would-be 1st teamers’ enjoyment that many of these games are played at club grounds (though it’s a part of the enjoyment for me).  It must seem a bit infra dig for them to have to go back to searching for lost balls in the hedge (as here at Radlett), when you are more used to the satisfying bonk of ball on boundary board at the County Ground.

Lost ball

Lost ball 2

Radlett (as regular readers will know) is a ground that is of particular significance to me ; I pass it every day on the train in and out of work.  When it vanishes into the gloom at the end of October I know Winter is here and when it first reappears in the early morning mists at the end of February my thoughts begin to turn to the hope of a new Season.  In truth it is a pleasant enough ground, in the Home Counties style, though what I’m not aware of when I speed past on the train, is, of course, the noise from the trains speeding past and, less obviously, that it is underneath what I take to be a flight path from Luton Airport to London for light aircraft and helicopters.  At times there were so many of them overhead it was like watching cricket in a scene from Apocalypse Now.

From my train window Radlett is at its best in Autumn (a willow at mid-wicket provides some wonderful effects when losing its colour)

Radlett August 2014

and the first signs were there that it is gearing itself for a spectacular display this year.

Autumn leaves at Radlett

Which will be some consolation, as I’m plunged into darkness once again.

A ground, by contrast, I’d expect to be at its best in August is Hove (or to give it its official title TheBrightonandHoveJob.com County Ground).  Good old Sussex-by-the-sea, a cavalcade of raffish manifestations of the amateur spirit – Fry, Ranji, Gilligan, Dexter, Snow, Imran – all of that and all of them.  And, to give it its due, that spirit is still sensibly lingering somewhere around the ground, but buried pretty deep beneath the spirit of commerce.

As Google will tell you, the ground isn’t so much a cricket ground as a multi-use complex, so complex that it requires a forest of signage to direct you if you’ve come there to want to watch a game of cricket, as opposed to patronising the Italian restaurant or visiting one of the retail outlets or small business units it also houses.

 

 

Hove

Of the main buildings, the neo-Edwardian glamour of the Spen Cama Pavilion (Cama was a mysterious snuff-sniffing Anglo-Indian barrister and property speculator who left the club a huge legacy) is still strong enough to shine through all the advertising hoardings

Spen Cama Hove

the moderne players’ pavilion just about makes it through too (“Never hurt – never fall out” is not, incidentally, some kind of team-building advice, but the slogan of the club’s “official earphone suppliers”)

Hove pavilion

but the charm of the poor old scoreboard and clocktower has sunk completely beneath the gaudy pixels

 

Hove scoreboard

and even C.B. Fry now comes sponsored by Parafix Tapes and Conversions Ltd.

C.B. Fry

In fact, so packed is every nook and cranny of the ground with money-making wheezes that it wouldn’t be too surprising (and quite in keeping with the traditions of the resort) to find they’d set up some sort of bijou brothel round the back of the scoreboard.

But who am I to mock?  Sussex is, as I’m sure they’d rightfully point out, in many ways a model for how a small county can thrive.  They are in Division One (and have been for some years), we are not and not likely to be for the foreseeable future.  They have trophies in recent memory; we have none (except for the T20).  So I suppose I’ll have to hold my nose and look forward to visiting the Pukka Pies Arena and sitting in the George Geary (sponsored by Airfix, Netflix or Durex) Stand.

(One feature of the ground I did warm to was the dog (a spaniel?) who helped the groundstaff when they were trying to clear up after the rain.  I wonder who his sponsor is?)

 

Dog on pitch

 

There seems to be something of a fashion at the moment for animals to invade sporting arenas.  A few days ago several observers reported that there was an unexpected shirehorse in the penalty area at Steel Park, home of Corby Town F.C.. During what little I saw of the national T20 Finals Day on TV there appeared to be a mass pitch invasion by an astonishing rabble of squirrels, sharks, dragons and God knows what else.  Then on Sunday, when I happened to be watching the finals of a village T20 competition in the grounds of Thorpe Lubenham Hall, I witnessed a pitch intrusion (I’m reluctant to say invasion, as the animal had as much right to be there as anyone) by what I took to be a stallion belonging to Sir George, the Hall’s owner. A fine looking animal, to my untrained eye.

At first the players reacted as most cricketers would, by adopting the double teapot position and the fielding side insisting the Umpires call “dead ball” (the batsmen had run a couple while they were distracted).  Various tentative efforts were made to steer the horse in the direction of the exit, until a player from the batting side (said to have experience of horses) was located.  He persuaded it to leave, with a little help (or hindrance) from a yappy Jack Russell. Presumably, in line with ECB regulations, it will in future be excluded from all English cricket grounds for life.

Horse at Lubenham 1

Horse at Lubenham 2

Horse at Lubenham 3

Horse at Lubenham 4

 

Horse at Lubenham 5

It did occur to me that, to raise the tone a little, this animal might be introduced on to the pitch during the next national T20 Finals Day in place of all those sharks, dragons and squirrels.  Or perhaps, as suggested by Jonathan Calder of Liberal England (see Leicestershire Life to your right), a couple of the TMS team in a pantomime horse costume?  If I’d had the presence of mind on Sunday I might have tackled the beast to the ground myself and tried to remove its head, just to make sure it didn’t have Michael Vaughan inside it.  With fatal results for one of us, no doubt.

 

The Spirit Is Weak

An interesting and varied August so far, with glimpses of the Spirit of Cricket as far afield at Radlett and Hove.  I shall report shortly (or perhaps, given that, in the Winter, I have more time and no cricket to watch, less shortly).  I did try (honestly)  to write about yesterday’s game at Grace Road between Leicestershire and Surrey, but realised that I was boring even myself so, frankly, I gave up.

Instead, here are a couple of interim Spirit of Cricket Awards.  Firstly to this splendid man (perhaps a Surrey fan) who spent the day happily absorbed in doing something or other with this strange box-like contraption, made out of painted cardboard and sticks. It appeared to be a scoring device of his own invention, or perhaps some kind of home-made orgone accumulator but, whatever it was, it seemed to be giving him great pleasure.  I salute his achievement in the face of what was a very dull match.

 

Man with box

My second award goes to this opening batsman.  Scenting a score against some moderate bowling he is trying to persuade the opposing Captain to resume play in driving rain.  Happily for him, play resumed shortly afterwards.  Unhappily, he was soon out.

 

Little Bowden Rec Aug 2014

It’s a funny old game, you know, cricket.

Northants 2nd XI v Sussex 2nd XI, Finedon Dolben CC

Bedfordshire CCC v Cambridgeshire CCC, Bedford Modern School

Leicestershire v Derbyshire, Royal London Cup, Grace Road

Leicestershire 2nd XI v Warwickshire 2nd XI, Grace Road

(all July 2014)

“Sit on the Mound Stand at Lord’s on midsummer morning at noon, 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; it is a vision of the game’s rich seasonal yield; a vision of green spaces over our land, of flashing bats, of thudding, convulsive bowlers, and men in white alone in the deep or bent low in the slips.”

I have quoted that passage (from “The Summer Game” by Neville Cardus) before.  It describes an experience that he that hath understanding of that vexatious phrase “the Spirit of Cricket” will have had at least once (perhaps as often as once a season, if they’re lucky), even if he (or she) might be shy of admitting it.  English cricketers may, as Bernard Shaw once unintentionally pointed out, be unspiritual people, but cricket does occasionally allow them a glimpse of, if not eternity exactly, a kind of seemingly infinite simultaneity.

Of course it’s not necessary to sit in the Mound Stand at Lord’s on midsummer morning to summon the Spirit of Cricket (she is that not that local or particular a Deity).  If I were to try to summon her deliberately I’d have a couple of pints at lunchtime on a sunny day and sit in the stand on the roof of the Charles Palmer Suite (which usually does the trick).  But at the beginning of the month I was surprised to be surprised by the Spirit in what is, almost literally, my own backyard, the Little Bowden Recreation Ground.

At the end of an overcast day which had turned brilliant to the point of hallucination towards evening I made a slight detour on my way home and chanced upon the time-honoured closing stages of a close encounter (the last man, the last over, the winning run, the handshake, the pub).

Little Bowden Rec July 2014

No doubt it was merely a trick of the light (at close to what photographers call the “golden hour”) but at that moment the two elevens seemed to contain all cricketers everywhere and of all time, stretching back to Hambledon and beyond.

Of course, it is the curse of visionaries (think of Rat in “the Wind in the Willows”, for instance, or even Julian of Norwich) that they cannot convey in words the substance of their visions to those who haven’t shared them, which is why it is generally wiser not to attempt it.  But something of that feeling has remained with me through the month and lent a sense of unity to what are, on the face of it, unrelated happening and sights …

… Nathan Buck attempting to score off a last over bouncer from Mark Footitt …

Young Buck

… some natty duck-egg blue sight screens at Finedon Dolben …

Finedon 1

(the batsman is Samit Patel’s brother Akhil, seen here leaving the pitch looking pained after narrowly missing his century)

Akhil Patel

… a tree in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, which overlooks the ground at Finedon (and where at lunchtime the incumbent, the popular radio evangelist the Rev. Richard Coles was supervising the raising of the bellows) …

Finedon Churchyard

… a Cambridgeshire player (who I think embodies the Spirit of Amateurism as much as anything) tucking his trousers into what appear to be (Harlequins?) rugby socks …

Bedford 1 (socks)

… the same displaying a broadness of beam in the slips not seen in the professional game since the heyday of Cowdrey, Milburn and Sharpe …

Bedford 3 (slips)

… a World War II bomber that passed low over the field at Bedford in the late afternoon …

Bedford (2) bomber

and even the poor, much abused alleyway that leads to Grace Road …

Grace Rd alleyway

… until, as the month ends, the skies darken and the outfield parches, Barrow Town’s Stan once again hit out boldly in the closing overs …

Stan Fairfield Rd Aug 2014

So, Lo! - do you see? – it all coheres!  Well no, of course, it doesn’t really cohere at all, but sometimes – do you see? – it just seems to for a moment.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s a fine Summer evening, and there might be some cricket still going on somewhere in the vicinity …

(On a more sober note, future England watchers should make a note of the name Sam Hain, who took advantage of the new 50 over format to build a substantial century for Warwicks 2nd XI at Grace Rd. last week.  The new Ian Bell, mark my words, unless he changes his mind and decides he’s Australian again.)

Northamptonshire v Somerset, Wantage Road, County Championship, 12th July 2014

The second time I’ve been to Northampton for a first-class match this season and the second time they ended the first day on at least equal terms with superior opposition (only to lose heavily).  This is perhaps not unconnected to both Yorkshire and Somerset having played a T20 at home on the Friday evening before travelling to Northampton for a 12.00 start on the Saturday.  This would, of course, have only affected those who played both games, not including Marcus Trescothick, unexpectedly left out for the T20 fixture.  What was the story there?  I don’t know.

I’m not sure I remember much of the Marcus Trescothick story since he left that tour of India in 2007 (so long ago!) to be replaced by Alastair Cook.  I know he has made runs consistently for Somerset, with an annus mirabilis in 2009 (I think) but a gentle decline over the last couple of years.  This season he has rallied and on Saturday made his fourth first class century of the season (without ever looking particularly at ease).  He is now 38, with 55 first class centuries (and 28 in limited overs) to his name.  Somerset have won nothing, but have come second in all three competitions at at various times (all in the same year in 2010, under his Captaincy).

Tempting, if futile, to speculate on what might have happened had Trescothick not left that tour.  Might he, not Pietersen, have taken over the Captaincy of England from Flintoff?  Would Cook’s entry into Test cricket have been long delayed, or might he have displaced Andrew Strauss?  Would Pietersen still be playing, would Cook be Captain?  The what-ifs are innumerable, but it’s safe to assume that Trescothick’s career would have ended a few years ago (in tears like Vaughan or with a whiff of acrimony like Strauss) and he would not now still be plying his trade in the decent obscurity of Wantage Road.

A couple of incidents on Saturday would, had they occurred in a Test, have been subjected to microscopic examination on TV and amplification from every kind of media.  A ball from David Willey (who looks to be back close to his full pace, encouragingly for England but too late for Northants) struck Craig Kieswetter full in the face.  He was felled so instantly and dramatically that even Willey looked panicked.  A groundsman wandered on with what looked discouragingly like a giant dustpan and brush but was sawdust with which to soak up the blood on the wicket.

 

Kieswetter

A few minutes later Kieswetter’s replacement, Trego, seemed to have been caught at slip by Andrew Hall off Willey’s bowling.  The Umpires seemed unsure whether the catch had been taken cleanly and were disinclined to take Hall’s word for it.  Trego , similarly minded, remained unmoved.

 

Will Trego or will he stay?

With Kieswetter’s blood still wet at the crease, Willey and Trego (normally two of the “feistier” characters on the circuit) seemed disinclined to make much of the incident and even those in the crowd who held strong views were soon distracted by the announcement that real ale left over from Wednesday’s Tom Jones concert was being sold off for £2.00 a pint (and very good it was too).

Without slow motion replays, closeups and allied technologies it was, of course, impossible for anyone in the crowd to form an informed opinion as to whether the catch had been cleanly taken or not.  As I sipped my pint of Sunchaser  (in a Tom Jones commemorative mug) round the back of the Steffans stand I fell to musing as to whether cricket is really seen more truly under the microscope of TV than via the panoramic view from the stands.  Is a butterfly better understood on a slide than on a flower? (Powerful stuff, that Sunchaser.)

I wondered too whether Trescothick ever envies the man who took his place all those years ago?  Might he not (illnesses aside) be happier away from the limelight where the cameras are generally in the hands of friends and admirers?

Trescothick's 100

Would he rather be examined this closely?

Trescothick

Or as closely as this?

 

Alistair Cook

 

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