‘A Patient, Affectionate Wooing Of The Year’s Playtime’ : The Season Almost Begins

A Leicestershire XI (and Robbie Williams) v A 12 of Nottinghamshire, Pre-season Friendly, Grace Road, Wednesday 3rd April 2013

“It is the brevity of the cricket season that makes the game precious.  And the shyness of its coming on early May days makes it lovable.  Other games burst on us in all their plenty ; the first afternoon of football is as challenging, as multitudinous, as any of the season’s maturity.  The arrogance of football’s advent, the sudden activity and conquest, it is all surely a little brazen, even vulgar – reminding us of the person who puts on all her jewellery at once.  Cricket comes into her own slowly, as though by a patient, affectionate wooing of the year’s playtime.  The game may almost be said to show itself with a blush in the early May days.”  (Cardus)

I suppose it is still possible to make some connection between that ‘patient, affectionate wooing of the year’s playtime’ and the way that the modern season introduces itself, but it does take a certain effort of will.  My own fault, of course, for turning out to watch a pre-season friendly (the Counties may have played these games for a while, but have only recently started advertising their existence and attracting spectators).  The feeling is always slightly that of arriving an hour early for a party and trying to make oneself comfortable in the living room while the hosts are still getting dressed and fretting about the dinner arrangements.

This year the club seemed better prepared for its visitors than has sometimes been the case in the past (the time, for instance, when they’d forgotten to open any of the lavatories).  The Fox Bar was open and ready for business and the office was doing a decent trade in membership renewals. Mercifully, given the temperature outside, the Meet was open as a viewing gallery (though we didn’t have a chance to find out what Mr. Stew, the new Happy Families-style Catering Manager, has in store for us).  The Friends of Grace Road were unpacking their wares from winter storage and selling their usual home-made cakes (not left over from last season, I don’t think), while Matthew Hoggard, freed from the cares of office, snaffled a couple of spoonfuls of Nescafe from their store cupboard.

I see Vic Marks writing in today’s Observer has this to say:

“The only way cricket hits the wider news agenda at this time of year is when there are flurries of snow on the first day and the cameras pan round to a solitary fan in an otherwise empty stand.  News editors like this scenario; it is quirky, delightfully English and makes the game look stupid.”

Had there been any cameras at Grace Road, then – given the layout of the place and the prevailing wind – they would either have panned around an empty stand at one end of the ground or a surprisingly decent crowd, basking like lizards in the sunshine (albeit lizards in five layers of clothing), at the other.  Anyone with any sense or feeling was sitting in front of the Pavilion, sunlit and shielded from the bitter wind blowing in from the Steppes.  Even at the height of Summer the Bennett End is the place to go only if you want to take refuge from the heat: today it was taking the full force of the Easterly wind that helped preserve the last (I hope) of the Winter’s snowfall and was bitterly, bitterly cold.

Snow at the Bennett End

At least we spectators had some choice about where to sit and were allowed to wear overcoats and scarves.  The players are more limited in their choices and were paying the price for the move away from traditional flannels and sweaters towards featherlight shirts and jumpers apparently made out of the material used to make disposable nappies.  In similar circumstances ‘Ticker’ Mitchell is said to have worn his pyjamas under two pairs of flannels; the problem for today’s players is that their one-day ‘flannels’ are essentially pyjamas in the first place.  Most seemed to be attempting to ward off the cold by adopting the fashionable ‘layering’ approach, accessorised with wooly hats.

The chaps who really drew the short straw were the bowlers forced to bowl into the Force 8 from the Urals at the Bennett End, who included two of the more interesting recent entrants on the County scene.  Luke Fletcher was appearing for Notts in what was essentially a 2nd team (or, as more than one wag in the Fox Bar put it, their homegrown XI).  He hails from Bulwell, once a mining area, now known for resistance to the destruction of the Bulwell Bogs, having the lowest percentage of pupils who progress to Higher Education in the UK and some lurid gangland slayings.  According to ‘The Don’, The Cricketer‘s Man In The Know on the County circuit, he is ‘a decent prospect, but word is he likes a few beers’ and tough-talking Outlaws’ boss Mick Newell was quoted as saying in the Cricket Paper that he needs to realise that playing cricket is a career and ‘not just a hobby‘.  I think the ghosts of Mordecai Sherwin and Tom Wass would recognise a kindred spirit and be wishing him well (and I rather hope that my original prediction that he’ll end up playing for Leicestershire comes true).

Having said that, he clearly isn’t the player of Mickey Arthur’s dreams.  I imagine his morning Wellness Report would read something like ‘A bit rough, to be fair‘, it sometimes seemed touch and go whether he’d reach the end of his run up without stopping for a rest and it wasn’t clear whether he was overdoing the layering or whether he always looks like this:

Luke Fletcher

I shall follow his career with interest.

His oppo in the Leicestershire attack and the brotherhood of the into-the-winders was another character who has appeared before in this chronicle – Ollie ‘the Rutland Rocket‘ Freckingham.  A late entrant on the County scene at 24, he made his name as the fastest bowler in the Everards’ League, has been Rutland’s Champion Golfer for several years running, apparently still uses linseed oil on his bat and is – I suspect – A Bloody Good Bloke.  He could hurry up not a few batsmen in Division 2 and – at the very least – might encourage Nathan Buck to look to his laurels as the Foxes’ strike bowler.

The match itself was one of those peculiar affairs where more than eleven players are allowed to play (Leicestershire were announced as ‘Leicestershire with Robbie Williams’), batsmen can retire and I rather thought that Nottinghamshire were so keen to get off the pitch and into the warm that they were resorting to Declaration Bowling in what was a 40 over match.  In any case it was pretty rank and Leicestershire quickly knocked off an unassailable 328-3 with some mighty IPL-style smiting into the Cricketers pub from Mike Thornely.  Nottinghamshire, predictably, were unable to assail our unassailable total and we won by 63 runs.

By the way, this might be – and probably is – the effect of the unexpected sunlight and the generally Feelgood Vibe around the ground, but I have a tentative feeling that good (or at least better) times are just around the corner at Grace Road.  But, as always, we shall have to wait and see.

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