Nottinghamshire v Middlesex, Trent Bridge, County Championship, 12th April 2013
April is, in the English cricketing world, traditionally the time for predictions. On the other hand, somewhere in the top ten of great cricketing commonplaces is that the beauty of the game lies in its unpredictability. My tip for a sure-fire bet would be to put some money on the number of times the phrase ‘Who would have predicted that!‘ is used in the commentary box.
There is a saying in football that ‘the table doesn’t lie’ and that the best side over a full season will always win a given division. Unfortunately this generally means that, given the imbalance of financial power in the Premiership, there are only three clubs with a realistic chance of winning that league. Not so in cricket. In Division One there is only one side (Derbyshire, I’m afraid) who appear substantially weaker on paper than the others. The others all begin the season with a realistic prospect of finishing Champions and the only prediction I’d make with any confidence is that it will be whichever side plays to the limits of their paper capabilities.
In Division Two, unfortunately, things are a little easier to predict. There are probably four Counties whose strength on paper makes them promotion candidates (Lancashire, Hampshire, Kent and Essex). Of the others, it would be a surprise to see Worcester or Northants either being promoted or finishing last, and then, bringing up the rear, there are Glamorgan, Gloucester and some other County I can’t quite bring to mind.
But then again, then again … there is the phenomenon of the side that, through some effort of collective will, plays considerably beyond its apparent capabilities. Two years ago Lancashire won the Championship with a largely name-free side and last year, of course, Derbyshire, with a ragbag of cast-offs and local talent, defied all predictions by winning promotion.
And then, of course, there is the weather, a great leveller. Bradman’s Invincibles themselves would have a hard time winning promotion if they were forced to spend most of the season in the pavilion, playing Championship Manager and idly tweeting #Raincard (which is largely what happened to Yorkshire last year). So there is hope for us yet.
To prove my point, consider the day’s cricket I saw last Friday at Trent Bridge, a strange medley of four entirely distinct passages of play. In the first two matters proceeded in an orderly and predictable fashion, in the second two the game was turned on its head and turned over again, like an egg-timer being used to boil two eggs.
My first prediction (as I left the house in steady drizzle) that would have been wildly awry would have been that I wasn’t likely to see much cricket and that I was wasting my train fare even going to Nottingham. In fact, although this was the scene when I arrived at the ground (the floodlights lending it an eerie, midnight sun quality)
play began at 11.30, and continued (more or less continually floodlight) until 5.30 when, puzzlingly, they went off for bad light.
When play resumed Middlesex were on 291/7, in reply to Nottinghamshire’s 278 (Toby Roland-Jones having taken 6-36). The questions were how far Middlesex could extend their lead (to 75 in the end) and whether the Middlesex ‘keeper Simpson would make his century (left stranded on 97). The Notts seamers, who had apparently being spraying it around like hyaenas the previous day (to the tune of 57 extras) bowled a little more tightly without suggesting that bowling is going to be their strong suit this year. Shahzad strutted, Fletcher lumbered and Carter loped and bounced, but not to any great effect.
The Middlesex innings ended conveniently at lunchtime and set up the passage of play that must have had Andy Flower (who was apparently present at the ground) opening his notebook and licking his pencil.
Toby Roland-Jones (the name to drop at the moment) had taken 6-63 in the first innings and would be bowling to the Australian Cowan, and the England prospects Hales, Lumb, Taylor and Patel. Roland-Jones is 6’4″ (at least), has a long (very long) smoothly oiled run up and is, as you might expect, on the brisk side of fast medium and gets a lot of lift. Cowan, as it happened, was bowled by the underestimated Murtagh for 1 and Lumb swiftly bagged his pair, LBW to Roland-Jones.
This brought together Hales and Taylor who, mindful, I think, of the presence of Flower, seemed to be on their best and most responsible behaviour, treating Roland-Jones, in particular, with courtly respect. Once or twice Roland-Jones succumbed to the temptation most tall fast bowlers feel to bounce Taylor (which is like throwing Brer Rabbit into the Tar Pit) and was despatched, but mostly bowled the line indicated in this photograph. Taylor ostentatiously refused to nibble at the offered bait.
After 16 overs Hales and Taylor had taken Notts through to 50 without giving any chances. Roland-Jones and Murtagh were taken off and replaced by the industrious but unrenowned Berg and Dexter, who is close to being a part-time bowler and would not have been bowling at all if James Harris had not pulled a hamstring. At this point the proprieties were thrown to the winds and the spirit of some Lord of Misrule took over Trent Bridge.
Hales and Taylor must felt that they had seen off the worst of the threat and earned the right to be a little more expansive against the second stringers. I missed Hales’ dismissal but he was caught behind off Berg for 32. Patel, who replaced him, hadn’t really earned the right to anything but played a hopeless sort of backhand smash against Dexter that rose almost vertically to be caught by the substitute Podmore (son, perhaps, of Dave, the legendary bits-and-pieces player of the ’80s). Taylor, presented with a short ball outside off stump by Dexter played a wonderfully muscular cut. Unfortunately the ball kept low (or at least a lot lower than the stuff he’d been getting from Roland-Jones) and – in the opinion of the Umpire – it caught the underside of his bat on its way through to the ‘keeper.
In swift succession Read and the runner-assisted Wessels were removed by the demon Dexter to take Notts to 68-7. Shahzad had a brief swish but went the same way at 93-8. The stalwarts in the crowd sighed, shook their heads and scanned the papers to see what was on the way of football to occupy their newly vacant Saturday afternoon.
The Lord of Misrule must have been tiring of his little joke with Dexter and had thought of a better one, as Luke Fletcher came to the wicket to join the veteran “Dr.” Dre Adams. Middlesex skipper Rogers, not wanting to push his luck with Dexter, brought Roland-Jones back to – as he must have thought – polish off the tail. Adams was in no mood to be intimidated by any pesky kid and hit Roland-Jones for three boundaries in his first over, including a huge six over the very long leg side boundary. The spell was broken and the disbelieving Roland-Jones was transformed from some reincarnation of Joel Garner into a gangly youth bowling in his back garden with a tennis ball.
To make matters worse, until the end of his innings, Fletcher belied his reputation as the Costcutter Flintoff by poking around like Peter Roebuck, before he too started hoicking Roland-Jones into the flowerbeds.
Fletcher couldn’t quite make his fifty (b. Murtagh for 47): inevitably he later described himself as ‘gutted’ on Twitter. Adams finished with 50 from 38 balls and Dexter with a career best 5-27.
Well, who would have predicted that!
As for what Andy Flower would have come away with in his notebook, I’d guess:
Roland-Jones !? Hales ? Taylor ??