Northants v Leicestershire, County Championship, Wantage Road, 15 & 18th May 2013
A somehow unsatisfactory match this, rather like one of those battles in the Civil War that are always described as ‘an inconclusive skirmish’.
It didn’t help that I was there on the two least satisfactory days, the first (which was mostly washed out until 5.00, when I had to leave) and the last, which could have resulted in a victory for either side but ended in the shaking of hands at 5.00 with about 20 overs still to play, thanks to some timid Northants captaincy. I’d say those with the most reason to be pleased were the Leicestershire players, who had escaped defeat and recorded some good individual performances, and the least the Northamptonshire supporters, many of whom were audibly critical of the failure to risk defeat in pursuit of another victory.
Northants started the match 23 points clear at the top of Division Two, with three victories out of four, thanks largely to the pace bowling of David Willey, Stephen Crook and especially the Australian Trent Copeland. Bearing that, and the fact that Leicestershire still lack their opening bowlers Hoggard and Buck in mind, they had prepared something close to a greentop. Their hoped-for narrative was fairly clear: bowl first, skittle Leicestershire’s not always robust batting twice, pocket maximum points and pull further ahead of the pack.
In fact Leicestershire won the toss and bowled first. As happened in both innings, Leicestershire’s young bowlers Ollie Freckingham and (in this case) Alex Wyatt broke through the Northamptonshire ranks but lacked enough support from the other bowlers to finish the job off. In the first innings Northants recovered from 63-4 to 206-5 and finished on 355. As expected, Copeland took 7-63 to dismiss Leicestershire for 234. Again Freckingham and Wyatt broke through to leave Northants on 94-5 at the end of Day Three.
All that was needed was for Freckingham to finish the job on Saturday morning and the last day would be set up perfectly. At 133-8 it seemed the job had been done, but then Ben Duckett came to the wicket. Duckett is a young wicket-keeper batsman, making his debut in this match, who must have delighted his nearest and dearest, but almost no-one else, by making his maiden first-class fifty shortly after lunch, at which point Captain Peters (who had broken a finger before the match started but seemed to be captaining from the pavilion) declared.
If Peters had declared at lunch, the target would have been 311 from 67 overs. By waiting for Duckett to make his fifty it became 337 from 63. Leicestershire, with little to lose, might have gone for the former target but the latter effectively meant that the match would be drawn, unless Copeland could somehow flog a little more life out of a dying pitch. He could not, and was soon reduced to walking back to his mark with his hands in his pockets and kicking at the dirt. The two sides shook hands at 5.00 with Leicestershire on 168-3, to much grumbling from the Northants members.
I fear Northants may come to regret this match by September. Last season Derbyshire won promotion by riding their luck with the weather in the first (pre-T20) half of the season, winning matches while stronger rivals sat frustrated in the Pavilion and establishing a lead that made them hard to catch. Another win would have put Northants well ahead of the pack, and the loss of three points for a defeat would not have harmed them greatly. They might also want to bear in mind that Copeland has only three more matches before he returns to Australia and think back to 2009, when they led the Division for much of the season but lost out by a single point.
Quite why Peters didn’t declare earlier, or at least encourage his batsmen to get a move on in the morning, is something of a mystery. I don’t believe it was simply sentimentality about allowing Duckett to make his fifty, although that might have provided him with a pretext for not taking the bold decision. It’s flattering – as a Leicestershire supporter – to think that we might have been capable of chasing 337 off 63 overs, but – even allowing for the effect that T20 has had on the plausibility of Championship run chases – I’m not convinced that explains it either.
I thought it was interesting, incidentally, that of the two most impressive bowlers in the match – Copeland (8 wickets) and Freckingham (9) – one has played Test cricket while the other was, until this year, known only as ‘the fastest bowler in the Leicestershire League‘. Perhaps the gap between those two worlds is not as wide as generally assumed.