A Willow At Radlett, A Spaniel At Hove : My August In Cricket Part One

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

 

Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye : A Contrived Finish For Hoggard

Leicestershire v Hampshire, Grace Road, County Championship, 19th September 2013

Few things in cricket end in an emotionally satisfactory way, one that satisfies our craving for a sense of resolution or at least aptness.  The majority of County games are foregone conclusions by the fourth day, they dwindle into draws or are arbitrarily truncated by rain.  If a season cannot end with a victory, or just a significant result, a heightened awareness of time passing, even a looming sunset casting long shadows on the outfield (all the old clichés, I suppose) would do.  Distinguished careers should end in triumph or pathos, or anything that seems meaningful really, but not in farce.

It doesn’t help that you can never be sure when the last day (of a game, a season or even a career) will be.  This day at Leicester was certainly my last day at Grace Road this year and my last sight of Matthew Hoggard turning out for Leicestershire.  It might have been the last time anyone saw him in action and may still be the last day of first-class cricket I will see this year.  Although I didn’t know it at the time (and nor did he) the solitary wicket I saw him take in our last game against Worcestershire was the last he will ever take.

In which case, my last day  this season consisted of 9 balls (my luck with the weather seeming finally to have run out).  The third day of the match opened with Hampshire on 364-2 (Hoggard 0-72, Vince 147*), the first day having being washed out completely by rain.  For the sake of the historical record, here is Hoggard taking to the field at Grace Road for the last time as a (potential) bowler

Farewell to Hoggard 1

having a last huddle (he seemed to be making an inspirational speech of some kind, though I couldn’t tell you what was said)

Farewell to Hoggard 2

being helped into position by Mike Thornely and Shiv Thakor

Farewell to Hoggard 3

and returning to the pavilion for the last time five minutes later

Farewell to Hoggard 5

Farewell to Hoggard 3

At 10.35 heavy rain set in for an hour or so and play was abandoned for the day shortly after 2.00, by which time there were, I think, 13 spectators left in the ground (there had probably been 30 at the start of play).  I have to say that at Northampton, where the game was still meaningful, they managed to get on again by 3.30 and I’m fairly sure that they could have done the same at Grace Road without danger to life and limb, if they didn’t mind playing in front of an empty ground.

The deal that had been struck, when they reconvened the next day, was that both sides would forfeit an innings, leaving Leicestershire an improbable 365 to win.  This might conceivably have been an attempt to set up a suitable finale for Hoggard (coming in at 11 with 20 to win, in a fanciful scenario, and leaving the pitch for the last time hoisted shoulder-high to a chorus of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” from a joyful crowd), but, if so, it failed.  Leicestershire were 36-5 within an hour and the presentation prepared for Hoggard was hurriedly moved forward to lunchtime, to ensure that it had some kind of audience (though I’m told by an eyewitness that the microphones weren’t working).  In the event, Tom Wells managed to prolong the game until a decent interval after lunch and Hoggard’s last hurrah as a batsman lasted 16 balls.  The Hampshire players did their best, apparently forming a “guard of honour” to welcome him onto the pitch and the crowd (which, according to my informant, was smaller than for the County Cup final) applauded him off.

Hoggard’s last stand aside, this match saw Leicestershire achieve the unusual feat of coming away from a match with no points at all, set a new record for the fewest points in a season since the introduction of bonus points in 1968 and record our first entirely winless season since we entered the County Championship in 1895.  Consequently, acclaim for Hoggard was rather muted from Leicestershire supporters, particularly on social media: an official Tweet thanking him for all that he had done for the club was greeted with the response “such as?” and worse.

How the man himself feels about all this, I don’t know.  Although his retirement was presented as his own decision, I think he would have liked another year, which he would only have had from Leicestershire in the teeth of considerable adverse comment from the supporters.  Although I think it is impossible actively to dislike the man (I have to say he has always been one of my favourite cricketers) he has never (much to his credit) gone out of his way to ingratiate himself and has been the cause of some discontent on the grounds that he is being paid a salary widely believed to be £120,000 p.a in return for a very limited contribution on the pitch this year. He is also apparently on the payroll until next March, so he doesn’t need to be too hasty about obtaining another position.

At least his exit from Leicester – however deflating and inadequate – was less brutal than the termination of his England career and less acrimonious than his break from Yorkshire.  I’d like to think to think of him as the cat (or dog) that walks alone and that all things are alike to him, but I suspect they are not and that the fact that he leaves Leicestershire in a worse state than when he arrived disappoints him more than might be prepared to admit to.  He has a singular and original personality and I hope he resists the temptation to – as Philip Larkin put it in another context – make a living “pretending to be himself”.  “Springwatch” for preference, “Strictly” if he really has to, but please not “Big Brother“.

Halfway To Paradise

Northants v Hampshire, County Championship, County Ground, 1st June 2013

Leicestershire v Middlesex, YB40, Grace Road, 2nd June 2013

Northants v Worcestershire, County Championship, County Ground, 5th June 2013

With the Championship almost at the half way point, it’s fair to say that Leicestershire and Northamptonshire’s paths have diverged, in that Northants are top of the table and Leicestershire bottom.  Northants’ record reads P7 W4 L0 D3, Leicestershire’s P7 W0 L1 D3.  Northants have 118 points, 44 ahead of second-placed Worcestershire (P8 W2 L3 D3).  Leicesteshire have 43.

A brief scan of these figures reveals why Northants are top – because they have won the most matches (which isn’t quite as silly as it sounds). To put it another way, the points system (16 for a win, 3 for a draw) is designed to make it worthwhile to play to win, even at the risk of losing.  Which makes it surprising that, for two matches in succession, Northants seemed to have settled for a draw when a win may have been unlikely, but not impossible.

As I reported the other week, if Northants had declared at lunch on the last day against Leicestershire to set them an achievable target, Leicestershire (who have little to lose) might well have responded and made themselves vulnerable to being bowled out by what has, so far, been the most potent attack in the Division.  On the last day of the match against Hampshire (which I attended) the circumstances were a little different, but the opportunity to win was still there, and spurned.

The first day had been washed out and the second truncated by bad light.  Hampshire had made 206 and Northants began the last day on 159-5.  At the start of the day it clearly made sense for Northants to ‘execute a plan’ to bat conservatively in search of maximum batting points.  At some point , though – perhaps when the 110 overs were up, or when they were 289-8, it might have occurred to them to thrash another quick fifty, declare 150 ahead and try to bowl Hampshire out again in a couple of sessions.  In this case they couldn’t even have lost the match.

Instead they batted on to 5.00 and 425-9, the only entertainment coming from Michael Carberry’s impersonations of various bowlers of his youth.  This, if it isn’t obvious, was his Vivian Richards.

Carberry as Richards

I should say that this analysis is not some eccentricity of my own.  Although this was not mentioned in any match report I read, the batsmen were benefiting from a good deal of vociferous advice from the stands (the gist of which was ‘get on with it’ and ‘declare’), not to mention the muttered puzzlement of most of the Northants faithful, who just couldn’t understand what was going off out there.  These are folk have have seen too many promising leads in the Championship frittered away to be counting any chickens (m’duck).

Their most recent match against Worcestershire (I was there on Day 1) illustrates the point perfectly.  Worcester were bowled out twice by Copeland et al. within 3 days (without the intervention of rain) and Northants won by an innings.  So, 44 points ahead when, with a little more boldness, it could have been 57 or even 70, and as good as home.  Copeland now returns to Australia and it remains to be seen whether he takes with him their ability to bowl sides out twice and their promotion prospects.

An interesting sideshow was the sight of ‘keeper Murphy standing up to Andrew Hall (the point being, I think, to force Moeen Ali back into his crease).  Hall may be 38, but he is still brisk enough to be listed by Playfair as RFM and I’m not sure the experiment was an unqualified success (a couple of half chances and a number of byes sped past him).  Still, I think Gregor MacGregor would have approved the spirit, if not the execution.

Standing up to Hall

Standing up to Hall 2

Leicestershire’s 40 over match against Middlesex was one of those too common Sunday games where you would not have needed to be a dodgy subcontinental bookmaker to predict the result after 10 overs.  The Foxes batted first and things started promisingly with Cobb playing his magnificent stroke to knock James Harris straight back to the boundary for 4.  Unfortunately some intelligent and verging-on-quick bowling from Harris and Roland-Jones forced him (literally) on to the back foot.  Cobb’s spirit naturally bridled at being reduced to subtlety and he perished unleashing his magnificent stroke against a straight ball from Harris (the small, light-coloured object to the left of the picture may be a bail*).

Perishing Cobb

Our middle order are useful scrappers and consolidators of good starts, and they have Harborough’s own Rob Taylor ‘in their locker’, but they had little to consolidate here, and I was not surprised to learn, having left soon after tea, that Middlesex had won by 10 wickets.

The two sides meet again in the Championship at Grace Road this week.  Leicestershire have almost certainly left it too late for a romantic late dash for promotion, but – with an outside chance of fielding their first choice attack of Freckingham, Hoggard and Buck for the first time this season – they may be in with a chance of dragging Northants back unwillingly into the pack.  We shall see (well I will, anyway).

*In fact, probably one of the markers for the fielding restrictions.  Though he was bowled off this ball.

For You, Foxes,The Season Starts Here

Leicestershire v Hampshire, Grace Road, County Championship, 22nd August 2012

“June and July bring in cricket’s gold of the year; August finds the game, like the sun itself, on the wane. Now the sands are running out every evening as the match moves towards its close in yellow light; autumnal colours darken play at this time of year; cricketers are getting weary in limb, and even the spirit has lost the first rapture.” (Cardus – The Summer Game)

Not this year though, not at Leicestershire.

Without access to a calendar, I think any visitor to this match would have guessed it was taking place in May or June.  The outfield was luxuriant, the trees were in full leaf without a hint of Autumnal tinting and the Leicestershire players seemed refreshed and looking forward to the prospect of a successful season.  Which they may be – though it’s probably next season, or the one after that.  Following this perpetually youthful, self-renewing Leicestershire side means always living in hopeful anticipation of a future that never quite arrives, as the better players graduate elsewhere and new hopes take their places.

Soon after I arrived Thakor was left stranded on 85* as Leicestershire were bowled out for 356 (he now averages 81.75 for the season). Hampshire – to mounting excitement from a surprisingly large crowd – were skittled for 181 with 4 cheap wickets for Hoggard, 3 for White and 3 for lanky paceman Alex ‘Pussy’ Wyatt.

Wyatt made his debut in 2009, but has generally only appeared to cover for injuries.  At 6.7″ he can give the impression of a manufactured fast bowler, as though someone has said to him ‘You’re a big lad – have you ever thought about bowling fast?’ He has a tendency to ping the ball harmlessly over the batsman’s head and has rarely looked very threatening.  On Wednesday though he removed Hampshire’s 3-5 (Katich, McKenzie and Dawson) in a spell where he looked – briefly – unplayable.  Perhaps in time – given a bit of strengthening and conditioning work – he might bloom into our Finn, our Tremlett, our Garner (ah these dreams of Spring!).

Leicestershire (as I’m sure you know) won the match by 126 runs, to prise themselves off the bottom of Division 2.

With two (or in some cases three) games to go, seven of the nine sides in Division 2 have won two games, which is roughly where we ought to be in June, with most of the season still ahead of us.  I think it is now mathematically impossible (or highly improbable) for Leicestershire to be promoted, although we are only 24 points behind third placed Yorkshire.  Perhaps the ECB could follow the example of Mr. Gove and – at the last minute – revert the scoring system to the days before bonus points?

Not everyone, of course, is full of hope for the future (or not in cricket, anyway).  Paul Dixey, who has largely been kept out of the side by the simultaneous arrival of Ned Eckersely, has announced he is quitting the game altogether and Will Jefferson – who was struggling around the ground on a pair of outsized crutches – followed suit by announcing his retirement on Saturday.

Of course, no game this season would be complete without at least one downpour.  Here we see rain moving swiftly in over Leicester, as seen from the top of the pavilion.  Ah, these April showers!

Asylum Seekers : Northants v Hampshire

Northamptonshire v Hampshire, County Championship, County Ground Northampton, 3rd & 5th May 2012

I must be mad.

I doubt whether there’s anyone who watches any amount of County Cricket who has not – at one time or another – had this thought.  Cricket does drive some people mad, but those are generally the players, especially those who feel a need to be in control.  This is not an illusion that would survive any extended period of trying to watch the game.

I had originally taken a day off work on the Wednesday of last week to watch the first day of Northants v Hampshire.  I then switched it to Thursday to avoid a train strike.  Play was possible on Wednesday, but there was heavy rain overnight and a sort of heavy mizzle on Thursday morning.  Any sensible – or perhaps sane – person would have admitted defeat and made other plans, but I decided to set off anyway.  The forecast was better for the afternoon, and the pitch might have dried out and anyway I had nothing else to do.

When I arrived at the ground, the gatemen warned me that the umpires had announced a pitch inspection at 2.00, which gave me three hours to wait.

I read the paper, browsed the books in the Supporters’ Club bookshop, bought a copy of Graham Yallop’s account of the 1978-9 Ashes series (a bravura exercise in whingeing) and ate some lunch.  Good as their word, the Umpires emerged at 2.00 to announce another inspection at 3.00.

To pass the time, I wandered over the road to the Abingdon Park Museum.  Between 1845-1892 this housed a private Lunatic Asylum run first by Thomas Octavius Prichard and then later his cousin.  Prichard had previously been in charge of the Northampton Asylum and was known for pioneering an enlightened  approach to the treatment of mental illness.  He believed that the patients would benefit from an environment where “all excitement is as much as possible avoided” and stressed the “general prevalence of order and quiet”.

The inmates were allowed out of the Asylum and encouraged to attend musical entertainments.  As the first match was played at the County Ground in 1886, I wonder if it’s possible that some of them were also allowed out to watch the cricket?  I feel it would have done them a lot of good, and been quite in keeping with Prichard’s principles.

When I returned at three the Umpires seemed to have reneged on their promise to have another inspection (in fact, I suspect they’d gone home) and, at this point, I called it a day.  There were still not a few people who’d spent the whole day sitting quietly in the Turner Suite who must have known as well as I did that the chances of play were minimal.  Most of them, I suspect, spend all day every day at the Ground during the season, seeking refuge from who knows what.

I’d pretty much written the match off, except that, when I woke on Saturday, the sky was blessedly clear, and a glance at the overnight scores suggested that a tight finish might be on the cards.  So I returned.

Northants batted on a little in the morning before declaring, leaving Hampshire 297 to win in 71 overs.  On paper, Hampshire look to have one of the stronger batting line ups in the division – three players (Carberry, Katich and Irvine) with Test experience plus the promising Vince – but on a lively pitch against some sharp bowling, and in freezing conditions they didn’t – in footballing parlance – seem to fancy it very much.

Northants opened the bowling with England Lions poster boy Jack Brooks and David Willey (son of Peter).  Willey is tall, muscular and currently unsubtle with a long run up and long blond hair.  Bowling in tandem with the equally heavy metal-locked but dark Brooks it looked as though the County were employing Cheap Trick as their opening attack.  Both wore hair bands, which might not have been true of – say – past Northants quicks such as Bert Nutter or John Dye.

Sean Terry brought back memories of his father Paul by sustaining a couple of nasty blows  and quickly departed along with his opening partner Liam Dawson.  Carberry looked relatively comfortable and might have made victory a possibility if he could have found anyone to stay with him.

Katich – who looked reluctant to emerge from the pavilion – made a dutiful 31, but didn’t seem too upset to be returned to the hutch, caught behind off the perpetually underestimated Lee Daggett.  Daggett, who looks like the kind of bloke you’d be relieved to see coming to mend one of your radiators, then removed Vince (for 0) and Irvine in quick succession, and when Carberry was trapped in front by the rampant Willey it looked as through only a snowstorm could save them.

There was a brief flurry during the tea interval, but not enough to interrupt play, and they folded shortly afterwards for 179, Willey taking 5-39.

There was a reasonable crowd to watch all this, though most of them watched it through the windows of the Turner Suite, where – though it is warm and chips are plentiful – the view is a little restricted.  One exception was the man whose shirt announces that he is the Steelbacks’ No. 1 Fan, who had, as usual, set up a little rats’ nest of plastic bags and lashed his home-made standard to the boundary fence.

This standard has a Tyrollean cowbell attached to it that tinkles like wind chimes when there is a breeze and which he rings furiously whenever a wicket falls.  Otherwise he shuffles slowly around the pitch offering obscure advice to the empty air and – when the opportunity presents itself – the players (here he is in conversation with Willey)

Ricardo is clearly someone who dances – or shuffles – to the beat of a different drum.  He spent a lot of the afternoon picking dandelions from the boundary edge and placing them neatly on all of the seats in the front row of the stands.  The logic of this is not obvious, but perhaps – as Northants won – he’d be a damn’ fool if he didn’t.

For the closing stages he and I were the only occupants of this stand.  But there is a difference between mild eccentricity and outright madness, you know.  Oh yes there is.

Hoping Against Hope …

Leicestershire v Hampshire, CB40, Grace Road, 17th July 2011

Unhappy Hampshire

“A collection of score cards faded with age, a volume of “Wisden” yellow as Autumn sunshine, will speak of the English climate and of the English summer’s caprices.  The hot days witness the processional movement of batsmen to their centuries; the wet days see them dispossessed, disenthroned, and of no account.  The weather of England enters cricket like a deus ex machina …

Frequently there is no decision at all in cricket, sometimes scarcely a beginning.  But it is on rainy days that the charm of the game has been known to work its most subtle spells for those who play country cricket, away from the bricks and mortar of Kennington and Leeds (both much beloved in their places).  The vacant and rural field is shrouded in mist as you walk through the entrance-gate hoping against hope.  There is a sound of footsteps on the wooden pavilion; perhaps there’ll be play after all.  Then the clouds are suddenly torn apart, and the sun changes the grass to a field of jewels.  And men in white appear from nowhere, and soon two little mounds of sawdust are placed at each end of the wicket and bowlers sometimes lose volition like boys on a slide, and the bat sends forth its ineffectual thud; while in adjacent trees the birds make busy noises, and aloft in the blue sky there are great castles on cliffs of clouds, and burning lakes.  These things all belong to the game as much as the implements, the technical achievement, and the “result”.  Neville Cardus, from English Cricket : Collins, 1945.

Well, it wasn’t quite like that on Sunday, unfortunately.  Hampshire were on and off the pitch four times to reach 89-1 and the game was abandoned.  A brief glimpse of James Vince in action on the installment plan and then home.

But, of course, it’s always worth turning up if the forecast is uncertain.  Events might unfold  as in Cardus’s account, there are worse places to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon than the Fox Bar or the Meet –

The View From The Meet

and there is always the hope of some unexpected pleasure such as … winning first prize in the raffle!

A bat signed by the Leicestershire squad in aid of Claude Henderson’s benefit (pictured here having a well-deserved  lie-down on the sofa).

Thinking about county cricket : welcome to a new blog

Welcome to a new cricket blog –Dan\’s Cricket Blog – written by Daniel Nice, Leicestershire C.C.C.’s Press Officer.  I’m particularly pleased to see a stout defence of county cricket, and a real understanding of how much it means to those of us who follow it.

On a similar theme, the ever-excellent Down At Third Man carries two articles by Dr. Dave Allen, Hon. Curator of Hampshire Cricket Old and in the way., in which he looks at the arguments for “reform” of the county game.  Required reading, I think.