“Leicestershire For The Championship?” : One From The Archives (Alas)

I’m afraid that – once again –  coverage of Leicestershire’s latest defeat, this time to Worcestershire by nine wickets, has had to be held over, due to lack of time and, frankly, inclination.  Predictions are always tricky things, but, although my horse Yorkshire have stumbled alarmingly in the closing straight of the Championship race, I’d say the figurative money I have on Leicestershire for the wooden spoon is already earning interest in the bank.

But my time at Grace Road on Saturday was not entirely wasted (it never is).  I satisfied most of my Christmas card needs with this year’s offering from the Friends of Grace Road shop (a charming snow scene of Grace Road, as always) and whiled away the time as Worcestershire crept largely unimpeded to the 187 they needed to win the match by flicking through some back copies of The Cricketer I’d picked up from the same source.

The Spring Annual of April 1983 particularly held my attention.  It was something of a shock to be reminded of quite how conservative the magazine was under the editorship of Christopher Martin-Jenkins.  The whole thing is such an instructive time capsule of the period that I intend to save it for some Wintry day to write about in full, but – as a taster – it contains an article entitled “A body blow to Apartheid : Michael Owen-Smith reviews the extraordinary success of the [rebel] West Indian tour“, a full page of poetry submitted by readers, “Geoffrey Beck: an unsung cricketing cleric” by Alan Gibson, a history of Rutland County Cricket Club and a piece by Guy Williatt (“former Captain of Derbyshire and Headmaster of Pocklington School”) arguing for the continuing relevance of independent schools to the health of English cricket.

Different times, but the biggest jolt – given the context in which I saw it – was delivered by coming across this (at the head of a piece in which “John Thicknesse of the New Standard previews the Schweppes County Championship”).

Leicestershire for the Championship

Predictions, as I say, are usually odorous (Leicestershire finished fourth that year) but I have to admire the self-confidence displayed here.  Perhaps for next year’s Christmas card Josh Cobb (our current Captain and the son of Russell, the man in the natty sheepskin and cloth cap combo to the right of the picture) could be persuaded to re-enact this scene, substituting “promotion” for “Champions”?

A No-Win Situation

Leicestershire v Northamptonshire, County Championship, Grace Road, 12th June 2013

There are those who would have you believe that day 2 of a Championship match between Leicestershire and Northamptonshire is likely to be a tedious occasion (and that this is likely to be a tedious post).  Unfortunately, they would be quite correct.  Apart from giving me another chance to mount some of my favourite hobby horses, the most interesting aspect of the day was my discovery that, if stared at for long enough, the roof of the George Geary Stand bears a slight resemblance to some kind of minimalist work of art (perhaps one of Dan Flavin’s neon sculptures).

George Geary Stand

The team news was that we would not, in fact, be seeing Leicestershire’s dream bowling unit in action.  Hoggard was at the ground, but not on the pitch (having apparently picked up some kind of mysterious niggle since his 8 wicket performance for the 2nds the other week).  The suspicion grows that he won’t be seen in a Leicestershire shirt again (unless his plan is to sneak back into the side for the T20s).  Nor would we be seeing acting Captain Cobb, who appeared to have followed his first decision as Captain to drop himself down the order by dropping himself altogether.  He later turned up playing T20 for the 2nds, which I suppose shows where his and our priorities lie this year.

The Captaincy passed to Matt Boyce, whom many good judges believe would have been offered the position before if he had been certain of his place in the side (the general view being that he is the brains of the outfit).  His first decision, having won the toss, was to follow the modern fashion and bowl first.  It looked to be the case that we had prepared a lifeless pitch to foil the thus far all-conquering Northants attack.  Predictably, our own youthful seamers struggled, and were not helped by five dropped catches. By close of play on the first day Northants had reached 320-4.

On Day 2, when I was there, Northants once again batted on past the 110 over mark, narrowly missing out on the last batting bonus point (395-5) and then on past all reason, before declaring on a quite superfluous 567-7.  As a tactic this would make sense if the game were guaranteed to last the full four days, but a moment’s thought, or a brief look at the weather forecast, would surely have told them that they had effectively batted themselves out of any chance of winning the match, or even achieving maximum bowling points.  The strategy appeared to be one of ‘mental disintegration‘, and it’s true that poor Ollie Freckingham looked a broken man as he left the pitch (having taken 0-122), but the only real signs of mental disintegration were among the crowd, especially the Northants supporters, who seem unanimously convinced that they will, once again, be pipped at the post for promotion.  As it was, Leicestershire crept on through two heavily rain-depleted days to finish on 238-6.  And that was it.

So, have Northants really blown it again?  They stand at the head of the table, with 127 points from 8 games.  Lancashire are in second place with 94 from 7, and the two meet this week at Old Trafford.  My prediction would be that Lancs, who are the only side of any real quality in the Division, will overtake them and head the table.  The question is whether any other side can rouse themselves enough to take second place and I suspect the answer is no.  The sides who are playing well lack quality and the better sides (Hampshire, Kent, Essex) are playing poorly.  Hampshire do, at least, seem to have had a look at the points scoring system and the table and tried to achieve a result by forfeiting an innings against Gloucestershire last week, but cocked it up and lost by 198 runs.

When the Championship resumes in August we can expect to see a flurry of declarations and forfeits as sides who are incapable of bowling the opposition out twice (particularly in three days) scramble for points, and we may see some unexpected results.  Who knows, Leicestershire might even win a match.  It does strike me that it might be better to learn how to declare and achieve results in the first half of the season and then consolidate, if necessary, in the second, rather than dozing through the first half and panicking in the second.  But I’m sure our Captains and Coaches (who, I suspect, now devise the plans for the Captains to ‘execute’) know what they’re doing.

I feel unable to bring you action shots from this match as, frankly, there wasn’t any to speak of, but here are a couple of shots of the most memorable innings I saw last week – a whirlwind and career-best 57 from Stan Galloway of Barrow against Market Harborough.  He is a rare bird these days, as a Caribbean cricketer in the Leicestershire League, he eschews the use of a helmet in favour of a towering tam that lengthens as the seasons go by and his innings seemed to my rheumy old eyes to blow in on the warm air of warmer climes and happier days.

Stan Galloway

Stan Galloway 2

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.

Bank Holiday Madness At Grace Road

Leicestershire v Glamorgan, County Championship, Grace Road, 21-24 May & Leicestershire v Somerset, YB40, Grace Road, 2 May 2013

Wild Euphoria

It isn’t often we get the chance to indulge in wild communal euphoria at Grace Road, so perhaps the best reaction to yesterday’s result would be simply to savour it rather than attempt any sort of analysis.

The facts speak for themselves.  Somerset scored 323-3 (Trego 118, Petersen 63*, Trescothick 57, Buttler 54*).  Leicestershire overhauled that total for the loss of 4 wickets (Greg Smith 135*, Cobb 130).  Cobb and Smith’s opening stand of 235 set a new one-day record for Leicestershire and their individual centuries (off 62 and 68 balls respectively) are the two fastest scored this season.  No doubt there were other records set.  The sun shone and a large crowd (mostly Leicestershire supporters, leavened with a stag party from Somerset traditionally dressed as Wurzels) were in Bank Holiday mood.

All of this in marked contrast to the 4 day match against Glamorgan during the week, when the sun did not shine, the crowd were composed mostly of several charabanc parties of Welsh pensioners and Leicestershire escaped with a draw thanks only to the rain, with all the dignity of a man climbing down a drainpipe dressed in his lover’s nightie.  And no contrast was more marked than the two performances of Josh Cobb.

In an interview with Pukaar magazine at the beginning of the season, Cobb was quoted as saying

“I started off as a four-day player; quite boring and defensive and it worked for me, but I wasn’t playing one-day cricket.  So I went away to Australia and worked on my game and the one-day side of things, and I came back a slogger.  For me, last year was probably the first time I started to get the balance right between the two and hopefully this year I can kick on and do the same.”

So far this season Cobb has scored 105 runs in 9 Championship innings (av. 13.12).  After Sunday’s match he had scored 237 runs in 2 YB40 innings (av. 118.50).* He is the full-time Captain in one-day cricket and has taken over the Captaincy of the four-day side while Sarwan is away (the thinking being, I think, that this will give him a greater sense of responsibility and, perhaps, lessen the likelihood of his being lured away to Nottinghamshire).  His first act as Captain was to drop himself down the order to no. 7, which indicates his current level of self-confidence in that form of the game.

Quite why Cobb struggles to translate his one-day form into four-day runs is not obvious.  He is unfair to describe himself as a slogger.  He has few of the innovative strokes of a player like Morgan (he rarely even sweeps conventionally).  His method is unsubtle, but perfectly suited to his role as a one-day opener, in that he scores most of his runs by straight drives on either side of the wicket, using the bowler’s pace against him to loft the ball over the ring of fieldsmen.  His problem in the past in four-day cricket is that he has sometimes seemed unaware that fieldsmen are allowed in the outfield in that form of the game, and seems unwilling or unable to play his drives along the ground.  He is still only 22 and has plenty of time to try to re-integrate the two sides of his game, a little like a child learning to ride a bike without the stabilisers of fielding restrictions.

In fact, none of the major run-scorers in this match were in any way unconventional (Smith is a very orthodox player, Trescothick and Trego scored most of their runs in the first ten overs in a manner similar to Cobb).  The exception was Jos Buttler, who played an extraordinary innings, scoring 54 from 25 balls, with 7 fours and 2 sixes (you, as they say, do the math). I’d struggle to put a name to most of the strokes he played (though I’d welcome any suggestions).  All of these, I should point out, resulted in boundaries.

Jos Buttler 1

Jos Buttler 2

Jos Buttler 3

I don’t doubt that Buttler will find some way of adapting his game to the longer forms and that Cobb will eventually transmute his ‘slogging‘ into productive fearlessness and aggression in Championship cricket.  But as for the bowlers?  In spite of the huge numbers of runs scored in this match, none of them bowled badly.  One was Jamie Overton, one of the few promising fast bowlers among the coming generation, as opposed to the embarrassment of  riches among young English batsmen (of all descriptions).

One-day cricket (and even more so T20) may provide young batsmen with ‘transferable skills‘ (even if only on a psychological level) but the various ways that bowlers have evolved of avoiding turning into human golf tees in the shorter forms (‘taking the pace off the ball‘, ‘the slow bouncer’) won’t wash in the longer forms and one does have to worry about the damage to their psyches from having perfectly decent deliveries carted all over the shop on a regular basis throughout their formative years.

Not to mention the unlikelihood of any of the watching children saying to their parents ‘Daddy, I want to a be a bowler when I grow up.’

*By the time I’d finished writing this, he’d scored another YB40 century against the Unicorns at Wormsley.  Shades of C.B. Fry.

Fun Days At Grace Road

Leicestershire v Gloucestershire, Grace Road : County Championship, 1st May & YB40 4th May 2013

It’s Glo’ster coming North, the irresistible, The Shire of the Graces, long ago!

That was a very long time ago, of course.  Gloucestershire are now the Shire of the Gidmans (Alex and Will) and not very much else and ought to have been eminently resistible in this double-header between two of, as they say, the less fancied counties in Division 2.

If you were looking to identify the difference between a Division 1 and a Division 2 side, depth in bowling, particularly seam bowling, would be near the top of the list.  Any Second Division county with a decent strike bowler is now likely to find him being lured away by a more monied rival, as has happened this year with Jack Brooks and James Harris (who moved from Northants and Glamorgan to Yorkshire and Middlesex respectively).

Gloucestershire have been comprehensively asset-stripped in this department.  A couple of years ago they could boast a seam attack of Kirby and Hussain (taken by neighbours Somerset) and Jon Lewis (added to Surrey’s existing portfolio of international pacemen).  Now their attack consists of four samey seamers and a spinner who seems to be taking the expression ‘pie-chucker’ a bit too literally (apologies for the blurred photograph, but I think you’ll see what I mean).

Pie-chucker

With both of Leicestershire’s obvious strike bowlers – Hoggard and Buck – out injured (already) the plan seemed to be to prepare a dry track, play two spinners, bat first and spin them out on Day Four.  Which worked out fine until Day Four when Gloucestershire made 191 to win for the loss of a single wicket.

The first day, when I was there, confirmed the impression that we have a fragile top order with a more solid middle, featuring a converted opener at no. 6 and our best batsman at no. 7.  After 21 overs we were 51-5, before Boyce (55) and Thakor (75) dug in and dug us out of a hole.  By the Saturday, however, when the same sides met again in a 40 over match it seemed we had an explosive top order and a too-solid middle order.

Playing a 40-over match immediately after a 4-day one recalls the days when a John Player League game would be inserted into the middle of a Championship match, giving one side the chance to take revenge for a defeat in the other. The match was effectively over as a contest by the end of the first Power Play, and certainly decided by the time Leicester were 190 for no wicket in the 26th over.  Openers O’Brien and Cobb, who between them had made 61 in the 4-day game, both made centuries.  Gloucestershire seemed disinclined to make a game of it and reduced themselves to 44-5 with some suicidal running, after which they looked as if they wished they could simply concede.

This game was televised on Sky, which may have been why it was being played on a Saturday, and also Family Fun Day, with free tickets available.  Given that it coincided with crucial late season fixtures for both the Tigers and Leicester City, meaning that many of the regulars were absent, this had the odd effect of turning the ground into a Kindergarten.  Although it would be wonderful if some of these tots formed a lasting attachment to the game and to the club, I wonder about the effect on their psyches of having this game as their cricketing primal scene.  Will they grow up thinking that cricket should always be a whirl of big screens, amplified music, face painting and bouncy castles, Leicestershire invincible and Josh Cobb a demigod?  It isn’t always like that, I’m afraid.

Still, a victory is a victory, Worcesteshire (our next opponents) really are struggling and, for the moment, I can only concur with the big screen.

DSCF3108

Look At The Harlequins! (Leicestershire v Middlesex)

Leicestershire v Middlesex, Grace Road, CB40, Sunday 20th May 2012

I’m surprised that no-one seems to have thought of including some footage of the John Player League in the current glut of programmes about the 1970s.  Funded by fags and dependant for its popularity on being a way to circumvent the Sunday licensing laws (where else could you spend all afternoon drinking Double Diamond from a dimpled tankard while getting stuck into a carton of complimentary JPS?) it seems to me as of its time as Choppers and Vic Feather.

But times change and – as of this season – smoking has now been banned from all the seated areas at Grace Road (apparently in response to requests from the Members). The 40 over game persists, though the Merchants of Death have been replaced as sponsors by a BankA couple of seasons ago it had appeared doomed, used like grouting to plug gaps in the schedules (I think I remember seeing one on a Tuesday morning), but has now been restored – mostly – to Sunday afternoons.  I don’t know how seriously anyone takes it as a sporting contest, but – rather like one-day internationals – it generates income and provides a fun day out for all the family.

I’m not even sure how seriously the Counties take it (can anyone other than supporters of that County remember who won it last year?) .  Nor does it help that Leicestershire seem to be so puzzlingly bad at it (last year they won 2 out of 12 matches, and this season they’ve  lost 3, with 1 abandoned) so there isn’t generally much mystery about the likely result at Grace Road.  

What tends to stick in the mind, though, are individual performances  – from Jason Roy and Ben Stokes last season, for instance – and it does give those of us who usually watch Second Division cricket a chance to gawp at a few stars.  Although this  is hardly on a par with queueing up behind Gary Sobers to buy an ice-cream in the old days, Sunday’s main attractions were Steve Finn and Eion Morgan (arms folded, wearing no.7 in the middle of this group). 

Morgan was making his first appearance on a cricket field since February, since when he has trousered vast sums for not appearing in the Indian Premier League.  When he batted, in the course of an unspectacular but untroubled innings by Middlesex, he managed a couple of his trademark reverse sweeps – like a slightly out-of-practice three card trick merchant – before falling victim to Josh Cobb, whose mystery spin must have brought back troubling memories of Saeed Ajmal.  Perhaps.

When Leicestershire replied, Cobb did manage, as usual, to lift the ball over the ring, but only as far as the one fieldsman outside the ring.  Finn then – in murky light – removed in short order Sarwan, Boyce and Smith.  But when you’re facing the fastest bowler in county cricket in dim light I wonder if you see the ball very clearly. I wonder if you see the ball at all?

During his spell at the IPL, Morgan would, of course, have become used to a certain amount of razamattaz – music, dancing girls and so on.  We did our best to smooth his passage back into the domestic season by arranging a performance by the Wigston Enterprise Brass Band in the tea interval.    

Morgan did essay a brief shimmy to ‘Hey Jude’, but it was Finn who seemed most affected, being inspired to a demonstration of interpretative dancing before taking the field.  

.

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Perhaps we really shouldn’t have provoked him.

Bad Light / White Heat (Leicestershire v Essex)

Leicestershire v Essex, Grace Road, County Championship, Day 4, 19th May 2012

Well, you can’t say they didn’t try to make a game of it, but, as I was remarking just the other week, Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi Est (in this case, in the person of Peter Willey).

I have seen fears expressed that our old friend the contrived finish might be a victim of sensitivity to accusations of match fixing but that didn’t seem to be the case at Grace Rd. yesterday.  Certainly any shady Indian betting syndicates who’d thought to put a few million rupees on Wayne White scoring a 12 ball 50 would have been considerably better off by the afternoon. 

The start of play was delayed until 1.30 by persistent mizzle.  The personable Tymal Mills, fielding on the boundary, relayed the news to us that the arrangement was that Leicestershire were going to be setting Essex a target of 270 (I didn’t see anyone on their ‘phones to Ladbrokes at this point).

I think most of us secretly like a bit of declaration bowling (perhaps something to do with the carnivalesque reversal of the normal roles and rules) and Josh Cobb added to the humour of the situation by being caught behind off his second ball from Adam Wheater (his second ball in first class cricket).  As a freebie century would have done his average a power of good, Cobb may not have enjoyed the joke as much.  Ronnie Sarwan was two short of his century when he skied it straight to Tymal Mills, who must have been wondering what the etiquette was in these situations, before taking the catch.  In his current form, Sarwan might have done better to play his normal game.

Someone behind me pointed out – as slow half volleys were served up and the crowd cowered under a hail of sixes – it was just like watching the IPL (without the music, or the spectators).  Apart from White’s 12 ball 50, Ned Eckersley bagged 70 off 19 balls and they can both be expecting an approach from the Deccan Chargers any time soon. 

Mission accomplished, Essex began their reply and looked in all sorts of trouble against Leicester’s pace trio of Hoggard, Buck and Joseph.  So much so that, after about an hour, they all came off the field again, citing Bad Light.  Umpires Willey and Lloyds made a series of further inspections 

but after a brief resumption the match was called off shortly before four o’clock. 

Most counties would regard coming off for Bad Light as an anachronism, but Grace Road is one of the few grounds (I think) that does not have permanent floodlights yet.  One day I expect to see the last abandonment for Bad Light, which will be a bit like witnessing the last cavalry charge,or the last native speaker of Manx.

In case any readers new to cricket are confused about the difference between Good and Bad Light, this

is Good Light (the divine light that emanates from the throne of God and his Angels), and this

is Bad Light, the kind brought by Lucifer himself.

You can always tell that T20 is in the offing because strange objects begin to make their appearance around the ground a few weeks in advance.  Last year they were in connection with the Hawaian theme adopted for the T20 season, but this year’s theme is more of a mystery. 

These two objects

might be sentry boxes, or perhaps Edwardian bathing huts.  Their use can only be guessed at.  Perhaps the umpires will stand in them and emerge, dressed in Edwardian bathing costumes, to hold up signs indicating which kind of weather is causing the game to be abandoned.  Or perhaps they’re planning to replace the cricket with a swimming gala. 

Leicestershire are still second to bottom of Division 2, largely because of the points deducted for a slow over rate in their victory over Glamorgan.  Perhaps we should give up and try again in July, when the weather might have improved.  (Exactly what we will be doing, of course).