Many Exits And An Entrance : My September In Cricket

Grace Road Autumn

Leicestershire v Essex, Grace Road, County Championship

Northamptonshire v Sussex, Wantage Road, County Championship (both September 2014)

September in cricket?  I’m not convinced there should be any.  My ideal season would end with the Championship wrapped up by the end of August, the last Test on August Bank Holiday and only a week or two of festival cricket at the seaside to come.  Of course, we would lament the absence of cricket, what with the weather being so lovely and everything, but really it is the Summer Game and it should end with Summer.

Both Leicestershire and Northamptonshire’s seasons had effectively ended well before the August hiatus in the Championship anyway.  Neither had won a match nor looked likely to, so having to play another couple of matches in September felt a little like a boxer who’d already thrown in the towel being shoved back into the ring to take a few more rounds of punishment.

The end of the season is, of course, the time for goodbyes, and, in cricket, these are seldom easy or handled well.  Ideally the faithful old retainer would, after many long years of service, acknowledge that his leg cutter no longer had quite the nip it used to and regretfully inform the Secretary of his intention to retire.  After brushing aside attempts to dissuade him “But Joe, the old place just won’t be the same without you” he would leave to a rousing chorus of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” and invest the takings from his benefit in a little public house (where he would not, of course, become too fond of his own wares and decline into alcoholism).

But that is not often how it is handled these days.  Although there will be many players bidding farewell to both Grace and Wantage Roads at the end of this season, their circumstances are a little different.  At Leicestershire the best young players are trying to leave against the wishes of the club, and at Northants the club are retiring their older players, in some cases against their wishes.

Before the match against Essex had started Nathan Buck was known to be fleeing for Lancashire, Shiv Thakor for Derbyshire and, during the course of it, Captain Cobb announced that he would be decamping to Wantage Rd. (perhaps to be nearer to his florist’s shop)

Cobbys the Florist

Since then Greg Smith has announced that he’s leaving for Nottinghamshire, where I think he might be seeing a lot of Lady Bay (works in the tea bar underneath the scoreboard on Thursdays, nice lass), which leaves only Ned Eckersley still frantically sending out a “come and get me plea”

Come and get me! Please!

Come and get me! Please!

 

My two penn’orth on what is wrong with Leicestershire and what can be done about it will have to wait for another day, but I would say that the most dispiriting aspect of what turned out to be the last day of the season at Grace Rd. (Leicestershire having lost by an innings within two days) was that there were so few Leicestershire supporters there to see it and so many from Essex.  Put a few deckchairs out and we could have been on the seafront at Clacton.

Considered rationally, Northants have had an even worse season than Leicestershire (albeit at a higher level).  Leicestershire at least held their own over the first two days in most of their games (on the basis of bonus points alone they would have finished fifth) whereas Northants have been thoroughly outclassed in almost every match.  In spite of that the atmosphere at Wantage Road seemed rather more cheerful.  I’m not convinced the regulars there really enjoy being successful, for one thing.  For another, none of the more promising young players are making desperate attempts to tunnel their way out and those who are leaving can at least say they’ve had a good innings (or be told that by others) and leave with the blessings of the stalwarts (as, here, do James Middlebrook and Andrew Hall)

Godbye to Middlebrook and Hall

Talking of exits, this may have been Peter Willey’s last match as an Umpire (subject to legal action). I’m not certain that I saw him play on this ground in his debut season (1966), but it’s more than likely that I did, in which case I’ve been watching him, in one capacity or another, for almost half a century.  I must say he’s aged a lot better than I have.

Willey leaves the field

For every exit there’s an entrance, more or less, of course, and here – waiting to make his – is 16-year-old Saif Zaib, who’s been signed on a three-year contract.  Haven’t seen him play, but I’m told he’s quite useful.

Waiting to make an entry

I first saw Willey play in the company of my Dad.  I like to keep track of the peregrinations of his memorial bench when I’m at Wantage Road and, on this occasion, he had his back to the action and was securing a temporary sightscreen. I suppose that might be what he would have wanted.

 

Memorial bench

Ah well.  That’s me done. For another year, anyway.

 

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The Spirit Is Weak

An interesting and varied August so far, with glimpses of the Spirit of Cricket as far afield at Radlett and Hove.  I shall report shortly (or perhaps, given that, in the Winter, I have more time and no cricket to watch, less shortly).  I did try (honestly)  to write about yesterday’s game at Grace Road between Leicestershire and Surrey, but realised that I was boring even myself so, frankly, I gave up.

Instead, here are a couple of interim Spirit of Cricket Awards.  Firstly to this splendid man (perhaps a Surrey fan) who spent the day happily absorbed in doing something or other with this strange box-like contraption, made out of painted cardboard and sticks. It appeared to be a scoring device of his own invention, or perhaps some kind of home-made orgone accumulator but, whatever it was, it seemed to be giving him great pleasure.  I salute his achievement in the face of what was a very dull match.

 

Man with box

My second award goes to this opening batsman.  Scenting a score against some moderate bowling he is trying to persuade the opposing Captain to resume play in driving rain.  Happily for him, play resumed shortly afterwards.  Unhappily, he was soon out.

 

Little Bowden Rec Aug 2014

It’s a funny old game, you know, cricket.

Golden Hours (A Trick Of The Light) : My July In Cricket

Northants 2nd XI v Sussex 2nd XI, Finedon Dolben CC

Bedfordshire CCC v Cambridgeshire CCC, Bedford Modern School

Leicestershire v Derbyshire, Royal London Cup, Grace Road

Leicestershire 2nd XI v Warwickshire 2nd XI, Grace Road

(all July 2014)

“Sit on the Mound Stand at Lord’s on midsummer morning at noon, and if the sun be ample and you close your eyes for a while you will see a vision of all the cricket fields in England at that very minute; it is a vision of the game’s rich seasonal yield; a vision of green spaces over our land, of flashing bats, of thudding, convulsive bowlers, and men in white alone in the deep or bent low in the slips.”

I have quoted that passage (from “The Summer Game” by Neville Cardus) before.  It describes an experience that he that hath understanding of that vexatious phrase “the Spirit of Cricket” will have had at least once (perhaps as often as once a season, if they’re lucky), even if he (or she) might be shy of admitting it.  English cricketers may, as Bernard Shaw once unintentionally pointed out, be unspiritual people, but cricket does occasionally allow them a glimpse of, if not eternity exactly, a kind of seemingly infinite simultaneity.

Of course it’s not necessary to sit in the Mound Stand at Lord’s on midsummer morning to summon the Spirit of Cricket (she is that not that local or particular a Deity).  If I were to try to summon her deliberately I’d have a couple of pints at lunchtime on a sunny day and sit in the stand on the roof of the Charles Palmer Suite (which usually does the trick).  But at the beginning of the month I was surprised to be surprised by the Spirit in what is, almost literally, my own backyard, the Little Bowden Recreation Ground.

At the end of an overcast day which had turned brilliant to the point of hallucination towards evening I made a slight detour on my way home and chanced upon the time-honoured closing stages of a close encounter (the last man, the last over, the winning run, the handshake, the pub).

Little Bowden Rec July 2014

No doubt it was merely a trick of the light (at close to what photographers call the “golden hour”) but at that moment the two elevens seemed to contain all cricketers everywhere and of all time, stretching back to Hambledon and beyond.

Of course, it is the curse of visionaries (think of Rat in “the Wind in the Willows”, for instance, or even Julian of Norwich) that they cannot convey in words the substance of their visions to those who haven’t shared them, which is why it is generally wiser not to attempt it.  But something of that feeling has remained with me through the month and lent a sense of unity to what are, on the face of it, unrelated happening and sights …

… Nathan Buck attempting to score off a last over bouncer from Mark Footitt …

Young Buck

… some natty duck-egg blue sight screens at Finedon Dolben …

Finedon 1

(the batsman is Samit Patel’s brother Akhil, seen here leaving the pitch looking pained after narrowly missing his century)

Akhil Patel

… a tree in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin, which overlooks the ground at Finedon (and where at lunchtime the incumbent, the popular radio evangelist the Rev. Richard Coles was supervising the raising of the bellows) …

Finedon Churchyard

… a Cambridgeshire player (who I think embodies the Spirit of Amateurism as much as anything) tucking his trousers into what appear to be (Harlequins?) rugby socks …

Bedford 1 (socks)

… the same displaying a broadness of beam in the slips not seen in the professional game since the heyday of Cowdrey, Milburn and Sharpe …

Bedford 3 (slips)

… a World War II bomber that passed low over the field at Bedford in the late afternoon …

Bedford (2) bomber

and even the poor, much abused alleyway that leads to Grace Road …

Grace Rd alleyway

… until, as the month ends, the skies darken and the outfield parches, Barrow Town’s Stan once again hit out boldly in the closing overs …

Stan Fairfield Rd Aug 2014

So, Lo! – do you see? – it all coheres!  Well no, of course, it doesn’t really cohere at all, but sometimes – do you see? – it just seems to for a moment.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s a fine Summer evening, and there might be some cricket still going on somewhere in the vicinity …

(On a more sober note, future England watchers should make a note of the name Sam Hain, who took advantage of the new 50 over format to build a substantial century for Warwicks 2nd XI at Grace Rd. last week.  The new Ian Bell, mark my words, unless he changes his mind and decides he’s Australian again.)

A Gnome Writes …

A Gnome writes …

Gnome 1

 

There’ll be no blogging from His Nibs today.  He’s off to the cricket (“that’s if there is any cricket“, says he meaningfully).  That’s the trouble with this new fad of Championship matches starting on a Sunday.  Now I’m not religious myself (lestways not that religion) but I don’t hold with it. ‘Taint natural and there’s no time for Mr. so-called “Backwatersman” (long time since I saw him  anywhere near a boat) to waste his Sunday afternoons practising his Neville Cardus imitations.  Too busy stuffing his face with pies in the Meet and taking photographs of clouds, I don’t doubt.

But as he’s taken my name in vain the other week I thought I’d shove my two penn’orth in, for what it’s worth.  So what’s been happening to Leicestershire since His Nibs last deigned to write about them?  Straight down the pan, that’s what.  Three good days against Hampshire, then bowled out for less than a hundred.  Lost.  Saved from a beating at Tunbridge Wells by the rain.  Beaten by Gloucestershire after a “sporting declaration“.  And we’re not doing too well in the tip-and-giggle neither.  And then there’s the rain.

So who’s fault’s this?  Clock the vacant-looking fizzog at the top of this blog.  Which damn’ fool was it that said “there’s a good feeling at Grace Road this season” after only two games?  When he knew as well as I do what would happen.  If I put this to him he puts on his clever face and talks about “cognitive” this and “fallacy” that, but, as he admitted the other week, I know (and he knows) that the the Grey Mother Cricket will not be mocked.  But I don’t doubt he’ll be back tonight with a silly grin on his face, blethering about Leicestershire still being in with a chance of promotion if only Nathan Buck’s form holds up and a few more of our “sporting declarations” come off.  Some folk will never learn, mark my words.

 

Now, Charlie, I’m sure you can recapture your sparkling early season form with the bat ...

Gnome 3

 

Time’s Whirligig At The Ivanhoe : My May In Cricket

Not a very memorable May.  Too much mizzle-dodging, a washout at Trent Bridge and a washed-out Bank Holiday T20 double-header at Fairfield Road haven’t helped.  I have seen two days of Hampshire batting at Grace Road (a game we lost thanks to the first dramatic collapse of the season), an imperious innings from James Taylor against Durham at Trent Bridge and Northants running through a T20-hungover Yorkshire side at Wantage Road.  I can confirm that James Vince looks a useful batsman in good nick, but then, as this is the time of year when, England being dormant, a larger portion of the iceberg of English cricket is visible above the water than usual, you will have been able to read all about that in a mainstream media outlet of your choice.  The blogger feels a little superfluous.

But then memory is a curious thing and one match has stuck in my mind, a one-day 2nd XI affair between Leicestershire and Notts at Leicester Ivanhoe.  Ivanhoe are one of the oldest extant clubs in the County, formed in 1873, though they only moved to their present ground in 1953.  The name is presumably the result of late-flowering Scott-worship and their current ground occupies land that was once part of the long-gone Leicester Forest (they share a complex of grounds with the Rugby club of the same name).

As I say, the forest is long gone, along with its attendant knights, but its spirit lingers on in the lines of vast conifers that flank the ground.

Ivanhoe 1

In a strong wind they rustle and shimmy distractingly like a can-can dancer’s drawers and, in any conditions, seem to reduce the players to tiny, Subbuteo-scale, proportions (even the self-described “big goober” Luke Fletcher).

Ivanhoe 3

Fletcher was one of a number of those playing in this game who have flitted in and out of this blog in the five years of its existence, in different circumstances, like characters in some roman fleuve.  Fletcher first appeared at a Seconds game at Kibworth that was interrupted by the harvest in a neighbouring field, looking like “a Polish builder who had wandered in and asked if could have a go at bowling”.  He later turns up frustrating Middlesex at Trent Bridge by “poking around like Peter Roebuck“.  Coach Newell advises him he could be the answer to Nottinghamshire’s bowling problems if he could lay off the ale.  And now here he is back in this just-submerged proportion of the cricketing iceberg, alongside other long-term denizens of this world such as Ollie Freckingham and Tom Wells.

Freckingham and Wells first appear as the fastest pair of bowlers in the Leicestershire League, playing in the County Cup Final for Loughborough against Harborough.  Freckingham rises to the surface, is for some time the leading wicket-taker in Division 2 of the Championship and is elected Player of the Year for 2013.  Now he too is back in this pleasant demi-limbo between club cricket and the bright floodlit uplands of the professional game.  There are others here too: Alex Wyatt, who has been not quite established in the First XI since he made his debut in 2009, Paul Franks (the last Young Player of the Year not to appear for England), Dan Redfern, who looked set to star for Leicestershire this season but finds he can’t get back into the side after a finger injury, Billy Root (brother of the more famous Joe), Sam Kelsall (waiting to fill the gap created by James Taylor if he ever gets into the England side) and more.  They all have their stories.      

And then there are those who are no longer here.  On the day that this match took place two long-time residents, Harry Gurney and Rob Taylor, were appearing against each other for England and Scotland respectively.  (The last time I saw Gurney was at another 2nds match at Nottingham’s Lady Bay ground last year, in opposition to, as it happens, and in conversation with,Freckingham.)  Of course there are reasons why one player rises to the surface and another submerges but some of these players might be forgiven, as they strain for pace in the shadow of the mighty conifers, for feeling that their fates have less to do with reason than the caprices of some flighty forest-spirit.  Modern cricketers may be adept at paying lip service to the new philosophies (e.g. small margins) but in their hearts they know better than not to placate the old religion of Mother Cricket.

Part of this loss of faith in the men of reason may be down to the sudden re-appearance of Mitchell Johnson, which seems to have caused as much panic as the reappearance of Halley’s comet did in 1066.  Gurney and Taylor are both beneficiaries of the cry “Find a left-armer, any left-armer really (even Tymal Mills)!” and another beneficiary (if that’s the word) of the destruction of Graeme Swann and the consequent cry “Find a spinner, for God’s sake find a spinner!” was playing at the Ivanhoe.  Rob Sayer, who plays his club cricket for Peterborough, and has hardly played for Leicester 2nds, took some wickets for England Under-19s over the Winter and consequently featured in more than one “Ones to watch” feature in the Spring.  He may well go on to great things, but, on this showing, he is no better a bowler than another spin-bowling Rob who also took some wickets for the England Under-19s, couldn’t get a contract with Leicestershire and is now back performing very effectively for Market Harborough.

Ivanhoe 2

 

(As to who or what the Presiding Spirit behind all this is, who knows? Well, I think the Last Gnomes know.  They know everything else … where to get off the bus so that you don’t have to retrace your steps for half an hour, where to get a cob on a Bank Holiday, where the only bench on the ground is, where to find a scorecard when they aren’t on sale, exactly what went on at Sileby that time.  But then, of course, they have long ago retreated back to what’s left of the forest, and they aren’t telling …) 

Hope Springs Eternal : #goodtimes at Grace Road and Fairfield Road

This is tempting fate, and I’ve resisted saying it before, but it has to be said: there has been a good feeling around Grace Road this April.  This ought to go without saying.  Why would there not be a good feeling at any cricket club in April (apart from in the “England camp“, where, presumably, the atmosphere is one of introspection and paranoia, as Cook and Moores – poor sods – “hammer out their values“)?  The slate is still clean, all things are still possible and there is pleasure still to be had in speculating on what might be (if, if only) as opposed to what might have been.  And, of course, at Grace Road, as at any self-respecting ground, the flowerbeds in front of the pavilion are in full bloom.

Grace Road in April

Grace Rd in April 2

Leicestershire’s delayed entry into the Championship (the sad postponement of the Derby game meant that they did not play a competitive game until 20th April) has, I think, helped not only to recall echoes of yesteryear (when it was all but impossible for a side to be out of the running by the end of May) but meant that they have arrived on the scene in at least second gear.  Following on from two friendly matches for the First XI and two (apparently hard-fought) intra-club matches, the Second XI friendly against Derbyshire was used to give most of the prospective First XI another runout.

This blog can, in passing, now claim to span two generations.  In the first post I wrote about cricket one of the few players I mentioned by name was Dominic Cork.  Opening the bowling for Derbyshire 2s in this match was his son, 19-year-old Greg (or Gregory Teodor Gerald, to give him his full name).  He is another left-armer (so, no doubt, someone will soon be proposing him as England’s answer to Mitchell Johnson).  Another left-armer is Rob Taylor, who, in April 2009, was turning out mainly for Harborough and threatening the homeowners of Fairfield Road with the fury of aerial bombardment as an opening batsman.  Since then he has progressed through the 2nds of both Leicestershire and Northants, Loughborough MCCU and Leicestershire’s 1-day side to international recognition with Scotland.  I have always seen him as much as a batsman as a bowler and I was delighted to see him given the chance to prove me right with 164* against Derbyshire (less good news, though, for the homeowners and insurers of Milligan Road).

Taylor and Freckingham

Taylor being given the chance to show what he can do with the bat would be one of the “if onlies” I spoke of earlier.  Others would include Smith and Boyce putting on 100 for the first wicket, Eckersley maintaining last season’s form, Josh Cobb at last finding some way of integrating his 1-day style into his 4-day cricket, Jigar Naik avoiding self-inflicted injuries in the field and Charlie Shreck having some kind of extended Indian Summer, in the style of Richardson or Chapple.  Some enterprising Captaincy would help too.

Almost miraculously, it now seems, all of these hopes were fulfilled in the first home match against Glamorgan.  Leicestershire made 500 in their first innings for the first time that I can remember since that glorious day at the Oval when James Taylor milked Andre Nel and his strutting cronies to the tune of a double hundred.

500

Shreck looked sharper than I remember him appearing at Kent, Naik (I’m told) was threatening on the fourth day and emerged from the match unscathed and Captain Cobb demonstrated some awareness of the need for quick scoring and shrewd declarations if 16 points for a win are to be achieved.

It seems a shame to allow facts to cast a shadow so early in the season, but it is true that we haven’t actually won a match yet.  Bowling the opposition out twice quickly may prove difficult (which is why the art of the strategic declaration assumes such importance).  Ronnie Sarwan (the official Captain) hadn’t made it to England in time for the first two matches. He will, no doubt, contribute runs; let us hope he also provides decisive leadership.  It is also true, alas, that, if what we are seeing is the coming to ripeness of the group of young players whose fortunes I have been following over the last five years, then ripeness may well (as the poet hath it) be all.  The contracts of Cobb, Eckersley and Thakor (amongst others) are up at the end of the Season and it may, unfortunately, be other Counties who reap what we have sewn.  But enough of such dark thoughts.  There is a good feeling at Grace Road for now and that has been rare enough in recent times.

jigar naik

And not only at Grace Road.  Harborough have (in circumstances I am not privy to) lost seven senior players since last season and are facing the new campaign with a team much younger even than Leicestershire, their totem and stalwart Kevin Innes unable to contribute with the ball and unable, the Saturday before last, to put out a 2nd XI.  But necessity (to resuscitate another old cliche) can be the mother of innovation and they took the field against a muscular and much-fancied Syston side last Saturday with one seamer (celebrating his 17th birthday) and four youthful spinners.  Suicidal so early in the season?  Well, not if you have a hand in preparing the wicket and Kevin Innes can still bat.  We won shortly after 7.00, as the sun set behind the Pavilion.

victory at fairfield rd

In August these early evening sunsets and lengthening shadows provoke bitter-sweet thoughts of “dying falls” and ever-encroaching Winter.  In Maytime, though, evenings can (to paraphrase somebody or other) only get lighter and – my word – don’t you bet poor Moores and Cook wish they were young again and heading off for a few barely legal beers in the clubhouse after a famous victory rather than bracing themselves for a shellacking from the Press (not to mention the cats’ chorus on Twitter) after an indifferent display against Scotland?  Still wish Rob “Roy” Taylor the best of luck, though.

 

Five Years : An Anniversary (and the latest on Ned Eckersley’s beard)

Five years.

As David Bowie once observed, “it’s not a lot“.  I think he went on to add “it’s all we’ve got” and “my brain hurts a lot“, so there was obviously some serious pencil sucking going on in Beckenham that evening.  I mention this only because WordPress has this week reminded me that I’ve been now been blogging for five years and I decided to commemorate this anniversary by taking the day off and going to the cricket instead of writing anything.

On the other hand, I realise that many of you out there in Internetland will be tuning in hoping to find out the latest on Ned Eckersley’s beard.  I don’t wish to disappoint, so here is the state of play as of this afternoon.

 

Eckersley's beard 27.4.14

The beard appears to have been pruned back and now, I’d say, gives its wearer something of the look of Errol Flynn playing the part of an Elizabethan sea captain.  More on the beard, and my month in sport, to follow in due course.