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
having a last huddle (he seemed to be making an inspirational speech of some kind, though I couldn’t tell you what was said)
being helped into position by Mike Thornely and Shiv Thakor
and returning to the pavilion for the last time five minutes later
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“.