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 …) 

Advertisements

Old Man, Young Men : Cricket In September (Chiefly In Photographs)

When I first saw that this year’s season was not due to finish until the last week of September I was thinking to myself that this could be heaven or this could be hell.  A glorious Indian summer of pale sunshine and golden leaf-drift, with plenty of scope for sub-Cardusian musing about dying falls, exits and entrances, youth and age, or a complete washout that made me wish I’d saved my annual leave for Christmas.  So far it’s been a little of both, although the scene outside my window as I type does suggest that the season itself is about to be called off for bad light.

We’ve had a little drizzle, the kind that County men come off for but clubmen play on through and which did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the boy in the black trousers who was on as a substitute fielder for Leicester Banks (a serious side in their heyday, featuring Darren Maddy in the not too distant past, not to mention Gary Lineker) against Harborough 2s

Harborough 2 v Leicester Banks

Our sub had clearly been making a close study of his seniors and boasted an impressive repertoire of handclapping, general encouragement (including, I suspect, the Gujurati equivalent of “Serious pace, buddy” and “areas“) and concerted appealing.

The weather held for the Final of the County Cup at Grace Road, and, having watched so many defeats there this season, it made a pleasant change to witness a victory, as Harborough comfortably defeated Lutterworth (Captain Chris Weir here displays the trophy to the wearers of the old baggy maroon)

Weir triumphant

Lutterworth contributed something of a Test Match atmosphere to the game, with a small brigade of the Barmy Army, including a very drunk suicide bomber, his explosive vest packed with Red Bull (who this small boy mistook for a pirate).

Suicide bomber

It’s always a shame to go through a season without at least one visit to Lord’s and I was quite looking forward to seeing the third day of Middlesex against Nottinghamshire, if only to catch up with the sides I’d seen in my first County fixture of the year at Trent Bridge and see where the season had taken them.  In short, Middlesex have had a moderately successful season and Notts a moderately unsuccessful one (they entered this game with a mathematical possibility of relegation).  Luke Fletcher has listened to tough-talking boss Newell’s wake-up call, cut back on the ale and established himself as a useful front-line seamer, Toby Roland-Jones has been injured and has probably now moved out of range of the England selectors’ radar and Tim Murtagh has taken more wickets than anyone else in the Championship without anyone seriously suggesting an England call-up.

Like the young boy from Banks the Old Man continues to play on imperturbably through the murk and drizzle (and, if you look very closely, you can see that he is surrounded by a cloud of small gnats, which would have pleased John Keats)

The Old Man with gnats

Unfortunately, not a single ball was bowled all day, which gave me plenty of time to explore the upper reaches of the Mound Stand and I came away with a useful tip.  If anyone offers you a suspiciously cheap ticket for row 25, seat no. 6 I’d pass, if I were you, unless you happen to be a specialist fielding coach.  The view is really very restricted

Restricted view

Into every life a little rain must fall, I suppose, and I ought to be grateful that this was the first complete washout of the season, in spite of the fact that I’d just paid £16.00 to see as much cricket as someone sitting in row 25, seat 6.  A huge compensation was the opportunity to enjoy a couple of drinks with fellow-blogger Chris Smith of Declaration Game fame and some of his ex-teammates from Turl C.C. who had chosen the day for a reunion.  Do follow Chris’s blog, if you don’t already, by the way, it’s always excellent value and he’s also very generous in spreading the word about other people’s writings – see my blogroll for details or follow him on Twitter at  

There are some players who make themselves known as rumours a long time before they arrive (in the sense of playing first-class cricket) rather like a tornado announcing itself as a faint wisp of smoke on the distant horizon.  Ramprakash was a name I’d heard often before he first played for Middlesex and tall tales of “the little lad at Loughborough” long preceded my first sight of James Taylor in Leicestershire colours.  Too often these wisps of smoke turn out to be elderly Skodas with faulty exhaust pipes rather than tornadoes, but if anyone fancies a very long-term punt on the composition of the England XI in 2023 they might want to make a note of the name Ben “Fishy” Coddington.  Coddington has been playing for Leicestershire Under-14s this season and Those Who Ought To Know seriously rate him (“better than Shiv (Thakor)” being one of the milder recommendations).  Saturday’s game against Syston was the first time I’d seen him in action.

Certainly if I hadn’t known who he was I would never have guessed that he was 13 (or possibly 14).  The context of the game was that Harborough, needing a win (as opposed to a winning draw) to retain a chance of finishing top of the Premier League, had made a decent 230 something in their 45 overs.  Syston had started slowly and had little realistic chance of victory at 4 wickets down, when young Coddington came to the crease.  As you will see, Harborough adopted an attacking field (here we see Coddington on strike with 8 wickets down and about 4 overs to go)

Coddington defiant

The boy not only stood on the burning deck but positively strutted about on it (one thing he does not lack, I’m told, is self-confidence).  Not the least impressive aspect of this, I thought, was that faced with nine fieldsmen in close, he didn’t take the obvious options of blocking or trying to loft the ball over the field, but placed his shots carefully through the gaps between them (and I should point out here that our bowling featured the two ex-County men Innes and White and the talented England U-19 spinner Ben Collins).

I couldn’t tell you precisely how many runs he made, because the scoreboard was undermanned and not displaying individual scores, but it was enough and, having steered his side home, he left the field to some well-deserved applause.

Coddington triumphant

It occurs to me that, if his parents had really wanted to burden him with expectation, they could have named him W. G. Grace Coddington, which would have meant that he would have had to become either a great cricketer or the Creative Director of Vogue, but perhaps Ben was a more sensible choice.

So there you are.  Two top tips in one post.  And two more games to go.

What I Did On My Holidays : County Cricket From July To August

Various games, July & August 2013

The last time I wrote about a County Championship match was on June 22nd.  Since then an entire Ashes series has been and gone, as has this Summer’s T20 Competition and most children’s Summer holidays.  In the background the Championship has been creeping surreptitiously along, odd games fitted in here and there between the shorter forms.  It began again in earnest last week and should have the whole of September to itself, as it had most of April and May, like an elderly Duke reduced to living in the wings of a grand house.

Writing about several matches at once should allow some sort of pattern to emerge.  Since June, I’ve seen Lancashire beat Northamptonshire convincingly and dismiss Leicestershire.  Yorkshire I’ve seen crush Derbyshire like a bug, and, less predictably, beat Nottinghamshire with equal ease.  Lancashire have, as I predicted, overtaken Northants at the top of Division 2.  Northants have hung on in second place (and should have acquired some extra confidence from winning the T20 and leading their group in the YB40).  With Copeland returning, Willey on song and none of the sides below them getting their acts together, even the congenital pessimists at Wantage Road should be secretly confident of joining Lancashire in Division 1 next year.

None of the days I’ve seen have been hugely memorable in themselves, and I somehow seem to have contrived to miss the most significant performances (and it doesn’t help that I’ve mostly been distracted by having the TMS bantz-fest in my earpiece).   When Lancashire beat Northants I caught the double century by Simon Katich – as vast and featureless as the Gobi Desert – that enabled Lancashire to overhaul Northants’ first innings of 310, but missed Simon Kerrigan’s 7-37 in the second innings that set up a 10 wicket victory and drew him further into the selectors’ Radar.  At Chesterfield, which was a joy as always

Queen's Park Chesterfield

I arrived the day after Alex Lees had made 275 (though the Derbyshire greybeards were still buzzingly grudgingly about it).  I’m not sure there was anything historically significant about  Lancashire’s defeat of Leicestershire (apart from more wickets from Kerrigan) but, if there was, I missed that too.

It is tempting to see all this as the natural order of things reasserting itself.  The splitting of the Championship in two was meant to result in the strongest sides being concentrated in the First Division, but, thanks to cricket’s “glorious uncertainty”, this never quite happens.  With two relegated from a Division of nine, one poor season, or even unusually bad luck with the weather can result in a strong side being relegated and one season of punching above their weight can mean a “small club” can be promoted. Last year Lancashire, who had won the Championship the year before with a young and largely home-grown side, were relegated.  Yorkshire, who had suffered the same fate the year before, were promoted in their place, along with Derbyshire, who had taken advantage of the foul early season weather to establish a runaway lead while others were dawdling.

This season Lancashire have been able to fortify their youthful batting with the acquisition of the multi-county Katich, while retaining Ashwell Prince, but their real strength has been in their bowling.  The routine is that, in the first innings, Kyle Hogg and the 38-year-old Glen Chapple

Chapple

dismiss the top order, supported, if necessary, by a decent selection of second string seamers, before Kerrigan winkles out the lower middle order.  In the second innings (or if the pitch is taking spin), it is generally Kerrigan who does the damage.  Kerrigan’s eye-catching figures this season (and the season before) don’t exactly flatter him, but they do present his bowling in the best possible light, having been achieved in the best possible circumstances.

Yorkshire should (if the weather hadn’t intervened) have won the Second Division last year by a distance and they look on course to do so in the First this year.  Their batting remains home produced, an apparently limitless supply of talented young batsmen flowing from their Academy.  They have been able to replace Root with the equally talented but more pugnacious Lees, the absence of Bairstow (seen here in unflattering but not untypical pose at Trent Bridge)

DSCF3516

has been compensated for by the steady emergence of Ballance, who may well in turn supplant him (and the luckless Taylor) in the England side.

As was the case when they last won the Championship in 2001, they have a relentless four man pace attack.  Then it was Hoggard, Kirby, Silverwood and Sidebottom, now it is Brooks, Patterson, Plunkett and – semper eadem – Sidebottom again. Brooks (bought in from Northants) is as hostile a bowler as I’ve seen this season and batters the batsmen from one end

Jack Brooks

while the still impressively hirsute Sidebottom (35) bowls them out from the other.

Sidebottom

They too have a spinner who was once talked of as an England prospect in Adil Rashid who is still in the side, but mainly for his batting these days.  He was allowed a spell at Chesterfield, which disappeared all over the park, but I rather had the impression that they were giving him a bowl to humour him and that he would not have been allowed on in more testing circumstances.

So, Yorkshire for Champions (probably), Lancashire and Northants promoted, Leicestershire for the wooden spoon and Derbyshire … well, I had them down for relegation at the outset and they have been attached firmly to the bottom of the table all season. In an amusing twist, though, they have won their last two matches and it looks as though Surrey – the biggest, richest County of them all – might be the ones we will be welcoming to Grace Road next season.  I’m sure they will be looking forward to that.

I am conscious, in writing this, that it sounds like the ramblings of a football pundit as the Leagues enter the crucial Easter period.  There are many other signs that cricket is becoming more like football (such as star players threatening to leave if their side gets relegated and Counties sacking their coaches to stave off relegation).  I suppose this is pretty much what the authorities were hoping for when they split the Divisions in the first place, but I can’t help feeling a slight nostalgia for the days when a County who were in a comfortable mid-table position in late July could look forward to dozing their way through August, and the most the players had think about were their averages.  But in that, as in so much else, I am no doubt out of tune with my times.

Dusty Boots Would Shame You Now : Lady Bay

Nottinghamshire 2nd XI v Leicestershire 2nd XI, Nottinghamshire Sports Ground, Lady Bay, 26th June 2013

It is always refreshing to venture beyond my usual haunts and discover a new ground and this year’s traditional mid-season T20 break once again provides the incentive.

Flicking through the fixture list, I’ve always liked the sound of Lady Bay, where Nottinghamshire play most of their 2nd XI matches.  It is not, as the name suggests, by the sea (though I did spot what might have been an immature herring gull in the outfield):

Lady Bay Seagull

The ground is part of a complex of sports pitches close by Trent Bridge and immediately behind Forest’s City Ground that used to be provided by the Boots Company for the use of their workers (in the days when capitalism was marginally more philanthropic).  Nottingham’s Rugby League side play there and the Rugby Union side uses it as a training ground (I believe they now play their first team fixtures at Notts County’s Meadow Lane).  The Boots football club, who used to play there, seem to have been evicted to make way for them.

Like many place names in this area of Nottingham (Meadow Lane, the Meadows Estate I walk through to get to Trent Bridge) it is not quite as bucolic as its name suggests (though it may once have been) but it is a pleasant enough ground.  The pavilion is a homely, club housey sort of affair (the interior is a little like a 1920s pub, decorated with rugby memorabilia and old Punch cartoons)

Lady Bay Pavilion

there is a distant view of hills from one side of the ground

Lady Bay

and the looming bulk of the Brian Clough stand from the other

Lady Bay

The fly in the ointment is that running alongside the ground is a busy and exceptionally noisy road, from which the speeding motorist may catch a brief glimpse of the cricket (although I don’t suppose many of them bother)

Lady Bay from the road

The real sadness about this is that this road leads to the Lady Bay Bridge, which until 1968 was a rail bridge carrying trains from Melton Mowbray into Nottingham, and the road was presumably a railway.  There are few things that enhance a cricket ground more than a railway alongside it, few that enhance a railway journey more than a glimpse of cricket and very few that enhance it less than a busy road.  I feel those old Boots employees must have seen the best days of Lady Bay.

The match itself was a pretty listless affair (these games seem to be used as an opportunity to have a look at prospective players as much as a competition in itself).  Leicestershire were captained by Ollie Freckingham, who, as an out and out strike bowler, seems not to be required in one day cricket, but he only bowled a few overs and spent a lot of time off the pitch (I didn’t get the impression he was too thrilled to be there at all).

In the morning of what was the second day of a three day match Leicestershire looked to be running through the Notts batting and a result might have been in prospect, but after lunch Brett Hutton (no relation, as far as I know, though he is Yorkshire-born) rather let the air out of the game with a frustrating century.  On the third day the match was drawn.

The triallist who caught the eye was Ben Raine, a burly fast-medium Mackem who’s been released by Durham.  He also bats a bit apparently, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of him (though we aren’t exactly short of that type of player).

These games are not, unfortunately, only an opportunity for the Leicestershire coaches to have a look at some of our younger players, they also allow the Nottinghamshire coaches to do a bit of window shopping.  At one point, one of them appeared to be ruffling Freckingham’s hair and winking at him.  I know these fiends will stop at nothing to lure our best players away, but I thought this was a bit low, even by their standards.

I think I may be back to Lady Bay, though I shall make sure to take some earplugs.

“Prediction Is Very Difficult, Especially About The Future” : as illustrated by a day at Trent Bridge

Nottinghamshire v Middlesex, Trent Bridge, County Championship, 12th April 2013

April is, in the English cricketing world, traditionally the time for predictions.  On the other hand, somewhere in the top ten of great cricketing commonplaces is that the beauty of the game lies in its unpredictability.  My tip for a sure-fire bet would be to put some money on the number of times the phrase ‘Who would have predicted that!‘ is used in the commentary box.

There is a saying in football that ‘the table doesn’t lie’ and that the best side over a full season will always win a given division.  Unfortunately this generally means that, given the imbalance of financial power in the Premiership, there are only three clubs with a realistic chance of winning that league.  Not so in cricket.  In Division One there is only one side (Derbyshire, I’m afraid) who appear substantially weaker on paper than the others.  The others all begin the season with a realistic prospect of finishing Champions and the only prediction I’d make with any confidence is that it will be whichever side plays to the limits of their paper capabilities.

In Division Two, unfortunately, things are a little easier to predict.  There are probably four Counties whose strength on paper makes them promotion candidates (Lancashire, Hampshire, Kent and Essex).  Of the others, it would be a surprise to see Worcester or Northants either being promoted or finishing last, and then, bringing up the rear, there are Glamorgan, Gloucester and some other County I can’t quite bring to mind.

But then again, then again … there is the phenomenon of the side that, through some effort of collective will, plays considerably beyond its apparent capabilities.  Two years ago Lancashire won the Championship with a largely name-free side and last year, of course, Derbyshire, with a ragbag of cast-offs and local talent, defied all predictions by winning promotion.

And then, of course, there is the weather, a great leveller.  Bradman’s Invincibles themselves would have a hard time winning promotion if they were forced to spend most of the season in the pavilion, playing Championship Manager and idly tweeting #Raincard (which is largely what happened to Yorkshire last year).  So there is hope for us yet.

To prove my point, consider the day’s cricket I saw last Friday at Trent Bridge, a strange medley of four entirely distinct passages of play.  In the first two matters proceeded in an orderly and predictable fashion, in the second two the game was turned on its head and turned over again, like an egg-timer being used to boil two eggs.

My first prediction (as I left the house in steady drizzle) that would have been wildly awry would have been that I wasn’t likely to see much cricket and that I was wasting my train fare even going to Nottingham.  In fact, although this was the scene when I arrived at the ground (the floodlights lending it an eerie, midnight sun quality)

Trent Bridge April 2013

play began at 11.30, and continued (more or less continually floodlight) until 5.30 when, puzzlingly, they went off for bad light.

When play resumed Middlesex were on 291/7, in reply to Nottinghamshire’s 278 (Toby Roland-Jones having taken 6-36).  The questions were how far Middlesex could extend their lead (to 75 in the end) and whether the Middlesex ‘keeper Simpson would make his century (left stranded on 97).  The Notts seamers, who had apparently being spraying it around like hyaenas the previous day (to the tune of 57 extras) bowled a little more tightly without suggesting that bowling is going to be their strong suit this year.  Shahzad strutted, Fletcher lumbered and Carter loped and bounced, but not to any great effect.

The Middlesex innings ended conveniently at lunchtime and set up the passage of play that must have had Andy Flower (who was apparently present at the ground) opening his notebook and licking his pencil.

Toby Roland-Jones (the name to drop at the moment) had taken 6-63 in the first innings and would be bowling to the Australian Cowan, and the England prospects Hales, Lumb, Taylor and Patel.  Roland-Jones is 6’4″ (at least), has a long (very long) smoothly oiled run up and is, as you might expect, on the brisk side of fast medium and gets a lot of lift.  Cowan, as it happened, was bowled by the underestimated Murtagh for 1 and Lumb swiftly bagged his pair, LBW to Roland-Jones.

This brought together Hales and Taylor who, mindful, I think, of the presence of Flower, seemed to be on their best and most responsible behaviour, treating Roland-Jones, in particular, with courtly respect.  Once or twice Roland-Jones succumbed to the temptation most tall fast bowlers feel to bounce Taylor (which is like throwing Brer Rabbit into the Tar Pit) and was despatched, but mostly bowled the line indicated in this photograph.  Taylor ostentatiously refused to nibble at the offered bait.

Roland-Jones to Taylor

After 16 overs Hales and Taylor had taken Notts through to 50 without giving any chances.  Roland-Jones and Murtagh were taken off and replaced by the industrious but unrenowned Berg and Dexter, who is close to being a part-time bowler and would not have been bowling at all if James Harris had not pulled a hamstring.  At this point the proprieties were thrown to the winds and the spirit of some Lord of Misrule took over Trent Bridge.

Hales and Taylor must felt that they had seen off the worst of the threat and earned the right to be a little more expansive against the second stringers.  I missed Hales’ dismissal but he was caught behind off Berg for 32.  Patel, who replaced him, hadn’t really earned the right to anything but played a hopeless sort of backhand smash against Dexter that rose almost vertically to be caught by the substitute Podmore (son, perhaps, of Dave, the legendary bits-and-pieces player of the ’80s).  Taylor, presented with a short ball outside off stump by Dexter played a wonderfully muscular cut.  Unfortunately the ball kept low (or at least a lot lower than the stuff he’d been getting from Roland-Jones) and – in the opinion of the Umpire – it caught the underside of his bat on its way through to the ‘keeper.

In swift succession Read and the runner-assisted Wessels were removed by the demon Dexter to take Notts to 68-7.  Shahzad had a brief swish but went the same way at 93-8.  The stalwarts in the crowd sighed, shook their heads and scanned the papers to see what was on the way of football to occupy their newly vacant Saturday afternoon.

The Lord of Misrule must have been tiring of his little joke with Dexter and had thought of a better one, as Luke Fletcher came to the wicket to join the veteran “Dr.” Dre Adams.  Middlesex skipper Rogers, not wanting to push his luck with Dexter, brought Roland-Jones back to – as he must have thought – polish off the tail.  Adams was in no mood to be intimidated by any pesky kid and hit Roland-Jones for three boundaries in his first over, including a huge six over the very long leg side boundary.  The spell was broken and the disbelieving Roland-Jones was transformed from some reincarnation of Joel Garner into a gangly youth bowling in his back garden with a tennis ball.

To make matters worse, until the end of his innings, Fletcher belied his reputation as the Costcutter Flintoff by poking around like Peter Roebuck, before he too started hoicking Roland-Jones into the flowerbeds.

Luke Fletcher at the wicket

Fletcher couldn’t quite make his fifty (b. Murtagh for 47): inevitably he later described himself as ‘gutted’ on Twitter.  Adams finished with 50 from 38 balls and Dexter with a career best 5-27.

Well, who would have predicted that!

As for what Andy Flower would have come away with in his notebook, I’d guess:

Roland-Jones !? Hales ? Taylor ?? Patel !!

‘A Patient, Affectionate Wooing Of The Year’s Playtime’ : The Season Almost Begins

A Leicestershire XI (and Robbie Williams) v A 12 of Nottinghamshire, Pre-season Friendly, Grace Road, Wednesday 3rd April 2013

“It is the brevity of the cricket season that makes the game precious.  And the shyness of its coming on early May days makes it lovable.  Other games burst on us in all their plenty ; the first afternoon of football is as challenging, as multitudinous, as any of the season’s maturity.  The arrogance of football’s advent, the sudden activity and conquest, it is all surely a little brazen, even vulgar – reminding us of the person who puts on all her jewellery at once.  Cricket comes into her own slowly, as though by a patient, affectionate wooing of the year’s playtime.  The game may almost be said to show itself with a blush in the early May days.”  (Cardus)

I suppose it is still possible to make some connection between that ‘patient, affectionate wooing of the year’s playtime’ and the way that the modern season introduces itself, but it does take a certain effort of will.  My own fault, of course, for turning out to watch a pre-season friendly (the Counties may have played these games for a while, but have only recently started advertising their existence and attracting spectators).  The feeling is always slightly that of arriving an hour early for a party and trying to make oneself comfortable in the living room while the hosts are still getting dressed and fretting about the dinner arrangements.

This year the club seemed better prepared for its visitors than has sometimes been the case in the past (the time, for instance, when they’d forgotten to open any of the lavatories).  The Fox Bar was open and ready for business and the office was doing a decent trade in membership renewals. Mercifully, given the temperature outside, the Meet was open as a viewing gallery (though we didn’t have a chance to find out what Mr. Stew, the new Happy Families-style Catering Manager, has in store for us).  The Friends of Grace Road were unpacking their wares from winter storage and selling their usual home-made cakes (not left over from last season, I don’t think), while Matthew Hoggard, freed from the cares of office, snaffled a couple of spoonfuls of Nescafe from their store cupboard.

I see Vic Marks writing in today’s Observer has this to say:

“The only way cricket hits the wider news agenda at this time of year is when there are flurries of snow on the first day and the cameras pan round to a solitary fan in an otherwise empty stand.  News editors like this scenario; it is quirky, delightfully English and makes the game look stupid.”

Had there been any cameras at Grace Road, then – given the layout of the place and the prevailing wind – they would either have panned around an empty stand at one end of the ground or a surprisingly decent crowd, basking like lizards in the sunshine (albeit lizards in five layers of clothing), at the other.  Anyone with any sense or feeling was sitting in front of the Pavilion, sunlit and shielded from the bitter wind blowing in from the Steppes.  Even at the height of Summer the Bennett End is the place to go only if you want to take refuge from the heat: today it was taking the full force of the Easterly wind that helped preserve the last (I hope) of the Winter’s snowfall and was bitterly, bitterly cold.

Snow at the Bennett End

At least we spectators had some choice about where to sit and were allowed to wear overcoats and scarves.  The players are more limited in their choices and were paying the price for the move away from traditional flannels and sweaters towards featherlight shirts and jumpers apparently made out of the material used to make disposable nappies.  In similar circumstances ‘Ticker’ Mitchell is said to have worn his pyjamas under two pairs of flannels; the problem for today’s players is that their one-day ‘flannels’ are essentially pyjamas in the first place.  Most seemed to be attempting to ward off the cold by adopting the fashionable ‘layering’ approach, accessorised with wooly hats.

The chaps who really drew the short straw were the bowlers forced to bowl into the Force 8 from the Urals at the Bennett End, who included two of the more interesting recent entrants on the County scene.  Luke Fletcher was appearing for Notts in what was essentially a 2nd team (or, as more than one wag in the Fox Bar put it, their homegrown XI).  He hails from Bulwell, once a mining area, now known for resistance to the destruction of the Bulwell Bogs, having the lowest percentage of pupils who progress to Higher Education in the UK and some lurid gangland slayings.  According to ‘The Don’, The Cricketer‘s Man In The Know on the County circuit, he is ‘a decent prospect, but word is he likes a few beers’ and tough-talking Outlaws’ boss Mick Newell was quoted as saying in the Cricket Paper that he needs to realise that playing cricket is a career and ‘not just a hobby‘.  I think the ghosts of Mordecai Sherwin and Tom Wass would recognise a kindred spirit and be wishing him well (and I rather hope that my original prediction that he’ll end up playing for Leicestershire comes true).

Having said that, he clearly isn’t the player of Mickey Arthur’s dreams.  I imagine his morning Wellness Report would read something like ‘A bit rough, to be fair‘, it sometimes seemed touch and go whether he’d reach the end of his run up without stopping for a rest and it wasn’t clear whether he was overdoing the layering or whether he always looks like this:

Luke Fletcher

I shall follow his career with interest.

His oppo in the Leicestershire attack and the brotherhood of the into-the-winders was another character who has appeared before in this chronicle – Ollie ‘the Rutland Rocket‘ Freckingham.  A late entrant on the County scene at 24, he made his name as the fastest bowler in the Everards’ League, has been Rutland’s Champion Golfer for several years running, apparently still uses linseed oil on his bat and is – I suspect – A Bloody Good Bloke.  He could hurry up not a few batsmen in Division 2 and – at the very least – might encourage Nathan Buck to look to his laurels as the Foxes’ strike bowler.

The match itself was one of those peculiar affairs where more than eleven players are allowed to play (Leicestershire were announced as ‘Leicestershire with Robbie Williams’), batsmen can retire and I rather thought that Nottinghamshire were so keen to get off the pitch and into the warm that they were resorting to Declaration Bowling in what was a 40 over match.  In any case it was pretty rank and Leicestershire quickly knocked off an unassailable 328-3 with some mighty IPL-style smiting into the Cricketers pub from Mike Thornely.  Nottinghamshire, predictably, were unable to assail our unassailable total and we won by 63 runs.

By the way, this might be – and probably is – the effect of the unexpected sunlight and the generally Feelgood Vibe around the ground, but I have a tentative feeling that good (or at least better) times are just around the corner at Grace Road.  But, as always, we shall have to wait and see.

Mordecai Sherwin : The Last Professional Skipper

Mordecai Sherwin

“Between the heyday of the touring XIs in the 1850s and the end of the century, the world of the professional cricketer was turned upside down.  Once he had been the master of his own destiny – even though gate receipts might not always have been shared out equally.  Now he was back in the position of an artisan.  The only compensation that he could derive from this reversal was the great increase offered by a regular programme of county matches.  Yet, as far as one can tell, professionals adjusted to their new station in county cricket with equanimity; where a grievance was voiced, it normally concerned rates of pay or earnings and not the question of the professional’s status.” (Christopher Brookes in ‘English Cricket’)

Wicket-keepers again.

Gregor MacGregor is sometimes said to have been chosen as one of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year for 1891, but, strictly speaking, he was one of the Wicket-Keepers of the Year : another was Mordecai Sherwin (depicted above in the anonymous portrait that hangs in the pavilion at Trent Bridge).  They seem to represent two different epochs : MacGregor was 22 in 1891, Sherwin 40.  MacGregor was one of the new wave of public school educated amateurs who exerted an increasing influence over the game in the last decade of the century: Sherwin was one of the old school of professionals who had dominated the 1880s.

Sherwin also has the distinction of being the last professional to be appointed officially as captain of a county until Leicestershire chose Ewart Astill in 1935.  The idea that it would be unthinkable for a professional to captain a county (or, indeed, England) is sometimes thought of as a Victorian invention, which is true, but much later in her reign than one might think.  When Lord Hawke made his famous remark “Pray God, no professional shall never captain England” he added that he thought it would be “a retrograde step” and he had himself played for Yorkshire under a professional.

In its early years the County Championship itself was a nebulous entity.  Its beginning is usually dated from 1873, which was the year when the rules regarding qualification were agreed between nine of the larger counties. There was no central organising body – the MCC (stung by the failure of its own proposed knock-out cup in 1873) remained aloof.  The counties were left to organise fixtures among themselves (with the result that some counties played more matches than others*) and the winner was decided by the newspapers on the basis of the fewest matches lost.  This meant that in 1873, for instance, Derbyshire, who played two matches and lost both of them, were placed fourth, whereas Yorkshire, who had played eleven games, won six and lost four, were placed seventh out of nine.

The Southern counties were largely amateur with amateur captains.  Of the Northern counties, the Lancashire team were mostly professionals but captained by an amateur (‘Monkey’ Hornby between 1880 and 1891, E.B. Rowley before that date).  Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, however, were all professional sides with professional captains, although the two were very different in character.  Yorkshire were individually talented, but – until Hawke was appointed captain in 1883 – undisciplined, anarchic and (even according to the most favourable observers) often drunk.  Nottinghamshire were an altogether more organised and hard-headed, proposition.

Trent Bridge, where ‘Old Clarke’ had originated the travelling All England XI, was long-established as an alternative power base to Lord’s and the MCC.  Clarke and his successor George Parr had combined the captaincy of the AEE with that of the Nottinghamshire XI and the county’s captain in the earliest years of the Championship, Richard Daft, had made his name with the travelling side.

Gloucestershire, with the Three Graces in their prime, had dominated the 1870s. Nottinghamshire were on their shoulder and overtook them in the next decade, winning five successive Championships between 1883 and 1886, with a side Roy Webber describes as ‘probably as powerful as any county has ever fielded’.  Their success was built around the accurate fast-medium bowling of Alfred Shaw (who bowled more overs in his career than he conceded runs), and the patient, accumulative batting of the notorious stonewaller Scotton, the slightly more expansive William Gunn, and, above all, Arthur Shrewsbury.

As a batsman, Shrewsbury was admitted by all to be the ‘best professional batsman in England’, and thought by some to be superior to Grace himself, especially on drying pitches.  While lacking WG’s power, he built on his technical advances to pioneer the ‘scientific’ school of batting, particularly in the fields of ‘back play‘ and ‘pad play‘.  He was also a complex figure: hypochondriac, teetotal, so self-conscious about his thinning hair that as soon as he removed his cap on leaving the field he replaced it with a bowler, and possessed of entrepreneurial ambitions that were bound to collide with the growing desire of the amateur authorities to place the governance of the game in more gentlemanly hands.

In partnership with Alfred Shaw, Shrewsbury organised and sometimes captained three England tours of  Australia (on one occasion an all-professional side including most of his Nottinghamshire XI, including Sherwin) and, as a sideline, the first British Lions Rugby tour (this was before the two codes of Rugby diverged).  At one point one of his sides toured in competition with a rival team organised by Lord Hawke.

His nemesis came in the form of the Chairman of the Nottinghamshire committee, Captain ‘Hellfire’ Henry Holden, who doubled up as the Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire.  In 1881 Holden refused to allow Shrewsbury and Shaw to arrange a fixture against Yorkshire without the Committee’s permission (and pocket the proceeds): in response (and in search of formal conditions of employment) they led seven of the Nottinghamshire side out on strike. Five of them were quickly enticed back to work, leaving the ringleaders to hold out for another year, though they too eventually apologised and were welcomed back into the fold.  Holden, in his turn, was dismissed by Nottinghamshire, following an incident where he had refused to give the Australian tourists lunch, on the grounds that they were professionals and could afford to pay for it themselves.

Things ended well for Shaw: he returned to the captaincy after the Schism, then became a coach, an Umpire and a publican after retirement.  Shrewsbury and Scotton ended sadly.  Scotton seems to have become so afraid of getting out that he ceased to score entirely, lost his place in the Nottinghamshire side and took his own life in 1893.  Shrewsbury satisfied his entrepreneurial instincts by running a sports equipment business and continued playing until 1902, but in the following year, wrongly convinced that he was terminally ill, he shot himself first in the heart and then in the head at his Sister’s house in Gedling.

Sherwin himself (who was not a striker) is a slightly shadowy (though more than physically substantial) figure in all of this, who appears to have bobbed along buoyantly like a cork over the surface of some very turbulent waters.  He survives mainly in fragments and anecdotes, but I think the essence of the man remains.

His taking over of the captaincy was reported, rather casually, by Wisden in its coverage of the match between Nottinghamshire and Surrey at Trent Bridge that began on 30th May 1887 (significant because Surrey were then the coming power, poised to take over as the dominant county):

“The captaincy was offered to Shrewsbury, but for some reason or other he did not care about the office, and so the choice fell upon Sherwin, who gave such satisfaction that he was made captain of the county team for the season.

E.V. Lucas, in ‘Cricket All His Life’ recalls him thus:

“Moredacai Sherwin, the famous wicket-keeper in the great period, and as leader of the side in 1887 and 1888 the last of Nottinghamshire’s professional captains, was a very notable man … When interviewed … by Captain Holden at Trent Bridge as a potential wicket-keeper, he had been asked if he was afraid. “Nowt fears me,” he replied.  He followed by keeping wicket for Nottinghamshire for eighteen years with a remarkable record.  Mordecai (and I think Sherwin must have been the only cricketer with that name) was a rotund man of mirthful character and a leading member of the Nottingham Glee Club, which used to meet at the Black Boy to sing and be hearty together.  William Gunn, who was a glee singer too, lifted his voice also in the choir of St Thomas’s Church.

A.A. Thomson, selecting his all-time Nottinghamshire XI in ‘Cricket Bouquet‘ confirms the impression:

“Perhaps we might stick to the genuine old rough diamond, Mordecai Sherwin, who one day walked into Trent Bridge for the first time and announced ‘I’m t’new county stoomper!

Wisden, in its citation of Sherwin as Wicket-keeper of the Year, gives us some idea of his character and playing style:

 “Always in the best of spirits, and never discouraged, however much the game may be going against his side, Sherwin is one of the cheeriest and pluckiest of cricketers. In point of style behind the wicket he is more demonstrative than his Lancashire rival [Pilling], but, though the applause and laughter of the spectators may occasionally cause him to go a little too far, he has certainly never done anything to really lay him open to censure.”

– and it returned to this theme in its obituary of him.

“A very bulky man of great physical power, he could stand any amount of work, and his strong fleshy hands did not often suffer damage. He was inclined to show off a little for the benefit of the crowd, but this after all was a small fault. He was at all times one of the cheeriest of cricketers.”

And like many players of the time, he was also a footballer of one code or another, playing in goal for Notts County, at a time when they were a power in the land.  Wikipedia provides the following portrait of him in action:

“As a footballer, Sherwin played in goal for County during the 1870s and early 1880s and was, according to the sportswriter “Tityrus” (the pseudonym of J.A.H. Catton, editor of the Athletic News, the idol of the crowd despite his unpromising physique.

“Although only 5ft. 9ins, and bordering on 17 stone, he was a kind of forerunner to the mighty Foulke … very nimble, as quick a custodian as he was a wicket-keeper. In one match, when the Blackburn Rovers were playing at the Trent Bridge ground, that sturdy and skilful outside right, Joseph Morris Lofthouse, thought he would have a tilt with Sherwin.

“He charged him, and rebounded. Sherwin said: “Young man, you’ll hurt yourself if you do that again.” Undeterred, Lofthouse returned to the attack, but Sherwin stepped aside with the alacrity of a dancer, and the Lancashire lad found out how hard was the goalpost and how sharp its edge.

“Sherwin was a wonder. It was the custom in those days for teams to entertain each other to dinner after a match… At one banquet Sherwin “obliged” with Oh Dem Golden Slippers, and surprised the gathering with a jig and a somersault. At seventeen stones!”

As an explanation of the first incident, it was, at that time, within the rules of the game for a goalkeeper to be ‘bundled’ into the net if he had the ball in his hands.  To illustrate what might have happened between Sherwin and Lofthouse, here is what happened to a Spurs forward when he tried to ‘bundle’ William Foulke (left) in the 1901 Cup Final:

William Foulke

Sherwin retired from cricket in 1896, and – unlike Shrewsbury and Scotton – seems to have had a contented retirement, umpiring until 1901 and then returning to his original trade as a Publican.  He is also thought by some to have lent his name to Conan Doyle’s famous detective, in combination with his Nottinghamshire colleague Frank Shacklock.

*Bizarrely, this situation continued until 1928, and then again from 1933-1939.