Welcome to orthans icket

Northamptonshire v Yorkshire, County Ground, Pre-season friendly, 8th April 2014

Sadly (this is becoming something of a theme) I was not at Leicester on Tuesday to watch the postponed game against Derbyshire and I’m not at Wantage Road today to watch the first match of Northants’ season against Durham.  Leicestershire no longer have a reciprocal membership agreement with Northants and, in these times of austerity, £14.00 entrance plus £9.00 bus fare means I shall have to be more selective in my visits to the County Ground.  Which is a shame, because I’m rather fond of the old place.

I was pleased to see that the new 20/20 slogan “Glory, Honour, Pride” (which sounds too much like some dubious East European political grouping to my ears) was not much in evidence.  I’ve never been that fond of “Steelbacks” either, come to think of it, and wonder whether “Welcome to orthans icket : Home of County” (which is how most refer to them) might not be more appropriate to the spirit of Northamptonshire cricket.


Orthans icket

It’s always a good principle that you can’t play cricket seriously without the proper kit (there is really nothing worse than being clouted round the ground by a bloke in black trousers and a  New York Yankees cap) and it was an indication that Yorkshire weren’t going to be going all out when they took to the field in wooly hats.  The effect varied. Jack Brooks, who, under all the hair, has a rather rural face, looked Compo-esque; the ever-stylish Moin Ashraf, in a nod to Ali G., teamed his with some wraparound sun-goggles.

Moin Ashraf

The day was bright, but perishingly cold.  We spectators could keep out of the wind by flattening ourselves against the hoardings like bugs against a windscreen but for those on the pitch there was no escape.  The sensible policy seemed for both sides to concentrate on getting through to the start of the season proper without pulling a muscle or fracturing a frozen digit.  Jack Brooks bowled off six paces, Ashraf was more aesthetic than energetic and Middlebrook and Kettleborough (two villages in Last of the Summer Wine Country) compiled their runs at the rate of a man collecting a part-work history of World War 2.

This seeming not-too-much-aggression pact, however, reckoned without Liam Plunkett, who, after a restrained start, began to bowl in the manner familiar from his Test appearances, fastish, with the occasional nasty lifter and some wild stuff down the legside.  One of the former broke the finger of Rob Keogh and one of the latter evened up the score by doing the same for his own wicket-keeper Jonny Bairstow.


Johnny Bairstow

Even allowing for the relative talents of the players, this will have been a bigger blow to Northants than Yorkshire.  It is going to be a long, attritional, old season, with the constant distraction of 20/20 on Friday evenings and Northants do not have a big squad.  On the other hand Yorkshire’s squad is, as Jack Brooks observed in this week’s Cricket Paper

“Unbelievably strong … the important thing is the depth: take out all the England players, Tim Bresnan, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Gary Ballance, and it doesn’t weaken the team.”

It’s a slightly unfortunate side-effect of this strength that one or two potential internationals might be tempted to move counties to gain the proper recognition.  Alex Lees is not guaranteed a first-team place (he was left out last season in favour of Kane Williamson), Moin Ashraf is rarely seen in the Championship and Azeem Rafiq (who is a better bowler than most being suggested to succeed Graeme Swann) is rarely selected ahead of Adil Rashid.

Rashid, it has to be said, has recently been in the team more for his batting than his bowling, which has degenerated into something of a joke.  In this match, though, he was given a long spell (perhaps to avoid any more broken fingers) and, after a couple of overs of the familiar dross he seemed, as the wind dropped and he donned a proper Yorkshire cap, to be recovering some of his old brio.  There was turn and lift and flight where once there were full tosses, he fretted less and strutted more.  I’m tempted to wish him well for an England recall, but then – with the way things are – I’m equally tempted, for his sake, to hope that he can avoid the nod of doom and play out his days for a happy and victorious Yorkshire.

(I’m not a great fan of floodlights at cricket grounds when employed for their proper purpose, by the way, but I can’t deny that they have added something to the variations as the shadows fall across the pitch as the summer progresses and recedes.  Wantage Road won’t see a sight quite like this at teatime for a while.)





In Next Year’s Exciting Episode … : My Season Ends At The Oval

Surrey v Yorkshire, County Championship, Oval, 27th September 2013

So, officially the end – the last day of the last first-class match of the season, though it proved to be less of a climax, or even an anti-climax, than a sort of coda, or like one of those novels where the publisher tries to interest you in a sequel by appending its first chapter to the end of the book in hand.

When I originally made plans to attend this game, it seemed highly likely that Yorkshire would be confirmed as Champions and Surrey relegated by the end of it.  Since then Yorkshire have been beaten by eventual winners Durham and failed to make up quite enough ground in their other games to overtake them.  Surrey, though, have indeed been relegated.  Both matters were decided by the penultimate round of games, so if I was hoping to witness any scenes of wild jubilation or bitter disappointment I was to be disappointed myself.

I would have enjoyed seeing Yorkshire celebrating a Championship.  I would not, though, have travelled to London specifically to see Surrey relegated, which would have been aa exercise in shadenfreude too far.  There is, though, no avoiding the fact that their demotion has been the occasion for a fair amount of hilarity and general rejoicing around the County circuit.  I suppose this unfortunate juxtaposition rather illustrates the general view of them:

Cash Machines

The current wave of hostility (not that they have ever been very popular) stems from their habit of using their supposedly vast wealth to asset-strip smaller clubs of players such as Tremlett (Hampshire), Davies, Solanki and Batty (Worcestershire), Maynard (Glamorgan), Lewis (Gloucestershire) and (if he can be called an asset at the age of 39) Keedy of Lancashire.  This season they have excelled themselves by acquiring galacticos Graeme Smith and Ricky Ponting to add to the largely theoretical KP and descended into complete self parody by signing Hashim Amla on a short-term contract in a desperate bid to avoid relegation.  Their uncertainty over their future direction is hinted at by the timeline of Surrey history along one of the walls at the Oval, which peters ominously out with the appointment of Rory Hamilton-Brown as Captain in 2010, before disappearing into a gate:

Surrey timeline

All of which is a little unfair.  The old character of the Oval has just about survived the attempt to turn the ground into a kind of Australo-American megastadium: whereas Lord’s sometimes feels like an enchanted kingdom entire unto itself, the Oval, with its ambient music of traffic, aeroplanes and the babble of the playground from Tenison’s School stills tastes entirely of London life and, since I was last there, the view beyond the gasometer has gained a couple of significant additions:

Gasometer, Shard etc

The squad too has some young scions of Surrey – Burns, Dunn, Edwards and Harinath would all have had birth qualifications to satisfy Lord Harris, as does the 18-year-old Dominic Sibley (born in Epsom and educated at Whitgift), who created the main story of the match by becoming the youngest ever double centurion in First-Class Cricket (which, needless to say, I missed).  Whereas at Leicester the talk is all of the need to supplement our young home-grown players with some imported experience, the feeling at Surrey seems to be in the opposite direction, and I had the sense that Sibley’s exploits have sent the Surrey contingent away with more hope in their hearts for next season than regret for the season just passed.

Sibley was out shortly before I arrived on the Friday and Surrey declared soon after to leave Yorkshire 200 to avoid an innings defeat.  Lyth, Lees and Jacques were all out quickly to a mixture of some early September morning movement from Linley and Dunn and some last game absent-mindeness to leave Yorkshire on 21-3.  I thought, at this point, that I would be back at St. Pancras shortly after lunch, but some steady batting by Kane Williamson and a bold counter-attack by Bairstow took them to within sight of safety at 133-5, at which point Gary Ballance (who had already scored one century in the match) took over and steered Yorkshire through with a second and – as far as I can remember – chanceless hundred.  It is hard to know what to say about Ballance’s batting, which is in no way distinctive, except that he has no obvious weaknesses, played seam and – for most of the afternoon – the spin of Ansari and Batty with equal ease and appears to be a model of discipline and solidity, while having the ability to cut loose with a display of physical power when required (as he did with three boundaries in an over off Ansari to reach his century).

It was hard not to make a comparison with Bairstow’s flawed skittishness and, given that Bairstow must suspect that he is about to be supplanted at no. 6 in the England side by his team-mate, it was rather poignant that he was the first to embrace him as he left the field:

Ballance and Bairstow

Whether Geoff Boycott would have been quite so tactile if he had suspected – say – Brian Close was about to take his place in the England side I doubt.  And what “Ticker” Mitchell would have made of all this kissing and cuddling in the Yorkshire ranks doesn’t bear thinking about.

So, there we are.  Yorkshiremen can congratulate themselves on a fine season, and tell themselves that they would have won the Championship if they hadn’t had so many England calls.  Surrey members can retire to Guildford, down a few gins and dream of a new, Sibley-inspired, Golden Age.  England “fans” can look forward to hearing of robust resistance from the middle order in Australia in the small hours of December.  I hope to be back next year.  Winter well, one and all.

I realised, looking back at the photographs I’d taken of the match, that I’d inadvertently made a cameo appearance in one of them myself.  So here I am.  Looking forward or looking back? Hard to say.


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


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)


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.


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.

A Merry Christmas With Arthur ‘Ticker’ Mitchell : Cricket’s Hardest Man

(A tribute to Arthur ‘Ticker’ Mitchell, who died on Christmas Day in 1976.)

In the last edition of The Cricketer Ray Illingworth made some unsympathetic remarks about Graham Hick, suggesting the reason he was not a success in Test Cricket was

“A bit of a soft centre?  We dropped Hick after one game and he left the ground crying.  If anyone had done that in my time he’d have never been picked again.

But then Illingworth grew up in a hard school, too hard even for his tastes – the Yorkshire side of the early 1950s – as he described in his autobiography:

“Such was the hard, vicious school in which the young players of the fifties had to make their way … There was no mitigation, no excuse accepted, no allowances made.  You either swallowed the insults and gritted your teeth or you went to pieces … That [Fred Trueman’s ‘belief in his own invincibility‘] was what enabled him to hold his own amongst the ‘hard men’ in the side – Hutton, Appleyard, Wardle.  They got both barrels straight between the eyes in any dust-up with Fred and they were very hard men.”

But then, going back a little further, there was one man who even Hutton considered “A very hard man.  Too hard for me really” – Arthur ‘Ticker’ Mitchell.

Mitchell (invariably described as a dour, austere, ultra-defensive batsman) played for Yorkshire between 1922 and 1946, forming an opening partnership with Herbert Sutcliffe after the retirement of Percy Holmes, at which point the iron seems to have seriously entered his soul.

Sutcliffe (who admired him) described Mitchell as “”As grim and steadfast as a piece of stone from the Baildon Moors that are so near his home.”

Baildon Stone

Baildon Stone

Arthur Mitchell

Arthur Mitchell

Another contemporary, Bill Bowes remembered him as “Arthur ‘Ticker’ Mitchell who never gave a word of praise (and who once growled under his breath after Ellis Robinson had made a spectacular dive and caught the ball with his finger-tips, ‘Gerrup, th’art makin’ an exhibition o’ thiself.’)”

When Sutcliffe retired, he became a supportive senior partner to the young Hutton, as described by Wisden:

“Young Hutton was feeling in form, so after he had played himself in he decided to cut a rising ball outside the off-stump. He actually lay back and cut hard and swiftly, with cavalier flourish. He cut under the ball by an inch, and it sped bang into the wicket-keeper’s gloves. And Mitchell, from the other end of the pitch, looked hard at Hutton and said, “That’s no *******use!


“The young Len Hutton, early in his career found himself sent to field beside Mitchell in the slips. Normally the slips were reserved for elder statesmen, while the young did the running about. Mitchell eyed the future knight and master batsman critically. “What the **** are you doing here?” he asked.”

Mitchell played six Test Matches in all, though rather reluctantly …

“When Maurice Leyland withdrew through illness [lumbago] on the morning of the match, Brian Sellers drove the ten miles from Leeds to Baildon to fetch Mitchell, who was busy in his rose garden.  Mitchell relented only after much protest. ‘Oh all right then.  Just let me tidy mesen up a bit.'”

Nor was he any easier to please as a literary critic, as R.C. Robertson-Glasgow relates:

“In a north country tavern a few years ago Maurice Leyland was discussing cricket and cricket reporting with an eminent writer, famous for style and fancy, [Cardus] when Mitchell (A.) joined himself to the party and, after listening gravely for a few minutes, abruptly remarked: ‘Mr. ——, I don’t like tha writing; it’s too flowery.’  Whereat Leyland, displeased with this captious and personal turn in the conversation, retorted: ‘And that’s more than anyone would say of tha batting, Arthur.”

But it was as a coach that Mitchell left his lasting legacy, forming, on retirement,  good cop/bad cop partnerships with the genial Maurice Leyland and the avuncular Bill Bowes.  As Geoffrey Boycott describes it:

“Literally hundreds of Yorkshire boys feared Arthur Mitchell.  Many a lad went home on a dark winter’s night with tears in his eyes after a roasting. I can never remember Mitchell uttering one word of praise . . .You were really lucky if he restricted himself to: ‘Not too bad, but keep that left elbow up’.  Brian Close was so annoyed by his sharp-tongued criticism that he used to drive the ball as hard as he could straight back down the wicket in the hope, I am sure, of hitting Mitchell or at least making him jump out of the way. Mitchell never budged and never softened. Not even the best really satisfied him.

Another of his pupils, Fred Trueman, remembered him fondly as

“A man of dark intensity who seemed to growl rather than speak.  If the occasion arose when praise was called for, the words had to be forced from a sparse vocabulary.  The type of man who, if he went riding with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, would not noticeably enliven the party.”

Some hopefuls got even shorter shrift, such as spinner Don Wilson at his first net at Headingley:

“His first session with the bat, facing the full pace of Fred Trueman, did not impress the coach Arthur Mitchell: “What do you do for a living, lad? [He was a joiner] Well, forget the cricket. Fetch some bloody timber and board that end up.

and journalist Michael Parkinson, as a youth, received the same treatment

“‘Ticker’ Mitchell, the coach, watched me for five minutes and then said to Dickie Bird:  “Does this man have a job?” Dickie said: “Aye he’s a journalist.” To which Mitchell replied: “Tell him not to give it up.”

But surely ‘Ticker’ must have had a softer side, revealed, perhaps, when in the bosom of his family?  Not according to his son Alf, when asked what his father would have made of modern players kissing and hugging each other at the fall of a wicket:

“”Put it this way, I can’t even remember him kissing and hugging my mother.

The best I can do is that he was not entirely impervious to physical discomfort (J.M. Kilburn remembers him taking to the field at Fenners in April with his pyjamas on under two pairs of flannels) and this rather endearing description of him in an unaccustomed role from R.C. Robertson-Glasgow:

“I have seen him bowl a few overs very steadily, like a dutiful horse.  He is fond of imparting to common truths the air of mystery and novelty, and he once said to me: ‘To write on cricket tha wants to watch it..’ A curious reflection.”

Crusoe does, too, mention that

“In 1928 he topped the 1,000 and began further to assert himself by wearing his cap at an angle which could not have been wholly approved of by Wilfred Rhodes.”

But that’s about it.

But, in a way, I think Mitchell has had the last – well not laugh exactly – I don’t think he would have wanted that – but perhaps been vindicated.  After all, it was on his retirement as coach in 1970 that Yorkshire cricket started to go seriously down the drain, and I think if you listen to TMS for any length of time you can still hear a distinctive voice being channeled from beyond the grave …

“What kind of shot was that?  … I’m sorry, I’m just being honest …  That were roobish … My Granny could have played that wi’ a stick of rhoobarb …”

[Apart from the writers I have mentioned, some quotations taken from Chris Waters’s authorised biography of Fred Trueman, which I’d recommend to you if you’ve been given a Book Token for Christmas – Aurum Books, £8.99]

Freak Declarations In The Silly Season

Leicestershire v Gloucestershire, CB40, Grace Road, Monday 27th August 2012

Leicestershire v Kent, LVCC, Grace Road, Friday 31st August 2012

“The M.C.C. have reminded county cricket clubs of the communication issued in April 1932 which pointed out that the ‘freak declaration’ was not in the interests of the game, or in the interests of the county championships. It is clear that the Laws of Cricket do not provide for collaboration of this kind, and to accept it as justifiable in May and June would equally justify it in August at a time when the immediate result of the championship is of great public interest.” – M.C.C., July 1946

This season seems to be entering the silly stage.  At a national level there is the grisly Grand Guignol silliness of l’affaire KP ; at Grace Road a sort of what-the-hell, nothing-to-lose, demob-happy giddiness at the end of a season made farcical by rain.

The Foxes are currently the form team in CB40 cricket and saved their best batting performance of the season for the last game.  Everyone in the upper order contributed (Thakor with 52 and Boyce with 51 outstanding) to a total of 264, the only blemish being their failure to bat out the full 40 overs.  It would be good to think they could reproduce this kind of performance at the beginning of the competition next year, when it still matters.

As everyone knew it would (it had been predicted for 5.00 by the BBC) rain set in shortly after the interval and Leicestershire had their third No Result of the season, enough to lift them over Worcestershire into second-to-last in their group.

The most memorable incident of the day was Mike Thornely (not usually that demonstrative a batsman) breaking one of the windows in that part of The Meet known as the Great Learning Centre (perhaps named after the Maoist opera by Cornelius Cardew).  Captain Hoggard happened to be passing shortly afterwards and announced that the cost of the window would be deducted from Thornely’s wages. Given our current financial position, I’m not sure he was joking.

I have seen the theory aired that anxieties about match-fixing would put an end to the practice of Captains conniving to achieve a result in rain-affected matches.  These dark thoughts don’t seem to have reached the happy land of Grace Road.

At the start of Day 4 (days 2 and 3 had been substantially washed out) Leicestershire were 171-3 in reply to Kent’s 350.  Kent have an outside chance of promotion, Leicestershire’s motivation is to keep themselves off the bottom of the table.

A more hard-nosed Captain of Yorkshire origins (Illingworth, for one) would, I think, have chosen to bat through the day to pick up 5 batting points in addition to 3 for the draw.  More sentimentally, this would also have given Matt Boyce, who was in his eighties overnight, the chance of making his hundred.

Boyce made his debut in 2006 and has held on to his place as an obdurate opener – in spite of a career average of 27.55 – with the aid of some first-class fielding, all round good eggery and (it used to be said) Captaincy potential.  This season he has moved down the order, looked a great deal happier and begun to achieve some more consistency.

Having just turned 27, he ought to be coming into his prime, but is out of contract at the end of the season and I’ve seen no announcement that he’s getting another one (this being the down side of Leicestershire’s otherwise admirable youth policy).

He didn’t look very pleased when, after one ball, Hoggard declared.  (Why they bowled this one ball – other than to waste 10 minutes – I don’t know).  He also had a reluctant part to play in the ensuing farcical morning. The arrangement, as far as I could see, was that Kent would set Leicestershire roughly 300 by lunch, which was achieved by a mixture of proper bowlers bowling properly, proper bowlers bowling half-jokingly (Wayne White managed to dismiss Rob Key with an offbreak) and bursts of outright comedy bowling.

At one point Leicestershire made to leave the field, as if they had fulfilled their side of the bargain – the Kent batsmen called them back, thinking this would leave Leicestershire too much time.  To waste a bit more time Boyce, who hardly bowls, was instructed to ‘come in off his long run’ to bowl his military trundlers, which were duly blocked.

All of which would have been justifiable  if Leicestershire had come anywhere near the target.  Having lost both openers early, however, the innings turned into a grimly drawn-out rearguard action to save the game.  In spite of some resistance in the middle order from Thakor and Boyce and in the rear from Naik and Hoggard, the struggle was lost shortly after 5.00.

Boyce looked, I thought, even more downcast when he left the pitch for the second time in the day (and I do hope it wasn’t for the last time) –

The other folks who I imagine will have been less than happy with the day’s proceedings were Kent’s promotion rivals Yorkshire – the best side in Division 2 – whose season has been comprehensively wrecked by rain.  Kent are now only 4 points behind them, with two games to play.

I’ve no doubt there is nothing Hoggard would have liked more than to achieve a victory, but I wonder whether – given the circumstances of his departure from Yorkshire – he felt very much inclined to do them a favour by denying Kent the possibility of a win by batting the day out.

I thought of putting some of these points to Hoggard as he left the pitch, but he is a much bigger bloke than he looks on the telly (though perhaps not quite as big as he looks in this photograph).

Three Sessions And A Wedding

Northamptonshire v Yorkshire, County Championship, 3-4 August

After that brief interruption for cricket, another couple of days ruined by rain.  Some kind of punishment, perhaps, for not doing my patriotic duty by sitting in front of the telly all day.

A pity, because, in its understated way, it had the makings of a fine match.  If the rain could have been edited out, we’d be starting the fourth day with Yorkshire on 74-3 in their second innings, still 29 runs behind and I’d be sitting there looking forward to some gritty digging in to save the game.  It was good to see Adil Rashid back in the groove and claiming five wickets, and I was impressed by Joe Root’s weed-like tenacity at the crease.

As it was, the drill was the same on both days.  A balmy morning (if play had started at 6.oo we’d have been fine), followed by a downpour at lunch.  On the Friday the groundstaff made heroic efforts through the afternoon and play, improbably, resumed at 4.30.  It’s a sign of how desperate both sides are for points that we witnessed the unusual sight of the Captains pleading with the reluctant Umpires to allow play to resume.

On Saturday the rain was so heavy that the ground looked like a scene from a painting by John Martin or Francis Danby

(in this picture the man under the green umbrella is Jonny Bairstow, who must have been pleased to have been here rather than at home in Headingley)

Unfortunately, I missed the announcement that the game had been abandoned, having sought shelter from the storm in the County Ground’s Holy of Holies – The Milburn Room.  This is sort of four-ale bar at the back of the pavilion which seems to have been preserved unchanged since the ‘sixties in homage to the great man.  To make it easier to ignore the cricket altogether they usually keep the curtains drawn –

There I sat, listening to TMS and reading a two page cover story in The Guardian by Will Self, explaining why he feels like an outsider.  If he really wanted to feel like that he should have joined me in the Milburn Room.  When I emerged – in bright sunshine – the ground was empty except for a wedding reception who had occupied the Aspers Casino complex.  When they made their booking they must have imagined that they would be looking out over shadows flitting to and fro o’er the greensward as they quaffed their Champagne, not the captains shaking hands and apparently agreeing to knock off after lunch.

I find it hard to believe that any side have had their season quite as comprehensively ruined by the weather as Leicestershire, but Yorkshire must run them close. At present Leicestershire’s record is P 12 W 1 L 2 D 9, Yorkshire’s P 12 W 2 L 0 D 10.  It’s a sign of how few results there have been this year that Yorkshire are 2nd in the table, Leicestershire last.  If Derbyshire (as one of the few sides who’ve managed to get a few games finished) can win today they will feel justified in counting their chickens.  Other than that, look out for some absurdly contrived finishes as sides grow ever more desperate for points.

Looking around for some kind of precedent for this appalling season, older hands at Derby must be thinking of 1936, when they won their only Championship, and greybeards at Wantage Road, wistfully, of 1912 when Northants achieved their best ever placing of 2nd.

Both years were badly affected by the weather, allowing the less thoroughbred Counties to take advantage.  Roy Webber, in his invaluable work The County Cricket Championship (Sportsman’s Book Club, 1958) describes those years thus

“The 1912 Championship was played under a double handicap.  First, the Triangular Tournament cost some counties their best players for six Test matches.  Second the weather was far from favourable and nearly half (!!! – ed.) of the county matches were left drawn.”

“Derbyshire won the 1936 Championship mainly by virtue of their out-cricket, the contrast of pace by W.H. Copson and spin by T.B. Mitchell proving too much for most of their opponents.  The speed with which they disposed of the opposing batsmen accounted for most of their victories.  As the weather curtailed cricket considerably during the summer eighteen of Yorkshire’s thirty matches (!!! – ed.) were left drawn, thus preventing them from making their usual strong challenge.”

Eighteen out of thirty matches drawn! They didn’t know they were born in them days.

Bright Phoebus : No More Clouds, No More Rain …

Leicestershire v Lancashire, CB40, Grace Road, 22nd July

Leicestershire v Yorkshire, County Championship, Grace Road, 26th July

If this was the beginning of June, I’d be feeling optimistic about the prospects for the new season.  Sun reflecting off the windscreens of the cars parked at the Bennett Road end, a shock reverse for England in the first Test setting up the prospect of a classic five match series (ending at the Oval on August Bank Holiday) and new Captain for Leicestershire (for one day matches anyway) in the shape of Josh Cobb leading his side to victory in last week’s match against Worcestershire.

The highlight of last Sunday’s CB40 was an innings of 83* from our latest wunderkind, 18-year-old  Shiv Thakor.  This month’s Cricketer  features an article about the England Under-19s which describes Thakor as the ‘forgotten man’ of the 2011 side (presumably because he hasn’t been selected again this year).  I fancy this will look a bit silly in years to come.

His appearances have been restricted this season, due to A-Level commitments (probably why he wasn’t chosen for the Under 19s again) and it will be interesting to see whether he chooses to go to University or join the staff full-time.  This was a muscular but responsible innings against some wily bowling from old sweat Chapple and some wildly inventive stuff from renegade Yorkie Shahzad that rescued an innings built on some fairly shaky foundations.

When he returned to the pavilion he was greeted as if he were some young Sun God who had personally brought the waste land of Grace Road back to life again – which, in a way, he had.

Captain Cobb didn’t appear in the match, though he was present at the ground (here we see him snaffling an ice-cream from the tricycle that seems to have replaced the traditional van this season).

This was not because his first decision as Captain had been to rest himself.  Apparently he’s injured a finger.

On Friday, there was that most joyous of things, the first day of a County Championship match with not a cloud in the sky, three days to go and all things possible.  Better still, it was against Yorkshire (and a proper Yorkshire side, mostly born in Yorkshire) who had brought the spirit of Proper Cricket with them.  Matthew ‘Boycs’ Boyce, who seems happier batting down the order, #dugin to make a satisfyingly long drawn out century, aided by Thakor, who was batting at no.4.

Boyce had to deal with a varied Yorkshire attack.  There was some good honest seam from the unsung Patterson.  Anthony McGrath (who it seems strange to recall was once selected by England) bowled medium pace, including one slow bouncer that pitched in his own half and looped slowly over the batsman, almost landing on top of the stumps.

And then there was Harmison – on loan from Durham – who bowled what, for anyone else, would have been an extraordinary mixture of wides, almost-wide leg-side filth and one perfect delivery that made a horrible mess of Sarwan’s stumps.

The attack was completed by two players who have made their name on Twitter.  Adil Rashid (who was acting as watercarrier) has been supplanted by off-breaker Azeem Rafiq, best-known for abusing England Under-19s coach John Abrahams, and Moin Ashraf, who is in the unusual position of having a parody Twitter account that is more famous than he is (@OfficialMoinA23).

Having said that, they both looked fine prospects.  It’s not easy to convey the impression of Dandyism while wearing today’s elasticated cricket uniforms, but Ashraf somehow manages it. If marks were awarded for artistic impression, he’d score quite highly.

The match continues as I write.  If only it weren’t the last week in July!  And if only it wasn’t ******* raining again!

Two Sessions And A Funeral : My July In Cricket

When cricketers keep a diary of the season and they’ve hit a real low it is traditionally indicated by the words “No entry”.  I’m tempted to try the same approach, but – for the record – here is a brief account of my attempts to watch cricket in the month of July 2012 (“The year without a Summer”).

Middlesex 2nd XI v Surrey 2nd XI , Radlett

The fascination of Radlett for me is that it’s the first ground I can see from the train on my journey into work when the darkness begins to lift at the end of February.  It seems to offer hope that the Winter is ending and Summer cannot be far away.  Ha!

I had two alternative days pencilled in for this visit.  The first was postponed so that the Surrey players could attend Tom Maynard’s funeral. The second offered just enough hope of play to make the journey worthwhile (there was a spell of bright sunshine between Wellingborough and Bedford) but by the time I arrived it was the familiar wet pitch/thin drizzle scenario.  I cut my losses and spent the afternoon in St Albans Cathedral instead.

On the two days I didn’t attend there seems to have been quite a decent game.  I note that Surrey’s 2nd XI seam attack (Jon Lewis, Tim Linley and Chris Jordan) would give Leicestershire’s first choice bowlers a run for the money.

There are actually two grounds and two pavilions there (the one visible from the train is the reserve ground) and I see from this week’s Cricketer Magazine that Middlesex are specifically developing it as a ‘base away from London‘ with ‘state-of-the-art gym, physiotherapy room, dressing room and first-class quality grass pitches’.  How the other half live, eh?

This is the main pavilion –

and this the one on the reserve ground –

Warwickshire v Sussex, Edgbaston, County Championship

It’s always seemed odd that I’ve never made it to Edgbaston, given how close it is – as the crow flies – to where I live.  But then the crow wouldn’t have to take the train to New Street (dread station!) or pay to get in.  In any case, there was so much rain that I didn’t even bother setting off.

Leicestershire v Worcestershire, Grace Road, CB40

This CB40 match had been cunningly slipped in on a Saturday afternoon, but they didn’t quite succeed in throwing me off the scent and I managed to catch the first and worst half of it (the start was delayed until 3.15).  There was some decent batting from the Pears’ Phil Hughes (who didn’t look as unorthodox as I’d expected) and Moeen Ali (who makes Hashim Amla look like he’s sporting a bit of five’o’clock shadow)

but what caught my eye was the performance in the field of the Foxes’ bargain basement acquisition Mike Thornley.

Thornley (nickname ‘The Major’) was released by his first county (Sussex) but given a second chance by appearing for the Unicorns.  Since being picked up by Leicestershire he’s impressed with the bat but I didn’t realise he bowled as well.  He is old – at 25 – by the standards of the current Foxes squad but – in the field – looks rather like a reincarnation of Charles Palmer (though I don’t think he wears glasses).  He bowls the kind of military medium that you’d expect to see from someone who used to be quite useful in his youth turning over his arm in the Parents’ Match and doesn’t seem to have got the memo about the need for athleticism in the field for the modern multi-dimensional cricketer.  I have hopes of seeing him bowling lobs before the season’s out.

In the second – and better – half of the match, which I missed, Leicestershire won, thanks to a century from Ronnie Sarwan and some hitting at the finish from Harborough’s own Rob Taylor.  With Josh Cobb now installed as the one-day Captain, hopes are rising for this very young side – if, of course, they can ignore the waggling of cheque-books (or credit cards, I suppose, in today’s money) from the region of Trent Bridge.

Northamptonshire v Glamorgan, Wantage Road, County Championship

Having watched one session of a CB40 match on the Saturday I followed it up with one session of a Championship match on the Sunday afternoon.  This seemed to have been cut-and-pasted from another season altogether or possibly another era.  In bright sunshine, promising youngster Rob Newton and blaster from the past David Sales progressed to almost simultaneous centuries against some woeful Glamorgan bowling.

(Interesting to see – by the way – that Roy Virgin has branched out into running health clubs.)

Sales is a fine batsman (think Rob Key-cum-Ali Brown) who, if it hadn’t been for a series of injuries and possibly the arrival of Duncan Fletcher, would surely have been given a chance by England.  Last season he averaged in the low teens and finished bottom of the Northants’ batting averages and most experienced judges (including those at Wantage Road) would not have expected to see much more of him.  But here he was rolling back the years and looking a fine prospect.  I see from The Cricketpaper that he has been ‘given permission to circulate his details to other counties’ and I hope some of them had their spies at Wantage Road.  Probably too old for Nottinghamshire, though.

Derbyshire v Yorkshire, Queen’s Park, Chesterfield, County Championship

If I had to sit at a cricket ground and watch a series of pitch inspections I suppose it would be Queen’s Park.  Everything was in place – the sun reflecting off the marquee –

the sound of children’s laughter from the playground –

the merry whoop-whoop of the miniature railway, some optimistic signs

the only thing missing was the cricket, which was abandoned shortly before 2.00, with a ritualised series of handshakes on the balcony –

I should have known something was up when there was no-one there to charge admission on the gate – though I saw that one thrifty couple (from Yorkshire, presumably) were taking no chances and had set up their deck chairs outside the perimeter fence.

So, on to August, when I’m planning to …

But, if you want to make the Gods of Cricket laugh, write about your plans on your blog.

Young People These Days …

From this month’s Cricketer.

Sajid Mahmood of Lancashire and Gerard Brophy of Yorkshire are answering questions about Roses cricket.

Q – How many County Championships have Yorkshire and Lancashire won between them?

Mahmood – Three.

Brophy – No, it’s got to be more than that.  I reckon seven.

Mahmood – Never.

A – 37.  Out of interest, which of the two counties has won the Championship most?

Mahmood – It’s got to be Lancashire.

Q – Name the top five Test run-scorers who played for Yorkshire and Lancashire?

Mahmood– What about Fairbrother?  David Lloyd?

Brophy – We’ve got four. Vaughan, Boycott, Atherton and Hutton.

Mahmood – Sutton?  Luke Sutton never played for England. 

(Geoffrey Boycott – Now that’s what I call …)

Varying Degrees of Absurdity at Trent Bridge

Nottinghamshire v Yorkshire, Trent Bridge, County Championship, 7th May 2011

My daughter, who is studying Camus at school, asked me the other day if I could define The Absurd for her.  I failed, but I might have been able to give her a better idea by taking her with me to Trent Bridge on Saturday.  (Camus was a footballer, of course, rather than a cricketer, so it might have been a more Beckettian variety that she was absorbing.)

The first absurdity, I suppose, was that I was going there in the first place.  There was clearly little chance of a result, it was drizzling when I left and the forecast was uncertain.  I do feel, though, that it’s the days spent sheltering in the stands and looking out for a sign of a break in the clouds that make one appreciate the days of unbroken sunshine.  And I can think of nowhere better to sit and watch the rain fall than Trent Bridge.

On the way, we saw a crude attempt at demonstrating the meaning of Absurdity from a group of Brighton and Hove Albion fans on their way to watch their team play Notts County.  They were dressed variously as Elvis Presley, Her Majesty the Queen, The Pope and so on, but this is now so commonplace that it scarcely raised an eyebrow.

It was drizzling when I arrived at the ground, but it began to clear at about noon.  It was announced that the players would be taking an early lunch (a bit soon after breakfast for my taste, but perhaps it was a hypothetical lunch).

It was when play got under way that the refinement of the absurdity showed itself.  Yorkshire had scored just over 500 in their first innings, Nottinghamshire slightly less.  Adam Lyth and Joe Sayers for Yorkshire had reached 23 for no wicket.  Now, it would not have been impossible, if Yorkshire had a captain with the gambling instincts of a Tennyson, or an Ingleby-MacKenzie (an unlikely scenario, I grant you) to try to achieve a result.

Throw caution to the winds, bat as if it was a one-dayer, declare 230 ahead with 30 overs to go and – who knows?  A friend whom I had run into at the ground and I were speculating romantically about this possibility when, behind us, a more realistic party pointed out that there would be declaration from Yorkshire – but only because their over rate was minus 2 and they would need some rapid bowling from their spinners to make up their quota if they were not to lose points.

My suspicion is that both sides would happily have shaken hands on a draw after five minutes, but were obliged to play as if for a victory that might have come if they had played for another three days.  Not only might a gamble have lost Yorkshire their points for the draw, but another sixteen points for Notts would have given them a head start in the Championship race.  Yorkshire were also due to play in Canterbury on Sunday afternoon, and must have fancied making an early getaway.

That’s not to say, of course, that Yorkshire approached their task in a frivolous spirit.  I have seen Adam Lyth compared (in a spirit of flattery) to Geoffrey Boycott, and he is no more likely than the Fitzwilliam man to pass up the chance of grinding out a half century, whatever the circumstances.  This he duly did, as Luke Fletcher repeatedly pinged the ball harmlessly over his head.

Yorkshire declared at tea, and this was where the absurdity moved from the implied to the overt.  At first Adil Rashid and another legitimate bowler whose name escapes me hurried through a few overs, but then, with 5 o’clock approaching and the coach to Canterbury (metaphorically) starting up its engine, we saw what I believe is the second over bowled by ex-Northamptonshire wicket-keeper Gerard Murphy in a 15-year first-class career.  This did the trick, and as the scoreboard showed the Yorkshire over rate click back to zero and the clock struck five, the teams shook hands and called it a day.

(I didn’t literally hear the clock strike five incidentally, but, if I had, it might have been this one – the Harold Larwood Memorial Clock.  I wonder why they gave him a clock?)

None of the above should be taken to imply that I didn’t enjoy myself, by the way.  Who could enjoy cricket – or anything else – without a healthy sense of the Absurd?

Coming soon on this blog – today’s action from Fenner’s, as Kevin Pietersen returned against Cambridge.  I wouldn’t take too much notice of what Pringle has to say about KP’s dismissal in tomorrow’s Telegraph, by the way.  Wasn’t back from the pub until 2.15 and missed the whole thing.