Friday, December 27, 2013

Wellington v Canterbury, Plunket Shield, Karori Park, 20 – 23 December 2013

There were three games of cricket played on Karori Park last Saturday morning. Two, both between teams of eleven year olds, were attended by enthusiastic crowds of twenty or so. Half-an-hour into play your correspondent constituted a third of the crowd at the other match, a game of first-class cricket between the historic provinces of Wellington and Canterbury, a fixture contested regularly for 140 years or so, now ignored in the corner of a public park.

For unknown reasons the Basin Reserve was unavailable, so to Wellington’s western suburbs we came. In the afternoon a match was played on the adjoining block between two men’s teams, the boundaries within five metres or so of overlapping. This was not the only new experience to add to my lifetime of cricket watching; the bails were dispensed with for the first half of the second day, which did nothing to disperse the aura of rusticity that enveloped the game. It was certainly blustery, but no more so than on any number of days during the average summer in Wellington. Let us hope that the Wellington Cricket Association found two sets of lignite bails in its Christmas stocking.

For all this, I enjoyed my two days at Karori Park hugely and came to the view that it is a better venue for Plunket Shield cricket than the Basin. It is attractive, with hills on two sides of the park, big ones to the west. I was put in mind of the Pen-y-Pound ground in Abergavenny, which is overlooked by Sugar Loaf Mountain (which is merely a big hill—the Welsh are a small race, unduly impressed by elevation).  There is a good cafĂ© with top-class coffee on the boundary’s edge and, on Sunday at least, the cricket was the centre of attention, not a brief diversion for pedestrians and cyclists passing through.

And there is excellent trudging, the best I have encountered at a cricket ground. It is to trudging around cricket grounds that my Blean correspondent and myself attribute our fine athletic figures. There is a 1 km path around the edge of the park and another track leading off it that takes you up onto the hill to the north of the ground with the oval still in view.

Canterbury’s Tom Latham had batted through the first day to be 137 not out when I turned up for the start of the second day. He was still there on 241 when Canterbury declared at 471 for eight. This was the second-highest individual score I have ever seen, and a deal more entertaining than the agonisingly dull 275 that Daryll Cullinan subjected us to on Eden Park’s glued pitch in 1999.  

Latham’s innings was most impressive, particularly for one who came to attention as a short-form dasher. He was disciplined and displayed excellent shot selection. He gave just one chance on the second day, pulling hard to square leg off McKay. With nether Hamish Rutherford nor (especially) Peter Fulton making the Test opening positions their own, Latham must be close to preferment; the next cab off the rank certainly.

Wellington had to make 222 to avoid the follow-on. They raced away with 35 from the first seven overs, when it started to go awfully wrong. Stephen Murdoch was first to go, caught at second slip by Brownlie off Hamish Bennett. Grant Elliott followed in the same over, lbw not getting forward. Papps was caught behind off Logan van Beek in the next over. Pollard was bowled offering no shot to van Beek and when Woodcock went the same way as Murdoch, Wellington had lost five for 19 in six overs.

Luke Ronchi counter-attacked to the tune of 20 in 19 balls, an approach that was too risky in the circumstances. Ronchi has not made much of an impact in the New Zealand ODI team; BJ Watling would seem a more dependable option. Here, he was out with 138 still needed to avoid the follow-on and only four wickets left.

Marshalled by James Franklin, the tail became the Maquis to the top order’s retreating French army. Jeetan Patel made 40 in 102 minutes before being caught at backward point by Latham off Ellis from the last ball of the second day.

Andy McKay occupied the first half-hour of day three before giving way to Mark Gillespie, who batted with his normal pugnacious aggression but for rather longer than usual, reaching 78 from 77 balls. He fell 21 short of the follow-on target, leaving Brent Arnel to support Franklin.

This was the most gripping cricket of the two days I watched. If Wellington could scramble past the target their chances of saving the game would be greatly enhanced, with a slim chance of being offered a target on the last afternoon. But my, it was perplexing. One might think that with one wicket left to take, all out attack at both ends would be the ticket. This is not the modern way. Fielders—eight at one point— retreated en masse to the boundary when Franklin was on strike. As curiously, Franklin turned down the singles on offer even though Arnel showed himself capable of obdurate defence. The standoff continued for some time before Franklin settled matters with a couple of big strikes, one of which rattled the roof of one of the neighbouring houses. Franklin also brought up his century, a clever, careful innings that showed how much he has come on as a batsman.

That pretty well finished the match as a contest. Canterbury batted for almost three sessions without ever quite reaching the heady heights of three an over. The target of 395 in around 50 overs was no more than notional, and Murdoch’s 122-ball 17 (which I am relieved not to have seen) may have been way of protest. If so, it was misplaced. No team has a right to have a gettable target set in the fourth innings. The only way of ensuring that is to take 20 wickets.

So why did Canterbury not make a contest of it? A look at the Plunket Shield table provides the answer. Canterbury lead Wellington by 12 points, the very number available for a win. Why risk that lead against team that has demonstrated proficiency in chasing large targets this season? Against Central Districts 310 was achieved with time to spare, while in the earlier fixture against Canterbury they fell short of a target of 470 by only 11.

Also, the pitch remained as flat as Holland. The propensity for outgrounds to offer randomness as the game goes on has largely disappeared, which is a shame as entertaining cricket was often the consequence. As well as making the pitch worse, those in charge of Karori Park should improve the outfield which was funereally slow. This apart, watching first-class cricket there was thoroughly pleasant and I look forward to returning when Wellington play Northern Districts in February.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Kent v Lancashire, County Championship, St Lawrence Ground, 4th day, 27 September 2013

The day began with a pork pie avalanche and ended as one of the finest I have been privileged to witness in almost half a century of watching cricket at the St Lawrence Ground.

Beginning with the calamity amidst the cold meats. In the continued, lamentable, absence of Scotch eggs, I scoured Sainsbury’s shelves in search of an acceptable substitute. Identifying pork pies as fit for purpose, I took a packet of two from the top of the pile. No sooner was it in my hand than the one below, imperceptibly at first, began to slip towards the front of the shelf. This triggered movement in the pies on either side and beneath, and so on. I suspect the Sainsbury’s staff of having greased the packaging for their own diversion. In no time at all pork pies were cascading onto the speciality sausages below. It seemed that nothing could prevent the spread of the conflagration to the individual quiches. A vision of myself being dug out of a mountain of delicatessen products spurred me into action and by forming a barrier with an arm and both hands equilibrium was restored. At this point, as they used to say in the News of the World, I made my excuses and left.

That aside, the day was joyous. I moved upstairs in the Underwood and Knott Stand and discovered that padded seating had been installed, presumably using recycled padding that previously lined the walls of the committee room to ensure that EW Swanton did not harm himself while raging at a player not having his shirt tucked in, or something equally grievous. They were the most comfortable seats I have ever sat in at a cricket match.

At the start of the day Kent required 386 more with nine wickets remaining—actually eight, as Rob Key’s broken thumb meant that he was not at the ground. This against the runaway Division 2 champions. The hopelessness of the situation meant that those of us there before the start of play felt it necessary to excuse our presence to each other. “It is a nice day…we’re on our way somewhere…last day of the season…I live in New Zealand.” There was no need really. The joy of watching cricket on a perfect day was enough and nobody ever knows what winter will bring.

The wickets were expected to fall as swiftly as the pork pies. Brendan Nash was out in the second over, pushing forward at Jarvis to be caught behind. The top deck of the Underwood-Knott adjoins the home rooms, so I can report that, despite his West Indian status, Nash’s deployment of language remains that of his native Australia.
Ben Harmison made seven before playing back to a ball from Smith that kept low, to be trapped leg before. Sixty for three (four really) and plans were being made among the faithful to fill the afternoon.

At the other end Sam Northeast played fluently, and it was good to hear that he is staying with the county. It was a surprise when he was leg before to Luke Procter for 70, the batsman’s reaction communicating a belief that he had hit it. At this point 276 were needed with five fit wickets to fall. A mid-afternoon Lancashire victory seemed no less inevitable than it had at the start of play.

Sam Billings came out to join Darren Stevens, who had made more than Northeast in their 82-run partnership. I had been impressed with Stevens’ intelligent aggression a couple of weeks before, as he saved the game against Essex ( Now he bustled once more. There was a cloud over Stevens this blue-sky day; he is being investigated over shenanigans in that mighty contest the Bangladesh T20. Not, let’s be clear, for match-fixing or accepting a brown paper bag with that intent, but for failing to report a shady approach. The worst case outcome would make this day in the sun his last, but then he’s the sort of player who always plays that way anyway.
Billings supported Stevens well through a partnership of 71 in 17 overs until he chased a wide one from Smith to be caught behind by Davies. His self-recriminatory rant continued well after he returned to the rooms.  205 to win with only three fit men to follow the next man, 20-year-old Adam Ball.

Stevens reached his century by tapping a full toss precariously close to mid on, the only false shot of his innings. It came from 111 balls and was a masterclass in matching the right shot to the right ball.
It is hard to identify the moment when the flame of hope began to flicker. Perhaps when the score passed 300 with no further loss. Stevens slowed down a little in this phase; moving from 100 to 150 took 71 balls with only two fours. Ball moved along at a similar pace, making his first half-century in first-class cricket. The county has abundant young talent, if only it can protect it from bigger clubs with deeper pockets.

By now it was clear that a draw had become the least likely result. If Kent were not bowled out, they would win. On the upper deck we began to shuffle to towards the edge of our padded seats. Then, a slight commotion in the rooms. Rob Key had arrived, ready to bat if needed.

We should also be clear that Lancashire were, as the young people say, up for it. Had their fate depended on the result, it is probable that the young slow left-armer Parry would not have been kept on for so long, but any doubters should have noted an edginess among the fielders and how the quicks steamed in with the new ball. Besides, Lancashire would be unbeaten for the season if they stayed ahead here.

Ball was out leg before to Tom Smith for 69 with 57 still needed. Tredwell was next in on what turned out to be his last appearance as Kent captain. Stevens had gone up a gear, striking Smith for six over long on just as I was explaining to my Blean correspondent that they needed to be circumspect against the new ball. Stevens was working on the basis that the fewer balls Lancashire had left to bowl, the less chance there was of the bloke at the other end getting out. He got singles at will and unfailingly hit anything remotely loose to the boundary.

The eighth over with the new ball, bowled by Oliver Newby, was the most gripping of the day. Tredwell was caught by Smith from the second ball, and Mark Davies was leg before from the fifth. With 27 still needed, Rob Key walked to the middle, broken thumb protected as best it could be. Here was drama on a Shakesperian scale.  Every time the ball made contact with any part of the bat that was not the absolute middle Key recoiled in pain.

Stevens moved into finishing mode. Key made three from the 11 balls he faced; Stevens got the rest from just 12 balls. He ramped Jarvis for six, unconventional, but still the right shot for that ball, and reached his double century just before the end, finishing with 205 from 218 balls including 21 fours and three sixes. Only once, against Worcestershire in 2004, have Kent scored more in the fourth innings to win a match.
It was a marvellous innings. The best I have ever seen for Kent? Better than the 151 not out scored by 42-year-old Colin Cowdrey to take Kent to their first victory against the Australians in 76 years in 1975? They are questions worth asking, and perhaps considering in another post sometime.  What’s more, it was the second time this year that Stevens had taken Kent to a victory in the face of the laws of probability. In June he made a 44-ball century (equalling Mark Ealham at Maidstone against Derbyshire in ‘95) in a successful 337-run chase against Sussex. A Kent hero.

As we left the ground we all congratulated ourselves on our sound judgement in choosing to spend a day in the sun at the cricket. You grow older, but the depth of satisfaction felt after a fine day’s play becomes no more shallow with age, especially here at the St Lawrence where it has been felt most often.

A perfect day.



Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...