Monday, October 27, 2014

Kent v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Canterbury, 23-26 September 2014: third day

In my absence on the second day Gloucestershire took control of the match. After skittling the rest of the Kent batting for a lead of 14, they finished the day on 208 for two. Will Tavaré was unbeaten having reached his century in 150 balls, putting them to the sword in the belligerent manner of his uncle, the great Kent player CJ Tavaré (who is not to be confused with the rather dour fellow of the same name who played for England).

Unfortunately for us nostalgists, Tavaré lost his off stump to Mitch Claydon early on. Darren Stevens opened from the Nackington Road End, despite the ball being 55 overs old. The Kent faithful suspect that Sam Northeast is agnostic towards the spinners. We did not see Riley until only ten overs before the new ball could be taken, and then from the Pavilion End, conventionally the wrong end for an off spinner because of the slope. Graham Johnson, looking on as chairman of the cricket committee, would hardly have bowled from that end in a 20-year career. 

James Tredwell got his first bowl of the day only three overs before the new ball was due (though it was not taken straight away), and had two catches dropped in his first over, including the key wicket of Alex Gidman.

Gidman, 46 not out overnight, dominated the morning. This was his last innings for Gloucestershire. He and his brother Will are following the road well-trodden by gifted sportsmen out of Bristol, Alex to Worcestershire and Will to Nottinghamshire. The younger brother was not playing here, but the captain was set upon making the most of his farewell. His century, reached with a straight-driven four off Riley, was warmly received by the Gloucestershire folk present, who appreciate that furthering a career and staying at the County Ground are mutually exclusive concepts.

Runs were easy to come by before and after lunch as Gidman and Cockbain put on 124 for the fifth wicket. Claydon removed both, Cockbain lbw and Gidman with a cracker that came back and removed the middle stump.

Claydon bowled well, finishing with four for 90 from 31 overs. But I was more taken with his fielding, or to be precise, the lack of it. It was as much as I could do not to stand and cheer when, at some point during the afternoon, he fielded a ball on the boundary by stopping it with his foot. This used to be the default method for the tall fast bowler (hence my comparison of Claydon with Norman Graham in the post on the first day’s play) but has become one of contemporary cricket’s great taboos. In my view it would be a better game if every XI had to contain one player incapable of touching his toes.

The afternoon gave us two things you don’t see very often. The first of these was three wickets in four balls by David Griffiths, a fast-medium bowler making his Kent first-class debut after spending most of his career on the fringe at Hampshire. Howell was the first victim, slashing at a wide one to be caught behind. After Miles lost his middle stump, Payne dug out the hat-trick ball, but had his leg stump removed by the next one. I have not seen a hat trick in person since 2000, (Simon Doull in Cricket Max and nobody realised it was a hat trick until after the game—long story), so this was the next-best thing.

Five wickets had fallen for ten runs and the lead was 370, probably enough but leaving Kent with a wisp of hope.  The second thing-you-don’t-see-very-often of the afternoon closed it down.

Tom Smith and Liam Norwell broke Gloucestershire’s tenth-wicket record against Kent, surpassing  CF Belcher and FG Roberts’ partnership of 74 at the Spa Ground, Gloucester in 1890. Belcher (I learn from Cricket Archive) had a seven-match first-class career of which his 60 not out contribution to the record partnership was almost certainly the highlight. It was 60 more than his captain, WG Grace, managed on that occasion. Fred Roberts was more distinguished. He took 970 wickets in 261 matches with his left-arm pace bowling over 19 seasons. His 35 that day was only three short of his career-best with the bat.

Smith took Belcher’s role as the all-rounder left to do as well as he could with only the last man to assist him. Norwell’s first-class average of 14 is double that of Roberts, and he swung the bat with some intelligence. Griffiths finished the partnership at 76 when he uprooted Norwell’s middle stump, finishing with a career-best six for 63.

I knew about the Belcher and Roberts because a programme came with the scorecard that, among other things, listed the main records in matches between the two counties, making the pound charge for the card good value. Thus I learned that this was the third Gloucestershire record that I had witnessed. First there was Sadiq Mohammad and Zaheer Abbas putting on 229 sumptuous runs at St Lawrence in the golden summer of 1976. Second was Paul “Human” Romaines and John Shepherd (who had a point to prove) compiling 221 for the fourth wicket at the County Ground in 1983. Though several of the Kent records were set in my era, I was not there for any of them.

Kent’s target was 448, right at the impossible end of the continuum, except for those of us who had been at St Lawrence the year before to watch Darren Stevens lead a laws-of-probability-defying  chase of 418 to beat Lancashire. In that context, the extra 30 seemed a trifle.

We were kidding ourselves, and we knew it. Bell-Drummond and Cowdrey were gone before the Byzantine light regulations brought play to an end for the day. I was not there for the fourth day, so missed Kent being bowled out for 203, a Gloucestershire win by 244 runs. Kent finished sixth in division two, Gloucestershire seventh.

A mediocre season then, for both my counties (I lived in Bristol for 19 years and was a member of Gloucestershire for much of that time). Kent, perhaps, have more cause for cautious optimism, having reached the semi-finals of the 50-over competition. What they need desperately is a decent fast bowler. Nobody is a greater admirer of Darren Stevens than me, but no side with a 39-year-old shuffling in to open the bowling is promotion material. Doug Bollinger was supposed to be the answer this year, but he has lost his fizz and played in only half the Championship games (I can’t resist the champagne metaphors with Bollinger, I know it’s a character flaw).

Gloucestershire appear to have more young talent where quick bowling is concerned. Both Miles and Norwell looked decently sharp here. But even if they find the talent, can they keep it? Kent have the same problem. Billings and Riley are both in the England development squad for the winter and will get good offers when their contracts are up. It is not simply a question of money, though neither county has cash to burn. Players aspiring to a test career these days think (probably with justification) that they must prove themselves in division one to be taken seriously. What began as a fissure between the two divisions has become a chasm. Last year’s promoted teams were both relegated.

I would like to think that on one of my end-of-season visits to the old country I will see Kent (preferably) or Gloucestershire win the Championship, but that may not be possible unless medical science doubles the human lifespan in the next thirty years or so.

But let us live in the present. I watched cricket at Canterbury, and it was good.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Kent v Gloucestershire, County Championship, Canterbury, 23-26 September 2014: first day

First, the good news. Scotch eggs—the absence of which triggered the pork pie avalanche of 2013—were abundant on the shelves of the on-ground Sainsbury’s, and no doubt in anticipation of the presence of My Life in Cricket Scorecards, had been placed close to the ground to minimise the risk of slither among the processed meats.

There was a pleasing familiarity about the St Lawrence. For one thing, only a year had elapsed since my last visit. For another, Sky Sport New Zealand has shown almost all the English county cricket broadcast by BSkyB in the UK this season, including several games from Canterbury. Last year I could name fewer than half of the Kent XI as it first took the field; this year my recognition rate was 100%, thanks to technology’s ability to shrink the world.

Gloucestershire captain Alex Gidman won the toss, chose to bat, and would not have expected to be 29 for five after an hour’s play, routed by Darren Stevens and Mitch Claydon, sharing the new ball with a combined run up of 27 paces. Fifteen of these are Stevens’, and they get shorter as he tires passing the umpire. “Mince up” might be convey the experience more accurately. I can’t think of a regular opening pair with such an economy of sole use since John Shepherd and Norman Graham. Like Graham, Claydon uses his height to get lift and has had a good year, finishing with more than 50 wickets. He follows Graham’s admirable approach to the game in other ways, which we will come to.

Another novelty of this partnership is that Stevens stands at first slip for his partner. Opening bowlers in the slips are novelty enough, though there have been a few good ones, most obviously Ian Botham. Mike Hendrick also springs to mind. But I cannot recall any others at first slip. It was here that Stevens got the carnage under way, taking a straightforward catch to remove Dent in the third over.

A residue of damp in the autumn air might have been a factor; the ball appeared to stop a bit and it certainly moved around, as the new ball should. Also, it was one of those days when edges carried and fielders held them. The ball that Gloucestershire’s promising young keeper Roderick edged to second slip reared up too, but there was nothing here to induce any doubt that it is a thoroughly good idea to extend the English county season to the end of September.

Hamish Marshall came in at No 5. I wrote about Hamish often when I was CricInfo’s man in the Northern Districts so it was a pleasure to watch him again, not least because there was no risk of the unwary scribe mistaking him for his identical twin James (or vice versa). The joy was short-lived; Marshall was caught by Northeast at third slip of the back of the bat as tried to steer Stevens through the onside.

Gloucestershire’s pre-lunch recovery was merely relative; three more wickets fell by the interval. Sam Northeast, captain in Rob Key’s absence, kept the opening bowlers going for 22 overs. When Claydon finally got a rest, Tom Smith flailed away in relief at Calum Haggett’s first ball, to be well caught by Northeast in the gully. There was no rest for Stevens, who sauntered in from the Nackington Road End until lunch.

There’s always something new at the cricket. Today it was the sponsorship of the match by a firm of funeral directors, who positioned their limo (filled with balloons, bizarrely enough) on the bank on the hospital side. Given the demographic of the average County Championship crowd, the presence of a funeral car risked instigating unease, especially at the last game of the season when the minds of older spectators turn to whether they will be back next year. As a metaphor for the Gloucestershire innings thus far, it was compelling.

The interval found me carrying out a humanitarian act at the second-hand bookstall. Among the Wisdens sat a pristine 1966 edition. That sounds just what a collector wants, but consider. It was as-new because it had been neglected, for nigh half a century ignored on a shelf or in the back of a cupboard, unable to give out the good news about the second XI averages and Other Matches at Lord’s. Now it is free to shout all this out, sitting on the shelves at My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers, alongside 52 yellow-jacketed friends.
The Gloucestershire batting was also in better spirits after lunch. The ninth-wicket partnership of Craig Miles and David Payne put on 90 in 24 overs, just on the polite side of tail-end slogging. Some felt that Northeast persisted with the quicker bowlers for too long as the ball became middle-aged.

When Adam Riley was brought on he had Miles caught at long on for 48 and was then hit for six by Payne, coming down the pitch to reach 50.  After more merriment from last man Liam Norwell, Gloucestershire were all out for 179, not as many as Gidman envisaged when he won the toss, but a total he would happily have settled for at lunchtime.

James Tredwell did not get a bowl. He has had an odd season, loaned to Sussex for first-class games, but a regular for England in the short forms. Kent rightly give Championship precedence to Adam Riley, already spoken of as a test player of the middle future, but would like to hold on to Tredwell for the limited-overs stuff. The fact that both are offies does not help, especially at Canterbury where the slope makes things difficult from the Pavilion End.

Kent’s top order did only marginally better than Gloucestershire’s, subsiding to 47 for four before Billings and the inevitable Stevens rallied towards the end of the day.

During the final session I watched under lights for the first time at St Lawrence, but only briefly. The lights were switched on at tea as the cloud thickened. They kept the players on for longer than would have been the case, but at the point when the artificial light became stronger than the natural light (which, one might have thought, was their purpose) the regulations demanded that the umpires called a halt. It is probably the case that the ball becomes a shade more difficult to see at this point, just as it was a shade more difficult to play first thing, but this should be regarded as one of the variables that makes the first-class game interesting.
It confounded my Blean correspondent who shelled out the full admission price for very little cricket.

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 ...