Sunday, August 23, 2015

Watching Kent lose on TV

Napoleon, when in exile on St Helena, used to receive news of how badly things were going with the Bourbon Restoration, and mightily did it depress him. The physical distance between him and France did not dampen the disappointment one bit.

Having spent last weekend watching recordings of Kent being swept away by the undercurrent of defeat when just an inch away from the shore of victory not once, but twice, I know how he felt. You would think that being separated from the carnage by 12,000 miles would ease the pain. It does not.

There was also the women’s test match between England and Australia from Canterbury, allowing me to think myself once more at St Lawrence in August. However, my Blean correspondent was quick to send caution. His email compared it to the 1969 Gillette Cup semi-final. It was the summer of Woodstock. My correspondent’s view is that what the festival was to rock’n’roll, the fixture between Derbyshire and Sussex was to slow scoring, a marker that no future event would surpass. So it was a warning to be heeded.

Look at the scorecard and you see his point. Derbyshire hewed 136 from the granite of 57 overs, PJK Gibbs leading the resistance with an innings of 44 that was as dogged as a pack of foxhounds (unfortunately Alan Gibson does not appear to have been there to describe the innings in its full horror). Sussex could merely hang on briefly to the crevices of the rock face; all out for 49 in the 36th over.

The one thing I would say is that limited-overs cricket on a poor pitch (“slow and stopping” is Wisden’s description of the Chesterfield strip on that occasion) can be fascinating. Canterbury this week was merely slow, on the evidence of the two hours or so I have watched so far. Heeding my correspondent’s advice, I turned to the men’s game.

First, I watched Glamorgan v Kent in a group match in the 50 over competition. I used to cross the Severn Bridge to watch cricket at Sophia Gardens at some point in most seasons and always found it a convivial place to spectate. Now, over-reaching ambition has turned it into an arena in which county cricketers are hobbits in the full-sized world.

Though the game was a fortnight old when I watched, I had avoided the result, so the arrow of disappointment met no armour as it pierced my heart. Kent were put in. The Sams Northeast and Billings put on 104 for the third wicket. Northeast has had a good year and seems to be enjoying the captaincy. Rob Key remains club captain, but Northeast leads on the field. Key sits out the shorter forms and was doing a fine job in the commentary box, combining dry wit with observation of the subtleties.

Kent seem to be doing a better job of retaining their young players. The captaincy may be part of the deal that has persuaded Northeast to sign a long-term extension to his contract. Daniel Bell-Drummond has just done the same. It may help that Joe Denly and Matt Coles have returned after unsuccessful stints elsewhere, and that Billings is in the England ODI team without having had to move.

But today all the younger ones were outshone by the old stager, Darren Stevens. What a remarkable cricketer Stevens is. A couple of years ago I was there to watch him play one of the finest innings I have seen to beat Lancashire on the last day of the season. Here he made 110 from 64 balls, with nine fours and six sixes. Just as it was that day at Canterbury, his batting was aggressive, but almost wholly orthodox, each shot right for the ball it dispatched.

How gettable was Glamorgan’s target of 318? The pitch was amiable, if a little slow. There hasn’t yet been time to assess the extent to which the new fielding restrictions will restore the balance between bat and ball in the closing overs. Two fielders are allowed outside the circle in the first ten overs, four in overs 11 to 40 and five thereafter. This suggests that the gorging by batsmen in the final ten overs that we saw at the World Cup will be curtailed. Not today though.

Like Kent, Glamorgan had a solid stand early on: 132 between Bragg and Ingram for the second wicket. Ingram went on to a run-a-ball hundred, but momentum was lost mid-innings, thanks to none other than Stevens, who bowled his ten overs for only 38.

Stevens reminds me of Chris Harris. Both deliver ambling bowling that looks innocuous but makes decent batsmen into fools; both can be devastating bat-in-hand. The difference? Harris played 250 ODIs (taking 203 wickets), Stevens none. I doubt that anybody can think of a better player without an international appearance.

When there was a brief rain interruption in the 42nd over, Glamorgan looked out of it, needing 13 an over with four wickets standing. On the resumption, Kent fell apart in a spectacular manner. The game should have been over when the hard-hitting Chris Cooke was caught-and-bowled off a skyer by Ivan Thomas, only for the replay to reveal a front-foot no ball, one of three no-balls in this period. There was a decent excuse: a wet ball, which made it particularly difficult for spinner Tredwell, but there was some poor bowling and fielding, as well as some fine hitting, by Cooke in particular. The win came with two balls to spare.

The Kentish benchmark for wrenching defeat from the certain hands of victory remains the Sunday League contest against Middlesex at Folkestone in 1972. Chasing 128, Kent were 109 for three, then 126 for six, only to lose the last four wickets without addition (including a malaria-stricken Asif Iqbal at No 10). The Glamorgan game was an honourable contender, but at least, thanks to later rain, they still got through to the knock-out stage.

The second Kent fixture of my weekend was the T20 quarter-final against Lancashire at St Lawrence. I watched this one just a few hours after it was played, again without knowledge of the result. This was a defeat of a different school. Kent struggled throughout, only coming close to an unlikely win at the end, but then losing anyway, by a squeak.

It was good to see the old ground full, though the current definition of “full”—7,000—is less than half the number of us who squeezed in for the Gillette Cup semi-final in ’67. Five-figure crowds were common for the big one-day games of the seventies. It didn’t help that plenty of thought appeared to have been put into finding ways to block the view from the stands. The sightscreen put the lower pavilion out of commission, the TV scaffolding the upper; the dug-outs got in the way of the corner of the Underwood-Knott where I spent seventies summers.

There has been pleasing news about county attendances elsewhere in the last few weeks. There were 6,000 at the Oval for a 50-over game I watched on TV. Best of all, 14,000 attended the three-days of a Championship game at Scarborough. So if county cricket is played at times and in places that suit people, they will watch. This statement of the obvious will be ignored by the ECB as the Championship is further curtailed, probably to take place only on weekdays in April and September.

Kent were put in, and struggled almost throughout, losing wickets whenever a smidgen of momentum had been gained. That they reached 142 was largely thanks to an eighth-wicket partnership of 52 between Tredwell and Fabian Cowdrey, who looks much like his Uncle Graham at the crease, which is no bad thing at all.

A low first-innings in any form of cricket always brings with it the hope that the pitch is to blame, and that the opposition will find run-making just as difficult, if not more so. This strip was next to the one that induced torpor among the women, and shot making was not straightforward; orthodoxy is imposed upon batsmen by this sort of surface. A couple of early wickets gave substance to the hope, but as long as Ashwell Prince remained, there seemed to be inevitability about the outcome, particularly when he was joined by Jos Buttler in a fifth-wicket partnership of 73.

England players appear for their counties so rarely these days that some Lancashire folk may not have remembered that Buttler had joined them from Somerset. He was very impressive, the one batsman able to play cross-bat shots and reverse sweeps with confidence in the conditions. With two overs to go and the partnership intact, 13 were needed, nothing at all in T20 terms. Prince was out to the first ball of the over, but seven were scored off the remainder, leaving six to win, but effectively five as in a tie Lancashire would have lost fewer wickets.

Why is there is no “super” over in the event of a tie in this competition, as there is everywhere else? T20 is only about entertainment so razzmatazz should be pursued to its logical outcome. Deciding a tie on a statistical nicety is like finishing a punk rock concert with the national anthem (actually, the Sex Pistols did end concerts with God Save the Queen so I’ll leave it there).

There was a single off the first ball, then Buttler and Croft holed out in the deep off successive deliveries by Coles. New Batsmen James Faulkner missed the fourth ball, and for the first time in the game Kent were on equal terms.

However, Faulkner—man of the match in the World Cup final a few months ago—is developing the habit of trampling on my dreams. Two runs from the fifth ball left two needed for the tie. They were fluked. Faulkner’s drive hit the stumps at the bowler’s end and ricocheted at precisely the angle needed to place the ball between two fielders to allow a safe two to be taken. It was Jack Bond diving to catch Asif Iqbal all over again.

I look back to the glory days of the seventies and think that we should have enjoyed them even more than we did had we known that decades of frustration were to follow. Distance does not temper that feeling, but the thing about sport is that there is always another game. Surrey v Kent in the 50-over quarter-final, in this case.

1 comment:

  1. On the day PJK Gibbs ground out his 44, Gibson was at the other semi-final, Yorkshire-Notts at Scarborough.


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