Monday, July 25, 2016

Kent v Sussex, County Championship, Tunbridge Wells, 18 July 2016 (second day)

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells wasn’t even mildly disgruntled. How could he be on such a perfect day? It was 30 degrees celsius (though 86 fahrenheit would be more in the spirit of the retro atmosphere). Rumour had it that in the committee marquee, ties were loosened. The location was gorgeous, the ice cream cold, the beer nicely tepid and the cricket decent, though the last was the least decisive of these factors in making it a relishable day.

Traditionally, the Tunbridge Wells Festival took place at the beginning of June when the rhododendrons made a purple wall of the northern side of the ground, rather like the Christmas scarlet of the pohutukawas at the Basin Reserve. However, the Nevill Ground is less reliant than the Basin on seasonal blooming for its beauty. Marquees shimmer down one side of the ground; opposite, an urban forest shelters the playing area from the traffic—from the twenty-first century in general, in fact. Add a quaint pavilion (rebuilt just before World War One after the original was burned down by suffragettes) and you see why this ground is considered among England’s finest.

CricInfo’s report on the first day described it as a “day for purists”. This was probably not meant kindly, but did not deter more than 2,000 people from turning up this sunny Monday. From this we learn that there is an audience for first-class cricket if it is played in nice places when the sun shines.

Kent resumed at 310 for three, with Sam Northeast and Darren Stevens well-established. Stevens has been one of My Life in Cricket Scorecards’ favourite cricketers since his sublime final-day double century to beat Lancashire three years ago. He deposited Briggs over the deep-square-leg boundary in the second over of the morning, but an attempt at a repeat sent the ball straight up in the air.

Alex Blake replaced Stevens and looked at ease immediately. Blake, a left-hander, has a good technique and straightforward approach, finding his range by lifting Briggs into the trees at deep mid-wicket. He reached his fifty with a similar shot, before falling leg before to the same bowler. Umpire Nick Cook, a distinguished slow left-armer, had the finger up like a shot in sympathy with his fellow practitioner, and did well to restrain himself from joining in with the appeal.

Meanwhile, Sam Northeast just rolled on, in the manner of the Mississippi. He reached his century with a flick off the pads off leg-spinner Beer. Northeast seems a popular choice as captain, unlike some of his predecessors.

With the pitch offering nothing to any bowler, Sussex captain Luke Wright tried a ruse. There is nothing like a skipper’s crackpot theory to brighten the day and this was one of the best . It was a modern take on the umbrella field of the Bodyline era, with the difference that all the fielders were in front of the batsman, six of them initially, from short cover to short mid-wicket. Australian seamer Steve Magoffin was the bowler.

Northeast responded to the conundrum with the ease of Stephen Hawking finding the square root of four. He simply hit the ball to the boundary through the gaps between the catchers (once for four and once for three). The experiment continued in Magoffin’s next over though with fewer personnel. An edge by Northeast through the now-vacated slip area (just about the only edge all day) brought it to an end.

Perhaps there is something in the Tunbridge Wells air that affects Sussex captains. It was here in a Sunday League game in 1994 that Allan Wells set an 8:1 legside field with Neil Taylor the batsman, late on in Kent’s run chase. I’m not sure who the bowler was. Eddie Hemmings was playing for Sussex (I’d forgotten that he’d finished his career at Hove), but I can’t imagine that he’s have stood for it. Anyway, Taylor dealt with it as easily as Northeast did today, by stepping back and biffing it into the void.

Wright’s Professor Branestawm field placing helped Northeast to accelerate after passing the hundred mark, going at more than a run a ball until he became becalmed in the 180s, which is not the worst place for the wind to drop. The frustration led to a false shot and a diving return catch for Magoffin. The innings wrapped up soon afterwards for 575, leaving Kent seven sessions or so to bowl Sussex out twice.

To open the attack, a tall one and a round one, but as unlikely a combination as Stan Laurel and Thomas Hardy: Kagiso Rabada (21) all pace and muscle, and Darren Stevens (40) all waddle and guile. In the opening overs Stevens proved as mean as a German Brexit negotiator, conceding two from his first five overs. It’s the slowing down as he passes the umpire that fools ‘em. It is quite a time for 40s achievers with Misbah’s hundred at Lord’s, and Mickleson and Stenson battling it out at the Open. Stevens will probably give it another five years.

The best contest of the day was that between Rabada and Sussex opener Chris Nash, who looked uncomfortable and hurried  several times in the opening overs but then responded with a series of sweetly timed square and cover drives. Reaching the boundary was an achievement in itself; the outfield was rough, bumpy and as slow as an Ingmar Bergman plot.

The only wicket to fall went to Mitch Claydon, as old school as a Latin primer. Harry Finch played back to one that kept a little low, and was bowled. Sussex finished the day on 69 for one, 506 behind.

This was a day from a picture book of an idealised English settings, probably the one in which John Major found his village green and bobbies on bicycles. These scenes don’t exist in real life, but may occasionally materialise like Brigadoon (hopefully without the bagpipes). The chances of being there when it happens are infinitesimal, but today it happened for me. I'm sure that I glimpsed a suffragette with a box of matches and a petrol can.

Towards the end of the day it seemed that the pitch was offering glimmers of hope to the bowlers: a little variable bounce here, a hint of turn there. These were nothing but mirages, as Sussex, though made to follow on, batted through the two remaining days comfortably enough in my absence. Their hero was none other than Ross Taylor, with 142 not out and 68, but I can get that at home.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

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