Rhythm of the spheres

My skill as a batsman was very limited but I know from watching and listening over the years that rhythm is vital. Footwork, lines, pace, and a good pitch all add to the confidence, establishes a rhythm and good form.

Whilst this morning at Chelmsford may not have seen all the answers, Lancashire have progressed to 84/2 without too many alarms. Habib was kind enough to hold his pose for a split second after he played down the wrong line early on and the wreckage above is testament to Porters skill as a bowler…admittedly he had softened him up earlier in the over so playing the Bakerloo was just a sucker punch.

Davies and Livingstone seem to be relishing the challenge of scoring 320 to win and have found some rhythm and form so far. The sun has dried the pitch a bit, it’s getting dusty with the odd puff from time to time and all adding to the restoration of better cricket. How the afternoon pans out…

It’s possible to tell when Porter is bowling with your eyes closed – the amount of ‘chirping’ from the fielding side increases exponentially as the batsmen try to cope. I hope it’s harmless ‘chirping’ and nothing else. All you can hear from the boundary is the volume and not the words!

Essex look like the side to beat this year from what I’ve seen so far but what worries me about this team is the advancing years of key players – Foster closing in on 38, ten Doeschate 37, Bopara 33, Chopra is in his early 30s and will Cook return to the fold once he retires from tests. The modern way seems to be to step back from everything. So whilst there’s some young blood here, the middle and lower order can’t be hanging around for too much longer…time to expose the new blood from time to time.

But what do I know? The afternoon swings back to Essex as Lancashire have tea on 231/7 – 5 wickets in the session for 149 runs; or so we think…the scoreboard went blank at 2.15pm and no life has been breathed into it since. The PA announcer is doing his best but it just goes to show how much spectators and players rely on the scoreboard- perhaps it’s been hacked for its secrets. It’s not the best when working but when there’s nothing!

Anyway, wickets fall at regular intervals. Davies scoring a fine 70 (or so we think) whilst the lower middle order of Lancashire all rounders flourishes with a couple of them making half centuries.

Chanderpaul’s stance is getting squarer by the match and his slower reaction speed as he ages may have done for his lbw dismissal.

Essex out-cricket flourishes with the occasional brilliance…

…and after tea, fielding kneeling down (another first, never seen that before)

But by an hour and a bit after tea, it was all over…Essex winners by 31 runs but could have been even closer. Lancashire are a side that never gives up and it was not until Porter took the new ball that the end came. Fields reminiscent of Brearley’s infamous one day field with everyone on the boundary (Essex kept a slip and keeper) tried to keep things very quiet but leaked runs really.

The combination of Porter and Harmer in harmony is something to behold and Essex need to keep these two in cotton wool if there are to retain their position and the rhythm of the spheres is maintained.

From all directions?

Another day of cricket watching and blogging, another venue but the same lack of batting application (with one exception so far).

Today is spent watching Surrey v Hampshire at the Kia Oval where as we approach lunch on the second day a total of 17 wickets have fallen for a total of just over 330 runs – 211 for Surrey and 125 for Hampshire. What is interesting today is just how many overseas players -Kolpak and others – are on display here and elsewhere.

Here at the Oval I’ve seen today as strong a cohort of South African players as any to grace a test or international side. Abbott and Roussouw for Hants have not shone whilst Amla is just pure class and the first 50 I’ve seen this season. A player of skill and class putting the rest to shame. Elgar for Surrey should have his chance to shine later whilst Dernbach for Surrey is England qualified by Jo’burg born. And we all know the Currans Southern African connections! And not forgetting Brad Wheal for Hampshire – the SA born Scotsman (I know…confusing, but they come from all directions!).

Elsewhere we have Harmer at Essex, Vilas at Lancashire, Markram at Durham (with an unenviable record of two ducks on the same day yesterday) to name a few. So why?

Well, for a start it’s the off-season in the Southern Hemisphere and players have a living to earn. The SA test side has its quota system so if you’re a fringe player or likely to become one, there’s the Kolpak system to help you play in England (not sure what happens post 29/3/19 but that’s not high on Brussels’ list). Experience in England is always good for a cv and if you can play all three formats then there’s money to be earned and from 2020 seemingly shed loads of it! So, overall it’s quite an attractive option for a class player…and let’s face it, SA have produced and still produce class players over the years. So the direction has to be northwards!

The direction for one English player is like a dodgy satnav…Northeast’s move west from Kent to Hampshire is going south in terms of his form but like every other batsman across the country (it seems) batting is nigh on impossible.

The folks at Surrey really make you welcome – all spectators are welcome to walk and even play on the outfield at lunch and tea and being one of the larger grounds, there’s plenty of room and space; and the whole ground is open for matches which means you can spread out and not be crammed in like sardines as happens elsewhere.

Within 20 mins after lunch Hampshire are 147 ao with Amla the last out for 55 lbw…although from side on it looked a little high but then I’m not umpiring and Hashim didn’t look best pleased either! A lead of 64 looks handy. One benefit of employing overseas players (and it’s 50 years this year since it started in earnest) is that as a county player you can be facing a test class attack to really put you through your paces – and here’s where Hampshire should do well; they open with Kyle Abbott (ex-SA fast bowler and probably still at the top of his game) and Fidel Edwards of WI fame at the other. The opening spells look lively.

One aspect you get especially from watching side on is the different batting stances…few of which seem to follow the MCC coaching manual. Here today we have Rory Burns doing a forward press even before the bowler starts…his head is in front of his right leg with his weight fully forward too. Yesterday I noticed Liam Livingstone prefers a slightly raised shoulder in his stance and we’ve all noticed Stuart Broad’s preference for an exaggerated forward approach following the nose issue from a few years ago. But who is to say what is correct…I’ve seen enough of Steve Smith in the Ashes to know that individualism rules the day and I’m convinced Shiv Chanderpaul is looking at square leg when he’s batting but for both the resulting runs tell the proper story.

And onward plods the game. Tea should have been taken 10 mins ago but there’s another 7 overs to be played before it is.

Even the umpire can’t wait for a drink…

Poor over rates are just not a test thing, it seems county sides can’t maintain 16 an hour so how they’ll cope with the 100 balls in 75 mins is beyond me and probably beyond the bright young things at the ECB. Anyway, here at the Oval Surrey lead by 151 with seven wickets left…almost matching the game at Leeds where Yorkshire have almost the same lead over Notts. Wonder how each will pan out? Anyway, lights on here as clouds move in.

Not so many wickets falling across the country so far today…just over 50 in all nine games but there’s rain at two of them! Tea (eventually) here at the Oval…Surrey 118/3 leading by 182 but a touch of rain here too. What’s enough for them?

The rain coincided with the tea break – not intentionally since if tea had been taken at the appointed hour then they may well have come off for a while.

However Borthwick and Foakes, who have each had a paid holiday Down Under courtesy of the England touring team at some point in their careers – Borthwick got one cap but Foakes has not had the call yet, booked in for bed and breakfast or so it seemed. As the weather improved so did their batting or is the Hampshire second string bowling not yet effective enough? The season will tell. Foakes looks a very accomplished keeper/batsman.

The day ends with Surrey 217/4 and a lead of 281 which is probably enough. Borthwick made a solid 74 whilst Foakes is still there on 50.

And there’s probably only one direction where this match is going but the South Africans will have some impact for sure!

Things come along in threes including three for England?

Three things have brought tremors to the world of cricket this week…well rumblings among the cognoscenti rather than apoplexy!

Firstly in Australia the ‘traditional’ home of cricket on TV – Channel 9 – is moving to a mix of subscription service and free to air across other broadcasters. I say traditional in that C9 was the spiritual home for Richie, Bill and Chappelli with newer interlopers joining over the years from the conveyor belt of the Australian dressing room to the comm box. This tradition is just over 40 years old…hardly a long established one compared to ABC who lost the Packer War all that time ago. And the reason for the change…money! C9 had a poor press for its lack of increasing inclusiveness in the comm box, too white, too male, too traditional but its presentation and technical skills and expertise were second to none.

Secondly and closer to home is the news that the BBC will not be broadcasting TMS from either Sri Lanka or the WI next winter and probably not SA the year after. The reason…money! The broadcast rights belong to the host cricket nation/board and they’ve sold them to the highest bidder in each case which wasn’t the BBC but a Murdoch company (Sky still have these overseas TV rights).

Thirdly and most intrusive is the first innovation for the 2020 new T20 competition from the ECB. It’s not T20 but 100 balls per innings! Whilst spun as an innovation and a new format, it’s really about how to fit a cricket match into the TV schedules without disturbing the prime time audience and viewing figures. The whole match will now be over in 2 hours 30 mins; it also seems that each of the 18 counties rolled over and agreed – even though 10 of them will not host a match, since they’ve been guaranteed large sums of cash each from the TV deal…so it’s not about cricket, it’s about money!

But let’s blog cricket…here at the County Ground Chelmsford the need for sun tan lotion and finding the right shade from the sun is an unusual topic of conversation for late April. Here you can tell the pitch from the square as the former stands out clearly with only a hint of a green tinge. How it plays remains to be seen but this is probably one of the defining games of the season – last years champions playing the runners up. New faces for Lancashire in Jennings and Onions, no new faces for Essex and not an old one either…Cook who was key early last season doesn’t appear until next week.

Three wickets here in just over 90 mins bring Essex to 48/3 and an impressive start for the Lancashire quicks – Onions knows his stuff and how to bowl well. Batsmen seem out of nick or confidence or both which leads me to look elsewhere across the other games in progress. Twenty seven wickets in nine active games in 90 minutes suggest the issue is endemic. Ok…seven of those are Durham alone but underscores the too early start to the season when good seamers and quicks can flatter to deceive…but we shall see.

Essex managed to scramble to 150 against some useful bowling – and we saw some leg spin too! But the perceived wisdom among those that know is that Lancashire will struggle to match that score we shall see.

Wickets are falling everywhere even faster than before so unless it rains Monday looks like an empty cricket day!

But looking forward and to the photo above- what are the odds that these three Lancashire batsmen will feature in the England top 4 after the 2019 Ashes? That’s Hameed, Livingstone and Jennings in the photo (left to right).

Wickets keep tumbling here at Chelmsford and elsewhere. The successful combo of Harmer and Porter has not diminished by the restful winter -Lancashire are 88/6 in just 24 overs with another 22 still left in the day or just over an hours play to 6.30pm. Porter has four, Harmer two and no one seems able to play either of them with any degree of authority or confidence. These two (so far) look like the powerhouse Essex will need to retain their prime position.

Porter will get an England call at some stage and will do well on English greentops and seamers/swingers: is he quick enough or will become quick enough for the faster pitches of Australia and SA… I think he can be pencilled in for the coming winter tours as Broad and Anderson come to their end.

18 wickets fell today with honours even. A small lead would help either side as Lancashire will not want to chase a lot in the 4th innings. The amount of wickets is not conducive to four day cricket and while both sides bowled well, some batted as if they’d never held a bat before. But this seems to be the problem today across the land with over 125 wickets falling in 9 matches – I can’t see many games getting past day three..why so many issues involving the number 3?

Perhaps tomorrow will be different?

If Lord’s is reported to Lord’s who lords it over Lord’s?

We reach day 3 of the first round of County Championship matches and here at Lord’s it seems that the pitch is mellowing slightly but ever so slightly. We are back to high levels of cloud cover, no floodlights and the occasional skirmish with sunshine and two more wickets in the first half hour. Yesterday was one of those weird days when all four innings were in play and 26 wickets fell. But this raises a number of concerns over the Championship as if there aren’t enough already!

Better writers and paid correspondents have pontificated at length already about the marginalisation of the Championship but…

The poor spring and late winter weather have not been conducive to pitch and outfield preparation and even into the third day at Headingley there has still been no play due to the wet outfield; and the poor grounds have lead to early abandonment of some practice fixtures (with due respect to the Universities involved)

This has not enabled players (and umpires) to get into any kind of nick or form from game one. What were trigger happy umpires yesterday are today more thoughtful and deliberative.

And resting key players after a long and stressful winter spent overseas in sunny warm climes doing what they are paid for when most of us would just love to have 10% of the skills they have and to be paid for a pastime…just don’t get me going! Yes, we all need a break from normal toil and work but please…

So what is a solution? bearing in mind T20 is all powerful – how about going back to what worked in the past? Ok let’s not push everything back to a May 1 start but the first half of April is too early! The start needs to go back a week or even two. Essex and Yorkshire have lost two days of their match – and these are good sides winning the Championship three of the last four years between them. Losing large blocks of time in what could be a match with bearing on the title is not good (perhaps Yorkshire are not that keen to play Essex so soon with the memory of their abject performance at Chelmsford last September still fresh in their minds…and it was poor!).

‘But…’ I hear county treasurers cry ‘we take as much in one T20 game, as we take on the gate all summer long in the Championship’; ok then let’s squeeze the cash cow so that it produces more cream than milk! Take out a few T20 games, make the product less widely available so that premium prices can be charged at the gate. Make the product more elusive so it attracts a higher price? Which leads to the question – why should we? No one cares for the Championship, so let’s marginalise it even more and one day why bother at all since Tests will be defunct within years and all we need is a constant diet of one day instant gratification. Call me old fashioned and a traditionalist but don’t you need to know where you’ve come from before you can go forward?

Ok…back to the match here at Lord’s- after all we need to deal with what we have, not what we’d like. This pitch is not a 71ao pitch – the bowling was exemplary and the batting shamelessly awful and as lunch is taken Northants need another 179 with 5 wickets in hand, five sessions available ( 160+ overs) and the slight possibility of light rain later today. Somehow I think it will be all over by the end of play today.

From afar the pitch is getting easier to play…although the Northants batsmen may not agree – each first innings saw over a third of the overs being maidens, but it’s now just over 10%. Did the delivery for that last wicket (Levi c Helm b Harris 23) ‘stop’ on the pitch? Is the uneven bounce from the Nursery End too uneven or is the bowling by both sides better equipped to play to the strengths of the pitch than the batting? Even so, Levi took an age to walk off…it would have been quicker to crawl! And it needs to be asked…what was on offer for lunch today? Whatever it was has put a spring into the bowling and stodge into the batting post-lunch.

From what I’ve seen since it must have been kamikaze food for Northants as they spiral out of control whilst Harris (that man again) works his wonders from the Pavilion End – ok, the lower middle order is not expected to dig in, but some gumption would not go amiss! Whatever Middlesex had for lunch worked wonders…5 wickets for 18 runs in just over the half hour to record a win by 160 runs

Overall I think the pitch was a 175/200 run pitch per innings and will probably not merit any penalty: it was just poor batting and application by Northants that lost them the game. And who can remember the last time Lord’s was reported for a sub-standard pitch? Ok, iconic grounds are not exempt from censure (MCG for the Ashes test was rated as poor and you could probably still be playing on it today) but who would look to criticise the Home of Cricket?

And then why not Headingley for the current non-game? Worcester for its regular flooding and Ciderabad in the West Country?

But the question remains (and how many times can I get the word ‘lords’ into a legitimate and sensible sentence) if Lord’s is reported to Lord’s then who lords it over Lord’s?

It’s a funny old game…

Yesterday was overcast gloomy and shortened due to bad light here at Lord’s. Batting wasn’t easy but with application and determination runs could be scored even though the ball was seaming and swinging around corners.

Today…well it’s a funny old game isn’t it? Middlesex managed to scrape 214 together from 146 for 4 overnight, lost both overnight batsmen cheaply but Harris came to the rescue nearly completing his 50 but not quite as Murtagh fell to the second ball of the second new ball.

So a sound performance by Northants but the wheels were about to come off! Wicket to the second ball of the innings before most had settled in to their seats after lunch and then collapsed to 71 ao in just over 90 mins. They saved the follow on (just) but there was no application, no grit, no determination- now where have I seen that before? Admittedly the Middlesex bowling was excellent and the number of play and misses, seaming and a bit of swing was a delight to behold. That man Harris this time taking 5 for 9 in next to no time. Perhaps Middlesex didn’t realise how close they were to having the chance to enforce the follow on but they probably wouldn’t do it anyway as that’s not the modern way and their bowlers probably need a good run out anyway, and all being equal should get that in the second innings.

Middlesex lead by 143 on first innings, 50 overs to be bowled after tea (assuming they complete them by sunset, we haven’t seen one over of spin yet!) so a lead of 300 and two days to play in good weather should be on the cards and sends a message to the rest of the division.

The photo? Bracewell driving Harris or trying to! Could this be my photo of the season and it’s only day 2!

And it gets even stranger! An hour and a half into the Middlesex second innings and they’re 65 for 5 leading by 208. The ball doesn’t seem to be swinging or seaming as much but almost every wrap on the pads sees very quick fingers raised by the umpires! Perhaps they’re out of perfect form as well? So far today I’ve seen 21 wickets fall and another 31 overs to go but the cold is getting the better of me and I’m heading off but one final thought – will the Lord’s pitch be reported to Lord’s as being unsuitable for first class cricket and will Middlesex be penalised when they have no control over the ground? And who dares criticise Lord’s but then it’s a funny old game.

Almost unnoticed…but seeing two balls at once?

Without fanfare or wild acclamation across the media (although the Today programme on Radio 4 gave it a one sentence mention in one of their three sports bulletins), or anywhere else come to that, the County Championship for 2018 started today.

I gave my blog the number 51 as that was the number of days I would be in Oz watching the Ashes but it’s also probably the number of playing days needed to decide this competition – 56 is the maximum but most matches don’t last the four days allocated to each. Long gone are the 96 days of yesteryear for the Championship (32 games of three days each for those too young to remember!)

So where does this competition sit in the grand scheme? Increasingly sidelined to book end the season – played in the cold of April and early May and then reappearing as a ghost of summers past in the chill of September, it may end up like Woolworths…lost from the UK high street as a long term retailer, it’s loss bemoaned by the public but when asked ‘when did you last use it?’ The answer is clear!

Yes, the one day game is supreme, the only cash cow the ECB and counties have and that’s fine, if it keeps the game alive but milking cash cows and the geese which lay the golden eggs (I know you can’t milk a goose) constantly and to excess can only bring failure. I’m assuming that the aim of the Championship is to bring forth the test players of the future and the pride of England and also to act as a stiff competition or place where current test players can return to to fix their game…but where are our spinners going to be able to hone their craft on dry summer pitches? It’s green beyond belief as I look out at the Lords pitch today and the dust bowls of summer will not see much first class play. Where are the young fast tyros able to bowl at 90+ mph going to be able to learn? Essex fast bowler and one of Wisdens five cricketers of the year, Jamie Porter has said he doesn’t need to bowl at 90mph to get into the England team but someone needs to! Well, Australia produced both quicks and spinners in their summer just gone and made England look like nincompoops…is that what we want? Or do we want every test just to be a test of how to try and deal with alien conditions and the home side wins every time?

Can the Championship adapt? Will it produce world class test players of the future if skills are not developed or will tests just wither on the vine as white ball play becomes the norm? Who knows…but the question is testing a lot of people!

Yet somehow it’s the best followed and largest first class tournament in the world!

Meanwhile here at Lords we have the first day of Middlesex v. Northants being played on the greenest pitch seen for a long time – a result of the cold and damp spring so far. It should be ideal today for swing and seam being overcast, floodlit and likely to be so all day. The uncontested toss means that Northants are going to take full advantage of the conditions as the forecast is for improving weather over the coming days. So far (after 45 mins) they have the upper hand with Middlesex 26-2 and Sanderson nearly on a hat trick! So soon! But it took him and the rest of the attack a little time to find the right length and direction to get the ball to swing/seam but very early days in a not-so-long season!

Things did not improve for Middlesex lunching at 64-4. It will be interesting to see how the Middlesex quicks fare on this surface. Batting is not easy today and may not be much better tomorrow as the weather forecast is similar. One thing I haven’t seen for a long time was the use of four slips for the whole session as it was clearly going to swing and seam all day. The Northants wicketkeeper was the busiest guy on the field in dealing with the swinging ball and early ill-directed bowling.

The first day crowd is reasonable but sheltering from the breeze and finding warmth wherever they can as the thermometer may be in double figures but the ‘feels like’ is firmly stuck in low single digits! Oh how long ago the 42C of Sydney seems!

We reach mid-afternoon and following a brief skirmish with a glimpse of sunshine, play has been suspended for bad light at 132-4 for Middlesex. No alarms or excursions so far this arvo but batting is not easy out there. The all pace and four slips attack has induced the odd edge which hasn’t gone to hand but what is clearer at ground level is the variable bounce from the Nursery End. Anyway Simpson and Stirling are doing sterling work and have added nearly 70 without too much trouble. We shall see if play resumes but so far we’ve been luckier here than elsewhere across the country.

The talk of the Long Room is why play has been suspended when Middlesex were doing so well and batting at their best so far? It seems that under floodlights when the natural light has deteriorated so much that the lights take over, the red ball can appear double – ie you see two balls instead of one or it makes a shadow as it moves through the air? . It seems that the pink and white balls used in limited overs don’t act this way! I reckon someone is pulling my…

Time is marching on and the light not improving so this may be it for the day…we shall see.