Archive for the ‘leicestershire’ Category

Foxes and Lions

Monday, May 13th, 2013

There may not have been many there to see it, but when Joe Root raised his bat yesterday to a gloomy, virtually empty Grace Road on reaching 150 against the touring New Zealand team, there was a significance about it that seemed distinctly at odds with the grey skies and the echoing stands. The atmosphere at Lord’s on Thursday will be very different but, like a concert pianist performing in an empty auditorium, he played with all the concentration of a man who had set himself a task to complete and a high standard to meet in achieving it. Shortly after he was dismissed, bowled by Doug Bracewell, the rains arrived with a soggy finality and the match was drawn. But his 179 was an innings that shone through the murk with its maturity and strokeplay and will have given the few spectators who turned up something to remember as they dashed through the rain to their cars. Summer in England? Don’t you believe it.

Joe Root at Grace Road

Joe Root at Grace Road

Summer it is, though – even if the only summer that matters most to cricket watchers this year is prefixed with the word “Ashes”. There have been entire articles written riffing on the culinary metaphors that the two-Test series against New Zealand brings to mind as a support act to the year’s big draw: appetiser, entrée, amuse bouche. England certainly made a meal of their last encounter against the Kiwis, with Matt Prior saving England’s blushes at Eden Park in a last wicket stand with Monty Panesar after they had been comprehensively outplayed over the five days. That 0-0 series draw won’t have been on the agenda, and a similar complacency will surely will be avoided on home turf, though the visitors, led by redoubtable scrapper and James Cagney lookalike Brendon McCullum, will be no tender morsel easily devoured. On the two occasions McCullum has played a Test at Headquarters, he has narrowly missed out on getting his name on the honours board (96 in 2004 and 97 in 2008). Perhaps, for the man Tim Southee refers to as “a born leader”, it’ll be a case of third time lucky.

Joe Root will of course be at Lord’s, along with fellow-Lion Jonny Bairstow, who will be filling in for an injured Kevin Pietersen. Bairstow also batted well at Grace Road, scoring 68 and forming a partnership of 135 with Root. Root captained the Lions on this occasion, and there’s been the suggestion this is to groom him for the England captaincy somewhere down the line – an exceptional bit of forward planning on the part of the management given that Alastair Cook is only 28, but also a clear indication of how highly they think of the 22-year-old Yorkshireman.

One man also at Grace Road, but who won’t be at Lord’s, is a former Lions captain, and once called Grace Road his home. James Taylor led the Lions in March against Australia A and was one of the few England players to emerge with any credit in a series in which they took a downright hammering, but despite a steady start to his Test career against South Africa last year at Headingley he seems to have been unceremoniously deemed surplus to England requirements.

While Taylor may have defected to “the other lot” (Nottinghamshire, if you’re a Leicestershire fan, and I can only be impartial most of the time) one still can’t but hope for the best for him, that his England career revives, or, at the very least, he makes the case for his selection an overwhelming one, especially now he is playing in the first division. Unfortunately, for the watching England selectors who’d hinted heavily that only runs in county cricket’s top tier would impress them, his grand total of 2 on his return to Grace Road won’t have done much to convince them – despite scores of 112 and 97 so far this season in the Championship, with an average of 57.4.

While considering Taylor’s situation, it was inevitable that thoughts should stray to Leicestershire, who face their own challenges this year.

Crippling financial losses, a washed-out season and the departure of key personnel meant that 2012 was a bit of a grim crashing-down-to-earth after the heady heights of 2011’s T20 success but, happily, there is still talent aplenty coming up through the club’s youth academy and age groups – ten players in the current squad have progressed through this system.

One Fox who many feel should have been a Lion this year is Shiv Thakor. Leicestershire’s youngest ever first-class centurion on début against Loughborough MCCU in 2011, he scored his maiden Championship ton earlier this season when he helped the county secure a draw against Kent. His First Class average is currently 53.11; last year he topped both the First Class and List A averages for the club. A batting all-rounder with talent to spare, he has been an England Under-19 captain and idolises Jacques Kallis. He has “future superstar” written all over him.

Already the parallels with James Taylor are appearing. Early promise, blossoming talent, the pundits sitting up and taking notice, the inevitable questions over whether a move to a first division club to further his career already being raised in interviews. There’s an uncomfortable sense of déja vu about it all.

To his credit, Thakor has played an impeccable straight bat to such queries, but we’re all thinking it, aren’t we – it’s surely a matter of when, not if, a wealthier club come sidling onto the scene with their siren-call of riches and a leg-up on the England ladder.

While the Lions were running the New Zealand fielders ragged, with murmurs of admiration from the few who’d turned up greeting young Joe Root’s silky drives through the covers, Shiv Thakor was plying his trade for the Foxes at New Road with yet another half century against Worcestershire. It felt like a world away; county cricket often does in comparison with its glitzier international counterpart.

The start of this season seemed to be greeted with more criticism than usual of the domestic game; and, to be fair, one would struggle mightily to sex up a drizzle-interrupted day of LVCC action at Grace Road mid-week in April when there are other more important considerations, like school, college or holding down a job, or, if you live in Leicester, other sporting attractions such as football and rugby to demand your attention and ticket money.

County cricket may be mocked as deeply unfashionable and in dire need of an overhaul, but England players have to come from somewhere. The question over whether domestic cricket should exist purely to supply the England team, and whether it is also a worthy endeavour in its own right, does not have to be an either/or issue, but it is.

If the England team represents a Ferrari – prone to the occasional breakdown and often in need of tinkering but a blue-chip brand with historic pedigree – county cricket is the jalopy that sits in the corner of the garage that’s cannibalised for parts. In the case of clubs like Leicestershire, that cannibalisation starts early with the snapping up of home-grown talent by richer, covetous neighbours.

Shiv Thakor has extended his contract with Leicestershire to the end of the 2014 season. After that – in terms of the future for him and for Leicestershire County Cricket Club – who knows?

Cloudy, with unsettled conditions

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

Typical, that I should be writing this as wind and sleet hammer at my window.

Last week, Leicestershire played Cambridge MCCU under skies that matched the light blue of the students’ caps. Tomorrow, the season proper begins with a championship match against Glamorgan. Given that storms have been raging up and down the UK all day the chances of a punctual start are looking slim.

I’d like to say that Leicestershire’s prospects this year are bright, but success in the FLT20 aside, last year’s results made for grim reading. Triumph at Edgbaston on Finals Day was a fantastic achievement, a testament to getting one over on the sleeping giants who underestimated them and then going all the way through a combination of never-say-die cricket and indomitable team spirit. It secured the county a place in the Champions League, and along with assistance from some generous benefactors, helped to drag the account books back into the black.

A replication of that success this year is statistically unlikely, although, despite losing James Taylor, Paul Nixon, Harry Gurney, and Andrew McDonald, notable components of that victorious outfit are still with us: Abdul Razzaq will be back for the 6-week campaign, Will Jefferson (if fit) will play his heart out, and never underestimate a team that has Josh Cobb bowling while Matthew Boyce patrols the boundary.

Becoming Twenty20 champions managed to take the sting out of finishing bottom of the Division 2 table of the County Championship.

But to be brutally honest, I’d gladly forgo any future success in T20 for promotion to Division 1. That, to me, and most supporters of county cricket, is the trophy that matters most. I look at what we have lost in terms of personnel and it is discouraging. James Taylor is again in the news, having hit 101* for Nottinghamshire against Loughborough MCCU. In comparison, Leicestershire were beaten in their encounter with Cambridge by 100 runs (granted, the stated intent was always to bat as if it were a four-day rather than a 50-over encounter, but the students seem not to have gotten that memo, accelerating markedly during their last 20 overs to set a total Leicestershire never looked in danger of chasing).

George Dobell wrote an excellent defence of county cricket at Cricinfo, arguing passionately for its preservation and against the raft of ridiculous regulations and requirements that currently hobble it – one such that directly affects Leicestershire this year involves the absence of Andrew McDonald due to the fact he has not played international cricket in the last five years. Dobell also takes well-aimed fire at David Morgan’s proposed cuts to the County Championship programme, and emphasises all that county cricket has given to team England in terms of talent and thus to the game as a whole. He notes, “The smaller clubs contribute just as much. Lowly Leicestershire, surviving on a turnover about 10% that of Surrey’s, have produced the likes of Stuart Broad, Luke Wright, James Taylor and Darren Maddy in recent years. Turn off their funding and that supply line will disappear.”

As a Leicestershire supporter, I’m proud of the success our players have gone on to enjoy. But that doesn’t help us win championships. I find myself with the same mixed emotions as this time last year: as the season starts, I see exciting young talent waiting to be developed and potential waiting to be fulfilled in the likes of Shiv Thakor, Rob Taylor, Greg Smith, and Ned Eckersley, and further Lions honours on the horizon for Nathan Buck, but I also see bigger clubs with bigger cheque-books hovering like vultures at the end of it.

It seems no matter how many England players we produce, we remain that most unfashionable of counties, the one everyone wants to leave. James Taylor has cited as the main reason for his move to Nottinghamshire his desire to test himself against first division bowling. One cannot blame him for making a move that will further his career, but given his talent, that he should have left was always going to be on the cards. Harry Gurney, too, had good reasons for leaving, due to a lack of opportunity in the four day game. But the fact remains that we are currently mired at the bottom of a division that’s regarded by many as a ghetto of losers, has-beens and never-will-bes, and this is why promotion is so vital, if we are to stop losing our best players.

Maybe it’s the weather, but I honestly did not set out to be so gloomy about Leicestershire’s chances this year. Aside from our promising young talents, Ben Smith, the county’s new batting coach, has arrived with a mission to transform Leicestershire’s batting in the four day game, and new signing Ramnaresh Sarwan, still feeling the sting of being dropped from the West Indies setup, is hungry for runs; hopefully the bad weather he’s experienced since he got here hasn’t dampened that zeal.

This year is likely to be another rebuilding year for the Foxes. Tomorrow, when the game against Glamorgan is due to start, the forecast is for overcast conditions but thankfully no rain. Here’s hoping at points during the season we see the sun.

Leics play Cambridge under blue skies

Leics play Cambridge under blue skies

Papering over the cracks

Friday, September 16th, 2011

As I write this, Leicestershire are en route to Hyderabad to take part in the Champions League T20 tournament. They booked their place in this series by dint of reaching the English domestic T20 final at Edgbaston back in August, which they of course went on to win.

As the crowning achievement to a superb domestic T20 campaign it is a fitting reward, and all Leicestershire fans will wish them well ahead of their first match against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday.

The financial rewards are, of course, very welcome, and so is the shiny FLT20 trophy residing in the display cabinet at Grace Road.

But that the departure for India followed hard on the heels of yet another crashing defeat in the LV= County Championship serves as a reminder that as a season of contrasts the difference between Leicestershire’s T20 form and its performances in Championship and CB40 matches in 2011 could not have been more stark.

In the Championship, Leicestershire finished at the bottom of Division 2 by some considerable margin – compare their 88 points to the next team above them, Kent, who amassed 149. They won only one game, against Glamorgan at the start of the season. Among their defeats, scores of 34 all out against Essex at Southend, and 48 all out at Grace Road versus Northants, are but only two moments in a long litany of failure which Foxes fans will be keen to have scrubbed from the memory banks.

The team are not incapable – with a couple of exceptions it is virtually the same lineup that won 7 matches last year, finished fourth in Division 2 and was in with a shout of promotion – but if anything their performance as a unit in the four-day game seems to have gone backwards.

Over the last few days, the only part Leicestershire has played in the greater scheme of who ended up where in the table was as a potential spoiler to Middlesex eventually ending up as division champions. There were rays of hope for next season for the Foxes: first innings centuries for Greg Smith and Ned Eckersley (who also took six catches behind the stumps during the visitors’ first dig), and useful 50s for the two as well as a much needed 80 (from a personal as well as a team standpoint) for James Taylor in Leicestershire’s second innings as the Foxes strove for at least the moral victory of making Middlesex bat again.

Wayne White put his back into the bowling to give Middlesex some palpitations on their way to a negligible target of 124, but as a win for the visitors was never in doubt, it was a case of sweeping up the shards of a team’s shattered respectability.

Last year, I seem to recall, ended on a note of hope for the new season, too, so you’ll excuse me if I take a pass this time on the Michael Vaughan method of taking the “positives” out of the situation.

As with so many of Leicestershire’s championship endeavours in 2011, the bad more often outweighed the good – one instance in this match just gone being that Leicestershire’s extremely indifferent bowling in the last 30 overs of Middlesex’s first innings allowed the visitors to score an additional 182 runs after being 320-8.

I realise I might sound curmudgeonly about all this, given the team are embarked on what will be, for many of them, one of the biggest adventures of their young lives, and with the promise of riches for the club at the end of it.

Indeed, it’s easy to gloss over failures in other formats. T20 gets people through the turnstiles, money into the club’s coffers, entry into international tournaments and sponsorship and publicity.

For a small, struggling club like Leicestershire, this is immense. Through the combination of numerous initiatives, cuts in expenditure and success in the T20, the club is in considerably better financial shape than it was last year.

The 40-over competition is also popular with the fans – there have been some decent crowds at Grace Road for the CB40 matches – but despite this it is widely disregarded as the least important of the three domestic competitions, and Leicestershire very quickly gave the impression of not really caring about the format either, given the frequency with which players were rested.

But continued under-performance in the four-day game can only hurt the club in the long run. Future England players are judged by their performances in this format. Warwickshire are likely to take a second tilt at prising James Taylor away from Grace Road over the winter, and given the clubs’ relative performances this year, one could hardly blame him for going. While the likes of Greg Smith and Ned Eckersley are talented but callow enough that rival clubs will wait a couple of years before brandishing their chequebooks, Leicestershire’s continued poor performance will not encourage these players to stay should a county with a Test ground come calling.

Success in glitzy T20 tournaments is all very well, but the goal of promotion to Division 1 of the County Championship should take precedence over everything else. There is, of course, the feeling that Division 2 breeds reduced expectation – sure, there is the sop of a trophy for winning it, but the reward of promotion looks distinctly second-best compared to hoisting the trophy amidst the kind of scenes we saw at Taunton yesterday. The irony is, of course, that Lancashire ended up 2011 County champions with a team appreciably no better than Leicestershire’s in terms of “star quality” – but they triumphed through a combination of consistency, self-belief and unwavering determination to attain that one clear shining goal that they never lost sight of.

Leicestershire need to get themselves into a position where that goal can become a reality, and that means promotion. Hopefully the money that’s come as a result of their T20 success can be used in this direction. Andrew McDonald will not be with us next year. I’ll be very surprised if James Taylor hasn’t played his last championship game for the Foxes. There’s talk of finding a senior batsman to add some much needed experience and stability to the batting and to act as a mentor to the youngsters (HD Ackerman filled this role admirably a couple of years back when Cobb and Taylor were still wet behind the ears). Martin van Jaarsveld is one name that’s been bandied about, and Nic Pothas has recently become available after being released by Hampshire. Either of these would be very welcome additions indeed.

I, like other Foxes fans, will be sitting on the edge of my seat over the next couple of weeks, cheering the team on in their Indian adventure, willing them on to another final and another trophy. One can be nothing but immensely proud of them for their success in T20 this year. But one would hope that once their plane touches down back in the UK, when they leave behind the heady atmosphere of a steamy subcontinent, the bright lights of the Indian stadiums and the crowds and the adrenaline, and return to a chilly, misty, leaf-strewn Grace Road, that their attention turns once more – and with some urgency – to next year’s County Championship.

And that should include trying to figure out what went so catastrophically wrong in 2011, and what can be done to fix it.

Jigar ponders

Jigar Naik ponders how to bring Middlesex's innings to a swifter conclusion


Foxes ride rollercoaster to victory

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

It’s been a right old up-and-down week as a Foxes fan.

Thursday: Leicestershire crash to defeat by Surrey at Grace Road in the latest chapter of what has been a dismal championship season.

Same day: James Taylor makes his England ODI debut and scores 1 off 8 balls.

That evening: news spreads that Harry Gurney, the man who has helped bowl the county to T20 Finals Day, is off to Nottinghamshire on a three year deal. Not only that, but injury means that he will not be taking part in  Saturday’s extravaganza.

Friday: the England ODI and T20 squads are announced. James Taylor is in neither of them.

Today, Saturday, August 27th: Leicestershire win their semi-final versus Lancashire by the skin of their teeth, conceding 6 off the last ball of the match to take it to a super-over. Big Will Jefferson, fresh from 121 against Surrey, is the hero of the hour. He wins it for the Foxes with a balls-out, guns-blazing, almighty heave into the crowd for 6, followed by a primal scream of triumph.

Nerve-shredding? Only slightly.

T20 finalist; place in the Champions League qualifiers assured: I was prepared to accept this should they fall at the last hurdle. Actually to hell with that. A loss would have been gutting. It would have been the end of a dire week, and it would have hurt like a motherfucker.

In the final, Somerset limited Leicestershire to 145-6. Abdul Razzaq, opening instead of Andrew McDonald, made a subdued 33. Josh Cobb’s stay at the crease was worth a brief but entertaining 18; Jefferson again played his heart out for 35. Around the 12th over, as wickets started falling regularly, momentum ebbed.

It was a total that looked about 20 short. 20 runs is the difference between twitchy uncertainty and fatalistic resignation.

And then the magic. A true team effort that shows what a small county – struggling financially, plundered for its talent, written off by all and sundry – can do when it believes.

Five Somerset wickets fell in the space of 19 runs – Hildreth, Pollard, Trego, Suppiah and Buttler.

Josh Cobb and Matthew Boyce were the double-act that headlined the show. Every wicket of Cobb’s was caught by super-sub Boyce on the midwicket boundary.

A superlative diving catch by Paul Nixon to dismiss danger man Pollard would have done credit to a man twenty years younger; he will have to put that retirement on ice for a bit longer because boys, you’ve bagged yourselves a trip to Hyderabad.

Hell, Charlie Fox even won the mascot derby.

“Good luck to the underdogs,” Hampshire captain Dominic Cork said prior to the final.

See, the thing with underdogs is: sometimes they have a tendency to bite you on the arse.

Well played, lads. Well bloody played.

Foxes down Spitfires on way to Finals Day

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

No one seriously gave Leicestershire a chance.

Yesterday, they played Kent in the T20 Quarter Final match at Grace Road. Before the match started, all the Sky commentators tipped Kent. Journalists, critics and various self-appointed experts rubbed their chins contemplatively and pronounced from on high that the Foxes were lucky to get this far.

Even a report in the Sunday Times today started with “Leicestershire are as near to hopeless as makes no difference in championship and 40-over cricket this summer, so possibly they surprised even themselves by qualifying for the Friends Life Twenty20 quarter-finals”.

It is almost de rigeur to look down one’s nose at Leicestershire, an unfashionable county by any measure. Lack of money; small ground stuck in the middle of a housing estate; over-reliance until a few years ago on Kolpak players; currently battling for wooden spoon honours in the County Championship; CB40 competition long given up for lost. There are those who even say they shouldn’t have first class status, such is their withering contempt.

And even though the county has been in the habit of producing players for England and its associated development squads lately, the suggestion that James Taylor won’t seriously be considered for full international honours until he moves to a Division One county haven’t helped Leicestershire’s image as some kind of Dickensian cricketing ghetto that promising youngsters should be plucked from forthwith if they are to get on in the world.

At the mid-way point yesterday, after Kent had batted first and amassed a colossal 203 for the loss of only 3 wickets off their 20 overs, there must have been a lot of prematurely written match-reports waiting only for pithily-scripted variations on “result never in doubt” before their authors hit the “send” button.

But anyone who wrote Leicestershire off in this match, even in the face of chasing down the second highest T20 total ever scored at Grace Road, obviously hasn’t been paying much attention.

Partnerships were, and always have been, the key in this form of the game for the Foxes, and Leicestershire made their intent to not leave anything in the locker plain from the outset. Josh Cobb, reinvented as a pinch-hitter at the top of the order after a lull in his career following a maiden first class century at Lord’s while still a teenager, pasted Azhar Mahmood for 6 off only the 4th ball of the innings.

He fell for 18, but opening partner Andrew McDonald carried on for a brisk 53 off 32 balls with every other Leicester batsman  – bar Will Jefferson, who fell to a marginal lbw decision – carving the admittedly lacklustre Kent bowling to all parts of the ground.

James Taylor, no doubt galvanised by being unfathomably passed over for Ravi Bopara for the England squad for the 3rd Test at Edgbaston, swept, drove and pulled for his 22 after taking a blinder of a flying catch in the field to put an end to Azhar Mahmood’s mighty innings of 91, but arguably the real star of the day was the man who was playing his last game at Grace Road.

Running Man

Running Man - Nixon gets the Foxes to Finals Day

Paul Nixon, in the manner of Indiana Jones, could just as well say it’s not so much the age as the mileage that’s forcing him to hang up his bat, but neither seemed much of an impediment to him yesterday. Hitting 4 fours and a towering straight six before he was dismissed, his 31 left Leicestershire needing only 2 runs for victory.

Matthew Boyce hit the winning runs with a scorching offside boundary with 4 balls to spare. The playing area was invaded, Nixon was hoisted aloft, a pint pushed into his hand and he was carried off the field by an adoring crowd.

“We didn’t bowl well enough,” Kent captain Rob Key said afterwards. “But I never thought they’d get close.”

It was hard not to conclude from this that there’d been perhaps a touch of complacency about Kent – borne out by their subpar bowling and fielding – and too on the part of everyone else who wrote Leicestershire off.

It is because they are regarded as the underdog, and that in a year which has brought so much disappointment in the championship and CB40 competitions, that the Foxes will not die wondering in this year’s T20.

The opponent who is most to be feared is the one who has nothing left to lose. They won yesterday because they were prepared to throw everything they had at chasing down the total even if it meant losing wickets. They have a potent mix of young, hungry talent and older, seasoned campaigners who know a thing or two about defying the odds. Paul Nixon, part of the one-day international setup that won the 2007 Commonwealth Bank series and salvaged some English pride after the horrors of the Ashes, knows this probably better than anyone.

Neither Nixon or Andrew McDonald will be with the county next year. But before that, there is a semi-final at Edgbaston to be won. And beyond that, well, anything is possible.

Yesterday, as the Leicestershire openers walked out to embark on that already written-off run-chase, I tweeted “Massive total by Kent, but I still believe”.

And as the Foxes look forward to Finals Day on August 27th, I still do.

Get your claws in, lads.

Unsettled Leicestershire in abject collapse

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011



“I don’t mind if we’re beaten, as long as we’re not humiliated.”

“Could have been worse: I could have bought a ticket on the Titanic.”

These were just some of the scathing comments overheard at Grace Road today as Leicestershire were bowled out for 48 on day 3 of their championship match against Northamptonshire, subsiding to abject defeat by an innings and 155 runs.

The day started off cool and overcast with a stiff breeze. By about 11:30 I’d noticed there were tears streaming down my face, and while this was down to the cold wind blowing across the field it could just as well have been despair at the fact that once again, our year seems to be heading south in at least one of the current formats.

Greg Smith fell at 11:19: three wickets down, 33 runs on the board.

James Taylor followed a couple of minutes later: 33-4.

11:26: 35-5.

11:34: 37-6.

11:41: 38-7.

At 11:57 Leicestershire were 40-9 and spectators started leaving.

At 12:08, it was all over.

Matthew Boyce was top scorer, with 12 – the only man to make it into double figures.

It is not the lowest ever total for the county – that was achieved, if achieved is the right word, in 1912, when Leicestershire were all out versus Kent to the tune of 24. It is not a statistic that makes the reading of today’s scorecard any easier.

That this should follow hard on the heels of the news that Warwickshire have approached the club with a view to buying James Taylor out of the last year of his contract at Grace Road does not seem coincidental.

Taylor was uncharacteristically out of sorts in this game, departing for no score this morning and making only 8 in the first innings. Leicestershire have said they have rejected Warwickshire’s offer, and will renegotiate a contract extension with Taylor to keep him at Grace Road.

Taylor was not included in either of the two England squads announced this morning, for the upcoming Twenty20 and ODIs versus Sri Lanka, despite many predicting he would be.

In answer to the very reasonable objection that surely, he is now the finished article, England’s selectors have indicated they would like to see Taylor face more first class bowling.

Warwickshire’s director of cricket is Ashley Giles, a part-time England selector.

Draw your own conclusions.

Bizarrely, as well as offering to buy Taylor out of his contract, Warwickshire have also offered Leicestershire one of their players in part exchange to sweeten the deal. I’m guessing this would not be Jonathan Trott or Ian Bell.

While one must perforce give praise to Northants’ bowling attack for their clinical and comprehensive dismantling of the home side this morning, it’s surely not a stretch to think that the questions surrounding Taylor’s future, and thus that of the club, has unsettled what is a close-knit dressing room. They would not be human otherwise.

And this is what gets me, as a Leicestershire fan: that feeling of being torn between pride that one of our own is worthy of such covetous attention, and despair at the disruption this will inevitably cause the club. God knows we have had enough of that and more the last few months.

The sun came out from behind the clouds today as the last wicket fell. For Leicestershire, however, the outlook is once again distinctly gloomy.

Last man walks off

Last man walking - Nadeem Malik is the not-out batsman as Leicestershire are skittled for 48

Limited overs, limited interest

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

I am having a bit of trouble getting into the IPL this year. Blogging cheerleaders aside, it hasn’t really grabbed me. God knows I’ve tried to take an interest, but considering match 67 has just been played and the competition is still in the group stages, well, that is quite frankly taking the piss. And folks complained about the World Cup being long.

Of the players participating, the gulf in talent and ability between the internationals and younger, inexperienced players seems to have widened. The likes of Gilchrist, Gayle and Sehwag have produced entertaining innings, sure, but off such piss-poor bowling that you feel impelled to append an asterisk next to their innings with attendant qualification: “filthy full tosses; dropped twice; given out lbw when ball would have missed second set of stumps”.

Everyone seems to have changed teams as well, which doesn’t help. I suppose this is less of an issue if your allegiance is based primarily on regional criteria; but for the rest of us it is pretty farking confusing. And from a purely aesthetic stand-point, you know the competition has reached the point of no redemption when the Kolkata Knight Riders’ team colours look positively restrained compared to the rest. Christ, Kochi… my eyes!

If Test cricket is the sport’s Grand Old Man, then T20 is the kid with ADHD whose parents maintain is “special” but who really just needs Ritalin and a slap upside the head, Sreesanth-style.

From one pointless competition to another: Leicestershire have now lost five of their six CB40 games this season. The latest and most comprehensive battering came at the hands of Warwickshire this Sunday past, and this was a Warwickshire sans the services of Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott, and Chris Woakes – not that their absence made the slightest iota of difference as to the result.

Not all the arguments against the 40-over format are entirely fair, in my opinion: the one that says we should be playing 50-over cricket to develop our players for ODIs doesn’t really wash – South Africa don’t have a domestic 50-over game and they seemed quite decent at the old One Day stuff last time I checked (propensity for clutching defeat from the jaws of victory aside).

Crowd numbers at Grace Road have been noticeably good, but the uncomfortable feeling among the faithful is that the Foxes have written off this competition already. Granted, it is prohibitively and ridiculously difficult to progress to the semi-finals – first-placed team in each of the three groups go through plus the best second-placed side – and given Leicestershire’s record in this form of the game, we were always likely to be on a hiding to sweet proverbial.

But the tendency to rest key players has not gone down well with many fans, though one must look at this pragmatically and given that we do not have a large squad this year, players who are carrying niggles must be rested and the CB40 series has obviously become “designated recovery time”.

Pragmatism, though, can only take you so far in trying to swallow the sight of an inexperienced second-string bowling attack being pasted round the ground by Varun Chopra and Will Porterfield. Leicestershire are now second bottom in their table above Scotland, the only team they have beaten so far. With any hope of advancement well and truly gone, I guess they can stop now even pretending to give a tinker’s cuss about it.

Problem is, the spectators could very well stop caring, too.

That Leicestershire seem to be putting all their eggs into the Championship and T20 basket is understandable, certainly in the first instance, considering we were in with a chance of promotion last season.

But the fact we still seem to have our hands cupped under the arse of the T20 goose waiting for it to lay the golden egg is rather more worrying. Last year, the egg ended up on another part of the club’s anatomy entirely when unrealistic expectations went unmet to the tune of a £403k loss. FPT20 receipts were £55K down on budget.

Granted, times are tough for all of us, financially. But T20 seems now to have jumped the shark. The IPL is too wrapped up in its own razzmatazz to realise this yet, but it will. Viewing figures are reportedly down 20 percent on last year.

The windfall-that-never-came bit most counties on the arse last year. Leicestershire recently renegotiated the covenant on its Grace Road ground with Leicester City Council to “give some tangible security to its bankers in respect of working capital facilities”. Not long after this, new chairman Paul Haywood stated that he wanted to increase Leicestershire’s playing budget. The club are currently in negotiations to sign Indian all-rounder Irfan Pathan for this year’s T20 campaign.

Pathan is no longer a regular in the India team, but has acquitted himself pretty well in the IPL for Delhi; he will not come cheap. Financially the club are stretched to the limit. You do not need to be Alan Sugar to deduce that throwing big money after one player who may or may not make a difference is a gamble we can ill afford to take.

But as long as the T20 circus continues, we will all keep following that rainbow, praying for that one big pay day. There is one piece of good news. India will be at Grace Road on the August Bank Holiday Monday for a T20 game. Tickets are reportedly sold out. Given that Leicestershire’s advertising in the past for tour matches has been almost non-existent, this is good news, but then you’d have to think if they couldn’t sell out a game featuring some of the best players in the world to a population with a large Indian contingent, then you’d have to be doing something wrong.

The India match aside, financially and results-wise it looks like being a case of same-old for Leicestershire, given there are the same amount of T20 matches this year as last. The T20 novelty has gone, and apathy has set in.

There is something else that traverses quickly through the innards of a goose, and it isn’t always an egg made of gold.

An innings and 32 runs

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

As you may recall, my last entry was spent waxing wildly enthusiastic about Leicestershire’s winning their first championship game of the season.

As you may also recall, if you’re a Leicestershire fan, the Foxes won their first match of the season last year, too, following this up with a win against their next opponent, Derbyshire.

Well, guess who’s just given Leicestershire an almighty drubbing in their second match of the season? Yes, those lads at the County ground, who won the toss and sent us in on a seamer’s wicket; much skittling of the timbers followed and once again it was left to Claude Henderson to pull our knackers out of the fire with a stubborn 77 while Tim Groenewald and Co. ran amok.

A long, thankless day in the field followed, with Nathan Buck claiming 4 wickets but Derbyshire forging inexorably to 439; Leicestershire responded with a paltry 177 and that, my friends, is all she wrote.

Bloody nora.

We may have beaten Glamorgan last week, but even there our batting tended towards the rickety – something it was easy to gloss over with a couple of notable performances (with bat and ball) that put us safely beyond the clutching talons of potential disaster.

This loss to Derbyshire is admittedly slightly worrying, but just as it was too soon to call the first victory of the season the swallow that makes the summer, so too is it a bit previous to call it a false dawn as well. But the batting does need looking at. We cannot afford to depend on the performances of a couple of individuals when it requires a team effort.

Mind you, we were not the only ones on the receiving end of a hammering – Somerset’s crushing defeat by Warwickshire resulted in some frayed tempers on Twitter with a Somerset blogger venting his disappointment:

“Tres out lamely too. Can I get a refund on my Membership? Haven’t seen such dreadful cricket in years.” and “34-6 and Hussain is back in with Trego. No excuses. This side is pathetic.”

to which Craig Kieswetter responded testily:

Why don't you come say your opinions to our faces in the change room! Probably a man with no guts.

Dear oh dear.

Thankfully, ruffled feathers were soothed, peace was made, and beers proffered.

But bloody hell, chaps, it is only April… Though why Somerset allowed the opposition first use of the Taunton autobahn (green-looking or no), well, feel free to discuss that one amongst yourselves…

Foxes spring into new season with win

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Being at Grace Road for the first day of the county season is a bit like coming home after a long journey. Your favourite armchair is in its usual place, your pipe and slippers are where you left them, the fixtures and fittings are timeworn but homely.

First Cake of the Summer

First Cake of the Summer

In my case the journey took me to Melbourne and Sydney, to watch England retain the Ashes and win the series, a dream that took nebulous form four years ago and which, during countless days spent watching Leicestershire, gathered momentum to become reality, and with which I would console myself as the County failed to register another win.

So returning to Grace Road after the winter just gone I felt like I’d come full circle. Very reassuring it was, too, that the troubles of last year are over, the weather was unseasonably glorious, and the team got their season off to a good start with a win over Glamorgan.

Glamorgan have had their own off-field ructions, and there were on-field parallels between the two sides in this match as well, with a few superb individual performances but a distinct whiff of “first day back at school” syndrome about the batting.

Dean Cosker ran riot with the ball on the first day and County were reduced to 147-7 at tea, but managed to drag themselves to a more respectable innings total of 238, thanks to a doughty innings from old stager Claude Henderson, with support from Nadeem Malik and Matthew Hoggard.

Hendo the Hero

Hendo the Hero

Sixteen wickets fell on day 2, with Hoggard registering the first championship hat-trick at Grace Road since 1989. The cheering of Leicestershire’s supporters was tremendous – there was a decent crowd in for all four days – and batting hero Henderson played his part with the ball as well, chipping in with three wickets.

Glamorgan’s prospects looked dead in the water when they were bowled out for 146; captain Alviro Petersen tried to lead by example in scoring 91, but the highest scorers after him were Ben Wright and Robert Croft, each with 11.

Will Jefferson, all 6 foot 7 of him, was County’s standout in their second innings with 112, sharing a partnership of 149 for the 6th wicket with Jigar Naik. Glamorgan ended the third day three wickets down and chasing a total of 338.

Will Jefferson celebrates his century

Will Jefferson celebrates his century

If the past few years have taught me anything, it’s never to take a Foxes win for granted, or to take any position other than a nice comfy seat on the fence in time-honoured Nick Knight fashion, or, even better, to find solace in my usual pessimism.

But win Leicestershire did, with Glamorgan falling short by 89 runs. It sounds a comfortable win, but the threat of rain after lunch was a potential spanner in the works and many pairs of eyes were raised worryingly to the heavens as the wind picked up and the clouds gathered.

The immediate aftermath of a match is one of my favourite things about being at the cricket. There was the almost post-coital glow about the contented atmosphere in which spectators milled slowly around Lord’s after England’s victory in 2009, when Australia were beaten and Flintoff pushed his failing body to the limit, and beyond.

There was Sydney 2011, when England, having already retained the Ashes, capped off their tour with a series win. There was much emotion in the stands on the part of the many England fans, but the post-match presentation was itself almost perfunctory since Australia were not the victors, and besides, I had a date with a dead man.

After Leicestershire’s win over Glamorgan on Monday I took my time leaving, joining with the rest of the County’s supporters in clapping the lads as they came off the field (Jigar Naik in particular was the recipient of much applause for his 5-36) and the mood among the fans was buoyant and hopeful for the rest of the season.

Jigar Naik

Jigar Naik

A couple of years ago Leicestershire’s prospects were diabolical, and just recently the club has been to hell and back with boardroom bickering that threatened to tear it asunder. No doubt we will have our ups and downs, but right now the 2011 season is ripe with possibility.

I left Grace Road at 3PM and walked home in the teeth of an icy wind and rain that fell in a brief but violent squall: more typical weather for April; weather that seemed to mock the very idea of an early summer.

By the time I got home my face was numb. I didn’t care.

Leicestershire’s next encounter is at Derby on Thursday.

Leicestershire 2011 season preview

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Having been beaten into submission by the relentless 7-week slog of the just-finished World Cup, and with the IPL due to start up this year’s edition of the batshit commercial crack-fix that is T20, complete with cliche-spouting commentators, adverts after every over and uncoordinated cheerleaders (whatever happened to the ladies of the Washington Redskins?), I am much relieved that Leicestershire’s County season starts tomorrow.

County cricket might not be anything to write home about for many. It’s often difficult – especially given I support a struggling Division 2 side – to explain why it means so much to me. In fact to many heathens who ask me to explain why I love county cricket, most of the time I don’t even bother.

I know it’s not an ideal situation for a club’s finances – especially given that Leicestershire posted a record £400,000 loss last year – but sitting in a semi-deserted ground with a handful of other mentalists earnestly discussing the merits of watercress, the odds for the 3:30 at Kempton and the relative strengths of West Indies teams through the ages is my idea of nirvana.

As Duncan Hamilton says in his wonderful book A Last English Summer, if people started turning up to county matches in large numbers I suspect I’d probably be like the moody teenager whose favourite cult band has sold out and hit the big time, and my enthusiasm would be dampened accordingly.

I like finding a quiet spot to watch the game, listen to the conversations around me, chat with the regulars, or talk to no-one if I choose. I will either make a pig’s breakfast of my scorecard or leave out filling it in till I get home. I will follow the game with the attention of a laser beam, or sleep like an old dog in the sun. On any given day at Grace Road, I will do most of these things.

Last year, most of the conversations at the ground revolved around one thing. Let’s just say the atmosphere was a little fraught. Thankfully, the civil war that was tearing the club apart is over. The last remnants of that conflict – legal action brought against the club by the departed Chairman and CEO – have recently been resolved.

This year, I could do without the Sky News cameras rocking up and reporters on the boundary earnestly discussing the club’s imminent implosion.

The good news is that, if anything, the squad seems to have been strengthened as a unit, and while there was definite room for improvement – Leicestershire did not register a single home win in T20 last year – the club battled right up to the wire in its tilt at promotion into Division 1 of the County Championship. Their attempt was unsuccessful – Leicestershire finished fourth in the Div 2 table – but it gave players and supporters alike much heart, something that was sorely needed at the end of a difficult year.

The curate’s egg that is the 40-over competition continues this year, and while there were some standout performances in 2010 – Harry Gurney’s 5-24 against Hampshire springs most readily to mind – the team’s results could at best be described as “inconsistent”, or underwhelming, if you were being brutally honest.

We do still have our own little Little Master, James Taylor, at least until the end of 2012, when Notts et al will no doubt descend like vultures with chequebooks agape, luring him away to the bright lights of the Big Smoke and a Test ground.

Taylor scored 524 runs for the England Lions during the winter campaign in the West Indies, averaging 58.55 and wowing the local commentators, none of whom could tell us anything we did not already know as regards the lad’s talent. Nathan Buck, our young star on the bowling front, was a fellow Lions campaigner and will have gained valuable experience with wickets taken on pitches not helpful to seamers.

On the spin front, experienced campaigner Claude Henderson and his protégé Jigar Naik bowled well in tandem in the second half of the season and should prove useful again on the occasions Leicestershire play two spinners. Last year’s excellent overseas signing, Andrew McDonald, returns to Grace Road in May after his IPL stint with Delhi, and of course I would be remiss in not mentioning our redoubtable warhorse, Paul Nixon, who is coming back to fitness after knee surgery, and, last but not least, our captain, Matthew Hoggard, who in 2010 managed to keep his head while those in the boardroom were losing theirs.

Once again the team is a balanced mix of young talent and seasoned veterans. This year, hopefully, they will have less off-field disruption to deal with.

And hopefully fewer Sky News reporters for the wrong reasons. I might even be able to get some kip.