Sunday, April 15, 2018

Three days at the Plunket Shield

Wellington v Central Districts, Basin Reserve, 17 – 20 March 2018

Over the two weekends before I went down to Christchurch for the test match, I was able to watch three days of Plunket Shield cricket, New Zealand’s equivalent of the County Championship. They turned out to be decisive in deciding the winner of this season’s competition.

Like first-class competitions the world over, the Plunket Shield is the discarded novel of the cricket calendar. Put down at the end of the November, it is picked up again at the beginning of March, without anybody having any clear memory of the plot or the characters.

I was at the Basin for the first of two days of the game between Wellington and Central Districts in the eighth of the competition’s ten rounds It began with Wellington leading the table with Central second, so a home win would be a large step to Wellington’s first title since 2004.

I have preached before about the necessity of getting to the cricket on time. This is doubly the case for cricket at the Basin where the pitch awakes vigorously with the dawn chorus before settling down by lunchtime for a four-day snooze. Returning readers may recall that earlier this season, Auckland were 12 for seven early in the piece and that Wellington were 246 without loss by the end of the day.

Central put Wellington in. Adam Milne, once more of Kent, opened the bowling to Michael Papps:
·        1st ball—edged between third slip and gully for four.
·        2nd ball—diving catch in the gully. Steven Murdoch is in.
·        3rd ball—edged to second slip, keeper caught the rebound, Murdoch is out. Four for two.

Luke Woodcock and Michael Bracewell survived the rest of a testing opening spell from Milne, resolutely leaving on length, even with the ball almost brushing the bails. Jesse Ryder was the surprise choice to replace Milne. Kent people who have seen Ryder regularly run through the county’s order would spot the danger here, but Bracewell did not and lashed out at the first ball, well wide of off stump, to be caught behind. He was a soldier who survived battle but who then succumbed to a dodgy prawn sandwich on the way home.

New Zealand is as replete with young South Africans as English cricket is. Two were important here. Willem Ludick was on first-class debut. The final day of this game was his 21st birthday. He is well on the brisk side of medium and took two wickets as Wellington were reduced to 99 for five by early afternoon.

This brought in Malcolm Nofal, a 26-year-old left-hander from Johannesburg, on first-class debut for Wellington having played a handful of games for Gauteng, the last four years ago.

He joined Luke Woodcock. Has anybody ever seen Woodcock and Darren Stevens in the same room? Both are balding and tending to the portly, yet perform rescue operations of Tracy brothers proportions as a matter of routine. In the morning, Woodcock was a fortress, holding ground that others were conceding. In the afternoon he began to make forays into opposition territory and by the evening was advancing on all fronts.

Woodcock and Nofal put on 247 for the sixth wicket before Woodcock went for 147 near the end of the day. I made a note that it was a long time since I had seen so many cross-bat shots in one day, a measure of the predictability of the Basin pitch, and how the Central attack flagged. 226 of Wellington’s 365 for six for the day came after the halfway point.

Nofal continued to bash away on the second morning, with enthusiastic assistance from Nos 8, 9 and 10—Patel, Newton and McPeake respectively—who bludgeoned 119 between them. Wellington were all out for 530. Nofal was eighth out for 175, which, as we will see, left the Wellington selectors less impressed than might have been thought.

Nineteen-year-old slow-left-armer debutant Felix Murray had begun with ten from his first nine overs while Wellington were still in defensive mode, but conceded 79 from his remaining nine. Murray had stepped into the shoes of Ajaz Patel (who had been called up for the test warm-up in Hamilton), or possibly into Patel’s shirt and trousers, both of which appeared to be three or four sizes too big for him.

Ben Smith fell early in the Central reply, lbw with bat raised. It looked a bowler’s decision, but as Arthur Jepson used to say “there’s a reason tha’s got a bat in thy ‘and”.

The highlight of the rest of the day was Jesse Ryder’s 69 from 85 balls, with two sixes. I wonder how much longer he’ll stick around. He is good enough to carry on making runs for another ten years, but can he be bothered with everything that goes with it? Watching him bat has been one of this season’s greatest pleasures.

Central were 226 for three when my two days at the game ended. Unlike Wellington, nobody kicked on to a century and they were 107 behind on first innings. They made no attempt on the target of 372, focusing instead on stopping Wellington for collecting the 12 points for a win, which they achieved with just two wickets to spare. With two rounds to go, Wellington now led Central by eight points.

One other unfortunate curiosity to emerge from the second day was that, though there were no more than 100 watching the game, one of them was ejected for bad behaviour, trespassed no less, with police officers called. Is this the smallest crowd to have one of its number expelled? I suppose we should be grateful that the Plunket Shield still evokes such passion.

A week later I was back at the Basin for the first day of round nine. Northern Districts were the visitors. Tom Blundell returned from New Zealand A duty and Wellington chose to go in with an extra bowler, Alex Ridley. So Wellington’s seventh-wicket partnership was Newton and Ridley. There’s a Rovers Return joke in there somewhere.

The selection meant that Malcolm Nofal’s 175 was not enough to keep him in the side. Wellington’s scorer Ian Smith (no relation to the keeper-commentator of the same name) was prompted to recall that as a boy he had seen Dickie Bird’s famous 181 not out for Yorkshire against Glamorgan at Bradford, after which Bird was dropped as we have heard so often since.  

The spirit of HD Bird was certainly with us today. Twenty-five minutes in, Wellington, put in by Northern, were 15 without loss. It was as uneventful an opening half-hour as we have seen at the Basin for a long time, the pitch offering none of its customary early-morning spite. Then Anton Devcich slipped on the opposite edge of the square to the pitch and it was all on. Umpires Dempsey and Gillies stood over the damp patch with the solemnity of statesmen dividing a small country. The players were sent back to the rooms while deliberations continued.  Dempsey has recent form in the cricket-prevention stakes. He was officiating at Rangiora the week before, when the game was abandoned on the second day because of a pitch so dangerous that Canterbury had scored no more than 485 for six declared a few hours before.

Umpires and groundstaff stood around the quagmire doing nothing that might affect the situation beyond blocking out the sun. Nevertheless, twenty minutes of this did the trick and play resumed. Cricket, eh?

Michael Papps followed one down the legside to be caught behind, but otherwise Wellington proceeded to 90 for one shortly before lunch with no reason to think that the pitch wouldn’t offer up the easy runs that are the norm on the first afternoon at the Basin.

We were unprepared for Ish Sodhi destroying Wellington’s season in a couple of hours. In my view Sodhi should not have been in Wellington; his proper place was in the test team in Auckland rather than Todd Astle, who is a fair leg-spinner, but who could not have treated us to the masterly display of the art that Sodhi offered us here. Bowling unchanged from the southern end, he took seven for 30 from 15.3 overs.

Sodhi didn’t just get the Wellington batsmen out; he made them look hapless and clueless, children bewildered by a magician at a birthday party. He was magnificent. The last nine wickets added only 47.

By the end of the day Northern were 168 for four. Corey Anderson made 61 of these from 65 balls with three sixes. He is a wonderfully clean striker of a cricket ball, and if Somerset can lay their hands on sufficient cotton wool to wrap his fragile physique in between games he will be a real asset in the T20.

I wasn’t there on the second day, which was all Northern needed to wrap it up. Jeetan Patel took five, but Northern still had a lead of 186, which Wellington couldn’t match second time round. Sodhi took five more. Meanwhile in Napier, Central were beating Canterbury by an innings to takeover at the top of the table. Wellington were beaten in the last round, so a draw was enough to secure the Plunket Shield for Central Districts.

Those two hours of magic from Ish Sodhi had cost Wellington the prize. I saw Sodhi play again later that week, in the test at Christchurch. I thought that Kane Williamson might have given him longer spells. His match-saving 56 not out should ensure that his batting will no longer be a negative factor at selectors’ meetings.

As we in New Zealand embark on our annual endeavour to winter well, we hand the responsibility of serious cricket watching over to our friends in the north.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Three days at Hagley Park

New Zealand v England, Second Test, Hagley Oval, 30 March 2018

Here’s a tip. If you are in a taxi to the airport at 5 30 am, on no account tell your Chinese driver that you are going to the cricket. That way you will avoid passing the entire journey being interrogated on the differences between the game’s three formats. I fear that my powers of exposition were well below peak at that time of the day, a hapless witness, quickly broken down by a merciless prosecutor.

I was off to Christchurch for the first three days of the second test. As we flew over the central city, the effects of the devastation wrought by the 2011 earthquake remain clear to see. Substantial tracts of the CBD are levelled, with some buildings still to come down. We saw Lancaster Park, the home of Canterbury rugby and cricket for more than a century, now a desolate memorial, shortly to be demolished, including the massive Deans Stand, recently opened when the earthquake struck, with some seats that were never sat on by spectators.

Cricket was in the process of moving the domestic game to Hagley Park before the earthquake. After it, plans were expanded so that it could accommodate internationals as well. It reminds me of Mote Park, Maidstone, also a tree-lined ground with a grass bank around much of the boundary, set in one corner of a large park (and with rugby pitches adjacent).

My seat was in the temporary stand that was divided into sections named after notable Canterbury cricketers: Congdon, Dowling, Hastings, Pollard, Murdoch, Hockley. The latter two are former captains of the national women’s team, and both have been fine additions to the New Zealand Sky commentary team this season, particularly Hockley, who has a good line in punchy astuteness. The choice of Vic Pollard may have been a gaffe, given that the test embraced Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Pollard wouldn’t play on any Sunday for religious reasons.

England were put in by Williamson, in the hope of exploiting some early greenness. Cook got a cracker from Boult early on, swinging late to take his off stump. His footwork was a little laggardly—perhaps a season on Strictly Come Dancing is what he needs—but it was the quality of the bowling that exposed it. As the technology has become more forensic, analysis has tended to explain dismissals in terms of flawed batting. Alistair McGowan once did a sketch as Alan Hansen in which he explained some of football’s greatest goals purely in terms of defensive error. Sometimes the bowling is simply better.

James Vince gave us another of his butterfly innings, beautiful but brief. Joe Root’s innings was similar but a bit longer, and classier. His bat seemed to have nothing but middle until he lost concentration and was bowled by Southee. Malan got a testing delivery first ball before his feet were moving, then Stoneham became the third wicket to fall with only one run added. His was one of those curious innings where it might have been better for his reputation had he got out early, the auto-navigator determinedly directing him away from his comfort zone throughout.   

Ben Stokes batted as he had at the ODI in Wellington, and as he lives life in general these days, with caution suppressing his natural instincts, until just after lunch he gave it away with a legside flick caught behind, a popular way of getting out in this series.

Stuart Broad batted as if being No 8 was a responsibility that he wanted to divest himself of as soon as possible, which brought in Mark Wood, returning to the test team for Overton, to support Jonny Bairstow. New Zealand followed the irritating practice of trying to get Bairstow off strike and Wood on it. What’s more, this continued well beyond the point when it became clear that Wood was striking the ball well and there was a case for doing it the other way round. I still don’t understand why, when you only have two or three wickets to take, you would stop trying to get one batsman out.

Bairstow was superb. He has been England’s best batsman on the New Zealand tour. His innings started in retrenchment then moved to accumulation then attack. He moved up through the gears as smoothly as Lewis Hamilton and reached his century early on the second morning.

It didn’t help that New Zealand’s DRS challenges had both been frittered away by the 34th over. For a young man whose reputation is built upon rationality and common sense, the way Kane Williamson’s eyes light up at the chance of a punt on the lamest of nags in this respect is odd.

As has been widely advertised, all the first innings wickets for both sides fell to the opening bowlers. This series has provided an opportunity to see the finest pair of opening bowlers that both these teams have had. Of course, Richard Hadlee was New Zealand’s best quicker bowler and he was well-supported, most notably by Ewen Chatfield, but Graham Gooch was not over-hyperbolic when he described New Zealand’s attack in the Hadlee era as World XI at one end and Ilford Seconds at the other.

Trueman and Statham will be a popular alternative for England. Both were probably better bowlers than Anderson and Broad as individuals, but didn’t bowl as a combination as often as people think. They took the new ball together in every test of only two series: South Africa at home in 1960 and Australia away in 1962/3. Of course, if Trueman had been picked as often as Trueman thought he should have been, it would have been many more. Conversely, had the selectorial conventions of the fifties and sixties still been in place, Anderson and Broad would not have played so much. Then, it was very unusual to pick more than two quick bowlers, plus an all-rounder. The definition of “quick” was looser too, embracing the likes of Derek Shackleton, an upright, shopping-basket-on-the-handlebars type of bowler (this definition of “quick” is still in use in Kent—see Stevens, D).

Broad and Anderson were far too good for the New Zealand top order on the second morning. It was 36 for five just after lunch. Williamson was the fifth, following the fashion by flicking down the legside. He has had another fine season, but has got out to shots he shouldn’t have more often than a player that good has the right to.

BJ Watling is the most underestimated player in world cricket, probably because he plays tests only, and New Zealand play so few of those. Here is a player who has twice participated in world-record-breaking test partnerships for the seventh wicket, and another of 200-plus. By definition, large partnerships this low down the order begin in adversity. He is to a broken innings what Mary Portas is to a failing shop.

Here he had an unlikely ally in Colin de Grandhomme. Regular readers will know that, much as I enjoy de Grandhomme’s cavalier batting in shorter forms, I haven’t seen him as a test all-rounder. Now he played a roundhead innings, the type of which I did not think him capable. What a pleasure to be proved wrong. He was offered plenty of temptation early on, mostly in the form of short stuff from Mark Wood. He took it on, hooking three fours in the second over he faced, but with judicious selection of balls that he could keep down. England would have done better to test him with full-length deliveries on off stump.

De Grandhomme’s 72 was his best test innings. Unlike his hundred at the Basin against he West Indies in December, it was made in adversity and took more than double the number of deliveries of that innings. He and Watling put on 142 for the sixth wicket, a record for New Zealand against England.

There was an impatience about Root’s captaincy that was to be even more evident later in the closing overs of the match. Graeme Swann was reported as complaining that Root meddled too much with Jack Leach’s fields, an impediment to the bowler settling (though Leach looked a genuine test spinner). The England captain is a one-man Flat Earth Society in terms of the inexhaustible number of questionable theories that he has.

Southee came in with a considerable England lead still in prospect. Ten years ago, almost to the day, Southee slogged his way to an unbeaten 77 as New Zealand went down in the final test of the series, in Napier. That remains his highest test score and it might have been the worst thing that could have happened to his batting as has tried to emulate it almost every time he has gone to the crease.

So it began here, as if Southee was in a private contest with Broad to see who could be the most reckless No 8 in cricket. He began the third day with a six off the third ball (which should have a double value for interrupting Jerusalem—see below) but these days he runs a basic risk assessment over the delivery before deciding whether of not to slog. The six, I learn from CricInfo, took him into the top twenty of the six-hitting list for tests for all countries, the Arthur Wellard of our age.

Southee went for 50, leaving Wagner and Boult to stage an anarchic last-wicket partnership (there is no other kind of any significant duration) of 39, including Wagner’s emulation of Botham’s no-look hooked six of Old Trafford ’81. From 36 for five, the deficit had been reduced to an insignficant 29.

Alistair Cook went early, caught behind off Boult. It has been denied since, but when he walked off, was it for the last time as a test batsman? Might he think, as he tends the young lambs, that he has nothing more to prove?

Stoneman was somewhat more convincing than he had been in the first innings, but only somewhat. He was dropped twice before giving it away on 60 with a slash to one of Southee’s worst deliveries.

I had written note after his first innings that if Vince were ever to make a test century, it would be a fine, pretty thing that I would like to see. When he, predictably, unleashed a silky off drive third ball, the general feeling was that it was the start of an exquisite 18, or a gorgeous 23. But there was less beauty and more application today, as Vince made his way to 76 before, yes, nicking to slip. Same ending, but more chapters.

I had left for the airport to return to Wellington shortly before Vince’s dismissal, so followed the rest of the game on TV and the internet, including the heart-health challenge of the last hour of the last day. The partnership between Wagner—pleased to have found a new way to irritate the opposition—and Sodhi kept England at bay. New Zealand taking the test series (though that isn’t a word that should really be used for two matches) while England had the ODIs was a fair reflection of the strength of the teams.

Hagley Park is a wonderful venue for tests. There should be a game there and at the Basin every year, with remaining games divided between Hamilton, Mt Maunganui (both of which have lights), and Dunedin. No more tests in the empty greyness of Eden Park, thanks.

I have recently read John Bew’s biography of Clement Attlee, Citizen Clem. He begins each chapter with a quotation from a work that influenced Attlee at the period the chapter describes. That on Attlee’s early years as an MP (he was elected in 1922) opens with a familiar poem that outlines a determination to build a new, better, society out of the suffering brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Attlee quoted it in his 1920 work The Social Worker, which was both an early textbook on that unjustly derided vocation and a statement of political belief.

Hard to think that it is the same verses as those subjected to daily torture by the Barmy Army after the first ball of each day. In fairness, Jerusalem had become a patriotic vehicle by Attlee’s time, but after the First World War, its expression of an intent to make the country a better place out of the suffering was still understood. Not an ounce of this remains in the accusatory manner in which it was delivered in Christchurch. Presumably, the reference to dark satanic Mills is thought to be to the former New Zealand seamer. If any of Blake’s original intent was understood, the same people who sing the song in the morning wouldn’t pick on security guards doing their job on or close to the minimum wage in the afternoon.

Three days at the Plunket Shield

Wellington v Central Districts, Basin Reserve, 17 – 20 March 2018 Over the two weekends before I went down to Christchurch for the...