Monday, August 22, 2016

Kent v Gloucestershire, 50 overs, St Lawrence, 31 July 2016


For the first time in 19 years I find myself at Canterbury Week, at least for the first day, a one-day contest between Kent and Gloucestershire. Back then, there was something of the Edwardian stately home about it, with marquees shimmering around a third of the boundary, temporary homes for all sorts of organisations ancient and antiquated: the Buffs Regiment; the Band of Brothers; the Old Stagers; the Association of Men of Kent and Kentish Men. Now most of the house has been sold to ward off impoverishment and the family is reduced to living in a few rooms in one wing. Just five marquees remain, though readers will be relieved to learn that the High Sheriff of Kent was present, perhaps to protect us from the cowboys on the building site that occupies the Old Dover Road side of the ground. A giant crane looms over the playing field as the old lime tree once did from much the same place, an apt symbol of how things have changed. The club has done a good job in retaining the character of the playing arena thus far during the redevelopment. I hope that I can make the same report on my next visit once the building is complete.

The match was the penultimate in the group stage for both teams. A win would come close to ensuring a quarter-final place for Kent. Gloucestershire, who won the competition last year, have had a nightmare and are already out, which is disappointing (you will remember that My Life in Cricket Scorecards lived in Bristol for 19 years and spent many a freezing day on the Hammond Room roof, so retains secondary affection for Gloucestershire).

Kent won the toss and put Gloucestershire in. What followed was consistent with the timeless, retro feel of the day: the visitors proceeded at a leisurely four an over to be all out for 200 in the fiftieth over, an analogue score in the digital age.

The pitch was slow, and from the Pavilion End the odd ball stopped (as they say). Of the 13 wickets that fell, only four were to catches, and three of those were caught-and-bowled, a sure sign that timing is tricky. In these conditions Darren Stevens—the human tourniquet—was predictably abstemious, conceding only 28 from his ten overs. Will Gidman, bowling at a similar pace to Stevens, had the best figures, three for 28 in eight overs. Gidman is on loan from Nottinghamshire, but it would be good if he could be persuaded to stay; he’s more than useful and at 40 Stevens has no more than seven or eight seasons left in him.

Twenty-two-year-old bowler Charlie Hartley bowls a notch or two quicker. He claimed two wickets, both front-foot lbws. With Matt Coles getting Cockbain in the same fashion, Nos 3 to 5 in the Gloucestershire order were sent on their way by Rob Bailey. None of these decisions looked clear cut, which is not to say that they were wrong. There had been a celebration of the 80th birthday of Ray “Trigger” Julian a couple of days before and the thought occurred that umpires around the country were firing ‘em out in celebration.  

Matt Coles took the first two wickets. Like Jesse Ryder, in any other era Coles would have been regarded as a character. In our age of scientific Calvinism he is a problem, just back from suspension after a late night (or nights). He has talent and unpredictability. Is it possible to inject conformability into the mix without diluting it?

The best Gloucestershire batsman was Hamish Marshall, who is finishing at the County Ground this year after 11 seasons. It was a pleasure to see Marshall in prime form. My period as CricInfo’s man in Northern Districts coincided with Hamish and his (absolutely) identical twin James establishing themselves as first-class cricketers, to the confusion of scorers, umpires and journalists everywhere. It was not quite a valedictory as I far as I am concerned, however; it is rumoured that Marshall will play for Wellington in the coming New Zealand season.

He and Michael Klinger put on 42 for the third wicket, the biggest partnership of the innings. At 71 for two in the 18th over, things were pretty even, but by the 37th over it was 138 for eight. Tom Smith, David Payne and Matt Taylor did well to get as far as 200, but it was surprising that Kent did not try to finish the innings off. For the last ten overs only the minimum four fielders were retained inside the circle. The tailenders used the gaps in the field intelligently to take the score to the foothills of respectability. Today the difference between 150 and 200 all out was not significant, but on a pitch that was not straightforward it might have been on another day. At the risk of becoming a one-tune band, I will ask my usual question: what would McCullum do?

Kent’s top order are in rich form at the moment. Daniel Bell-Drummond and Joe Denly were largely untroubled, though the odd ball from the Pavilion End was still struggling to make it  all the way to the batsman. Once past 50, the shots came more freely, with Denly in particular happy to come down the pitch. The partnership was at 92 when Bell-Drummond played around a straight one to be bowled by Howell. This equalled the record for Kent’s first wicket in one-day cricket against Gloucestershire, matching Luckhurst and Johnson in the Gillette Cup in 1972 (I didn’t see that one).
Sam Northeast picks up where he left off each time he comes up to bat at the moment. Like Bell-Drummond, it was a surprise when he was out, to a sharp return catch to Payne. There are vacancies for batsmen in the test team. On form, Bell-Drummond and Northeast have as good a bid as anyone. Will their being being second division players be an insurmountable objection?

Sam Billings, on top of the world a week before for England A, left his timing at home today. What had been brilliantly audacious reverse sweeps were now mere errors of judgement.

Joe Denly was there throughout for 82. He is also playing very well, though his time as an international player has probably passed. Darren Stevens (who else?) saw him through to the end and finished the game with a six onto the bank on the south side of the ground.

A mundane game to finish my visit to the old country, but days in the sun at Canterbury are precious and never disagreeable.

Kent came second in the group, and played Yorkshire in the quarter-final, a game that I was able to watch on TV back in New Zealand. Kent chased 256 on a pitch much like that the Gloucestershire game was played on. Against Yorkshire’s international attack they came just 11 runs short (and the lbw that ended the innings not even Trigger Julian would have given). It supported the view I formed during my short visit that the old county is in better shape on the field than it has been for a while.


Saturday, August 13, 2016

England A v Pakistan A, 50 overs, St Lawrence Ground, 24 July 2016


Two new spectating experiences came my way on my recent trip to the old country: floodlit cricket at Canterbury (of which more later) and an A international, England v Pakistan.

The game was part of a tri-series also involving Sri Lanka. This was the fifth and penultimate game; thus far England had won both their matches and Pakistan had defeated Sri Lanka twice.

It was a chance to see some of the young guns of English cricket: Ben Duckett, who is stacking up the runs for Northamptonshire; Brett D’Oliveira, the latest chapter of a marvellous story; and most of all the Curran brothers, infant prodigies with the ball.

It was another perfect day. My three weeks in Kent were blessed with weather reminiscent of 1976, the gold standard of English summers. A day to bat, one would have thought, but Pakistan put England in.

At 49 for four in the tenth over it looked a good decision. All four wickets fell to Bilawal Bhatti, a skiddy medium-fast right armer who CricInfo says is only five foot six, but perhaps the margin of error that applies to the measurement of the ages of Pakistan’s cricketers has been extended to their height. Bilawal maintained a superb line on and just outside off stump and induced errors from batsmen who were looking to force the pace early on a good pitch. Both Bell-Drummond and Duckett went driving at balls on this line. Bilawal was nowhere near the pace that his 30-yard run up suggested, but he was quick enough.

Bilawal was removed from the attack after seven overs, not to reappear until the end of the innings, when he was expensive against a rampant Billings. I ask my usual question: “what would McCullum have done?” “Used him as an attacking force earlier” is, of course, the answer.

Kent’s own Sam Billings came in second down and won the game with an innings that was among the best I have seen in one-day cricket: 175 from a tricky situation. He began with a shot that was a perfect imitation of that which Colin Cowdrey wished to execute as his “last act on Earth”—a drive down to the lime tree. I have always thought that impending mortality fogged Cowdrey’s mind a little as the tree (now a younger version, but in much the same place) is behind square, so it would be more of an outside edge, hardly a fitting way for such an elegant batsman to shuffle off this mortal coil. But Billings dispelled that misconception with a genuine drive to that very place.

It became clear that Billings has an astonishingly broad repertoire of shots, some of which Cowdrey would not have conceived of, let alone attempted. Neither the forward nor backward defensive are prominent among them. Billings has a McCullumesque belief in attack as the best course of action when backs are to the wall.
108 of his 175 came in boundaries, including four sixes. The prize for audacity of shot—fiercely contested—was won in the 49th over when Billings changed to a left-handed stance as the ball was released and pulled a six over what a second before had been cover. What will the next step be in the quest for surprise? The way Billings and co are going it might be the batsman producing a golf club at the moment of delivery, or the bowler finding that the ball has turned into a dove as he releases it. It was a treat to see Billings of Kent batting with such talent and skill on a rare international occasion at St Lawrence.

Billings put on 125 for the fifth wicket with Liam Livingstone of Lancashire. To say that Livingstone is partial to the onside is like saying that Winnie the Pooh enjoys the odd drop of honey. Both are good at finding what pleases them, but trouble sometimes results. Livingstone made deep incursions into the offside to make space for a legside biff, and did so with some success. He beat Billings to fifty, which not many do these days. Though he twice dispatched slow left-armer Mohammad Nawaz into the building site that occupies the northern side of the ground, the ball turning away from Livingstone caused him some difficulty and he must learn not to spurn half the field if he is to do take his talent to a higher level.

Eighty-nine came from the final ten overs, which was as good as Pakistan could have realistically hoped for. England finished on 324 for eight, a tall order but possible on a trustworthy pitch.

The Curran brothers opened the attack and both claimed an early wicket. I saw a lot of their late father Kevin in his Gloucestershire days. Only the qualification criteria prevented him from being an international cricketer. It looks as if both his boys will surpass him in this respect; they have his talent, and perhaps a touch more purpose.

Jaahid Ali and skipper Babar Azam put on 97 for the third wicket at a decent pace. Babar made a half-century the last time I saw him, at the Basin’s ODI earlier this year. Now he made another, just as composed.

The partnership was progressing well when, in the 20th over, Jaahid went down the pitch to slow left-armer Dawson only for the ball to pass the outside edge. Billings’ hands did not move and a straightforward stumping chance was missed. Jaahid was on 39 at the time, and went on to make a century. More than that, when he was out, in the 39th over, Pakistan were five down requiring a shade over nine an over. Had he stayed there for just a few more overs he might have won the game for Pakistan. Billings’ miss was closer to costing England the game—and negating his own brilliant innings—than the apparently comfortable 56-run margin of victory suggests.

It was good to see the Campaign for Real Ale flourishing still, its marquee bursting at every match I attended. What about a Campaign for Real Wicketkeepers? Billings’ international class as a batsman is obvious; his lack of it as a keeper equally so. He has this is common with all the other contenders including Bairstow and Buttler. All are capable of winning the game with the bat and losing it with the gloves. England’s profusion of all-rounders offers the selectors all sorts of options. One is to pick the best wicketkeeper in the country; it would win a test match soon enough.

Who is the best keeper in England? It would be interesting to hear the views of those who watch county cricket.

Only last year Mark Wood was first choice as the back up to Anderson and Broad for England. Injury has laid him low, but on the evidence of this performance he will be a strong contender again soon. Wood generates real pace from a short run up and bowls with intimidating intelligence. He ended Jaahid’s threatening innings and followed up with two more soon after to close out the game. Dawson also impressed, exercising control in mid-innings.

It was a treat for an occasional spectator to see so much young home talent in one place. Well done the ECB (and we don’t hear that very often) for offering Pakistan the chance to develop its second rank, a level that has always been a deficiency in that country’s game, even in more stable times. For all the grand talk about a global game, cricket’s talent is concentrated in just a few places. Preserving it where it already exists must be a priority over speculative expansion.

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