May 23, 2012

Old-school scorecards and second-string seamers

What is cricket’s greatest rivalry

What is cricket’s greatest rivalry? The Ashes? India and Pakistan? The Roses match? Aleem Dar’s beautiful hair versus all that’s unnatural and wrong in the world? Bob Willis trying to smile the viewing public into submission? You know the smile I mean. You’ve seen it. You’ve described it to your therapist.

Me, I go back to the fundamentals. Bat against ball. Batsman against bowlers. Given my lifelong attempt to master the inswinger it’s not hard to work out where my sympathies lie. I’ve always regarded bowlers as the game’s heavy lifters; putting in hours of hard toil while batsmen get to stand there, knock the ball around a bit, then disappear into the night to sip champagne from a supermodel’s navel.

Realistically it’s probably only Chris Gayle who gets to live like that and I’ve created a vast oversimplification of cricket’s workload that bears little relation to reality. Well you know what? I don’t care. Go down the route of reality and you end up throwing yourself under a train or enjoying the novels of Milan Kundera. And frankly I’m too young to read Kundera for enjoyment.

So for those of us who like to see bowlers given the edge for once and who find low-scoring games are often the most entertaining, the start of this county season, with its bowler-friendly conditions, has been manna from heaven/Richard Dawkins’ dark infinite void.

It’s been a learning curve too. For a start we’ve all had to spend plenty of time in the ESPNcricinfo player archives memorising the names and faces of previously anonymous second-string, second-division seamers who’ve suddenly started producing the kind of match figures that would make S.F. Barnes all hot and sweaty. Although in fairness we’ve also seen spinners – Simon Kerrigan, David Wainwright, George Dockrell, Jeetan Patel – capable of not only taking wickets but putting in the kind of match-winning performances you’d expect from them much later in summer.

Then there have been some of the gloriously old-school scorecards. Take Glamorgan (95 and 102) losing at home to Derbyshire (130 and 197) back in April. We haven’t seen match totals like that since half the players were batting wearing a monocle.

There might have been times this summer when it’s felt like county supporters were taking part in an experiment into cryogenic freezing, but for me the conditions have resulted in a refreshing change from some of the bland, run feasts of the last few years. Admittedly there’s more chance of Dickie Bird getting caught up in a rap feud than any of this being useful to England’s preparations for their November tour to India; but, you know, you can’t have everything.

However, now we might be at a turning point in the season. At least it feels like that after I spent my first day in the stands this year without requiring a duffle coat and kerosene heater.

It’s an upturn in the weather reflected in some of the recent matches. Lancashire’s batsmen, who at times this season have looked like they’d struggle to hit their own backsides with a tambourine, recently managed to bat themselves out of trouble against high-flying Warwickshire. Whilst in their current game against Somerset, Durham, whose collective batting would probably drop the tambourine before they got in a decent swing, have put in by far their most convincing performance of the season so far.

If we are about to see a sustained improvement in pitches then those batsmen who have mastered conditions so far will be in for a bumper year. That could mean Nick Compton ending the season with an average that makes Bradman look like a chronic underachiever. It might also mean a return to form for run-hungry housewives-favourite Mark Ramprakash; a man whose contributions to the Surrey dressing room swear box could recapitalise Ireland’s banking sector. Poor Ramps, the conditions this season must have given him the ulcers of an air traffic controller who moonlights as a knife thrower's assistant.

But when conditions for batting ease, the biggest effect of all could be on the Championship itself. Durham, for example, might be propping up the Division One table now, but with Steve Harmison returning to fitness and Graham Onions only a fringe England player, they still have the bowling attack and helpful home pitches that made them pre-season favourites. It’s an attack that could continue to prosper both home and away once early season cloud cover is a distant memory. Too late for them to challenge for the title themselves perhaps, but they’re the kind of side that will have a huge say in who does claim the crown.

Those eventual victors will be a team that continues to take twenty wickets throughout the season in all conditions. Whoever they are, I hope their attack get the credit they deserve. They’re the ones doing all the hard work after all.

Kenny Shovel has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses