Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications
This is a time of year when folk who love their cricket would like to time to dawdle.
In late spring or summer's full blazon we are content that matches unfold at their usual pace as the season takes shape. But during the final game we savour every ball, every leg glance, every smart stop in the field. A tug on a cap tugs the heart. There is no help for the condition and we do not want one. We treasure every over, even if it is bowled by Simon Harmer who, by the end of Tuesday's play, had bowled 595.5 of them in this year's Championship and taken 83 wickets while doing so.
No slight whatever should be inferred. Harmer is a supremely skilful craftsman whose loyalty has been firmly pledged to Chelmsford. His offspin bowling helped Essex to the title in his maiden season and he is now well set to take them to another.
He is a big man and strong of frame. A cricket ball is a marble in his gigantic hands and that helps him impart spin. But there are subtler skills beyond the control of length and line: the ability to bowl over or around the wicket to right- or left-handed batsmen for example, and to over-spin the ball so a batsman may be deluded into thinking that it will land nearer to him than it eventually does.
Of course we have barely begun our investigation of the spinner's arts. Yet as one sat in the Sir Ian Botham Stand before lunch on a suddenly blue afternoon and watched Harmer test the almost equally skilful Tom Abell, the battle seemed as engrossing as when one first saw a similar struggle so many summers ago.
The brown-stoned towers of St James and St Mary Magdalene were half-silhouetted against John Clare's woolsack clouds. There were even a few minutes of warmth. The locals encouraged Essex's bowlers to get on with it and they applauded every run however it might have been obtained. Harmer returned to his mark and began a ten-step approach to the crease which ends with an rhythmical swirl of arms and the easiest of actions.
Something comparable to Harmer's skill was noticed by the great essayist William Hazlitt in his classic 1821 essay The Indian Jugglers:
Coming forward and seating himself on the ground in his white dress and tightened turban, the chief of the Indian Jugglers begins with tossing up two brass balls, which is what any of us could do, and concludes with keeping up four at the same time, which is what none of us could do to save our lives, nor if we were to take our whole lives to do it in. Is it then a trifling power we see at work, or is it not something next to miraculous?
In truth, though, this was not Harmer's best day of the season. He took three wickets, including that of Abell, to complete his tenth five-wicket haul of the season but he was roughly treated by Roelof van der Merwe and finished with 5 for 105, hardly the figures of a main spinner on a helpful wicket.
Yet he is only 30 years old and therefore in his prime. Retirement is beyond sight in the distance. For other cricketers the end of a season ushers in a new set of challenges. Suddenly their familiar skills have left them and it is time to go. Marcus Trescothick reached that stage much earlier this summer and one of the most reassuring aspects of his comments to the media on Monday was his acceptance of fate.
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The consequences of playing again when the eye and the skills are gone was recorded by David Foot in his essay on the tubby Somerset slow left-armer, Horace Hazell, who bowled to his hero Walter Hammond over four years after one of England's greatest batsmen had retired.
When in 1951 Hammond was persuaded, with an appalling lack of wisdom and dignity on everyone's part, to make a one-off comeback against Somerset at Bristol, Hazell - eternally dotty with admiration - bowled against him. The great batsman scratched around, playing and missing. He had neither timing nor confidence. The Nevil Road ground, full of spectators who had come again to watch and wonder, was eerily silent. We can only begin to contemplate the torment and the wretchedness that Wally, florid and overweight, was going through. "I promise you I was crying. I was actually trying to give him half-volleys outside the off stump," Hazell told me.
Foot omits the relevant line of the scorecard. It reads:
Hammond b Hazell 7
No one wants the cricket season to last all year. That would reduce county cricket to the level of top-level football, which has turned a very fine sport into a consuming leviathan. But late September carries an even sharper poignancy when it is accompanied by the departure of our favoured sons. "Ah Tres," Somerset supporters will say to their children, "you should have seen Tres."