Being an agnostic Jew, I wouldn't call it heaven, but a near-empty Lord's on a luscious late August afternoon was definitely in the neighbourhood of nirvana. If there were 2000 of us there I'd have been surprised. No food court, no cheerleaders, no replays, precious few oohs and barely a single aah.
Corey Colleymore, Tim Murtagh and Toby Roland-Jones were threatening to mow down Leicestershire, as promotion - hallelujah - beckoned for Middlesex, but wee Jimmy Taylor, Graham Thorpe's spiritual son and heir, was in no mood to let anyone or anything pass. The game found a sedate yet rhythmic groove, long stretches of arm-wrestling regularly punctuated by grumpy appeals and the occasional thunk of leather on perimeter board. There we were, in the middle of one of the world's noisiest cities, in a land still reeling from the aftershock of widespread rioting, yet aside from the gentle fizz of chatter and the rustle of sandwich wrappers, peace reigned. Aaaah.
Our Test and Twenty20 teams may be top o' the world, ma, but some things never change. It may be the secret of that success, but Britons of a certain age and inclination continue to defend county cricket as if it were a combination of the National Health Service and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home: none of them make a bean but without them we'd be another country. Helpfully, recent seasons have been invigorating, and 2011 was no exception, capped by a cracking climax to the County Championship, which put an end to the second-best-known losing streak in English sport. (And the last local hero to take the men's Wimbledon singles, Fred Perry, did so in 1936, a full two years after Lancashire claimed their previous outright pennant).
So, without further ado, this column proudly presents the inaugural I ♥ County Cricket Awards (please note that the ceremony will not be attended by any Indian tourists, or anyone else for that matter).
Most Valuable Player and Rod Marsh Pie-Chucker Award
Despite the compelling attractions of Marcus Trescothick (2500 runs across all formats) and Darren Stevens (1580 runs, 57 wickets), both baubles go to a chap with a PhD in journeymanliness - David Masters. Capped by a haul of 8 for 10 to eject Leicestershire for 34 (only two of the strikes required a fielder's assistance), the Kent-turned-Leicester-turned-Essex man's 93 Championship victims were the most by a Pom since the end of the three-day era. Snigger at the lower tier, bemoan the pitches and badmouth that darned Tiflex ball all you like: just remember that Essex's next biggest contributor in the W column managed just 28. Atlas had it easy.
Hughie Green Memorial Plaque/Hey Hey It's The Recession Award
With belts being tightened to hernia-inducing levels and the ECB offering sizeable inducements for fielding (cheap) homegrown youth, opportunity is not so much knocking as banging. Better yet, contends that wise old bird John Emburey, the youth drive has helped banish "the fear factor". Witness Jonny Bairstow in Cardiff. Better yet, Old Trafford in June. Eight to win, 9 and 10 in harness, four balls left, a Roses T20 match in the balance; fortunately for Yorkshire, Azeem Rafiq doesn't do wary. Hitherto best known as the most dastardly tweeter in town, the ex-England Under-19 skipper Dilscoops the next two balls for four. He also bowls a mean doosra.
Brian Close Up-And-At-'Em Award
Glen Chapple is 37. Allegedly. Not that he acts his age. Perhaps that's why he still dispatches 50 batsmen a year and makes such a rousing captain. They call him Boris, apparently, presumably because he's the dead spit of Becker (of tennis fame and bonking repute). Not that the similarity stops at facial resemblance and redheadedness. Both ooze defiance. Strained hamstring? Pah. One effective leg was quite enough for Chapple to charge in and snap up three Somerset second-innings wickets in Taunton, telling blows all, as Lancashire swept towards their holy grail. "Credit our physio, some decent strapping and some tablets," he recommended, clearly forgetting to mention that magnum of bloody-mindedness, those pints of post-teen spirit and that wee dram of skill. If he wants to rub it in, he could do worse than take out a page ad in the Yorkshire Post reminding folk that he was born in the Dales.
Tony Greig Foot-in-Mouth Award
Andrew Gale was anything but alone in predicting relegation for Lancashire. Trouble was, as Yorkshire captain his forecast was fraught with risk. Not only did Lancashire complete a Roses double for the first time in 22 summers and take their first outright Championship in 77, the Tykes went down instead. In August, by way of rubbing it in, Gale suffered a season-ending broken wrist at the hands of one of his own bowlers.
Oliver Stone Conspiracy Theory Award
Durham feel they were champions in all but name, and it's easy to see why. They beat Lancashire twice and Warwickshire twice, meting out innings defeats to both. No top-tier county harvested more bonus points; they even won 14 of 16 tosses (judgement, mind, wasn't always unerring: they put Somerset in twice and twice conceded 600). Unfortunately, relentless injuries and national call-ups depleted them in the second half. What miffed them, and many others, was the remarkable success of Ashley Giles - who wears highly conspicuous hats as both national selector and Warwickshire coach - in keeping Chris Woakes out of the international frame. "Gilo" is widely regarded as one of the good guys, but how long such a conflict of interest can persist may be a matter for the ECB's conscience. Riots in St John's Wood should not be discounted.
Jessop-Botham Sobriety Award
Until June 2008, Graham Napier was just another member of England's 1999 Under-19 World Cup-winning side who had failed to kick on, an allrounder who had reached considerable heights (a game on Everest) but fallen short of expectation. Uncertain of future, he had applied to join the police. Then came a 58-ball 152 in a T20 match against Sussex, replete with 16 sixes. Cue an IPL contract and a World Twenty20 call-up, whereupon his back gave way. At Croydon in May, in his first Championship innings for 11 months, Essex's fearlessly luckless No. 7 took his frustrations out on Surrey's international-studded attack, sizzling to 196 off 130 balls - 172 in boundaries, 103 off the last 29 deliveries. Dominating a ninth-wicket stand of 190 at nigh on nine an over, he thrice powered three sixes in an over, the upshot a world record-matching, self-equalling 16 (and in case you're wondering about the size of the Whitgift School boundary, the other 21 batsmen between them mustered only seven). Eerily, that same week saw the 100th anniversary of Ted Alletson's legendary 189 in 90 minutes in Hove - now that's what I call timing.
Fred Titmus "Who Needs Toes?" Rapid Recovery Award and Hobbs-Sutcliffe Dynamic Duo Award
Sometimes you just have to cheer. Last November, Michael Carberry, a Test debutant earlier in the year, was discovered to have blood clots on his lungs: not just career-threatening but life-threatening. Returning, somehow, in July, he learned, just before facing Yorkshire, of the death of a mentor, the former Croydon schoolteacher David Lomas. Shaken and stirred, he took guard wearing a black armband and duly paid his respects with a cool 300 while adding an even cooler 523 with Neil McKenzie - the second-best for the third wicket in first-class annals and the ninth loftiest for any professional wicket. Ever.
That, though, was merely the pair's second handiest stand of the campaign. As fate would have it, they strode out together at the Rose Bowl on the final day of the final round, the main obstacle between Warwickshire and half a million quid, Lancastrians willing them to do it again. Hampshire's relegation was assured, so there was nothing to play for beyond pride, but do it they did, carving a century apiece. A pair of season tickets for the Theatre of Dreams must surely be in order.
Bill Frindall Uncanny Numerical Coincidence Award
The Artists Formerly Known As Rabbits are getting far too uppity, none more so than Warwickshire's Keith Barker, smiter of one hundred at No. 8 and one at No. 9. Remarkably, two of the eight century stands for the ninth wicket, both 150-plus, occurred on May 4. Which is nowhere near as boggling, of course, as the fact that all three three-figure stands for the 10th wicket came on July 11.
Graeme Swann Cheeky Chappie Award
Before signing for Worcestershire, Adrian Shankar, a Cambridge law graduate who'd flunked out at Lancashire, pulled off what is almost certainly a unique hat-trick: hell, if you're going to lie about your age and career record, you might as well go the whole hog and fabricate a glowing reference from a former coach. A career in politics awaits.
Jagmohan Dalmiya Exterminate-The-Draw Award (shared 18 ways)
Just two Wisdens ago, the ever-vigilant Neville Scott noted that a lousy 44% of Championship fixtures in 2009 had produced a definite result, the worst in 17 summers of full four-day warfare. Thanks in part to the draw having been devalued, in part to the silencing of the heavy roller, in part to some first-day greentops, and in part to a dry start - albeit not to a horribly soggy middle - the 2011 season yielded just 18 draws in Division 1 compared with 29, 43 and 38 over the previous three. Across both tiers, there were 103 decisive results in 144 games - 71.5%, easily a modern record. Meanwhile the Test XI have clearly lost the ability to block for a draw. Where are my Monty and my Onions? Something Must Be Done.
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton