Warming up for late summer

Lawrence Booth does the rounds of county cricket to find sledging and ball-tampering aplenty, and the Ashes radar on everywhere

Lawrence Booth
Lawrence Booth
26 April
The Ashes are still three months away but Shane Warne is warming up nicely. The Sussex captain, Chris Adams, says he has lost respect for Warne after he sledged the promising keeper-batsman Matt Prior during a championship game at Hove, the type of respectable, old-Tory seaside town where they still use phrases like "it's not cricket".
27 April
As sure as flipper follows legbreak, Warne hits back. "I am sick and tired of being cast as the villain because English captains give one side of the story," he says to the sound of violins. Warne says he was merely sticking up for Simon Katich after Prior barged into him. In a calculated putdown, he adds: "If Adams has lost respect for me, then I can certainly say that whatever respect I had for him has disappeared too." To which there is only one response: it's just not cricket.
Meanwhile, Andrew Flintoff's left foot - cricket's answer to David Beckham's metatarsal - makes its first championship trip to the crease for Lancashire against Worcestershire at New Road. But before anyone can shout "Bring on the Aussies," Freddie is out for a duck.
28 April
Ashes fever dictates that virtually every newspaper report of a county match must mention the A-word in the first paragraph. By the time the first Test starts on July 21, the headline "Bloggs makes Ashes bid" will have been used more often than "Blair defends Iraq war" - and probably with equally little justification.
29 April
Just as the first-edition pieces for tomorrow's papers are about to be sent, Andre Adams takes a hat-trick for Essex against Somerset. Adams is best known by England fans for having Flintoff caught behind in a Test match at Auckland when the ball missed the bat by a foot. But his three Somerset wickets, including Sanath Jayasuriya, all appear to be legitimate. At Worcester, Flintoff makes 83 in Lancashire's second innings, so all is right with the world again.
30 April
The talk in the Worcester press box is of England's middle order. With Mark Butcher still injured, will it be Robert Key, Kevin Pietersen or Ian Bell? And are Graham Thorpe's eyes fading? I'd love to see Kevin Pietersen confront the Aussies, but Bell is scoring the runs and Key is talking up his own chances with intriguing confidence. It's as if he knows the selectors are on his side.
1 May
Like most pubs in south-west London, my local is run by an Aussie, which means I can turn up safe in the knowledge that the televised sport will be cricket rather than football. Especially when Warne is bowling. But - and this is a sight we Pommies get to see all too rarely - the colour drains from the landlord's face as Warne is mowed for leg-side sixes by the Northants tail in a 50-over match for Hampshire. As Ashes blueprints go, this doesn't seem a bad one.
2 May
Warne goes for 48 as Hampshire lose again, this time to Gloucestershire. It would be wrong to say that the shires are awash with schadenfreude. But it would be just as wrong to claim they are full of concern.
3 May
I arrive in the unlikely cricketing outpost of Belfast, where Michael Vaughan is due to play his first innings since February 13. With anticlimactic predictability, rain allows only 45 minutes' play, in which time Ireland hobble to 33 for 3. Our press tent almost caves in under the weight of the Northern Irish weather, so we scurry to the pavilion for an obligatory pint of Guinness.
4 May
Out comes the sun and on comes Vaughan. He looks tentative at first but soon settles in, despite a slow pitch and an even slower outfield. An innings of 58 from 92 balls is a decent return, but there's plenty of time in any case to get ready for Australia. And he might even move up the order to No. 3, which makes sense: he has played his best Test innings against the new ball.
5 May
Everyone's in a flap because none of England's top order are scoring any runs in county cricket - apart from Bell, who isn't even in the team yet. But then England fans under 30 have grown up wryly observing one law: in an Ashes summer, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.
6 May
Off to The Oval, where the pre-season favourites Surrey make a complete hash of things against Stephen Fleming's Nottinghamshire. Their batting is terrible, their bowling unspeakable. The Ashes radar spots that Thorpe is out for just nine, limply hanging his bat outside off stump. Perhaps those eyes are fading after all.
7 May
Every so often, the sleepy world of county cricket wakes up with a jolt and a news story worthy of the back page. The drama begins unobtrusively when the Nottinghamshire total clicks over by five runs moments before the start of play. A quick call establishes that these are penalty runs imposed for contravention of Law 42.3, which governs the condition of the ball. We have a ball-tampering story! The rest of the day is a flurry of interviews and press releases. The umpires tell us that on the previous evening they warned Surrey twice for lifting the quarter seam. The media get stuck in and enjoy the fact that Surrey's ball-tampering is utterly futile: Notts score at almost a run a ball and Fleming hits a sparkling double-century. It must be the most useless seam-lifting in the history of cricket.
8 May
Notts declare on 692 for 7 - the fourth-highest score ever conceded by Surrey. Thorpe then makes a three-ball duck. The Aussies must be loving this.
9 May
Another ball-tampering scandal is erupting across the border in Cardiff. Gloucestershire's Steve Kirby, the faintly insane fast bowler who once told Mike Atherton he had seen better batters in his fridge, stands accused of scraping the ball on the concrete car-park after retrieving a six. The news that the Warwickshire wicketkeeper Keith Piper has failed a drugs test merely adds to the weird sensation that county cricketers are doing their best to behave like Premiership footballers. But I suspect that Cricketers' Wives would not attract the TV audiences.
10 May
Warne's pre-Ashes spying mission - sorry, stint as Hampshire captain - is producing all kinds of little gems. He is supposed to have nicknamed his county colleague Pietersen `600', because he wants him to be his 600th Test victim this summer. The fact that the nickname was a light-hearted suggestion by the journalist who ghost-writes Warne's newspaper column is incidental: these tidbits quickly become enshrined as fact. Warne is then reported as writing off Andrew Strauss after bowling him for 19 in a championship match. The quote used in evidence is this: "When he tried to reverse-sweep I thought it was a sign that he wasn't sure what to do." But Warne also says he liked what he saw. Or is that a double-edged compliment?
11 May
The Warne circus continues apace. It's a privilege to be at Canterbury to witness his maiden first-class hundred, 15 years and 321 innings after his debut. It takes him just 72 balls and he celebrates as if he has just taken an Ashes hat-trick. Actually, that's not quite right: when he did take an Ashes hat-trick, at Melbourne in 1994-95, he didn't jump around and punch the air as he does now. With typical cuteness, Warne immediately promises to turn century-making into a habit.
12 May
It occurs that Bangladesh are finishing their three-day warm-up match against the British Universities in Cambridge. The first Test at Lord's begins on May 26, but their arrival has generated all the excitement of a one-sided 50-over game. Such is the lot of the non-Australian tourists in an Ashes summer.
13 May
The selectors are meeting today to pick the squad for the Bangladesh Test, and Pietersen chooses the moment to hit his first hundred for Hampshire. The general feeling is it has come too late. It's so cold at Canterbury that play stops briefly at 3pm so that the players can be fortified by a cup of tea. In mid-May.
14 May
Another day at The Oval. Actually, a half-day, because Glamorgan lose their last eight wickets before lunch - their fourth defeat in a row, and their worst start to a season since 1922. It's the first time since their team won rugby union's grand slam that I've seen so many glum Welshmen in the same room.
15 May
England announce a 12-man squad: Bell is in, Pietersen and Key are out. Pietersen responds by hammering 80 off 50 balls in a one-day game at Lord's.
16 May
The press is full of sympathy for Key, but are generally agreed that Pietersen's tendency to make lots of low scores amid the pyrotechnics counted against him. So we might well go into the Ashes with Bell, who will have played three Tests at most. The bright side? The Aussies won't have seen much of him. Or am I clutching at straws?

Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail. His fourth book, What Are The Butchers For? And Other Splendid Cricket Quotations, is published in October 2009 by A&C Black