Thursday, 29 November 2012

Memorable, for sure...

Ben Slater and Peter Burgoyne are in the formative stages of their cricket careers but neither is likely to experience a more remarkable game than the one completed today by their Southern Rocks side against the Mountaineers in Zimbabwe.

The Rocks side cannot have expected first innings lead when they were bowled out on day one for just 164, but their opponents were in turn out for 159. A first innings lead of five runs looked largely academic when the Rocks were bowled out in 30 overs for just 58, Burgoyne's 12 being one of only three double figure scores.

That left the Mountaineers a victory target of just 64 and with Test batsman Hamilton Masakadza and Essex batsman Mark Pettini in their side they must have fancied their chances. Yet they in turn were bowled out for just 26 in 15 overs on a wicket that must have been like a beach by the end.

Memorable doesn't come close to describing it and Dave Houghton can be rightly proud of his young side tonight.

In Australia, Usman Khawaja's hopes of big scores to stay in the minds of Aussie selectors after Ricky Ponting announced his retirement were dashed somewhat by two single figure scores against his old New South Wales side. He was dismissed lbw by Doug Bollinger on each occasion and would have hoped for better against erstwhile team mates.

Ponting's announced retirement from the international game appears likely to be followed by one from all first-class cricket at the end of the season, bringing down the curtain on a career where he will be remembered as one of the great batsmen of the era. At his best, "Punter" could play any kind of game and was a batsman of genuine class. His captaincy was criticised more than that of Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh, though they had the benefit of an outstanding group of cricketers at their peak. Ponting had to oversee their descent from lofty peaks and the loss of world-class player after player.

As Clive Lloyd found with the incomparable West Indies of the 1970s and early 1980s, with four fast bowlers, Richards, Greenidge and Haynes you couldn't go too far wrong. The Australians had similar giants in McGrath and Warne, while Gilchrist, Hayden, Langer and the Waugh brothers were up there too. Ponting lost them all in turn and you simply cannot replace players of that calibre and maintain standards.

There may be suggestions of a county option for Ponting to finish off his career, but I don't see him doing that. I suspect a media career beckons, where he will undoubtedly do very well.

And be remembered as a legend.

PS Sports Personality of the Year looks like being a close competition this year. Team of the Year? There's only one though, eh?

Monday, 26 November 2012

Monday musings

Warwickshire at Edgbaston to start the problem there, then...

Yes, Derbyshire's return to division one sees our season neatly book ended by games against the reigning champions, while we follow that first match, starting on April 17 with an away game against Middlesex and then the first home match, against Nottinghamshire on April 29.

Thankfully a semblance of normality and sanity has returned and there is no repeat of last year's opening in March. There may not be that much difference in the temperatures, but starting the season in March seems ludicrous and increases the likelihood of early injury and especially muscle strains.

There's no Yorkshire fixture at Scarborough (boo...) and as yet no clarification of the venue for the eagerly-awaited (by me, anyway) game against Scotland on Monday, May 27. Cricket Scotland has still to finalise venues with the host clubs, though I suspect the choice will come down to either The Grange in Edinburgh, Uddington (outside Glasgow) and Aberdeen. The latter adds around two hours to the journey time of away sides, so I can't see many counties favouring that (let alone me...) Edinburgh is fine, though Uddingston would be my preference, not least  because its less than fifteen minutes from my house.

I don't worry too much about who we play and when, to be honest. Having been promoted, we knew we'd be playing the big guns at some point, so why not first up? If we play well, we'll hold our own at the very least, if we don't, we won't. Simple as that. There will be a lot of work done, on and off the pitch, between now and April to ensure that we are as ready as we can be.

Elsewhere in the world of cricket, Usman Khawaja must have missed Test selection for Australia by a whisker, while the highly talented Faf du Plessis ensured that South Africa emerged with a draw that they barely deserved. I've extolled the virtues of the South African for some time, but today he showed a more controlled side to his game, being better known for his T20 exploits for Lancashire and in the IPL. Fine player, du Plessis.

Anyway, I'll be back in midweek. Between times, keep well and keep in touch.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

From Distant Lands to Derbyshire 3 - Lawrence Rowe

The news that Derbyshire had signed West Indian run machine Lawrence Rowe in the winter of 1973-74 was met with near disbelief.

Rowe had burst onto the international scene with a succession of innings that suggested a player of genuine brilliance. His early big scores were all made at his home ground, Sabina Park, Jamaica, but a triple century against England at Bridgetown, Barbados that winter whetted our appetite for a summer where runs would surely cascade from his bat. Would he score 1500? Maybe even 2000 runs?

On his debut against Sussex at a freezing County Ground, as far removed from Jamaica as you could be, Rowe stroked a delightful 94 against an attack including his winter adversaries, John Snow and Tony Greig. The innings showed him to be a stylish, elegant batsman with shots all around the wicket. Derby in early season was no place for the faint-hearted. but Rowe, who seemingly was loathe to leave the warmth of the electric fire in the dressing room, impressed everyone watching. This was despite wearing any sweater he could lay his hands on, making him look of far more substantial build than was the case.

I saw him several times that summer, sixteen years old and desperate for a sporting hero. I'd listened to the radio during the previous winter, as commentators waxed lyrical about his strokeplay. Dad and I just grinned at one another, envisaging Rowe leading a Derbyshire resurgence. We saw him play some of the most delightful cameos, thirties and forties of poise, beauty, charm and elegance, then were frustrated as he continually gave it away. Rowe often whistled as he batted - nerves, confidence or just an affectation? If the latter, it needed backing up with runs. If the former, maybe it was a factor in under-achievement.

That May, in a televised game against Gloucestershire played at Bristol, he eased his way to 71 runs, playing every shot in the book in what amounted to a batting masterclass. Deft late-cuts, a square cut like a rapier, a cover drive of genuine elegance, a hook for six when Brian Brain dropped one short. "His defensive technique is the best I've seen on a West Indian" said Dad, who had seen all of their post-war greats. He toyed with David Graveney, before playing around a straight one and departing in a most disappointing manner. It was as if he'd had enough, like watching a world-class tenor fluff the high C at the end of an aria otherwise sung faultlessly.

Watching Rowe, one was struck by two things - how still he was at the crease and how much time he had to play his shots. The fastest of bowlers appeared to be of little consequence, yet he kept finding ways to get out when he should have been filling his boots. He didn't so much hit the ball as caress it to the boundary, but was dismissed when his bat seemed as wide as a door. Have a look at the video below and see what I mean:

We listened to the cricket scores on the radio and it was always the same. "Lawrence Rowe made a stylish 38/45/56/72" - whatever, yet he never bettered that debut score. We saw him against Yorkshire at Chesterfield, again in the John Player League and he opened with Tony Borrington. He eased a four past mid-on and then added another with his text book cover drive, the front knee bending, the follow through held for the cameras. He was class, C-L-A-S-S. The Yorkies were about to be put to the sword, then suddenly he was gone. Run out, the bowler knocking Borrington's firmly-struck drive onto the stumps at the non-striker's end as he backed up too far. There was a draught across Queens Park from the heads being shaken as Rowe walked slowly to the dressing room with his head down.

So why didn't it work out for Lawrence Rowe? He was unlucky with niggling injuries, though there were suggestions in some quarters of hypochondria. John Wright's autobiography records a team mate telling him of Rowe undergoing a fitness test in the nets, batting on a wicket that was pretty poor. He never missed a ball, looked in a different league to anyone else and then to general incredulity, professed himself unfit. He suffered badly from hay fever, specifically an allergy to grass. In a 2007 interview, he said that his eyes were "constantly itching...sometimes I would go in to bat and I could hardly see". It explained a lot.

A knee injury hampered him to some extent, but "eye trouble" kept raising its head from people you spoke to and his later career was blighted by astigmatism in his leading left eye, something that couldn't be satisfactorily treated with glasses. Others suggested that he feared failure and disappointing people, the pressure building up inside him, something he refuted

He signed off with 26 against Northamptonshire at Derby, yet another innings that promised much but ended in disappointment. If we had known more about the seriousness of the eye problem we might have been more understanding, but Rowe was to remain a talent largely unfulfilled. A century in World Series Cricket, 175 against a fit and flying Lillee and Thomson, is still regarded as one of the finest innings played in Australia. There was another brilliant century in South Africa on the rebel tour too, but the good days for Lawrence Rowe became more sporadic. His career finished with a Test average of 43 and a first-class one of 38. His talent was enough for both of those figures to have been at least ten runs higher.

For a man who, when he batted, looked at least the equal of Viv Richards it was not enough. It just shows that all the talent in the world still needs a little luck. With a decent left eye, Lawrence Rowe would have been one of the all-time greats.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Something for the weekend

Thanks to Adam for his e mail today, in which he asked if I expected many more signings in the close season. After all, he said, now we know the membership prices it is important that we know more or less what the team is likely to be.

Well mate, to be honest (and I'm never otherwise) what you see is what you get. Apart from an overseas player, hopefully for the majority of the season and perhaps a different one for T20, I don't expect any more signings. For one thing, there's not been many players who have become available in the close season that struck me as substantially better than what we have. One or two perhaps, but not much more than that. Take Ajmal Shahzad, for example. Good bowler with international aspirations, but would you say he would walk into the current Derbyshire side? I wouldn't. He has good days, but if he is serious about playing at a higher level he needs to find a greater level of consistency. As things stand, I wouldn't drop one of Palladino, Groenewald and Clare to make a space for him and he sure wouldn't head our way to be first reserve.

Then there's the costs already incurred this winter. We have brought in two players who cover our biggest weaknesses, both of them players whose names have been mentioned in international terms in recent seasons. While Billy Godleman's career has stalled a little in the past two or three summers, he has the talent to become a big player for Derbyshire and such cricketers don't come for the salary of an unproven player. Likewise Richard Johnson. Time will tell if he becomes first choice with the gloves (his battle with Poynton will be fascinating) or if he makes it as a batsman, maybe opening batsman alone. Again, though, he was reserve keeper at the county champions, where he was presumably well paid and he would hardly move for less money and similar prospects.

Then, of course, there is money spent on extending and presumably improving the contracts of our best young players. That was 100% the right thing to do, as it would be galling to see them head to other counties who would then reap the rewards of the hard work over the past ten years or so. I have as much idea of the money involved as the rest of you, but my guess is that two new players on the wage bill, together with improved contracts and increased pension contributions for a few more will add at least £150K as a minimum to the playing costs. That's even before you factor in an overseas player, the cost dependent on the talent and reputation of the player(s) we manage to attract.

I have no worries about the money side, not with people of the calibre of Chris Grant and Simon Storey at the helm, but the onus will be on attracting more members, more sponsors, more corporate bookings to help to cover these costs. They will be confident of doing so, as top tier sport is always a more attractive proposition from a marketing perspective, but there can be no doubt about the challenges faced.

Perhaps the most facile comment I have read in recent weeks was a correspondent on the Forum, who asked when we were going to sign some "proper" players. The choice of words could have been better, but however it was expressed it was an insult to some very good players who are already on the staff, together with two very talented ones who have come on board since September.

I don't expect Derbyshire to take division one by storm, but anyone who expects us to roll over in the old style for some of next year's opponents will be in for a shock. As with any other side, there will be days when we do well and days when we are outplayed, but I don't expect us to lose through lack of effort. We will need our share of luck, of course, as had through 2012. If we lost Palladino and Groenewald to long-term injury I would be less confident, but if key personnel stay fit and the outstanding team spirit is maintained we will be in there scrapping.

Crucial, oh so crucial, will be that overseas role. As I was writing the last piece it struck me that a Dean Jones or Peter Kirsten-type batsman would be just what we need.

With no disrespects intended, if we end up with a Chris Harris or Jon Moss we will struggle, but I'm sure that those at the helm are well aware of the need for a 'big' player.

Whether we can get one is an eighteen carat, one hundred thousand dollar question.

Enjoy your weekend.

Membership rates tick the boxes

I have long espoused the merits of those at the helm of Derbyshire County Cricket Club and the news of next summer's membership rates does nothing but fuel the argument.

Keep in mind the fact that Derbyshire were champions last summer and will be playing against the creme de la creme of the game next year and you could be excused for expecting a price hike of some kind for 2013. Put it another way - were Derby County to reach the Premiership in football for 2013-14 you could expect your seat to cost you much more than in the current campaign.

But no. If you buy your ticket before the end of January, you can get it at this season's rate. An orderly queue should be forming ahead of Christmas at the County Ground, as a membership is the best gift that I can think of for a Derbyshire fan.

I especially applaud the new "Six Pack" initiative that gets someone into any six days of first class cricket that they choose for £55. The harsh reality is that there are many fans whose work or family commitments mean that they cannot get to as many games as they might wish. The Six Pack therefore represents excellent value and is indicative of a marketing team who are thinking about the needs of the club membership.

There will still be those who live at some distance and cannot guarantee even that level of attendance, and perhaps a "Weekender" allowing access to any three days could have had some appeal, but the options are many and they represent excellent value.

My son, a student himself, thought the Student membership at £50 "a bargain" and I hope it meets with the desired response. Of course, the challenge is that the start of the season coincides with the onset of examinations, while many studying in Derby will head home over the summer months. There should still be enough around the city to make it worthwhile though and £160 for a full summer of cricket is an exceptionally good rate.

With additional benefits to be had, including discounted drinks in the club bar, it would appear that the club have covered the bases and are looking after supporters every bit as well as they now look after players.

All involved are to be warmly congratulated on a piece of work that is both innovative and refreshing. Well done guys!

On Monday we get to hear the fixtures. I've already told Mrs P that Scotland in Glasgow or Uddingston and Yorkshire at Scarborough would be my Christmas well and truly sorted. The time off for both would be booked by close of play on Tuesday...

Meanwhile on the county circuit, Sajid Mahmood has signed for Essex, while George Bailey, Australia's one-day captain has signed for Hampshire as overseas player for 2013. For the former it represents last chance saloon and he will hope for greater success than that 'enjoyed' by Greg Smith down south. As for Bailey, he is a good cricketer who could turn out to be an inspired signing. The feeling persists that he is a better one-day option, but he will enjoy southern tracks and will score his share of runs.

Still, why should we care too much? Astonishing as it still sounds, we're playing in a higher division than those two sides next year.

Great, isn't it?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

From Distant Lands to Derbyshire 2 - Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan

If Derbyshire fans were surprised at the signing of Chris Wilkins in 1970, there were more quizzical eyebrows raised when the club announced the signing of Indian off-spinner Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghavan for 1973.

It was hard to work out what we needed, to be honest, although a top batsman who bowled penetrative fast medium looked like it would cover obvious batting and bowling weaknesses. As a batting side we were fragile to the extreme, while our bowling seemed overly dependent on Alan Ward, fast but increasingly prone to injury, with back up from a lot of unproven seamers led by Mike Hendrick. Only the spin department seemed to carry potential, with Geoff Miller seemingly set for the big time and Bob Swindell showing himself a bowler who could really turn it, capable of taking advantage of turning tracks on his occasional appearances, taking five in an innings on four occasions.

So we signed a world-ranked off-spinner. The rationale was that playing alongside him would improve both Miller and Swindell, a logic that even distance struggles to justify. The likelihood of playing two off-spinners, let alone three, in any match was slim, so one would always miss out, usually both. When they did play, Venkat, as he was known, rightly got choice of ends so the youngsters rarely had the best opportunity. With Fred Swarbrook also in the mix, a spinner seemed the one thing that Derbyshire didn't need. Bizarre is the best word to describe it...

My school mates had a field day when the news broke.

"Can't wait for the fans to start chanting 'Gimme an S...gimme an r...gimme an i'" said Neil. "They'll have bowled ten overs by the time they've done. "Rentacaravan" was one moniker given to him, a lack of deference for a bowler of genuine quality. Mind you, they were Nottinghamshire fans, so it didn't really count...

That was the thing. Venkat WAS a class act. 450 wickets before he came to England with the Indian touring side of 1971, then 63 wickets on a tour where he was the fourth in ranking of a never surpassed quartet with Bedi, Chandrasekhar and Prasanna. He was, however, the best batsman and fielder of the quartet and showed himself a dogged tail end batsman with some nice shots. He was 28 when he arrived at Derbyshire and took 72 wickets in 1973, bowling well over 800 overs.

He scored over 400 runs and held over 20 catches too, fielding very well in the close positions, so his season was a long way from a failure. A second campaign saw a reduction to 49 wickets at nearly 40 each and question marks over his signing continued. In 1975 he had his best summer, taking 68 wickets at just 21, at the end of which the club declined to renew his contract.

Former team mates remember a gentle, thoughtful man whose subsequent success as a top umpire came as no surprise. He didn't drive in England, instead being ferried around by colleagues who enjoyed his company.

They enjoyed his ability to spin the ball too. From a short run up, a quick arm action sent the ball fizzing down the wicket, often fairly flat and almost always accurate. Eripalli Prasanna might have been the more favoured off-spinner by his country's selectors, but Venkat was a class act himself. 1390 career wickets at 24 confirms that and Derbyshire have had few, if any, better spinners in their long history.

Little footage of him in action survives, though he can be seen on Youtube, bowling the first ball on the footage and several others against England. He was just the wrong man at the wrong time, though those of us who watched him bowl long spells will remember a beautiful bowler; a man of genuine humility and a ready smile.

His umpiring success came as no surprise and he became one of the best in the world. History will not see him go down among the very best of our overseas recruits, but he was a long way from being the worst.

And if I see a better spinner in Derbyshire colours I will be a happy man.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Book Review - Jackers: A Life in Cricket by Robin Jackman with Colin Bryden

I always liked Robin Jackman as a cricketer. Perhaps short of the very top rank of players, he made up a fair part of the gap with a whole-hearted approach that saw him run in at the end of a day with the same effort that we had seen in his early morning new ball stint. He was also a useful batsman, perhaps short of genuine all-rounder status but a very good man to have in your side.

Any player who is good enough to take 1800 first-class wickets has to be reckoned with, but Jackman has gone on to an enduring and excellent second career as a commentator, where he is both entertaining and worth listening to for his cricket knowledge.

This autobiography does a good job at getting behind the public image and reveals a devout family man who was close to his parents and grateful for the efforts they made to ensure that he played cricket and they were there to see him as much as possible. He also acknowledges the support of his South African wife Vonnie, who ensured their two daughters had a stable home life while Robin's cricket commitments took him away from home on a regular basis.

From an English cricket fan's perspective the book has perhaps less county cricket stories than might have been expected. Jackman is so well known and respected for his career in South Africa that considerable chunks cover his time playing for Western Province and Rhodesia. For someone who has long been interested in the golden period of that country's cricket history, stories of playing with and against the likes of Barlow, Pollock, Procter and many more are fascinating, many of them laugh out loud funny.

His England career was belated and caused an international incident when he was banned from entering Guyana because of his links with South Africa. He let no one down and must have been a captain's dream, capable of bowling long spells with no dropping in intensity or accuracy.

Tales of playing alongside and facing the biggest names in the game abound, as well as meeting celebrities around the world. I can't remember Linda Lovelace cropping up in a cricket book before and the authors have done a remarkably good job, every chapter containing stories that will make you laugh out loud. Indeed, his tale of waking up naked in an Indian hotel room with a mirrored ceiling is one of the funniest I have read in any cricket book. So too his telling of the South African plan to dismiss a top Sri Lankan batsman, relaid from captain at slip to the bowler, Brett Schulz, in Afrikaans. The plan, to bowl full on leg stump to a batsman who moved across his stumps, was cunningly done until the bowler somewhat ruined it by shouting back "In that case, can I have fine leg a bit finer...?" In English...

Robin Jackman the commentator comes across as a likeable man who is very good at his job. Exactly the same, in fact, as this book shows him to be. On the day that I finished it, news broke that he was battling cancer and, like all cricket fans around the world, I wish him the very best in his ongoing treatment. I hope we have many more years of enjoyment of his broadcasting career.

Jackers: A Life in Cricket is written by Robin Jackman with Colin Bryden and is published by Pitch Publishing. It is currently available on Amazon for £10.49

Monday, 19 November 2012

Monday musings

Sorry about the silence from the blog over the last few days, but a concerted effort to clear a lot of accumulated stuff from our loft took up a fair bit of time, including car boot sales on both Saturday and Sunday. It was worthwhile though and we now have space up there again. Not that I cleared out cricket books, of course. Trying to sell them at a car boot sale in Scotland is far from a sound business proposition...

I had a quick look on the Forum this morning for the first time in a while and a correspondent asks if Derbyshire have done enough in strengthening for life in division one thus far. There is still the question of an overseas player to look at, but for me the answer has to be 'yes'.

We had an acknowledged weakness in the opening batting which has been obviously addressed by the signing of Billy Godleman and perhaps less obviously so with the addition of Richard Johnson, who also adds important competition for the wicket-keeping berth. The overseas recruit will almost certainly be able to open, while the vast majority of a young squad have been tied up on long-term deals. Improved contracts will naturally mean increased pension contributions from the club, who will undoubtedly have steered young players towards thinking of life after the game.

All of the above costs money and for a small club like Derbyshire it is a considerable investment, one that will  require increased off-field activity to fund. In some clubs one might be concerned about stretching resources and living beyond means, but in Chris Grant and Simon Storey Derbyshire are in very good and shrewd hands. Whatever is spent this winter will be done with a degree of confidence that it is affordable. The club is among the best run in the country and securing the services of its young talent is indicative of that.

What is left for the overseas roles - the main one and the T20 specialist - is anyone's guess, but Grant and Storey will be well aware of the importance of this role, especially when we're going to be mixing it with the big boys next summer. I am sure that many conversations have taken place with agents in recent weeks and we might hear something before Christmas.

If we don't, the likelihood is that any announcement will be possibly into Spring when tour parties are announced and international commitments around the globe (not just in the IPL) are known. There is no need for panic though, it will all come together in good time.

I hope today's announcement in the media that Lord McAlpine is set to sue thousands of Twitter users for comments made about him comes to fruition. It would be a landmark legal action but far too many people use social networking sites and web forums to say things that would be unacceptable elsewhere in the media. Nor would many people be big enough to do it face to face and it is high time that something was done about it.

For too long individuals have hidden behind assumed identities and IP addresses and recent arrests for 'trolling' have illustrated that such issues are now rightly being seen as crimes. I am a firm believer in individuals being responsible for their actions and as such will never allow this site to be connected with such nonsense. That's why my face is on the blog and my e-mail address is there for the world to see. It is also why I will allow criticism when it is justified, but not personal attacks on people who are, at the end of the day, representing the club that we support and are doing their best.

Sometimes, as we may see this summer, that won't be enough. There will be times in 2013 that we play badly and are hammered. There will also be times when we play to potential and give strong teams good games, perhaps even beat them.

The players and staff will be doing their best. It is down to us all as fans to do the same.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Midweek musings

More good performances by Derbyshire men overseas in recent days as our players gain valuable experience elsewhere.

There was a good 78 from Usman Khawaja as Queensland beat Tasmania in a one-day game, an innings that continues his current fine form and keeps him in the eyes of the national selectors.

Meanwhile, over in Melbourne Tom Knight continued his fine all-round form for his club. Opening the batting, Knight hit a belligerent 59 runs from just 41 balls, then followed it with figures of 1-21 from four overs as his side beat Bayswater Cricket Club.

It is highly encouraging and impressive the way that Knight has approached his first class career. After losing a lot of weight after his somewhat premature promotion to the senior side, he has realised that being a specialist spinner in the modern game is not enough, especially when up against all-rounders like David Wainwright and Peter Burgoyne. As I have written before, I could see T20 matches next summer where the merit of playing all three will be obvious, slow bowling having been proven as a match-winner in this format around the world.

Over in Antigua, Chesney Hughes helped his side Anguilla beat the more fancied Antigua to lift the Leeward Islands fifty-over cup. With 3-51 in ten overs and then 54 from 47 balls, Chesney was Man of the Match in a fine team effort. It is good to report on such news and I hope that the performance proves itself a catalyst for improved scores in 2013.

There were not enough such displays in any level of the game last summer for Chesney  to force his way into Derbyshire's side. Calls for his inclusion from some quarters ignored this basic fact and the reality is that a batsman has to be middling the ball and moving his feet to score runs at top level. To suggest 'he's done it before' is pointless - if it were that simple we'd have brought back Kim Barnett.

I hope that Chesney rediscovers his mojo this winter and reports to the County Ground with a willingness to improve his game and force his way into the side. An in-form Chesney Hughes would be a major asset to the team in all formats and would create genuine competition for places.

Finally, there was a tidy bowling spell of 2-46 from Peter Burgoyne today, but his side, the Southern Rocks, need a major batting effort in the second innings to stave off defeat against the Matabeleland Tuskers. Despite thirties from Burgoyne and Ben Slater in the first innings, an astonishing unbeaten 188 from Glen Querl has put their opponents in poll position.

Good as it must have been, the innings perhaps suggests the standard isn't overly high, as three stints at counties and for the Unicorns have seen a previous highest score of 44. To be fair, Querl is better known as a bowler, but his innings and some good displays in his homeland might earn him one more opportunity somewhere next summer.

Until the next time. Enjoy your evening.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

From Distant Lands to Derbyshire Number 1: Chris Wilkins

 I started watching Derbyshire in 1967. It wasn't that much fun, because we were a poor side. I perhaps didn't realise that at the time as I had no prior experience, but there were precious few wins in those early summers.

Batsmen didn't so much bat against the clock as the sundial. "He'll never die of a stroke" said my Dad about more than one regular. Attrition was the order of the day, an occasional shot being a relief from the ongoing tedium. The bowling was steady, at times penetrative, but it needed something special by them to give us any chance of the spoils.

I'd make honourable exception for Peter Gibbs, who came from Oxford University to play front foot shots that  we weren't used to seeing, especially through the covers. Worthy cricketers as they were, you didn't go home having witnessed an innings of brilliance by Ian Hall, Derek Morgan or David Smith. Functional and effective was the order of the day.

Then came Chris Wilkins. Derbyshire were late into the overseas market and didn't sign one until the 1970 season. Only they and Yorkshire held firm against the tide, the latter because they had a very good team, didn't need one and - well, were Yorkshire. Our reasons were primarily financial - money was tight.

Essex had Keith Boyce, Glamorgan had Majid Khan, Gloucestershire had Mike Procter, Hampshire had Barry Richards - the list went on. Nottinghamshire signed the big cheese himself , the great Garfield Sobers.
We signed a South African who no one had heard of named Chris Wilkins.

To be fair, a few good judges in South Africa labelled him 'better than Barry Richards'. It was an unfair comment, as there have been few in the history of the game better than the imperious South African opener. Derbyshire's decision to sign him cannot have been based on track record. Having made his first-class debut in 1962-63, by 1970 the 26-year old Wilkins had only 1800 first-class runs at an average of just over 30. Hardly overwhelming evidence that he would transform our fortunes. Two centuries in eight seasons?

When Wilkins first appeared over here, swathed in sweaters that made him look the size of Colin Milburn at early season photo calls, we wondered what we had let ourselves in for and the first few weeks did little to dispel doubters. He opened and struggled against the moving ball, making few scores above 30. It was hardly surprising for a player with limited experience (only 58 innings) on even his own wickets, so Derbyshire captain Ian Buxton decided to move him down the order to number four. And it happened...

Wilkins showed himself to be a brilliant striker of a ball. We began to turn up for matches hoping that Peter Gibbs and David Smith might make a start but that Smith wouldn't stay too long as he wasn't (to me) very exciting. Then you hoped that Mike Page, an increasingly attractive batsman, might get a few. But you hoped, really hoped, that they'd see enough shine off the new ball to enable Wilkins to come in and play his shots.

I considered myself his lucky mascot, as I never saw him make less than 35. There was an "ooh" when the second wicket went down and you would see people sitting up in their seats, others being woken up and more putting down newspapers as we waited for Wilkins to make his way from the pavilion. Even his walk to the middle bristled with aggression.

We knew that Wilkins was as likely to go for the bowling from the first ball as any other time. It could lead to his downfall, of course. In his superb book on cricket captaincy, Mike Brearley recounted how Wilkins required mid off and mid on to go deeper as soon as he took guard, as anything 'in the slot' was likely to go 'over the top'. I remember several punishing innings by him, one on a turning wicket at Chesterfield where Northamptonshire spinners Breakwell, Swinburne and Steele, were causing problems. Wilkins twice sashayed down the track and hit off spinner John Swinburne into the boating lake, finally perishing after a brisk 68. I've still not seen those shots replicated, but Wilkins was a huge hitter. He used a three-pound bat that a former team mate told me 'picked up six ounces heavier' and anything middled went a long way.

In the second innings of that match he made the fastest century of the season, from 70-odd balls and throughout the summer was near the top of a six-hit table run by a Sunday newspaper. At Derby in the John Player League he made a flawless 50 against Surrey, with one six over mid-wicket that just missed Dad's Ford Anglia, parked some way back on the mound, where the stand is today. At Buxton, we were slaughtered by Jack Bond's marauding Lancashire, with Frank Hayes, Faroukh Engineer and John Sullivan putting them way out of our reach. Yet still, Wilkins went down fighting. He hit Clive Lloyd's medium pace for a straight six that is even now the biggest I have seen, still rising as it left the arena.

By the end of the summer, Wilkins had amassed 1638 first-class runs at 40. In 1971 he made 1517 at 35 and in 1972 just over a thousand from far fewer innings. Diminished returns didn't truly reflect an enhanced technique and improved ability to capitalise on a start, but then Wilkins was gone, as quickly as he came. There were over 400 one-day runs each season too, as well as handy wickets with right arm medium pace that once dismissed Boycott on 99. Mind you, he once dismissed the outstanding Zaheer Abbas with slow-left arm...

Sadly his charisma didn't improve fortunes, despite an encouraging Sunday League and Championship season of 1970. The side slipped back into old ways and the side probably needed someone with a greater guarantee of runs than Wilkins' ebullient style offered. On his good days it was magnificent, but there were a few too many skied shots before he got into his stride for a side with precious little to follow.

He was a lively presence in the covers and a safe pair of hands at slip, as well as an occasional wicket-keeper. In short he was a good cricketer - not the best we've had, but an entertainer par excellence. You couldn't play that way and average 60, but he would have earned a lot of money in T20 today. Don't get the idea that he was like Shahid Afridi, all slog and little substance. He could play in an orthodox manner, but often chose the aerial route. His aggression was slightly tempered with each passing season, but he remained a delight to watch.

Two more memories to close. At Ilkeston we were chasing a Hampshire score of around 170 in the 40-over John Player League and were far from confident. They had a fair side and their opening bowlers were sometime England man  "Butch" White, a lively handful for any side, and the legendary Derek Shackleton, one of the game's most economical bowlers.

This was the day that David Smith went berserk. After a slow start where we despaired of any sort of challenge, he took on Shackleton and hit him to all parts. Well, mainly over midwicket, with pulls, sweeps, hoiks and cow shots. He made 80 in the time he usually reserved for reaching double figures, then got out with only ten needed. In came Wilkins. Bam! Bam! One four, one six, two balls, game won...

Finally a Sunday televised game, also against Hampshire. Barry Richards made a quite breathtaking 80 in their innings. Then Chris Wilkins did the same for us, as we won a thrilling game on the last ball.

Maybe those judges were right. On that afternoon, there really was nothing between them..

Postscript - if anyone has a picture of Chris Wilkins, I would be so grateful if you could mail me one! Sadly, there's not one to be found on the web...

Monday, 12 November 2012

Usman back in the frame

By any standards, the innings played by Usman Khawaja for Queensland against Tasmania over the weekend was one of genuine brilliance.

If you missed it, Usman scored a superb 138 from 178 balls as his team made 360 all out and won by an innings and 123 runs, the next highest score in the match being 49 by Adam Blizzard.

It was a knock that did more than cement his reputation among his new team mates. It rekindled hopes that he would take a place in the national side that had seemed his destiny for the past two or three years. A very good article over on Cricinfo highlights the perception of people over there about him, namely that he doesn't rotate the strike and isn't especially good in the field. Khawaja is no Jonty Rhodes, but he held some terrific catches for Derbyshire last summer. The comments merely confirm what I wrote recently regarding there being no hiding place in modern cricket - and certainly not for a player with international aspirations.

Another thing the innings did was reinforce my feelings that we'll not see him back at Derby next summer. I think he will remain in the Aussie frame for the Ashes and one would assume him a better bet, with his experience of English conditions, than Rob Quiney, a good cricketer but with a less extensive CV. A good summer by one of several talented young batsmen could see them make the plane, but Khawaja has as good, if not a better chance than many of them.

Over the next few months I plan to run a new feature on the blog that will look at the overseas players we have had since 1970. The series will cover official overseas players, not the likes of James Bryant, Dominic Telo and Travis Friend, all of who flitted briefly across our paths in a relatively brief Kolpak capacity.

Nor will it mention the likes of Charles Ollivierre, Michael Frederick or Laurie Johnson, all of who arrived at different stages from the Caribbean with varying degrees of success. All arrived before overseas-born players were accepted in the county game without a qualification period. Johnson went on to give long and sterling service to the club as a dashing middle order batsman, while Frederick played just twice as an amateur in 1949.

Ollivierre was the first black West Indian to appear for an English county and played for Derbyshire between 1901 and 1907, scoring three centuries in a first class career of 114 innings. An average of just 23 was indicative of some sub-standard wickets in the era and a technique that might not have satisfied the purists, though at his best Ollivierre was favourably compared to Ranjitsinjhi.

His most memorable feat came at Chesterfield, where his first sighting of the crooked spire allegedly caused him to duck his hungover head into a bucket of cold water to sober up after a heavy night on the town. Against Essex in 1904, in the legendary "Perrin's Match" he made 229 in the first innings, followed by an unbeaten 92 in the second as Derbyshire won by nine wickets after Essex had posted 597 in the first innings.

Ollivierre was a trail-blazer, but it was a trail that was not to be blazed again until 1970, when a generously sideburned South African arrived at the County Ground for the start of our centenary season.

More soon.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Something for the weekend

If they were ever going to do a cricket version of Stars in their Eyes, I reckon that Alviro Petersen would go through the door and the dry ice and come out on the other side as Simon Katich...

Today it was announced that the talented South African opener was joining Somerset for a good part of 2013. Coming after stints at Glamorgan (successful) and Essex (less so), Petersen should find Taunton to his liking and will doubtless make up a powerful opening pair with Marcus Trescothick.

He is now closing on "Four counties" Katich, who himself trails Marcus "I've had five" North. Maybe Petersen is aiming to be a cricketing Daniel O'Donnell, the Irishman today announced as the first singer to have charting albums in 25 consecutive years. At 32, Petersen had better hurry if he's aiming to play for all of the counties, though I console myself in the knowledge that Derbyshire is a much changed club.

The club I supported as a callow youth would otherwise have offered terms to Petersen in 15 years time...

On to other matters and I understand that talented youngsters from across the East Midlands are currently attending the County Ground with a view to being part of the next Academy intake. Most of you will be aware that Peter Burgoyne has "graduated" from it after some fine efforts, while talented all-rounder Matt Fletcher has also done so, heading off to university alongside fellow graduate, seam bowler Ben Cotton.

With the exception of Harry White, who has been released, and Matt Hughes, who left to concentrate on his examinations, the remainder of last year's intake are still working hard and have been joined by several other boys, the aim of all of them being to be a part of the 2013 intake that will be announced in the early New Year.

Seamer Will Davis, leg-spinning all-rounder Greg Massingham, left-arm seamer/all-rounder Greg Cork and all-rounder Tom Taylor, along with two talented wicket-keeper batsmen in Mykylo Bird and Harvey Hosein will all hope for a slot, but competition will undoubtedly be fierce. Practice sessions twice a week, as well as Saturday mornings, help to hone their skills and hopes are high that some of this intake could emerge to be the next Redfern, Whiteley, Knight or Hughes. The professionalism of the work going on is encouraging and Derbyshire seem to have a very bright future, assuming some of these boys continue to develop.

Finally today, a response to Graham, who got in touch to ask me who I would target for Derbyshire overseas player if money was no object and there was no such thing as international commitments.

Great question mate, albeit hypothetical, but after considered deliberation, here, in no particular order, would be my top three. I've chosen them on the basis of full season representation in the championship and CB40.

Jacques Kallis - to quote Tina Turner, simply the best. Keeps scoring runs, takes valuable wickets and catches anything that is remotely close to him. You couldn't go wrong. A giant of the game.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul - if you choose a player who is a batsman alone, he has to pretty much guarantee runs and there's no one does that better than the brilliant West Indian. Like Kallis, still very much at the height of his powers

Shane Watson - I'm also assuming full fitness, something that has often eluded the Aussie all-rounder, but he is an outstanding cricketer who would grace the county game.

I'm sure you all have your ideas and sadly the international commitments of such players in all likelihood  makes this nothing but a fantasy.

Still, a man can dream, can't he?

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Damn lies and statistics

Statistics eh? Can't live without 'em, certainly not if you're a cricket fan.

Everything is judged. Economy rates, scoring rates, runs per over, wickets per match, catches per career - there can be few sports more blanket-covered with them. And we all love them, quote them and, in many cases, collect them. In fact, probably the only people who don't like statistics are Chris Eubank and Sean Connery, though that's mainly because they struggle with the pronunciation (I'd love to hear Connery talk about the season's Sussex statistics....)

In recent days the admirable Neville Scott, over on Cricinfo, has published a range of figures pertaining to the 2012 season. They made interesting reading and can be seen in full on the website. Suffice to say that Derbyshire did pretty well over the campaign, which probably didn't need a full statistical analysis to work out but is nonetheless reinforced.

There were four sets of figures, the first showing that we had better fortune than anyone in our division with the weather. No one can deny that and some fans of northern neighbours are still sobbing into their beer over the injustice of it all. Yet no one can 'fix' the weather and that's the way the cookie crumbles. There have been plenty of matches over the years where we have been saved by the weather, just as there have been plenty where we were robbed. This was OUR year and all any side can do is play to potential when the rain allows them to do so. Derbyshire did and got their just reward. If one wished to be especially churlish (and risk being deemed an anorak) it was payback for 1935, when we would have won the championship but for uncommon bad weather, as well as a couple of years in the 1950's when we couldn't get on the pitch while Surrey did.

The second statistic related to how teams batted and bowled. It revealed that Derbyshire "only" outbatted their opponents by 31 runs per match, "being dwarfed by the records of Yorkshire and Kent".

Fair enough, but in a rain-ruined summer, isn't half the battle knowing when you have enough runs and then allowing time to bowl out the opposition? It is fine and dandy to score 500 and bowl out the other side for 250, but not when the game then ends in a draw. I bet Yorkshire are still miffed at not declaring earlier at Headingley, when they could have taken an extra couple of wickets of our wickets on the third evening instead of pressing on for more points. That extra batting point could have been vital, but the sixteen for the win would have been much more so. I'm happy to credit Messrs Krikken and Madsen for some well-timed declarations and run chases.

Then there were the figures for runs and wickets taken by players born and raised overseas, which highlighted Middlesex, Sussex and Somerset as the major beneficiaries. Of course, you want your overseas batsmen contributing to enable success and Guptill, Khawaja and Madsen all had their share of moments for Derbyshire. I'm not so sure what these figures proved, to be fair, because all counties make decisions on players based on talent and budget, less than the country of origin. Derbyshire have made a move away from Kolpaks in favour of local talent and it has been a major factor in the change in fortunes. Yet if Chris Gayle or AB de Villiers got in touch tomorrow and said they fancied the County Ground on a Kolpak deal, I hope we wouldn't say no. Not that it is likely to happen, but in such a circumstance you could always forego the overseas role if push came to shove, or keep a short term deal up your sleeve for the end of the season if titles were at stake and money permitted.

Lastly came the statistics showing that Derbyshire had the most settled side in the country. One could again attribute this to luck, but one has also to pay credit to the physio and conditioning staff for keeping players fit through a long and gruelling campaign, as well as to the players for maintaining a high standard through the close season to September. Nor should the decisions of captain and coach be overlooked. When fans are clamouring for changes, it is easy to make knee-jerk decisions that disrupt the harmony and balance of the side more than is often appreciated by the less discerning fan.

Here's one final statistic for you, this time my own. In 2012, Derbyshire got more on and off the pitch decisions right than any other county in division two. From their choice of overseas players to players who were released and engaged; from their pre-season tour to their resting of key players when they needed it; from decisions to bat or bowl to players who made up the final eleven; from bowling changes to fielding changes.

That's why Derbyshire finished top of the pile. Consistency in approach, on and off the pitch, enabled them to see off counties who had too many distractions in the background. A united committee and innovative marketing team allowed a close-knit dressing room to flourish and reap the ultimate reward, all neatly orchestrated by a chairman and Head of Cricket who sang from the same hymn sheet and got the basics right for most of the time.

It was, as Mr Connery might say, shimply shenshational...

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Barbados beckons again

Most Derbyshire fans, giving the matter some thought, would perhaps date the catalyst of last summer's success as the T20 Plate Final against Hampshire in Barbados. Mark Footitt bowled a stunning last over to snare a win that hardly seemed possible, as many of us followed the score via an excellent Twitter feed (which was the precursor to many such feeds through the summer, incidentally).

That we book ended the summer with another win against the southern county was a delight for those who like their symmetry, though marginally less than for those of us who like to see Derbyshire win trophies, of course. Admittedly, most of us had forgotten what they looked like, but I am confident that the division two trophy will not be the last won by this side.

After the undeniable success of the venture, it was inevitable that the county would return next Spring, between March 11 and 23, again playing fixtures across the formats against different sides and in all likelihood under a burning hot sun that they will be highly unlikely to see in Derby at that time of year...

Whether the squad as it currently stands is the one that heads to the Caribbean is anyone's guess, but I don't see many more signings. Right now I think the focus will be on securing the services of a top overseas batsman, perhaps, depending on who we manage to sign, with another one for the T20. That will, I think, be it for 2013, especially when we have re-signed many younger players on improved deals.

In another era the Caribbean trip might have been where we picked up a player. Older fans might recall the dynamic Essex all-rounder Keith Boyce being spotted on a winter trip by (I think) Trevor Bailey. Boyce went on to be a major factor in their golden side of the 1970s, bowling with pace, playing some brutal knocks and fielding quite brilliantly, with a fast, flat throw from the boundary edge being a highlight of his game.

Then there was Viv Richards, another spotted on a pre-season tour by Somerset man Len Creed, who went on to become the best batsman in  the world (Richards, not Creed...) Of course, qualification was easier for overseas players at that time and counties could take a gamble on untried players who sometimes came good.

Greg Armstrong was at the opposite end of the spectrum, undoubtedly quick but sometimes so erratic that he couldn't land it on the cut strip. The cooler weather didn't suit him and no balls were an unfortunate habit that he failed to stop. He played far more games for Glamorgan in two seasons than he ever did for an albeit strong Barbados side. It was a gamble that didn't come off.

It is unlikely that Karl Krikken will return from this trip with one extra player though. Those islands still produce players of brilliance, as their recent T20 World Cup win amply illustrated, but with the exception of Chris Gayle, the ever-improving Marlon Samuels and the quiet, undemonstrative brilliance of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, few translate it to the Test arena. There may be a few counties who look to that part of the world for T20 players this summer though, once the respective dates of international fixtures around the globe are known. A World Cup win has to stimulate a degree of interest in their players, much as it does for their footballing equivalent.

In closing tonight, Mrs P asked me if there was anything I especially wanted for Christmas today, as her Mum wants to get me "something nice". I couldn't honestly think of thing. I'm now lucky enough to get sent the cricket books that were once a sure winner by publishers for review, while I don't really need any more cricket gear at my age. I couldn't think of a CD that I hadn't got and wanted, just as with DVDs. Looks like socks and aftershave...

Of course, we all got early presents with our summer success and I got a bonus one with a match up here against Scotland next summer, the date of which is eagerly awaited. A game against Yorkshire at Scarborough would be fantastic and I could then book a few days away to fulfil one of my remaining cricket ambitions.

Mind you, that pre-season tour sounds tempting. I wonder if I talk nicely to my mother-in-law.....

Monday, 5 November 2012

Monday musings

Not much happening on the county cricket front right now, though the news that Derbyshire's players are reporting back for pre-season fitness tests is encouraging, at the same time as being indicative of improved levels of professionalism.

In the past, pre-season started at the beginning of March, while those who were taking it seriously started to work off the Christmas turkey in late February. There have been more than a few players over the years who would have struggled to complete the rigorous fitness tests of the modern era, the only bleep tests they would have been likely to pass being the language ones. Mind you, a lot of those bowlers were fit enough to bowl over a thousand overs in a season without missing too much cricket....

It is, however, no longer enough to be able to hit the cover off a ball, or bowl accurate, probing fast medium. Players like Fred Rumsey, Cliff Gladwin and Bill Bestwick were outstanding bowlers, but none would have been deemed slimline. Nor was there any expectation that they would throw themselves around, of course. Their job was to take wickets and a broad back, big backside and sturdy physique were more conducive to that than the more flimsy frame of an Alan Ward, whose long back never seemed right for the long term mechanics of fast bowling..

My Dad has watched Derbyshire cricket from just after the Second World War and even now has no recollection of seeing Les Jackson and Cliff Gladwin dive around in the field. If the ball passed them, there was little requirement for them to chase it hard to the boundary; no expectation that they would dive full length to stop a four. Their captains were more concerned in their being fit to bowl the next ten over spell, while the players realised that the all-important appearance money was not worth risking a dislocated shoulder for..

It was the same for batsmen. Arnold Hamer was as far removed from the physique of the modern batsmen, but he could bat. Stan Worthington was another, looking far removed from an athlete, but an outstanding batsman who scored regular centuries, while still being fit enough to take six hundred career wickets.

The game has changed. "Fit for cricket" as it was being some considerable way removed from physically fit. Players of very modest fitness levels can play and enjoy cricket to an advanced age, but first-class cricketers over forty are likely to go the way of the dinosaurs. Not because their techniques aren't up to it, but their legs simply cannot take them around a ground quickly enough. At 37, Azhar Mahmood remains a talismanic cricketer for Auckland, but they have to hide him in the field, just as Sussex had to with Murray Goodwin and Glamorgan with Robert Croft. Pre-war it was not unusual to see players nearing fifty in county sides, sometimes over it, something that speaks volumes about the respective fitness levels, then and now.

You can't argue with the talent, but it needs a player of exceptional ability to circumvent the fitness requirements and with the ever-increasing reliance on the selection of under-26s for income, I don't think we will see over-forties too often in the future.

Not even if they start in November, like the current lads...

Thursday, 1 November 2012

To buy or not to buy...?

If ever there was a graphic illustration required of the have and have nots in county cricket, Surrey are going a long way towards providing the former.

As close to diametrically opposed as is possible to Derbyshire's approach, Surrey are flashing the cash left, right and centre this winter in an attempt to build a team. Granted they had need of a major overhaul, following the loss of several major players, but in bringing in proven players of undeniable quality, Chris Adams is both raising the average age of the side and making it much harder for young players to emerge.

Look at the main players at the Oval next summer. Jon Lewis will be 37, the same as Vikram Solanki, Gary Keedy 38, Gareth Batty 35 and Chris Tremlett 31. Decent players all, with Solanki and Keedy lured to the Oval with the promise of one last big payday before retirement. It is a similar path to that trod by Hampshire a few seasons back, as well as by our division two rivals Kent last summer.

For neither of these sides did it prove a success, with greater experience equating to increased susceptibility to injury and far less mobility in the field. Without doubt such experience will tell in some situations, especially, as I have written before, in the one-day game. By the same token that reduced mobility could tell against them. How many times have matches been won and lost by fielding? Without doubt it was a major factor for Derbyshire last summer, as it has been for countless sides before them. Surrey may be many things next summer, but no one should expect fielding to be their strongest suit.

Today, Surrey announced a three-year contract for South African skipper Graeme Smith, who at 32 fits into the age demographic quite nicely. It would be silly to label it a bad signing, as he is a very fine player, but how much bang they will get for their buck is a moot point. One would expect Smith to be costing around £150K a summer and his national commitments will take a chunk from each of those seasons.

It could be a very inspired move, but there is no guarantee that the international fixtures of South Africa might not change in between times, as they so often do. The attraction of the top Test nation for other countries is obvious and Smith has made it clear that he is not giving up on his international career. Why would he, when, having worked for years to get them to the top, he is entitled to spend a few years in keeping them there.

The romantics might see it as a first sign of top South Africans appearing in the county game in larger quantities, but I would be surprised if it did. Smith doesn't play IPL and a sizeable lure was having his Irish wife closer to her parents. The rest of the big South African names, Amla apart, do. Six weeks in India for half a million plus, or six months in England for £100K?

I'll let you do the maths. It's a no brainer for me...