Come what May tortured batsmen will weather cruel April's storm
11:08 GMT, 24 April 2012
Batsman's blues: Andrew Strauss proves it's not just the weather that's looking glum this April
TS Eliot is never more regularly quoted in county cricket circles than he is in April, his now almost-cliched 'cruellest month'. Yet what other literary reference does a better job of encapsulating the current state of mind of our domestic batsmen
After three rounds of championship matches, a dizzying set of possibilities presents itself: either county batsmen aren't very good; or the bowlers are outstanding; or the art of building an innings is vanishing fast; or conditions are unplayable; or batsmen, wrongly assuming conditions to be unplayable, are trying to make hay while the sun doesn't shine. You may be able to add to the list.
But, wow, the numbers! In 22 so-called four-day matches thus far, there have been 15 all-out totals of 150 or fewer (not including Glamorgan's brave but doomed declaration on 103 for nine against Hampshire), and a further 15 scores of under 200.
That's right: in a mere three rounds of games, 30 innings have closed before a single bonus point has even been plucked from the lowest-hanging of county cricket's branches.
Only a few have breathed rarefied air: Kent made 537 for nine against Yorkshire; Nottinghamshire compiled 403 in the second innings against Worcestershire; and Somerset – for whom Nick Compton (685 first-class runs at 137) and James Hildreth (411 at 102) are this month's black swans – declared on 445 for two against Nottinghamshire.
There have been ten scores above 300 but below 400, and a decent handful of totals between 200 and 300.
But, overall, the chances are you'll be struggling for those first-innings bonus points – especially if you're Nottinghamshire (118, 161 and 162 in their three first innings, despite that second-innings 403), or Worcestershire (130 and 119), or Glamorgan (124, 95 and 103 for nine declared). Northamptonshire haven't got past 134 in three attempts out of four.
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Now, unless you believe that what we
are witnessing is the thin end of a wedge marked 'Twenty20' – the
inevitable consequence of a world in which speed is of the essence –
then it's probably fair to say that conditions, both real and imagined,
are playing their part.
In other words: yes, the ball is
swinging more than usual under damp skies and, yes, it's doing a bit
more off the seam – but it isn't swinging and seaming so much that
batsmen need to forgo the fundamentals and aim in a blind panic across
Know your Onions: Durham seamer Graham (centre) has enjoyed a flying start to the season
Those who witnessed, for example, Surrey's second-innings collapse at Lord's, where they were skittled for 137 in pursuit of 141 to beat Middlesex, attest to the latter.
And yet it would be counterintuitive to ascribe everything to scrambled minds. Good bowlers, after all, are doing what good bowlers do, and taking wickets in helpful conditions: Graham Onions has 16 at 10 for Durham; Steven Finn seven at 14 for Middlesex; Andre Adams 13 at 17 for Nottinghamshire; and Alan Richardson 17 at 14 for Worcestershire.
The question that matters more is
whether this is good for the game. And here the critics might point to
other analyses: Darren Maddy five wickets at 11; Steve Magoffin nine at
six; Rikki Clarke five at 18. Old members of the seam-bowling union
might legitimately argue that the brand is being cheapened.
Bucking the trend: Somerset's James Hildreth
Isn't it the case, though, that cricket throughout the whole of April is now a fact of life Even with a shorter Twenty20 tournament this year, the need to cram everything in before the Champions League in September means ambitious batsmen can set themselves a new target: 500 runs before the end of April.
Anyway, batsmen generally get their moment in the sun during the warmer summer months. Not for nothing was Neville Cardus able to rejoice in the myth that the scoreboard at Trent Bridge always read 360 for 2. (One-hundred and sixty for nine doesn't have quite the same ring…)
Perhaps if we looked at the county season as an elongated four-day match, these discrepancies would be easier to accept: help for the seamers early on (April), flattening out on the first evening and second morning (May and June), at its best for batting on the second afternoon until tea on day three (July), some help for the spinners (August), and perhaps a bit of uneven bounce for the quicks (September).
It's one reason why county batsmen might be better off putting TS Eliot out of their minds, and turning instead to Hal Borland. 'April,' he wrote, 'is a promise that May is bound to keep.' We shall see…
THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS
KP on fire
Congratulations to Kevin Pietersen for his superb 64-ball 103 not out for Delhi Daredevils against IPL whipping boys Deccan Chargers at the Feroz Shah Kotla last week.
As if we needed reminding, there are few better to watch when he's in the mood, and Pietersen himself was moved to declare that his innings was 'what dreams are made of'. Quite where this leaves his 158 at The Oval in 2005 – or even his 151 earlier this month in Colombo – is unclear.
But if he's still playing like this come the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka in September, put your money on England to retain their trophy.
Living the dream: England star Kevin Pietersen is lighting up the IPL with the Delhi Daredevils
Captain Clarke shakes things up
Andrew Strauss recently explained to Mike Atherton why he prefers to dry batsmen up rather than blast them out: when your seamers are as accurate as England's, this makes perfect sense, even if it leads to the charge that Strauss presides over attritional cricket.
And yet Ashes devotees will note that there is little danger of the same accusation being laid at the feet of Michael Clarke.
It was bold enough to declare 43 behind in the first Test in Barbados, a decision that took clever account of West Indies' brittleness and paved the way for a thrilling win. But to set West Indies 215 in 61 overs in Trinidad, when a draw would have guaranteed the Frank Worrell Trophy, was a slap in the face for the conservatism that so often blights Test captaincy.
If Strauss is still in charge next year, the Ashes could be a study in contrasts.
Caution to the wind: Michael Clarke has reinvigorated Australia with his daredevil approach
With friends like that/Tait…
More from Lawrence Booth…
Top Spin: Time for Twenty20 to pay some of Test cricket's bills… it's what families do
The Top Spin: Chastened, not disheartened – why England can afford a smile again
Top Spin at the Test: Spinner Swann on song for England
Top Spin at the Test: Mahela makes the mathematicians earn their keep
The Top Spin: Colombo is England's chance to nip the doomsday Test scenario in the bud
The Top Spin: Testing times ahead as five-day game could be reduced to Ashes
Top Spin: Two Indian greats… but only one Little Master: Why Tendulkar outshines Dravid
The Top Spin: Last-ball drama shows Dernbach can prosper with back-of-the-hand tactics
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Until now, it seemed Darren Gough's
prolonged 'Wooooooh!' during a one-day international at
Chester-le-Street in 2005 had been the most appropriate sledge following
Shane Watson's decision to spend the night in Brett Lee's room after
hearing tales of Lily Lumley's ghost at the local castle.
But then, this week, Aussie fast bowler Shaun Tait spoke to Dan Norcross on Test Match Sofa. 'They're great blokes,' he said of his compatriots, 'but I think you can tell just by looking at them that they had the night light on as kids. I think it was just an excuse to sleep in the same bed.'
You just can't win
Cricket is forever in search of the Perfect Pitch, the Platonic ideal of groundsmanship whereby seamers have it their way on the first morning, spinners lick their lips going into the last day, and batsmen fill their boots in between.
Then reality gets in the way: the English weather, mainly, as discussed above. Few batsmen struggled more torturously last week than Andrew Strauss, who was bowled for nought and six by Graham Onions at Lord's. Tsk, muttered the greybeards: batting's a lottery.
And yet it wasn't so long ago that we were all hammering Lord's for producing Test-match roads. As Mick Hunt, the ever-pithy groundsman, put it to ESPNcricinfo: 'They grumble if you give them flat pitches and if you give them sporty ones they squawk.'