“What Kind Of Love Am I In……” Al B Sure! “Nite and Day”
Roll up, roll up for the annual “Dmitri’s been to a county game” (and referring to Dmitri in the third person) post. Every year or so I pluck up the energy, the forward planning, the excitement to make it to a day at county cricket. This one, together with an obscure (in the UK) song from the wonderful Al B Sure! in my head (try finding another cricket blog fusing swingbeat and swing bowling), was the one.
This time around, my annual visit was slightly different. Instead of braving the late commuters on Southeastern trains, ready for an 11 am start, it was a more genteel 1:30pm commencement for the first, and possibly last, day-night County Championship fixture at The Oval. I’ve heard a lot of the fears, the woes, the problems and the moans about this particular exercise in seeing if county cricket has an audience, so I thought I had better go there myself to find out. My first pink ball game. What a time to be alive! The fact that up until a week before the game I never knew it was day-night shows how committed Surrey was to it! It seems their beer festival now appears to be much more limited as well (and that was advertised even less) because there was no sign of it for non-members.
Once again, my day at the cricket would be to see Surrey v Lancashire, On the first occasion, Stuart Law, Mal Loye and Iain Sutcliffe took advantage of a ludicrously small boundary on Good Friday to take us to the cleaners. On another, Ramps played a 4th innings, fourth morning masterclass to cajole Surrey past a twitchy target. Then, two years ago, I went to see Sanga, and while I got a 50 to watch, I also roasted in 90 degree late summer heat (it might have been high 80s but hyperbole and all that). One of the players having a buzz around him that year was Haseeb Hameed, who had made the starting XI for this one for the visitors. Amazing. Two years ago he was making a very good debut for England, now he was in doubt for a place in his county team.
I have to say that the portents were not good. My default setting for innovations is “I do not like”. I’m not convinced by day-night test cricket, and was worried we (Surrey) were being pitched into this lottery at a crucial time of the season with warnings of hooping deliveries when the sun went down (see Kent v Middlesex). Surrey had also lost Pope and Curran to the England squad, had to retain Aaron Finch as an oversea player, lost Borthwick and Roy to injury, and thus had a weaker feeling with Harinath at three. As it was, Sam came back into the team, and in an ironic twist, took Tom’s place. He would bat at six. Ryan Patel, the hero of Guildford, would take his place at number 7.
The Sunday play had seen Surrey flop to 211 on a blameless surface and in good weather, clawing it back by taking six Lancashire wickets in the evening session. That 211 was courtesy of some Dernbach/Morkel hitting, which as a long-term strategy has to be up there with recalling James Vince and hoping it’s 14th time lucky. It might just work, and sometimes it does. But relying upon it… it couldn’t happen twice. It was good to watch some of the play on the live feed, which although restricted to just fixed cameras showed more replays of key action than the red button Sky EPL game on the Wednesday (Sheffield Wednesday v Millwall). If we can get a little added coverage, I think there’s a real market there. Without those cameras we would never have seen Will Jacks’ catch to end the game, or Rory’s grab at suicide second slip off Morkel. But I digress to the end, when I’ve not even started on my day there!
So, off I popped for Day 2, a Monday, beer in bag, camera at the ready. Meeting a non-cricket loving friend at London Bridge, the weather threatening drizzle, we got to the ground in good time for the opening session. Entrance 4, the old Surridge Stand from my thirties, would be our home for the day. Surrey’s credit card machines had broken down, a dodgy portent.
During that first session sad news reached us of the passing of a good friend and former work colleague. Mike was a good bloke, my darts partner of a number of years, and also a keen sports fans as well as being a follower of Crystal Palace. He will be sorely missed by his friends, and that evening we raised a glass to him. RIP Mike.
The big question about the day’s play would be how would the ambient conditions be accentuated by the pink ball? For the first session virtually nothing happened for Surrey. Sure, there was the comical run out of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who lost in a seniority battle to a debutant when it came to who was going to go, but precious little else. Surrey battled, but looked unthreatening. The hosts thought they might take a first innings lead at the start of play, having fought back well, but with the benign conditions Lancashire pottered onto lunchtime and gradually pulled into the ascendant. Debutant Bohannon looking very assured. Mennie taking his opportunity. Now it looked like limiting the damage.
Lancashire’s tail folded a little just after the interval. Bohannon made a debut half-century and looked mightily impressive in doing so. Mennie and Bohannon both fell to Virdi. Onions slapped one imposing boundary and then slapped a ball to extra cover to get out. It was my first look at Amar Virdi, the young Surrey spinner, and from what you can glean from side on, he looked pretty decent with lots more to learn. I do hope England don’t pick him too soon, and I do hope he gets a chance to show his skills on more favourable wickets. The pressure is going to be on next month at Taunton.
For someone with not the greatest pair of eyes, I have to say that the pink ball was much easier for me to pick up in the daylight, let alone night cricket. Now I know there are huge reservations about the quality of the ball, it being a Kookaburra supposedly, but from a spectator like mine’s perspective, it certainly helped to follow it more easily. I keep hearing this is a spectator sport, but this isn’t one thing I’ve heard from anyone else. Those of you who have gone to day-night cricket, has it been easier for you to see?
Lancashire took the field with a 36 run lead, which was on the upper end of “negligible” in terms of the match position. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted it to be much more. There seemed to be something in the wicket, as no-one really went on after a start in both innings, so the mind was trying to put a quantum on what would be “enough”. A 300 target would certainly be testing. 250 would be around par, and anything less would need a helping hand of Lancashire choking. All these thoughts were those at the time, not hindsight, I must stress. This was combined with Somerset, at the time, being in a dominant position in their home game against Essex. We know Surrey have, effectively, one win in hand – that is we can afford to draw one, while they win and still be ahead – but Surrey want to keep them at arm’s length and a win here would be crucial.
Surrey needed a solid start, before the twilight, the legendary twilight. Rory Burns is being put forward for England selection, and he came out on the back of a rare failure in the first innings. His partner was the latest in the “Discarded Former Cook Partner” club, Mark Stoneman, who when I last saw him in the flesh, took Essex to the cleaners at Guildford in June 2017. The batting looks a bit ropey below that, with the squad man Harinath due in at 3, Sam Curran as high as 6. The openers did their job in the early going, but Stoneman gave it away with the deficit almost erased, walloping a pull shot straight down deep backward square’s throat.
At 35 for 1 it was essential that Rory made a score and that Arun Harinath stick around. Arun, to be fair, did a bit more than that and looked pretty solid. Of course, it took me to leave my seat to get a wicket. Off I popped for a call of nature, and out I came to “Next Man In…. Aaron Finch”. He had been run out. 73 for 2. A lead of 37.
In came new county cap Aaron Finch. Aaron was being used as a stop-gap overseas player until Dean Elgar returned and had made 43 in the first innings. Finch may be known as a white ball destroyer, but he does have a career best of 288 not out in his locker – see here – and hey, pink is what you get when you mix red and white, right? Maybe he’s the ideal player. Anyway, Finchy doesn’t like spin bowlers very much, and the impressive (again, as much as you can be from square on) Matt Parkinson got a little bit of treatment. The boundary towards the Harleyford side was the shorter one, but the two sixes he clattered into the OCS Stand would have cleared most boundaries in the world.
If this went on for too long, the game would be out of Lancashire’s reach. It was becoming increasingly evident that Surrey were making hay while the sun shone, or at least was vaguely above the horizon, and Lancashire were waiting for evening. Parkinson was too much like shark-bait for Finch, he was taken off, Graeme Onions came on, and with his first ball pinned the Aussie in front for 32. 114 for 3, a lead of 78 and our destructive player gone.
Ben Foakes, the best waiter on the cricket scene having toured Down Under last winter carrying the drinks, was next in. Number 5 seems at least one spot too high for a top team, but needs must. Rory Burns remained there, not always convincing but keeping the score ticking over. The light began to fade, the lights began to take effect and here was the time of day we were supposed to be here for – the action hour and a bit.
But not a lot seemed to change. Sure there were more plays and misses, and Foakes played very defensively, but it was as much the tense game situation as it was the environment that played a part. Burns passed 50 on his way to the highest individual score in the game, with his offside play particularly good, but he never really suggested permanence. I think England will chew him up and spit him out, to be honest, and the pundits will get on his technique. It was the debutant Bohannon who did for him, bowling him for 70. In the context of this match, it was a crucial knock.
Foakes was joined by Curran in the full night-time field of play and with the game perched on a precipice. 162 for 4. 126 in front. This was going to be important. The two chose different modes of play. Foakes was all defensive solidity, Sam a bit more expansive, positive, as if emboldened by international status. My Middlesex friend who turned up, who is not a fan, called him a P L C, with the P standing for Punchable, the L for Little, you can fill in the rest. Hell will freeze over before he praises a Surrey player! The two played out the remaining difficult overs, as a decent crowd stayed until almost the end. I thought there was a considerable influx after 6pm, which Surrey had advertised as free admittance.
Surrey finished the day at 197 for 4 – Curran having made 27 out of the 35 added since the Burns wicket. I went back the following evening, to see Lancashire collapse a little – losing three wickets – after tea and then watching Bohannon and Croft do fantastically under the lights to see off the Surrey threat. Morne Morkel gave them both a torrid time, but it did seem, with Surrey a bowler down due to Dernbach’s imjury, that it was Morkel and AN Other in the Surrey seam attack. Sam didn’t bowl a lot, nor did Patel, and Clarke looked largely ineffective. I was joined that evening by my old playing mate, my current blogging mate, and Topshelf of this parish, who I spent a fascinating hour or so with.
The game finished in high tension the following day, with Surrey winning by 6 runs. The best troll would have been if they’d won by 2, because Morne Morkel blatantly did not save a boundary down by us, and “saved” 2 runs, much to the annoyance of the Lancashire fan in my stand, who then turned on Ben Foakes for momentarily having his gloves in front of the line of the stumps before each delivery from Virdi. Both the Surrey and Somerset games ebbed and flowed. and Lancashire, remember, are struggling at the bottom of the division. These were great matches, and an example of what the County Championship can deliver when played in August, and with context aplenty. I was following both at work, and punched the air and shouted yes when the final wicket went down (on scorecards, not live feeds). There’s not many of us about this time of year, so no-one was that bothered! But as a keen fan, there’s a market there for bloody good competition. This was it.
What did I think of day-night cricket? I liked it. I really didn’t see what much of the fuss was about. It is a little artificial in that there are definitely two, perhaps three, distinct pieces of play – the afternoon session when not a lot seemed to happen and batsmen might have played as if they were facing impending doom. Twilight seemed to bring a madness to both teams, and where a lot of the wickets fell. Then night-time when players seemed really locked in, batting became more intense, bowlers more positive. Run rates slowed, passions raised, intensity at this being a chance to make an impact weighing on the fielding side. Foakes was an example, becoming virtually shotless and keeping the attack at bay. Morkel too on Day/Night 3 bowled an intense hostile spell, and the Lanky lads battled hard (Croft and that Bohannon again). I enjoyed it, I could see the pink ball, and I am a believer in it based on this small sample size. Now I recognise that this may be because it was in London, in late August, and the lights actually take effect, rather than there being an extended twilight that the games in late June get, but it worked there and then.
I had a conversation with two chaps on the Northern Line. One of them had been to the infamous Kent v Middlesex day night game which is used as Exhibit A for scrapping the format. Both were converts, both liked being able to come down after work to watch a proper first class game rather than T20. Both thought the quality was the same. Both thought it should continue. The one who had been to Canterbury said that Middlesex could moan all they like, but they batted terribly. Meanwhile, Kent’s number 10 had made a second innings hundred under the lights (it appears he batted until about an hour before the end of play). He wasn’t having any of it being a lottery. I also had some Tweets, with one saying you couldn’t have a day night game in Manchester at this time of year. I think it helped that London isn’t quite as chilly at this time of the year – in September it would be – so I think there’s a narrow window when this game could be played. I think you need proper night-time, and it not to be too cold. Late May, possibly and mid to late August seems the window. June it is just not dark with 9:30 sundown. It’s not easy, but it’s worth a try.
It was an enjoyable couple of days, one full, one evening session. I hope to do the same this week for the Notts fixture – a normal fixture – but I don’t think the experiment should end just yet. If it is the ball, then find or develop a better one. If it is the light issue, then mid-August is better than mid-June. If it is that much of a lottery, then sure, we need to level the playing field as much as possible. But I liked it, and I can’t say any more than that. If they did another one at The Oval, I’d go. I am not sure why there is the ingrained antipathy to it from my one experience. That’s all I can go on.
Happy to hear experiences of others, but this was a satisfied customer. And what a conclusion to the match it was. County cricket has a lot going for it. Perhaps we should shout it louder.