6th June 2019
Last summer – recalled now as one of unremitting sunshine and scorching temperatures – my friend George Farrow and I managed the impressive feat of attending a one-day cricket match at Headingley (Yorkshire vs Nottinghamshire in the Royal London One-Day Cup) that was washed out without a ball being bowled. This year, we decided to improve our chances of seeing some action by arranging to watch the first two days of Yorkshire’s Specsavers County Championship game with Essex, which began on Monday on the same ground.
The general consensus amongst the cricket cognoscenti – and the online Yorkshire Members’ Forum – is that Essex are one of the three counties that are most likely to lift this year’s title (along with the champions, Surrey, and Somerset, who have already won the 2019 Royal London tournament). They have much the same squad as their championship-winning group of two years ago, though without the Pakistani fast-bowler Mohammed Amir and the experienced wicket-keeper James Foster. The Australian Peter Siddle has replaced Amir, whilst Essex have the bonus of the former England captain, Alastair Cook, being available for the whole summer following his retirement from test match cricket.
Cook ended his international career with the England records for the most tests (161), most consecutive tests (159, the world record), most tests as captain (59), most runs (12,472), most centuries (33) and most outfield catches (175). Equally importantly (if not more so) in an era when, for some, spiteful confrontation and perpetual aggression seemed to represent appropriate conduct on and off the cricket field – culminating in the shameful exposure and disgrace of the Australians’ “sandpaper-gate” in South Africa – it strikes me that Cook has always combined dignity and modesty in a way that is wholly admirable. Other than on television, I had not seen him play before and I was looking forward to doing so,
Given that, since retiring from test cricket, Cook has been knighted, I was also interested to see how he would be designated on the match scorecard. “AN Cook” was the answer.
George and I saw a full day’s play on Monday and the morning session on Tuesday, during which time Yorkshire compiled a first innings total of 390. As Essex then batted for 25 minutes before the rains came, I was pleased to be able to see Sir Alastair Cook walk out to open the innings. I was also able to see him walk back to the pavilion, as he was caught in the slips for two off the seventh delivery he received.
The evolution of the Yorkshire innings comprised all that is to like about first class cricket: an excellent knock by the opener Adam Lyth – who, in the neat description by Chris Waters in the following day’s Yorkshire Post, provided “the usual cinema reel of exquisite cover drives” – before falling five runs short of his century; a mid-innings collapse in which four wickets fell for 28 runs; a neat consolidating partnership by Johnny Tattersall and Dom Bess in the late middle order; a sharp piece of fielding by Sam Cook (no relation) to run out Gary Ballance; the break put on the Yorkshire scoring by the off-spinner Simon Harmer, who received a meagre reward for his long bowling stint with a solitary wicket late in the day.
The Yorkshire supporters in the East Stand were fully engaged by the action: “No ball, umpire. Get a grip” shouted one, when Ravi Bopara appeared to overstep the crease in his delivery stride; “Good fielding” acknowledged another, when the sprawling Nick Browne – not the fastest of movers in the outfield – valiantly dived full-length in front of us to prevent a boundary.
A couple of the names were new to me. Will Fraine opened the batting on his Yorkshire first-class debut and seemed to ally a sound temperament with a solid technique; it was a surprise when he was bowled for 39. On the Essex side, Will Buttleman, a 19 year-old debutant wicket-keeper, was equally impressive, taking three catches and conceding only one bye in a Yorkshire innings that spanned 125 overs.
As with all sports, there is a circle of life to first-class cricket. Sir Alastair Cook is winding down his career (hopefully with another couple of seasons to come) after 13 years in the test match trenches. The other (near) veterans in this match included Siddle and Bopara at age 34, the 35 year-old Yorkshire captain Steve Patterson and the Essex skipper, Ryan ten Doeschate, who is 38. The hope must be that the game of first-class cricket – including the county championship – survives long enough in its present state for the likes of Fraine and Buttleman to have rewarding careers of similar longevity.
The Yorkshire/Essex match ended today in a draw. With most sides now having completed 5 of their 14 fixtures, Somerset head the county championship table.