Raining champions

THERE was a chap on the radio the other day from the Met Office, trying gamely to defend their ability to predict the weather after they had been forced to alter their summer forecast from “glorious” to “glorious for fish”.

As far as I could make out, this poor man’s defence went something along the lines of: “B – b – but we managed to get through the whole of Wimbledon and Cliff Richard didn’t have to sing once.”

Well, that’s as maybe. But as I sat watching the Manchester sky fall in this morning, the last thing I felt like doing was having a barbecue or getting my deckchair out. The weather, though, can take the credit for setting up perhaps the most bizarre sporting spectacle of 2009.

It happened at the Indoor Cricket Centre adjoining the pitch at Old Trafford, where Lancashire’s Twenty20 Cup quarter-final against Somerset was decided by a bowl-out after three days of rain so heavy that it might have caused even Ray Mears to think: “Do you what? I think I’ll stay indoors.”

Lancashire’s relationship with the elements is, to put it politely, strained. It is, I would say, the main reason they haven’t won the County Championship outright since 1934. Winning four-day games of cricket is pretty difficult if it rains all the time. Hence Lancashire have, all too often, been thwarted by the elements. There are, you might say, the raining champions.

They haven’t won anything at all since 1999, when they won the National League (now the Pro40 League). But they fancied their chances of winning the Twenty20 Cup this season, especially given that they had the best record of any team in the group stages.

On Tuesday evening, Sky Sports’ cameras were in position for the quarter-final against Somerset – only to end up showing footage of covers over the wickets interspersed with shots of heroically cheerful fans in kagouls and David Lloyd talking about a banner with his name on it that someone had draped from the top tier of the Pavilion Stand.

This was all engaging stuff – particularly when Somerset’s former Australian Test batsman Justin Langer then popped into the studio to ask why the only Ashes series that ever get repeated on British television are from 1981 and 2005. But it wasn’t cricket.

The match was rescheduled for yesterday. There was another rainstorm. So it was rescheduled for today. And there was another rainstorm. With Somerset having to set sail back south to play a County Championship match tomorrow, there was only one solution. After three days of cricket’s equivalent of Waiting For Godot, the match was resolved by an indoor bowl-out in less than 10 minutes. Five bowlers, with two balls each to deliver at three unguarded stumps.

It was an absolute farce – although it was hard to see how else the match could have been resolved. And Lancashire self-destructed, losing 5-1 as Somerset proved more adept at hitting unguarded stumps than the hosts. Lancs didn’t help themselves with a curious choice of personnel for the shoot-out, which included Mark Chilton and VVS Laxman – neither of whom have bowled competitively for the county this season – and Stephen Cheetham, a 21-year-old who hasn’t played a Twenty20 Cup match. Cheetham, at least, hit the stumps with one of his two goes. No other Lancs player did.

Watching the video of the bowl-out is a weird experience. (It is, at the time of writing, available on the BBC Sport website.) With no crowd around to watch, the only sounds are of the ball (occasionally) hitting the stumps, and the cheers or groans of the players echoing around the hall in response.

Langer described the bowl-out as a “lottery”; Chilton used the word “surreal”. One TV reporter assigned to cover what was left of the quarter-final described it as “the equivalent of deciding an FA Cup tie on a five-a-side court”.

Inevitably, of course, by the time the bowl-out was over, the sun had come out. Ah well. Maybe next year, eh, Lancs?

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