Although it might not feel like it, with no sign of an end to the April cold snap, the domestic cricket season has not only started but is already into its third week.
Even if the Abu Dhabi pink-ball-and floodlights-fest between the MCC and the champion county Lancashire is disregarded, the first encounters began extraordinarily early, on the last day of March, with a variety of counties engaged in warm-up (in more senses than one) matches against university teams.
These county versus college matches are curious affairs, of dubious quality but awarded the precious cricketing kitemark of first-class status – all six university teams now have this, with the Cardiff and Leeds/Bradford teams having been upgraded during the past winter. It is as if, for example, the start of the football season saw Rangers and Celtic playing a couple of games against Sunday league teams, with these counting in official records. (Actually, the way Rangers are going, Sunday league football might be what they are soon reduced to.)
That’s the way cricket does it, however – and, for all the complaints dating back decades, there is something almost quaint about this gentle easing-in of the domestic season. It is also often an entertaining time for those who keep an eye on the statistical aspects of the game, given that mismatches have a tendency to produce amusing byproducts in the numbers department.
Easily the most eye-catching mismatch-stat this time round came on 8 April, in the second cycle of student matches, when Durham MCCU (which de-abbreviates to the decidedly curious “Durham Marylebone Cricket Club University”) could muster only 18 when attempting to chase 392 to beat Durham proper – the grown-up county side, seven of whose XI had played international cricket at either Test or ODI level.
Durham MCCU were, admittedly, a man short given that their left-handed number five, Luke Blackaby, was injured. And these things do sometimes happen even to strong teams – witness the mighty Australian outfit collapsing to 21 for 9 (before recovering to the giddy heights of 47 all out) against South Africa late last year.
But the paltry dozen-and-a-half runs served up by the students was woeful – imagine how scathing Jeremy Paxman might have been had they made some similarly dismal score on University Challenge – and was the lowest first-class score in the UK since the remarkable occasion in 1983 when Surrey, playing Essex in a county championship match, were rattled out for just 14. (It was almost even worse for Surrey that day: six consecutive middle-order batsmen scored ducks and they were 8 for 8 before a boundary by Sylvester Clarke “spared them the humiliation of recording the lowest-ever first-class score”, as Wisden put it. They still managed to draw the match, though.)
If the dismalness at Durham provided one early-season quirk, there is another – more commendable – curiosity starting to take shape as well, relating to one of the most prized and selective of cricket lists.
There have only been nine instances – including, inevitably, two by Don Bradman – of batsmen scoring 1,000 first-class runs before the end of May. The most recent was in 1988, when Graeme Hick managed 405 of them in one go. The time before that was in 1973 – I’m old enough to remember this happening – when Glenn Turner arrived with the New Zealand touring party and systematically compiled four centuries in reaching 1,018 runs before June arrived, at a relatively low average of 78.30. (By contrast, Hick averaged 101.90, while Bradman’s two regal progresses, in 1930 and 1938, came at 143.00 and 150.85.)
Most of the others to have done it – all pre-WW2 – are celebrated high-achievers: W G Grace in 1895, Tom Hayward in 1900 (when he reached 1,074 runs, still the highest total), Wally Hammond in 1927 (like Grace, he needed only 22 days) and Bill Edrich in 1938. The least widely known batsman in the list is the Lancastrian Charlie Hallows, who scored exactly 1,000 runs in May 1928.
So it’s a rare feat, and various notable run-machine batsmen who might be thought to have managed it – Jack Hobbs, Frank Woolley, Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Geoffrey Boycott, Graham Gooch – never did. With the reduction in first-class (dare I say “proper”) cricket in recent years, and the increase in one-day activity (which doesn’t count in these kind of records), it had been thought that the list would, like those of batsmen with 3,000 runs and bowlers with 200 wickets in a full season, stay static for evermore, preserved and pickled within the yellow covers of Wisden.
However, while the 3,000-run and 200-wicket marks do look genuinely unreachable, the rise of the most brutal form of one-day cricket might just allow the 1,000-before-June club to acquire the occasional new member. Twenty20 cricket tends to be crammed into June, and to accommodate all that midsummer thrashing the first half of the championship season takes place during April and May. That, allied to the end-of-March start for the university matches, means that a whole heap of first-class runs can again be racked up well before the Druids start preparing their solstice celebrations.
And oddly, given the list mentioned above, it’s possible that the next name to be added will be Compton. Not the great and much-loved Denis, of course – he died in 1997. But the Brycreem Boy’s grandson, 28-year-old Nick Compton, is an established member of the Somerset team, gets to play on the batsman’s paradise that is Taunton, and has embarked on the 2012 season in cracking style.
He started with a century in a pre-season knockabout against Glamorgan (which didn’t count), then made 236 in his first official outing, at Taunton Vale, against the Cardiff students in a partnership of 450 with his captain James Hildreth. Next came 99 and 8 in the first championship match, against Middlesex, followed by 5 and 133 in a losing cause against Warwickshire at Edgbaston. So that’s 481 in five knocks by mid-April – almost halfway there, with more than six weeks still to go.
Assuming Compton isn’t called up for England, he has five full championship matches – and scope for ten innings – before the opportunity passes: Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge and Lancashire at Taunton are faced before the end of April, then May brings Durham at Chester-le-Street, Surrey at the Oval and Durham again, this time at home. Weather, form, and injury permitting, he needs a further 519 runs during those five matches to grab his piece of (admittedly fairly obscure) cricketing history.
Or, rather, he doesn’t. He potentially has 11 innings (or, at a pinch, 12) to get there, as Somerset also have a four-day match against Worcestershire starting on 30 May and straddling the turn of the month. These things have a habit of coming down to narrow margins, and it is by no means impossible that Compton will arrive at Worcester needing something awkward like 80-odd to cross the 1,000-run Rubicon. If that situation does arise, expect the mainstream media to be out in force, especially given the ancestral connection.
Chances are it won’t happen. Plenty of other batsmen have made good starts on the 1,000-run quest before slipping out of form or being thwarted by the rain. In recent seasons Compton’s prolific Somerset colleague Marcus Trescothick and Varun Chopra of Warwickshire (who scored two double-hundreds last April) have both had chances without getting there. Even Compton’s grandfather couldn’t manage it in 1947, the season when he scored a record 3,816 runs overall.
So even now, almost halfway there, the likelihood is that Nick Compton’s attempt will peter out and his start to the season will come to be seen as merely excellent rather than exceptional. But you never know, and it would be nice if he managed it. After an interval of almost a quarter of a century, it’s high time someone did.
NB – Part of my reason for taking an interest in this, and for quietly cheering on Compton, is that I met his grandfather. It was in the late 1970s, at Chesterfield during a limited-overs game between Derbyshire (I was a junior member) and some other county. The great cavalier was man-of-the-match adjudicator, and I was there with my school pal Brian Caulton.
At the break between innings, as was the way, spectators strolled round the outfield. When an extremely well-fed-looking man came towards us, I said to my friend: “That’s Denis Compton”. This provoked scepticism, as the waddling figure didn’t fit the post-war poster-boy image of the man. There was only one way to prove it, so with the nervous eagerness of youth I walked across, asked him to sign my autograph book and shook his hand.
Notwithstanding a hugely enjoyable day later spent with Ian Botham on one of his charity walks, Denis Compton remains the most accomplished cricketer I’ve met. And I still have the autograph.