<
>

Nottinghamshire canter clear in one-horse race, but red-ball reset threatens promotion party

Steven Mullaney in action Getty Images

Nottinghamshire 201 (Montgomery 43, Wright 3-26, Barnes 3-32) and 390 for 7 dec (Clarke 67, James 61, Hameed 60) beat Leicestershire 93 (Evans 50*, Fletcher 4-23) and 257 (Finan 58, Mullaney 3-29) by 241 runs

Just as Mark Wood can ride an imaginary horse during a Test match, so Nottinghamshire fear they are again contesting an imaginary promotion race as they approach the winners' enclosure. For the moment, they can do little else but hope. But at least in a Championship season which still has no confirmed denouement, and in a format that has no confirmed future, they have all but done what they can, stretching their lead in Division Two to 34 points with a thumping 241-run win inside three days against Leicestershire.

Nottinghamshire's nearest pursuers, Middlesex and Glamorgan, have three matches left to their two, but they play each other at Lord's next week. Their next match, against Worcestershire at New Road a week on Tuesday, will be a promotion party. Presumably.

Their latest win ended amid some drama as the players trooped out after six o'clock, the rain briefly relenting, Leicestershire nine-down, floodlights blazing, and the threat of a dodgy weather forecast on the final day. They grabbed that wicket within 10 balls as drizzle again began to fall. The Gods then are shining upon them, but the question remains as to whether they will be doubly blessed by the cricket authorities, who would have forced even Zeus to procrastinate and form another sub-committee.

The bigger picture was that Nottinghamshire's win came on the day when Andrew Strauss openly lobbied in a Daily Telegraph podcast for his oft-signalled preference for a future of three divisions of six and warned that if the counties did not accept a reduction in the amount of Championship cricket played, then more and more players would take the easy option and abandon county cricket for an ever-growing number of worldwide T20 leagues. Result: disaster.

Basically, the High Performance Review message is that you old guys might want to watch wall-to-wall Championship cricket, but we young guys don't want to play it, so you'd better get used to the idea before the walls come tumbling down.

Strauss will officially unveil his proposals to the ECB Board next Wednesday, with Richard Thompson taking the chair for the first time. The Board will then decide what exactly to propose to the counties, and when, and there is every chance that a September deadline will not be met. There is also a growing sense that any changes might not come into effect until 2024. If that is so, Nottinghamshire, then your promotion might actually exist.

Nottinghamshire would deserve as much. They finished fourth in the Conference system in 2021, a format introduced because of Covid-19, but when the counties voted to revert to two divisions this summer, that achievement was ruled irrelevant. Instead, they were demoted to the Second Division on the basis of their bottom-placed finish in Division One in the last pre-Covid season two years earlier.

For all Strauss's warnings, it is eminently possible that county cricket could opt to stare down the possibility of a talent drain (after all, they have suffered an ECB-approved talent drain for years) and calculate that a surfeit of short-form global tournaments will ultimately implode.

But the contention that England's professional circuit needs the best versus the best has more in its favour. One look at Leicestershire insisted as much. They can be grateful that Strauss is not trying to dismantle the 18-team professional system in the naïve belief that shrinking a game somehow makes it stronger, but their inadequacies are a powerful advocacy of a steeper pyramid system that three divisions of six would bring.

They were largely dire on the third day at Trent Bridge, entirely lacking in conviction and application once their openers had departed, happy to tumble to defeat in fatalistic fashion until the merriment of a last-wicket stand of 83 put a gloss on proceedings that they did not deserve. Leicestershire's last-wicket pair even survived a statutory extra half-hour to reach tea at 251 for 9, their stand worth 77 in 13.2 overs and the last man, Michael Finan, a 26-year-old triallist from Cheshire, finding himself the possessor of a maiden Championship fifty on debut - an innings that involved Nottinghamshire pounding the old ball at him from short of a length with a short leg and five fielders back for the catch, and Finan surviving through a mixture of luck, judgment and dropped catches.

There followed a rain delay of more than two hours before the sides reappeared. Leicestershire had six overs plus an extra half hour to withstand. The skies were dark and the floodlights were on. From the 10th ball, Finan edged Dane Paterson to second slip where Matthew Montgomery held a low catch. Notts celebrated as if it matters, and let's hope that this time it does.

Leicestershire have not won a first-class game in 11 attempts and look as weak as when they failed to win a single match in 2013 and 2014. A threadbare squad not been helped by the absence of Wiaan Mulder, who has been called up by South Africa, and Ben Mike, who is bound for Yorkshire at the season's end. They have competed more ably in white-ball formats, only missing a place in the T20 Blast quarter-finals when they were docked points, and reaching the Royal London Cup play-offs, but over four days they are again scraping the barrel. It is due to freakish circumstances that they are playing Nottinghamshire in this season's Championship, but in the longer format the gulf in class has been apparent.

Leicestershire's director of cricket, Paul Nixon, sounds increasingly dismayed by their four-day failures. "There were too many soft dismissals, too many times we got ourselves out. It's tough when the odds are against you, but that's the mindset of a winner. You've got to believe that you're the man who is going to take responsibility for your team and if people haven't got that mindset, I don't want them playing for Leicestershire County Cricket Club."

Their openers did resist the new ball gamely enough, albeit rendered largely strokeless. Sam Evans had batted through the first innings for 50 out of 93, no other player reaching double figures (extras contributed 17). His downfall, though, was disappointing as, foot planted a few inches down the pitch, he stretched for a drive at a wide ball from Paterson and edged to the keeper.

With Hassan Azad also embedded, Notts appeared to be faced with a bit of a grind on a slow surface, only for their skipper, Steven Mullaney, to change the tone with a pre-lunch spell of 3 for 15 in four overs. He swung the ball prodigiously at times and offered subtle variations of pace. A straight one from around the wicket had Azad lbw; Louis Kimber, who has been promoted to No.3 on the back of excellent 50-overs form, checked a drive to mid-off; and a huge inducker did for Colin Ackermann, who was lbw.

As Ryan Patel and Harry Swindells contrived to flick catches to midwicket, six wickets had fallen for 121. Ed Barnes, struggling for oxygen as high as No. 7, banished the doubters in a positive innings of 37, even if his eventual demise was slightly embarrassing as Brett Hutton, having loaded the legside field, banged one in that followed Barnes as he backed away, and he popped a catch to short leg in self-protection while falling on his bottom.

Mullaney reckoned Nottinghamshire looked "rusty". But only Leicestershire had disintegrated.

Leics 4th innings Partnerships

WktRunsPlayers
1st34Hassan AzadST Evans
2nd48Hassan AzadLPJ Kimber
3rd9CN AckermannLPJ Kimber
4th3CN AckermannRK Patel
5th8RK PatelHJ Swindells
6th19HJ SwindellsE Barnes
7th48E BarnesRI Walker
8th1CF ParkinsonRI Walker
9th4CJC WrightCF Parkinson
10th83CF ParkinsonMG Finan