Tempest at Uxbridge

NatWest T20 Blast. Uxbridge. 16th July 2017. Middlesex v Somerset.

After two defeats and the worst of an abandoned match at Cardiff Somerset travelled to Uxbridge, and so did I …

“We had long since booked seats on the coach to London to see ‘Bat out of Hell’ at the Colosseum on Friday night, and ‘The Tempest’ at The Barbican on Saturday afternoon. Mayhem and Magic. We were in the back row of the ‘gods’ for both. We are like that. It gets you in to see two or even three ‘shows’ for the price of one. It proved an inspired choice. The staging of both was spectacularly, brilliantly, magically in the case of ‘The Tempest’, inspired and the ‘gods’ may have been the best place in the house for both stages are vast. Had I had to judge between the two I would have been hard put to make a choice. Which is the better stroke Trescothick’s cover drive or Hildreth’s on drive? It was that good and that close.

A matinee for ‘The Tempest’ so that we only needed a hotel for one night. And so it was back to Somerset on the Saturday evening coach. Perfectly timed because it gets you home the right side of midnight. It doesn’t help much though when you have made a late decision to go to Uxbridge the next day. Well, after Cardiff, someone had to go and find out what is going on. And so it was that I was back at the coach stop early on Sunday morning only to be spotted by a Somerset supporter who asked me if I realised I was mad. No need for anyone else to ask. I am fully aware.

Madder than might be apparent for I had tried to buy a match ticket the previous Thursday, the forecast looking fairly solid, only to be told that Middlesex have no print at home or collect on the gate facilities for matches away from Lord’s nor could they sell me a ticket if I popped into Lord’s on the Friday. I would have to chance it and hope for a ticket on the gate. They doubted they would sell out. Probably not if would be spectators cannot buy tickets in the days leading up to the game when judgements can be made about the weather. If counties wish to survive into the modern age they really do need to move into the twenty-first century.

There was a goodly crowd, though not as large as a 50 over crowd at Taunton and not many buying tickets on the gate perhaps because the forecast had deteriorated, so no risk of having to watch from the road. Although I had a seat in the fourth row it spent the match as a resting place for my bag for watching the cricket from there was virtually impossible. The ground slopes towards where most of the seats are at that end which has the effect of a slight downward rake as the rows go back. The view of the cricket from the fourth row consisted of players flickering between heads although if you positioned your own head strategically you could see the bowler bowl and the batsman play but the bit in between was a mystery hidden behind someone else’s head.

There is though, if you can find a seat near the sightscreen at that bottom end, a spectacular view between the trees across the top of London to the Shard, the City and Canary Wharf. I gazed at those towers as Moses must have gazed at The Promised Land, though with different emotions, for that way lies the land of my Eastern Exile. I had some brilliant times there and some magical ones but like Prospero in ‘The Tempest’ I fast returned to my own land when the chance came.

I stood behind the rows of seats with a couple of Middlesex supporters one of whom sought my advice on whether he should take a bet on Somerset at 5/1 for the odds on Middlesex were so far the other way as to be not worth the trouble. As to what happened at the toss and who was in each side I had no idea for the PA was indecipherable from anywhere at the bottom end of the ground. I was just relieved when I saw the Middlesex huddle for it meant Somerset would bat. I am always happier when Somerset bat first. I think it goes back to the days when I used to watch Somerset knock up a score and let the opposition try to chase it down against Garner, Botham and Marks. Let them do it now against Overton, Waller and van de Merwe.

I was surprised to see Lewis Gregory walking out with Jim Allenby but he disdainfully despatched Southee’s first ball for four. Gregory is not a player who looks as if he lacks in confidence with the bat and this season, since Lord’s, his confidence has been matched by his performances. By the end of the second over Gregory had found the boundary twice more and Somerset were 17 for 0. Finn bowled the third. One of the Middlesex supporters told me Finn was not the bowler he was. Just doesn’t seem able to get it quite right apparently. By the end of the over it was apparent no-one had told Finn for Allenby and Trego were back in the clubhouse. Allenby looked as lacking in confidence and form as Gregory exuded it. Trego was not there long enough to tell. He was bowled playing back much as I have seen him before this season. Someone must have told Hose that Finn was not the bowler he was for by the end of his second ball Hose was 6 not out.

After that Middlesex tried Southee, Finn, Roland-Jones and Franklin an over at a time. Gregory and Hose dismissed them all to the tune of 75 for 2 at the end of the seventh over. There were some powerfully struck fours and one or two equally powerfully edged ones but that is the way with T20. The Middlesex supporter had not placed his bet and was beginning to look woeful. His friend said T20 can turn very quickly. Then Nathan Sowter turned his first ball to Gregory. Gregory tried to turn the leg break to fine leg and lost his off stump. But this was T20 and Gregory had opened the innings with 37 runs from 22 balls against a top-flight attack mostly with classic strokes. Magic and mayhem combined. A lesson to learn though. It is always worth watching the spinner for a ball or two before trying to hit him.

So it was Hildreth and Hose, who had already hammered his way to 34 off 13 balls. Hose is not my idea of a classical player but he is an immensely effective one. With the match in the balance Somerset were relying on the old magic and the new mayhem. Hose had already distributed a substantial dose of mayhem around the field. Hildreth’s innings was a T20 classic of the short kind. Early he employed the magic with a reverse sweep that looked as safe as a Boycott forward defensive for he played it down, with control and majestically past the fielder. It is an ugly stroke made glorious when Hildreth plays it like that. His uppercut to the boundary was just as magical.

Then, as if Ariel had taken a day off from ‘The Tempest’, turned up at the cricket and peremptorily switched off the magic, Hildreth turned on his own brand of mayhem. He hit three sixes, two in succession over midwicket off Sowter. That would once never have entered his head. Now he plays such strokes as a T20 staple. He tried to hit another in the same over, top edged over the bowler’s head. Sowter turned and ran hard half way to the boundary to catch it brilliantly over his shoulder. Hildreth 38 from 22 balls. I said to the Middlesex supporters, “He tried that once too often.” “Very hard to change tempo once you are playing like that,” they replied. And I suppose you can’t have the mayhem without the risk.

It triggered a Somerset wobble. Hose hit another six but then he too fell to Sowter for a hugely impressive 59. It turned out to be the innings of the match. The leg spinner, though, had managed to remove three out of three of Somerset’s top three scorers. Leask and Banton found themselves together and neither looked confident. Perhaps a lot to ask of two inexperienced young men with the question of plenty or famine not yet quite answered in favour of the former.

As, thanks largely to Sowter, 131for 3 in the 12th over became 159 for 7 in the 17th one of the Middlesex supporters said, “You have already got enough to give yourselves a chance but we are back in this.” He revised his view after van de Merwe (17), Craig Overton (19) and Davey (10 not out) played with focus and intent to take Somerset beyond 200. Overton in particular looked in control and particularly determined to make sure Somerset did not fritter the advantage they had built at the top of the innings. Davey too carried on the improvement with the bat he had showed at The Kia Oval. 207 for 9 was riches in comparison with what has gone before in this competition. This looked more looked the T20 Somerset we had looked for this past three years. And they had done it all without the man who had looked like he might be Somerset’s purveyor of mayhem in chief at the Kia Oval .*

In the ‘interval’ I wandered to a point square of the wicket where Jack Russell was selling his drawings and prints. Michael Leask opened the Somerset bowling with his ungainly off breaks. Ungainly but effective. He took a wicket for 11 runs in two overs. The wicket was a joy to watch. An impressive lightning quick leg side stumping by Banton off a wide with Malan not overly out of his crease. It put me in mind of Trevor Gard’s two leg side stumpings in the 1983 Cheltenham and Gloucester Final. I was square for those as well. I didn’t like to ask the old hand selling pictures if he thought he could still have done it. As Prospero might have said, for a young keeper on debut, it really was “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

Davey removed McCullum at 25 but he was savaged for 17 runs in the same over. Then came the bowling that might in the end have tipped the match Somerset’s way. Morgan and Stirling tried manfully to rebuild the Middlesex innings and get it within sight of a win. They strained every sinew. Stirling in particular hit some big sixes. At Taunton big sixes land in the flats, the churchyard or the Tone. At Uxbridge they disappear through a curtain of trees into what land of mystery I know not. What I do know is whatever lurks beyond those trees rarely throws the ball back. Perhaps Ariel moonlights as a used ball salesman.

But strain as they might, and the effort was visible in Stirling’s body language, he and Morgan could not match Somerset’s run rate. In T20 terms Somerset’s bowlers held them in a vice and that is what it felt like. The club standard scoreboard at Uxbridge does not show required run rate but with 9 overs to go Middlesex needed 117 to win. A quick bit of mental arithmetic came up with 13 an over or thereabouts. 12 is usually the limit over even a few overs even in T20. I was really beginning to believe for something had to give if Middlesex were not to be slowly strangled.

Only one of the Middlesex supporters remained with me now. Whether the other had gone to try to salvage some odds for his bet I never found out. “We need a couple of big overs,” the remaining one said. It was Somerset who put in the big overs. With 7 overs to go both Stirling and Morgan had gone. Craig Overton, vice tightener in chief with 2-0-7-1, removed Stirling. What a bowler he is becoming. Max Waller quietly saw off Morgan. He also took a couple of the safest catches you ever saw in the deep. Then Roelof van de Merwe tightened the vice further with an over for 7 and Middlesex needed 96 from 36 balls. The crowd were starting to pack their bags and a steady trickle was leaving the ground.

Then Franklin and Simpson produced one of those two big overs my Middlesex friend had called for. 26 off an over from Davey including two wides, one of which was very wide outside off. 70 needed from five. Another over like that and Middlesex would be in range. When the really big over was needed though it was Somerset again that produced it, or to be more precise Overton produced it. He removed Franklin and conceded only 7 of the 14 Middlesex needed. It broke the back of their innings if not their resolve for Higgins hit four fours in the penultimate over from Gregory although Middlesex by then needed more than four a ball. Then Overton ‘rounded’ the innings ‘with a sleep’ as Prospero might have put it when he removed Roland-Jones with the final ball of the match. In a 10 an over match 4-0-24-3 really was “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

As my coach sped westward along the M4 I concluded Uxbridge is not The Kia Oval. The crowd profile was very different. It could almost have been a Championship match. The crowd was older and men were comfortably, in both senses of the word, in the majority; although many young people were there and some children, and autographs were asked for and given. There was no Mexican wave, even when the match was beyond Middlesex, nor even the hint of one. In fact I doubt one would even have dared. Applause and cheering ranged from polite to enthusiastic though never raucous and mainly for Middlesex successes. From my travels I find Somerset and Yorkshire supporters are by far the most generous to the opposition unless, as at The Kia Oval a week before, someone does something truly exceptional.

As that glorious never-ending sunset that you so often get along the length of the M4 accompanied me almost as far as Bristol something nagged away at me. There was something odd about the whole match. Hard as I tried I could not put my finger on it. I ran it through and through in my mind. What on earth was it? Then suddenly the penny dropped. There had been no music. None. None before the match. None for fours, none for sixes, none for wickets. None for anything. None at all. No huge flags. No flame throwers. Nothing. Perhaps a children’s honour guard as the players came out but I was still looking through a forest of heads at that point and so could not even swear to that.

If you want to watch a T20 match in a County Championship atmosphere then Uxbridge is for you. Whether it has the magic of that Sunday afternoon at The Kia Oval to bring in future generations of spectators, and in particular children, that cricket needs is another matter.”

*Corey Anderson was injured.

Result. Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat. Somerset 207-9 (20 overs) AJ Hose 59(28balls), JC Hildreth 38(19), L Gregory 37(22), NA Sowter 3-43(econ 10.75), TG Southee 2-35(8.75), ST Finn 2-40(10.00). Middlesex 186-7 (20 overs) PR Stirling 39(28), RF Higgins 35*(16), EJG Morgan 33(31), C Overton 3-24(6.00). Somerset won by 21 runs. Somerset 2 points. Middlesex 0 points.

First posted on grockles.com on 18th July 2017