County Championship 2017 ~ Reality again ~ Essex


~   ESSEX   ~ .

 “Chelmsford is not a pretty ground and it looks faintly, if charmingly, decrepit. Not the sort of place you expect to meet a cricketing steamroller breathing fire. But for those who would like their cricket to be played in the aura of the 1950s it is the place to go.” 

Specsavers County Championship. First Division. Chelmsford. 28th, 29th, 30th and 31st August 2017. Essex v Somerset. 

Essex had dominated the Championship table from early in the season and by the time of this match were powering towards their first Championship for a quarter of a century. It was a remarkable performance for a team which had only been promoted at the end of the previous season and had only spent three seasons in the First Division since the Championship split into two divisions in 2000. They became the first team to win the First Division in the year following promotion. I travelled to watch this match in the midst of the land of my exile. A long way from home I wrote a ‘whole match’ post after I had returned to Somerset.

Farmer White (IP Logged) 4 September 2017 10.44 p.m.

“Here is my very belated post on the Essex match for anyone not at the match and still interested. Other things to do and defeats are harder to write about than victories, at least for me. I have tried to weave in some thoughts on what I saw as a key reason for this particular defeat. I have written of this match simply as I saw it. As a battle of wills as much as a battle of skills.           

I watched all of the first two days, none of the hour which preceded the rain on the third because I was by then staying in London and it was pretty clear from the forecast there would be little play, and the first two sessions on the last day. I left at Tea on the last day, not because of the state of the game but because I would have missed the coach back to the West Country had I not done so. My comments here are based on the approximately seven sessions I saw of the approximately eight (I missed two half sessions) played in the match. 

It felt to me, and the scores more or less bear this out, that Essex and Somerset fought toe to toe for the first four sessions, Essex increasingly gained the upper hand in the next two and a half and overwhelmed Somerset in the last one and a half.

Somerset’s batting on the final afternoon looked dispirited before Tea and defeat felt all but inevitable. I did not see the play after Tea but the scorecard and outcome suggest nothing changed. Whether the players “appeared resigned to relegation” as Matthew Maynard is quoted as seeing it I am not sure. I think rather they were ground down during the course of the match for they matched Essex in difficult batting conditions for the first half of the match.

By the time they started their second innings Somerset had conceded a 288 run deficit in the context of a match in which 160 seemed a par score for a completed innings. Perhaps too they felt they should have scored more in the first innings. On the last day they had to face 60 overs with no prospect of winning. Nearly five an over would have been required on an uneasy pitch. The overbearing will, built up through the season, of the Essex steamroller bearing down on them with the pitch by then taking turn, Harmer’s spin to face and Porter’s pace seemingly unplayable made survival the only goal. The Essex run accumulation in the second session on day two perhaps being the point at which the ‘Essex Machine’, as the title of this thread* so aptly puts it, started to grind Somerset down.

As to that last afternoon with the match to be saved Trescothick edged his first ball from Porter along the ground to slip and edged his second into his stumps. It was a perfect cameo indicative of Porter’s bowling in this match and Trescothick’s form this season.** Byrom and Rouse soon edged Porter behind perhaps not used to this level of pressure and intensity of bowling although Byrom had held his own for a few overs.

Abell played no stroke and was lbw well outside off to one that turned sharply from Harmer. Playing a stroke was as likely to have produced an edge I suspect but might have been the safer option. It looked that sort of ball. Many thought it a poor decision including people watching online at home and sending messages. I watched it on the ECB highlights on my return and it looked a good decision unless you take the view it is impossible for an umpire to be sure with a ball which pitches that wide. The one that bowled Overton seemed to turn at least as much. Hildreth played his normal attacking game for 22 but from beyond the boundary it looked a forlorn charge for the whole Somerset innings had the look and feel of a rout. The Essex bowlers were rampant, as they have been for most of the season, and their fielders looked menacingly expectant. I doubt Somerset could have survived however well they had played. Only Craig Overton (36), for nearly two hours in the end, really stood out for any time against the onslaught.

As a Somerset member said to me when Essex were stalking the Somerset batsmen on that last afternoon, “You can see why Essex are where they are,” and you could. They were palpably powerful. If you look at their results this year, seven overwhelming victories, no defeats and not outplayed since April you can really can see why they are where they are. This match felt like part of the now established pattern of their season.

Somerset have lost five other Championship matches this season, and I have seen all the defeats except the Lancashire one. I saw none where the winning team played with the almost all enveloping power and control of the match with which Essex played this one. This defeat seemed of a different order to the others because of that. From the commentary I listened to it is possible, on the last two days, Lancashire played with similar dominance at Old Trafford early in the season.

As to Chelmsford and the rest of the game. Chelmsford is not a pretty ground and it looks faintly, if charmingly, decrepit. Not the sort of place you expect to meet a cricketing steamroller breathing fire. But for those who would like their cricket to be played in the aura of the 1950s it is the place to go. It has an old-style pavilion which looks as if it is constructed of wood although I did not look that closely. No huge stands although it has the now ubiquitous plastic seating. With a bit of imagination you can convert that to wooden benches in your mind and wooden benches would look more at home in this ground than the plastic.

There may have been three thousand people in to take up those seats on the first day and not many fewer on the second. Perhaps one thousand on the fourth. You feel even closer to the action than you do at Taunton if that is possible. There is an ice cream van which sells out of ice cream at 3 o’ clock and you cannot buy a bar of chocolate in the place or much else except some sort of roasted meat (I didn’t look closely for I am vegetarian) chips and drinks. As to what might be available in the Pavilion I did not venture inside to find out.

And to make your 1950s idyll complete as you sit watching the cricket you may be fortunate enough to hear, as I did on one occasion, “Scorecard! Scorecard!” as someone actually walks around the ground selling scorecards. If you bought one though, for ten shillings, you could have been forgiven for thinking the entire Somerset team had deserted the Club for at the head of the Somerset team list was the word ‘Middlesex’.

To watch cricket at Chelmsford is not to fall altogether into a 1950s time warp for the ground has permanent floodlights. Eight pylons set in pairs with half a normal set of lights on each. They look less intrusive somehow than the normal arrangement. They came on at 5.30 p.m. on the first day and 3.20 p.m. on the second. Somerset may not be able to count on full days in their remaining two home matches going late into September.*** Late enough for early risers to see the glories of Orion in the hour or so before dawn and the last match starting after the autumn equinox. Sunset on a flat horizon on the last day of the Middlesex match at the end of September being 6.56 p.m. in Taunton. It will drop much earlier behind the flats. If the match is a humdinger and First Division survival hangs on the result eyes may be more on the sky than the pitch. The pattern of the seasons is probably now set for the immediate future. Somerset may need lights for more reasons than T20.

Back to the cricket and the start of the match. Bright and hot dawned the first morning. Pale and inviting looked the pitch. Somerset elected to toss. Essex elected to bat. Craig Overton bowled the first over from the Hayes Close End for those of you who know Chelmsford. Chopra took two boundaries off it including one pulled so hard through mid wicket it went past Eddie Byrom’s armpit as he tried to react and hit the boundary board in front of me before I could react. It looked for all the world a 350 for 3 sort of day.

Within not much more than an hour Paul van Meekeren, Craig Overton and Tim Groenewald had turned that expectation into 39 for 4 which would have been 40 for 5 had midwicket managed to hold on to a catch from Browne, slowish past his shin and bobbling out of his hand. The Somerset pace attack looked impressive. Essex anything but. Somerset supporters hardly believing their eyes although one did say, “We haven’t faced Amir yet.”****

Browne finally fell at 97 for 6 to a top edged hook off Overton with van Meekeren running full pelt, diving full-length and catching the ball arms at full stretch. Not a 1950s fast bowler’s catch that. Not much, if anything, by way of applause from the Essex crowd either. There was very little overt appreciation of good Somerset play whilst Somerset were in the ascendancy in the way that there is of opposition good play at Taunton whatever the state of the match.

The Essex tail eventually lengthened the 98 for 7 Somerset whittled them down to after Lunch to 159 all out. Overton bowled with accuracy, movement and well directed pace throughout. Van Meekeren bowling with real pace and some movement clearly troubled the Essex batsmen. A fit Lewis Gregory might have been a sight to behold in these conditions. Tim Groenewald, understated in demeanour as always, bowled with what to the batsmen must have seemed mean spirited accuracy prizing out Wheater and Foster in the process.

Then before the Somerset travelling contingent could absorb Somerset’s stunning success their first innings score was 20 for 3. Trescothick, looking tentative as he has so often this season edged behind. Byrom was badly beaten and bowled by a full ball that seemed to move and lift sharply. It might have removed any left-hander. Both to Porter. Porter was a revelation. He opened the bowling with Amir. Amir with a run up and action as smooth as mercury. Porter all bustle and bull at a gate. Porter was the pick. He had pace, movement, apparently both ways, and disconcerting lift of the type which undid Byrom.

From his statistics Porter has been steadily disconcerting batsmen all season. It really was easy to see why Essex are where they are. Somerset had not been profligate with their wickets. Those 20 runs had taken 15 overs of dour concentration and defence. Yet the defence had been punctured three times. ‘Essex Machine’. Indeed it was. The Essex crowd applauded Porter as he returned to his fielding position. No Somerset bowler had been afforded such an accolade as they went through Essex.

Hildreth and Abell fought back taking up Somerset’s cause from 20 for 3 with some intent and it paid off, at least for a while, Porter perhaps tiring. Hildreth pulled him for four. Abell leant perfectly into an on drive which skimmed the ground to the boundary. Hildreth struck a back foot drive of heavenly perfection off Harmer and drove Amir through the covers. Together they pushed Bopara around the field and Abell attacked Harmer with a brace of classic sweeps which left the field standing. One in front of and one behind square. When Bopara and Walter joined forces Hildreth drove, cut and pulled them to the boundary whilst Abell pulled Walter behind square for another four. It was exhilarating stuff and Somerset were 97 for 3. Just 62 behind. The Essex crowd for the most part, still unappreciative of Somerset skill, quiet.

Then, Essex still probing, still attacking, Abell drove at one from Porter, just too wide and perhaps crucially moving away, and edged it to slip for 30. The wicket of Hildreth soon demonstrated what the batsmen were up against when they faced Porter. Hildreth had moved neatly into position for the pull and suddenly looked startled perhaps by the pace but certainly by the steepness of the bounce which seemed to be at an all but impossible angle from the length of the ball from my position at deep midwicket. The ball hit the bat rather than the other way round, found midwicket and Hildreth was gone for 51. Somerset 101 for 5. Still 58 behind. Porter is a formidable bowler at the moment. 53 wickets at 18.67 in nine matches this season.

Essex just kept inexorably applying the pressure, which I suspect has been their hallmark this season. Somerset stumbled, revived and eventually reached 164, passing Essex by five runs, in the end thanks largely to a ninth wicket partnership of 31 between Bess (22 not out) and Groenewald (11). The Essex and Somerset innings being not dissimilar in shape. From how he looked in his innings, which lasted an hour and a quarter under the most intense pressure, Bess looks to be a fighting prospect and as cool as they come.

Before we had reached Lunch on the second day Essex were back in and by Lunch Chopra, not playing a stroke, and Lawrence had been despatched lbw back to the pavilion by Overton, his bowling looking irresistible. Essex 8 for 2, three ahead, at Lunch as Somerset applied some pressure of their own.

Somerset had overall matched Essex but they had reached their apogee. Things looked very different after Lunch but not before a bizarre dismissal left Essex 30 for 3. Bopara had been caution itself. Then out of the blue he charged Leach to be stumped, bat through the stroke and vertical above his head, perhaps three yards out of his ground and still moving forwards when the bails came off. Davies would have had time to drop the ball, look for it, retrieve it and remove the bails without the need to rush. As it was he went into his silent assassin mode. He removed the bails with a swift nudge in which his hands moved no more than six inches. Were he of a different character type in a different age he would have walked into a job with the Medici. No need for an appeal. Bopara, probably wishing the ground would swallow him up, sloped off of his own accord, a victim of the most energy efficient stumping you will ever see.

From there Browne and Wheater picked up Essex’s cause and applied themselves to turning the match, batting with focused determination. And here was the rub. Browne and Wheater are not world beaters but to my mind they looked as if they were batting with a ‘they shall not pass’ mentality. It was as if Essex had decided to win the match and then set about doing it. That strength of purpose may have been the root of their success this year and their domination of so many sides. It has probably grown match by match and they looked, in the second half of this match, as if they felt invincible. It will be interesting to see if Lancashire, their only real challengers, have a similar mindset when they play each other in the next round of matches. If they do it could be a titanic match.

At around 70 for 3 Wheater edged a flier from van Meekeren over slip. Hildreth got enough hand on it to parry it upwards but too far back for anyone to reach. The actual ‘catch’ was obscured from me by a fielder so whether Hildreth might have caught it I cannot say. Apart from that those two batsmen and Ten Doeschate simply, calmly took command of the match. The Somerset bowling seemed to lose some of its penetration of the first innings against some intense controlled batting. Somerset only regained some real penetration with the ominous onset of serious turn as the fourth day developed, Leach and Bess wrapping up the innings for 293 before the Essex steamroller was unleashed on the Somerset batsmen and Essex’s seventh victory was in the bag.

As Essex systematically moved into the ascendancy the crowd began to acknowledge good Somerset play perhaps relaxing as their side gained control. A very finely judged long flat out chase from the infield to the boundary stopping the ball inches inside the rope by Bess with the boundary boards very close by brought genuinely warm applause.

In the end the Essex bowling won this match but the almost impenetrable batting of Browne, Wheater and Ten Doeschate in the Essex second innings turned it. That, I suspect, is where Somerset’s ‘resignation’ came from rather than any acceptance of relegation. Had the team not gained the upper hand against Yorkshire and Surrey in the two preceding Championship games and this one been just another in a long succession of defeats I might have wondered otherwise but the power and determination of this Essex side now has to be seen to be believed.

If there is to be any prospect of avoiding relegation Somerset need to see this match for what it was. A defeat to a team playing with some skill and exceptional strength of will. Somerset need to put it behind them, remember how they played against Yorkshire and Surrey, try to learn something from Essex in the unremitting application of sheer will power to drive the skills of their cricket. Then apply, as far as they can, those things against Warwickshire. Then, above all, whatever happens this season spend the winter developing not just their basic cricketing skills, and signing an overseas batsman who can stay the season, but a playing mentality which has the aim of dominating opposition teams from 11.00 a.m. on the first day to 6.00 p.m. on the last. If you do that the match is unlikely to get anywhere near 6.00p.m. on the last day.”

*Threads of posts on “grockles” have titles.

**This overstates Trescothick’s poor form through the season. He had after all scored a century in difficult conditions against Warwickshire at Taunton and got a good number of starts. He had though never really dominated an attack even during his century. Perhaps the weight of expectation surrounding him built up over the previous two decades, particularly as it had been re-inforced during 2016 when he scored five centuries, caused me to react to his dismissal with this phrase.

***Taunton has no floodlights. There are due to be installed during the winter of 2018-19.

****Mohammed Amir. Pakistani Test fast bowler.

Result. Toss. Essex. Elected to bat. Essex 159 (NLJ Browne 44, C Overton 4-40, PA van Meekeren 4-60) and 293 (AJA Wheater 88, NLJ Browne 83, RN ten Doeschate 67, C Overton 3-68). Somerset 164 (JC Hildreth 61, JA Porter 5-40) and 109 (JA Porter 7-55, SR Harmer 3-29). Essex won by 179 runs. Essex 19 points Somerset 3 points.

Somerset ended the match in seventh place (one of the two relegation slots), 23 points behind Yorkshire in sixth place and 24 behind Middlesex in fifth. Four matches remained. The next match was against Warwickshire at Edgbaston. Warwickshire were in bottom place a further 12 points behind Somerset.