County Championship 2017 ~ Middlesex ~ Relegation showdown

September 2017 Specsavers County Championship. First Division. Taunton. 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th. Somerset v Middlesex.

Somerset faced Middlesex at Taunton for the last Championship match of the 2017 season. In all probability, one of the two counties would be relegated from the First Division at the end of the match. If Somerset were to beat Middlesex, and at least match them for bonus points, they would end the season on the same number of points as Middlesex but would finish above them because the victory would give them four wins to Middlesex’s three. For Middlesex the situation was more simple. Anything but a victory for Somerset would see Middlesex safe. For both sides there were other more nebulous permutations involving other teams, particularly Middlesex, but the outcome of the match between the two sides was by far the most likely determinent of their respective futures.

25th September. First Day – Relegation showdown

Farmer White (IP Logged) 26 September 2017 1.06 a.m.
“Somerset won the toss and to general relief opted to bat, although because of the overweening cloud cover it is doubtful the light would have been good enough to play when Tom Abell flicked the coin into the air. The sky had brightened by the start as Somerset settled themselves in with a couple of maidens. As I watched from the old Straggler’s corner and then from between the Somerset and Trescothick Stands the anticipation was palpable and all around.

As I reached my seat in the Trescothick Stand, which by then was pretty well full, Byrom drove Finn off the back foot to the Ondatjee Pavilion. It is a long boundary in this match and the ball did not quite have the strength to roll over the rope before the fielder picked it up and threw it in. By then Trescothick had turned for the third time and hurried home for a fourth run. It appeared Somerset meant business. As everyone was getting their breath back someone said Craig Overton might go on the Ashes tour ahead of Steven Finn. Whilst I was thinking about that Byrom drove Finn to long off and drew cries of, “Ohhh!” from the crowd. The stroke had that sort of stamp on it. A hubbub of chatter buzzed through the whole stand and Somerset were 32 for 0.

Harris replaced Finn, who had not looked on the basis of his first spell as if he would challenge Overton for that Ashhes place, and Byrom drove him square for four. Ravi Patel with his slow left arm replaced Murtagh and Trescothick and Byrom each swept him for a single, Trescothick top edging his. That brought the score to 38 for 0. Somerset had won the first hour but Trescothick’s top edge suggested the real test might be yet to come, and that it would come against Patel in particular.

Byrom took the fight to Patel over the next few overs with four reverse sweeps. The first went for four. Next ball he tried again, missed, there was a huge appeal, and two leg byes. The next attempt resulted in “Ooohs”, “Aaahs” and four byes. The next, Byrom middled to the old Stragglers’ area. The ghosts of Somerset members of ages past that must reside there must have wondered what the world had come to. Trescothick meanwhile was doing it the old way, taking singles and a two with square cuts and backfoot drives.

Now Byrom took up the orthodox way too and drove Patel along the ground to the Trescothick Stand, and in the same over lofted him over mid on to the Sir Ian Botham Stand boundary to take him into the 40s from whence he had never progressed in the Championship. It had been a rollercoaster of a ride for Byrom, the reverse sweeps leaving a clenching feeling in the pit of the stomach, but it was Patel who failed to hang on as he was taken off after four overs.

Stirling replaced Patel at the River End whilst Harris kept things unconscionably tight at the other, conceding about one run an over. Byrom swept Stirling’s second ball straight and hard into short leg for whom repairs took several minutes. In Stirling’s next over, Byrom swept fine for two, and then edged a sweep through the keeper for four.

Trescothick meanwhile was trading in the traditional delicacies at the other end. He late cut Finn through the slips for two and then again through gully’s legs for another two. In the next over he drove him at catchable height just out of reach of a diving mid-on for two followed by an uppish off drive which reached mid-off on the second bounce. It did make me wonder if this pitch, being used for its second Championship match in a fortnight, was a bit tired. If anyone in the crowd was tired they were not likely to fall asleep, for the cricket was intense. The strokes which connected I have described; the playing and missing, the ball thudding into pads, the appeals and the “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” of the fielders I have not.

Byrom meanwhile charged on. He was getting to grips with Paul Stirling. He cut him to the Somerset Stand for four, turned him square for two, top edged a pull two yards out of the reach of mid-on running back towards the Caddick Pavilion for two more. In the process he finally escaped the 40s, ecstatically waved his bat at the Somerset team balcony, acknowledged the crowd and doubtless breathed a sigh of relief at finally reaching 50 after his string of 40s. Then he tapped Stirling to cover and Somerset were 93 for 1 on the stroke of Lunch. Shades of Trescothick in the first innings at The Oval.

It was a surprise to see that the runs had come at just three an over after an apparently breathless batting performance from Byrom. No-one knew whether to be thankful for the 93 for 1, which all of us would have snatched at if offered at the start, or to sigh at the thought of another wicket falling at a key time.

I wandered off to peer at the pitch. The outfield seemed springy underfoot. The pitch was a dirty green over the middle three quarters and brown at each end with bits of debris along the sides, although not near the line of the stumps. There appeared to be filled and compacted footmarks at the Somerset Pavilion End, the ones you would normally expect to find beyond the popping crease during a match, so not in an obvious danger area. I didn’t notice if the same applied at the other end. Patel and Stirling both seemed to be getting turn in the morning, although smooth and predictable turn as far as I could tell from near the top of the Trescothick Stand. But, as I have said before, I really know nothing about pitches and the top of the Trescothick Stand is a long way away.

After Lunch the sun came out, the sun cream went on and Bartlett took up where Byrom had left off. He drove Stirling for four to the Somerset Stand to cries of “Shot!” and then cut him for four to cries of “Ohhhh,” while Trescothick cut Patel to Gimbletts Hill for another four. Bartlett responded with a perfectly middled reverse sweep for four off Stirling.

And all the while sweeps and defensive strokes continued to be missed, pads were hit, appeals rent the air, “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” from the fielders were two a penny, and the driven, cut and, so it felt, mainly swept score, mounted. Spinners turning the ball, batsmen stroking the ball, fielder’s appealing every other ball and the Umpires humouring them all. It was engrossing spellbinding stuff.

Spellbinding enough to bring a dozen or so people out onto the balconies and roof terrace of the flats to watch. Two seagulls stood motionless above them on the roof to the side of the terrace watching for longer than a seagull is normally comfortable in one place. Whether they were watching the cricket or assessing what food scraps might be left behind by a crowd somewhere in the region of 2000 I cannot say.

Then Trescothick left a ball from Patel, it turned more sharply than any other I had seen, drove Trescothick back towards his stumps and whacked into his pads. No doubt about the decision. 114 for 2. Trescothick 37. Hildreth replaced Trescothick and reverse swept Patel for four while Bartlett struck him into the Trescothick end of the Somerset Stand for six. Somerset clearly meant to attack the spin at every opportunity and with every stroke in the book, orthodox or not.

Whilst the Somerset batsmen had duelled with Patel in a deadly, in cricketing terms, fight for survival, Harris had quietly kept coming in from the Somerset Pavilion End and had figures of 10-6-10-0. Then Hildreth suddenly found himself in the wars. He chopped Harris onto his pad, “Ohhhh,” said the crowd, then he edged Patel to slip who dropped it, and finally found himself doubled up in pain by a vicious lifter from Harris. “Last year he was playing with a broken foot,” someone noted. Hildreth responded by square driving Harris to the Somerset Stand boards.

Then it was back to sweeping. A top edge just clearing slip for a single from Hildreth and the stumps going over for Bartlett. Abell joined the fray and promptly scored his first 18 runs with the sweep, all of which came off the middle as far as I can recall, and most of which rocketed to the boundary. His first scoring shot that was not a sweep was a powerful on drive to where the Cow Shed inhabitants used to watch often distant cricket through a screen of pillars. Whether sweeping or driving, Abell hit the ball hard.

Finn was now on at the Somerset Pavilion End, keeping it tighter than he had in his first spell and Patel was really getting into his stride. He was beating the bat and forcing batsmen more on to the defensive. Hildreth responded by reverse sweeping him, though only just safely, straight to point. “Hildy, for goodness sake! You don’t play it as well as some do,” someone said.

Then Hildreth turned a ball between fine and square leg, both of whom were quite deep. He and Abell ran the first run hard, turned simultaneously, ran a couple of yards up the pitch, Hildreth saw how much ground Patel had made from fine leg, screamed “NO!”, both turned back towards their ground but Patel’s throw reached the keeper before Abell reached his ground and Somerset were 176 for 4. 176 for 3 on the back of the momentum created by all that sweeping had somehow looked so much better. Bartlett and Abell had both been out for 25.

Hildreth and Steven Davies pushed towards Tea with a two and some singles pushed and cut. Hildreth edged to slip. A huge appeal went up and a celebration started. Hildreth appealed to the Umpires before the finger went up and seemed to speak to the fielders. The ball was judged not to have carried. Voges bowled the over before Tea, and Davies brought up the interval by driving him to the Somerset Stand for four. 193 for 4.

After Tea Davies was dropped at silly mid off. A fairly straightforward chance as those go. Davies seemed to think so too for the man behind me said, “He started to walk.” Amidst what was a forest of appeals the 200 came up. “Well done boys!” shouted a man further down the stand. It was the apogee of Somerset’s innings. At 206 Hildreth was bowled by Patel for 41 reverse sweeping, and Roelof van de Merwe next ball, his first, gave Patel the ugliest of charges and edged to slip. 206 for 6. People were too startled at first to react. When they regained their equilibrium calculations of up to 250 were being done, the 300 that had looked just about possible at 176 for 3 forgotten.

Then the tail that had rescued Somerset innings all summer long imploded. Overton and Bess both skied aggressive drives within an over of one another and scored one between them. Jack Leach reverted to the sweep, or the slog sweep version of it, and made some progress. Twice he hit Patel for four to where the old scoreboard used to stand and swept a two. Then trying the same shot again he hit it to deep mid wicket and was gone for 14. Davies meanwhile had quietly accumulated 27. Before supporters had calculated that Somerset needed just 14 more for that precious second bonus point he reverse paddled a ball from Patel gently to slip. Somerset had slipped from 206 for 4 to 236 all out.

The immediate calculation was now simple. If Middlesex could score 250, and thus one more batting point than Somerset, they would stay up for even a win for Somerset would not then plug the gap. The 14 runs by which Somerset were short of that second batting point caused anguish all around, for it was clear that for Middlesex to have had to reach 300 would have been harder by a quantum leap than needing 250 on that pitch.

At 5 for 3 even 250 looked to be quite a challenge. It still does at the close of play score of 18 for 3. Compton was beaten by an absolute corker from Overton who seemed to bowl faster than I remember him. If there is a place on the Ashes tour to be decided between Overton and Finn, and today’s performances were the only measure, Overton would take it for he bowled a fast and furious four overs.

Tom Abell, always a captain to cut to the chase, opened at the River End with Jack Leach who bowled as if in a dream. His length and direction probed the batsmen unmercifully. He was getting a lot of turn, but as far as I could see it was not erratic or spitting turn, although Bess did seem to get a ball to spit from the other end.

Leach removed Eskanazi and Robson in remarkably similar fashion while we were all still getting excited about him opening the bowling. Two balls pitched outside off, turned further away, were chased by the batsmen and both were edged to slip, although the apparent deviation of the ball was exaggerated as it came off the bat. Left alone both balls would have been harmless. Chased they were deadly.

There was an even greater buzz as everyone left the ground than the constant one there had been all day. As I packed my bag someone said to me something along the lines of, “If batsmen’s heads were in the right place perhaps their bats might be,” and I don’t think he was referring to the physical position of the head. I wonder if those two batsmen would play the same stroke again to the same ball after they have watched the replays. As to the sweep. It cost Somerset a lot of wickets. It also netted them a lot of runs and kept the momentum with Somerset while the bulk of Somerset’s runs were scored. Whether the benefit in runs was worth the cost in wickets we may not know until the final reckoning in this match is drawn up. Whatever the cost benefit analysis, those sweep shots swept Somerset along and made for a scintillating day’s cricket which Somerset headed.

If this Taunton pitch continues to turn on the second day, and then starts to flatten towards the end of it, or early on the third as Taunton pitches this year have tended to do, that forest of sweep shots and the momentum and progress in the game it created might just be seen in a different light to the negative one many saw them in on this first day.”

Close. Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat. Somerset 236 (EJ Byrom 56, JC Hildreth 41, RH Patel 7-81). Middlesex 18-3. Middlesex trail Somerset by 218 runs with 7 second innings wickets standing.