County Championship 2017 ~ Middlesex ~ Second day ~ Two old hands excel

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

Overnight. Somerset 236. Middlesex 18-3. Middlesex trail Somerset by 218 runs with seven first innings wickets standing.    

26th September. Second Day – Two old hands excel

Farmer White (IP Logged) 27 September 2017 1.30 a.m.
“We started ten minutes late on the second day amid mist, mizzle and misgivings about the pitch hanging in the air like the sword of Damocles over Somerset’s First Division status*. By the end of the day the sun had despatched the mist and the mizzle, and the bats of Hildreth, Abell, Trescothick, Stirling and Malan should have seen off Damocles and his sword.

Somerset started with Leach from the River End and Bess from the Somerset Pavilion End. Middlesex started with Voges trying to hit Bess into Vivary Park but finding Abell at short mid wicket on the way. They followed up with Malan challenging Simpson to run a single which would have challenged Usain Bolt on a good day. Bess had not much more than one stump to aim at as he intercepted from cover and Middlesex were 22 for 5 in the 18th over. It was difficult to judge whether the Somerset players or crowd were the more ecstatic. Whether it was reality or a dream seemed a moot point. The scoreboards, disconcertingly and surprisingly speedy and accurate this season given their serendipitous past, had no doubt.

Dawid Malan and Paul Stirling had a mountain to climb if Middlesex were to save their First Division status without divine or ECB intervention. Stirling is not one to dither. He hit Bess over rather than to Abell at short mid wicket. Three seasons ago it would have landed in the Cow Shed, perhaps as a lesson to Voges as to how the shot should be played.

Malan and Stirling then set about making a mockery of Adam Voges’ shrugged shoulders on the first day and any alleged Middlesex complaint about the pitch. They played with careful defence and judicious attack, although Stirling was inclined from time to time to run towards the other end at random before scuttling back like the proverbial cat on the hot tin roof. It made Middlesex look jumpy and rattled. The Somerset resident cat, Brian, unimpressed by Stirling’s antics sat on the bonnet of a car next to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion posing, under tail-wagging sufferance, for the occasional photograph.

Malan and Stirling showed what concentrated determined batting could do on this pitch. Stirling swept Leach to the old Stragglers area boundary and lofted him to the Botham Stand boards. Malan lifted Roelof van de Merwe into the back row of the Somerset Stand and drove Jack Leach into the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. Both good well-selected strokes. They took their singles as well and defended the better balls.

The bowlers had their successes too. Leach turned a ball past Stirling’s bat. “That was the one that took those two wickets last night,” someone said. “Haven’t been so many of those today,” someone else replied. Bess also got past Stirling’s bat and the keeper too for four byes. “Ohhh!” rippled across the Trescothick Stand, for the position of the pitch gave those of us sitting there the perfect view of the turning ball. As on the first day, the ball turned but not violently or erratically. Stirling responded by driving Bess through the covers for four.

Van de Merwe, after a couple of loose overs, his first in the Championship for a long time, settled into a rhythm. His accurate in-drifting, low trajectory slow left arm and a packed off side field giving the batsman little opportunity to score more than the odd single. At least that is what someone who knows far more about cricket than I do said to me. Tight bowling builds pressure in any sort of cricket.

It was gripping to-and-fro stuff. Wickets threatening. Runs coming. Score mounting. “We need to break this up,” someone said as Middlesex moved into the 90s still five down and Somerset’s 236 began to hove into distant view. If Malan and Stirling carried on as they were Somerset’s position would be threatened.

Cometh the need, cometh Jack Leach. The Jack Leach of old, for he is back. May batsmen tremble. He trapped Malan lbw. 95 for 6. Then drew Stirling into a long, stretched-forward defensive stroke. It stretched just far enough to drag Stirling’s foot momentarily forward and out of his ground before it settled back. It was long enough for Steven Davies to break the stumps, the eagle-eyed Umpire at square leg, Michael Burns, to see it, and a startled Stirling to walk off. When he watches the video replay he will see that split second he gave Davies. It is all Davies needs. His mousetrap-fast presence close behind the stumps must weigh heavily on the minds of batsmen trying to concentrate on deciding how to play the ball. When the ball is delivered by a prowling Jack Leach the batsman must feel like he is trapped between the mouse trap and the cat. 100 for 7. Malan had made 41 and Stirling 38. They produced a sixth wicket partnership of 73.

Harris then tried a counter attack from the tail. He drove Leach, still quietly whirling away from the River End, into the Trescothick Stand end of the Somerset Stand for six, and then cleared Tim Groenewald at deep square leg into the centre of the Stand. At the other end Roelof van de Merwe pinned Finn lbw and Lunch was taken at 127 for 8, Middlesex still 109 behind.

In the interval some of the talk was of whether Craig Overton or Stephen Finn would go to Australia. After Lunch it was as if Overton had decided to make his views known. I had a perfect view of what followed from the area of the old Stragglers bar. Overton bowled the first over of pace of the day from the Somerset Pavilion End. Harris’ middle stump went cartwheeling half way to Steven Davies. I could swear the “Wow!” I heard from all around at the greatest sight in cricket came from those old ghosts from that ancient bar. In all the decades they sat there they could not have seen better.

Overton has had a haircut. It has had the opposite effect of the one Delilah gave Sampson. I do not recall him bowling so consistently fast as he has in this match, both on the second afternoon and the first evening. Patel drove him hard, up and wide of cover. Van de Merwe fell to his left as if he had leaned on a wall that wasn’t there, and Overton had topped and tailed the Middlesex innings in short order, just as he had done the first Warwickshire innings at Edgbaston. Somerset really may have found a bowler who can curtail both ends of an innings. Whether he will be doing it for Somerset or England in the future is a question which might be answered sooner rather than later.

Trescothick and Byrom came out to build on a lead of 94. “The pitch is flattening. We need to get that lead past 300. 350 if possible,” was the general opinion. At 26 for 2 that looked a long way off. Byrom, purveyor of pyrotechnics in the first innings, had gone lifting a damp squib of a drive straight to mid-on, and Bartlett reached forward and missed a sweep onto his pads. They had each made five. The wickets to Stirling, who opened the bowling with Finn, and Patel.

Marcus Trescothick played the innings of the old soldier standing firm as the new recruits wobbled. While Bartlett struggled to get his first-class career going, Trescothick passed 19000 first-class runs for Somerset. As it was announced Trescothick took fresh guard to Patel. Harold Gimblett scored 21,142 first-class runs for Somerset. I wonder if he took fresh guard when he went past 19000.

Trescothick batted on with James Hildreth. They pushed singles, playing each ball with due care and attention. Occasionally Hildreth played it with the pad. “You don’t see that so much these days someone said,” and you don’t. Umpires seem more willing to give lbw decisions since DRS demonstrated the ball would have hit the stumps far more often than was previously thought. Perhaps Hildreth should think about it. It looked faintly old fashioned.

The two Somerset veterans attacked too. Trescothick delicately late cut Stirling for two towards the Botham Stand. Hildreth sublimely drove Patel for two towards the old scoreboard area. Trescothick lofted Patel for four to the Colin Atkinson boundary. Hildreth brought cries of wonder with a backfoot on drive along the ground to the Somerset Stand for four, and again with a late cut through a gully and fourth slip, put there for the shot, for another four. 59 for 2. Lead 153. This was batting from the old school come to 2017 through a time warp from an age before T20 cricket challenged the old certainties. Reassuring, classical, engrossing. A bygone age come to visit. There were a dozen or so on the balconies of the flats and a larger crowd in the ground than the 2000 or so of the first day to see it. Far too many for the media to find the two men and a dog who are supposed to watch Championship cricket. Even the sun started to peek through the clouds wanting a piece of the action. “It’s warming up chaps,” someone said. The weather and the cricket.

Then, totally out of the blue, or so it seemed, Harris got a ball to come back sharply into Trescothick and he was lbw for 31. Trescothick had been dismissed by one of the few truly unplayable balls in this match, in either innings. That brought Abell to the wicket. Even with a lead of 153 some rebuilding work was indicated.

James Hildreth was by now at his mercurial best. The ball came off the pitch at whatever angle it chose and it left his bat at whatever angle he chose. He did play and miss from time to time, and the ball sometimes found his pads triggering Pavlovian appeals from the Middlesex players. Anticipation with no result. You expect that on a turning pitch, and it helps sustain the excruciating tension which is the essential ingredient of the best cricket matches. The ones that will be remembered, as the rest merge into the archives, for the tension burns their image onto the front page of the memory.

Abell carried on where he had left off when he was run out in the first innings. He steadied an end, rotated the strike, attacked any loose ball that came his way with classical strokes but with a brutality of stroke unknown to Hildreth. Generally he exhibited an air of being in control. It was not just his batting. He carried into his innings the authority enhanced by his faultless inspired captaincy in Middlesex’s first innings. Opening the bowling with Jack Leach. Holding Overton back until after Lunch with devastating results. Sticking with the spinners through the growing Malan-Stirling partnership until both fell within half a dozen runs. Those were weighty calls for a 23-year-old to make. Any who doubted the wisdom of his young appointment may soon be doubting the wisdom of their own judgement.

And so it continued for two glorious hours. Glorious sun. Glorious dominant Somerset batting on a pitch easier than Middlesex had made it look, but perhaps harder than Hildreth and Abell were making it look. Middlesex appeal an awful lot, although as the last session unfolded the appeals sounded more like pleas and they gradually faded with the setting sun.

Somerset closed on 159 for 3 with a nicely rounded unbroken partnership of 100 and a lead of 253. 353 would feel safer and there will be time enough in the morning to get there. Let some facts not be forgotten though. Middlesex are the County Champions and may yet in this match rouse themselves to play as such, for they will wake up to the stark and very real possibility of relegation. Somerset reached 176 in their first innings before they lost their fourth wicket and then within 60 runs the rest were gone. Rain is forecast for Wednesday afternoon, the pitch is easing and Somerset have to win. If Somerset are to win they will need to keep their focus on that and that alone.

It is time to end the season with a rousing Somerset victory. And it is time for another Somerset bowler to go to Australia and uproot a few stumps. “Overton over there” has a nice ring to it.”

*There had been speculation that Somerset might be deducted points for a poor pitch which would have effectively meant relegation.

Close. Somerset 236 and 159-3. Middlesex 142 (PR Stirling 41, MJ Leach 4-54, C Overton 3-7). Somerset lead Middlesex by 259 runs with 7 second innings wickets standing.