County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Worcestershire. 20th, 21st and 22nd April 2018. Taunton. First Day.
The new season started with memories of the closest possible brush with relegation in 2017 still raw in Somerset supporters’ minds. At the end of the previous season the Director of Cricket had left the Club. During the winter the Chief Executive had followed after less than a year in post and the Club Chairman had left after a decade in post. The Director of Cricket had been replaced by a Director of Cricket and a Head Coach. In the winter Somerset’s new first choice of overseas player had been involved in a ball tampering incident in a Test match and had been replaced by Matthew Renshaw.
With the exception of Tom Abell, continuing as Club captain, continuity had not been the order of the day. The issue now was would Somerset start the new season with an unwanted form of continuity, their usual clutch of poor results?
Jamie Overton was unavailable for the early matches of the season due to injury.
Toss Uncontested. Somerset required to bat.
The first day of Somerset’s 2018 season. It started disastrously. The patisserie on Paddington Station where I used to start my journeys to Taunton during the years of my eastern exile had gone. Replaced by empty floor space. No Black Forest gateau to fortify me for the rigours of the train journey let alone the first day of a season watching Somerset. The chocolate brownie with which they furnished me on the train was hardly a worthy substitute.
All of which begs the question of what I was doing on Paddington station on the first morning of the season when my exile ended two years ago. It is the sort of thing that happens to you when you put the fixture against the wrong date on the calendar. You end up booked to watch Tom Paxton just off Sloane Square when you should be packing your cricket bag for the next morning. Tom Paxton has been around for a while. In fact, he was selling a CD of a live performance he gave in the year before the Gillette Cup began. What a different cricketing world we live in now to the one we lived in then.
The cricket world may change but, like the quality of Tom Paxton’s songs and a good Black Forest gateau, some things never change. Including the trains. The one that should have got me through the Priory Bridge Road gate just in time for the first ball of the match arrived ten minutes late. I arrived at the Sir Vivian Richards Gates just as the third over ended. Somerset 1 for 0.
I collected my scorecard in the nick of time. Trescothick lbw to Magoffin, now with Worcestershire. Shades of Horsham 2013 when four Somerset wickets fell between my going through the gate and reaching my seat. Magoffin took eight for Sussex that day and Somerset were put out before Lunch on the first morning. This morning the damage was limited to two wickets. Before I had sorted out my bag Byrom had edged behind, the audible nick leaving no doubt.
7 for 2. The Black Forest gateau famine not my only problem. All the pre-season focus on ensuring a good start to the season now hanging in the balance. And the sun had yet to reach the back of the Ondaatje Stand where I had taken my perch. Matthew Renshaw, Somerset’s Australian Test player, was already in the middle with the ball apparently moving around like a slalom skier on a string.
A mid-April green top was hardly the ideal greeting for Renshaw. And there was nothing like the prospect of an early Somerset collapse to greet the new Chief Executive as he stood on the top balcony of the Caddick Pavilion surveying the scene. Someone should inform him that watching too much Somerset cricket is liable to age a person exponentially. One thing that must have pleased him though was the size of the crowd. Later confirmed as 2100. It possibly looked more because of the absence of the old Scoreboard Stand. Apparently Surrey recorded 2600.
Somerset’s history of bad starts and the resulting 2018 pre-season practice in a marquee on the outfield was a focus of discussion. Meanwhile the scoreboards continued last season’s new leaf and put on a faultless display of Somerset’s early troubles. I have no knowledge of what Renshaw and Hildreth discussed but they set about rectifying the situation before Somerset’s perennial early season déjà vu could take hold.
Renshaw was very correct and studious in defence. He started the repair job by playing straight and with some neat and well directed deflections to leg. He played and missed a number of times to the moving ball but more often, if he did not manage to take the ball on the middle of the bat, he incurred a thick edge. Then, to take Somerset into the 40s, he unleashed a straight drive of stunning ferocity which fizzed along the ground and crashed into the Somerset Pavilion boards. It, along with the gradual accumulation from his deflections, became the trademark stroke of his innings. It made up for the lack of sustenance from the Black Forest.
James Hildreth, meanwhile dealt with Somerset’s predicament in his own way. He attacked the bowling. Not without risk and not without a fair portion of misses and edges, including one over slip for four. But when Hildreth bats the score advances. Immediately on arrival he started by leaning into a ball from Worcestershire’s Leach, turned it for two behind square towards the boundary where the old Stragglers bar used to be and in the process sent an early reminder to the ghosts that reside there that the season had started. There is something about Hildreth that turns a workaday stroke into a thing of cricketing beauty. While Renshaw played his deflections with the skill of a technical designer Hildreth played his with the deftness of an artist.
These days Hildreth is not all artist. If the opportunity arises he will use the bludgeon as he did to lift Magoffin over the Caddick Pavilion boundary for six. The upper cut with which he lifted Tongue over backward point and the Ondaatje boundary for another six knew nothing of the bludgeon however. It was as if the artist had painted a masterpiece with one stroke of the brush.
A square drive off Barnard to the Caddick Pavilion boundary brought cries of “Shot!” and “Ohhhh!” from the Ondaatje Stand. It took the breath away. So did the one that he top edged high and straight up into the sun; or rather it caused the heart to stop as Worcestershire’s keeper, Cox, swirled around, tried to blot out the sun with his hand, looked like he might do anything with the ball but catch it and instead guided it into the ground.
Renshaw, as the partnership passed 50, began to master the conditions and the bowling. The thick edges receded whilst the deflections accumulated runs and the straight drives left the fielders standing. To add to his growing tally he chipped Barnard over long leg’s flailing reach for six.
The availability of overseas players is not what it was when Tom Paxton was in his 1970s prime. Then every county had a match-turner or two. Nowadays supporters need to be convinced the right player has been signed. Renshaw was answering questions with every stroke.
He and Hildreth almost made it to Lunch. Hildreth had just clipped Barnard neatly to the old Stragglers’ boundary when he seemed startled by a ball outside off and edged, perhaps chased it, to the keeper for 48. 105 for 3 at Lunch. Hildreth’s wicket was a disappointment but most around me would have settled for 105 for 3 having been asked to bat in mid-April.
A circumnavigation of the ground at lunch found those I spoke to daring to hope that Renshaw was the overseas player Somerset had been looking for. His straight driving remarked on by virtually everyone I spoke to. Those who remembered 7 for 2 were particularly happy although several thought that most of the luck had followed Somerset.
That changed in the afternoon. There were no desperately unlucky dismissals. It was just that the green rubbed Worcestershire’s way as it had rubbed Somerset’s in the morning. I took myself to the top of the Somerset Pavilion to see if the ball was actually moving as much as it appeared to be from square and as much as most I spoke to thought it was. One had received a message from someone watching online. His correspondent was certain the ball was moving. The one that pinned Abell lbw for ten moved in by precisely the amount required to evade the bat and take the pad. Textbook, or so it seemed from 80 yards.
I returned to the Ondaatje Stand as Renshaw responded to the loss of Abell with an off drive to the Trescothick Stand every bit as scintillating as his straight drives. And yet attack as much as he liked this was the First Division and Worcestershire kept going. Davies the next casualty as he followed and edged a ball to Mitchell at slip. 163 for 5. Renshaw responded by straight driving Barnard to the Somerset Pavilion; the bowler checking to see if his hands were still attached to his wrists as the ball whistled past. Whether it had been an attempted stop or catch seemed academic. It went too fast for me to tell from deep cover.
Barnard looked the bowler of the day. He bowled Gregory with a ball which beat the defensive prod and removed the middle stump. He found the edge of Overton’s forward defensive and Cox took the catch. 176 for 7 and Somerset still short of a batting point. The concern around me was that Renshaw might be left stranded short of a century. “He came here to bat at three and finds himself batting with number ten,” someone behind me said. Century approaching or not he played each ball on its merits. He swapped singles with Jack Leach, Leach twice taking a single off the last ball of an over. “He’s pinched the strike. Come on Leachy!” someone said in mock accusation.
When Renshaw’s hundred came it came with a fierce drive to the Caddick Pavilion off the only over of spin in the innings. 197 for 8. The bonus point came up off a wide as Somerset were all out for 202. Only Renshaw, 101 not out, and Hildreth, 48, exceeded Abell’s ten.
Worcestershire’s reply ran straight into Lewis Gregory’s return from back surgery. Mitchell offered a straight bat to a ball that must have moved and it went straight to Hildreth at first slip. Soon Gregory bowled D’Oliviera and pinned Clarke next ball with a ball that looked quick. 17 for 3, the end of the over and Gregory on a hat trick. As he was about to start his next over three people near me left. Whether unconcerned about a possible hat trick or oblivious to it I know not. Or perhaps they had a bus to catch.
There was no hat trick and, as teams do in the First Division, Worcestershire started to make progress as they dug themselves out of adversity. At least until Davey slipped a ball past Fell’s attempted turn to leg, hit the pad and induced the Umpire’s finger into going up. Fell looked questioningly at the umpire until he was nearly half way back to the Pavilion. 47 for 4.
That became 48 for 5 after one of those golden captaincy moments at which Tom Abell is becoming increasingly adept. He put Byrom at short leg to the new batsman Rhodes. Overton bowled and Rhodes turned the next ball straight into Byrom’s hands as he leaned hard forward to take the catch. Had Abell and Byrom been shooting a film scene it would have been wrapped on the first take.
The match was swinging Somerset’s way but the Worcestershire batting suddenly started to reflect the glorious hot, almost too hot, sun that had beaten down since I had arrived at the ground. Travis Head and Cox started to make headway and to make batting look as easy as it had looked all day. But Somerset persisted, as Worcestershire had, with the ball and 93 for 5 turned into 124 for 8 and a healthy first innings lead beckoned for Somerset. The eighth wicket fell when Worcestershire’s Leach, having just driven Davey through the off with the power of Renshaw popped him to Renshaw at cover.
The score provoked a discussion as if cricket could be played to order. Would it be better for Somerset to take the last two wickets quickly and risk some of their own by having to bat again at the end of the day. Or should they take the last two wickets just before the close. Rhodes and Tongue made the decision. They reached 153 for 8, just 49 behind, without looking particularly threatened. Whether because conditions were easing or because Somerset were not quite getting the bowling right was a moot discussion point.
The morning session on the second day will be crucial. It usually is. This just could be one of those matches when the next session will always be crucial. A note of caution though. The last three Worcestershire wickets did have the appearance of coming against the run of the play after 48 for 5. If the pitch is flattening Somerset will need a big score in their second innings.
Close: Somerset 202 (MT Renshaw 101* JC Hildreth 48 EG Barnard 5-52). Worcesterhire 153 for 8. Worcestershire trail by 49 runs with 2 first innings wickets standing.
The original version of this report was published on grockles.com on 21st April 2018.