Hildreth takes it away

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Worcestershire. 20th, 21st and 22nd April 2018. Taunton. Second Day.

Somerset came into the second day with a slim advantage over Worcestershire. The question of whether the customary poor start to the season could be avoided still hanging in the air.

Overnight: Somerset 202. Worcestershire 153 for 8. Worcestershire trail by 49 runs with 2 first innings wickets standing.

James Hildreth produced an innings of determination and class on the second day of this match. Every century stands out in some ways but in the last three seasons Hildreth has produced three innings that have made a particular mark. At least, this century, alongside that of Matt Renshaw in the first innings, will leave a mark if Somerset win this first match of the season. They have not achieved that feat since Vernon Philander and George Dockrell cut through Middlesex in the first match of 2012.

In the last match of each of the last two seasons Hildreth produced two of the all-time great Somerset innings. Against Nottinghamshire in 2016, with Somerset in pursuit of the Championship, he scored a hundred on a broken ankle in an innings of such class it defied belief. In staving off relegation in 2017 on a turning pitch with Somerset under the most intense relegation pressure he produced another.

He was dropped twice here, once before he had scored, but that was just part of the picture of an innings grafted with skill, grit and not a little artistry on an early season pitch giving considerable help to the seamers. He played and missed more times than was comfortable but so did any batsman who stayed long on this pitch. 111 not out at the close. If Somerset win this match they will have much to thank James Hildreth for.

It was a different sort of day at the cricket for me. I had arranged to meet an old schoolfriend I had not seen since 1975. As is the way with these things, at least with me, we had arranged to meet at the cricket but not where at the cricket and I had omitted to put his newly acquired phone number into my phone. I sat on the terrace of the Somerset Pavilion hoping he might have put my number in his phone. Then I noticed a message on my phone announcing he was in the ground. I rang the number and the person sitting in front of me answered.

As is also the way with these things we picked up where we had left off all those years ago as if the years had never happened. They had happened of course and had to be filled in. I imagine the two hour rain break with which the day started passed rather more quickly for us than it did for most. Two lives related in two hours. Including the Somerset matches we had both been at over the years without either being aware of the other’s presence. Most recently last season at the pink ball match at Southampton and the Essex match at Chelmsford. We will not be at matches together again without knowing it.

And so to the cricket. With the onset of the afternoon the rain, Dickensian light and a kaleidoscope of umbrellas which had marked the morning gave way to a sun which threatened to scorch. It was as if the weather had decided to remind us of what Championship cricket on a high summer day was like. We moved to the Ondaatje Stand to catch the sun. “This weather is just ideal for watching cricket,” my friend said. And it was.

Worcestershire started, 49 behind, in summery fashion, attacking the ball, making progress and closing the gap on the Somerset innings. Somerset made progress too. Tongue edged, Trescothick dived long and low, didn’t take the ball and stayed down for a while. A sign, I always think, that perhaps a catch went down. It didn’t matter. Abell, diving low and forward, took the catch offered off the next ball.

Then Barnard, after an impressive 50, shaped a late cut to Overton. “Too late,” someone said as the stumps rattled and Worcestershire were out for 179. Somerset’s lead 23. More like the Championship scores, my memory recalls, from the days in the 1950s when my friend and I started watching Somerset than are common today.

Somerset started the work of building a lead which would deny Worcestershire with edged drives, one from Byrom, the other from Renshaw. They were both hard driven and, as far as you can tell from square, off wide balls. Both ended up safely in the hands of Fell at slip and Somerset were 11 for 2. A lead of just 34.

Hildreth joined Trescothick. My friend and I discussed Hildreth’s reputation for inconsistency. I pointed out he has a First Class average of over 40 and over 40 centuries. He promptly edged to slip and was dropped. 11 for 3 avoided. Then the other side of the ‘inconsistency’. A late cut of perfection to gasps from the crowd. It was as if the cricketing gods had decreed that the catch should go down so that we could see a thing of such beauty.

There followed a partnership of 64 in which Trescothick played an innings of 43 which would have, had the sun not come out, lightened the darkness on its own. A square cut to the Caddick Pavilion sizzled. Off Magoffin, sometimes his nemesis, he showed that Renshaw is not the only player in this side who can straight drive and, for good measure, added an on drive of equal quality. He was out trying to uppercut a short ball from Tongue, perhaps trying to withdraw the bat. He and Hildreth had stretched the lead to nearly 100.

By now my friend and I were on to non-cricketing interests, the theatre in particular, to discover that over the years we had seen a number of the same productions. The law of coincidence being what it is we had probably been in the same theatre on the same night on more than one occasion. Then Hildreth pulled to the Somerset Stand boundary and it was Tea with Somerset 107 for 3, a lead of 130. Not comfortable, we agreed, but, with seven wickets standing it was moving in that direction.

After Tea Hildreth and Abell continued to build the lead. Hildreth playing and missing, cutting and driving, his score mounting. Abell, driving in particular, played with his usual correctness and power, a square drive to the Caddick Pavilion off Leach standing out. At 136 for 3 Hildreth edged Magoffin to slip who put it down.

One of the things about catching up on 43 years while trying to watch the cricket is you miss the odd thing. Sometimes you miss a year, sometimes you miss a wicket. I missed Abell’s. He had made 27, a middling sort of score on this pitch. I half missed Davies’ too. I heard the appeal and looked up in time to see the umpire’s finger go up, Davies standing somewhere between forward and back. I did see Lewis Gregory fatally top edging the ever persistent and effective Barnard without scoring and Somerset had gone from 145 for 3 to 153 for 6. A lead of 176. Certainly not comfortable now.

Day 2 James Hildreth (pulling 4) Copyright Mike Williams
Taking the match away. James Hildreth during his second innings century.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Craig Overton joined Hildreth having been out for a duck in the first innings to Barnard. Now he drove him through cover for four. The Worcestershire bowlers stuck to their task and Somerset, briefly, started to tread water, the ball apparently reluctant to leave the square. But you don’t tread water for long with Overton and Hildreth at the wicket. Overton hit Barnard through mid wicket to the Ondaatje Stand and Hildreth clipped Leach to the Somerset Pavilion and pulled him to the old Stragglers boundary. Overton drove to the Trescothick Stand boundary and then over the same boundary for six.

Overton was bowled by Magoffin for 22 but he and Hildreth had taken the lead to 229 which, provided the pitch does not flatten, would challenge Worcestershire if the Somerset bowlers find the correct line and length. Davey played an innings of 12 which, whilst he was there, looked more assured than I have seen him with the bat.

Jack Leach joined Hildreth, now inching towards his century. My friend had been anxiously looking at his watch for he had a train to catch having come from afar. As is the way with trains my friend’s would not wait for Hildreth to reach his century and so he departed the arena with fingers crossed. So I imagine did Leach for a ball from Barnard crashed into his stumps with Hildreth on 99 and only Groenewald to bat. It took Barnard to his second five wicket haul of the match to add to his fifty in Worcestershire’s innings.

Groenewald knows what to do at number eleven but he was probably glad the edge he got was thick enough to evade the slips and find the Trescothick Stand boundary. Hildreth took the hint and uppercut Tongue to the Ondaatje boundary and found himself on 103. The applause was warm and extended. Before bad light ended play a few overs early Hildreth had cover driven and pulled for two more fours to end on 111 not out. Somerset 255 for 9. A lead of 278 and day on the edge of the seat to follow.

I sent a text to my friend with the news. It was superfluous. He already knew. He had watched the whole thing on his phone. Now you couldn’t have done that in 1975. I really must keep up.

Close: Somerset 202 and 255 for 9. Worcestershire 179 (EG Barnard 50, TM Head 49, L Gregory 4-51, JH Davey 3-38. Somerset lead by 278 runs with 1 second innings wicket standing.

The original version of this report was published on grockles.com on 22nd April 2018.