At last

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

James Hildreth’s second day century had given Somerset a real opportunity to push for their first victory in the opening match of the season for five years.

Overnight: Somerset 202 and 255 for 9. Worcestershire 179. Somerset lead by 278 with 1 second innings wicket standing.

Apart from a late flurry from the last two Worcestershire wickets this was a clinical performance by the Somerset bowlers. They may, as some have said, have looked a little rusty in the first innings; they most certainly did not in the second. It was joyous, as a Somerset supporter, to sit in the Somerset Pavilion next to Gimblett’s Hill and watch such a performance.

This was not a case of winning as an existential, at least in First Division survival terms, imperative as the wins against Lancashire and Middlesex were at the end of last season. Arguably so were the other two Championship wins in 2017, coming as they did after a string of defeats had left Somerset sinking from view in the relegation zone.

In 2016 the wins against Surrey, Durham and Warwickshire were, individually, skin-of-the-teeth wins. Most of the other wins in that year were ‘needs must’ wins if Somerset were to sustain a Championship challenge. Somerset, although at a different end of the table, were playing catch-up in 2016 as well as in 2017.

This win was of a different order. There was pressure not to have another slow start to the season but it was not the sort of pressure which comes from knowing a defeat will mean relegation or the end of a Championship challenge. It was not a ‘catch-up’ match. That has been Somerset’s weakness since their return to the First Division, 2012 apart. The inability to win before the ‘needs must’ pressure of one sort or another builds up. That is what made this win feel different. It was as if a load had been lifted.

I felt no great tension as I walked through the Brian Rose gates on the third morning. In the broad light of day it felt like Somerset would probably win the match. The performance over the first two days had felt like things were coming together. Rusty at times perhaps but the oil worked around the system as the match progressed.

The batting had been the concern in 2017 when a late resurgence of form came almost too late. The classic example of ‘needs must’. Eddie Byrom did not fire in this match but perhaps he was due a failure after the start to his First Class career he made at the end of 2017. Marcus Trescothick, after a first innings failure, looked imperious for his 43 in the second and 43 was not a bad score on this pitch.

Matthew Renshaw’s century was all that could be asked of an overseas player. James Hildreth had some alarums in both innings but his second was an innings of determined graft, of a type which he often only produces when Somerset’s season is in great need, although it was still lit up by slices of genius. Tom Abell’s second innings 27 was played with real authority. Only Steven Davies left a worry. He seemed to be playing across his pads too early in his innings as he did at the start of last season.

Once I was through the gate I had barely said hello to someone when one of Tim Groenewald’s stumps was sent cartwheeling for the 22-year-old Barnard’s 11th wicket in the match. “A good sign,” I said to no-one in particular, “the pitch may still be doing something;” a reference to the first match in 2017 when Essex had chased down 255 on the third day for the loss of two wickets as a sporty pitch flattened.

Now would come the test of whether Somerset’s new cricket management and revised pre-season preparation, including marquee nets designed to enhance preparation on grass, had made a difference.

The answer was not long in coming. Lewis Gregory ran in with a beautiful rhythm and smooth action. He bowled at a pace which had not appeared to be there in 2017. It was a joy to watch. A vision of artistry as striking in its way as Hildreth’s batting. The operation on his injured back seeming to bear fruit as witnessed by Daryl Mitchell’s off and middle stumps being viciously uprooted. ‘Comprehensively bowled’ used to be the term in the old days. It will serve too for this dismissal. Worcestershire were 4 for 1 in pursuit of 279.

I remember watching Basil D’Oliviera play and not just at the end of his career. Now I was watching his grandson. ‘Fugit inreparabile tempus’ as Virgil had it. ‘It escapes, irretrievable time” as the all-knowing internet translates it. And time has done just that and it is irretrievable.

Brett D’Oliviera did not long hold up time today as Josh Davey, continuing a confident and competent start to the season, appeared to move the ball in and pinned him lbw. When Gregory hit Clarke on the pad with a ball that glinted in the sun as it seemed to keep low the, these days, timely scoreboards recorded 25 for 3. The match was now shaping nicely into the sort of start to the season which has eluded Somerset for half a decade.

The First Division is not easy. Fell and Head promptly started to make progress. At 55 for 3, congenitally pessimistic when watching Somerset, I turned to someone and said, “We need another wicket.” 55 for 4 as Groenewald answered my prayer. He generated some lift, Head chased it, edged the ball, Davies jumped high to his right and took the catch.

The pressure was now bearing down heavily on Worcestershire as it has borne down on Somerset so often at the start of the season. At the start of this season it was Somerset who systematically increased the pressure on the opposition. Worcestershire increasingly looked like they felt it. Fell chased a tantalising delivery from Overton just wide enough to tempt the stroke. He missed but the cries of “Ohhhh” from around the ground told the tale. It looked to be a stroke played more in desperation than anticipation.

Next Fell edged a delivery from Groenewald which flew off the edge of the bat to Trescothick’s hip at second slip from where it tumbled to the ground. It was the second or third drop in the match for Trescothick, depending on whether a low one carried. Some wondered if his reactions are slowing. No-one should be surprised if he shows they are still quick enough to pluck balls out of the air as they fly to the slips.

When Rhodes edged Groenewald, Renshaw, at third slip, dived low to his right and took a sharp chance even by slip catching standards. He is a tall man too. Even I felt 63 for 5 was secure enough for me to take my eyes off the cricket for a moment or two. The sky was a combination of high white clouds and strands of blue. The warmth was spring, rather than the previous day’s summer, but the breeze reminded us that winter had paid a visit not so very long ago. There were three school children on the Somerset Pavilion terrace which was refreshing for a Championship match and the cricket and the weather had produced the statutory dozen people watching from the balconies of the flats.

Lunch was made heaven when it fell as Gregory had the quietly persevering Fell lbw for 41. Worcestershire had subsided to 83 for 6, still 196 from victory. It seemed to confirm a growing feeling of inevitability about the morning’s proceedings after Somerset had battled their way to what now felt like dominance over the first two days.

A circumnavigation of the ground revealed general relief rather than excitement at the prospect of a win in the first game. There was also much comment on the performance of Barnard who had been a thorn in the advancing Somerset side throughout the game.

The pre-season marquee, sometimes referred to as “the tent”, may have been a crucial innovation given the weather this spring and the lack of match practice. Somerset had not done things by halves. The marquee was longer than those leased by most counties to ensure that the Somerset pace bowlers could bowl off their full runs. Presumably of benefit to both them and the Somerset batsmen.

There was careful management of the pitches within the marquee to ensure maximum usage. It meant practice with a ball behaving naturally off grass rather than less variably in an indoor net. It also meant that practice could continue unabated when there was a foot of snow on the ground or the pitches outside the marquee were too wet to use.

Perhaps ‘mopping up’ is an unfortunate term to think of using in this season with its wettest of pre-season starts but that is what Somerset did after Lunch, although it took them rather longer than they had probably anticipated. It took eight overs before Cox tried to leave Davey by lifting his bat to the horizontal, face down along the line of the ball and a foot or so above the stumps. Davey must have generated some bounce for the ball glanced neatly off the bat and straight into the stumps. 103 for 7.

Barnard was dropped at slip, my line of sight obscured so I could not see the fielder. Then Hildreth rehabilitated the slips by catching one off Leach which flew fast towards his head or thereabouts. 121 for 8. We all relaxed now. Worcestershire still 154 short of their target. The batsmen may have relaxed too for they started to lay about them, the apparent certainty of defeat perhaps releasing the pressure. They started to lift the score with some well hit attacking strokes aided by a few edges and a number of balls which evaded the edge, if only just.

In one over from Groenewald, Tongue drove hard and missed two balls in succession. Barnard came down the wicket to offer advice. Whatever he said the result was a well struck three, driven to the Botham Stand, soon followed by a boundary to the Ondaatje Stand. 158 for 8. Worcestershire 121 short. Still safe enough it seemed but one or two pairs of eyes were glancing at the scoreboard more often than they had been half an hour before.

“Worth bringing Leach on,” someone ventured as the chill in the wind picked up. Barnard edged but I couldn’t see if it carried to Davies, one of the downsides of sitting anywhere near straight. Sometimes the thinking of captain and crowd align for Leach started to warm up. Overton promptly went straight through Tongue who then popped the next ball straight back to him, chest high, for one of the easier caught and bowleds, although I imagine the bowler’s follow through makes very few easy.

Magoffin came in to face Overton with five slips lined up with the Botham Stand as backdrop. Overton went straight through him as well, this time to a huge spontaneous appeal, although without effect. But batting had looked easier for the most part since the eighth wicket fell. Magoffin drove Overton through mid-off to the covers store and Barnard pushing towards his second 50 of the match hit him for six to the Ondaatje Stand.

Leach eventually came on but the innings was ended by a Renshaw throw from the Ondaatje boundary which seemed to leave Magoffin perhaps a yard short as Barnard tried to retain the strike and Somerset had won by 83 runs. Barnard was stranded just five runs short of a second fifty in the match in which he had taken 11 wickets including two five wicket hauls. Some thought Renshaw’s foot had been over the line in fielding the ball but I was too far away, at the far end of the Somerset Pavilion, to see or even be aware there might have been an issue. I imagine Renshaw was no more aware than I was.

At last. Somerset had won their first match of the season for the first time since 2012 and, for the most part, had controlled proceedings. It left an odd feeling, at least with me. Not the normal excitement which accompanies a win. More sheer relief that the team would not, once again, start the season with a disappointment. Some said Worcestershire are relegation favourites. Perhaps they are although Barnard will give them a lift. Even if it is the case this was a mighty step forward for Somerset for the match still had to be won and the team still had to come together and perform as a unit.

And in spite of all that Somerset find themselves in fifth place in the very embryonic table. However, they are only six points behind the early leaders Yorkshire who are the visitors at Taunton on Friday. In a 14-match season every game is important but the next one could be very important indeed. If there is to be any thought of a tilt at the Championship in 2018 it may be a case of ‘must win’, or at the very least not lose, already.

Result: Somerset 202 (MT Renshaw 101*, JC Hildreth 48, EG Barnard 5-52) and 255 (JC Hildreth111*, ME Trescothick 43, EG Barnard 6-37). Worcestershire 179 (EG Barnard 50, TM Head 49, L Gregory 4-51, JH Davey 3-38) and 195 (EG Barnard 45*, TC Fell 41, L Gregory 3-35, TD Groenewald 3-51). Somerset won by 83 runs. Somerset 20 points. Worcestershire 3 points.

The original version of this report was first posted on grockles.com on 23rd April 2018.