Somerset’s Arctic expedition

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Yorkshire. 28th, 29th and 30th April 2018. Taunton. Third Day.

Somerset started the day in a strong position. However with rain in the forecast, a seam friendly pitch perhaps liable to ease, Yorkshire having last use of it and the first day having been lost to rain the team would have to retain is focus if victory was to be achieved.

Overnight: Somerset 216 and 6 for 0. Yorkshire 96. Somerset lead by 126 runs with 10 second innings wickets standing.

There was a chill wind at the Cooper Associates County Ground today that put yesterday’s depredations in the shade. It was so cold in the breeze that if the only habitat of the arctic tern were the top of the Somerset Pavilion the species would now be extinct. It wasn’t the wind that blew the stumps over though. It was the bowling. Brooks and Coad began for Yorkshire where they had left off at the end of Somerset’s first innings. They bowled with fire, accuracy and movement in the air and off the seam.

Someone I spoke to later in the day who had watched from the terrace at the top of the Somerset Pavilion said the movement had continued all day and it certainly did in the few minutes I braved the unremitting gale that blew there. The seam movement was perfectly visible from the wider angle from my seated perch at the other end of the top of the Somerset Pavilion. Whatever the proportions of seam and swing it was not a day for batsmen.

This match has been a striking example of what Justin Langer used to call a continuous arm wrestle of a Championship match. Both teams’ arms have been near the table, particularly Yorkshire’s but neither has quite succumbed. Twice Yorkshire have been near submission but each time they have found the determination and skill to come back. Once Somerset’s arm wobbled and then revived. At the end of the second day of play, Yorkshire, their arm apparently subsiding, have at least held firm enough to keep hope alive.

My pre-play anti-clockwise circumnavigation of the ground was punctuated by the usual greetings and passing of comments on the game from those on clockwise circumnavigations. The most frequent comment being, “What a day!” The reference being to the previous day’s cricket rather than this day’s polar wind. Pre-match circumnavigations of a cricket ground are part of the comforting emotional hinterland which is the timeless ambience into which County Championship cricket is set.

As Somerset came out to continue their second innings I struck up a longer conversation and sat perfectly square for a few overs in the front row of the Somerset Stand. Not the ideal place to gauge movement of the ball but the perfect place to watch its consequences. My conversant and I ruminated on the impact of the ECB’s proposed brand new 100 ball competition and its implications for counties outside those which will host it. As we talked the oldest form of domestic First Class cricket erupted, as spectacularly as any T20 match, before our eyes.

SvY Day 2 Marcus Trescothick ct Adam Lyth bld Ben Coad Photo copyright Mike Williams
Marcus Trescothick edges Ben Coad to Lyth at slip.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Trescothick edged to slip and was gone for two, his third single figure score in four innings. Renshaw drove mightily and a stump flew furiously. Brooks the bowler. Hildreth threatened momentarily with two boundaries, including an audacious upper cut off Coad backward of point to the Ondaatje boundary. Then he too drove at Brooks only to find a stump detached from its moorings.

I decided to regain my perch and marched quickly past anxious faces on Gimblett’s Hill. As I emerged from the stairwell at the top of the Somerset Pavilion, and totally unsighted, a huge appeal went up, followed by a momentary silence, then a ripple of applause and finally chatter. It was the tell-tale sound of a Somerset wicket falling. ‘Bartlett c Hodd b Coad 4’ said the scoreboard, adding that the score was 24 for 4 but that the lead was 144.

That is the thing about a large first innings lead when the scores are small. Add the lead to the second innings score and the combined total begins to look like a mountain, or at least the beginnings of one. It must start to feel like that too for the opposition players. Nevertheless, the match, if not quite in the balance, was allowing Yorkshire’s arm to rise more than a little away from the table.

24 for 4 with Tom Abell and Steven Davies at the wicket. Both in need of runs and neither with a run to his name in this innings. If not a tipping point in the match it was certainly one in the innings. Brooks and Coad for the second time in the match were carrying the Yorkshire banner, but almost alone.

The buzz that had permeated the stands between the bouts of Somerset applause and cheering throughout most of the first day had been replaced by an anxious communal mumble. At the same time, if such a thing were possible, the air was getting colder. The contingent on the balconies of the flats had again been reduced to an outpost of six. The crowd in the ground seemed slightly larger than on the first day but well short of the 2000 or so that had turned up on each of the first two days in the summer warmth of the Worcestershire game.

Abell and Davies started to weather the storm and then began to turn Brooks and Coad square to get the scoreboard moving. Their strokes were played with care and the fielders chased the ball with hope of success. As the score began to rise and the lead to extend beyond 150 the bowlers looked a little less threatening and Abell and Davies began to play with a little more freedom. Somerset’s arm beginning to bear down again on Yorkshire’s.

Bresnan and Waite replaced Brooks and Coad and the suspicion that Yorkshire’s third and fourth seamers were not as effective as Somerset’s in this match gained ground. Abell and Davies started to take advantage and began to push Yorkshire back. Their strokes began to take on a confidence and assurance that raised the hopes of anyone watching in the Somerset interest.

As if to mark the shift in the balance of the innings the sun came out of hiding for a few minutes and lit up the Quantocks. Although it never lights up the back of the Somerset Pavilion until very late in the day some of us thought we could detect a slight rise in temperature, if only and tantalisingly, briefly.

This match does not move continuously in one direction for long. Ballance brought back Brooks and Coad before he must ideally have wanted to and before they must have wanted to test their lungs again. Somerset raised supporters’ hopes when Abell and Davies took the lead past 200. The sun marked the moment by taking refuge behind a cloud lower than the rest, the light dipped and Davies edged first short of slip and then to slip. 90 for 5. Lead 210. Davies’ 33 was a solid contribution in the prevailing conditions but 210, although perhaps competitive, was not a decisive lead.

SvY Day 2 Steve Davies 4 runs (2) Photo copyright Mike Williams
Stephen Davies (33) finds the boundary during his crucial 66 run fifth wicket partnership with Tom Abell.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Both sides needed a push. Somerset’s came in the form of a succession of short partnerships built around Abell. Yorkshire’s in the form of continued exertions from Brooks and particularly Coad with some late assistance from Bresnan.

Gregory and Brooks first. Gregory was met by ‘Oooohs!’ from the crowd and appeals from the fielders as Brooks first went past the edge of his bat and then slammed into his pad. Gregory responded by lifting Brooks over the Caddick Pavilion boundary for six and then pulling him there for four. Next he pulled the returning Waite to the Somerset Stand for four. Then he played a ball that cut in viciously with his pad and trudged back to the Pavilion for 14. It had been that sort of match.

Overton joined Abell only for Waite to send his first ball past the edge of his bat. The second found a thick outside edge and ran down to the Trescothick stand for four. It was the sort of instant cut and thrust that made Errol Flynn’s name and it made for compulsive if breath-missing viewing.

Lunch arrived with Somerset on 113 for 6. A lead of 233 and an improving forecast for the last day.

After Lunch Overton fought his way to 18 aided by a powerful square drive to the Caddick Pavilion. Then Brooks beat and then bowled him. Brooks was as persistent as he was accurate and testing. 129 for 7. Lead 249. Abell, who had been making progress with pushes, deflections and the occasional and powerful boundary nudged the lead past 250 and his gradually rising score into the 40s. 250 was enough on this pitch some thought but this was cricket and the nagging doubt always wants more. At Taunton the nagging doubt always quotes in evidence the pitch’s history of flattening during the third day.

Bess was welcomed by a ball from Brooks that flew past the edge of his bat as he withdrew it and then by another that flew past as he didn’t. Abell, perhaps knowing the tail would have a limited life against Brooks, Coad and the pitch, began to force the pace. He drove Brooks powerfully and with typical correctness to the old Stragglers boundary. The stroke would have met with the approval of those who once frequented that place. He followed it with a steer to third man for three to bring up his fifty to tremendous and extended applause.

As Somerset extended their lead Bess lived dangerously particularly in one over from Coad. He guided one ball through third man for four, played and missed at two in a row, left one, played and missed again and then edged one along the ground to slip. It was not an entirely untypical over on this day even if it exaggerates a little to make the point.

As the over progressed Coad’s shoulders seemed to sag. It occurred to me that Yorkshire had gone very quiet in the field. The lead had reached 266 and perhaps they needed something to go their way. One or two of their supporters were beginning to look resigned whilst Somerset supporters just wanted the score to climb.

Abell pushed Somerset further forward with a cover drive and an on drive and Bess joined in with a cover drive of his own. The anxious mumble in the stands turned to a relaxed chatter as Abell and Bess added 42 and took Somerset to a lead of 291 and the Yorkshire field was virtually silent.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Yorkshire’s wrestling arm was finally being pushed right back. But that is not the way of this match. Somerset lost Bess (14), Davey (11) and Abell (82) for 29 runs, a score of precisely 200 and a lead of 320. Yorkshire’s arm flexing again with 321 needed to win. Abell, having played a true captain’s innings, walked off to extended applause having steered the lower order through upwards of 100 runs.

The temperature in the Somerset Pavilion was by now quite literally turning some faces blue. Every ounce of clothing was buttoned to the waist and to the chin. Those with gloves the envy of those with only pockets. As the players were driven off early for Tea by bad light with Yorkshire on 13 for 0 I decided to try another circumnavigation in the hope of relief. I found it in front of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion where, sheltered from the wind, the temperature was only subarctic.

I decided to abandon my circumnavigation and found a rare perch in that comparative haven in the company of two well wrapped refugees from Gimblett’s Hill. The reason for their presence was obvious when I looked across the ground. The usually packed benches of Gimblett’s Hill were but sparsely populated by what looked from that distance to be the remnants of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. I cannot remember seeing it so deserted with two hours play left in the day.

The light relented and after Tea out into this frozen wasteland the rules of cricket demanded the players return. The sight that awaited them looked for all the world like a crowd consisting of several hundred grim-faced Arctic explorers, their supplies of food and the hot contents of flasks long since exhausted. They were dotted steadfastly around the ground as a newly minted Siberian wind swept all else before it.

Then in a Kafkaesque scene of irrational disconnect two men dressed in summer-white jackets and sporting sun hats marched serenely out into the scene followed by 13 players intent not on survival but on playing cricket. And accompanying the ghosts of the old Stragglers might have been that of a wry Robert Browning declaiming, “Oh to be in England now that April’s there…” I wonder what Matthew Renshaw thought of it all.

As to the final session. Somerset’s bowlers met with some of the frustrations that Brooks and Coad had met earlier. Balls passing the edge of bats or the off stump more than you would think the law of averages would allow. Somehow Yorkshire survived the cold and the ball for the loss of one wicket, Brook caught at slip by Trescothick off Davey after a fumble. Whether Trescothick was feeling for the ball or his hands I know not. Those near me seemed to think the wicket going to Davey was only justice given the quality of his first innings bowling for the return of one tail end wicket. In the end either the light or the umpires took pity for play was ended early due to bad light, firstly at about 5.10 and then for good about an hour later after another four arctic overs.

And so the match moves into its final day with Yorkshire on 49 for 1 scored at two an over and needing another 272 to win. The forecast which has promised rain tomorrow for most of the last week now promises a dry day with sun appearing and temperatures rising as the day progresses. That probably favours Yorkshire. The experience of watching play on this pitch suggests the luck which went Yorkshire’s way in the final session must surely swing Somerset’s in the morning and that 320 is just too much of an ‘ask’ on this pitch. History, begging to differ, argues that this pitch may flatten tomorrow.

And so to one of the great glories of cricket whatever the temperature. What will happen tomorrow and which arm will be pushed flat to the table? As Patrick Moore used to say, “We just don’t know.”

Close: Somerset 216 and 200 (TB Abell 82, BO Coad 4-61, JA Brooks 3-44). Yorkshire 96 and 49-1. Yorkshire need a further 272 runs to win with 9 second innings wickets standing.

The original version of this report was published on on 30th April 2018.