The balance shifts

County Championship Division 1. Lancashire v Somerset. 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th May 2018. Old Trafford. Second Day.

Somerset entered the second day of this match with a solid base but with still some way to go if they were to control the match.  

Overnight: Somerset 321 for 5.

By the end of the day I was recalling Marcus Trescothick’s adage from the early days of his captaincy that at Taunton you needed to bat last to win the match. I wondered if that applied to Old Trafford in this match for by the end of the day the prospects of Somerset taking another wicket seemed to be setting with the sun. Conditions for batting looked, by then, even easier than they had on the first day.

I had arrived at the ground in the nick of time having not finished my homework the night before and, not having a smartphone, being unable to finish it on the bus on the way to the ground. I sat down under the glowering presence of the ‘Point’ at 10.59 ‘precisely’ as the ‘Speaking Clock’ used to say. The sun was beating down gloriously. There was not a sign of the cloud that had enveloped the ground on the first day.

It was certainly a day for batting. And yet by the end of it Trescothick’s innings on the first day stood out from the two centuries and three near centuries scored over the sum of the first two days. In comparison to the other four innings Trescothick’s had been scored at a significantly greater pace, albeit with a little more consequent risk, and had shone out a class above the others. His injury almost certainly resulting in the loss of his wicket and an inability to bat in the second innings may yet put Somerset under some pressure.

And so to the Somerset batting on the second morning. Until the very end Abell played with the assurance, precision and certainty that is now becoming the trademark of his innings once he is set. He seemed to play the ‘flick’ to leg which seems too often to be his downfall rather less in this innings than has been his norm. Perhaps he drew breath after playing it to Bailey early in the day with the resulting boundary just evading the keeper’s dive. I couldn’t judge how close the keeper got to the ball but his reluctance to get up suggested disappointment.

Abell’s response to the next ball was altogether different. He drove hard into the ground and back over Bailey’s head for four. The ball, as has so often happened in this match with its long boundaries, teased the chasing fielder all the way to the boundary before winning the race to the rope by feet.

Abell plays, that leg side flick apart, with less risk than Trescothick and less flair than Hildreth. His strokes could have been the ones on which the old ‘MCC Coaching Manual’ was based. He is the epitome of batting correctness. Some of his drives call up the old commentator’s term ‘peremptory’ as they are punched off the bat to the boundary. A back foot square drive off Mennie and a cover drive off Bailey come particularly to mind and would have served as a picture dictionary description of that word.

An on drive off Mennie was leaned into with such ease and with such result it was difficult to understand how such power came from such economy of effort. ‘Timing’, as my elders tried to explain, with no result whatsoever, to my childhood self. The next ball Abell straight drove for three as, for once, the ball misjudged its run to the boundary and was snared by the fielder. Those two strokes took him into the 90s.

The classical world of perfect timing which Abell inhabits when he is in form seemed to change when he reached 99. It was in part changed by Lancashire for suddenly the defensive field was transformed into an infield of six set tight to save the single. Mennie kept the ball up and straight and tied Abell down. Abell’s strokes continued to provide examples for the coaching manual but now they were defensive, played to those encroaching fielders.

The penetration of his earlier batting seemed absent, the single run needed for his century elusive as he awaited the ball with which he could pierce that field. Once he jabbed down on a ball from Parkinson which squeezed through and scrabbled its way just far enough beyond the keeper for the batsman to scamper through for a single. The crowd’s rising, if hesitant, applause for Abell’s century cut short by the certainty of the rising of the umpire’s arm. One bye. The next time the umpire raised his arm it was because Abell’s pad had obstructed a ball from Mennie on its way to the stumps.

IMG_1111 Lancs v Som Day 2 Abell wicket
Contemporaneous note.
Author’s notes of Abell’s ‘phantom’ century.

It is the third time I have seen Abell out in the 90s. The first was his 95 on his first-class debut for Somerset. On that occasion, as his century and Gimblett’s eight decade old record for a Somerset born player of a century on debut for Somerset approached, his scoring rate slowed to such an extent it almost came without surprise when he was out.

The second was in 2017 in his ‘comeback’ innings after being dropped for poor form when he was out on the second morning for 96. He had looked in no trouble at all in reaching 88 not out on the previous day before rain ended play early. He seemed to bat a long time on the following morning for two imperious boundaries before falling to that genie that seems to sit on his shoulders, the legside flick.

As to the rest of the Somerset innings here the lower order batting did not quite stretch the total to the lengths that the pitch and overhead conditions were by then suggesting would provide absolute security for Somerset. Gregory started by playing with great care. He took a good and lengthy sighting of the ball before driving with that familiar confidence of stroke through mid wicket and square leg, both to the boundary. Then, as so often, having set up the expectation of more, he shattered the vision as he pushed at a ball outside off and was caught at slip off Bailey for ten.

Overton never really suggested the sort of permanence Gregory had hinted at but he took Somerset further forward. He drove hard and wide at his first ball which flew at catchable height wide of the slips for four bringing cries of ‘Ooooh,’ from Somerset and Lancashire supporters alike. He did though keep going and stretched his innings to 28.

More to the point he stayed with the, by then, accelerating Abell in a stand of 61 in 14 overs. It took Somerset past 400, provided some impetus to the innings and some hope that the controlling uplands beyond 450 might be reached. On the way he clinically pulled a Parkinson loosener for four and drove him back over his head for another four. He also played and missed, edged along the ground to gully and finally drove to Anderson at mid wicket. A curate’s egg of an innings for which Somerset must have been grateful.

From there, on the cusp of those match controlling heights, the innings subsided from 416 for 6 to 429 all out. Leach seemed unable to fathom Parkinson’s leg breaks and soon top edged gently to the keeper. Abell finally succumbed to Mennies’ precision and, after Groenewald had taken revenge on Mennie by pulling him into the huge empty stand at square leg for six, van Meekeren was lbw to Parkinson having just swept him for four. Lancashire had snatched a fingertip hold on the match.

They then started their innings, Davies in particular, by attacking Gregory to such an extent he was taken out of the attack after three overs. He was replaced by Groenewald who was as miserly as Gregory had seemed profligate. He soon revenged Gregory with a ball slightly too wide for the cut which Davies edged behind. The appeal from Groenewald more relieved than triumphant.

Overton did not take a wicket all day but consistently looked the bowler most likely to. Davies had top edged him just short of long leg running around to fine leg and he beat the bat convincingly several times in his opening spell. Later in the day when he returned against the, by then, well entrenched Lancashire batsmen a wicket would not have been a surprise.

Leach took the other Lancashire wicket to fall, Livingstone, to a good slip catch by Gregory on the move to reduce Lancashire to 48 for 2. Or so I was told for I had missed it whilst sneaking off to buy a packet of crisps. For the most part Leach seemed to be getting no assistance from the wicket, at least as far as I could tell from wide third man. It did not stop him troubling Jennings throughout his innings.

On one occasion Jennings tried to sweep Leach twice in succession. Jennings missed one and the other he edged along the ground to slip. “Play it properly Jennings!” shouted an irate Lancastrian voice from further up the stand. Not ‘Keaton’ as it would have been at Chester-le-Street I noticed. My informant for the Gregory catch later said to me, “Jennings has been a bit lucky to survive today,” for in addition to his problems with Leach he had not been entirely convincing against the pace bowlers at the start of his innings.

Not so Vilas. He started slowly, very slowly, but was playing with total control and measured assurance by the end. Any hope that Jennings might have put in the minds of Somerset supporters by his periodic scrabbling against Leach was put into doubt when Vilas hit Leach for two successive sixes forcing mid on back to the boundary. He was steadily closing the gap on Jennings’ score by the end of the day. And Lancashire were steadily closing the gap on the Somerset score to the extent that the balance of the match was shifting.

By the close I imagine the Somerset team must have been happy to leave the field to regroup for the morning with Lancashire past half way to the Somerset total with just two wickets down. The hope for Somerset must be that either Jennings or Vilas, even both, might fall early on the third morning as batsmen with overnight scores often do. Beyond that the new ball is due after 12 overs. If Overton receives a due proportion of the luck that went against him on the second day, particularly in his opening spell, he should receive some reward.

Just a comment on the nature of the pitch, although this is not being critical of Lancashire given Somerset’s propensity to produce such pitches in the not too distant past. It made for very enjoyable watching when your own side was batting. It made for a very long day when the opposition was batting. The joys and the pain evenly distributed across the days I suppose.

What someone new to the game might have made of such a generally one-sided contest between bat and ball I am not so sure. I overheard a vintage Lancashire member talking to a junior member of staff. The member was drooling over what he described as “pure” cricket. The young member of staff with a preference for T20, said the day’s cricket was not for him because he liked to see “something happening”. It was said without irony as the generations collided.

I looked around the stand and as far as I could see and beyond into the Pavilion terrace. The crowd consisted almost entirely of retirement aged men, a greater proportion even than at Taunton in the Championship. A few, very few, women and not very many spectators of a younger age. And this was the most glorious of weekend summer days.

Not to put too fine a point on it the Championship is to a great extent playing to a diminishing generation. If it is to attract a new generation perhaps it might be better played on the type of pitches that have produced the sort of gripping of cricket we have seen at Taunton during the last season or two and not on this sort.

Close: Somerset 429 (GA Bartlett 110, ME Trescothick 100, TB Abell 99, MW Parkinson 3-80, TE Bailey 3-112). Lancashire 217 for 2. Lancashire trail by 212 runs with 8 first innings wickets standing.

The original version of this report was published on on 6th May 2018.