Lancashire advance. Abell rebels.

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

Somerset’s excellent start to the season had received its first serious check on the second day of this match when Lancashire batted themselves into a position which threatened superiority. For Somerset’s bowlers, who had been dominant in the previous match against Yorkshire, there was some serious work to do. 

Overnight: Somerset 429. Lancashire 217 for 2. Lancashire trail by 212 runs with 8 first innings wickets standing.

In spite of scoring 429 in their first innings Somerset entered the third day of this match on the back foot. Lancashire’s overnight 217 for 2 meant, short of a significant breakthrough by their bowlers on the third morning, Somerset had lost the advantage gained through winning the toss and batting. The risk of Lancashire building a total large enough to put Somerset under pressure on the last day of the match was real.

I was late leaving for the ground, a decision to write my second day post entirely on the third morning to recoup some sleep lost the night before writing the first day post had seen to that. Fortunately, the buses run on time and Manchester is a friendly place. The driver, as did the one on the second day, stopped the bus to let me off outside the main gates to the ground rather than at the bus stop some distance up the road.

I still missed Leach’s dismissal of Jennings. I was not entirely surprised that Jennings was the one to go because Vilas had appeared to me the superior player on the second day. 258 for 3 when I first saw the scoreboard. Somerset had at least held the overnight line I thought but still much to do if they were to push Lancashire back far enough to even up the game.

“Somerset have taken the new ball,” said the announcer in a tone that suggested he held it to be a matter of dread. Gregory promptly beat Vilas with the first ball with it. Then Overton, reaping some reward for some consistently good bowling thus far in this match, pinned Chanderpaul lbw. 283 for 4 and two wickets for Somerset within the first hour or so. Somerset were holding Lancashire, even pushing their overnight advantage back a little.

The crowd was quieter than on the second day. A contemplative mumble, rather than the aviary-like chatter of the previous evening, perhaps reflecting the fact that the game felt like it was approaching a tipping point. Somerset had gained enough purchase since the start of play to form a base to apply pressure. Lancashire still had enough batting to take the game away from Somerset.

Lancashire struck first. No sooner had Chanderpaul departed than Vilas launched a coruscating assault on the Somerset new ball attack. His driving, his on driving in particular, against Gregory and Overton showed a determined disregard for the new ball which scorched along the grass as Somerset fought to contain the assault.

One drive was so ferocious it went under van Meekeren’s apparently well-timed dive. Bess is one of Somerset’s best chasing outfielders and probably the best judge of how close to the boundary boards to continue a chase. He gave aggressive chase to the escaping ball but had to relent in the face of the fast approaching boards just as the ball crossed the rope.

Vilas drove Gregory three times in an over, Van Meekeren’s dive to contain a straight drive only managed to divert it to another part of the boundary. After seven overs of the new ball Somerset’s advantage was barely 100 with only four Lancashire wickets down. Abell was forced hard back on the defensive. He withdrew Gregory and Overton from the attack.

Just once in a while, on a given day, however hard a team plays, someone from the opposition steps above the fray and threatens to impose himself. On this day it was Vilas who threatened. Leach replaced Overton at the Statham End and Vilas hit his first ball straight back over his head for four. From where I sat it was as if Vilas had decided to try to break the Somerset attack.

This Somerset attack is not so easily or quickly broken. Groenewald joined Leach as together they stood firm and resisted Vilas’ assault. Groenewald key to this. Whenever Abell has turned to him in this match he has restrained the batsmen. In a Lancashire innings played at nearly three and a half runs an over he has conceded only a fraction, and quite a small fraction, over two.

It is crucial when bowling on a flat pitch to have some control. The pressure Groenewald and Leach applied to Lancashire was enough for Leach to induce Croft into an edge to Gregory at slip. 329 for 5, exactly 100 behind. 330 for 5 at Lunch. Still the balance of the match was in Lancashire’s favour, but probably no more than it had been at the start of the day. Somerset were holding the line under the most intense pressure.

After Lunch Vilas and Clark worked to push the match firmly in Lancashire’s direction. As in any good contest they worked diligently to increase the pressure. The boundaries did not come as often as in that assault on the new ball. They didn’t need to. This match, still in the first innings well into the third day, could not be won over four full innings. To have any chance of shaping a victory Lancashire would have to build a first innings lead sufficient to pressurise Somerset’s second innings and perhaps hope for some turn on the last afternoon.

For nearly two hours Vilas and Clark accumulated with pushes either side of the wicket and turns to leg occasionally punctuated with spectacular drives and cuts. As the partnership grew Somerset found themselves under the most severe pressure. And still a combination of the bowlers and fielders holding to task, constantly testing the batsmen, and Lancashire perhaps recognising the importance of a period of accumulation, saw Lancashire’s advance held to little more than three an over.

At 383 for 5 Somerset’s 429 was looking worryingly vulnerable. Then van Meekeren in a fast attacking spell finally induced an edge from Vilas. It dipped low to Gregory at a wide slip. I was in the line of the ball directly behind Gregory. I watched it all the way to his hands perhaps three or four inches off the ground. Momentarily it seemed to stick and then dropped to the ground. It was a desperate miss. The sort, in these circumstances, that must test the resolve of a fielding side to the core.

It did not deter Somerset. They fought on. The fielders attacked the ball wherever they could and chased it hard whenever it went past them. It kept the Lancashire running honest. Several times one or other batsman set off on a run only to be sent scampering back. Throughout this period the air was scattered with shouts of, “NO!” and “WAIT!” as a fielder closed faster on the ball than one or other batsmen perhaps had thought possible.

The score passed 420, Lancashire still only five wickets down, with Vilas and Clark in little apparent difficulty, restricted only in the speed of their advance. Talk among Somerset supporters turned to thoughts of a nail-biting final afternoon of grim defence. With no Trescothick to bat, as someone said to me at Tea, “We will start one down and I can’t believe Anderson will finish a Championship match without having an influence on it.”

Cricket is an unpredictable beast. Sometimes the unexpected happens and the unexpected can come from a totally unexpected direction. Clark had just reached his fifty and Lancashire had just passed Somerset’s total still only five down. A very uncomfortable, for Somerset, Lancashire first innings lead was beckoning. Against Yorkshire, in Somerset’s second innings, Abell had played a captain’s innings which consolidated Somerset’s winning position. Here he bowled, the rather less common, captain’s bowling spell.

Taking the fight to Lancashire, as he had to Yorkshire, at a crucial time Abell knocked Clark’s off stump clean out of the ground. It was difficult to work out how Abell had beaten him. Discussion with Somerset supporters evoked no consensus or, more to the point, no idea as to how it had happened apart from some hope it might have been movement. A subsequent look at video highlights showed Clark had simply played down the wrong line. A basic error to a basic off stump ball.

Vilas responded by pulling Leach for four but the wicket had opened a breach in Lancashire’s advancing line. Abell charged straight through it. He promptly sent Mennie’s off stump flying. Bailey got his pad in front of the stumps and up went the umpire’s finger. Abell’s next ball resulted in another huge appeal and in Anderson being given out caught behind. It was one of those appeals which sounded so certain of the outcome it formed more of an instruction to the umpire than a question. A view of the highlights suggested Abell had found just a little movement this time.

IMG_1112 Lancs v Som Day 3 Abell's 4 wkt spell
Contemporaneous note.
Author’s notes of the last three wickets In Abell’s shock four wicket spell.

431 for 5 had become 443 for 9. Abell had not exactly turned the match but he had stopped Lancashire dead in their tracks and had as good as evened the match up.

But, as I am inclined to say, this was the First Division. Vilas and Lancashire were not quite done yet. Vilas was joined by Parkinson whom he worked to protect. At the same time he tried to score himself against the customary last wicket field of eight on the boundary for the first four balls of every over he faced. It would be an interesting piece of analysis which tried to identify how often this tactic actually works. From mere impression I am not convinced it does often enough. It didn’t here.

Parkinson received something of the inevitable working over by the Somerset pace attack whenever he found himself on strike. He was hit by van Meekeren on the stroke of Tea. The timing of Tea though said something about the tenacity of the partnership. Tea had been delayed half an hour by the fall of the ninth wicket but still had to be taken.

Shortly after Tea, van Meekeren finally got some reward for his pace and persistence when Parkinson edged him low and very fast to slip. Overton, as he so often does there, took an outstanding catch. Parkinson and Vilas, who ended on 235 not out, had added 49 for the last wicket, and more importantly extended Lancashire’e lead from 14 to 63. Not decisive, but they had wrested back some of the advantage Abell had taken from them. Enough to return the pressure to Somerset if they lost early wickets.

It left Somerset with 18 overs to negotiate with a replacement opener to accompany Renshaw. Loss of wickets before the close of play, to add to the loss of Trescothick, would place Somerset under real pressure on the last day.

Davies stepped into the breach. One or two early wafts apart he played his most assured innings of the summer and Renshaw played with care and restraint. Care and restraint did not mean inertia in the scoring, just care with the stroke. The pair pushed for and ran singles wherever the opportunity arose. Where the ball was there to be hit they hit it. Renshaw cut Parkinson perfectly square and hard for four. Davies repeated the shot just behind square off the same bowler.

It was not all one way as Lancashire pushed back. Parkinson once beat Renshaw, the ball going for four byes to gasps from fielders and crowd. The riposte came with a drive straight back over Parkinson’s head for four. It looked like Somerset meant business and were prepared to concede nothing to Lancashire as this typical First Division tussle unfolded.

At the close Somerset, at 51 for 0 off those 18 overs, had reduced the deficit, and Lancashire’s advantage, to 12 runs with one day and 96 overs to come. As someone said to me, “No-one would have believed we would be that close at the close before Abell took those four wickets.” But Somerset are inclined to the unexpected, it is part of a long and deeply entrenched tradition and when it happens it really should come as no surprise.

The pressure on Somerset has been reduced by the evening partnership but it is still there. Any loss of early wickets on the final morning will rachet up the pressure again. Lancashire cannot lose this match. Somerset with a collapse could. The third day suggested the determination and focus that had beaten Worcestershire and Yorkshire is capable of showing itself, under extreme pressure, in endeavouring to make a game safe. It will need to do so again on the fourth day here.

Close: Somerset 429 and 51 for 0. Lancashire 492 (DJ Vilas 235*, KK Jennings 109, J Clark 50, TB Abell 4-43, MJ Leach 3-149). Somerset trail by 12 runs with 10 second innings wickets standing. 

The original version of this report was published on on 7th May 2018.