Horatius at the bridge

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

I was late posting this report. I had made the trip back to the West Country via London and had taken in an art study day on the way. ‘The Thames in Art’ for the record. Monet, Whistler et al. My arrival in London was too late for me to write my report there because the final day of the match went its full length. And what a final day it was.

Overnight: Somerset 429 and 51 for 0. Lancashire 492. Somerset trail by 12 runs with 10 second innings wickets standing.

In the later days of my eastern exile I used to spend many a winter Sunday on a bench on the front at Leigh on Sea or Shoeburyness reading books on my e reader. One such was Livy’s History of Rome. I read it all. In translation you understand. Well you have to do something when you are marooned at the wrong end of the country in the winter. Early in Livy’s narrative comes the story of Horatius at the bridge, holding off an entire army with some help from two compatriots. Of such feats are legends made.

Those of us lucky enough to be at Old Trafford on Monday witnessed a feat that richly deserves to be entered into the annals of Somerset cricketing legend. Shades and more of Horatius at the bridge. Shades of Watson and Bailey at Lord’s in 1953. If Somerset have the strength to sustain a Championship challenge this season what happened at Old Trafford on the afternoon of 7th May 2018 may take on an importance far beyond the saving of this game.

Tidying up my third day post and the infrequency of bank holiday buses delayed me just long enough to miss the first five minutes of play. As I made my way behind the stands I took an anxious peek through a gap to where the scoreboard said 51 for 1 as Davies carefully played a ball back down the pitch. The score generated a feeling of relief as my subconscious mind, perhaps wishfully, turned Trescothick’s injury into a wicket.

As I sat down a closer look at the scoreboard revealed Bartlett was at the crease. The realisation that Somerset had lost a real wicket was rather akin to waking up and contemplating a glorious Saturday only to discover the working week has only managed to crawl through to Friday. Being told that Renshaw had top edged a swipe at a full toss did nothing to assuage the sigh of disappointment.

I caught the end of Anderson’s first over. He was bowling from the James Anderson End with more pace than I had seen him hitherto in the match. Lancashire had clearly started with intent for Parkinson had opened with his leg spin at the Statham End. Then as I was getting my bearings Davies drove Parkinson for four to put Somerset into the lead.

Before I had settled Anderson drove Bartlett back towards his stumps to applause, a buzz in the crowd and Lancastrian shouts of, “C’mon Jimmy!” as the umpire sent Bartlett back to the Pavalion lbw. Somerset were 67 for 2, still just four ahead, Trescothick hors de combat, and 94 overs to play. Perhaps, as that Somerset supporter had speculated on the third day, Anderson might have an influence on this match yet.

Hildreth’s arrival did not settle the nerves. He pushed Anderson through cover for two, drove Parkinson for four but drove Anderson straight and uppishly to cries of “catch it” and played and missed at Bailey who had replaced Parkinson. Davies meanwhile played and missed at Anderson, leaned into a ball from Bailey which just beat two converging fielders to the boundary and edged Anderson short of slip and through the cordon for four. Somerset had reached a somewhat shaky lead of 29 with 83 overs remaining and left Somerset supporters with a somewhat shaky hold on their nerves.

Davies and Hildreth settled their own nerves with a period of consolidation and then tried to push some of the pressure back onto Lancashire. Hildreth tried twice to flick a ball down the leg side against Mennie and failed, the ‘strangle’ an uneasy thought. Davies slogged swept the returning Parkinson for four and just outpaced a fielder with a paddle swept four. Then, as the unremitting tension threatened to ease a little he got a ball from Parkinson that bounced and pushed it gently into the hands of short leg. 113 for 3. With 76 overs to go Somerset led by just 50 as the absence of Trescothick began to haunt like the spectre at the feast .

The Lancashire buzz quietened and tensed, perhaps as carefully unspoken thoughts of a win began to take shape. Somerset supporters took breath, pensive, as another spectre, that of batting collapses of the past, haunted the present. With Hildreth and Abell at the wicket Somerset were but one wicket away from Gregory and the bowlers with a telescopically long way to go and Parkinson clearly getting turn.

When Hildreth appeared to offer the pad to a Parkinson delivery, although the bat appeared to be alongside, Somerset were 120 for four. Hildreth does seem to play with the pad more than the norm for this day and age when DRS has given umpires greater confidence to give lbw decisions. He had made 26 but Somerset were just 57 ahead with 74 overs to play. Only Abell of the specialist batsmen remained. The Lancashire buzz returned for here was a very real prospect of a victory to talk about. Somerset supporters meanwhile searched their minds for a route to survival.

Abell did not demand confidence as he flirted again with the his leg side genie. Fortunately for Somerset fortunes, if not nerves, he missed the dart at the persistent Mennie and succeeded with the same stroke for four. Parkinson, plucked at Somerset nerves with a leg break past Gregory’s forward defensive. Gregory fought back with a pull through mid wicket for two. Parkinson countered by taking the back of Gregory’s bat as he tried to turn the ball to the on side. Gregory took the single anyway. Gregory then steered Mennie wide of slip for four, survived a huge lbw shout and then drove him straight for another four.

The age old ability of cricket to keep supporters’ in a state of perpetual trepidation was alive and well as it stalked every corner of the stands of Old Trafford. The batting fed the tension as it exhibited no air of permanence and Lancashire’s fingers must have itched in anticipation at every ball.

Lunch was taken with Somerset on 143 for 4. A lead of 80 with only the tail to come and still 65 overs remaining. “It all depends on these two,” the uncertain comment as I walked the path behind the stands at Lunch. “We’re going to lose,” the more certain one before I reached the end of it.

Within three overs of the return ‘these two’ were gone. Gregory pushed at and edged a ball from the nagging Mennie to slip for 13. Abell went forward defensively to Parkinson and was lbw, also for 13. Somerset were 145 for 6.

Overton and Leach were left at the wicket with Somerset just 82 ahead, three effective wickets left, one of which was Paul van Meekeren with a first-class average of nine, and a seemingly interminable 62 overs still in the match. Somerset’s push, such as it had been, had melted away and Lancashire had but the tail to overcome.

“We can win this,” said an excited, slightly dumbfounded and, it sounded, involuntary Lancastrian voice from the back of the stand. The rest held their counsel, the cricket supporter’s superstitious temperament demanding no chickens be counted. Somerset supporters’ mouths were in the pit of their stomachs from where no words were necessary and Manchester felt a very long way from Taunton.

It is at times such as this that you need an Horatius to step forward although it did seem that the bridge Somerset had now to hold was rather too wide for even a legend to defend. Parkinson was turning the ball and taking wickets, Anderson had put in two good spells and was bowling better than he had in the match, Mennie was firing in on the stumps with the accuracy of a winkle picker intent on a rich harvest and Bailey was quietly probing away. It seemed only a matter of time before Lancashire overwhelmed the depleted defences on Somerset’s bridge.

Overton and Leach set about surveying the wreckage as Lancashire closed in. It was all defensive pushes and leaves and an occasional single as Mennie and Parkinson probed away at these last vestiges of Somerset’s defence. Their initial forays gained no purchase. Overton looked as if he meant to hold the line come what may. Leach was Leach, all calm and imperturbability at least to the watching eye.

Who knows what goes on in the head of those who exude calm in the face of crisis whether defending a bridge or their wicket against overwhelming odds. Whatever it is, whether nerves controlled or cool judgment utilised, it is not revealed to the opposition. Somerset were just 151 for 6. Only 88 ahead and still 57 overs remaining. At their recent rate of scoring they would need to bat deep into the evening session.

Perhaps Leach had made a similar calculation for it seemed he had decided to change it. He sallied forth at the Lancashire attack. He took six off an over from Parkinson including a classical cover drive. Lancashire brought back Anderson. Would he yet have an influence on the match? Leach, apparently undismayed, continued to counterattack whilst Overton quietly and effectively held his side of the bridge secure and rotated the strike to bring the attacking Leach to bear on Lancashire.

Now Leach on drove Parkinson for four, edged Anderson through the slips for another and played him wide of gully for two. A quiet over against Parkinson and then Anderson felt the full power of Leach’s bat. A hook fine, perhaps with the assistance of the edge, for four, a steer wide of gully for another four and then a dismissive four through mid wicket.

Leach’s assault ended Anderson’s effective participation in the match in spite of his last ball going straight through the unflinching batsman. Taking out one of the opposition’s main threats is just what you need your Horatious to do. Somerset were 186 for 6. A lead of 123 with 49 overs remaining. Nerves now tinged with a faint but discernible hope played among the Somerset supporters. Clawing doubts murmured among the Lancashire ones.

Parkinson, persevering in attack, forced Leach to drop a couple of balls in an over close to silly point. Leach gave no ground as he retaliated by hitting him back over his head for six. Somerset, still a long way from safety, were beginning to make headway. The tension rising ever further for Somerset supporters as hope dared to grow as the Leach Overton partnership passed 50.

IMG_1117 Lancs v Som Day 2 Leach's rearguard.
Contemporaneous note.
Author’s notes as Leach battles it out.

Then suddenly an erupting roar from the Lancashire supporters burst through Somerset’s hope. Bailey, who had replaced Anderson, had surprised Overton and driven him finally from Somerset’s bridge with an lbw shout that had the umpire in no doubt. Overton out for just five but the importance of his innings, a crucial hour of unwavering defence in support of Leach who all the time advanced Somerset’s position at the other end, could only be weighed in gold dust.

Somerset supporters wondered if the loss of Overton meant the task remaining was still too great. 197 for 7. 134 ahead. 45 overs remaining. Tim Groenewald in and only Paul van Meekeren to come. The realities and the possibilities of the situation combined in an unholy alliance to pick at the nerve ends.

But, I thought, Leach and Groenewald have been here before. Lancashire were favourites but they had run into Somerset’s ‘defence in depth’ which is its ‘tail’. And Somerset’s Horatius was still there quietly breathing defiance and ratcheting up the target Lancashire would have to chase. I wondered if Lancashire might just be starting to think about Leach’s bowling as well as his batting. The turn Parkinson’s was getting perhaps pulling back the pace at which they thought they could successfully chase.

It was not just Leach Lancashire had to think about. Groenewald’s batting often belies his lowly position in the order especially when Somerset are in desperate need of runs. He can attack as well as defend. He targeted Lancashire’s main hope. In an over he swept Parkinson backward of square for four and then drove him imperiously, as they used to say, through the covers for another four. He threatened to drive Lancashire from Somerset’s bridge where Leach had held them at bay for so long.

When not attacking Groenewald’s bat was straight down the line defending stoutly. ‘They shall not pass’ sprang to mind. Eventually Livingstone, with his second line leg breaks, replaced Parkinson as he failed to penetrate Somerset’s last real line of defence or halt their counterattack. Leach sustained what was fast becoming Somerset’s ascendancy as he pulled Livingstone for four. One more over and it was Tea. Somerset 226 for 7, the lead 163, 35 overs left in the day and Leach and Groenwald looking as if they could defend Somerset’s bridge in perpetuity.

Lancashire took the new ball soon after Tea but, to the perplexity of all, did not change the bowling. It was used by Clark, essentially Lancashire’s fourth seamer, and Livingstone, surely an occasional spinner. Their rationale I have no way of knowing. The message it gave was that Lancashire had given up. Horatius and his two associates had triumphed. The Lancashire camp followers began, in ones and twos, to pick up their bags and leave.

Somerset supporters could not quite believe it. The excruciatingly interminable afternoon had been survived. Most had thought Lancashire would try one final push after Tea. Perhaps the thought of chasing what would probably have been in excess of six an over against Leach caused Lancashire to demur. Or perhaps it was the sight of Trescothick in whites ready to bat if needs be. Confronting Horatius was one thing. Facing the wounded Man of Iron quite another.

When the Lancashire ‘brains trust’ met just before 4.50, the earliest time at which a draw could be agreed, an irritated Lancashire voice behind me said, “It’s a bit late to have a conflab now.” That surely reflected the intense frustration the Lancashire players must have felt after spending eight of the twelve sweltering sessions of the match in the field. The momentum they must have look forward to taking into the next match when Abell had been out two and a half hours before was now Somerset’s.

If Somerset are to remain in Championship contention until that final autumnal encounter at Trent Bridge then the resolve that the lower order showed on that tortuous last day at Old Trafford will have to be shown again and again from one end of the order to the other. And if Somerset are still in contention for the Championship the deeds of Somerset’s Horatius and those of Overton and Groenewald on that last afternoon should indeed be recorded in the annals of Somerset legend.

Result: Somerset 429 (GA Bartlet 110, ME Trescothick 100, TB Abell 99, MW Parkinson 3-80, JM Mennie 3-82} and 269 for 8 dec (MJ Leach 66, SM Davies 54, MW Parkinson 5-101). Lancashire 492 (DJ Vilas 235*, KK Jennings 109, J Clark 50, TB Abell 4-43, MJ Leach 3-149). Match Drawn. Lancashire 11 points, Somerset 10 points. 

The original version of this report was published on grockles.com on 10th May 2018.