A team emerging

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Hampshire. 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th May 2018. Taunton. First Day.

Somerset came into this match unbeaten after a classic rear guard action by Jack Leach and the tail had saved the previous match at Old Trafford. They had also won their first two matches and were second in the Championship table. Marcus Trescothick was unavailable for this match and would be for some matches to come after breaking a metatarsal whilst batting at Old Trafford. 

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field. 

Somerset started the match against Hampshire in second place in the Championship table, 17 points behind Nottinghamshire but with a game in hand. As far as such a thing can be said so early in the season they have their Championship future in their own hands. And such young hands. Only three of the side that took the field were over 30. The rest all under 27, six under 25, three aged 20. It would be a phenomenal feat if such a side could challenge for the Championship, let alone win it.

CC 2018 Som v Hants Day 1 Jimmy Adams Copyright Mike Williams
Craig Overton, one of seven players under the age of 27 in the Somerset side, makes a sharp stop off Jimmy Adams.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

They added to the pressure on themselves by selecting a side tailor made for winning the toss and batting, then won the toss and put Hampshire in knowing Hampshire must have wanted to bat first. Perhaps Abell, or whoever in a cricket hierarchy makes such decisions these days, looked at the cloud above and the grass on the pitch below. Perhaps thinking, as someone said to me, of the Taunton pitch’s propensity to flatten towards the fourth day. Perhaps thinking of all three, and possibly more, for such decisions are never as simple or as easy as they may sometimes seem from beyond the boundary.

Inserting a side on winning the toss immediately puts pressure on the fielding side’s bowlers. It is one thing to have the responsibility of bowling when the opposition has elected to bat and the expectation is of runs to come. Quite another to choose to put the opposition in and then have to deliver on the unspoken promise of wickets to come.

I have often wondered if such pressure is one of the factors, among many I have no doubt, which contribute to what the tide of history shows is the failure of so many decisions to insert. Indeed, Somerset have been twice inserted by the opposition at Taunton this year and twice the opposition have lost.

And so Somerset’s young blades took the field and immediately ran into choppy water. Whether affected by the weight of expectation, over eagerness to exploit the insertion and conditions, or just not getting it right Gregory bowled a curate’s egg of an opening spell. His first three balls gave an indication of the mixture that was to follow. Two no balls and then a ball of pure grandeur and beauty as viewed from over the umpire’s head. It was slightly angled in, moved away late, missed the bat by an amount that millimetres were designed to measure and elicited involuntary gasps of awe from all around. After three overs of ill-directed balls interspersed with two or three which might on another day have taken a wicket he was withdrawn from the fray 21 runs the wiser.

Craig Overton started well with two maidens but, switching ends to replace Gregory at the Somerset Pavilion End, did not look as threatening as he often does. He had a tendency to overpitch, perhaps in pursuit of the movement an insertion demands. Eventually Vince took advantage to the tune of 12 from an over.

Tim Groenewald, a brake on scoring this season, had replaced Overton at the River End and quickly found the edge of Weatherley’s bat. The ball flew to where the 25-year long experience of Trescothick’s midriff should have been and Renshaw, all of 22, put the catch down. “What a gift that was,” someone said.

Groenewald, Somerset’s oldest player at 34, persisted and pushed as Hampshire took advantage of any youthful waywardness, until Adams edged to the keeper and Hampshire were 44 for 1. Abell, Somerset’s unexpected addition to their strike force at Old Trafford, replaced Overton as Hampshire started to attack Groenewald with some success. The runs were coming at over four an over, the score was starting to rise towards three figures and the lessons of history must have been ringing in Tom Abell’s 24-year-old ears.

Abell may make history himself one day and he certainly has the capacity to shape it. Here he started to shape the Hampshire innings. As it seemed to me he ‘wobbled’ a ball through Weatherley’s defence, found the pad and it was 86 for 2. That brought Hashim Amla and the experience of over 100 Tests to the crease to face Abell and Jack Leach, who had replaced Groenwald at the River End, with one Test between them.

It was Vince though who lead Hampshire’s charge. He hit Leach for two fours and Abell for one but Abell went through his defence twice. Then Abell moved a ball away late from Vince, the ball took the edge and Davies took the ball. “Oh Yes!” drooled the man in front of me well before the umpire had raised his finger. It didn’t look quite so sumptuous a delivery as that first legitimate ball of Gregory’s but it was essentially the same delivery and deadly. Hampshire 105 for 3 and 111 for 3 at Lunch.

On my customary lunchtime circumnavigation of the ground the general view among Somerset supporters was that three wickets before Lunch was a reasonable return for putting a side in. My bones were telling me Somerset really needed four given the pitch and the conditions and Hampshire had perhaps twenty too many runs. Whether history or young Abell would be proved right about the decision to insert still hung in the air.

Stopping at the kiosk next to the terrace at the top of the Somerset Pavilion en route to my seat I, in what has become almost as customary an event as my regular circumnavigations, missed the first ball after Lunch. I didn’t miss the huge cheer that accompanied it. “Who was that?” I asked the person who rushed by from the terrace. “Amla!” he smiled. “Strangled.” Groenewald had lodged a reminder that the older generation still had a part to play in this team. One ball late, but I would have settled for 111 for 4 at Lunch with Amla gone for four. It just needed Somerset to push on.

CC 2018 Som v Hants Day 1 Hashim Amla ct Steve Davies bld Tim Groenewald-1 Copyright Mike Williams
Hashim Amla sees what the author didn’t. The ball in Steven Davies’ gloves after he had edged an attempted glance.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

As I looked beyond the Trescothick Stand the point of the Quantocks was developing an embryonic shroud of slight rain. Some way to the east of the ground the sky was coated in a film of the smoothest silken silver-grey cloud that often presages the onset of steady persistent light rain. Neither was an immediate threat but both hung in the air like the question of the wisdom of the decision to ask Hampshire to bat. 111 for 4 though was edging in Abell’s favour just as that cloud was edging towards the ground.

Now the two generations of Somerset cricketers worked in tandem. Groenewald hit Rossouw a nasty blow under the heart, both he and Overton went past the bat a number of times and Overton had what looked from 80 yards a particularly good lbw shout. Rossouw and Alsop counter attacked for Hampshire although in the process Rossouw gloved an attempted hook against Overton at catchable height through the out of fashion leg slip position.

With the threat of a curtailment of play Somerset needed to push home their advantage but it was Hampshire who pushed Somerset back as they moved past 150 still four down. History and Rossouw, who was scoring freely, were beginning to get a little shrill with their questions about the wisdom of insertions.

Somerset answered with Gregory, edging towards maturity at almost 26, who replaced the 24 year-old-Overton. Wayward in his first spell, better in a short spell before Lunch, he was now transformed. He whistled past the left-handed Alsop’s outside edge, then found his inside edge and the ball hurtled towards the stumps upending the leg stump on its way through. Hampshire 165 for 5.

Bess meanwhile had come on at the River End and although I could not see the ball pitch from my position he had found a hint of turn in an earlier short spell from my end. However he did it he now induced Rossouw to pop the ball straight to Leach at cover. 178 for 6. Somerset were working their way back into the game and beginning to chirp away in the field as they did. The Somerset crowd does not chirp but it does buzz and it was buzzing now.

Gregory had found his touch and was really testing the batsmen with one of those spells that makes you wonder why a wicket does not fall every over. With Bess on at the other end, Leach warming up, Groenewald and Overton taking breath for another charge and Abell seemingly always on hand to take a wicket at the drop of a hat I did wonder what the batsmen were thinking.

With six front line bowlers, Gregory with his testing movement when he gets it right, Overton with his lift and accuracy, Groenewald constantly homing in on the off stump, Abell fizzing it through and moving it late, Leach turning it one way and Bess the other batsmen must sometimes wonder just how far down the season the light at the end of the tunnel is.

This is still a young bowling attack. It doesn’t always get it quite right. It didn’t in the morning session. Experience and age perhaps not yet quite in the optimum combination. It is though becoming a formidable attack and with some years of development still to come.

That kiosk next to the roof terrace of the Somerset Pavilion is a real nuisance. I only went there twice today I promise you. This time Abell took advantage and this time Renshaw held the catch. McManus the sixth Hampshire batsman to get a start and not go on. And then Gregory, now bowling as he can, trapped Berg lbw. 198 for 8.

And that was that, for that deceptively innocent looking silver-grey cloud had enveloped the Quantocks and was sprinkling just enough rain over the ground to send the players off and most of the rest of us home.

As to that question posited by history it is still unanswered as far as this match goes. Whether Somerset did enough in the afternoon session to outweigh the runs Hampshire scored in the morning session and to justify the decision to insert only the second day can answer. Somerset may have to work harder than they might have done to establish an ascendancy in this match. They will though have added some valuable lessons to their fund of experience which will pay dividends for years to come.

And, let us not forget, when Somerset come out to bat numbers one, two, three and five will be aged 22, 20, 20 and 24. This side has room to grow.

Close: Hampshire 198 for 8.

The original version of this report was posted on grockles.com om 12th May 2018.