Hildreth and Overton take the lead

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

Overnight: Hampshire 198 for 8.

What a difference a season makes. In the second half of 2017, with Somerset 30 points adrift in the relegation zone, it was a succession of performances like those of Hildreth and Craig Overton on the second day here that led Somerset to safety. A powerful team spirit underpins such performances. In 2018 such performances are driving Somerset towards the top of the table. The spirit is there in abundance for all to see.

There is every possibility that a win here will leave Somerset at the top of the table. If Somerset do win this match it will bring pressure of a different kind to that experienced in 2017. The pressure will come from the need to sustain a position at the top of the table. There will, even more to the point, be the weight of anticipation that Somerset might, finally, end a century and a quarter in quest of that first County Championship. If it comes to that the pressure will be immense. First though there is much work to be done to achieve victory here particularly as the pitch appeared to be flattening as the second afternoon wore on.

And so to the cricket on the second day. From a position of some jeopardy at Lunch Somerset moved to a position which threatened dominance by the close. They are on top of this game at the moment. It will be crucial now to sustain the pressure that the later batsmen applied to Hampshire when Somerset were at risk and continued to apply as they tilted the game Somerset’s way.

It didn’t feel quite like that at Lunch. Hampshire were in the ascendancy in spite of Abbott being in the Pavilion and unable to bowl. Their remaining three seamers had been carefully husbanded by Vince. Berg, Wheal and Edwards maintained a disciplined tight line and length. They tested the Somerset batsmen ball after ball. Edwards added the spice of pace to the mixture. The ball continued to move and passed the bat with some regularity.

They bowled with considerable attacking skill. The ball that bowled Byrom was as good as any you will see. I was sitting at the top of the Somerset Pavilion directly behind the keeper so it was impossible to pick the later trajectory of the ball but my instinctive reaction was that it was unplayable. A view of the highlights confirmed that. Bowled at pace it seemed to move in late and then more off the pitch.

The balls that removed Bartlett and Renshaw too spoke more of bowling skill and intent than batting error. Only Abell contributed to his own demise with an ill-judged hook on his arrival at the wicket. Renshaw at least had used his time at the wicket to good effect scoring 36. There were a pair of scintillating drives and a chip shot for six over third man all of which took the breath away.

86 for 4 at Lunch, with Hildreth and Davies at the wicket, was a tremendous return for the Hampshire attack shorn of Abbott. It would have been better still had Hildreth not been dropped by Edwards. Not a difficult chance. Perhaps the effects of the exertions and intensity of his bowling played a part. It had looked as if he was giving his all whilst the ball was hard, perhaps knowing that three bowlers could not keep up that intensity indefinitely.

Someone said to me, “Hampshire have bowled better than we did yesterday morning. They have kept a better line.” And so they had, Gregory in particular coming in for criticism from spectators. Just a note about Gregory’s bowling on the first day. His first three overs cost 21 runs. For the remainder his figures were 11-3-20-2. It cannot have been all bad and it wasn’t. His final spell was as good as anything Hampshire bowled at least as I saw it from the top of the Somerset Pavilion.

My lunchtime circumnavigation of the ground, as it is inclined to do, had left me with insufficient time to return to the top of the Somerset Pavilion before the first ball of the afternoon session. I decided to watch a few overs whilst standing in the sun next to the covers store. As I stood there Hildreth and Davies started to develop a partnership. For the first time in the match two batsmen began to put the first building blocks into developing an air of permanence.

Superstition is of course an irrational nonsense. It doesn’t stop it taking hold though. I was becoming uneasy about the prospect of returning to my seat at the top of the Somerset Pavilion in case it broke the partnership. Do not mock. I had already taken Abell’s wicket by not returning in time from an untimely between overs visit to the kiosk behind the stand.

Hildreth and Davies played steadily and the runs began to accumulate. Somerset were still behind in the match and the tension in the air hung heavy. Then it began to be punctured with some stunning cover and square drives from Hildreth. From my angle his bat seemed a long way in front of his body as he played the strokes but the ball never left the ground once bat had made contact with it. It is difficult to think of a better batsman in the Championship today when he plays like he did on the second afternoon here.

The pair had just about taken Somerset to a position from which prospects of a lead were not an unreasonable hope when I noticed Davies laying on the ground. He was holding his head in his hands. No-one around me had seen anything untoward happen and he did not appear to have been struck by a ball nor had he shown any sign of injury. Whatever the cause it was sufficient for him to walk off the field. Prospects of a lead did not now look quite so good.

I decided there was no further purpose to be served by watching from behind the covers for the partnership had effectively been broken. I returned to my seat and got Lewis Gregory out instead. Or rather Wheal got him out by getting enough lift to take the inside edge of the bat as Gregory tried to withdraw it. When form deserts a batsman luck goes with it and the ball found its way onto the stumps. Somerset 134 for 5, Davies hors de combat and still nearly 100 runs adrift. Only minutes before Hildreth and Davies had apparently been batting Somerset out of trouble and towards a lead. How quickly cricket can change.

Now Somerset’s spirit showed itself with a vengeance. Overton, one of the leading lights, perhaps at the moment the leading light, of Somerset’s new generation joined one of the diminishing list of seasoned campaigners. They transformed the game and they transformed it in true Somerset style and with true Somerset spirit. It was a heavenly hour and a half of supreme batting. Even the return of Abbott to take some of the pressure off the other bowlers made no impact although he looked out of sorts, perhaps nursing the injury which forced him from the field earlier in the day.

Hildreth was by now displaying a sense of permanence and Overton batted with the authority and security he had shown whilst defending for an hour at Old Trafford when he had played a key role in saving the game there for Somerset. Here he attacked with intent as the scoreboard closed the gap on Hampshire. He angled the bat to play through and around the slips, he drove with power, he pulled where the ball demanded the shot, he leaned perfectly into one glance to the Colin Atkinson, he pulled, or more accurately ‘swatted’ one short ball through mid off, again to the Colin Atkinson. He looked perfectly secure in spite of the scorching rate of scoring.

CC 2018 Som v Hants Day 2 Craig Overton 4 runs and 100 partnership Copyright Mike Williams
Four! Craig Overton (80) brings up his 100 partnership with James Hildreth (184).
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

I had chatted on Gimblett’s Hill at Tea and stayed there when the batsmen came back out. I stayed there for the rest of the day. The sun was now shining, in the sky as well as at the wicket, and the faces were smiling. The cricket was glorious and Somerset were totally dominant. Hampshire’s score was surpassed and only one wicket had fallen since Lunch.

Overton’s wicket had not seemed threatened at any time during his innings and it came as a reminder of the great uncertainties of cricket when he chopped onto his stumps for 80. But what an 80 and, with Hildreth, he had taken Somerset to 267 for 6, 36 runs into the lead. He was applauded all the way back to the Pavilion. It was the sort of reception usually reserved for a century.

There was relief for Somerset supporters as Davies returned to the wicket although he did not add much to his score, departing for 33. But that brought in Jack Leach on the back of his match saving innings at Old Trafford. He carried on where he had left off. He did not look like a number nine. He batted with total assurance, one cover drive would have challenged any batsman for style and effect and had people gasping.

CC 2018 Som v Hants Day 2 James Hildreth (hitting 4 - FW) Copyright Mike Williams
Eye on the ball. This one went for four. James Hildreth exudes the immense concentration which underpins his ‘carefree’ strokeplay.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

And Hildreth, what of Hildreth? He scored his 41st century for Somerset and Somerset’s sixth century of season. There were but nine in the whole of 2017 and only three batsmen have ever scored more centuries for Somerset than Hildreth. And with this one, alongside Overton, he had moved Somerset from the risk of defeat to the possibility of victory. After he was dropped in the 20s he had never really looked like getting out and ended the day on 125 not out.

And so Somerset ended the day 193 runs in front of Hampshire with power to add and the fitness of Abbott in question. If the pitch is flattening to the degree Hildreth, Overton and Leach made it appear, and it may not be quite as flat as they made it look, then Somerset’s task may not be easy.

If Hampshire’s batsmen show the resolve their three bowlers did at the start of the Somerset innings it will require focus, patience and unremitting resolve from Somerset to bowl them out again. Somerset have shown just that in winning two games, saving a third against the odds and in overcoming the crisis of this game to reach the position they now hold. They have too shown in those matches the sort of team spirit that I saw Essex show at Chelmsford last season. It is perhaps that which provides the greatest hope for this season.

Close: Hampshire 231 (JM Vince 44, TB Abell 3-36, TD Groenewald 3-59). Somerset 324 for 7. Somerset lead by 193 runs with 3 first innings wickets standing. 

The original version of this report was published on grockles.com on 13th May 2018.