The pitch has its say

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

At the start of the third day the match was set for Somerset’s tail, not devoid by any means of batting talent, to stretch an already very healthy first innings lead.

Overnight: Hampshire 231. Somerset 324 for 7. Somerset lead by 193 runs with 3 first innings wickets standing.

Late arriving at the Cooper Associates County Ground I made my way to the boundary near the covers store. As I arrived the ball screamed across the grass and crashed into the boards in front of the Ondaatje Stand. Hildreth I assumed had been on the other end of it. But no, Dom Bess was making his case to move up from number ten, the position into which he seems to have been slotted. I wonder if he has a wry smile to himself when he makes a phone call to Customer Services somewhere and the automated voice replies, “You are being held in a queue.”

The next thing I noticed was the size of the crowd. Certainly the largest of the three days to date and well spread around the ground. Even the Somerset Stand, farthest from the pitch, had enough of a spread of people to be described as polka dot. There was also, I thought, more of a smattering of people not entitled to a bus pass than is normal at a Championship match these days. The weather, and perhaps Somerset winning matches and riding high in the Championship is drawing people in.

It would have been a good morning to bring someone along to a Championship match for the first time. The weather would have done nicely to illustrate the term ‘cricket weather’ and there was space to amble, chat and relax whilst taking in the cricket. One of the great joys of Championship cricket on days such as this is that you can amble and roam as much as you like and you will feel your belongings are as safe left in your seat for an hour or so as they would be locked in a safe at the bank. I can think of no other event where you would feel confident to do that with 2000 strangers in the venue.

One straight drive from Hildreth was a thing of such perfection it would have you talking to the person next to you of the beauty of his stroke play and making comparisons with the power of Renshaw’s drives and perhaps remembering Trescothick’s cover drive. And it would not matter much whether the person you sat next to was a Somerset supporter or a Hampshire supporter or whether you knew them or not.

On this day, by way of a change, I found myself a perch towards the back of the lower tier of the Somerset Pavilion next to Gimblett’s Hill. The Hill was packed and bathed in sun except the back row which follows the arc of the sun and seems in perpetual shade.

As I looked back at the cricket Bess drove Weatherley back over his head for four to the Botham Stand just as the man himself might have done. As is his wont Bess took no prisoners. Berg, the pick, and the most persevering of Hampshire’s bowlers, bowled him what looked like a slower ball bouncer only for it to be caressed, if you can do that with a hook, to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. Later in the over, pitching up, Berg found himself being driven brutally backward of point for another four.

That took the score to 410 for 8, over 80 runs scored since the start, and still an hour to go to Lunch. It was scintillating stuff and it had brought the crowd to life. The Cooper Associates County Ground buzz seemed to have much to buzz about. The scoreboard provided the explanation. 83 runs so far in the Hildreth Bess partnership and Bess had 60 of them.

I have said before Bess marches towards the sound of gunfire. That story continued out in the middle. Bess striking the boundaries, Hildreth placing the singles and rotating the strike. It shouldn’t work that way around with a number four and a number ten. But as I said earlier this number ten is held in a queue. And he was making a case to jump the queue. One cut backward of point off Wheal was particularly forceful.

CC 2018 Som v Hants Day 3 James Hildreth 4 runs Copyright Mike Williams
Using main force. Another James Hildreth boundary. A study in balance and concentration.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Not that Hildreth, for all the artistry in his stroke play, is incapable of using main force. He selected Berg, who had switched to the Somerset Pavilion End, to hit back over his head for four. He then cut Wheal backward of point. There were four fielders on the boundary for Hildreth who was now on 163. “They can put fielders on the boundary but they can’t stop the fours,” said the Hampshire supporter sitting in front of me. It wasn’t entirely true but the way the Somerset score was mounting it felt like that. It had mounted to 463 for 8.

When the boundary boards were not being peppered deep point and third man gathered in a rich harvest of gently steered back foot drives and cuts. The harvesters couldn’t though stop the boundary when the batsmen cut clean and hard, past backward point, and between them.

Edwards resorted to the last throw of the pace bowler leaking runs on a flat pitch. He bowled a succession of bouncers just within the height limit either to tempt the hook or restrict the scoring. It did restrain the scoring rate for a while and induced Hildreth into one hook that miscued fine of off stump and flew between keeper and first slip for four. Then, infuriated by the persistent short pitched bowling someone in the Somerset Pavilion shouted, “Rubbish!” Edwards responded immediately with a fast ball well pitched up. Hildreth drove it back past him with some ferocity for four which seemed a bit inconsiderate.

Then Bess cover drove Vince hard to the Colin Atkinson scoreboard which dutifully increased his score to 80. “Shot!” said the Hampshire supporter in front of me, and added, “Perhaps if the wicket is that flat Hampshire can bat out tomorrow.” It was a thought that was beginning to impinge on the thoughts of Somerset supporters too. And then in the over before Lunch Hildreth pulled Alsop’s occasional slow left arm straight to mid wicket and he was gone for 184. Somerset were 472 for 9.

After Lunch Groenawald set about ramming Somersrt’s dominance home. He cleared the ropes twice, and Bess, although starved of the strike pushed towards a century until he was bowled by Berg, his fifth wicket, for 92. Bess had played straight and looked startled at the result. Hope perhaps for Somerset’s bowlers, or perhaps a misjudgement. 506 was a formidable total, only thoughts of the pitch flattening feeding a nagging doubt to dampen the spirit. It constituted a lead of 275 of which Groenewald, in his display of summer pyrotechnics, had contributed 25.

CC 2018 Som v Hants Day 3 Dom Bess bld Gareth Berg (92 - FW) Copyright Mike Williams
Umpire’s call.
Berg shaves the top of off with Bess on 92.
Photo courtesy Mike Williams.

As Hampshire took up their defensive positions in the face of that 275 deficit Overton and Gregory powered in. The batsmen looked in no trouble as they began the job of shoring up Hampshire’s shaky position. Then Adams stopped shoring up, attempted to cut Gregory, and edged to the keeper. 15 for 1. Next Vince edged hard and low to Overton’s left at third slip. Overton got a hand to it but it went down. He was furious with himself but he has caught a number as difficult as that and they cannot all stick.

Soon Weatherley took another brick out of Hampshire’s defensive wall and had the Hampshire supporters in front of me shaking their heads. It had taken a long time for Somerset to manoeuvre Bartlett to deep mid wicket and satisfy themselves the rest of the field was where they wanted it. Groenewald duly dropped short, Weatherley pulled, Bartlett accepted the gift and Hampshire were 49 for 2, still 226 behind.

“The next batsman is Hashim Amla,” said the announcement. “And that will be about it,” replied the Hampshire supporter, referring to his view of the paucity of the batting to follow. “I am afraid it is,” was his colleague’s reply. Somerset never got to see the batting to follow because Amla and Vince set themselves about rebuilding Hampshire’s defensive wall by batting out the day. They did precisely that, Vince taking 158 balls to battle his way to his fifty. Amla scored more quickly but without diminishing the security of his wicket.

The Somerset bowlers applied themselves to their task. They attacked the batsmen but found little aid from the pitch. I watched a few overs from the Somerset Pavilion roof terrace. I was directly above the line of the stumps as Gregory and Groenewald pushed at the Hampshire wall. The Quantocks did not seem sure about Somerset’s chances. Only one field was ploughed to reveal its version of Somerset maroon.

As I watched, Gregory was getting some very gentle swing but it didn’t remotely trouble either batsman. Only twice, and from two balls in succession, did he obtain significant late swing. It beat Amla both times to gasps from the crowd. Groenewald, as far as I could see from behind the batsmen, was getting no movement and was maintaining a consistent middle and off line with the occasional ball a foot outside off, perhaps to tempt the drive. What I saw did not generate confidence that a wicket was about to fall.

Overton tried a longish spell. He beat the bat once or twice and had a loud lbw shout but it looked high. Leach and Bess tried some short spells of spin, Leach from the River End and Bess from the Somerset Pavilion End. Neither really looked like taking a wicket although Bess did elicit one or two gasps with balls that might have done something.

Abell tried himself immediately after Tea in the traditional opening bowler’s slot and was punished as Hampshire gnawed away at Somerset’s shrinking lead. Perhaps Abell should consider whether he is beginning to over bowl himself and think about when his intervention with the ball is likely to be most effective. His bowling has been a key asset this season. Its use may need to be targeted.

And so Somerset enter the final day still nearly 100 runs ahead. Hampshire enter it with eight wickets still in their defensive wall and a flat pitch on which to defend them.

Apparently Maurice Tremlett used to tell his teams that trying to win a Championship match was like trying to push a wall over. He exhorted his teams to push relentlessly. If the third afternoon and evening were anything to go by there will be no lack of pushing from Somerset. The question will be: how strong a wall will Hampshire and the pitch constitute?

Close: Hampshire 231 and 178 for 2. Somerset 506 (JC Hildreth 184, DM Bess 92, C Overton 80, GK Berg 5-130). Hampshire trail Somerset by 93 runs with 8 second innings wickets standing.

The original version of this report was published on on 14th May 2018.