Flashback. 2009.

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

On the third day the Somerset tail had extended Somerset’s total from a good one to an imposing one. By the end of the day the Hampshire top order had made a significant dent in Somerset’s lead as the feared flattening of the pitch came to pass.

Overnight: Hampshire 231 and 178 for 2. Somerset 506. Hampshire trail by 93 runs with 8 second innings wickets standing.

“Well, what are you going to find to write about that,” I was asked two or three overs from the end. What indeed. The game had long since died; a string of batsmen had turned their arm over; Bartlett had bowled two ‘beamers’, although the second looped six feet over the batsman’s head and eventually reached the keeper running on empty; and the Hampshire batsmen, Vince in particular in reaching 200, had helped themselves to some easy late runs.

The day was reminiscent of those interminable fourth days in the Langer years when only two or three wickets falling on the final day of a Championship match was about par for the course. 24 fell, in total, on eight final days in 2009 and that included six in that unforgettable and successful run chase of 479 for 6 against Yorkshire. 18 in total in the other seven, all drawn, matches and none at all in a full final day against Lancashire, VVS Laxman (113*) being one of the beneficiaries. There were nine totals that season of over 500 including one of over 600 and one of over 700. Langer is alleged to have remarked that if Somerset wished to win the Championship something had to be done about the pitches.

Well, something was done. By 2011 things had changed. In that season there was one rain affected draw at Taunton and seven positive results with only one declaration in any innings by either side in the entire season and that with nine wickets down. Of the positive results three were completed inside three days and four in four. Somerset won four and lost three of those matches. Of the wickets taken by Somerset that season at Taunton 93 fell to the pace bowlers and 26 to spin so it seems unlikely the results were due to overly spin friendly pitches.

Now, I am not remotely suggesting the pitch for this match was comparable to the 2009 pitches. It wasn’t. This pitch was much livelier on the first two and a half days of playing time, or thereabouts, than those of 2009. However, for the last day and a half it played like a throwback to those days. Too many pitches like it in the future and the Championship may remain a perpetual dream for Somerset.

That said the reality is Somerset need to be sure they stay within ECB guidelines if they are to avoid a points deduction in 2018. There is, therefore, likely to be an understandable reluctance to produce overly spin friendly pitches.

I have no expertise whatsoever where pitches are concerned. Apart from being green or not they all look the same to me. I would not therefore wish to underestimate in any way the complexities of the situation. However, I wonder if there would be some benefit, if records are kept that far back and if it has not already been done, in looking at exactly what went into pitch preparation in, and in the lead up to, 2011 and seeing if there is anything that can be replicated now.

As to that gruelling final day…

Before the day even started there was an unbearably cruel twist of fate when Jack Leach broke his thumb in pre-match practice on the eve of being selected for his second Test. Fragments of news spread around the ground as the day progressed, each being worse than the one before, until what had happened became clear. No-one I spoke to said much other than exchanging the news. There was really nothing that could be said in such circumstances. The extent to which people felt for Leach was clear in their faces.

At the start of the day I settled myself at the top of the Somerset Pavilion. It soon became apparent that Vince and Amla were settling themselves down too and were bent on survival. There were ghosts of chances. A glance early on from Vince off Groenewald evaded the diving glove of Davies by a foot or so. Amla edged just short of an imaginary line between slip and gully. And that was about the extent of Somerset hope ahead of the new ball.

Bess was gently drifting the ball away from the right hander and just as gently turning it a seam’s width into the batsman. Concentration and a straight bat the only requirement to nullify any risk. Amla, whether by design or serendipity, brought up his hundred just before the new ball was due.

The new ball brought little change. Amla edged short of gully and was the subject of a huge lbw appeal from Overton but that was the sum total of hope in the first half dozen overs. Overton and Gregory seemed to be getting no movement from the ball or life from the pitch. After half an hour of receding anticipation it became clear that the pitch would offer the bowlers no help. I decided to embark on a circumnavigation of the ground, the last resort of the desperate supporter when wickets are needed and do not come.

I ambled, via several dalliances to peek at the cricket through gaps between the stands, to the spot where the old scoreboard used to be and stopped for a longer look at the cricket. While I stood there Gregory dropped one ball short and wide and Amla, of all people, chased it into Davies gloves. 233 for 3. Hampshire 42 behind.

I stopped again between the Trescothick and Somerset Stands to see if I could do any good there. An edge just short of and through where third slip would have been the most I could manage. I was more successful at the gap between the Somerset Stand and Gimblett’s Hill. Alsop pulled Groenewald limply to mid wicket where stood Hildreth. Hildreth does not make mistakes with those. Hampshire 256 for 4. 19 behind.

CC 2018 Som v Hants Day 4 Tom Alsop not out off Tim Groenewald Copyright Mike Williams
Slips on the ball. Alsop ‘caught’ by Craig Overton at second slip off Groenewald. The umpire’s finger remained untroubled. Shortly afterwards Alsop was out caught at mid wicket by James Hildreth off Groenewald for 12.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

That was the limit of my, and Somerset’s, success. As the day wore on, and as I spoke to people, it became apparent that I was far from being the only one who had been perambulating the ground with the same forlorn intent. In fact, the route around the boundary began to look like a circular seafront promenade on a sunny bank holiday Monday. None of us believes for a moment that such things make the slightest difference but we do it anyway. Just as on the second day I found myself rooted to the seat I had intended to borrow for just a few minutes on Gimblett’s Hill when Overton’s score started to mount. Superstition may be a nonsense but it is a powerful nonsense.

Back at the top of the Somerset Pavilion after Lunch it became apparent that Gregory and Groenewald had started to get appreciable movement. There seemed real hope at last. That small voice within was more doubtful, not at all certain Somerset could pull this off on such a pitch. It had been here too many times before.

Hope, though, springs eternal and so I watched intently. Rossouw in particular was troubled, especially by Groenewald. A few went so close to the defensive edge they elicited gasps from the crowd, one just evading a Rossouw cut. Rossouw also edged a drive against Overton, when he returned, wide of second slip. After that the moment and the movement passed with Vince and Rossouw still there with Hampshire on 302 for 4, 27 ahead and the remaining overs starting to shrink.

And there the pair of them remained, virtually untroubled, until the occasional bowlers took the match into that surreal stage of the dead draw where the game is played with no competitive edge but the niceties are observed to a fault. Not least the removal of Bartlett from the attack after his second, looping, ‘beamer’ which would have been of more danger to a passing aircraft than it was to the batsman. By then there were not many there to witness the disintegration of the match as a contest. Perhaps a thousand or so had started the day. To my eye less than 300 ended it and most of those, I imagine, might have been hard put to explain why they were still there.

CC 2018 Som v Hants Day 4 Rilee Rossouw (defends in long p'ship with JV - FW) Copyright Michael Williams
And there they remained. Rilee Roussow gives nothing away in Hampshire’s final (55 over unbroken) partnership with James Vince.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Something should be said about the innings of Vince and Rossouw. By the time they batted the pitch was probably among the least demanding they have ever or will ever face. However, they both batted against their natural aggressive risk-taking instincts.

It was, apparently, the longest innings of Vince’s career and it suited Hampshire’s needs admirably. It must, even on that pitch, have been a monumental effort of concentration both to stay focused for so long and to so successfully contain his natural instincts. Given his England record he probably has little cause for complaint about being dropped from the squad for the first Test. However, given the likely reasons, it is a little ironic that the selectors chose to do so after an innings such as this.

And so to Dom Bess. I cannot let this report pass without a reference to his being called up to the England Test squad following such a meteoric start to his first-class career. Another irony emanating from this match is that he has essentially been called up to replace the injured Jack Leach. It is also a comment on Somerset’s player development and recruitment that England have been able to replace one Somerset spinner with another and Somerset still have a more than useful replacement available in Roelof van de Merwe. As I have said before Dom Bess marches towards the sound of gunfire for Somerset. I imagine he will do the same for England.

And finally, where does this all leave Somerset. Second in the championship just seven points behind the leaders with a game in hand over them and most of the rest of the table. A start that could only be dreamed of after four games in any other year since the return to the First Division a decade ago. A considerable amount of preparatory work must have taken place in the winter to bring about such a fundamentally different start to the season and its effects may continue to be felt through the season.

There are though, to use the modern parlance, challenges ahead. Winning more games on the Taunton pitch this year, now that April has gone, may be one of them if the pitch for this match were to be typical of what is to come. Whether it is possible to produce result pitches towards the end of the season, when three of Somerset’s remaining four home matches take place, and remain safely within ECB pitch guidelines may determine whether Somerset can sustain a Championship challenge this year.

The Championship table looks healthy at present from a Somerset perspective and the team have had an outstanding start. However, the challenges ahead may be greater than those behind. The four teams Somerset have played are currently in the bottom four places in the table, albeit partly in two cases because of defeats by Somerset. The teams still to be played for the first time are currently, with Somerset, in the top four places. They include Surrey, the only team over whom Somerset do not have a game in hand and who are only two points behind Somerset.

As the season progresses depth of squads may play a role in the outcome of the season and Somerset are in a stronger position this year than they have been at any time since their return to the First Division. When Somerset challenged for the Championship in 2010 the pace attack was largely carried by three players, Willoughby, Thomas and Trego who missed only one Championship game between them. Kartik, Somerset’s main spin threat that year, played only eight games.

The strength of the 2018 squad has been evidenced by the fact that four injuries have been sustained over the first four games without exposing the team on the field too heavily. The ability levels within the squad too are improving year on year.

After the Lord’s Test starts on Tuesday the squad will probably contain four players who have played for England compared with one a year ago. That is testament to the success of Somerset having the skill and the patience to develop players internally, only recruiting externally selectively and adroitly. Further testament to, and an immense benefit of, that policy must be the cohesiveness and intensity of the team spirit shown on the field this season and at the end of last. That can play a large part in winning a Championship as Essex showed in 2017.

There is much to hope and play for this season. The road to the Championship may be, as it should be, a tough one but there is no doubt that the wherewithal necessary to travel that road is coming together for Somerset.

Result: Hampshire 231 (JM Vince 44, TB Abell 3-36, TD Groenewald 3-59) and 432 for 4 dec (JM Vince 201*, HM Amla 107, RR Rossouw 65*). Somerset 506 (JC Hildreth184, DM Bess 92, C Overton 80, GK Berg 5-130). Match Drawn. Somerset 13 points. Hampshire 9 points.

The original version of this report was published on grockles.com on 16th May 2016.