Battle for the top

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Nottinghamshire. 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th June 2018. Taunton. First Day.

Nottinghamshire came to Taunton top of the Championship table with Somerset in second place. And so began another match crucial to Somerset’s Championship challenge.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

It was a day of cricket you would happily travel a hundred miles to see. I know because the person I watched the day with had done precisely that. ‘Fascinating’ he called it. And it was. At the end of the day we were no nearer knowing who might win this match than we were at the start. The pitch is offering some help to the bowlers and may play as much a part in this match as the two teams.

We sat on the Somerset Pavilion terrace, my companion surprised that such seating was open to the general public. It was a gruelling first hour or so. Like watching the Championship in the 1960s thought my friend. Attrition the watchword. Nottinghamshire’s decision to have a toss was not entirely predictable given the green tinge of the pitch and the overcast and mildly humid conditions. It suggested they anticipated the pitch might be more of an aid to the bowlers at the end of the match than it and the sky might be at the beginning.

Somerset’s decision to bat when they won the toss suggested they agreed. The Taunton pitch though is not known for its conformity to the general rule that pitches deteriorate as the match progresses. It is inclined to get flatter the further the match extends into the third and fourth days.

From my seat, roughly behind first slip, it looked as if the pitch, aided by the overhead conditions, was offering assistance to the Nottinghamshire bowlers from the outset. They responded with immense discipline, skill and determination. They constantly tested the batsmen. The batsmen as constantly sought a lapse to exploit. The balance between bat and ball were in perfect equilibrium. The fielders, in full alliance with the bowlers, were predatory although occasionally failing to pick up under the pressure of a quickly taken single or a hard run two.

Before Lunch the Nottinghamshire seamers, Fletcher in particular, used every ounce of assistance the pitch was prepared to yield up. The ball beat the bat repeatedly, inexplicably it seemed at times, refusing to take the edge. Once, Fletcher passed the edge of Renshaw’s bat three times in succession. Once, Renshaw edged Mullaney’s medium pace wide of slip to Gimblett’s Hill for four. The next ball took the inside edge and squeezed by on the other side of the stumps for another four. Gasps rent the air as supporters of both sides winced at the thought of what might have been.

Over after over Fletcher was applauded warmly by both sets of supporters. Off his first seven overs just seven runs were scored and the bat beaten at least as many times. After 19 overs and 80 minutes Somerset were just 39 for no wicket. Bryom was on just 6. When Fletcher got a ball to lift towards Byrom’s armpit he rose perfectly to his toes and played it neatly down to fine leg. “Well played!” said someone at the back of the stand. It was taking that sort of skill to keep Nottinghamshire out.

When the ball was not passing the bat it was being steadfastly defended or judiciously left, the Somerset batsmen wary, watchful, waiting; Renshaw occasionally attacking. Four times he clipped the ball to the square boundary, the sun glinting joyfully off it as it flew along the ground.

Mullaney, never to be underrated, was as persistent as Fletcher and seemingly more troublesome to the batsmen than Milnes although no liberties could be taken with him either. Mullaney was beating the bat and it was he who eventually made the breakthrough, beating Byrom to dismiss him lbw for 14 runs ground out in an hour and a half.

Nottinghamshire had come into the game with only three seamers and so would have to ration their use if they were not to exhaust them before the end of the match, help from the pitch or not. Fletcher had to return before Lunch and so only bowled three overs immediately after, perhaps an initial symptom of that. The spinners, Carter and Patel, were tried well before Lunch with Carter suggesting he was finding some help from the pitch too.

Day 1 Renshaw 6 to G Hill Copyright Mike Willams Matt Renshaw 6 runs (4)
On target. Matthew Renshaw’s six into Gimblett’s Hill must have tested the photgrapher’s nerve.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

The arrival of Bartlett with half an hour to the interval signalled a brief acceleration in the Somerset scoring. He struck two fours and Renshaw drove a six which bounced in front of Gimblett’s Hill, hit the wall at the back and flew straight back out again. That may have been what brought about the return of Fletcher aided by Patel’s slow left arm as Somerset batted out until Lunch where they arrived at 80 for 1.

After Lunch Bartlett attacked although not entirely safely. Patel he twice turned neatly to leg for boundaries, once causing the long-suffering Fletcher to chase a ball which teased him all the way to the boundary and across it. He attacked a high Fletcher bouncer too but Fletcher got enough lift, either from the pitch or his back, to induce an edge over the keeper’s head for four.

But the real story of the afternoon was Carter, the pitch and his off breaks. Once he had replaced Fletcher he bowled through until Tea in tandem with Patel, Mullaney or Milnes. In his first over after Lunch he dropped short to Renshaw who pulled him to the Somerset Stand for six to loud applause. Before the end of the over he had forced Bartlett onto the defensive and into edging the ball to Taylor at slip. Somerset were 118 for 2, Bartlett 29. Four overs later they were 127 for 3 as Hildreth was out in the same way although I thought I detected the beginnings of the bat shaping to turn the ball to leg.

Those two wickets threatened to put their stamp on the game for if the ball had turned, and I thought I had seen one or two do so, then spin might be a factor influencing the direction of the game. If it was an indication that the pitch might deteriorate throughout the match then that might benefit Somerset with Nottinghamshire due to bat last. If it were to flatten as it normally does then Nottinghamshire might find themselves chasing a target on a flat pitch. Only time will answer those questions but the questions will hang in the air until then.

As the afternoon progressed it became apparent that Carter looked to be the main threat. None of Patel, Mullaney or Milnes troubled the batsmen to the same extent although Mullaney continued to do so to an extent. Abell, back in the side after a late fitness test, joined Renshaw. As they began to build a partnership and play with careful defence and judicious attack the threat of Carter seemed to recede but it never left the consciousness particularly as Abell is fond of the sweep shot. He plays it well but he plays it a lot and good spinners are inclined to go through sweep shots.

The partnership gave the impression of careful accumulation punctuated by periodic fiercely struck boundaries, for both Abell and Renshaw hit the ball hard. Their accumulation was accompanied by shouts of, “good running” or “c’mon lads” as they took the quick single or the hard run two. Many singles came as Nottinghamshire defended the short Somerset Stand boundary. They ran at or after the ball as if it contained the elixir of youth which might disappear into some abyss if the ball crossed the rope.

As the partnership grew, the buzz in the crowd developed into an animated chatter for Abell and Renshaw are each exciting in their own way. Abell, the archetypal classical batsmen, playing every stroke as if it had been 3D printed from a template in the old MCC coaching manual. Never does the bat seem to leave the exact arc or length of arc required for the stroke. Renshaw plays the classical strokes too and immensely effectively but they somehow seem to have just that little bit of individuality added to them as if they are played with a glint in his eye.

Abell started his boundary collection with a sweep. I don’t know if the sweep is considered a classical cricket stroke but Abell plays it as if it is, with a power and precision that seems identical every time he plays it. If the manual needs an example of the sweep it could do worse than adopt Abell’s.

Day 1 Tom Abell sweeping Copyright Mike Williams Tom Abell (2)
Coaching Manual. Tom Abell employs his powerful sweep shot to good effect in Somerset’s first innings.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Renshaw’s trademark is the drive, particularly the straight drive, often hit as a six. There were drives in this innings but if Renshaw were to trademark a stroke for this one innings it would be the clip off the legs. He played it time and again, or seemed to, or perhaps it was just that the ones that he played made a powerful impression. Renshaw made his third Championship hundred in five matches. The applause was warm, loud and long.

Then perhaps the glint in his eye caused his downfall. I cannot recall the ball from Carter that bowled him; just the stroke that let it through. A straight drive, but a drive with more glint than classicism as it looked as if he was aiming to clear the county boundary. But he had scored a century and what sort of world do we live in if a 22-year-old is not allowed a glint in his eye after he has scored a century.

176 for 4. And for all my tolerance of Renshaw’s stroke the Somerset innings was developing a pattern of losing a wicket just as Somerset were beginning to pull away.

It was now that the pitch reared its head. The first text of the day from someone else who lived 100 miles away came in. He had just started watching the game on the online feed. He thought the spinners were just getting the ball to straighten a little with most deliveries. Just enough for the one that goes straight on to cause problems. Apparently, the commentators had also mentioned that the occasional one had spat. What the pitch does from the third afternoon will bear watching.

With the weather perfect for cricket, warm and sunny with a mild breeze, Abell and Davies started to rebuild Somerset’s position. Abell started by driving Mullaney for four to the Trescothick Stand. Carter fizzed one past Davies’ bat and Abell pulled Mullaney straight over long leg’s head and into the midst of where the ghosts from the old Stragglers bar reside. I wonder what they would have thought of such a stroke in such a situation.

Abell and Davies worked to take Somerset forward in their own individual ways. Abell playing with power obvious in the stroke. One cover drive rocketing to the Somerset Stand. Davies seeming rather to finesse the ball or drive or pull it with a velvet bat. At three runs an over or so the partnership developed and once again Somerset began to pull away and it began to appear as if the threat from Carter might be neutralised or at least contained for the while.

This time it was the ball as much as the pitch which intervened. Nottinghamshire took the new ball at 80 overs. Within three overs Fletcher had his just reward for all the edges he had passed in the morning as Abell edged to Wessels at slip for 57. “That swung in the air and moved off the pitch. Not a lot. Just enough. A good ball,” said the text. So the pitch was helping the seamer with the new ball as much as the spinner when it was older. 258 for 5.

That began a bit of a Somerset wobble. Mullaney, preferred to Milnes for the new ball, went straight through Gregory and the keeper for four byes. This, following so closely after Abell’s wicket, was perhaps indicative that on this pitch the new ball could be a potent weapon, which in the morning Renshaw and Byrom had largely neutralised. A reminder too to Somerset’s bowlers of the importance of taking full value from the pitch.

Gregory responded by driving Mullaney to the Trescothick Stand boundary for four and lifting him high into the Somerset Stand for six. A slog sweep to Carter resulted in him being bowled for 16. According to the next text van de Merwe played slightly down the wrong line to Milnes and some swing did the rest as he was bowled too and Somerset were 289 for 7. A bit of a disappointment from 258 for 4. But Bess came in and played a cover drive as good as any that had gone before and he and Davies, in his most assured innings of the season to date, took Somerset to 307 for 7 at the close.

“Is that good enough?” people were asking. I don’t know and I don’t think many others do either. Too many unknowns to factor in. The old adage about not knowing the value of the first innings in a match until the other side have batted perhaps particularly apposite in this one. What we do know is that the Nottinghamshire bowlers did what Championship winning sides have to do. They bowled with discipline and they took every advantage from a pitch providing some help and from conditions providing help with the new ball.

That would suggest that, overall, the Somerset batsmen did well to top 300 with some power to add. If that is the case it will only count if Somerset’s bowlers can match Nottinghamshire’s skill and above all their discipline. It was the hallmark of Somerset’s bowling throughout 2017, and at the start of this season. It will need to be on the second day here if Somerset are to overcome the Championship leaders and stay ahead of Surrey who are snapping at their heels.

Close: Somerset 307 for 7.

The original version of this report was published on on 10 June 2018.