A force of nature

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

Somerset started the second day with what had appeared to be a good total taking into account the help the pitch had given the bowlers on the first day. 

Overnight: Somerset 307 for 7. 

With due acknowledgement to Benjamin Franklin there are three certainties in life. Death, taxes and the Taunton pitch going flat on the third day. Although it seems it may not always wait until the third day. From my experience of watching cricket at Taunton the flattening tends to happen quite, and counter-intuitively, suddenly. Perhaps, in this match, it happened at Tea on the second day. The difference between the Nottinghamshire first and second innings certainly suggested it.

Or perhaps the Nottinghamshire first innings took place in the face of one of those rare sights on a cricket field, a force of nature unleashed. Only twice previously in my sixty years watching Somerset have I seen anything quite like Craig Overton’s two overs before Lunch on the second day of this match.

I was sat in the lower terrace of the Somerset Pavilion with my friend of the previous day and another long-time Somerset cricket watcher when Craig Overton suddenly charged in from the River End. It was a mesmeric two overs.

The occasion that immediately sprang into the minds of the two of us who had been there was Joel Garner’s furious bowling against Kent in the 1979 Gillette Cup Quarter-Final at Taunton. Garner had bowled like the wind, with some help from a similarly fired-up Ian Botham, to dismiss Kent for 60. He had, allegedly, been furious with himself at having been out ‘swiping’ as he tried to support Graham Burgess in a desperate rescue attempt after a near catastrophic Somerset collapse. There is nothing new in this world.

The similarity to Overton’s performance here was Garner’s opening burst which had reduced Kent to 19 for 4. Irresistible both. For the record the other occasion was Alphonso Thomas’ four in four, for which Thomas had charged in towards me as I sat in the Botham Stand.

What typified all three performances was not so much the undoubted pace of the bowling but the incandescent, irresistible intensity of the bowler as he ran in and the ferocious direction of the ball which he delivered. Overton’s performance had the same feeling about it as the others. The same unspoken expectation of more wickets to come that each ball generated.

The apparent helplessness of the Nottinghamshire batsmen was a replica of the Kent batsmen all those years ago. As Overton bowled and the spellbound batsmen seemed to sway like corn in the breeze the images of Garner bowling and the Kent batsmen doing the same emerged from the mists of time as if it had all happened yesterday. My friend, who had travelled from a distance to be at Taunton, said those two overs alone justified the trip.

It was a day of three halves as they might say in football. My friend and I started it by spending a quarter of an hour before the first half waiting for a cup of tea to emerge in the Stragglers because two of the iPads on which orders are taken had broken down. It doesn’t only happen on trains.

Dom Bess, carrying on his innings from the first day, started, as he is inclined to, by taking the game straight to the opposition. There was a cut to the Caddick Pavilion and two square drives to the Somerset Stand in an over from Milnes, one eliciting, “What a shot!” from further along my row of seats. Then, as is supposed to happen to the brave, fortune favoured him. A drive to a ball from Fletcher that may have moved away from him sent the ball off the edge at a perfectly catchable height through the first vacant slip position.

Davies was more circumspect and as the score moved towards 350 as the 110th over approached everything went quiet. The rasping shots were replaced by firm defence and the occasional push for a single. As it became clear that the bonus point was not being chased discussions broke out, I imagine all around the ground, about the wisdom of that approach. The conclusion being reached that Somerset were more concerned with trying to build a position from which to win the match than with a solitary point.

They went on, impressively, to do just that. Bess became the third batsmen to be caught at slip off the spin bowlers, this time Patel, for a well stuck 34. Disappointment was etched into his reluctant walk to the Pavilion. Overton, caught on the square leg boundary, and especially Davey stayed with Davies as he worked on building Somerset’s total.

Day 2 S Davies sweeping Copyright Mike Williams Steve Davies (2)
A cultured innings. A silken sweep as Steven Davies steers Somerset to 392.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

It was what used to be called, in the days when county cricket reports filled the sports pages, a cultured innings. How someone, when he finds the boundary, can stroke the ball with such apparent softness and yet see it race to the boundary with such speed stretches my power of understanding. But I never played the game. And neither, I imagine did Isaac Newton, for Davies stroke play seems to bring into question his third law. The ball flying off Davies bat may be an opposite reaction to the power in the stroke but it always seems to be far more than an equal one.

Somerset added 85 runs in an hour and a half, Davies ending on 92 not out when Davey tried to turn Patel to leg and was lbw. Somerset 392 all out. There had been some help for the bowlers throughout the innings and they had stuck assiduously to their task. The general consensus among the spectators I randomly polled seemed to be that 392 was a pretty good effort in the circumstances.

And then came Overton and the second of the three halves of the day. The three of us sitting together concluded that a wicket in the 20 minutes that remained until Lunch would top the morning off nicely. Not in our wildest dreams did we expect what actually happened. In his first over Gregory did nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary. In fact, he went for 10 runs.

And then in ran Overton. The sky was overcast and the air was mildly humid and that may have helped but those two overs were just … well, take your pick – astonishing, astounding, extraordinary, phenomenal, incredible – for no one word will do. As he came towards me it was as if he was in some way apart from his surroundings, a force from a different dimension. If an impressionist had painted the scene Overton would have been filled half the canvas and appeared to be bursting out of it.

Day 2 Copyright Mike Williams Steven Mullaney lbw Craig Overton
Force of nature. Stephen Mullaney lbw to Craig Overton in his devastating spell.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

As it was he burst through the Nottinghamshire batsmen, the ball that took the edge of Libby’s bat was venomously unplayable. ‘Unplayable’ is perhaps an overused word when describing dismissals but the way the ball was angled in significantly at speed and then straightened means no other will do. A good, if understated, catch by Davies moving smoothly across to his right when others might have dived completed the canvas. By Lunch two more wickets were down, Mullaney to Overton and Nash to Gregory.

My lunchtime circumnavigation was even more interrupted than usual. Everyone wanted to talk. In fact, from the voluminous chatter in the ground everyone probably was talking. There were only three topics of conversation. Overton, three Nottinghamshire wickets and, for those who were behind the arm, “the ball that got Libby.”

It meant I was four balls late getting to half way up the stairs into the lower level of the Somerset Pavilion. Half way because of the queue waiting for the end of the over. The second ball I saw, through a collection of shoulders and armpits, slammed into Patel’s pads. An appeal rent the air, the ground held its breath, the umpire, rather like the presenter announcing the next person to be ejected from a reality television programme, delayed his finger, then raised it, the ground erupted and Patel departed the scene. I had not long regained my seat when Gregory moved a ball in off the pitch just enough to go through to Wessels stumps and Nottinghamshire were 28 for 5.

And yet the feel of those two overs before Lunch had gone. Moments like that are as ephemeral as they are rare. The spell broken by the intervention of Lunch. Overton a mortal like the rest of the bowlers again. They were mortals though with a mission. And there were six of them on the field who could all make a claim to be front line bowlers. And that includes Tom Abell with 11 wickets this season at an average 17 before this match.

An attempt at a recovery from Taylor and Moores was broken with the score on 68 when Abell had Moores lbw and Billy Root well caught in the slips by Renshaw. 68 for 7. The cheers for these and the other wickets in this innings were so loud they were reminiscent of the cheers of the old days of knock-out cup matches. Although perhaps not quite so loud as the 8000 cheers for Garner’s wickets in 1979.

From there the story of the innings was of Taylor battling on through and in the end hitting out to stretch the Nottinghamshire innings as far as he could. There were wickets for van de Merwe and a final one for Overton. Taylor hit Overton three times into or over the Somerset Stand for sixes. Then as he tried to keep the strike he called Carter for a breakneck single, Bess threw from extra cover into Davies gloves immediately above the stumps and it was 134 all out. A deficit of 258 and, conveniently, Tea.

Most I spoke to between the innings were in favour of enforcing the follow on. I tended to concur if only because if the third team in any cricket match, the pitch, acted true to character and flattened it would give Somerset the best batting conditions of the match if they had to bat again.

The pitch was the star, or villain depending on your viewpoint, of the third half of the day. To all appearances it looked as if it had suddenly flattened when Nottinghamshire batted again. Mullaney and Libby, who had been shot out by Overton’s force of nature before Lunch now found themselves batting in altogether more benign conditions.

I watched most of the last session stood in conversation where the old scoreboard used to stand engaged in some multi-tasking. Talking about cricket whilst watching cricket. From that slightly detached viewpoint the evening session looked ominously easy for the Nottinghamshire openers. There were a few appeals, one or two past the bat from van de Merwe and a lot of runs for the Nottinghamshire batsmen. What a difference having three halves in a day makes to a team which has a disastrous second half.

Nottinghamshire will start the third day needing another 146 runs to make Somerset bat again or perhaps another 400 to 450 runs to put Somerset under pressure in the last innings. The mathematical odds will be heavily on Somerset. However, the third team at Taunton may have a significant part to play in this match. The real odds may be somewhat tighter if Nottinghamshire can find the will to bat as Hampshire did in the last match and as Mullaney and Libby did at the end of the second day. A strong session from the Somerset bowlers on the third morning might be crucial.

Close: Somerset 392 (MT Renshaw 106, SM Davies 92*, TB Abell 57, M Carter 5-113). Nottinghamshire 134 (LRPL Taylor 74, C Overton 4-53) and 112 for 0. Nottinghamshire trail by 146 runs with 10 second innings wickets standing.

The original version of this report was published on grockles.com on 11th June 2018.