In pursuit of the dream

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

Nottinghamshire fought throughout the third day to stay in the game. Somerset still appeared to hold the advantage but a much closer affair was in prospect than had seemed likely at the end of Nottinghamshire’s first innings.

Overnight: Somerset 392. Nottinghamshire 134 and 468 for 8. Nottinghamshire lead by 210 runs with 2 second innings wickets standing.

It was Steven Davies who finally got me off the edge of my seat and sitting more comfortably in it. At some point in the match every one of the Somerset players made a contribution which made a difference. But it was Davies who, brilliantly, virtually instantaneously, turned the dreams of victory of the watching Somerset supporters from a prolonged, heavy, nerve wracking ‘if’ to the sudden light-headed relief of ‘when’.

85 to win with six wickets standing and plenty of overs left would have left no doubt in the minds of most neutrals that a Somerset victory was the likely outcome. But watching Somerset supporters were not neutrals. They had been waiting 127 years to win the County Championship and they knew how important the outcome of this match was if Somerset were to stay in contention this year. In recent times they have twice seen the prize snatched away on the last day of the season. They knew that in cricket nothing is certain until it is certain and so the tension of Somerset’s victory pursuit had seemed interminable.

When Hildreth’s wicket fell on the stroke of Tea, after some pre-interval overs of introspective Somerset defence, with those 85 runs still needed, you could feel and see the pent-up tension all around the ground. Every face was taut, every expression strained, every conversation hushed, every thought a hope and a fear in one.

And then, after Tea, Davies emerged to replace Hildreth. An over of defence from Abell and four byes through his defensive stroke did nothing to ease the tension. Then in the second over Davies played three successive boundary strokes of absolute cricketing beauty, each placed with perfection, each racing off his seemingly velvet bat, each lifting the heart of every Somerset supporter. The 127 years’ weight of tension simply evaporated in those three instants.

If Somerset are to challenge for the Championship in 2018 those 127 years’ weight of tension will have to be borne many times yet and if the challenge is maintained they will become heavier and more unbearable by the match. But if a challenge is mounted, whether it succeeds or not, those three boundaries may be looked back upon as the pivot upon which hope turned to possibility.

Somerset had, in truth, always had the edge but 248 can be a testing target when the pitch is providing some help to the bowlers; and things can so easily unravel under the pressure of a chase. Nottinghamshire too had fought with tenacity throughout their own long second innings and did so again as Somerset’s embarked on theirs. Nothing could be taken for granted. It was First Division Championship cricket at its potent toe to toe nerve jangling best.

Nottinghamshire started the day 210 ahead with two wickets still to fall. I was late at the ground and Nottinghamshire had still been eight down and 243 to the good when I left home. Nervous calculations were running through my mind as to how many Somerset could afford to let Nottinghamshire get before time and overs remaining were added to the runs required and wickets standing equation.

A wyvern hat is a bit of a magnet for Somerset supporters wanting to request or impart information. This time it was someone who had probably seen Gimblett play who said, “We need about 250. Somebody needs to stay there.” Or rather he said ‘therrr’. A phrase, or perhaps it was that vintage of Somerset accent, that brought back memories of my grandfather saying exactly that when a win was to be chased or a defeat averted. It made me think. The generations that have gone before us could only dream of following Somerset in the position they are in after this match. The weight of history for a club like Somerset is onerous indeed.

The most common thing I heard as I found my seat was praise for Davey who apparently had put in another fine performance. To my eye he has stepped up a level this year. Someone said to me he might benefit from another yard of pace. He might too but he seems to be playing to the farthest extent of his ability and with an absolute commitment to the Somerset cause. That is something that happens when a team is at one with itself and, as one, has its eyes on the prize.

Day 4 Copyright Mike Williams Luke Fletcher bld Josh Davey
‘Fletcher c Davies b Davey 21’ became ‘b Davey 21’ when someone spotted the missing bail.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

There were perhaps 1200 to 1500 in the crowd, strong support by last day standards. Perhaps the heavens were supporting Somerset too for the traces of cloud still hanging around had been banished to the firmament’s upper reaches. And for the benefit of the crowd a cool breeze blew through from time to time.

Renshaw started Somerset’s chase with a neat turn towards fine leg for a single. It was Byrom though, who, among the gentle singles, set the tone for the innings. In successive overs he drove boundaries through the covers and mid wicket. Then the nervous hush that attended the play was faintly punctured by an equally nervous, “Hooray!” as he glanced Fletcher to the Trescothick Stand for four. Somerset were underway.

There were the usual new ball alarums. Milnes went through a Renshaw defensive stroke. Byrom almost chopped Mullaney onto his stumps and edged him past second slip for four to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. Then he got a ball from Mullaney that was angled in, straightened off the pitch and took the edge to the keeper. Somerset were 29 for 1. 219 short. A heavy silence momentarily hung over the ground as the fear of defeat rather than the hope of victory bit, but Byrom had at least given the innings momentum.

One 20-year-old was replaced by another as George Bartlett came to the wicket. It is easy to forget too that Renshaw is only 22 and that nearly half this side is under 25. Bartlett is a no nonsense attacking batsman who, when he gets a start, gives impetus to the innings. He was immediately positive. He shaped a hook to guide a short ball from Milnes to Gimblett’s Hill and then powerfully drove him square to the Somerset Stand.

I moved to the terrace at the top of the Somerset Pavilion to watch Carter’s solitary pre-lunch over to Renshaw. It looked challenging to one who has not played any serious cricket. At least I discovered, after 40 years, why the only time I batted against an experienced spinner no matter where I put the bat the ball went somewhere else. As much as I have regretted ever since that I never laid bat on ball the bowler has probably regretted more that after three balls his over allocation was up. The easiest wicket he never took.

Carter’s line varied from middle to off with some drift into the left-handed Renshaw and turn off the pitch which took it to about the width of two stumps in the ground away from where it had pitched. Unlike my younger self Renshaw seemed to play each ball back without too much difficulty.

With Somerset 46 for 1 at Lunch, still 202 away, I did my normal circuit of the ground. I met someone who was an excellent club batsman in his youth. I told him what I had seen of Carter. “Did it bounce unusually?” he asked. “No,” I said. “It isn’t spitting either. We should be all right,” he replied with a certainty which made no impact on my 127-year-wait laced anxiety.

After Lunch I watched awhile from the Garner gates. There is something about watching on the meander, even a temporarily halted meander, that lessens the focus on the detail. From the gates you cannot see the whole outfield for one thing. You get a more detached view of proceedings. You also notice a statement of intent when you see one. Or two. Bartlett drove Carter for a one bounce four to the Somerset Pavilion. It was struck off the middle of the bat and with absolute certainty. Renshaw followed Bartlett with a perfectly slog-swept six off Carter into the Somerset Stand. I couldn’t see the landing of the ball from where I stood but I saw the leaving of it from the bat. The raising of the umpire’s arms inevitable.

Somerset were 58 for 1. The target down to 190. It felt so much better than 200 but set against 58 for 1 it still felt a very long way off. Writing now in the cold light of day it seems strange to have been so anxious. But at the time it wasn’t the cold light of day. I was standing in that cauldron of hope that is Somerset’s eternal quest for the County Championship.

I carried on to the Gimblett’s Hill scoreboard. From there I looked along the Somerset Stand. That is when I first noticed those taut, anxiety strewn faces as they stretched along every row all the way back to the Trescothick Stand. I doubt they were any less taut there. Clearly I wasn’t the only one in the cauldron of hope. There was no sign of nerves in the middle. What we were watching there was controlled batting measured to fit the required run rate. There was none of the hesitant careworn approach which dogged Somerset’s nadir of 2017, the abortive run chase against Hampshire. This side has come a very long way since then.

Bartlett and Renshaw, watchful of every ball and watching for every opportunity were pushing the singles and pushing for the twos. The score ticked up to 79 for 1 and the target figure on the scoreboard ticked down from 170 to 169. Why does a target of 169 look so much better than one of 170? It shouldn’t but when hopes such as those which hung on this game fill the mind it does.

Even as the batsmen started to find the boundary the tension held sway in every part of the ground. The score passed 100. Less than 150 to go. Still nine wickets standing. Hopeful glances were exchanged. “Don’t say it. Don’t say anything,” someone said. Hope was daring to enter the thoughts. But it dare not be spoken for fear that in the speaking it would turn into a chimera.

A look at the scoreboard. 125 for 1. A calculation. 123 needed. “We are past half way,” I said without thinking. “We don’t want a spectacular collapse now!” someone said. The words were still floating in the air as, next ball, Bartlett got a bottom edge onto his boot and from there onto his stumps. The persistently probing Carter’s first wicket. Somerset 125 for 2. Bartlett 43. The applause matched the value of an innings that had helped give Somerset a real chance.

Day 4 Copyright Mike Williams George Bartlett bld Matthew Carter
In off. George Bartlett bowled off his boot by Matthew Carter after a critically important 43 helped Somerset pass 100 with just one wicket down.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

A real chance but Carter was getting some help from the pitch. A new batsman would find him a different proposition for a while. A couple of wickets would start to put a different complexion on the game as cloud appeared to put a foreboding face on the sky. There was tautness in every face. Worry in every thought. Hope, the still small voice within that dare not speak.

Hildreth joined Renshaw and soon struck a boundary but care was the watchword now. Consolidation the aim. By just two runs an over the score rose. In a run chase that builds the tension, even when run rate is not an issue and even when the batsmen are in control of their strokes. It feels like a wicket could fall any ball. And the tension had been intense enough as it was.

Then Hildreth tried to break out. Ten runs in an over off Patel took the target below 100. Eight wickets left. A target of 94 looks so much better than one of 104. The feeling of tension just daring to ease for the first time. Just a little. It lasted two balls. On the third the ever-threatening Carter turned one onto the defensive edge of Renshaw’s bat and Taylor at slip took the catch. 154 for 3. Abell, who has wrought such a transformation in this side marched to the wicket. Nottinghamshire had kept hard at it, tried to keep the pressure up, but now they looked re-invigorated. I sensed they thought they really had a chance. Mullaney directing the field with a purpose.

I moved on to Gimblett’s Hill to join the re-tensioned faces there. Always watching the cricket; tempted though to hide behind the metaphorical sofa by looking away but not daring. The discussion revolving around “We should do it but…” There is always a ‘but’. This time it was Hildreth. Defending for Tea he edged a ball from Carter. Root, at short leg, took off and caught the ball well to his left, 163 for 4. And those 85 runs still needed. Three top wickets had fallen for 38 runs. Hope seems to lodge itself in the heart. Doubt in the pit of the stomach and that is where it took up residence for the Tea interval.

“The one that got Hildreth turned more,” said the text. “Carter seems to have one that turns more with a different hand action.” That did nothing to ease the tension. For once I never left my seat. Contemplation with no action to change the equation feeds tension. Builds it. Twenty minutes of it built those 85 runs yet to be negotiated into the most fearful minefield.

And then came Davies and those three successive fours in the second over after Tea. He drove Carter over the top to the Somerset Pavilion. “Yeah!” someone said although it was rather a hushed ‘Yeah’, but the stroke was played with such certainty it deserved the ‘Yeah.’ The second he swept over mid wicket to the Somerset Stand with the perfection of the gods and the precision of the executioner. The third, the most benign of late cuts timed so well it raced to the Colin Atkinson boundary taking Nottinghamshire’ hopes with it.

Day 4 Steve Davies breaks the tension after Tea Copyright Mike Williams Steve Davies 4 runs (3)
Breaking the tension. Steven Davies finally turns the match Somerset’s way after Tea.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

It was only 12 runs but suddenly the target was 69, Six wickets still standing, Davies playing like a god and Abell in his current form at the other end. It was enough. The only worry now that the weight of anxiety that had suddenly lifted from the ground might disturb the equilibrium of the weather as it passed through. A bye got Davies to the other end for the start of the next over from where he drove through mid on to a cry of, “Look at that!” The target had shrunk to 54 and it felt like Davies had the match in the palm of his hand.

Nottinghamshire though were not Championship leaders for nothing. Their fielding, which had earlier looked a little ragged for a period was now back on the case. Strokes were intercepted, the ball gathered cleanly and hurled to the keeper. Nothing given away as Nottinghamshire, trying to swim against the Somerset tide, exerted such pressure as they could. With cuts, deflections, and drives for well-placed singles and a brace of boundaries Davies and Abell confidently manoeuvred Somerset through the Nottinghamshire net. They took Somerset to 204 for 4. Just 44 needed.

Abell chose this point to finally put the match absolutely beyond doubt. Carter, who had driven Nottinghamshire’s challenge for so long, the bowler. In one over Abell swept him with such power the ball flew through the leg side field placed for the shot. Pretty well in line ahead were short leg, square leg and deep square leg. The ball rocketed past them all to the Caddick Pavilion boundary.

The square leg fielder moved a little straighter. Abell played the same stroke with the same awesome power a little straighter still. Four more. Another field adjustment resulted in a reverse sweep struck to the Trescothick Stand for another four with not much less power than the two orthodox sweeps. “Oh! Brilliant!” someone said.

Then before we knew it Somerset were within 22 runs and Nottinghamshire signalled the match was Somerset’s by putting Root and Libby on to bowl.

In the end the pitch had neither gone flat nor crumbled. It had produced an exceptional four days of cricket. When you watch a match like that four days seems an eternity. Overton’s incredible two overs before lunch on the second day seemed to have faded into history and it took a memory search to remember any of Somerset’s first innings. What I will remember from the very end of the match was the sight of the Nottinghamshire players applauding Davies and Abell off the field of play.

And so as Somerset sit on top of the Championship table they prepare to travel for only the second time this season. They will meet the challenge of the two teams perhaps most likely to knock them off their pedestal and both away from home.

In this match Somerset kept going hard through a gruelling game to beat Championship leaders Nottinghamshire. Against Surrey, immediately behind Somerset in the table, and Essex, current County Champions, they will have to keep going hard against two teams who may be even harder to beat. If Somerset are to get near their goal there will be more games scheduled to last an eternity, at least for the Somerset supporters watching them.

Result: Somerset 392 (MT Renshaw 106, SM Davies 92*, TB Abell 57, M Carter 5-113) and 250 for 4 (MT Renshaw 61, TB Abell 46*, SM Davies 44*, M Carter 3-82). Nottinghamshire 134 (LRPL Taylor 74, C Overton 4-53) and 505 (TJ Moores 103, SJ Mullaney 94, JD Libby 69, JH Davey 4-76, RE van de Merwe 4-138). Somerset won by 6 wickets. Somerset 22 points. Nottinghamshire 2 points.

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