Pitch and Toss

County Championship Division 1. Surrey v Somerset. 20th, 21st, and 22nd June 2018. Guildford. First Day.

Somerset started their two match eastern tour at Guildford against Surrey who were in second place, just behind Somerset, in the Championship table.

Toss. Uncontested. Surrey required to bat.

Staying in East London for a match at Guildford was never the most sensible thing to do. But deciding late to make the trip made it by some way the most economic. The commuting days of my exile came flooding back as I made to board a train into London. Me and, literally, a full platform of others, they off to work, me off to the cricket. And that full platform of people boarding a train happens every seven minutes at that time of day. Same on the tube except it’s every two or three minutes there. A two-hour commute across London to a cricket match is not the ideal leisure experience.

Waterloo confirmed the reason for the elevated price of more sensibly located accommodation. Royal Ascot. There were hats everywhere. Toppers for the men. Every description, size, shape and colour of hat for the women. And a white broad rimmed wyvern hat for me. In spite of the multitudinous variety of hats moving about the station concourse I think I can safely report that as my wyvern and the hat it adorned progressed through the throng they were quite unique in that company.

That there would be a crowd at the cricket was obvious as I left the station at Guildford and started to walk to the ground. At the outset there was a steady trickle of us. As I got closer the trickle became a steadily moving line until the line converted itself into a short queue. Short because of the lack of turnstiles and the efficiency of the staff on the gate. One tore the stubs off advance tickets, one exchanged tickets for £20 notes and a third proffered a card machine. At least that is what I think it was. I was shot through the gate with the remains of my advance ticket before I could be sure.

I looked up and saw the Somerset team walking out to field. Guildford, sun forecast, no rain on the ground for about a month. Why do we always seem to lose key tosses I asked myself. I don’t know if Somerset actually do always lose key tosses but it always feels like they do. Except, of course they hadn’t. “Uncontested toss,” someone told me. I spent the rest of the day asking anyone I knew if they knew why Somerset had not contested the toss. Uncontested toss? At Guildford? No-one knew the answer. And most found it difficult to hazard a guess without following the guess up with, “But it couldn’t have been that.”

The ground was packed. I could probably have found a seat but not two together. Fortunately, I was meeting three others already there. By 11.20 the cloud had thinned enough for the sun to make its heat felt. Gregory and Davey opened the bowling. Gregory’s first ball was turned to leg for two. It didn’t exactly set the pattern but there was a tendency for the Somerset bowlers to drift to leg against the left-handers throughout the day with perhaps the exception of the last hour with the second new ball.

There was also a tendency among the seamers to beat the bat, if not frequently. On a number of occasions when the ball went through to the keeper the gasps of the fielders seemed to genuinely indicate the narrowest of misses. One or two of the lbw appeals seemed to suggest bowler and fielders thought they were through.

The contest was tight in the first session with Somerset containing Surrey to 98 for 1, only just three an over. The one, Harinath, the subject of a successful lbw appeal from Abell for 48. But it hardly felt due recompense for an insertion. It also highlighted the value of Abell as an additional seamer.

At Lunch I wandered out to the middle to survey the pitch with my studiously unknowing eye. All I can report is, close up, it looked like it had been camouflaged, rather like a Spitfire but in two shades of green. One the natural green of a greenish pitch. The other a lighter, yellower green.

I wondered if the decision to insert had been to do with the cloud cover at the start of the match and the greenness in the pitch. I have a view about tosses. You should look up, then down but above all you should look back. Back at two things. How a pitch has played in the past and the history of insertions in cricket. At Lunch someone said to me, “I would never put a side in at Guildford.” I haven’t been able to research Guildford but generally I find the history of insertions, except perhaps very early in the season, is littered with large first innings scores by the inserted.

There is, I find, a great attachment to out ground cricket among traditional supporters. It is not one I share personally although I entirely understand that the lack of out ground use removes close access to First Class cricket from whole swathes of the populations of counties. And if the Guildford crowd is anything to go by it is appreciated hugely by those to whom the cricket is brought. The ground looked packed and twice during the day additional chairs were seen being distributed; once from a small motorised carrier and once from a stack being carried on his head by a sharply suited individual.

IMG_1022 A packed crowd.
Packed in at Guildford. The author watched most of the first day from a few seats to the right of here. At the far end of the ground are the line of marquees at the Railway End.

There were perhaps 3000 spectators present, possibly more. It was difficult to estimate because people were so closely packed in. The point was made to me by several people that a significant proportion of those present were not members. It was a major local event and large numbers had paid to come through the gate unlike the trickle at a county headquarters.

Full seats around the entire ground and from the front row to the back on a glorious weather day such as the first day at Guildford is a wonderful sight. If you are in some of the raised seating that Guildford provides it must be perfect cricket watching. But if you are beyond the second row of the flat areas, and someone has to be, you find yourself watching through a coconut shy of heads.

It is quite an art, initially, to position your own head to get maximum visibility of the action. From third man/fine leg, where I sat at the Pavilion End, you could position your head so that you could see both sets of stumps but not the bowler running in or the keeper. Or you could see bowler, keeper and both batsmen but not the middle of the pitch. Eventually you find you are watching whatever bit of the action you can see and your brain is painting most of the rest in.

I got the impression though that the cricket is not the only thing people had come for. It seemed that small groups of people had come together for the chat as much as the cricket and that in some cases this might be the one time in the year when they come together. It appeared to be as much a social event as a cricket match but always with the cricket the recurring focus among the ‘catching up’ that had to be done.

Surrey pulled away from Somerset in the afternoon session. Burns set the scene by driving the first ball, from Davey, through the covers for four. He and Borthwick started to increase the scoring rate from three an over towards four. There were repeated shouts of “Shot!” as the ball started to find the boundary more often. From my position in the coconut shy I could not always see the intricacies but it was clear that batting was a profitable experience.

I embarked on a circumnavigation of the ground. The Pavilion, to the right of where I was sitting, is a virtually new and substantial construction which, if it is of the same quality inside as out should enable the ground to accommodate First Class teams for some time to come.

Once I was beyond that I spent a pleasant twenty minutes chatting to a Somerset supporter who wondered if Essex’s victory batting fourth at Guildford in 2017 had influenced Abell’s decision at the toss. There is a saying in risk assessment involving people: ‘The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.’ That is the pattern of past behaviour not the odd occurrence. As the Surrey score mounted I wondered if that dictum should be considered in relation to the past behaviour of pitches.

As we chatted Surrey continued to accumulate with the occasional alarum as the ball went past the bat. Then there was one of those appeals which instantly convinces. Gregory had removed Burns lbw for 66. 158 for 2. I ambled through the remainder of my circumnavigation taking in the cricket as I went. That is perfectly possible at Guildford although you do lose sight of the action as you walk behind the marquees that go the whole length of the Railway End boundary.

From my seat I could see Surrey beginning to accelerate as the sun came fully into its own. Whether it scorched some of the moisture out of the pitch I know not. It certainly felt like it was scorching the moisture out of the back of my neck. For the third time in the day I coated myself in Factor 50.

Apart from the occasional twinge of hope for the Somerset supporter the match started to have the feel of inevitability. The inevitability of a mountain of runs of the sort that typified those flat pitch matches at Taunton a decade ago. I saw one Somerset supporter, set for the long haul, engrossed in a local newspaper he had brought with him.

As he read, Surrey continued to progress through a mounting combination of correct defence, periodic playing and missing, pushes to either side of the wicket and turns to leg for ones and occasional twos. What started to hurt Somerset though were the boundaries driven and pulled. Bess was tried but seen through the coconut shy he did not seem to be troubling the batsmen.

IMG_1027 The coconut shy
Watching cricket through the coconut shy.

“Why is Leach not bowling?” someone asked. As if by way of answer Abell put him on and off the last ball of his first over the ball flew waist high just wide of slip and towards me for four. It was indicative of the way that luck seemed to tilt in the batsmen’s direction as it always seems to on flat pitches.

Tea saw Surrey at 239 for 2. They had scored 140 in the afternoon session at over four an over. A further inspection of the pitch revealed the original two shades of green had, to my eye, faded significantly. When play restarted I watched for a while from square at the side of the ground where a bank of trees gives some shade. As I did Groenewald rattled Borthwick’s stumps and he was gone for 83. I had no sooner returned to my seat than de Bruyn fell to Bess for a duck. I heard the appeal but missed Hildreth’s catch because I was searching in my bag for something at the time. It was not the first wicket in my cricket watching career I have found in the bottom of my bag,

247 for 4 felt a lot better than 246 for 2 but brought Pope to the wicket. He promptly set about driving away any prospect of Surrey jitters. Literally as he began with a succession of driven fours. He and Ryan Patel all but took Surrey to a third bonus point when Patel edged Abell to Davies for 48. 299 for 5. Patel was furious with himself and for a while his wicket did change the feel of the game.

There was discussion among Somerset supporters about the impact another couple of wickets might have. It certainly felt like the match was moving into more of a balance. The scoring rate slowed and for the first time in the day there was tension in the air. Abell took the new ball, although some wondered if he might have continued for an over or two with the old given his success.

Gradually Pope and Jacks saw off the tension. Slowly at first and then with some acceleration. In the end they reached 351 for 5. At 299 for 5 Surrey seemed at risk of losing the advantage they were building. At 351 for 5 they had moved into the ascendency; and, at four bonus points to Somerset’s one to the top of the County Championship.

Near the end I watched a few overs from next to the Pavilion. Some Surrey players were sitting in chairs on the grass in front of the Pavilion. At one point I saw Morne Morkel and Amar Virdi in conversation. I wondered what they might have to say about proceedings when Somerset batted.

And a final thought about watching cricket at Guildford. The sound of leather on willow. From where I was sitting, at least, it sounded different. Drives regularly sounded as if they had been driven off the pad. “Sometimes you cannot hear the sound of the stroke at all,” said one of my friends. We speculated that being an outground Guildford does not have large expanses of concrete and plastic seating to reflect sound. Rather it has trees and large expanses of people to absorb it. Perhaps this was how cricket sounded from beyond the boundary in the days of old when WG Grace plied his trade.

Close: Surrey 351 for 5.

The original version of this report was published on grockles.com on 21st June 2018.