Reality

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

The overnight situation looked bleak for Somerset. They would have to bat the best part of five sessions to save the match. There was no prospect of them regaining the top spot in the Championship they had ceded to Surrey on the first day.

Overnight: Surrey 459. Somerset 180 and 18 for 0 (f/o). Somerset trail by 261 runs with 10second innings wickets standing. 

Another day of festival cricket and if it was the festival aspect you were going for it must have been a perfect day. Hot in the sun if that is what takes your fancy, a cool breeze in the shade if that is your preference and no prospect of rain. The day after the summer solstice so the sun was as high in the sky as it ever ventures in these parts. The clouds had spruced themselves up and were wearing their finest white. Widely spaced in formation and cotton wool in shape and form, they drifted gently by all day, providing a perfect canopy under which to play cricket.

Looking from the Pavilion End the power of the sun lit the line of marquees at the Railway End as if they had just been coated in brilliant white gloss. It took the eye away from the lines of trees that border either side of the ground. The crowd was larger than on the second day although not quite bursting at the seams as on the first. The prospect of a Surrey victory and no play on the fourth day perhaps drawing people in. Apart from the informality of the clothing it was as if the crowds of the early 1950s had come to visit.

Due to the inordinate two-hour plus length and complexity of my commute, the time taken to pen my posts and the irritating need to eat and sleep I arrived an hour late for the cricket. I arrived to see the scoreboard proclaiming Somerset were 70 for 5. A Somerset supporter immediately made it look worse by telling me Leach would not bat due to the concussion injury he had received in the first innings.

One of the joys of out ground cricket is, even with a large crowd, the amount of space in which you can stand and chat. You get a better view of the cricket too from behind the flat seated areas because you are above the coconut shy of heads. And so a Somerset supporter and I did just that. We stood and chatted, mainly about the jolt which Somerset’s Championship hopes were receiving in this match.

As we talked Hildreth and Gregory were setting about doing what they could to repair the irreparable damage which Morkel and Dernbach had done to Somerset’s second innings before I had arrived. Inevitably, this being Somerset, Clarke had chipped in too with the wicket of Davies. Leaving Patel’s extraordinary, in the purest meaning of the word, first innings spell aside those three bowlers were the persistently threatening stars of this match. That sort or persistence allied with the class with which they bowled will wear sides down and break batting line ups all summer if they continue as they did here.

When you stand and chat you gain a broader, less detailed, impression of what is happening in the middle especially when you are joined by a third contributor, an experienced cricket watcher, who is a supporter of neither side. I asked if the ball had been moving. He had been sitting at long leg and was on his way to get as near to the sightscreen as he could to find out. Our three-way chat rather delayed him for festival cricket watching seems to be like that. The ambience, the atmosphere and the myriad opportunities for cricket chat softens the focus on the game, or at least it does for me.

We dissected the game this way and that, the game generally as well as this game. After I had gleaned that Byrom had fended Morkel to a fielder and Bartlett had chased a wide one, it was time to find a seat and get a closer look at the Hildreth Gregory partnership which seemed to be hinting at semi-permanence.

Finding a seat wasn’t easy. I had just sent a text saying, “Standing room only here,” when I spotted a stray chair with no apparent owner. An enquiry confirmed it and so I did what you can do at an out ground which you cannot at a headquarters. I picked the seat up and took it to where I wanted to sit rather than sit where it wanted me to sit.

That was at the back, under a tree and in the shade, and next to the ice cream van which did a steady but not overwhelming trade. It was a slightly raised position from where the bowler and batsmen just protruded above the coconut shy of heads. Not as raised as the man I had seen on the first two days who had found a large tree stump, just beyond the perimeter of the seating area, upon which to set his seat. And there he had sat, in splendid isolation, with a perfect view of the cricket. I was fast warming to out ground cricket; the relaxed atmosphere, the happy chatter and the sense of timelessness in the surrounds outweighing the, sometimes, restricted view.

Somerset 89 for 5 when I sat down. Hardly cause for relaxation but it was difficult not to. Gregory immediately moved the score on to 93 with the certainty he always portrays until he is out all too soon all too often. If he is going to make a score, I thought, it will be playing as he was playing here. Exactly as he played at Lord’s last year in a century of controlled brilliance. Hildreth too was playing with circumspection, the movement of his score barely perceptible through the late 20s.

I always eat my lunch just before the end of the morning session so that I can wander in the Lunch interval, or perhaps in this idyllic age old setting it should have been the ‘Luncheon’ interval. I had taken about three bites when I was interrupted. “You must be sad,” someone said as if he had known me for an eternity. I didn’t know him from Adam. A Surrey supporter. It was spoken without edge, more as comment on proceedings.

I take the Kipling view up to a point and wasn’t sad at all. Life is too short and the endless series of Somerset defeats and victories over six decades too long to swing into the depths of sadness over another lost cricket match. And the sadness profits you nothing. Which isn’t to say I am not walking on air when Somerset win. I am. And if the Championship is ever won I will be floating beyond the clouds. I just don’t sink too far into the depths when they lose. It eats the soul.

What the Surrey supporter had to say about the bowling in the match I found interesting and I include it here because it did at least seem to offer some rational explanation for the impact of Patel’s remarkable spell in Somerset’s first innings. He said Patel was bowling out swingers (to the right hander) that swung late. He emphasised the ‘late’. He thought that explained the lbw decisions against the left handers. Any ball angled in that swung straight might also have discomfited a right hander. He made no criticism of the Somerset batsmen.

He looked at the Pavilion as he spoke. I didn’t ask if he had access to the Pavilion but it is the only area on the ground, other than the umpire’s position, from where Patel’s swing could have properly been detected. He also said many lbw appeals in the match had been turned down by the umpires because the ball would have passed over the stumps. However, because of his lack of height, Patel’s lbw balls would have hit the stumps. I did see the umpires, on more than one occasion, give the height signal to bowlers.

The Surrey supporter on his way and my lunch eaten I ambled onto the outfield. The numbers of Somerset supporters seemed diminished from the first two days although there were large numbers of people simply enjoying being out in the middle. It was a truly idyllic setting with the trees that lined two sides of the ground and the marquees on the third acting as a perfect sun-soaked backdrop.

IMG_1040 Lunch on the final day at Guildford.
Lunch on the final day.

One absent minded ambler soon found himself being frantically chivvied away as he tried to walk behind the yellow practice stumps at which Jamie Overton, looking at pretty well full pace to me, was about to fire a thunderbolt. I walked to the other side of the practice wicket via a more circuitous route determined by my sense of self-preservation. Overton delivered one thunderbolt in front of a row of curious Surrey supporters who lined the edge of the square. The two nearest me took a sharp intake of breath, laughed nervously and one of them said, “How on Earth does a batsman get behind a ball of that pace. Amazing…” at which point his voice tailed away.

I reached my seat ten minutes before the start of the afternoon session. The ground authorities had, tantalisingly, placed the ice cream van next to where I had placed my seat. Or perhaps it was the other way round. I joined the short queue. Another throwback to the 1950s. At an out ground you can queue for your ice cream and not risk missing a ball if the queue dawdles. Not totally back to the 1950s I discovered. Why can you not buy hard scoop ice cream at a van these days? Not all progress leads you to the promised land. I settled for something that approximated to a misshapen choc ice on a stick.

IMG_1035 The ice cream van Guildford
The ice cream van at Guildford as the players return to the field.

I was back on my seat in the shade to focus on the cricket as the players re-emerged across the backdrop of trees and into that glory that is an English summer day. Gregory, who had looked as settled as any Somerset batsman in this match before Lunch and seemed to take the majority of the strike, tried to take the attack to Surrey.

He drove Virdi beautifully square to the off for four, clipped Morkel behind square for another four and then turned him to leg with no apparent power in the stroke and yet with great force in the ball as it shimmered across the ground and over the boundary. When Gregory plays like that you can see the latent batting potential shining through. Then Morkel, whose bowling, from the overs I saw, was far more potent in Somerset’s second innings, defeated Gregory’s defensive stroke as he edged the ball to slip for 32, his highest Championship score of the season.

What an asset to Somerset Gregory would be if he could just get some consistency into his batting to complement his bowling. An impression has taken hold that his bowling has not delivered this year. And yet he is, with 20 wickets with an economy rate bettered only by Groenewald among the pace bowlers, the top wicket taker of a team near the top of the County Championship. Groenewald is probably the only Somerset bowler who has out bowled him. He has 19 wickets in one game fewer and with a better average.

This pattern was reflected in the long Surrey innings in this match. Only Groenewald took more wickets and of the pace bowlers only Groenewald was more economical. Both Groenewald and Gregory come at the bottom end of the top 20 First Division wicket takers this season but that may, in part, be due to the emergence of Tom Abell (13 wickets) turning a three-man pace attack into a four man one, or a four man one into a five man one. There are only so many wickets to go around.

Bess joined Hildreth and together they tried again to steady the innings. Bess did succeed in driving Morkel through the on side for four and he stayed with Hildreth for a few overs. When Clarke finally bowled him for six the Surrey supporter I had been chatting to said, “Not a surprise I’m afraid. He never looked comfortable.” Neither was it the characteristic ‘march to the sound of gunfire’ Bess innings to which I have become accustomed and which has brought him his batting successes for the County.

Davey replaced Bess and, not for the first time this season, showed that he has improved with the bat since 2017. He survived an enormous appeal and seemed to be the subject of some persistent attention by the Surrey players as a consequence. It didn’t seem to unsettle him and he looked to be playing pretty solidly in support of Hildreth.

Once he lifted Virdi over mid wicket for a one bounce four. Had it not got itself noisily tangled up in the legs of the chairs in front of me on its second bounce it might have removed my head from the back of the coconut shy before it bounced a third time. “I thought that had your number on it,” said the Surrey supporter next to me. Davey stood firm with Hildreth while 64 were added and then departed, furious with himself, caught behind for 21 trying to hook a Dernbach bouncer.

Hildreth, meanwhile, had been playing like the Hildreth who so crucially overcame the Middlesex attack in the last match of 2017. He batted with care and focus, calmly accumulated runs and yet still seemed to score, once he was out of the 20s, at a pace which had you looking at the scoreboard in surprise at how many runs had been added since you last looked. He received generous, if gentle, applause from the festival crowd when he reached his 50.

The other Hildreth, the genius who sometimes leaves spectators speechless with his stroke play, also put in an appearance. He drove Virdi through backward point for four. At first I suspected a thick edge but Hildreth’ head smoothly followed the stroke suggesting the ball went just where he had planned it. He danced down the pitch to Clarke and, as he went, cut him hard and square for another four. He pulled Virdi square and out of the ground for six into the Woodbridge Road. “That went over the trees,” said my wide-eyed Surrey companion.

And then, as hopes of a Hildreth century began to rise, suddenly it was over. Groenewald was bowled by the increasingly effective Dernbach without scoring, and Waller, concussion regulations replacement for Leach, was caught behind off a brute of a ball from the hugely impressive second innings Morkel. You wait over half a decade for a Championship appearance and then you get a ball like that. Hildreth 89 not out. Somerset 210 all out. Surrey winning by an innings and 69 runs and buttressing their top spot in the Championship.

After the match I chatted to three other Somerset supporters. Between us we can probably claim the best part of 200 years watching Somerset cricket. The conclusion we came to? On the basis of the match we had just seen in the context of the season to date, and both those caveats are important, Surrey looked like County Champions. Their pace attack in this match was a class above anything else we had seen this season. Geoff Arnold’s coaching influence perhaps. Abell’s toss decision we all thought a mistake but thought even if Somerset had won a toss and batted first, as far as you can ever judge these things, Surrey would still have won the match playing as they did.

Morkel provides a lethal cutting edge when he gets it right. Dernbach was far more effective in this match than he is often given credit for. Clarke looks better every time I see him. He never lets up. Persistent, accurate, probing and moves the ball. Patel should not be underestimated either if he can move the ball late. Because of the strength of the Surrey pace attack he may struggle to get a regular bowl but his bowling here suggests he is a more than useful reserve. And that is without any consideration of the Currans.

As Somerset travel to Chelmsford there is much for them to ponder particularly in the light of the premature loss of Renshaw due to his finger injury. At least now there can be no illusions about the extent of the challenge which will have to be faced if a Championship is to be won in this year or in any year. The benchmark seems to have been set for this season by Surrey. It will be for Somerset, Nottinghamshire and Essex to see if they can climb above it.

And so, a stunning Surrey victory; a heavy Somerset defeat; a realisation of the size of the task ahead. And yet the enduring memory I will take away from Guildford is of a small easy going festival ground of great charm. It grows on you. By the end I was even becoming endeared to the coconut shy. I would not be sorry to return. And the Surrey supporters there were a friendly talkative lot, happy at their victory.

One Surrey supporter, as his team closed in at the end, was sad. He had been in his prime in Surrey’s halcyon days of the 1950s. He had turned up on the last day of this match mainly to see Renshaw bat. He was genuinely regretful that he had seen him out lbw to the first ball of the day. It was the sort of thing people volunteered to you in that relaxed, friendly summer atmosphere and the sort of thing people used to turn up to Championship matches to see in those long-lost days of sixty years ago.

Result. Surrey 459 (O Pope 117, S Borthwick 83, R Burns 66, TD Groenewald 4-85). Somerset 180 (EJ Byrom 52, RS Patel 6-5, R Clarke 4-32) and 210 (f/o) (JC Hildreth 89*, M Morkel 4-36, JW Dernbach 4-49). Surrey won by 69 runs. Surrey 24 points. Somerset 2 points. 

The original version of this report was published on grockles.com on 25th June 2018.

Aftermath. Matthew Renshaw had broken his finger during the course of the match. The injury brought his stay with Somerset to a premature end. His expected participation in the forthcoming Championship matches at Chelmsford and Worcester did not therefore materialise.