A sterling effort

County Championship Division 1. Essex v Somerset. 25th, 26th, 27th and 28th June 2018. Chelmsford. First Day.

Somerset came to Chelmsford to face the County Champions having just been heavily defeated by Surrey at Guildford. As a consequence of that defeat Surrey had replaced Somerset at the top of the Championship table. 

This match was played with a pink ball, under lights when the light faded, with a 2.00 p.m. start. 

Jamie Overton returned to the Somerset team after injury for the first time in a year.

Toss. Essex. Elected to bat. 

Chelmsford is a long way from Somerset and whoever built London in the way didn’t help with the speed of transit. The journey was in three parts. First, a soporific four-hour coach ride. Posting my report on the final day of the previous match late and then getting up at 5.00 a.m. helps with the soporific bit. Then quick progress on the tube followed by a train ride long enough to make the journey just that bit longer than is comfortable.

A bit like Somerset’s day really. Four hours watching Alistair Cook bat; not soporific but it hardly fires up the spirits from a Somerset point of view. Quick progress through the middle bit as the Somerset bowlers made inroads on a pitch which didn’t seemed designed with that in mind. And then an Essex fifth wicket stand later in the day that stretched their score that bit further than was comfortable with six wickets standing.

It was a glorious day in Chelmsford if you found a seat in the shade. Not a cloud in the sky which made the heat of the sun unrelentingly furnace-like if you didn’t. Some must enjoy it for they sat in it all day. I found my favoured location at Chelmsford identified from regularly watching Somerset there in my 30-year eastern exile. Square, opposite the pavilion in the Felsted School Stand. For those who do not know Chelmsford think Taunton’s Cow Shed of yore right down to the pillars strategically placed to cut the pitch in half.

I heard the bad news about the toss, Somerset lost it of course, as I arrived and was escorted by a steward to buy a four-day ticket (£28). You have to be escorted because you can only buy a four-day ticket inside the ground. And I thought it was we West Country types that were supposed to be the quirky ones.

I found a seat in the front row even though I didn’t get to it until 1.45. I nearly wrote 10.45. One person I met had set his travel arrangements for an 11.00 a.m. start. Ingrained habits die hard. There were two reasons why there were seats in the front row. One was the crowd. Just 600 or 700 I estimated at the start although it grew later to somewhere on the top side of 1000. Perhaps old habits die very hard and perhaps World Cup football played a part. The second reason for the availability of my front row seat will become apparent.

Somerset opened with Gregory and Jamie Overton. Essex with Cook and Browne. From ground level the pitch looked white. Almost as if it had been emulsioned. The match started as if it had been. The bowling looked in no way penetrating and the batsmen looked as if they were making themselves at home.

Overton and Gregory seemed to stretch for movement. They bowled full although neither seemed to be at quite the pace of which they are capable. They were both driven in the early overs and from the way the batsmen were playing, it is the only guide you have from square, the looked-for movement was elusive.

Movement seemed so elusive that by the seventh over Gregory was trying to get the ball changed. The umpire threw it back and Gregory promptly beat Cook’s defensive stroke with it. In his next over Cook drove Gregory through mid off, straight, and through the covers for three successive fours. A warning, if one was still needed, that searching for movement with that ball, on that pitch, in those conditions was going to be an expensive enterprise but that is what pace bowlers do. Search for wickets at the start of the innings.

Groenewald and Davey fared no better. Groenwald, as at Guildford, looked to be the pick of the Somerset pacemen and the most successful in beating the bat. He even induced two thick edges but as is the way when the play is going against a side they went well wide of the slips. He too was driven for his pains. The least effective looking of Somerset’s main four pace bowlers was Davey. And yet at the end of the day he was the most economical by a distance.

We were 19 overs into the match and on the far side of 3.00 p.m. when I heard my first TMS ring tone of the season. It heralded the onset of Bess, Somerset’s bowler of the day. He immediately settled into a rhythm which had not quite seemed there since his return from England duty. Perhaps the pitch was inviting him to settle down for a long spell. Perhaps the impact of the whirligig of an unexpected and headline grabbing England debut has now been absorbed and the experience banked. If so it was put to good use here.

He was the first bowler to restrain Essex from their near five run an over charge. His first three balls went through Browne’s defence. He troubled Cook too and forced an edge which Gregory dropped at slip. Half an hour before ‘Lunch’, in addition to Bess, Somerset’s fifth seamer, Trego, was on. Somerset’s oldest and youngest bowler in tandem. Together, in the run up to ‘Lunch’ or ‘The Interval’ as the announcer termed it, they bowled 11 overs for nine runs off the bat as Essex ‘lunched’ at 4.00 p.m. on 116 for 0.

It was around now that the second reason for the availability of front row seats in the Felsted Stand became apparent. The sun moves around during the day and my haven of shade became as much a furnace as the rest of the ground. Why had I nor forseen that coming after watching Somerset from that stand on and off over a period of 30 years? To some questions there is no answer.

During my ‘lunchtime’ perambulation I ran into to a neighbour of thirty years from the days of my exile. He was beaming at the thought of 116 for 0. “Our batting has been atrocious this season,” he said and thought that might explain the flat looking pitch. An ice cream would have been ideal but I take the same view of whipped ice cream as some do of T20 and that was all there was to be had. Not even a fancy choc-ice on a stick of Guildford fame and so there was nothing for it but to suffer in the Chelmsford furnace.

After ‘Lunch’ Bess really came into his own and I moved to the shade at the back of the Felsted Stand from where one or two were already making their way home – the usual teatime leavers perhaps. Bess meanwhile consistently pressurised the batsmen and beat them too. Although, as I said in a text, with Harmer in the Essex side and Somerset having to bat last I wasn’t sure it was in Somerset’s interests.

Led by Bess the Somerset bowlers began to really contain the Essex batsmen. The near five runs an over of the start now reduced to less than two as Cook and Browne seemed to concentrate on safely building a base rather than trying to break the attack. The wicket, when it came, had everything to do with the persistent Groenewald and little to do with his bowling. Cook drove straight and hard, Groenewald reached down as if he had dropped a fifty pence piece and instead of picking it up flicked the ball onto the non-striker’s stumps as he backed up. It was as cool a piece of fielding as you could hope to see in a furnace. 151 for 1 at just over three an over.

It was the first of four wickets to fall in the space of 63 runs as Somerset tried to turn the first day. Bess continued his vice like grip on the Essex scoring rate with Trego, Groenewald and Davey refusing Essex any leeway from the other end. The pressure told as Bess got through Cook’s defence to the satisfaction of the umpire and he was lbw for 96. From the furious outburst of one man from along the stand I wondered if Bess might have cost him the proceeds of a bet on a Cook century.

Overton was promptly brought on for his second spell as a birthday welcome for the 20-year-old Pepper. Overton certainly made him hop. This was Overton bowling fast. In this spell, and in his third, Somerset had a truly fast bowler on the field again. The ‘clump’ of the ball hitting the keeper’s gloves a joy to hear. He didn’t take a wicket. Only Gregory, bowling quicker than is his norm in this spell I thought, of the pace bowlers did. But Overton gave hope that on a more responsive pitch he might be more than a handful. In his second and third spells he started to hit the mark.

His bowling partnership with Bess was particularly impressive with Essex looking seriously disconcerted. It was Gregory that benefited. One of those bowlers who takes wickets when he does not look threatening. Westley the victim this time. He drove across Tom Abell at short cover, Abell took off and Westley walked off. “Oh no!” the reaction from the man next to me.

And that was ‘Tea’ at 204 for 3. Less than 90 runs in the session on that pitch in that insufferable heat. Take a bow the Somerset attack. And the fielders too. I hadn’t noticed them. You don’t always when there are no mistakes. I was reminded by an Essex supporter who said, “Somerset look hot in the field,” and he wasn’t referring to the temperarure.

I took a perambulation to the shade behind the Tom Pearce Stand. Anyone remember T.N. Pearce’s XI from the days when 28 three-day Championship matches wasn’t enough to fill the calendar? It was perfectly cool and so I watched the next hour propped up against the back of the stand. It is a two tier stand and I watched the cricket through the ‘letter box’ between the two levels.

The view from the lower level of the Tom Pearce Stand. Each set of floodlights at Chelmsford is set over two pylons. The ground is constrained on three sides. By the small estate of flats outside the ground to the left of the picture, by Hayes Close beyond the sightscreen and by the river behind the Pearce Stand.

I was soon joined by another Somerset supporter, and a couple of others popped in to say hello and chat for a while, as is inclined to happen if you stand and watch. We watched and chatted and chatted and watched as Somerset continued to apply the pressure. Bess reaped the benefit this time. The hopping Pepper bowled for 22. 212 for 4 was a pretty good result from 151 for 0 in the conditions.

It could have been better too but, as Bopara and ten Doeschate dug in to rebuild, Abell dropped a sharp return catch. Watching through the letter box and chatting we gained the impression that Essex had quickly run away with the score. A look at the scoreboard showed they had only progressed by 20 since the loss of Pepper. A couple of driven fours seemed to have made a greater impression on our minds than they had on the scoreboard.

I returned to the back of the Felsted Stand for the last hour from where I watched Bopara and ten Doeschate accelerate as the sun sank towards the Pavilion and the temperature sank with it. 298 for 4 at the close it felt, as I gathered my things, reflected two things. A stirling effort by the Somerset bowlers and fielders, the two dropped catches apart; and a calculation by the Essex batsmen that, with Somerset having to bat last and with Harmer in the side, time occupying the crease would not be time misspent. It had been a day of old style Championship cricket that Tom Pearce might have recognised.

He would not of course have recognised the floodlights or the pink ball but to be frank neither did I, or barely so. The cricket was so engrossing the colour of the ball, apart from the lack of early movement, didn’t matter. Several times I had to remind myself, or be reminded, that it was pink. As to the floodlights, with no cloud about, they may just have been redundant as the sun set behind the Pavilion as the last over was bowled.

Close: Essex 298 for 4.

The original version of this report was first published on grockles.com on 26th June 2018.