Hard going

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

For the second match in succession Somerset entered the second day with their opponents threatening to build a commanding score. Like Surrey, Essex were among the stronger teams in the Championship having won the title the previous year. 

Overnight: Essex 298 for 4. 

For the second day in succession there was not a cloud in the sky. The sun bore down, if not with quite the intensity of the first day, with enough intent for me to seek from the start the sanctuary of the lower level of the Tom Pearce Stand. The crowd was, if anything, smaller than on the first day and it concentrated itself in the shaded areas and on the Pavilion Terrace which falls into the shade around the ‘Lunch’ interval. One stand which faces as directly into the sun as the Colin Atkinson Pavilion at Taunton was as sparsely populated as the Somerset Stand on an April evening.

Somerset opened with Gregory and Overton. Ten Doeschate and Bopara started with intent. Bopara steered Gregory with perfect accuracy between slip and gully and ran two as Trego at third man pulled off a sliding save. Ten Doeschate pushed Overton as accurately through the offside ring but without the power to reach the boundary and the batsmen ran hard for a tight two against the chasing fielder. It was indicative of the way the Essex batsmen approached the game on the second day and batting looked very easy.

Soon they were stepping up the tempo as the ball was decisively driven, particularly through the covers, for twos and fours. As the score rose the applause rose in volume and longevity to match. Good fielding, as Somerset strove to stem the flow, was applauded too.

The outfield assisted the batsmen as it helped speed the ball on its way to the boundary. It was ‘very dry’, as someone said, tired green, tinted with large swathes of emerging brown. Slightly undulating too which must affect the bounce of the fast-moving ball. It falls away quite significantly to the corner between the Tom Pearce Stand on the straight boundary and the Pavilion on the square boundary. In the other direction in this match is the shorter boundary.

After 40 minutes 52 runs had been scored as the 350 was raced past and estimates in the Somerset camp ranged uncomfortably far beyond 500. It was batting of a type and at a pace that the imagination pictures taking place in endless sun on everlasting pitches in the 1930s. Perhaps not with quite the power in the stroke in those days for bats were much lighter but with the same feeling of batting eternity. Years in which Tom Pearce played the game and with cricket of a more carefree type than he would have watched in the 1960s and could have seen on the first day of this match.

As I sat in the gentle breeze that blew through the lower deck in the Pearce Stand I looked out through third man at 15 men in white playing and officiating under a sky of pure azure in front of clumps of trees still deep green. In days gone by Bill Alley, Ken Palmer and the others of that great 1960s Somerset team must have played here or elsewhere in Essex under such skies. It was the perfect view of a perfect English scene and you could so easily fall back through the decades.

If you did you would sooner or later be brought back to the reality of the present by a ball crashing into the boards from a stroke driven with one of those heavy bats. The scoreboard screamed reality at you too as it recorded 370 for 4. “That’s 72 runs in the first hour,” one Somerset supporter said. The comment immediately took me back to those days when targets were set in ‘runs an hour’ rather than ‘runs per over’.

Reality again as ten Doeschate brought up his 100 by hitting Bess over the straight boundary. It was now that it dawned on me that Groenewald had not taken the field and Somerset were a bowler down.

Looking for the substitute I found two. Green and van de Merwe. That begged a question. Who else was off the field? Trego it emerged as he came back on and van de Merwe went off. And that started a merry-go-round for van de Merwe. Overton off. Van de Merwe on. Overton back on. Van de Merwe off. Davey off. Van de Merwe on. Davey on. Van de Merwe off. Then van de Merwe on or off or off or on with whatever bowler happened to be drawn back to the dressing room or emerge from it.

Bill Alley would probably have wondered what on Earth was going on. But I am not sure in his day pace bowlers bowled flat out all the time. I am sure they had an ‘economy’ pace when match circumstances allowed. In days of no promotion and relegation circumstances would have allowed rather more often than they might now. You do not these days see top pace bowlers bowling off a ‘short run’ in the Championship as you once did.

And pace bowlers certainly did not chase balls to or along the boundary with the intensity they do now. Jamie Overton on a boundary chase is a sight to behold. Fred Rumsey probably had a different view of the world and it is doubtful it included chasing balls to or along the boundary. Perhaps an occasional shirt change or ice pack is a necessity of modern times rather than the luxury it would have seemed in older times.

As ‘Lunch’ approached with the scoring rate unabated Abell put himself on. Bopara edged him at the perfect height for first slip but first slip was there none. Four. It was Somerset’s first sniff of a chance. Davies took off in overdrive but the ball evaded his glove by a foot. Hildreth moved in to plug the gap through which the horse had bolted but the moment had passed. “Why didn’t we have a slip in?” I asked myself. But I hadn’t thought of it before the ball was bowled and given the way the pitch was playing and the Essex batsmen were scoring there was probably no reason why Abell should have thought of it either.

‘Lunch’ at 439 for 4. 141 runs for no wickets in the session at, to use the old parlance, 70 and a half an hour.

IMG_1051 Jamie Overton and a mountain of runs just after lunch day 2.
5.01 pm. Just after ‘Lunch’ on the second day. Jamie Overton and a mountain of runs.

Bess opened after ‘Lunch’ from the River End (Chelmsford has a river too) and his first ball appeared to lift sharply past the batsman. “Did that turn? I don’t mind a bit of that!” said an Essex supporter behind me. If it did it was the only time for there was no sign of turn in the rest of the innings, at least from long on.

Bess and Davey then managed to put some restraint on the Essex scoring until Ten Doeschate broke out by hitting Bess over long off for six to go to his 150. He hit the next ball for four and, as if to make it doubly clear that he meant business he hit the next ball over long on and onto the roof of the Tom Pearce Stand in front of which Overton waited for the ball to roll off. 17 off the over in total.

Somerset’s response was for Overton to bowl fast and short from the Hayes Close End. Early in his spell he got one to lift nastily into ten Doeschate’s wrist as he attempted to hook. Repairs took some time. Overton spent five furious overs bouncing, mainly ten Doeschate, with some effect. There were a couple of hooked boundaries and a warning for a misdirected yorker which came through at just above waist height although ten Doeschate cut it to the Pavilion for four. Otherwise the spell consisted of the batsmen trying to hook and failing to connect or misconnecting for the single. Overton didn’t take a wicket but he certainly made the crowd, and the batsmen, take note.

And then, apropos of nothing, Trego sent Bopara’s middle stump flying as he played what can best be describes as a ‘hoick’. The fifth wicket stand was 294 and the Essex record against Somerset. And that was about it. Ten Doeschate and Wheater pushed the ball around for two or three overs and, almost as unexpectedly as Trego’s wicket, Essex declared on 517 for 5. It left Somerset 42 overs to bat.

Somerset’s sun-baked openers walked out with supporters wondering what effect a day and a half in the field had had. In the first over Davies, opening in place of the absent Trescothick and Renshaw, edged Porter for three to cause a breath to be held. Then in Porter’s next over he drove him through the off side for four and clipped him square for another and the breathing began to settle. Byrom was more circumspect but glanced the 20-year-old Sam Cook for four. In his next over Davies drove him through the covers for another four as Somerset reached ‘Tea’ at 39 for no wicket. Davies 28 not out. Byrom 11 not out.

IMG_1048 Tight confines at Chelmsford. Tea on the second day. Most spectators had taken refuge wherever they could find shade. Chelmsford each set of lights spread over two pylons.
‘Tea’ on the second day. Approaching 7.00 pm and still only a few brave the heat. The crowd had in any event shrunk considerably by this time. The covered Felsted School Stand is tucked away beneath the left hand set of floodlights.

“Nothing too much to worry about there. And I didn’t think we did much wrong in the field either,” a regular travelling Somerset supporter said. And I thought that just about summed it up.

It was different after ‘Tea’. At least Wagner’s bowling was different to anything else in the match, although Somerset supporters who were at Taunton for the first match of the 2017 season would have recognised it. Fast, short, and, as far as could be told from the boundary, aimed persistently at the armpit of the batsmen.

Davies played Wagner in the same way as the Somerset batsmen did in 2017 and he did not look comfortable. He gave the impression, although it may have been my assumption following his four and a half sessions stood or crouched behind the stumps in a furnace, that he was having to work hard to concentrate. He was hit by Wagner, dropped low down at a deep leg slip trying to hook, hooked a one bounce four, hooked another which flew just wide of a diving fielder and turned a ball behind square for another four.

There is nowhere else for the batsmen to attack the ball zeroing in at speed on the armpit. That was perhaps the purpose of the bowling. Essex seemed to think so. Wagner’s field, throughout a 10 over spell, consisted of a short square leg, sometimes a square leg too, a deep square leg, a fine or long leg, a leg slip and at times a deep ‘third man’ as in line with the keeper as it was legal for him to be. Always between four and six fielders in those positions. I understood why the Australians were discomfited and angry at ‘leg theory’ bowling in the 1930s.

Davies did not survive long, finally out caught behind down the leg side hooking Wagner. He had though in his assault on Wagner and Porter made 41 precious runs and taken Somerset to 55 before they lost a wicket. It was more than could reasonably be expected from a stand-in Championship opener who had spent nine hours in the baking heat behind the stumps.

That left two 20-year-olds to face Essex and Wagner down. And that is precisely what they did. The armpit assault continued and they played it down. Literally most of the time. There were some alarums, particularly from Bartlett as the ball flew off the bat too often in the air for comfort. Once or twice an occasional surprise ball pitched fuller went straight through the batsmen. But overall they, Byrom in particular, perhaps aided by their height, started to show how to play Wagner.

Byrom repeatedly got up on his toes, lifted his shoulder, got the bat above the ball and played it down to fine leg for a single. It must have taken an enormous well of skill, guts, concentration and focus to play those balls like that. He never looked entirely comfortable, I am not sure anyone would against that mode of attack, but he gave confidence that he had found the technique to combat Wagner.

Bartlett played with more risk. He top edged a hook for four and another for a single just out of reach of the fielder to gasps of frustration from the crowd. But he kept his focus and began too to get the measure of Wagner. Now the hooks were being played down. Between the pair, and Davies, they had taken five runs an over from Wagner’s 10 overs in exchange for Davies’ wicket.

It was as testing a time as these two young batsmen are likely to have faced and not just because they had to deal with Wagner. Whilst Wagner attacked from one end Harmer was on with his accurate testing off spin at the other. He went for not much more than one an over as Bartlett and Byrom played him with care. Then Bartlett brought up the 50 partnership with an ‘out of the blue’ moment when he reverse swept Harmer for four.

As the sun finally set, the lights came on and there were two unexpected moments for the 300 or so spectators still in the ground.

First Wagner, chasing a dawdling ball to the boundary, fell just as he and the ball reached the rope. As the ball rolled over the rope he rolled onto his back and clutched his ankle, clearly in pain. After some attention he walked off under his own steam but limped up the Pavilion steps.

And secondly, Bartlett who with Byrom, had been playing the more conventionally bowled closing overs from Porter and Cook with some ease and with some profit. Byrom went to his 50 off 98 balls when he glanced Cook for four. Then off the penultimate ball of the day Bartlett shouldered arms against Cook and lost his off stump. And barely a ball appeared to have moved all day. Somerset closed on 140 for 2. A deficit still of 377 runs. Bartlett 42.

Bartlett, clearly furious with himself, marched off almost at the double. “The price of inexperience,” the incoming text said. And certainly an experience to be banked for future reference. It perhaps edged the match, which Byrom and Bartlett had been holding level for Somerset for what seemed an age in the Wagner barrage, back marginally in Essex’s favour. How Somerset bat, whether Wagner can bowl and whether Harmer can extract any spin will determine where the balance lies at the end of the third day.

Close: Essex 517 for 5 dec (RN ten Doeschate 173*, RS Bopara 118, AN Cook 96,). Somerset 140 for 2. Somerset trail by 377 runs with 8 first innings wickets standing. 

The original version of this report was first published on grockles.com on 27 June 2018.