Keeping going

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

Somerset had started well in response to Essex’s large first innings score but would need to bat well over a long period on the third day to stay in the game. 

Overnight: Essex 517 for 5 dec. Somerset 140 for 2. Somerset trail by 377 runs. 

This match is being played with a pink ball and at a time of day which challenges the temporal senses. It requires floodlights to ease the effect of the midsummer late evening gloaming. But for all that the third day was a day of taut grinding cricket of the old kind. Tense enough to bring the edge of the seat into use as the follow on, or the avoidance of it, became the issue of the day.

Somerset started at 140 for two needing a further 228 runs to avoid the follow on. They had against them not just the weight of Essex’s runs but also the Essex Championship winning attack and the drain on Somerset’s reserves of energy and concentration which nine hours in the field under a desert sun must have wrought. And they had come to Chelmsford on the back of a potentially morale sapping innings defeat at Guildford. The worry now was that they might, under the pressure, suffer another.

140 for 2 overnight is a good start but 368 was still a long way off in the face of such pressures. Hildreth seemed blissfully unaware of such concerns as he late cut Cook’s first ball for four. He reminded us of them as he tried to steer the last ball of the over to the same placed and missed. Gasps from the ‘crowd’ which numbered perhaps 500. It did grow during the day but I doubt it ever passed 1000.

The Essex opening attack of Cook and Porter strained and pressured. Byrom and Hildreth resisted but played and missed as much as they played and scored. ‘Ohhhs’ and ‘Aaahs’ aplenty from the Essex spectators. Anxiety from the Somerset ones. Byrom has yet to bat beyond the 50s in the Championship. It took six overs to add 10 runs to bring up Somerset’s 150 to silence from the Essex crowd.

The silence was broken by raucous cheers, even a small Essex crowd can make a big noise, when Byrom fenced at a good length ball from Porter and Wheater took the catch behind the stumps. The copse of arms in front of me were suddenly aloft in rampant celebration. Byrom had made 54. Not quite his highest score for Somerset. Supporters I spoke to expressed disappointment. Not at him, but for him. Willing that soon he will find it within himself to go on beyond the 50s.

151 for 3, still 217 short of saving the follow on. With Davies already having batted I had the feeling that if Somerset were to save this game the Hildreth Abell partnership would be crucial. They were the two remaining batsmen of proven class in Somerset’s locker and they are the beating heart of Somerset’s middle order.

Essex had at the heart of their bowling attack Harmer and Wagner. A test bowling duet in all but name. Harmer is an off spinner capable of interminable challenging spells even on a flat unresponsive pitch. Someone said to me he never gives the batsman a ball he can leave. It is constant inquisitorial pressure and sooner or later that pressure tells. Wagner bowls left arm pace which hurries the batsman and is capable of 10 over spells. 20 overs of Harmer and Wagner in tandem is a powerful weapon in ten Doeschate’s hands. Constant testing pressure from both ends can bring wickets from either end.

Here in their first joint enterprise of the day they bowled just eight overs together. It was enough for Harmer to put Hildreth to the test. He played and missed on and outside off stump several times without gaining much in return. He edged him at slip’s head only for the slip to palm the ball. Hildreth had made just 16 and Somerset were 158 for 3. It could have been the moment on which the day pivoted. 158 for 4, still 210 short of the follow on figure, would have been pressure on Somerset indeed.

Somerset seemed intent on defending their wickets and on survival, not looking at all comfortable. Essex attacked hard, creating chances and the possibility of chances. At such times you look for something to give you hope. A sign that the flow of the match will change or at least be stemmed.

It was Abell who provided it. Harmer, who for those who know Chelmsford, bowled all his overs from the River End with the Pavilion to his right. Against him Abell went onto the back foot, up onto his toes, and drove unanswerably through cover to the boundary. The bugle had been sounded. Abell had signalled that Somerset intended to move forward. Hildreth answered the clarion call with a straight drive of such grandeur off Wagner, bowling with a more orthodox field than on the second day, that it brought applause from the Essex crowd.

The plays and misses still came but they diminished in frequency as the assurance of the batsmen grew. Abell primarily employed the sweep against Harmer, hit powerfully, as is his practice against spin. Once or twice for four but mainly hit straight to the deep mid wicket sweeper for singles. I have an anxiety about the sweep. It has an association in my mind with balls hitting stumps and fingers being raised when balls hit pads. But if I can relax in the face of the sweep it is when Abell plays it. There is nothing speculative about his sweep. It is a precision stroke and his missing or mishitting the sweep is not among my collection of cricketing memories.

As to Hildreth, there is no predicting what Hildreth will do. There is the Hildreth who infuriates some when he selects an impossible shot to play against an impossible ball and loses his wicket. There is the Hildreth who exudes batting genius as he selects the impossible shot to stroke the impossible ball majestically to the boundary. And there is the Hildreth that lets show the streak of Somerset cricketing steel which runs through his backbone. That was the Hildreth who emerged to do battle on the third day.

As the partnership developed the threat of Harmer and Wagner, the sharp edge of the Essex attack in this match, seemed blunted and the reinforcements of Cook and Porter made no impact. Hildreth cut, pulled, drove, dabbed and steered his runs and defended for all he was worth. When Abell wasn’t sweeping Harmer he was driving at the other end. When he wasn’t scoring, down the wicket to the spinner came that front leg and behind the line to pace bowlers went the bat.

232 for 3 at ‘Lunch’. 135 short of the follow on target. This was my fifth day of pink ball ‘day night’ Championship cricket. The pink ball I have assimilated. I hardly notice it. The temporal disorientation I have not. With a clear blue sky and a hot sun it felt like one o’ clock as the players walked off. You wonder where the day has gone when you look at the electronic scoreboard, if you can look up quickly enough before it has been cleared, and it reminds you it is four o’clock. Four o’clock, your lunch eaten before you came into the ground, and forty minutes to kill before the purgatory of watching Somerset resume.

The purgatory resumed with a vengeance after ‘Lunch’. With the new ball not quite due Essex retreated to Bopara. Abell cut at a ball too wide for the stroke and edged to Wheater. Abell 41. Somerset 242 for 4. Saving the follow on 126 away. When Hildreth finally followed lbw for 78, pushed onto the back foot by Harmer, the score was 280 for 5. Still 88 short with Trego, with no Championship cricket this year, and Gregory, his 32 at Guildford apart, with barely a run, at the crease. The edge of the seat again the favoured option.

You can observe tension in supporters. From the side you can see them leaning forward as if to see action more closely. From the front you can see the tension in their faces. There are no smiles because tensed muscles do not move. From the back their heads are as still as a batsman’s needs to be as the ball is delivered.

Trego did not help relieve the tension. In one over against Harmer his defensive push was beaten and his ferocious drive struck air. In the next against Harmer he defended and missed, drove and missed and then bottom edged a cut into the ground. The pressure on the edges of the seats was relentless. Trego does not back down. In the next over he cut Harmer for two and drove him for four. It was that sort of innings. A six which cleared the Tom Pearce Stand, and may have found its way into the Chelmer, was followed by a pull and a miss and that by a drive through the covers for four.

It was an innings designed to illustrate the word frenetic but it took Somerset forward. As far as 310 for 5 when, with his first over with the new ball, Porter beat Trego’s defence and hit the off stump. Trego 39. Impossible to tell from my position at third man but it had the look of a ball that moved. The copse of Essex arms was in evidence again.

Somerset were still 58 short with Gregory, looking out of form, and Bess at the wicket. Somerset faces were wrought with tension. The Essex supporters did not seem as much tense as expectant. It was as if their whole bodies were coiled, their arms poised to rise in anticipation at each ball. Expectant of the Essex attack, their strong suit this year, new ball in hand, driving a wedge through the Somerset tail.

But this is a situation which Bess seems to relish. He doesn’t defend Somerset’s ramparts. He sallies forth and attacks the surrounding forces. Here Gregory, struggling with his own form it seemed, stayed with Bess. In fact Gregory, although only scoring 22, stayed at the wicket whilst 81 runs were scored, 59 of them at the other end. It was not a pretty innings but in the circumstances it was invaluable.

When Gregory edged Cook towards Harmer at slip the Essex fielders celebrated and the crowd raised the roof. Gregory remained unmoved, as would virtually any First Class cricketer, as the umpires consulted. ‘Not out’ the decision as one Essex player pointed Gregory to the Pavilion. Others gathered round and crowded in while another spoke to the umpire. I could see straight down the line of the ball as it flew to slip. My instinctive reaction was that it had carried. ‘Caught’ perhaps a couple of inches above the ground. But instant perceptions, especially from eighty plus yards, can be deceptive and the square leg umpire had a much better view than I did.

As Gregory got on with his messy job of defending an end and scoring where he could Bess let fortune favour the brave. He edged and middled with the same result. Runs. A cover drive and an edge along the ground between keeper and slip in the same over, both for four. As he established himself he managed a glance and a late cut, both for four, to take Somerset to 333 for 6 at ‘Tea’. The brightness of the weather was deceiving. It and the cricket felt like high afternoon. I looked at the scoreboard. It was just past a quarter to seven.

An ice cream for ‘Tea’. The van had responded to complaints that Championship watchers have ‘issues’ with whipped ice cream which was all that was available on the first day. Hard scoop had been provided. But only nine containers of vanilla and they had all gone. I have ‘issues’ with flavoured ice cream but was forced to suffer one of the chocolate variety. With chocolate flake included in the price. It didn’t quite work. But probably better than bubble gum flavour which the seller was saying seemed to be ‘unpopular’ among the Championship crowd. He is learning the importance of targeted selling the hard way.

I watched for a while from the vicinity of the ice cream van. It cost Somerset the wickets of Bess and Gregory with Somerset still seven short of saving the follow on. It didn’t stop Bess taking Somerset to what had seemed at one time an unlikely fourth batting point. Overton and Davey got Somerset over the follow on line and, with a bit of help from Groenewald, took the score to within 110 runs of the Essex total. “I still don’t understand why they didn’t go on to 550 and really put us under more pressure,” said someone who had said it when Essex declared.

And then, as the lights began to take effect, with the hint, for the first time in this match, of dew in the air Essex came out to face nine overs. There were no clouds but, perhaps aided by that bit of humidity, Davey and Gregory sent Westley, promoted in the absence of the sick Cook, and Pepper back to the Pavilion with one run on the board although Browne and Bopara saw out the day with some ease.

IMG_1041 Sun and floodlights just before the close
Trying to watch from the Felsted School Stand. Close of play approaches as the sun sets towards the Pavilion. The Tom Pearce Stand is between the floodlight pylons.

No Somerset batsman scored a century on the long trek towards saving the follow on. But all eleven made a contribution. Apart from Hildreth’s 78, seven other batsmen made scores of between 35 and 54. It would have been so easy after the defeat at Guildford and nine hours in the field here, in intense heat, to have folded. So often with this Somerset side someone stands up when the chips are down. This time everyone stood up.

Close: Essex 517 for 5 dec and 17 for 2. Somerset 407 (JC Hildreth 78, EJ Byrom 54, GA Bartlett 42, N Wagner 3-142). Essex lead by 127 runs with 8 second innings wickets standing. 

The original version of this report was first published on on 28th June 2018.