Standing firm

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

Somerset had taken two wickets as Essex started their innings on the third evening which raised hopes that Somerset might force a victory. However the pitch had realised 941 runs for the loss of just 17 wickets on the first three days. If Somerset were to win a long day beckoned. 

Overnight: Essex 517 for 5 dec and 17 for 2. Somerset 407. Essex lead by 127 runs with 8 second innings wickets standing.

A match which had trundled along at under three and a half runs an over and which seemed to have quietly fallen asleep was roused from its slumbers when, after a session of accumulation Essex started to accelerate their scoring after ‘Lunch’. When Essex declared and set Somerset 319 to win off 50 overs the match jumped from the dull featherbed on which it had, thus far, been played and sprang to life.

The declaration took me back to the days of old to which the Chelmsford ground had transported me on the first day. To the times of three day Championship cricket and one division when relegation was something only football teams had to worry about. In those days such declarations were not uncommon. With 28 games to play and no relegation the consequences of losing, except for the two or three potential Championship winners, were, well, inconsequential.

Third innings declarations, and ‘declaration’ bowling, were not uncommon. The targets set were often small, certainly by today’s standards. In 1958, the first year in which I saw Somerset play, Essex’s home match against Somerset was at Valentine’s Park, Ilford. Somerset batted first, although who won the toss is lost in the mists of time, at least to me, and were all out for 188 scored at three an over. Peter Wight made 69. Trevor Bailey took five of the nine wickets to fall to the seamers. There was one for Phelan’s off spin.

Essex replied with 342 at 2.9 an over, Colin McCool took four wickets with his leg breaks. Six wickets to the seamers. Bailey scored 90. He must have been truly irritating to play against. An Essex lead of 154.

Somerset fighting their way back into matches is nothing new. In 1958 they declared on the last afternoon at 312 for 4 scored at 3.2 an over. That does not indicate much by way of ‘declaration bowling’ although Doug Insole bowling two overs for 21 at the end of the innings suggests there might have been a short offering at the end. Peter Wight ended 130 not out and Colin McCool made 73.

That set Essex 159 to win. It is impossible to be precise but analysis of the scorecard and the outcome suggests Essex were set about ‘80 an hour’ for two hours. No minimum number of overs in those days. The match just ended at the stipulated hour. Or, in modern terms, 4.4 an over, to win in about 36 overs in a match that had been played at three an over. A seemingly ‘generous’, or ‘sporting’, declaration. Not terms you hear in the modern era.

In these days of greater consequence hanging on the outcome, and huge white ball run chases, the 319 off 50 overs which Essex set Somerset sounded enticing, which it was no doubt intended to be. However, there are no fielding or bowling restrictions in Championship cricket. Putting it in the terms of the 1950s puts the target in perspective. The requirement was for Somerset to chase at a rate of about 104 runs an hour for three hours against an attack including Simon Harmer, an off spinner perhaps comparable in class to Somerset’s 1958 Langford, and capable of corralling the run rate, if not quite to the extent that Bill Alley did in those days of yore.

Put in modern terms it required Somerset to bat at 6.4 runs an over in a match which had been played at 3.4 an over pretty well throughout. As the incoming text said, “It ain’t doable.” Of course, that is not entirely true but it made the point. The chances of a successful run chase were probably no better than one in ten and the risk of losing the match, if too many wickets fell in the chase, probably greater. There are of course also risks in trying from the outset to bat for the draw, for simply trying to defend for 50 overs brings its own pressures from bowlers like Harmer and Wagner. That is the point of target setting declarations, then and now, to tantalise.

Somerset’s intent was clear by the end of the first over. Byrom steered Porter through wide third man for four and turned him to fine leg for a single. Davies glanced him past the fine leg fielder for four. 9 for 0 at the end of the first over. At the end of the 10th it was 63 for 0. Just one run short of the required rate.

It had been scintillating batting. Cuts, pulls, steers and drives interspersed with edges racing by fielders and balls racing by the edge of the bat. If it raised the spirits, a glance at the scoreboard brought them back into equilibrium. Somerset would need to bat like that, against the attack that won the County Championship by a country mile last year, for another 40 overs to gather the 256 runs they still needed.

You knew in your bones it could not go on, just as 60 years ago Essex supporters at Ilford probably knew their team’s race to 51 for 0 could not long go on. That they ‘raced’ to 51 is in part evidenced by Biddulph going for 21 in two overs at the top of the innings. Although, then as now, in their hearts supporters dreamed it could go on. Byrom dreamed, or at least took the sort of chance you have to take in this sort of run chase, once too often. The sharpest of sharp singles ended when ten Doeschate’s throw hit the stumps. Byrom 38. Somerset 64 for 1.

To that point Byrom had played an innings perfect for the situation. He batted with a purpose and authority which gave no hint of his young years. He even had you believing this could just come off. He certainly had Essex supporters on the edge of their seats, the taut faces evidence of that. It was a fitting sequel to his first innings in the match when he played Wagner’s persistent leg theory more convincingly than anyone.

Davies stepped away to leg to play Harmer through the off side, exposed his stumps, cut, missed and walked back to the Pavilion for 30. He was followed by the rest of the players and the umpires for he had been bowled in the last over before ‘Tea’. Somerset 75 for 2.

IMG_1057 Pavilion at Chelmsford. Final Day 2018.
The Chelmsford Pavilion at ‘Tea’ on the final day. Not a relaxing interval for anyone on this final day. Part of a block of flats within the perimeter of the ground is to the left.

After ‘Tea’ Hildreth joined Bartlett. In alternate balls in one over from Wagner, Hildreth square cut, reached for and steered a wide off side yorker and then cover drove, all three for boundaries. Then, demonstrating the extent of risk required to sustain the charge against Harmer, Hildreth stepped across and beyond his off stump and tried to sweep. The ball hit the exposed stumps, perhaps Harmer redirecting it. The required rate had risen to around six and a half and at the swingeing price of three prize wickets. And still 212 were needed.

Bartlett then further demonstrated the immensity of the task and the risk Somerset were now taking with their wickets and with the match. Wagner was bowling fast and short, restricting the batsmen’s options and increasing their risk. Bartlett went for the risk. He played a tennis shot back over Wagner’s head. The ball rose, crossed the sky and fell beyond the boundary. Wagner, presumably seeing the risks Bartlett was prepared to take, moved Alistair Cook from slip to third man and immediately fired in another bouncer which flew at Bartlett’s throat. Bartlett, fighting fire with fire, responded with a high ramp type shot and Cook collected the catch. 113 for four. Bartlett 25. 206 still needed or 31 overs from safety.

60 years before Essex were finding it equally risky as Langford and Alley must have been tightening their grip. Essex’s fourth wicket fell at 107. And, as if in prescience, the fifth at 109. In the 2018 match Trego was caught at slip off a defensive stroke to Harmer three runs after Bartlett. Somerset 116 for 5.

And here the matches, and the ages, diverge. In 1958, Essex, 50 runs from victory but probably on a deteriorating turning pitch continued to push against Langford. Langford was conceding over five runs an over but taking wickets as he went. Meanwhile Essex were held at the other end in the grip of a vice-like spell from Alley, conceding not quite two an over. In 2018 Somerset, 203 from victory or 31 overs from safety, faced Harmer and Wagner closing in with effect.

Into the midst of what was suddenly at risk of developing into a crisis walked Gregory. He joined Abell. Club and T20 captains shoulder to shoulder as they discussed tactics.

Their intent was soon crystal clear. “They’ve shut up shop,” said an unsurprised Essex voice. It could have been a voice echoing down the decades from 1958 on days when the batting side gave up a chase. What the man had seen was Gregory’s boot pushing itself uncompromisingly down the pitch to each ball from Harmer with the bat firmly alongside.

As Gregory took the menace of Harmer, who monopolised the River End, Abell tended to play back as he tried to blunt the pace bowlers running in from the Hayes Close End. But there were nearly two hours to go and Wagner, and Harmer in particular, are past masters at generating and exploiting pressure on batsmen. And so, for Somerset supporters, began a long vigil of clock watching and over counting.

“A chance for Gregory to show what he can do here,” more than one person and a text said. From him, and Abell, what Somerset needed was a long vigil of ball watching and stroke control. Nothing flash, nothing expansive. Indeed, nothing at all not designed to keep the ball away from the wicket and on the ground; with perhaps the occasional run if that was the safest stroke to play or the batsmen needed a change of scene to maintain their concentration.

Gregory has come in for criticism for the paucity of runs this season and before. Well, there was a paucity of runs from him here too. 15 in over an hour and a half. But it was the hour and a half that counted. No-one was counting runs. Just overs and time survived. Gregory seemed to take most of the strike at the opposite end from where I was sitting.

My enduring memory of that last hour and a half will be of Harmer twirling away for all he was worth with the field getting ever closer, five close to the bat. And of Harmer’s deliveries being met, over after over, by that Gregory boot coming down the pitch, the ball hitting the centre of the bat and rolling no more than a couple of yards. In this innings neither Gregory’s technique nor his commitment to saving the game for Somerset could be questioned.

In 1958, meanwhile, the Essex batsmen must have been pushing the boot down the pitch to Alley, keeping an end tight. Against Langford they would probably have been dancing to the pitch of the ball or using the ‘long handle’ depending on how high up the order they had started. At five wickets down that man Bailey would have been in the thick of it, although perhaps not exactly dancing, and loving every minute of it. Perhaps it was his boot which came down the pitch to Alley whilst the rest tried to break through Langford’s web.

In 2018 there were ‘Oooohs’ and ‘Aaaahs’ from the close field of course. There always are when a spinner is bowling, especially in circumstances like this. They would have been there too in 1958. On Bailey they would have made no impact. I never saw Bailey bat against a good spinner in circumstances such as these. It is difficult to think he could have done better, or played much differently, than Gregory did in this innings. There was a steady trickle of appeals if the ball hit the pad or went past the bat but, in truth, only one or two with any threat in them. 1958 probably had a few of those as well.

Abell played a mirror innings at the other end. His batting has not been questioned this year and it would brook no questioning here. He and Gregory were as solid as the Rock of Ages in Somerset’s very own Burrington Combe.

I am an incessant expecter of wickets when Somerset bat in desperate circumstances. I counted the overs and I counted the minutes. At one point I asked someone how long it takes for a minute to tick over on a scoreboard clock. It seemed to me the minutes in that partnership were not limited to 60 seconds.

They would have been counting the minutes in 1958 as well, although not the overs. In those days matches finished at the stipulated time for close of play, however many overs had been, or not been, bowled. In 1958 at 131 for 5 Essex needed just 28 to win, in how much time is lost in the mists of time. But time enough for Somerset to take five wickets in the space of 16 runs to win by 11 runs. Whether Essex perished trying to chase those last runs as time ran out or their nerve went under the pressure of the situation as they tried to save the game is one for one of those interminable daydreams that keep cricket watchers going on wet days.

Brian Langford took eight for 67 in 12.4 overs. Bill Alley took one for 20 in 11 overs at the other end.

In 2018, by the end of their partnership, Gregory and Abell had held Essex at bay for over an hour and a half of determined unremitting defence. In situations such as these nerve is as important as technique. Gregory and Abell demonstrated both. What went on inside their heads only they know. On the surface no sign of nerves broke through.

And so in 2018 Somerset came away with 10 points to Essex’s 11 and held their third place in the Championship. They are 32 points behind Surrey at the top and, with a game in hand, 10 behind Nottinghamshire, who are second.

In 1958 Somerset took 12 points for the win. Essex two points for a first innings lead in a match lost. Draw points were restricted to two for the side which took first innings lead. No points for first innings lead by a winning side.

Postscript:

In 2018 Essex will play all their home Championship matches at Chelmsford, the Colchester Festival having apparently been discontinued. In 1958 they played no matches at Chelmsford. It did not become the County Headquarters until 1967 although matches were played there prior to that. In 1958 Essex played either one or two of their 14 home matches at each of Ilford, Romford, Brentwood, Colchester, Westcliffe-on-Sea, Leyton, Clacton-on-Sea and Southend-on-Sea.

In 2018 Somerset will play all their home matches at Taunton. In 1958 Somerset played at Taunton (5 matches), Bath (4 matches in two separate visits), Weston-super-Mare (3), Yeovil (1) and Glastonbury (1).

Result (2018): Essex 517 for 5 dec (RN ten Doeschate 173*, RS Bopara 118, AN Cook 96) and 208 for 7 dec (NLJ Browne 75, RS Bopara 58, DM Bess 3-81). Somerset 407 (JC Hildreth 78, EJ Byrom 54, GA Bartlett 42, N Wagner 3-122) and 151 for 5 (SR Harmer 3-44). Match drawn. Essex 11 points. Somerset 10 points.

Result (1958): Somerset 188 (PB Wight 69, TE Bailey 5-49, LHR Ralph 4-62) and 312 for 4 dec (PB Wight 130*, CL McCool 73, JG Lomax 45). Essex 342 (TE Bailey 90, G Barker 75, CL McCool 4-98) and 147 (BA Langford 8-67). Somerset won by 11 runs. Somerset 12 points. Essex 2 points.

The original version of this report was first published on grockles.com on 3rd July 2018.