The embers tell the tale

County Championship Division 1. Worcestershire v Somerset. 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 25th July 2018. Worcester. First Day.

Somerset came to Worcester following defeat at The Oval and a hard fought draw at Chelmsford. Matthew Renshaw had expected to end his term with Somerset in this match. A broken finger at The Oval had prevented that. He had been replaced by Azhur Ali, Pakistani Test batsman, who made his debut in this match.

For the first time in 2018 both Jamie and Craig Overton played in the same Championship match. It was also Jamie’s first red ball match of the season

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

As I start writing at my hotel room window the low angle of the sun is lighting up a cluster of red brick houses set among woods on the hills opposite. An abstract artist might paint them in the shape and in the orange and charcoal colours of the dying embers in the grate of a log fire. That is the shape of the estate and the slate or dark tile roofs give the impression of the dead embers which always sit at the edge of glowing ones in a fire. The dark green of the surrounding trees, stark against the glow of the houses, would serve as the soot coated grate. Here the sun is playing its part too for it is giving the trees the faintest hint of reflected glow.

The scene speaks of the heat of the day just past and the mind conjures or pieces together a picture of the residents of those houses as they made their way through the day. Soaking up the sun if opportunity and desire coincided. Finding the shade where it was to be had where the opposite applied. Savouring an iced drink or perhaps just wishing for one. Being thankful for a job in air-conditioned premises or cursing one in stifling ones. Coming back to a car with door handles and steering wheel too hot to touch. And now, as dusk falls across the Worcester landscape, setting about the garden with a hosepipe whilst water is still permitted to be put into it.

If you are dependent on the railways to get to a cricket match on a Sunday you sometimes find yourself having to piece together the picture of the day’s play from the embers you get to at the end. Just as I have tried to piece together the day of the residents of those houses from the embers of their day.

The picture of what you see before you in the lazy evening session comes together with the experience of years of watching Championship cricket. The snippets of information gathered from those who have endured the full force of the heat of the day help supply some of the detail you have missed and a picture emerges. And so I have arrived at a picture of what happened on the first day at Worcester.

Perhaps more of the contribution of the railways later but for now suffice it to say I walked into the ground with just three overs to go to Tea. Studious defence was what I saw through the glass of the bar which forms the main entrance at Worcester, a single stolen and then more defence. At the end of the over I located an angle from where I could see the scoreboard and the pitch. Somerset were 206 for 4. Davies on 49 and Abell on 44. Before the interval Davies brought up his 50 to generous applause and I saw Abell drive a perfectly timed four. 214 for 4 at Tea. Davies 50. Abell 49.

The first inklings from those three overs were of a pitch not as easy to bat on as some. No demons or terrors but an impression that powers of concentration would have to be drawn upon heavily and intensively. A wearing process even without the added intensity of the heat. The last session reinforced that impression. Solid defence or judicious driving produced results. They also produced playing and missing and some wickets in a way which suggested some balls deviated from their expected course. The surprised reactions of batsmen spoke of that more often than was comfortable.

Determined bowling, studious and focused batting, four wickets and a scoring rate not much above three an over suggested what I had seen had more or less been the picture of the day. As the last session progressed I managed to circumnavigate half the ground and spoke to several people. A consistent picture emerged.

Batting conditions had been difficult early on. Movement consistently troubling the batsmen in the first hour or so. The name Magoffin passing more than one pair of lips. The atmosphere had been sultry one person said, and Somerset had been 11 for two with Trescothick and Byrom the victims.

Then Azhar Ali and Hildreth had gripped the game for Somerset. Azhar apparently showing real determination to weather the early storm and Hildreth, well apparently, he played like Hildreth. Whilst Azhar ground out the runs Hildreth conjured them. As someone said to me Hildreth never looks in any trouble. At some point he just gets out. Fortunately for Somerset this season it is usually some time before the getting out bit comes.

Together they took Somerset to Lunch. Someone whose opinion I regard highly when it comes to batting and cricketers, for he was an outstanding club batsman in his youth, liked what he had seen of Azhar. He wasn’t referring to his technique although he had no issue with that. He was referring to his attitude. He thought he was committed to his task and enthusiastically enjoying his cricket. When, before I came to Worcester, I told someone who currently plays club cricket that Azhar had been seen on Gimblett’s Hill looking cold he said, “He’ll be fine when he gets a bat in his hand.” It seems, by all the accounts I heard, he is.

The loss of both batsmen just after Lunch, Azhar for 37 and Hildreth for 57, left Somerset under some pressure at 115 for 4. Apparently Abell was badly dropped on the boundary with the score on about 130. Looking back from where I sit, with the sun now completely gone and a few friendly looking street lights and the occasional lit house window where the fading golden houses were, it seems the dropping of Abell may have been a pivotal moment on the first day. For when I arrived just before Tea Abell and Davies, who had been with him at the time, were still there and 70 runs and rising had been added. If the impression of most that this pitch is not entirely flat turns out to be accurate those runs could be as golden as those houses were two hours ago.

It was an impression that was not dispelled by the last session. The batsmen started where they had left off with studious defence drawing deep on the well of concentration. It was almost palpable. They gave nothing away and they took nothing for granted. The odd ball which surprised holding them to that. Then Davies broke the tension with a flurry of fours, mainly off Pennington. They took Somerset from their slow, if determined, climb after 200 to past 240 with still four wickets down. Talk turned to the possibility of 350, even 400 but it didn’t look like a 400 pitch. Or perhaps Worcestershire were just bowling exceptionally well.

Then Moheen took the edge of Davies’ bat and Milton, Worcestershire’s debut keeper, took the catch. I was stood at wide third man so not the ideal angle but it looked like the ball had turned. 241 for 5. Davies 72. For perhaps half an hour from there the ball barely left the square as Abell and Trego fought to keep Moheen and Barnard out. Moheen gave the distinct impression either that he was getting some turn or that he was convincing the batsman that he was and getting the odd straight one through. Or perhaps he just had the aura of a Test player and the mind filled in the expectation.

However he did it, he trapped Trego lbw after that half hour for 1. Trego walked off but the ball had the look of having been aided off the pad by contact with the bat. If it did hit the bat there was no way of telling from where I stood whether that came before or after contact with the pad. The umpire had a much better view. No matter. The scoreboard said 251 for 6.

As the new ball approached so a covering of cloud gathered above the ground and Magoffin and Barnard must have been gathering their thoughts. Craig Overton joined Abell and the gruelling attrition carried on up to and past the new ball. Pads and bats in line keeping the ball out. The ball threatening the stumps or the edge. Magoffin, whose name will forever be associate with Horsham in Somerset minds, eventually broke through Abell’s vigil to hit the pad and up went the umpire’s finger again. Abell 70. Somerset 266 for 7. Worcestershire now had hopes of turning what had been 241 for 4 into something short of 300.

The Somerset innings seemed to be drawing inexorably to a close. Then there followed one of those interludes in a cricket match that will stick in the memory long after other aspects of it have faded. Worcestershire’s bowlers used the new ball with skill. The cloud gradually closed in, the humidity seemed to be rising, the crowd held to its seats, three wickets had just been lost for 25 runs, the match had perhaps fallen into the balance. It was a forbidding scene. Into it the Overton brothers marched. They immediately cut through the tension in a partnership which blew life into the embers of the day.

They played straight for the most part unless the ball stood up to be pulled. Bats and pads went down the wicket four square behind the ball. Even their defensive strokes, with their long reach and sense of purpose in the stroke, seemed designed to be an affront to the bowler. But it was their driving which lit up Somerset’s evening. Through mid wicket, through cover and mid off, once or twice wide of slip or gully off a thick edge. Almost always to the boundary.

Where they could not reach the boundary the speed of their running replaced the speed of the ball and the singles added their contribution to the score. Jamie Overton once drove Magoffin over mid on for six straight into a tree which offers one of the few areas of shade in the ground and under which, by now, I was sitting.

53 they added and took Somerset beyond 300. And then it was over as quickly as it had happened. Craig caught behind for Moheen’s third wicket and Jamie lbw for Magoffin’s second. Again it looked slightly odd for an lbw decision. Again I was poorly sighted and again the umpire had a better view. Perhaps I should leave the lbws to the umpires. Somerset ended on 324 for 9 which, thanks to the Overtons, looked a whole lot better than where 266 for 7 suggested they might end.

And as to the trains. If you want to travel to Worcester from Taunton on a Sunday the first train leaves Taunton 50 minutes into the morning session or it did for this match. Change at Cheltenham and arrive at Worcester just after the afternoon session has started. That of course assumes you make your connection at Cheltenham. If the train crew at the station where your train originated is ‘delayed’ in its arrival and a replacement crew at Bristol Temple Meads suffers a similar misfortune you don’t.

It is a two and a half hour wait for the next connection on a Sunday. As the wait exceeds two hours the train company pays for a taxi to take you from Cheltenham to Worcester. Or in this case three taxis to take about a dozen Somerset supporters. By the time you get there it is only 15 minutes until your hotel room becomes available. Off load your bag, meander to the ground, arrive just as Tea approaches and they let you in for nothing.

And so here I am. Two sessions short of a full day. And so is your report. As to the burning embers and the houses; they have all long since disappeared into the night. All that remains is an inner ring of six white street lights and three more on the outer edge. No slips. Let us trust that is not a harbinger of tomorrow.

As to the match. I hope to be there for the start for no trains stand between me and the ground. As to the prospects. If the pitch remains in something like the same condition and Somerset’s bowlers find where to pitch the ball then 324 for 9 could prove to be a challenging score. The view of those I spoke to was that Somerset had built a good position. As to whether they have? Finding out the answer to that is one of the reasons why those of us who can will be glued to proceedings tomorrow.

Close: Somerset 324 for 9.

This report was first published on on 23rd July 2018.