An air of certainty

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

On the second day Somerset had extended the advantage they had established on the first day. The third day presented a real opportunity to take complete control of the match. 

Overnight: Somerset 337 and 47 for 0. Worcestershire 257. Somerset lead by 127 runs with 10 second innings wickets standing.

Azhar Ali’s century looked inevitable long before he took the single which brought it up. It is not often you watch a batsman moving through the 70s, 80s and 90s without feeling some anxiety that an error or a brute of a ball will bring the innings to a premature end. I had no such doubts about Azhar’s innings. It is just the sort of certainty you want your overseas batsman to generate.

207 runs were scored, and more to the point, six wickets fell whilst he batted. Moheen Ali took four wickets and made at least two balls rear alarmingly whilst Azhar was at the crease. But Azhar just kept calm and, as they say, carried on. Perfect stroke after perfect stroke. I do not exaggerate.

Perhaps the air of certainty arose from the precision and the glorious nature of his stroke play. His fours, almost without exception, glided along the ground with such accuracy he might have been playing snooker. Most of his singles too. His defensive strokes were as calm and controlled as his attacking strokes. There was too a marked shortage of the normally plentiful ‘ooooohs’ and ‘aaaaahs’ from the close field when he was batting against spin.

There is something quietly reassuring about a boundary stroked along the ground off the middle of the bat. No shouts of “Catch it!” No trying to pick up the flight of the ball to see if it is flying into the hands of a prowling fielder. If you are watching the stroke you pick up the line of the ball instantly and can follow it with ease to the boundary.

Azhar’s first boundary set the pattern. He leaned into a ball from Barnard and turned it behind square with more power off the bat than the stroke seemed capable of producing. As it raced across the baked out field it seemed as if fine leg and a deep backward square leg had been specifically placed for him to bisect.

It was a scene that was to be repeated time and again as the day wore on. At times those two fielders seemed, from where I sat at wide third man in the D’Oliviera Stand, to edge closer together. It made no difference. The ball just kept going over the boundary between them with a certainty that brooked no doubt.

In addition to his 13 fours he hit two sixes. Both swept. Difficult to pick up the ball from my angle but the reaction of those in the middle seemed to leave little doubt that they had been sixes the moment they left the bat. Both bowlers gave a metaphorical shrug as they turned almost immediately back towards their mark. Certainty. Always certainty from Azhar in this innings.

Then there was the on drive off D’Oliviera which brought cries of, “Shot!” A cover drive off Barnard as exquisitely placed as any of the fours behind square and another off Head. A drive off D’Oliviera through mid wicket that brought a cry of, “Oh! Look at that!” A late cut fit to place before the gods which just flicked the finger of gully as it rocketed along the grass.

There was his running too. It was a revelation, at least for those of us who had not seen him on the first day. If there was a quick single or a fast two he was sprinting up the wicket as if he had dropped a fifty pound note in a force 10 gale. I doubt he ever misses a bus. His whole presence just made you sit up and take note. In Renshaw Somerset found a gem. With Azhar Ali they may have found the mine.

And that wasn’t the only gem of an innings in the day. If Azhar lit up the afternoon Trescothick lit up the morning. A steer between slip and gully perfectly placed. A late cut off Wood took the breath away. He played it as well as I have ever seen him play it. A square drive off Magoffin flew to the boundary. Someone said it was like watching him a decade ago.

There is something about a Trescothick stroke when he is at the top of his game that has the hallmark of the artist. There is no sign of the technician. And yet every great artist has at the base of their work the soundest of technique. Anyone who doubts it should find a documentary of David Hockney describing how the greatest of artists produced their work. It is the same with great cricketers. The stroke of genius would be nothing without the endless honing of technique. One of the things that makes a player great is the ability to play a stroke of infinite perfection as if it is the easiest thing in the world to do. We had an hour of that from Trescothick in the morning. It was a day of batting to savour.

It was a day of cricket to savour in a match to savour. Cricket played on a pitch which helps the bowler who keeps his discipline and finds the spot but which has enough certainty for the batsman who keeps his discipline, selects the ball to attack and the right stroke with which to attack it.

Somerset started the day with a lead of 127 and 10 wickets to stretch it far enough for Worcestershire and not Somerset to feel the pressure in the final innings. At the outset Trescothick and Byrom began as they had finished the evening before. Byrom holding the line, Trescothick periodically sallying forth to harry the opposition.

The Worcestershire bowlers ran in, searching for an opening, trying not to give the batsmen an opportunity. There were a couple of shaky edges but otherwise the batsmen looked to be in no trouble as they defended, accumulated and, when the opportunity arose, attacked. There was a rhythm to the batting which settled anxiety.

It was a scene which could have been played out in 1976 as well as in 2018. Indeed, it probably was as Worcestershire on that occasion here worked to build a second innings score sufficient to set Somerset a target. It could have as easily have been played out in 1956 or 1926 or 1906. Not in 1896 for Worcestershire did not enter the Championship until 1899, eight years after Somerset. And Worcester is the perfect ground on which to lose yourself in imagining cricket being played down the ages.

CC 2018 Worcs (A) Wide view of ground
Worcester is the perfect ground on which to lose yourself in imagining cricket being played down the ages. The Graeme Hick Pavilion is to the right of the scoreboard.

An hour into the day Somerset were quietly controlling the match. Then Byrom, right back on his stumps and jabbing across the line of the ball, was lbw to Moheen for 28. 97 for 1 but now 177 ahead. Then Trescothick, on 71, departing from the discipline of the morning, walked down the wicket towards Ali and was stumped. 110 for 2.

Hildreth took guard and drove his first ball through the covers as if he had been at the wicket for a month. It was a stroke to put in the cabinet alongside the gems of Ahzar and Trescothick. Then, before the cabinet was locked, he was lbw playing back to a ball which turned sharply from Moheen. 120 for 3. Lead 200.

Still a strong position ‘on paper’ as they say. But as they also say cricket is played on grass not paper and Moheen had taken three wickets in the space of 23 runs. There were nagging doubts in Somerset supporters’ minds too about the lack of any sign of impact in Jack Leach’s four overs in the Worcestershire first innings. The relaxed feeling generated by the partnership of Trescothick and Byrom was no more. Tension had crept into the air.

Ahzar and Abell set about dissipating it. To Ahzar’s certainty was added the pugnacious straight classicism of Abell’s stroke play. Worcestershire challenged his style with a short cover, a short extra cover, a short straight mid off and a short straight mid on, all standing rock still as the ball was bowled.

It was only a matter of time before Abell drove between the short cover and the short extra cover for four. There were drives too either side of the stumps and inside the straight mid on and mid off for four. On, square and cover drives made up the set. He did try to sweep Moheen but only succeeded in top edging the ball over the keeper’s head for two. Just as the tension was turning into anticipation he played back to Magoffin and was bowled for 31. 189 for 4. He and Ahzar had added 69. Somerset led by 269.

Davies was lbw trying to cut the ever-present Moheen for 18 and Trego seemed to chop Barnard on for four. 239 for 6. Lead 319. Ahzar meanwhile had been carrying serenely on at the other end. Nothing seemed to ruffle him. It was as if he was playing on a different pitch in a different match although his innings was just what Somerset needed in this match.

Estimates of what sort of target Somerset might need to set Worcestershire ranged from 350 to 450 depending on who I talked to. 319 was short of both. As I have said more than once in my posts there is usually an Overton about the place when you need one. Here Craig stepped in. I am always happier when the Overton brothers play straight. Craig played with a combination of placement and straight hitting. Moheen went back over his head for four and D’Oliviera over his for six. By the time Overton was run out for 28 by a direct hit from D’Oliviera Somerset led by 374.

14 from Jamie Overton and 20 not out from a steadily improving Davey, perhaps his more regular appearances are helping his confidence, took Somerset to 362 before Ahzar, after a marathon of concentration, was caught off, of all things, a reverse sweep. But his 125 had been the backbone of the innings and a target of 443 in 111 overs was at the top end of most people’s estimates. Four runs an over for 111 overs on a pitch that is providing some help to the bowlers is a lot to ask.

Worcestershire had 15 overs to survive before the close. After eight overs Mitchell became the 10th lbw victim of the match, which may say something about the nature of the pitch. It was Davey’s fifth wicket.

And then, in this match, there was of course another Overton. Jamie replaced Craig, who had opened, at the New Road End. He bowled full and fast to Head, perhaps searching for the length from which he jagged one viciously into D’Oliviera in the first innings. I doubt Bradman would have kept that ball out. Head responded by repeatedly driving him to the boundary and Worcestershire’s score rose to 50 for 1.

For the last five balls of the final over of the day Overton found himself bowling to Moheen. The last ball was a near repeat of the ball which dismissed D’Oliviera in the first innings. Against the left hander, instead of careering into the pads, it moved away, passed across the face of his pads and hit the stumps. Unplayable. Another gem for the cabinet. 50 for 2.

And so on the last day Worcestershire, eight wickets left, need to bat another 96 overs to save the game or score another 393 runs to win it. Somerset need to take eight wickets. Every Somerset supporter will hope Jack Leach can find the sort of form Moheen Ali has found in this match. Worcestershire may be more concerned with facing a bowler who can bowl balls like those which dismissed D’Oliviera and Ali at 90 m.p.h. or as near to it as makes no difference.

Close: Somerset 337 and 362 for 9 dec (Azhar Ali 125, ME Trescothick 71, MM Ali 5-107). Worcestershire: 257 and 50 for 2. Worcestershire need another 393 runs to win. 

The original version of this report was first published on on 25th July 2018.