Sigh of relief

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

Somerset entered the final day with the match their’s to win. Worcestershire’s ambitions must have been limited to achieving an unlikely draw.  

Overnight: Somerset 337 and 362 for 9 dec. Worcestershire 257 and 50 for 2. Worcestershire need another 393 runs to win with 8 second innings wickets standing.

Craig Overton finally sank to his knees and drew breath. Breath of relief and of nervous exhaustion as much as physical exhaustion it looked. Magoffin had just edged a drive to Davey at point off Overton’s bowling and Somerset had won an outstanding game of cricket.

For two and a half hours Worcestershire’s last wicket pair had defied Somerset. In fact, it was more than defiance for this was no dour last ditch defensive operation. Milton and Magoffin had taken the fight to Somerset. They had scored at a rate which had just kept Worcestershire in with a theoretical chance of actually winning a match in which they had been 278 short of victory when their ninth wicket fell. They had taken Worcestershire, unbelievably, half way there.

Somerset supporters too, as far as I could see, drew a collective sigh of relief when that wicket fell. There was a numbness after the anticipation of a quick victory had turned into wondering whether the victory would come at all or by the end even wondering if Worcestershire could win the match.

The rendition of Blackbird which burst forth from the Somerset dressing room could be heard, clearly and loudly, at the opposite end of the ground. And that is some distance for the sound to travel because there was a 30-yard gap between the boundary rope and the boundary boards at one end.

I have heard the team sing Blackbird many times. I have never seen them sing it before. They stood in a circle, arms over shoulders, as if in a huddle but with heads raised aloft. As they sang, the entire circle jumped up and down with such energy the word gusto would need strengthening before it could be brought into service. I wondered if they were trying to stamp on the game to make sure it was finally, completely, irretrievably, unquestionably dead.

The nervous energy which must build up in a game played with such intensity for three and a half days, which then seems all but over, and then suddenly, if the Tea interval is included, springs to life for nearly three more hours, must leave emotions so intense as to be unknown to those who have not played sport at that level.

At the start of the day as we waited for the umpires to emerge I stood on the balcony in front of the bar inside the main entrance and chatted. First with a Worcestershire supporter who confidently, and sadly, predicted the game would be over by Lunch. Beyond the top four, he said, the innings would collapse. It usually folded if Mitchell was out and he had gone the night before.

Then I chatted to a Somerset supporter. We talked about the emergence of Davey as a genuine frontline bowler. Still taking wickets beyond the green green grass of April. It gave Somerset more flexibility in selection and might open up the possibility of meaningful pace bowler rotation to preserve freshness and fitness.

Then we ambled around the ground towards our respective seats. We had walked about a quarter of the way around when Davey reinforced the point about bis emergence. From square on Clarke seemed to hunch up as he got behind a ball; the fielders swarmed in on Davey; Clarke’s body language spoke of bemusement and he walked off. The stumps looked undisturbed from square but the lack of an appeal told the story. Worcestershire 65 for 3.

I waited in the gangway between two sections of the D’Oliviera Stand for Jamie Overton to bowl his second over. Travis Head had despatched him for two fours in his first and looked set on attack. He reached a long way to cut a shortish wide ball and edged it to Davies. “What happened there?” a Somerset travelling regular asked, “I was behind the stand.”

Barnard came in, Overton pitched up but still kept the ball a little wide, Barnard chased it and Davies took another catch. 65 for 4, Worcestershire in disarray. “What happened there?” asked my travelling friend, “I was putting Head’s wicket on my scorecard and missed it.” Overton on a hat trick. 65 for 5.

As we stood and chatted Davey continued. He had a confidence about him I thought and is really beginning to look the part. He goes about his business in a pretty understated way for a pace bowler but his increasingly positive outcomes should not be underestimated. 20 wickets this season in the Championship, bettered only by Gregory (22); an average, 24.95, bettered by only by Groenewald (23.42); and an economy rate, 3.03, bettered only by Bess (2.92) and Groenewald (2.94) among the regular bowlers. The point again hammered home by a well-directed, pitched up ball which D’Oliviera defended and edged to the ever-reliable Hildreth at first slip. 71 for 6 and I was yet to reach my seat. Davey beats no-one for pace. Persistence and movement are his weapons.

Then a harbinger of what was to come. Milton, on debut as wicket keeper for Worcestershire, had endured a torrid examination by Jamie Overton in the first innings. Now he drove him crisply through the covers for four.

An air of excited expectancy had gripped Somerset supporters who had been fearing the long day of attrition predicted by Azhar Ali the day before. By the time of D’Oliviera’s dismissal even my friend with the scorecard had his full attention on the match. On the fall of the wicket I asked a Somerset supporter who had travelled four hours to be at the match if he had anything planned for the day. I gulped as soon as I had said it. ‘Loose talk costs matches’ should be emblazoned on every Somerset membership card.

It didn’t cost this match but it had a very good try. It started with Milton and Whiteley dragging Worcestershire back from the brink of debacle. Within two or three overs of D’Oliviera’s wicket the match seemed to have settled back into the rhythm with which it had been played from the outset. Bowlers working away at the batsmen with a little help from the pitch; batsmen having to concentrate hard but in doing so able to score at a reasonable rate although never quite safe from the ball that did something.

Twice Leach beat Whiteley only to be driven for four off the last ball of the same over. Craig Overton hit Milton’s retreating bat with a fast well pitched up ball. The ball looped agonisingly and fell safely out of reach of any fielder. Then Whiteley swept Leach. Hildreth dived forward and held the ball. Instantaneous celebrations among Somerset supporters were cut short and replaced by applause among Worcestershire ones, and I imagine Somerset ones too, as Hildreth immediately informed the umpires the ball had not carried.

The batsmen were middling the ball too. Whiteley used the sweep to some effect against Leach, one particularly powerful example clearing the rope. Milton seemed to favour the drive, twice finding the boundary, once, on the bounce, through the hands of Jamie Overton running in hard from long off presumably to pressurise the batsmen. For over an hour they moved Worcestershire forward. A well directed spell from Craig Overton reaped no reward.

And then the return of Jamie Overton. Whenever Overton picked up the ball in this match he bowled fast. No half measures. Just pure fast bowling. Overton bowls with huge energy and enthusiasm. The tremendous momentum generated in his 6 feet 5 inch frame by that energy carries his follow through almost to the batsman. There seems nothing intentional about it. It is just where he naturally seems to come to a halt.

It is quite something to watch a genuinely fast bowler such as Overton in action. Although perhaps only 10 or so per cent faster than other front-line pace bowlers that 10 per cent makes the world of difference. It holds the attention. Phew!” or, “Look at that!” among the most common reactions. He bowled a ball at the left handed Whitely which looked to be going across his pads and towards somewhere around off stump. Whiteley played at it, as he probably had to, and Davies took the catch. 142 for 7. Lunch came at 157 for 7.

CC 2018 Worcs (A) Taking a break
Taking a break at Worcester. The distance by which the boundary rope is set in gives an indication of the size of the outfield. The white building to the right is a hotel within the ground.

Immediately after Lunch Somerset drove home their advantage. Leach, who had conceded 50 runs in 12 overs, suddenly took two wickets in two balls. Wood drove wide of off stump and Trego took the catch at mid off. Then Pennington edged him towards Trescothick at slip. Trescothick failed to take the catch but it bounced off him and Davies caught it. 165 for 9 against the target of 443. Another 278 runs needed to win or, equally improbably, 63 overs to bat out for a draw.

And now unfolded a drama of a type not seen at New Road since the supposed ‘golden age’ of cricket in Edwardian England. It started with Jamie Overton forcing Milton to bend backwards almost double to avoid a perfectly aimed bouncer. It ended all but 43 overs later with Craig Overton on his knees having ended a last wicket partnership which broke the Worcestershire tenth wicket record made in a match also against Somerset in 1906 and also at New Road.

During those 43 overs Milton, with Magoffin in determined support, buffeted the boundary boards all around the ground with some brilliant stroke play intermixed with thick edges as fortune favoured audacity. The assault was such that the pitch appeared to have undergone a miraculous change. The ease with which runs came was exemplified by Magoffin driving Jamie Overton for four through the covers with his feet anchored to the ground and the bat some considerable way from his body.

Milton tended to find the boundary by cutting Leach and driving the pacemen. Most flew off the middle but one drive off Craig Overton was edged over point and an inside edge off Davey flew wide of the stumps for another four. A square drive off Craig Overton was particularly spectacular. Twice Milton clipped behind square, once to pick up his century. The ground rose as one, Worcestershire and Somerset supporters alike united in acknowledgement of something truly special.

A debutant scoring a century in such circumstances may not be unique in the game but I suspect you would have to trawl through an awful lot of Wisdens to find an example to match it. Perhaps back as far as 1935 to Frome and Harold Gimblett to find a better. Better because Gimblett’s debut century was also the fastest of the season and because it effectively won the match for Somerset.

Milton’s effort qualified for that league and I imagine will enter Worcestershire folklore as Gimblett’s entered Somerset’s nearly a century ago. It may not last as long in the folklore because Worcestershire did not win the match but it will never be forgotten by any of us who were there.

The Worcestershire balcony was crammed with players applauding with hands raised high over their heads. As I looked around the field I could not find a Somerset player who was not applauding. For two hours the ground staff had been sitting on their tractor just beyond the boundary in front of me awaiting the fall of the last wicket. They had missed an early finish but every one of them was applauding for all he was worth.

Standing ovations I have seen aplenty. Few as unanimous, warm and extended as this one. For those who were there in 2009 the one for Peter Trego’s century when he carried Somerset home in chasing down 475 against Yorkshire was one such.

The normal time for Tea had been reached with Milton and Magoffin still going. It was delayed for half an hour because nine wickets were down although I doubt that regulation envisaged a situation quite like this one. They were still there at the end of the half hour, Worcestershire 299 for 9, and so when they emerged after Tea just 90 minutes play, or 26 overs remained. Or if Worcestershire fancied a dart at it another 144 to win. Calculating those figures put the remaining task of the batsmen into perspective. They had batted 38 overs and added 133 runs. They were not much more than half way.

Whether that sank in during the Tea interval, whether the interval simply broke Magoffin’s concentration, whether the bowlers’ luck had just changed or whether it was just serendipity I cannot say. But within three overs of the resumption Craig Overton was on his knees and Somerset had taken 22 points to go second, if a distant second, in the table. Then Blackbird rang out as spectators left the ground in stunned disbelief at what they had seen.

When a team loses a match the Coach usually seeks for a ‘positive’ that can be taken from the game. Somerset did not lose this match. In the end they won it comfortably by 141 runs with 23 overs to spare but it is worth looking at some of the positives they can take from it. The acquisition of an overseas player of true class who seems committed to the cause. The re-emergence of Trescothick playing as of old after his injury. The continuing emergence of Davey as a front-line pace bowler.

Jack Leach, who was roughly handled in spite of taking two wickets kept going and, perhaps in a sign that what he needs as much as anything after his two injuries is overs, bowled his last seven overs for 11 runs. The 53-run partnership of clean straight responsible hitting from the Overtons in the first innings, crucial in ensuring Somerset reached an above par first innings total. And then the positives that can so easily be taken for granted. 50s for Hildreth, Abell and Davies. Three wickets at two and a half an over for Craig Overton.

And finally, a question which can only be answered in the fullness of time. Will this prove to have been the match in which Jamie Overton emerged as a truly fast bowler of real class. There were signs in 2017 and in some of the T20 matches this year. It was not so much what he achieved in those matches but what he looked like. He looked like a genuine fast bowler. A rare thing in the cricket world. He looked like he would trouble batsmen with sheer pace.

At Worcester Overton looked at one with himself and his bowling. With the exception of one or two wild deliveries in a couple overs he had his full pace under control. Time will tell if he can harness his powers on a consistent basis. If he does Somerset and England will have a force to be reckoned with.

Close: Somerset 337 (SM Davies 72, TM Abell 70, JC Hildreth 57, MM Ali 3-63) and 362 for 9 dec (Azhar Ali 125, ME Trescothick 71, MM Ali 5-107). Worcestershire 257 (L Wood 65*, J Overton 4-61, JH Davey 4-68) and 301 (AG Milton 104*, TM Head 46, SJ Magoffin 43, J Overton 4-82, JH Davey 3-43.) Somerset won by 141 runs. Somerset 22 points. Worcestershire 5 points.

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