1962 all over again

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Essex. 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd August 2018. Taunton. First Day. 

Essex won the Championship at a canter in 2017. Somerset had lost heavily in both Championship matches against them. The Championship match between the two sides at Chelmsford in June 2018 had ended in a tightly fought draw. Now Somerset were challenging, if somewhat distantly, for the Championship themselves. This match would be a good test of their progress over the preceding year.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

The talk at the back of the Somerset Pavilion (elevated) was of Peter Wight. Of Peter Wight and Fred Trueman. Of the day in 1962 when Fred Trueman arrived late for the Championship match at Taunton and was sent home by the Yorkshire captain for his pains. Trueman always pleaded extenuating circumstances. They didn’t help him and they didn’t help me either. I had been taken to the match especially to see Trueman play. I never did see him play. Peter Wight played in the match for Somerset. Apparently, he was supposed to be Trueman’s rabbit. In Trueman’s absence he scored 215. I didn’t see that either. He scored it, or most of it, on the second day and I was only taken to the first.

I doubt the Quantocks have much changed since 1962. On the first day of this match their colours were periodically lit up by the sun but for the most part they lay beneath a layer of cloud which eventually snuffed out play a few overs early. As to the cricket much of it could have been played in 1962. There were 308 hard fought runs in the day, tight bowling and spin for just over a third of the overs.

Somerset won the toss and elected to bat in front of a large crowd which grew throughout the first half of the day. The Somerset Stand, always a good gauge of the size of a Championship crowd at Taunton, was as well populated as I have seen it for four day cricket. Perhaps the contrast with the frenetic pace and stroke play of the T20 group stages in which Somerset had batted at breakneck speed throughout added to the impression of something timeless and ageless unhurriedly unfolding in front of us.

There is nothing more ageless than a Trescothick cover drive. Or his straight drive come to that. By the end of Jamie Porter’s first over he had played both, the cover drive to the Somerset Stand where in Peter Wight’s day stood a row of lime trees. By the end of Porter’s second over he had executed a perfect late cut to where the old Stragglers bar used to be and another cover drive again to the limes.

And then the cricket settled down to the sort of attritional battle aimed at blunting the new ball attack that Graham Atkinson and Brian Roe might have recognised in the Championship of 1962. It was 10 overs of intense defence before Trescothick scored another run. In the meantime Siddle had had Byrom, who had neatly driven both Cook and Siddle through mid wicket to the Somerset Stand for four, caught behind defending for 16. Somerset 38 for 1.

“This is who we’ve come to see,” said someone as Azhur Ali walked out to bat. That is just what people used to do in the 1960s, and before; come to see a class player, just as I had come to Taunton to watch Trueman all those years ago. At least their wish was realised, if only briefly.

Essex turned to Harmer’s off spin early. He was to bowl 31 of the 92 overs bowled in the day and Tom Westley bowled another four overs of off breaks. In 1962 Somerset’s spinners, Brian Langford and Colin Atkinson, bowled 43 of 113 overs in the first innings of the match, Yorkshire batting first.

In 2018 the duel between Ali and Harmer was as absorbing as any in 1962 might have been. Ali almost seemed to wind his arms into a coil before unleashing a defensive stroke which always seemed a match for the ball. Sometimes forward, occasionally back, always using his feet to position himself for the stroke. He defended the ball and pushed, drove and once swept singles.

CC Essex (H) Aug 2018 Day 1 Azhar Ali sweeping
Waking the ghosts of the old Stragglers Bar. Azhur Ali sweeps. The ball has gone but the balance of the batsman exudes quality.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Once he swept into the heart of the old Straggler’s area. Whether the ghosts that reside there were awestruck or horrified by such a stroke only they can say. They would have been as horrified as Ali himself by his attempt to drive Harmer’s next ball all the way back to 1962. It reached short mid on. He let out a shriek and departed for 17. Somerset 63 for 2.

Trescothick, joined by Hildreth, was beginning to get the measure of the pitch and the bowling. A late cut off Siddle to the Colin Atkinson boundary was so exquisite it roused a congratulatory cheer as much as applause. A cover drive off Harmer to the Somerset Stand brought forth an, “Oh Yes!” from someone, and a lean into an on drive to the Somerset Stand off Cook just brought forth gasps of wonder such that I wondered if those old Stragglers ghosts had joined in.

If it were possible to 3D print Trescothick in that sort of form the future of the rest of the batsmen around the world would be bleak indeed for these were but samples of his innings. “He could play for another four or five years if he carries on like this,” someone said, “Bill Alley played until he was 49.” Indeed he did and when he was Trescothick’s age, 42, in the season before 1962, he had scored 3019 First Class runs, the last player to achieve the feat of scoring 3000 first class runs in a season. When an on drive brought up Trecothick’s fifty there had been ten such boundaries and you did wonder.

Hildreth can play like the rest of us can only dream too and a clip off his legs to Gimblett’s Hill had someone saying, “Oh! Well done Hildy.” But a Hildreth innings remained just a dream for off the last ball before Lunch Porter beat his defensive stroke and he was gone lbw for 9. 104 for 3.

Harmer continued to bowl for most of the afternoon, just as he might have done in Peter Wight’s day, as one or the other of Porter, Siddle and Cook took the other end. I watched from the end of the Somerset Pavilion elevated terrace as Harmer bowled one of his post-Lunch overs. The first two he gave air and the ball turned appreciably but evenly. The remainder he kept flat and the turn was negligible. In an over of Siddle I detected no movement at all as he angled the ball in.

Trescothick continued to purvey the sublime; cover and straight drives off Harmer looking invincible, although a mishit spinning viciously into his crease told that even the gods are fallible and that Harmer is not to be trifled with. Abell, batting for the mortals of the cricketing world, was as correct in style and solid in effect as is his wont when he is in form. Once he unleashed a back foot drive to the Somerset Stand that would have challenged the cricketing gods in any age.

The Essex bowlers are part of a unit that bowled Essex to the County Championship in 2017 and their consistency and accuracy, some early lapses by Porter apart, were a constant reminder of their powers. Trescothick and Abell controlled the hour after lunch with steady accumulation punctuated by the occasional boundary but Essex kept them to three an over with bowling that also held the threat of a wicket.

Whether it was the constant Essex pressure which told or a lapse of concentration or just one of those things it is impossible to tell from beyond the boundary but on 95 Trescothick pulled a short ball from Siddle straight to Browne at deep square leg on the longer of the two square boundaries. 180 for 4 evidence both of the progress Somerset had made and the brake Essex had applied. The quality of Trescothick’s innings can perhaps be judged by the applause which he received in spite of not reaching his century. It followed him all the way to the boundary. Two or three times his bat rose to the vertical in acknowledgement but his head never looked up from his chest.

CC Essex (H) August 2018 Day 1 Marcus Trescothick 4 runs towrads 95
On the front foot. Trescothick during his, to use a 1962 word, majestic 95.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Davies joined Abell. Immediately Harmer turned one past his bat. At the other end Siddle was running in hard and bowling quickly. Abell edged him past gully to the Somerset Pavilion for four and then steered him perfectly past slip for another four. A late cut tested the third man fielder enough for a cheer to erupt from the lower deck of the Somerset Pavilion which informed the upper deck that the ball had crossed the rope. Then a period of gentle accumulation took Somerset to Tea on 207 for 4. 50 runs an hour. Very 1962 I thought.

The gentle accumulation continued after Tea as Somerset gathered runs and built their score where they could whilst Essex prepared for the new ball. As the 80th over approached so Abell and Davies began to find the boundary. Abell drove Porter through the covers, Davies cover and on drove Westley in successive balls and then drove Bopara just behind square all for four. Then Abell edged Bopara defensively to Wheater behind the stumps and was gone for 70. Somerset 244 for 5.

Enter Gregory. Gregory’s spectacularly ferocious batting had been at the heart of Somerset’s rise to the top of their T20 group. I doubt a batsman from 1962 could have been found who would have thought it remotely possible that a future would exist in which teams regularly scored more than 200 runs in 20 overs let alone have the remotest idea about how to go about it. I suspect Bill Alley would have fancied a crack and Peter Wight could have done it had he known it were possible. Now Gregory had to come back from the future and address the present in a match that had so many characteristics of the past about it.

There was, it has to be said, something of the T20 about his approach but as with his approach in T20 it was effective. Some of his strokes were uppish, to use a term I am sure I heard more in 1962 than I do these days, and some owed something to the edge. But when he was ‘uppish’ he hit the ball extremely hard. He lofted Bopara over cover to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion and drove Porter furiously through mid off’s hands. For good measure he clipped Porter to the Somerset Stand and pulled Siddle to the Caddick Pavilion.

At 285 Davies was beaten by a perfectly angled in ball from the increasingly effective Porter and lost his middle stump for 45. A good fast bowler will do that in any age if he gets it right. Bess joined Gregory but never really looked settled and it was not a surprise when he seemed to chase a slightly wide delivery from the impressively consistent Siddle and was caught at gully.

At the close, with Somerset 308 for 7 from 92 overs, Gregory had a, for the Championship, rapid 42 not out and Jamie Overton was yet to score. Somerset may have built themselves an advantage if the wicket was as helpful as it appeared to be to some from beyond the boundary to whom I spoke. At the same time Essex had remorselessly stuck to their task of consistently bowling tightly and making the batsman play which will have restricted Somerset’s runs and created the pressure which may have taken some of the wickets.

With the new ball, which should have some life still in it at the beginning of the second day, Essex have already made inroads. Especially so late on as the cloud cover which had hung around for much of the day closed in sufficiently for the players to come off four overs early.

The first session of the second day may be crucial. Somerset will be happier if they can stretch their score beyond 350. Essex if they can keep it below that. In fact this match has the feeling of one in which every session will be crucial. And for those of us who look on? Anyone know where we can find a decent edge of a seat?

Close. Somerset 308 for 7.

The original version of this report was published on grockles.com on 20th August 2018.