Bowled over

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

Gregory’s innings apart the first day of this match had been a gruelling tussle for ascendancy. In the cold light of the second morning it felt like Somerset had gained the advantage on a pitch which had asked questions of the batsmen throughout the day.

Overnight: Somerset 308 for 1.

In the end the edge of the seat was not quite needed for Somerset edged the second day comfortably. 241 runs in total scored in the day. A tally of runs which in 1962 might have provoked a slow handclap, a phenomenon which seems to have virtually disappeared from the game. I cannot remember when I last heard one worthy of the name except perhaps for umpires viewed as too tardy getting play restarted after a rain or bad light break.

Just 241 runs, almost within range in 20 overs on another day with a ball of a different colour. And yet it was engrossing cricket we were served up. There are few teams in the First Division which are not either looking up the table or down it. In the last century when slow handclaps were the Mexican waves of the age, denoting that the cricket had lost its point, three quarters of teams in the Championship would have had nothing to play for by this stage of the season. A day of slow cricket when the outcome of the game was irrelevant was often viewed as an affront to spectators. Now, when so much more is at stake, it can be gripping.

Four day cricket makes a difference too. In three day cricket the second day could often be irrelevant to the outcome because a declaration was anticipated, even planned, on the third day. ‘Making a game of it’ it was called, often through a ‘sporting declaration’. Another term that has all but disappeared from the lexicon. In a two division Championship, especially in the First Division, because so much hangs on most games the context, not a ‘sporting declaration’, makes the game.

In this match Somerset, probably the only team in the division with any prospect of catching Surrey, played Essex. A couple of defeats for Essex could have them looking the other way as the bottom of the division stirs itself to action with Worcestershire beginning to send shivers up the table.

And so 241 runs it was, 14 wickets too it is true, but several passages of intense action where, on the face of it, nothing much seemed to happen at all. I doubt anyone thought of a slow handclap for nothing happening was actually important. Important to Somerset because Essex were not closing the gap. Important to Essex because Somerset were not taking wickets. And over four days there was time for nothing to happen and it add to, rather than detract from, an engrossing game as it built pressure on one team or the other and at times both.

Essex started the day by finishing off the Somerset first innings in short order. The last three wickets added just 16 runs. Disappointing in a way but every cloud has a silver lining. The silver lining was that it gave the Somerset bowlers hope that there was still enough in the pitch and overhead conditions for them to make headway.

And that is precisely what they did. Some excellent accurate and probing bowling by Gregory and Davey was initially resisted by Chopra and Browne. Someone, remarked, “It looks like being a hard day at the office,” and it was difficult to disagree. Gregory and Davey must have overheard us for within two overs Essex had gone from a determined 25 for 0 to a more than shaky 29 for 3. Two to Davey. One to Gregory.

Davey continued his emergence as a front line bowler to be reckoned with. No longer a man dependent on April green tops for his wickets. The ball with which he bowled Westley was as good as any you will see. Slightly angled in and then moving in further off the pitch it uprooted the off stump as Westley held his bat to the heavens. It was a sight to implant in the memory. He removed Browne too, caught behind as he played back after 10 overs of intense defence imposed on him and Chopra by the opening bowlers.

By Lunch Essex had steadied themselves to 51 for 3 as Bopara started to find the boundary against Jamie Overton.

I was late leaving a lunchtime chat on Gimblett’s Hill and so found myself spending the first over after Lunch sitting on the steps at the end of the Hill, next to the sightscreen, before returning to my seat at the top of the Somerset Pavilion. My timing was as good as Trescothick’s on the first day. In that over Overton, having strayed to leg with his first two balls got his fourth absolutely right. It angled in towards Bopara’s off stump and Bopara, forced to play it, angled it away again just enough for Davies to take off and catch it a yard outside off. It will be along time before I stop re-running that in my mind. 54 for 4.

An assertive fifty run partnership in 13 overs between Lawrence and ten Doeschate, helped at the start by Overton not getting it right, gave the impression of threatening to restore some balance into the match. Only gave the impression though for by the end of the partnership Leach was looking his old self. Batsmen were looking increasingly at a loss as to how to play him other than by stretching as far as they could and trying to fend him off. Lawrence lbw Leach was the result and Essex were 106 for 5.

There followed a beautiful example of slow left arm bowling, or spin bowling of any type, at its best. Leach against Wheater. Wheater seemed to reach further and further forward in increasingly desperate defence as his innings went on, Leach probing and testing him with every ball. Torquemada would have signed Leach in an instant. Eventually the inevitable happened. Wheater played at a ball outside off stump, which would have been harmless if ignored, Gregory plucked the ball as it looped off the edge and Wheater swished his bat in frustration. 132 for 6. 132 for 7 with the fall of Harmer to Bess.

Some resistance from Siddle and runs from ten Doeschate batting with the tail were ended by a brief intervention from Ali’s leg spin to remove Siddle. Then an irresistible final spell from Jamie Overton to spear ten Doeschate lbw and slice through Porter, caught behind, to give Somerset a 133 run lead.

There was much for Somerset supporters to cheer beyond the unfolding of the game in their favour. It soon became clear that the suspicion of many who were at the ground on the first day that the Somerset batsmen had held sway had been borne out. In the context of the second day Trescothick’s innings on the first shines with a brilliant light.

On the second day there was much to give cheer about from the performance of the Somerset bowlers. Perhaps Jack Leach above all. He has had a cruel season with injuries and the loss of his Test place as a consequence. Because of the intermittent Championship mid season fixture list he has had little opportunity to find his rhythm against top flight opposition since his recovery. With some help from the pitch he found it here. It was an absolute joy to watch. He lost absolutely nothing in comparison with Harmer one of the key driving forces behind Essex’s Championship title last year.

Statistics do not always reflect the performance. Leach’s figures figures of 19-9-27-2, as the ball fizzed past defensive bats, did reflect the control and the threat he posed. To see batsmen once more looking forlorn as they tried to reach impossibly forward to the dipping, gyrating ball whilst keeping their back foot anchored to the crease, like some mountaineer’s piton, brought back all the memories of Leach at his best in 2016 and 2017. Welcome back Jack!

Jamie Overton did not get it right in his first spell and the ball, as it will if a fast bowler does not get it right, flew arrow like to the boundary. Perhaps too many short pitched balls in that spell. But that is what genuinely fast bowlers do sometimes. It is part of the make up which makes them fast. It was part of Fred Trueman’s make up and it was not unknown for him to take punishment when he overdid the bouncer. But overall, as they say, Trueman did not do too badly.

CC Essex (H) Aug 2018 Day 2 Jamie Porter ct Steve Davies bld Jamie Overton Copyright Mike Williams
Disconcerting the tail. Jamie Porter caught behind off Jamie Overton.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

And neither did Jamie Overton on the second day here. His second spell of 3.4-0-11-2 as he ‘cleaned up’ the tail is just what sides want from a fast bowler. I watched that spell in conversation from the boundary between the Somerset Pavilion and the Ondaatje Stand so my concentration on the cricket was not of the greatest. It means the cricket, to be noticed, has to make an impact and that spell did. It was fast and troubled ten Doeschate and some disconcerted lower order batsmen in a way in which only a genuinely fast bowler can.

The spell was reminiscent of his monumental performance at Worcester. If Overton can just ward off the threat of injury and get some extended runs in the side he has two or three years of development yet to reach his best and batsmen around the country will start checking the fixture list in November to see when it is their turn to play Somerset. If Overton and Leach can bowl as they did here Somerset will be a force.

CC Essex (H) 2018 Aug Day 2 Peter Siddle ct Lewis Gregory bld Azhar Ali Copyright Mike Williams
Sheer enjoyment. Captain past and captain present after Azhur Ali’s dismissal of Peter Siddle.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Azhur Ali, brought to Somerset to score runs, replaced Leach and took a wicket too. “Nice to see a bit of leg spin by way of variety,” said the incoming text. And not just by way of variety. 4-1-5-1 from a part time leg spinner just added to the pressure on Essex. It served as evidence too of Abell’s uncanny knack of taking wickets with bowling changes.

I doubt many anticipated that change with Leach bowling so well. It removed Siddle who had ‘dug in’ for 17 overs. You used to see a lot of ‘digging in’ in 1962. Ali took the edge in just his second over and Gregory took a neat catch low to his left at slip. Abell’s 70 runs on the first day were gold dust in this match but his captaincy on the second day, as so often, was the silver lining to his contribution.

Only Bess of the bowlers, in the end, after Overton’s first spell, looked like he had something to make up on the others. Perhaps he needs more overs as Jack Leach looked like he did at Worcester. Even so Bess was good enough to find Harmer’s leading edge and take the return catch as Harmer tried to hit Essex out of trouble late in the innings.

For Essex ten Doeschate held the second half of the innings together and, until Overton’s second spell blast removed him with that spearing, harpoon-like lbw he was the only batsman who really looked like taking the fight to Somerset. He was almost certainly given a lifeline early in his innings. Several times he set off up the pitch when there was no run there only to be sent back. Once he almost reached the other end. Had Bess simply lobbed the ball to Leach who was waiting over the stumps, rather than throwing a bullet at the stumps and missing them and Leach, ten Doeschate would probably have been walking back to the Pavilion rather than lying flat out having dived full length to regain his ground. The normally inscrutable Leach gave Bess a look capable of turning him into a pillar of salt.

191 all out gave Somerset a lead of 133 to which, by the close they had added 32 for the loss of Trescothick, lbw to Cook, trying to turn the ball into the leg side. A lead of 165 with nine wickets left is substantial and I could find no-one who would not have settled for that at the start of the day or of the match.

The radio weather forecast has just announced the forecast for the third day as “muggy”. If the cloud hangs around that could be perfect for Porter, and particularly Siddle who has been a model of persistence and accuracy in this match and well worth his five wickets in the first innings.

Somerset start day three with a considerable advantage. They may have to bat with as much persistence and skill as Siddle bowls to maintain it. I trust Somerset will allow me to get through the day without recourse to the edge of my seat. But of one thing I am certain. No-one will feel the need to resort to a slow handclap, unless of course there is an interminable hiatus at some point for bad light.

Close: Somerset 324 (ME Trescothick 95, TB Abell 70, L Gregory 47, PM Siddle 5-80, JA Porter 3-82) and 32 for1. Essex 191 (RN ten Doeschate 73, J Overton 3-40). Somerset lead by 165 runs with 9 second innings wickets standing.

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