Of stable doors

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

Somerset went into the third day of this match with a firm grip on the game. Surrey were similarly placed against Lancashire. If Somerset were to retain any hope of winning the Championship they would need to force a win against Essex.

Overnight: Somerset 324 and 32 for 1. Essex 191. Somerset lead by 165 with 9 second innings wickets standing.

What a difference a day makes. A day in which the mood of Somerset supporters metamorphosed from hopeful anticipation to unanticipated foreboding. I arrived at the ground ten minutes after the start. Somerset had added one run to their overnight score. No sooner had I walked into the ground than Bess flashed hard outside off stump and edged Cook to Harmer at slip for 12 and Somerset were 33 for 2.

Azhur Ali joined Byrom and almost immediately drove Porter straight to the Botham Stand, late cut him to the gap between the Somerset and Ondaatje Pavilions and glanced him to Gimblett’s Hill, all for four. Somerset were on their way. Ali was keen on the sharp single too. Against Cook he pushed the ball to leg and, with a cry of, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” bustled down the pitch as if he were chasing after the last bus.

Essex turned to Harmer, together with Siddle’s metronomic line and length, Essex’s best hope of finding a way back into the match. Immediately Harmer looked threatening. After Ali had turned him sharply to mid wicket for a single, “That’s a nice shot,” someone said, he span one sharply past Byrom’s bat. He did it again next ball, this time beating the keeper too for a bye. That, along with careful defence from the batsmen, set the pattern for Harmer’s long spell.

Siddle bowled that testing off stump or just outside off line of his again and again. The risk to the batsman, apart from his relentlessness, is the occasional ball that does something. At his pace such balls can be unplayable. It is no accident that he took five wickets in the first innings and there was little doubt he would take more in the second.

Ali’s three boundaries apart, the cricket was again attritional. Byrom and Ali played with the watchfulness of look outs on a dark night. Ali’s three boundaries apart they scored 23 runs in 50 minutes against Harmer and Siddle. Byrom in particular left anything that could be left and Ali looked solid in defence. Singles were pushed and nudged rather than hit and boundaries seemed to be on a ‘prohibited’ list. It fitted the pattern of the match and seemed to set the template for the day.

A top edged sweep from Ali just cleared the square leg fielder and caused more than one missed heart beat but overall he looked to be in control. Then he played forward to Harmer and was caught at leg slip by Bopara for 23. 85 for 3. Somerset 218 ahead. There was disappointment at the dismissal of Ali but no real concern about where it left Somerset who were still in an immensely strong position.

Byrom all the while had been playing one of his most accomplished innings to date. It was perfectly suited to attritional cricket. It eschewed risk. There was no sense of him looking for runs. It was as if he only took runs if the safest stroke to the ball happened to be where a run could be taken.

Byrom’s singles were scored with soft strokes, mainly square or behind square. Intense and intent accumulation his watchword. There was no ‘throwing of bat at ball’ to use the modern parlance. Occasionally Harmer span one past his defensive bat. More commonly Byrom positioned himself to watch the ball carefully past the bat. Eventually Harmer worked a way through and Byrom was leg before wicket playing defensively forward for 42. Somerset 96 for 4. Lead 229. Still substantial but anxiety, driven by the regular fall of wickets, was beginning to raise its head. The chatter in the crowd became more subdued, almost pensive.

Hildreth had joined Byrom after the dismissal of Ali and immediately changed the tempo. He looked for singles rather than awaited them. He pushed the ball, mainly into the on side, and ran. Porter was driven peremptorily and straight to the Botham Stand boundary. Abell, who replaced Byrom, went up on his toes to Harmer and drove him through the covers for four to the Somerset Stand. The next ball was a full toss and that went straight through extra cover for another four.

CC Essex (H) Aug 2018 Day 3 James Hildreth bld Peter Siddle Copyright Mike Williams
Essex fight back. James Hildreth bowled by the consistently excellent Peter Siddle.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Siddle replaced Porter. Hildreth square drove him to the Caddick Pavilion for four. “Shot James!” the comment from the person in front of me who had begun to edge towards the front of his seat as much as I had. More so when Siddle struck Hildreth’s middle and leg stumps with the next ball. It looked an absolute brute, angled in and adding a bit off the pitch or from some late movement. “This is going to be a closer game than we thought when we arrived this morning,” said someone from the back of the stand. Somerset 118 for 5. Hildreth 15. Lead 251. The pensive mood had turned to an anxious one and faces turned towards each other.

Abell was joined by Davies who promptly edged Siddle between wicket keeper and first slip, who between them managed to drop the catch. Lunch came at 123 for 5. Lead 256. During the interval I canvassed enough opinions to conclude that the general opinion was that any target for Essex upwards of 300 would be enough. I am naturally conservative when it comes to setting targets and told anyone who wanted to hear that I would have settled for 330 when I set out for the ground, always adding my perennial proviso about Taunton, “unless the pitch flattens.”

After Lunch Abell picked up the tempo that Hildreth had set before Lunch. He employed the drive to particular effect, whether for boundaries or singles. A straight drive to the Botham Stand drew a comment of, “Nice shot!” followed by another of, “Straight drive, You can’t beat it.” Then he played forward defensively to Harmer and was caught at leg slip by Bopara. 142 for 6. Abell 27. Lead 275. Harmer and Siddle were certainly making things happen and the batsmen, Bess apart, were being got out rather than getting themselves out.

Gregory joined Davies and promptly lifted Siddle into the Somerset Stand for six and drove his next ball square for four to the Caddick Pavilion. There seemed little doubt that the arrival of Hildreth had prompted or signalled a more positive approach. Gregory made no further progress for he was caught at slip by Chopra off Harmer, his defensive stroke penetrated. 154 for 7. Gregory 11. Lead 287.

Overton joined Davies and continued in like vein. He used his reach to sweep Harmer behind square for four, swished twice at Siddle and pushed him into the on side for a single. In Harmer’s next over Overton drove him high for four to Gimblett’s Hill. Then he tried to lift Siddle, with five on the boundary, to the Somerset Stand and lost his middle stump. 169 for 8. Overton 10. Lead 302.

Whilst the other batsmen were moving the score along Davies played with circumspection and, as Essex drove deeper into the tail, often found himself turning the ball to leg for singles and losing the strike. Twice though he reached to drive Harmer to the Old Stragglers area for four. Leach stayed with Davies for six overs while 19 runs were scored and lofted his own four to Gimblett’s Hill before he was lbw playing forward to Westley for 5.

Davey arrived and walked down the pitch to Westley to lift him into the Somerset Stand while Davies square drove Harmer beautifully to the Caddick Pavilion for four. Then, like several before him, just as he was getting going he was out, falling neatly into a trap set by Porter when he hooked to long leg. Somerset 202 all out. Davies 29. Lead 335.

Of Somerset’s batsmen three were out playing attacking strokes, Bess, Overton and last man out Davies, the only recognised batsman among them. It was largely excellent Essex bowling which restricted Somerset’s total. Essex are not County Champions by accident. Harmer bowled with accuracy and had elicited turn and bounce from the pitch which looked particularly difficult for the left handers but perhaps his most important strikes were the inside edges which saw Ali and Abell caught at leg slip.

Siddle, not as successful as in the first innings, bowled perhaps the most important ball of the match when he bowled Hildreth. Hildreth had immediately taken the initiative, actively seeking singles and running them hard, building momentum on the foundations laid by Byrom. His straight driven four looked to have stamped his authority on the innings and Abell began to play in the same mode. And then came that brutal ball.

And then came the Essex innings and the edifice that Somerset had built slowly began to crumble as Browne and Westley forced one Somerset bowler after another out of the attack. Only Leach stood consistently against them with a piece of extended controlling spin bowling.

He bowled 16 overs for 28 runs and the wicket of Chopra, perhaps the wicket Somerset would have wanted more than any other in the absence of Alistair Cook. While he bowled his overs at 1.8 runs an over the remainder of the attack bowled theirs at 4.2. The rates of scoring in each of the first three innings of this match were 3.2, 2.9 and 3.0. To sustain the sort of pressure that enables bowler’s like Harmer and Leach to take wickets the pressure has to be applied at both ends at the same time.

As to the remainder of the Somerset bowlers I watched the opening overs from above the umpire’s head on the roof terrace of the Somerset Pavilion. I can still see them now. Gregory bowled a ball of virtual perfection to Chopra. It angled in and moved away late. How it missed the edge of the bat is known only to the cricketing gods. He bowled several too that pinned the batsmen back in defence. But the loose balls on leg stump undid all the good of the others. “That is not the line,” someone said.

It was more difficult to assess Davey because he bowled from the other end with the keeper’s back to me but he was not the Davey that had forced Essex onto the defensive in their first innings. 37 for 0 after six overs and the Essex horse had already kicked the stable door open.

Now Leach began to spin his web from the River End but for him to entrap batsmen there needs to be threat, or at least pressure, from the other end. Give a batsman no respite and he will devise his own end against bowling of the quality which Leach has purveyed in this match.

Like Gregory, Bess bowled a ball of virtual perfection. It turned into Chopra, passed between bat and pad and disappeared from view as the bat came across the pads. I waited for the cheer from behind the stumps but somehow the stumps escaped destruction. Another for the cricketing gods to explain. Nothing else in Bess’ first spell seemed, from memory, to threaten and the one on leg stump, perfect for Browne to glance to the Trescothick Stand boundary, was a gift.

Jamie Overton was held back to the extent that, “What about Overton?” became a frequent refrain. There was huge applause when he was given the ball and cries of, “About time too.” He bowled fast and went through Browne at least once but he was driven through the covers for four twice. Meanwhile Westley was getting after Bess, driving him through the covers and then pulling a long hop furiously to the long Ondaatje boundary.

Overton returned at the Somerset Pavilion End and Browne drove him twice more through the covers. 115 for 1 after 32 overs. The Essex horse was loose in the paddock with no-one apparently able to close the gate other than Leach and it is too big a job for one man.

CC Essex (H) Aug 2018 Day 3 Nick Browne Copyright Mike Williams
Loose in the paddock. Nick Browne drives Essex forward.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

At the close Essex were 147 for 1 needing 189 more to win. The crowd had virtually fallen silent as the last session unfolded and Essex, in the context of this match, had galloped towards that open gate through which lay the road towards victory. Somerset’s bowlers need to get to the paddock gate immediately in the morning and rein the batsmen in if the Essex horse is to be retrieved. It would not be the first time this team have turned matches around. Now would be a good time to do it again.

There is incentive enough, for Surrey are now far from certain of winning against Lancashire. If, as the balance of probabilities suggested by the end of Essex’s evening rampage, Somerset lose this match a golden opportunity may have been missed to put some unexpected pressure on Surrey.

Essex are not out of sight yet and if by some cricketing miracle Somerset can turn this match around, and by another, Lancashire beat Surrey, all bets on the Championship will, as they say, be off. If Surrey and Essex win, Surrey may be so far ahead that there may be no point in Somerset supporters placing a bet. The final day, with Somerset starting on the wrong end of it, is that important.

Close: Somerset 324 and 202 (EJ Byrom 42, SR Harmer 4-69). Essex 191 and 147 for 1. Essex need a further 189 runs to win with 9 wickets standing.

The original version of this report was published on grockles.com on 22nd August 2018.