A match for the ages

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

Somerset supporters arrived for the final day of this match fearing the worst. Browne and Westley had batted exceptionally well and with determination through the second half of the third day to give Essex hope of what had seemed an unlikely victory. There was no hint of weather intervening and so, with Essex needing another 189 runs to win, there would be a result one way or the other.

Overnight: Somerset 324 and 202. Essex 191 and 147 for 1. Essex need 189 more runs to win with 9 wickets standing,

“The winning team played with …. almost all enveloping power,” is a statement which I think sums up Somerset’s, and Jack Leach’s, performance against Essex on the last day of this match, and on the first and second days too. Here is another statement which fits Somerset’s performance. It referred to a team winning a match with “the unremitting application of sheer will power to drive the skills of cricket”.

They are both statements, or part statements to be precise, which I used almost exactly a year ago to describe Essex’s performance against Somerset in Somerset’s dispiriting Championship defeat at Chelmsford in 2017. That they can now be employed about Somerset playing Essex is a mark of just how far this Somerset team has come in a year. This was a significant victory not just in the context of this season but in marking the continuing development of what has the potential to become one of the all-time great Somerset teams, perhaps, just perhaps, the greatest of them all.

When the final day started the odds were on an Essex victory. At the outset of the Essex second innings 336 was a ‘big ask’, to use 2018 parlance. Yet at 147 for 1 overnight Essex were almost half way there and, Leach apart, they had dominated the Somerset bowling on the third afternoon and evening. That they had to face Leach on the fourth day would have been a concern but three hours of positive batting, with some care against the slow left armer, might have been calculated to see them home.

Within three overs it was clear that Somerset had a real chance. On the previous day Essex had set themselves up for victory by showing positive intent against all but Leach. I fully expected that to continue on the fourth morning. Essex keeping the initiative. Building the pressure. Sustaining the momentum. But Essex did the exact opposite. They immediately ceded the initiative to Somerset with a display, in the first hour, of careworn virtually strokeless defence even though Somerset’s bowlers went wicketless.

That will have had something to do with the spectre which they knew would be wheeling his arm endlessly at the River End. It also had something to do with the opening spell from Josh Davey. This was a Somerset fourth day performance driven by Leach. But he drove Essex hard against the rock that was the rest of the Somerset team. Nothing gave, until Essex finally did.

Davey’s opening spell was crucial. On the third afternoon Leach had bowled with the same intent and control as he did on the fourth morning. But the bowling at the other end had leaked runs. It relieved the pressure on the batsmen. It created a gap in Somerset’s defences through which the Essex batsmen had charged. On the fourth morning Davey closed that gap and made it as solid as the Rock of Ages which nestles in Somerset’s very own Burrington Combe. Davey’s spell of six overs cost seven runs. Essex added just 15 in 12 overs. 162 for 1. 174 still needed.

There were anxious looks on Somerset faces, and there was very little chatter as Essex continued to crawl forward. A smaller crowd than earlier in the match and only one person I spoke to was expecting a Somerset victory although there were a few ‘you never knows’. I did not trouble the edge of my seat because in spite of the laboured increase in the Essex score they still had nine wickets in hand, plenty of time, and had not looked in a great deal of trouble. Somerset had even resorted to trying to get the ball changed, and had finally succeeded, often a sign that a fielding side is beginning to wonder if they will ever get a breakthrough.

Jamie Overton replaced Davey whilst Leach continued to probe away at the batsmen from the River End. Something has built up in my psyche over my 61 seasons of watching Somerset cricket which, when wickets will not come, wants to do something. Anything. I decided to walk to the far end of the roof terrace at the other end of the Somerset Pavilion, almost behind the umpire’s head, to see if I could detect any movement other than the bit of spin Leach had been getting.

The media centre above the terrace is held up by a tubular metal framework which resembles a Meccano construction without the holes. As I came around the end of it I saw Essex’s Browne on one knee, the ball looping to leg slip, Jamie Overton running around from slip to catch it and Jack Leach raising his hand in celebration. A wicket! “Alleluiah!” I said to the man leaning on the balustrade at the front of the terrace. I was not the only one saying, ‘Alleluiah’, or at least thinking it, because the thousand or so people in the ground emitted a huge roar as much of relief as celebration.

Next Jamie Overton was running in as Fred Trueman might have done had he been allowed to play in that 1962 match which I recalled on the first day here. Overton was on the nail. Right on the nail. Westley defended for all he was worth. Nothing else to be done against the perfect ball coming in at Overton’s pace. Two perfect balls in a row is one thing. Three in a row is lbw. Now I was punching the air. Not necessarily wise in my case but I got away with it. My arm goes out at an angle of 45 degrees and I was still looking at Westley, in as much disbelief as he was. Fortunately, no-one was stood on that side of me. The person stood on the other side knows me.

Browne and Westley gone in less than an over. What a difference a ball makes. Essex 171 for 3. 165 needed. Over half way but those two wickets had the ground all achatter with a buzz which would have convinced a swarm of bees that the place was already occupied. Browne and Westley gone. Lawrence and ten Doeschate both on nought. Overton powering in with a run up pumping energy into every ball, into the crowd and I shouldn’t wonder into the team too.

The next ball was too good for a startled ten Doeschate. It hit the inside edge, rather than the other way round, and hurtled past the stumps so close that they must have felt shockwaves as it went by. “Ohhhhhhhhhhh!” the entire crowd seemed to say as one. “I think I had better stay here for a bit,” I said to the man leaning on the balustrade. Now let me be clear. I am not superstitious in any way. Superstition has no foundation in reality. It is a totally irrational emotion. But I knew if I moved away I would put Somerset’s chances of more wickets at risk and this was no time to take risks.

There I stood surveying the scene. Leach endlessly, it seemed, going back to his mark, that little jump at the start of his run up, those few short paces in and another bundle of worry deposited at the foot of the batsman. It didn’t matter how often or when you looked at the scoreboard the runs against him never crept above two an over, a sign that the batsmen had no way of dealing with what Leach delivered other than to try to keep it out. That must build pressure.

It builds pressure too if the fielders give nothing away. All day I think I saw a fielder dive over a ball twice. Once Bess, as he had done on the third day, threw bullet-like at the stumps, missed and this time conceded four overthrows. A couple of times the substitute fielder was defeated by the bounce on the edge of the square. Apart from that the fielding was electric. Balls intercepted. Balls chased down. “No run!” a constant refrain from the batsmen. Essex’s progress towards their goal almost funereal.

Opposite Leach, Overton gave way to Bess. That generated a ripple of concern in the small group at the end of the roof terrace because Bess has not been at his best in this match. But Bess it had to be. Overton had completed four fast overs, Gregory had picked up an injury and was unable to take the field, Davey was still drawing breath after his first crucial spell and Abell does not seem to be bowling at the moment.

Here was an opportunity for Essex. Attack Bess and open up Somerset’s bowling resources now limited by the absence of Gregory. Instead they played his first over as if they were inspecting a suspicious package. Perhaps two new batsmen and the cautiousness in the Essex mindset helped but Bess bowled well enough to continue in tandem with Leach through to Lunch. He never looked completely settled but he didn’t let the Essex batsmen get away and in the run up to Lunch conceded no more runs than Leach

There was no quick wicket for either bowler although there were ‘Oooohs’ and ‘Aaaahs’ a plenty from the field. From the crowd too at times and from the ever-changing little group at the end of the terrace, “How did that miss the stumps?” or, “The luck just isn’t going our way,” or more often just the throwing back or shaking of a head. And all the while Essex continued their slow march towards 336.

A look at the scoreboard said 209 for 3. Just 127 to win said the slowly diminishing number in the bottom right. All the while the tension increased. Not because of the slowly rising score but because of the lack of more wickets. “They are beginning to make some headway here. We need to break this up,” someone said.

I had no edge of a seat to sit on and dared not return to it for fear Essex would not lose another wicket. No edge of a seat but it gradually dawned on me that at any hiatus in play, at the end of an over, a change in the field, a drink brought on, although curiously there were very few of those – perhaps Somerset did not want to break the tension, did not want to give the batsmen any respite – I was turning on my heels, walking a couple of yards towards the back of the terrace, walking in a small circle as if I was walking around the edge of the seat which I could not sit on and then walking straight back down the line I had just walked along to return to my spot.

The chatter of the crowd was becoming more hushed. Eyes, ever more frequently turning towards that diminishing number on the scoreboard. And still Leach and Bess ran in, turning their arms over, swerving and flighting the ball, testing the batsmen, keeping the pressure on from both ends as the fielders pounced on virtually everything that tried to get past them. But no wickets. I began wondering if I should try going back to my seat.

CC Essex (H) Aug 2018 Day 4 Dan Lawrence bld Jack Leach Copyright Mike Williams
“Frozen in the pose.” Dan Lawrence bowled by Jack Leach.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

And then, on the stroke of Lunch, Leach bowled an absolute beauty. The text from the online stream watcher said, “Excellent from Leach. Did him with a slow arm ball earlier in the over. Bit of a chat with the umpire about the no ball then a quicker arm ball. Brilliant.” Lawrence was frozen in the pose in which the ball had left him, Somerset were celebrating, the crowd erupted and the stumps looked dishevelled. 225 for 4. 111 needed. In that instant I was sentenced to spending the rest of the match at the end of the terrace.

Bopara, said to be suffering from shingles, walked out with ten Doeschate after Lunch. It didn’t seem to affect his batting except perhaps he looked a little stiff-backed. Shingles must have troubled him far more than that but he didn’t let it show. It didn’t affect his play as far as could be told from beyond the boundary. I looked around the ground. I think everyone except me and the rest of the terrace dwellers, was on the edge of their seat. Rock still, leaning forward, eyes on the cricket, or the scoreboard, willing Leach and Somerset on.

Ten Doeschate and Bopara understand pressure. They would have been in situations like this more times than they could remember. Leach they still played with the utmost suspicion. Bess they looked to start attacking. Twice in two overs ten Doeschate reverse swept him for four. A risky stroke but with the runs required diminishing towards 100 it was also difficult for Somerset to defend against.

Abell turned to Davey. Bopara struck a boundary off him in each of his first three overs. And all the while Leach jumped his little jump, ran his little run, turned his arm with the dead eye aim and continued to deliver his little packages of worry at the feet of the batsmen.

Increasingly the packages were becoming troublesome. They started to go through the batsmen’s defensive stroke and into the gloves of Davies. Gasps from the field and from the crowd rent the air as the batsmen stood frozen in the failed stroke trying to work out what had happened. “How does one not hit the stumps or find the edge?” someone asked.

Now after every over, after every ball that beat the bat Leach was applauded as the crowd willed him on. It must have been a very lonely place holding a bat as Leach started his run in with that ever-present hop. It was becoming a question of whether the bowlers at the other end could hold the line long enough for Leach to find his way through often enough to find the stumps or the edge.

The tension in the frozen body language of the crowd, in the tautness of the faces that I could see, in the gasps that followed every ball that passed the bat was palpable as ten Doeschate and Bopara whittled down Somerset’s lead. Got Essex ever closer. I was now setting off on my lollipop shaped walk after almost every ball, always in an anti-clockwise direction, instinctively following the cricket walking habits of a lifetime.

A look at the scoreboard. 256 for 4. Just 80 needed. Leach’s bowling ever more mesmeric as the batsmen became ever more runless against him. But Somerset needed a wicket. It could now only be a matter of time before ten Doescahte and Bopara sensed they were close enough to break Leach’s hold and strike for home. “We need to make something happen,” the text said, “perhaps an over from Ali.” Doubt was creeping in and Somerset did need to make something happen.

Then a huge cheer with, I thought, a tinge of hope in it as Leach bowled ten Doeschate. Another beauty. Bowled from wide of the crease, pitched leg or thereabouts and hit middle according to the text. Impossible to be sure from behind the keeper but another batsman frozen in his crease in front of another set of dishevelled stumps. 256 for 5. Ten Doescahate 50.

Enter Wheater. “He won’t last long,” I said as I made my first and only prediction of the match, “He struggled too much against Leach in the first innings.” In Leach’s next over Wheater was through the stroke before the ball had presented itself and the ball flew low back to Leach. 258 for 6. 78 needed. The cheers had real belief in them now and people were no longer rigid with tension in their seats. The crowd was starting to bubble in anticipation. But a wise head next to me said, “We have to get Bopara. He is an England player.”

CC Essex (H) 2018 Aug Day 4 Adam Wheater c&b Jack Leach
Caught off balance. Adam Wheater caught and bowled by Jack Leach for 1. Wheater struggled against Leach in this match.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Those words sat in my ear as for half an hour Bopara and Harmer battled slowly on while Davey and then Bess tied down an end. The boundaries dried up. Runs were barely coming at all until Bopara swept Leach for four twice in an over. “He has bowled unchanged since the start and right through the new ball,” someone said. “He must be getting tired.”

As if in response to the anxiety the runs immediately all but dried up again. And yet the few that were scored were edging that number in the bottom right of the scoreboard down. 55 needed it said and still four wickets and still Bopara was battling on. Another walk around the lollipop. Always I got back in time for the next ball. This one Leach bowled uncharacteristically wide of off stump, Bopara, perhaps startled at seeing the ball so far out flicked at it and edged it back onto his stumps. 281 for 7. 55 still needed with Somerset breaking through.

When Harmer looped a catch to Trescothick at short leg in the next over it felt like Essex were finally crumbling and Bess had got his first wicket. Eight down. “Thank goodness,” someone said, “it will do him the world of good.” Surely, surely now, Somerset must do it. They must win. Siddle and Porter now at the wicket. Someone found their batting averages. 17 for Siddle. 6 for Porter. And yet still Essex battled on. Now against Leach and Bess. The overs came and went but the batsmen barely scored a run.

Eventually Siddle swept Leach, edged past Davies and Overton leapt across from first slip to intercept the catch. Nine down. The cheering was rapturous. Now people were really believing. And then Cook started to dig in too. And although 49 runs were still needed and Essex had been scoring at under two an over the committed cricket supporter needs certainty. As Cook and Porter defended each ball the tension rose again. Somerset had after all won matches from positions such as this.

“I just want this over,” someone said, his face still wracked with tension. And then it was. A huge appeal, a raised finger, a monumental cheer, Jack Leach and the Somerset team running to form a huddle, the crowd on their feet, cheering, hands clapping above their heads, smiles breaking out everywhere and a few tears too. And then that numb feeling that follows the cheers after a day like that, after a match like that, after a win like that.

It wasn’t all for the match. It was also because for Somerset to have any hope of staying in the Championship race they had to win. A defeat would have ended the hope there and then. It really was that important. And, as Essex had against Somerset in 2017, the match had been won by “the unremitting application of sheer will power to drive the skills of cricket”.

Above all the unremitting will power and immense skills of Jack Leach on that final day. But also the will power, skills and colossal team spirit of the whole team which helped provide the time and that rock against which Leach relentlessly drove a strong Essex side which fought, with no small skill and will of their own, right to the very last ball. It was a match for the ages.

Result: Somerset 324 (ME Trescothick 95, TB Abell 70, L Gregory 47, PM Siddle 5-80, JA Porter 3-82) and 202 (EJ Byrom 42, SR Harmer 4-69). Essex 191 (RN ten Doeschate 73, J Overton 3-40) and 290 (NLJ Browne 86, T Westley 56, RN ten Doeschate 50, MJ Leach 8-85). Somerset won by 45 runs. Somerset 22 points. Essex 3 points.

The original version of this report was first published on grockles.com on 24th August 2018.