Gregory’s game

T20 Quarter Final. Somerset v Nottinghamshire. 27th August 2018. Taunton.

This match was due to be played on 26th August but rain and a very wet outfield meant it was delayed until the following day. The delay took it too close to the Championship match at Headingley for the report to be finalised before it was time to travel north (via London). The final touches were therefore put to it in time for it to be posted on as a curtain raiser on the eve of Finals Day.

Nottinghamshire had knocked Somerset out of both the T20 and 50 over competitions at the Quarter Final stage in 2017.

Nottinghamshire won the toss and elected to field.

The match may have been a day late but most must have got there or passed on their ticket from the rains of Sunday to someone who could get there for the ground was as near full as could be. It was certainly the crowd of the season. And it sounded like it. It was behind the Somerset team from the outset and cheered it on at every twist and turn of as mesmerising a game of cricket as could be hoped for.

It was as if the match against Essex in the week had shown the County Championship at its best and this match had in response shown T20 at its best. Very different forms of cricket. Very similar emotions for those watching. Somerset had everything to gain and all to lose in both matches; and in both matches a rising side came up against the team which held the title and played like it.

As tends to be the case in such matches there were several tipping points, the match veering first one way and then the other as the crowd became louder and louder, willing Somerset on with immense fervour.

It was as if the Gillette Cup had passed through a time warp and come to visit. The atmosphere had the feel of those days again. And the match had the feel of the great cup runs of the 70s and 80s. There is an electricity, a camaraderie and an aura about this Somerset T20 side that leaves you, and them it seems, feeling it could move mountains. It certainly moved the crowd.

Every ball in T20 is an event. You can feel its impact on the match. A dot when your side is batting a setback, when your side is bowling an advance. And the crowd responds to every ball. You might as well start the match on the edge of your seat and make yourself as comfortable as you can.

When Davies played back to the second ball of Somerset’s innings and was bowled by Carter’s off spin you could feel the crowd sag. As each ball defended pulled the run rate down you could feel the spirit coming down with it. When Myburgh, in his last game on home soil for Somerset, attacked Gurney with a drive and a cut, both for four, and lifted Carter over mid off into the Colin Atkinson Pavilion for six you could feel hearts beating faster.

When Myburgh, well short of an impossible single, was reprieved by Patel missing the non-striker’s stumps and ran on through to thank the fielder for his largesse laughter relieved the tension. When Trego drove Fletcher to the gap between the Somerset Pavilion and the Ondaatje for four up went the cheers. When, two balls later, Patel ran behind Fletcher and caught Trego’s top edged pull down sank the heart. At 30 for 2 after four overs the powerplay was slipping away and the dot balls and the wickets were pulling Somerset down.

In a powerplay too many singles hurt. When Gurney held Myburgh and Hildreth to just three singles and three dot balls toes started to clench. 33 for 2 off five. Quite apart from the score you knew from the hushed murmur that held sway in the crowd that Somerset were in a scrap and were coming off second best.

When cornered Somerset attempt to break out. Hildreth and Myburgh struck against Fletcher. Two vicious straight drives to the Somerset Pavilion from Hildreth and a perfect square drive to the Somerset Stand from Myburgh brought relieved cheers and the mass banging of plastic batons in the Ondaatje Stand. But they were cheers of relief for 46 for 2 at the end of the powerplay was a repair job for Somerset. It barely scratched Nottinghamshire.

As much as any other form of cricket T20 is about pressure and Somerset were under intense pressure. Nottinghamshire applied more. Spin, the classic T20 pressure tactic. Patel and Sodhi, with his leg breaks, turned the screw despite a classic cover drive to the Temporary Stand boundary from Hildreth.

As singles and dot balls tightened the knot Myburgh lofted Sodhi towards the Somerset Pavilion. From the back, at the top, you cannot see the outcome. The celebrations of the bowler told the tale. “Oh Blimey!” said someone expecting a six, and the embryonic cheer was cut off at its roots. 58 for 3 with one ball left in the eighth over. Myburgh, in his last match at Taunton, walked off to a tremendous ovation in recognition of his contribution to Somerset. 27 off 22 balls this time.

In T20, as in any other form of cricket, a side needs partnerships. Each time Somerset had begun to build a partnership Nottinghamshire had broken it. In Hildreth and Abell, Somerset now had at the wicket two of its most classical batsmen of recent times. Classical batsmen know how to build partnerships. It is how Championship games are turned. Now they applied their skills to T20.

Classical batsmen place balls that cannot be sent to the boundary. That is what Hildreth and Abell now did in glorious ‘fast forward’. When fours would not come they ran twos. Hard run singles too of course but it was the twos, the sheer impossibility and audacity of the twos, that raised the crowd. The placement of the stroke, the flash of the first run, the telepathic speed of the turn, the race against the incoming ball, the bat hurtling across the line, the ball hitting the gloves that split second too late, the astounded cheers from a crowd that could not believe the evidence of its own eyes as what would normally be safe ‘agreed’ singles were, time and again, being turned into twos so finely judged as to be almost beyond imagining.

The foundation for the counterattack laid, Hildreth and Abell turned to classic strokes played in the T20 style. Against Sodhi’s leg spin Abell lofted a drive over extra cover for four to where the Old Stragglers bar once held the boundary. Hildreth played a sweep with such immense power the deep mid wicket fielder, as much a spectator as the rest of us, slid past feet first as the ball crossed the Caddick Pavilion rope.

And yet, with Somerset 87 for 3 from 11 overs, and against the animated buzz of the crowd, Nottinghamshire held the advantage. In response Hildreth stepped up the pace. He lofted Mullaney to Gimblett’s Hill for four, pulled him so hard for six the ball hit the window of the Nottinghamshire dressing room and, next ball, landed on the concourse in front of the Caddick Pavilion. The crowd tested its vocal cords to the limit, the plastic batons beat each other unmercifully and the furry head bands on the children in the Ondaatje Stand fought to stay attached to their animated owners’ heads.

Then the classical Hildreth returned to play a late cut that would have had any Championship crowd drooling. Then he squeezed an impossible three out of what should have been a straightforward two. A single as Abell rotated the strike before Hildreth was lbw for 52 from 28 balls. Out to one stroke he has not fully mastered, the reverse sweep. But 87 for 3 from 11 overs had become 107 for 4 from 12 and in that one over of uncharacteristic brutality Hildreth had all but got Somerset back on equal terms.

An unusually subdued Anderson, a pulled boundary apart in an otherwise parsimonious over from Sodhi, joined Abell who produced some brutality of his own. A sweep behind square off Carter was so powerful it bounced through Patel’s hands on the Temporary Stand boundary. That was immediately followed by a pull in front of square that cleared the Caddick Pavilion boundary, had the furry heads in the Ondaatje Stand waving their batons with delight and the rest of us applauding in hope.

But Nottinghamshire kept scrapping. Patel stopped Somerset’s recovery in its tracks. He bowled an over for three desperately squeezed singles, a missed stumping against Abell and the wicket of Anderson, caught at long on as he aimed for the Temporary Stand. 128 for 5 in the 15th over. The momentary silence in the crowd and the groan that followed the catch marking the impact of the loss of Anderson for just 6. 130 for 5 with five overs remaining was a shaky platform from which to launch a final T20 assault.

Gregory to the wicket and only van de Merwe of the recognised batsmen to come. Doubt began to invade the pit of the stomach. Gregory though has been a force to be reckoned with in Somerset’s 2018 T20 campaign. It has been as if surgery at the end of the 2017 season had released a batting genie to sit menacingly on the shoulders of opposition bowlers. His explosive batting at the end of the innings has, time and again, broken the back of an opposition attack after Anderson has softened it up. Here though there had been no softening up.

Undaunted Gregory and Abell set out on a partnership of such devastation that it transformed Somerset’s prospects and lifted the crowd to heights perhaps not seen since those great cup campaigns of nearly 40 years ago. Gregory found his range with a pulled six in the midst of an otherwise tight over from Sodhi. It cleared the Ondaatje Pavilion, or would have done had it not gone just to the side of it. 141 for 5 with four overs remaining with ‘par’, perhaps being 190, feeling almost within reach.

Gregory must now be one of the best T20 batting ‘finishers’ in the country whilst Abell is among the most accomplished rotators of the strike. Christian, the Nottinghamshire captain, turned to pace. Gregory and Abell responded with an attack that was both ferocious and bewildering. It realised 68 in those final four overs.

Fletcher found himself pulled fine to Gimblett’s Hill and driven for an impossibly run three to the Trescothick Stand, Gregory’s lightning third run generating a huge wave of cheering as he got home. An Abell scoop was immediately drowned in cheers and applause as the stroke was perfectly executed over the keeper’s head for four. A mishit drive bisected a pair of fast converging fielders as Abell ran through for another two and up went the cheers again. Every single was being applauded, every two cheered for its implausibility and precision and the boundaries for their stunning ferocity. 156 for 5 after 17 overs.

The 18th over from Gurney was key. Two sixes from Gregory to the Somerset Pavilion, a single and another from Abell to get Gregory back on strike, a neatly driven two, and a high full toss which Gregory upper cut for four as the umpire signalled a height no ball, forcing Gurney from the attack for a second height infringement. Two runs from the free hit, bowled by Christian, and the over had yielded 24. The sound that accompanied the over was as spectacular as the over itself. Unrestrained applause, cheering, baton waving and music sufficiently loud to waken the ghosts from the old Stragglers bar. At 180 for 5 from 18 overs, the 190 par now suddenly all but upon us.

Two more sixes from Gregory, a four from Abell, three more lightning fast two’s, one so close it was accompanied by cries of “Go! Go! Go!” from around the ground and rotating singles added another 29 runs to an ever rising crescendo of applause, cheers, baton banging and looks of disbelief at a performance that had pulled Somerset from battling contention to near dominance. 209 for 5 from 20 overs. “We have a chance now,” someone rather superfuously said as bemused emotions tried to catch up with the score.

As Nottinghamshire walked out to bat the word I most commonly heard around me was ‘Hales’. “We need to get Hales early.” “Hales can take a game away from anyone.” “If Hales gets a start we could be in trouble.” Against that there was, “210 is an awful lot to get if we bowl well.”

If you need to bowl well Waller is a good place to start. One run off four balls. Hales on strike for the first time for the fifth. Sweep. Four. And a single to retain the strike. As someone had said, “We need to get Hales early.” Against Taylor it was Hales and Wessels who took to running twos and a three, Taylor who bowled a high full toss and Wessels who drove the free hit to the Trescothick Stand for four. Somerset really were in a scrap. Nottinghamshire 20 for 0 off 2 overs.

Nottinghamshire targeted Jamie Overton. Wessels lifted his first ball over mid off, got under it, Waller set off after it, the wind got behind it, pushed it away from Waller, drifted it to his left, the crowd held its breath, or at least I did, an entirely involuntary reaction. The batsmen crossed, Waller ran on, reached out, caught the ball, Overton celebrated, the crowd erupted, Nottinghamshire were 20 for 1 and as the cheering eventually subsided a relieved buzz rolled up and down the stands like an ocean swell as a wave rolls back after crashing into a sea wall.

Now Hales attacked Overton. Three times he cut him to the Trescothick Stand and once he pulled him to the Temporary Stand then took a single to retain the strike. “Oh no,” someone said and reflected everyone’s thoughts, or at least mine. Somerset really did need to get Hales. 37 for 1 off three overs.

Gregory and Taylor fought back for Somerset. Three powerplay overs they bowled for 22 runs. Priceless bowling with Hales in that form. Somerset were in this scrap and they were scrapping hard. Just three fours in three overs. Dot balls too and hardly a two. Fielders running hard at the ball, the crowd cheering them on as they ran, throwing hard in, backing up the throws. Bowlers varying their deliveries.

The Nottinghamshire batsmen unable to get any rhythm into their response tried to break away. Hales lofted Gregory over the covers towards the Somerset Stand, ‘not enough on it’ as they say; Abell ran across and in, stretched his arms forward, took the ball, and dropped it. A sharp intake of breath taken in anticipation of the cheer was expended all around the ground in an involuntary but audible communal sigh. Overton ran from the other side of the wicket to console Abell. A team together in adversity as much as in triumph. Nottinghamshire 59 for 1 at the end of the powerplay. A scrap indeed.

When in a cricketing scrap you can do worse than send for van de Merwe with bat or ball or Waller with the ball. I imagine Nottinghamshire send for Hales. Now the three of them, and Libby, pitted themselves against each other. And what a tussle ensued. The batsmen searching for the boundary, found it once, the bowlers seeking to deny them kept them to ones and twos, the fielders, cheered on by the mountainous noise of the crowd chased every ball to the limit.

Nottinghamshire did not get away but they kept up, kept scrapping. When Overton returned Nottinghamshire needed 132 from 12 overs but nine wickets still stood. Spectators’ breathing tightened and fingers numbed.

Hales hit Overton’s first ball over the Ondaatje Stand for six. Hearts sank. Overton bounced Hales. Over his head. No ball! “Oh come on,” said a head flung back in frustration. Toes clenched as Overton ran in again. The ball rocketed at Hales feet. Yorker. Just dug out. Cheers. Two singles exchanged as Overton tried to exert control. In again, Hales attacked, drove, Gregory at cover, caught the ball. A cocktail of pent up tension, stress and anxiety was released in an explosion of cheering and baton banging that must have sent shock waves along the Tone. You do have to get Hales.

121 needed from 11 overs. Eight wickets standing. Within range in T20 in this day and age even without Hales. Somerset still in a monumental scrap. When in still in a scrap with the ball send for van de Merwe and Waller again. Apply pressure. Six singles in an over with 11 an over needed is pressure. Van de Merwe the tormentor. The crowd willed Somerset on. Every single applauded in the knowledge it worsened Nottinghamshire’s situation. Waller, five singles, cheers, and a full toss, four, shared winces. Van de Merwe five singles and a straight driven four to the Botham Stand. Moores and Libby, 23 runs in three overs, 10 short of the required number. Pressure.

98 needed from eight overs. Still eight wickets left but more than 12 an over needed, just beginning to stretch what is possible even in T20.  Overton back into the attack. Two singles, a dug out yorker and a cut fielded at backward point as the crowd, hope rising, roared Overton on. Then Moores, seemingly deciding the time had come to charge, drove him to the Somerset Pavilion for six and took a single.

Waller came on at the River End for his final over. Moores drove him three times. Twice for six, and then into van de Merwe’s hands in front of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. 133 for 3. At the end of the over Nottinghamshire needed 75 from six overs. Impossible in the days of the Gillette Cup. Not so in the world of T20.

Gregory is not afraid to take pivotal overs as captain. He took the next one. It cost four runs, a perfect yorker outside off stump yielding nothing and instant applause. When Christian drove into Abell’s hands in front of the Ondaatje boundary for 2 the crowd erupted. At the end of the over the required rate had risen to 14. Gregory had played a decisive captain’s innings to take Somerset 20 beyond par. Now it felt as if he had bowled a captain’s over which had turned the game, perhaps decisively, in Somerset’s direction.

Van de Merwe and Taylor tightened Somerset’s grip with two applause filled overs, mainly of singles and the wicket of Libby for 41 when Myburgh dived full length down the line of the ball from point to take the catch. Taylor varied pace, length and direction once defeating Patel with an off side yorker as he stepped away to leg to shape a cut. It left Nottinghamshire needing 54 from three overs and the crowd unable to contain their excitement. It was as if the swell of an ocean of noise was pulsating around the stands.

Nottinghamshire surrounded by that ocean of sound were left with no choice but to attack Overton’s next over. Attack it they did. Once Fletcher reached the Botham Stand for six. Overton was up to the challenge. Fletcher, Patel and Mullaney all tried to clear the Somerset Stand boundary. All three instead found Waller collecting catches in the deep as if bags of gold were dropping from the sky. All the pent-up emotion of the day was suddenly released in three tidal waves of noise as Nottinghamshire’s faltering challenge finally sank beneath a roaring deluge of cheering and applause.

A wicket each for Taylor and Gregory in the final two overs saw Somerset home by 19 runs, the precise difference between Somerset’s total and what many had considered a par score. Gregory’s innings had been crucial for it had fashioned the final difference. What a scrap. And what a result.

Result: Somerset 209 for 5 (20 overs) (L Gregory 60*(24 balls), JC Hildreth 52(28), TB Abell 46*(30). Nottinghamshire 190 (20 overs) (AD Hales 45(28), JD Libby 41(34), TJ Moores 36(18), J Overton 5-47(econ. 11.75) L Gregory 2-29(7.25). Somerset won by 19 runs and progressed to the Semi Final.

This report was first posted on on 14th September 2018.