22 wickets and 298 runs in Stygian gloom

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Lancashire. 4th and 5th Sept 2018. Taunton.   First Day.

22 wickets fell on the first day of this match, 13 to spin and nine to seam. The ball turned before Lunch immediately raising the spectre of a pitch inspection. Lancashire opted to toss, won it and elected to bat. Somerset immediately put them under pressure and sustained the pressure through the day although not without facing significant pressure of their own from the Lancashire bowlers.

My report, in addition to covering the cricket and the watching of it, considered some of the issues surrounding pitches, spin bowling and how modern batsmen play spinners.

Toss. Lancashire. Elected to bat.

It was a day of cricket played in the Stygian gloom of a November day come before its time. The cloud was so low it held the point of the Quantocks in its grip the whole morning. I can’t report on the fate of the Quantocks in the afternoon because I had moved from the top of the Somerset Pavilion to sit square in the Somerset Stand after I received a text from an old school friend who said he had come to the cricket ‘on a whim’. Some whim!

I doubt the weather much changed on the Quantocks as the day progressed for it didn’t much changed within the ground apart from a marginally brighter period after Tea. At times it was like watching cricket in one of those grainy pieces of newsreel from the other side of the Second World War.

It was the sort of day on which, if they do, you might expect to see a ghost roam by. I saw none but it wasn’t long before the spectre of an ECB Cricket Liaison Officer, which has hovered over the Cooper Associates County Ground since the verdict on the last County Championship pitch of 2017, had descended to inhabit minds. Inevitable perhaps after 22 wickets fell in the day, nine to the seamers and 13 to the spinners.

If there is any official concern about the pitch the considerations should, in my view, simply be based upon what the ball did off the pitch not on what it did after it left the pitch. In other words, the question should be: was the turn and bounce within allowable limits? Not, how many wickets were taken and by whom? Nor should it matter whether the batsmen played ‘good’ or ‘poor’ strokes when they were out?

Watching from square, as I did for the last two sessions, only allows you to guess at turn from how the batsman plays the ball. You do though get a better view of bounce. I didn’t see anything that looked unduly odd in terms of bounce although I have no knowledge of the parameters the umpires work to.

As to turn I was struck by how often batsmen were beaten, presumably by turn, when stretching as far forward as they could whilst remaining anchored in the crease. Is that undue turn for the first day? Or is it a sign of times in which batsmen rarely seem to use their feet to the spinners? That is a question for the philosophers I suppose, and perhaps Cricket Liaison Officers.

There was no doubt that the batsman who most used his feet to the spinners, and who was most successful against them, was Gregory. Perhaps more time should be spent in coaching batsmen to use their feet against the turning ball rather than questioning the integrity of the pitch when the ball does turn. And perhaps batsmen should not be overly criticised for not playing well against a form of bowling for which one of the main techniques for playing it has largely fallen into abeyance in the English game. It was a day of cricket to ponder such questions.

In writing this report, because of some of the issues it raises and because I was sitting square for most of the day, I have reviewed replays of many of the wickets before expressing the thoughts I have. I would emphasise, as I have in the past, I never played the game at any remotely serious level so the thoughts are those of an experienced cricket watcher and no more. Others who have played the game may well see things differently but, for what it is worth this is a slightly different report than normal. But then, it was a slightly different day than the normal.

Cricket is a game which derives much of its tension from the interaction of different competing factors, most commonly that between runs, wickets and time or overs. With the spectre, whether imagined or real, of an inspection of the pitch floating in the ether three other factors which play a similar role in producing the tension of a game came into play. Namely, the interaction between bowling skills, batting skills and the pitch. It is the interaction between those three factors which, as the picture of the day’s play unfolds, this report takes a spectator’s eye sideways look at.

It was Somerset CCC’s second ‘Farmers Day’ when members of the farming community are invited free of charge and also, so I was told, a local paper contained a free entry coupon. The resulting crowd was perhaps nearer 3000 than its normal 2000. It is a day they are unlikely to forget for some time.

Lancashire elected to toss, won it and elected to bat, the pitch perhaps more in their minds than the sky. Somerset presumably had the same thought when they replaced Davey with Bess. It was the seamers though who first imposed themselves. The fifth over was underway before a run was scored and Craig Overton, opening the bowling opposite Gregory, started with five consecutive maidens.

It was hardly a confident Lancastrian response to their election to bat and to the pressure imposed by the Somerset attack. Gregory was the beneficiary with a shortish ball that moved away off the pitch. Brown, who had started to break free by twice driving him crisply for four, pulled it straight to Green at mid wicket, the movement perhaps causing him to connect a little earlier than he had intended. Lancashire 18 for 1.

Somerset’s view of the pitch became apparent when Leach came on at the River End half way through the morning session. Immediately Lancashire gave an impression of not having a plan for how to play him unless it was to hit him out of the attack. Croft charged down the wicket, after a few overs of consolidation, to chase a wide one that turned wider, missed horribly and Davies pulled it back in to remove the bails.

The Lancashire Davies looped a highish full toss from Leach straight to Craig Overton at mid on. The stroke resulted in the non-striker and Leach alike burying their heads in their hands in apparent embarrassment and in the crowd looking on in disbelief. It was to be a day of disbelief.

Livingstone had already gone, driving at a ball only slightly wide from Jamie Overton and edging to Trescothick at slip. Livingstone was perhaps undone by the pace for the bat seemed, to the naked eye at least, to rush, almost jerk, late into the stroke. The room for error on the batsman’s part to a ball bowled at Overton’s pace is virtually nil and the November pall in which the ball was played could not have helped. With Davies and Livingstone gone Lancashire were 48 for 4.

Bohannon, who had made an impressive start to his first class career with two fifties in four innings, started confidently enough. Twice in an over he drove Gregory for four. Then he appeared to try to guide a particularly sharp looking ball from Craig Overton down and through the slips, the ball moved away, took the edge and Trescothick took the catch. 69 for 5 as an increasingly disbelieving crowd roared its acknowledgement.

After Lunch, Leach got to work. He started to pick away at the batsmen like an examiner picks away at students who have not done their revision. Repeatedly the batsmen played forward, stretching the human anatomy to its limits of endurance in trying to get to the pitch of the ball, and failing as the ball fizzed past the edge of the outstretched bat. It was as painful to watch as the strokes must have been to play and only, it felt, a matter of time before the inevitable happened.

It happened first to Vilas who seemed to hesitate in his defensive push, as if trying to read the spin, edged and was caught behind. Lamb lunged fully forward and was lbw presumably playing for the spin and being defeated by Leach’s arm ball. The back foot of neither left the crease.

If there is to be consideration of the suitability of the pitch then balls like those last two, the turn of the first and the uncertainty it created in facing the second may form part of that consideration. The greater issue should perhaps be not whether those balls were playable by the batsmen playing in this match but rather: is it possible for batsmen to develop the technique to play them? If England wish to compete consistently on the sub-Continent then their batsmen may need to develop such technique.

After the departure of Lamb Lancashire were 94 for 7 and, as the commentators of my youth used to say, in disarray. What followed was reminiscent of those days when the last three wickets fell like the tails of old in part because they faced a fast bowler with the armoury to remove them. Maharaj was caught at square leg chasing a bouncer which perhaps moved away from him as he played the stroke. Onions was bowled by as fierce and piercing a yorker as you are likely to see. Both wickets to Jamie Overton. Bailey’s dismissal was classic old-time tailender as he tried to sweep against the spin and was bowled. 99 all out.

The crowd cheered and applauded at the undreamt of turn of events whilst, given Leach’s figures of 12.1-2-28-5 on the first day, perhaps wondering if it could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. And yet we had seen some wickets fall to classic pace bowling, some to poor strokes off poor balls, and some to Leach which may ask at least as many questions about the technique of modern batsmen against spin as they do about the pitch.

CC Lancs Sept 2018 Day 1 Azhar Ali bld Graham Onion Copyright Mike Williams
Azhur Ali plays on to Onions in Somerset’s first innings.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

When Somerset began their innings Lancashire employed some classic pace bowling of their own in the form of Onions and Bailey. Both Trescothick and Azhur Ali were bowled off the inside edge by stunning deliveries from Onions. Both looked rushed into the stroke.

Green was bowled by Bailey playing back and then thrusting the bat forward. None of the batsmen seemed ideally positioned to play the stroke in light that was no better than it had been in the Lancashire innings. The quality of the bowling which produced the wickets against batsmen before they had had chance to properly settle cannot though be denied. Somerset were 19 for 3. Disbelief of a different kind now stalked the home supporters.

Hildreth had joined Ali after the fall of Green and, as is his wont, began to play as if he were on a different pitch, in a different match and in perfect light. Three times in an over he drove Bailey, twice straight and one through the covers, all for four. When he drove Onions through the on side for another four he and Abell had added 41 in eight overs for the fourth wicket. He edged Onions next ball to the keeper for 32, apparently playing ‘down the wrong line’ although a replay suggests the ball moved away from him just enough to take the edge.

When Abell played back to Maharaj’s slow left arm and was lbw to one that straightened having been bowled from wide of the crease Somerset were 62 for 5. When Stephen Davies was stumped half advancing down the pitch to an almost identical ball Somerset were 81 for 6, still 18 behind.

How Abell and Davies should have played those balls I am not qualified to say, and Bess was caught at slip later in the innings off another similar ball. For a spinner to straighten the ball from wide of the crease, provided he is within the return crease, cannot logically constitute excessive turn, and so it should, in theory at least, be possible to develop the technique to play those balls. Whatever the official view ultimately taken of this pitch perhaps how to improve the technique of English batsmen against spin needs to be considered in conjunction with what is considered to be an acceptable pitch and what is not.

And then Gregory. With some help from Craig Overton, Jamie Overton and Jack Leach who between them stayed with him whilst 95 runs were added for the last three wickets, Gregory scored 64 scintillating runs. He used his feet to Maharaj whilst Jamie Overton used his reach against Parkinson, twice hitting him for six, once straight and once sweeping him over the long boundary to the Ondaatje Pavilion. Overton was out for 24 charging Maharaj but by then he and Gregory had added 33 runs for the ninth wicket and had broken the spinners’ spell.

Gregory, with determined support from Leach (17), then took Somerset to 192 all out and a first innings lead of 93. He lifted the crowd after it had at one point almost been quietened by Lancashire’s counter attack. He took some risks in scoring at nearly a run a ball. But it was exhilarating stuff and it was the freedom of stroke which he conjured from the use of his feet which seemed to free the crowd from much of its anxiety. In successive balls Maharaj was hit for six to the Botham Stand and to the back of the Trescothick Stand.

CC Lancs (H) Sept 2018 Day 1 Jack Leach (in 10th wky stand with LG Copyright M Williams
Holding the line. Jack Leach (17) shows a straight bat in his crucial 55 run last wicket stand with Lewis Gregory (64*) in Somerset’s first innings.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

The result of Gregory’s onslaught was that there were always between five and eight fielders on the boundary when he had the strike. It made scoring boundaries more difficult. He and Leach, who played a crucial part in creating the time for Gregory to extend Somerset’s lead, took the singles and Gregory was soon placing the ball well enough to take hard run twos which lifted the crowd as much as the sixes. It also meant a couple of top edges fell harmlessly because there were no fielders near enough to take the catches.

By the end of the innings a slight lightening of the sky after Tea had gone and it looked really quite dark. It forced Somerset to open Lancashire’s second innings with Leach and Bess although in truth both myself and my friend were surprised there was any cricket at all in that light. It did though mean that a very large crowd got a full day’s cricket. Perhaps it may also mean that, given a light meter reading once taken sets the standard for the rest of the match, that play will not be called off at too early an hour later in the match. There is little danger involved in facing a spinner in poor light. Perhaps if Championship cricket is to continue growing its crowds the question of light needs consideration as an issue too.

When Lancashire faced those final six gloom filled overs Leach took two more wickets, Davies bowled and Parkinson caught at slip. On both occasions he used virtually the same ball with which Maharaj had removed Abell, Davies and Bess. Perhaps the development of technique against spin on turning pitches really does need to be looked at. Watching Gregory’s purposeful use of his feet in his 64 not out might be a good place to start.

Close: Lancashire 99 (MJ Leach 5-28, J Overton 3-32) and 7 for 2. Somerset 192 (L Gregory 64*, KA Maharaj 4-65, G Onions 3-40) Lancashire trail Somerset by 86 runs with 8 second innings wickets standing.

The original version of report was first published on grockles.com on 5th September 2018.