Four days tied up in two

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

The match ended on the second day. Wickets continued to fall as batsmen continued to struggle particularly against the slow left arm spin of Leach and Maharaj as Somerset tried to hold back a Lancashire resurgance.

Overnight: Lancashire 99 and 7 for 2. Somerset 192. Lancashire need a further 86 runs to avoid an innings defeat with 8 second innings wickets standing.

Well, here I am on what should have been the third day of the match writing a report on a second day that had all the feel of a fourth day. In the immediate aftermath of the match it felt, to me at least, that we had been through four days in getting to the end of the second such had been the manic intensity of the cricket.

And then, in the calm that follows a storm, as I made my way past Gimblett’s Hill I saw a group of people gathered around the scoreboard and, apparently, looking intently at it. Not looking for some hard evidence to confirm what they had just seen; it was just that it is not very often you can take a photograph of a scoreboard at the end of a tied County Championship match.

And quite an experience it was. Not the tie. That felt like an anti-climax rather than history being made. The match. It was as if that had been played on fast forward, especially Somerset’s second innings, and the atmosphere which built up as Somerset tried to recover from 23 for 5 ‘chasing’ 78 was more T20 than CC.

Except of course at Taunton where such an atmosphere in the County Championship is not uncommon. Essex and Nottinghamshire this year; Yorkshire and Middlesex in 2017 although the circumstances of the Middlesex match were of a different order; Surrey, Middlesex, Durham and Warwickshire in 2016 all still fresh in the memory. A little further back, into the mists of 2015, Nottinghamshire (Somerset chased down 401 with eight down and with the key partnership being between Peter Trego and Jim Allenby) and Warwickshire (Tom Cooper’s surreal 5 for 76 taken by dropping his occasional off spin into Keith Barker’s footmarks to turn a lost match into a 17-run victory).

Close wins to celebrate. Close defeats to exasperate. And now a tie to elucidate. Probably for the only time. The last County Championship tie involving Somerset was in 1926. Essex finished on 137 for 9. In those days a match was considered a tie if the scores ended level and the batting side still had wickets in hand so ties were slightly more common then.

The only other Championship tie involving Somerset was against Sussex in 1919 (two-day Championship matches that year) when the last Sussex batsman failed to bat because he was too arthritic to get to the wicket in time. He had not expected to have to bat as Sussex, needing 105 to win, reached 103 for 6 before a clatter of wickets. Not always easy for the smaller clubs to raise a team in those days.

As it is inclined to be at this time of year the top of the Somerset Pavilion was chilly whilst the rest of the ground was bathed in glorious sunshine. With Lancashire 7 for 2 overnight Somerset opened with Craig Overton and Leach, who bowled unchanged throughout the innings. Overton initially looked the more threatening. It had the feel of his bowling in 2017 which had got him Test recognition.

Twice he struck early with similar full-length balls. Brown lbw and the nightwatchman, Bailey, rushed into lifting the ball to mid on. 24 for 4. That converted a sense of expectation in the crowd into cheers. I kept reminding myself the Lancashire score was deceptive. Two of the wickets were nightwatchmen.

With Croft and Livingstone at the wicket it began to feel like a normal day of cricket if there is such a thing. Croft for the most part faced Leach, the ball not passing or taking the edge, as it had the previous day. As the expectation of a wicket subsided the batsmen began to move the score along as boundaries were driven against the Overton brothers. Then Livingstone, using his feet as if he were doing a straight run of the quickstep without a partner, launched an assault on Leach, perhaps designed to hit him out of the attack, twice hitting him into the Botham Stand.

As the score mounted the chatter around me took on an apprehensive hue. And I kept deducting those two wickets which just added to my own natural apprehension when watching Somerset. I don’t know how much apprehension a human being is supplied with at birth but I have used up enough to fill one of those super tankers that are so difficult to turn around just watching Somerset. I was starting to use more now. Then Livingstone danced once too often and the next ‘six’ flew off the edge to Bess at backward point. 81 for 5, or 3 if you live in my world. And Lancashire were only 12 runs behind.

Now Leach began going past the edge of those stretched forward defensives. The sharp intakes of breath every time he did it must have risked an oxygen shortage at the altitude at which the top of the Somerset Pavilion lies. But we all survived, possibly because Leach started to make inroads. Vilas, having had two searing cover drives stopped by the diving Abell at short cover, didn’t quite stretch all the way forward when he defended and edged to Gregory at slip. 89 for 6, or 4, Four behind.

Bohannon swept Leach to Gimblett’s Hill for four to bring the scores level. Then he and Croft stepped up the pace. At 119 for 6, Lancashire 26 ahead, the buzz in the crowd had less confidence about it. But when Bohannon edged to Gregory at slip for 11 Lancashire were 119 for 7 and the cheer that went up left behind it left a wake of animated chatter as people and the players went off to Lunch

Although there was one more wicket before the ‘tail’ it made Lunch a rather more relaxed experience than I was anticipating. The question was what to eat? Vegetable samosa or hummus roll? Even with food I don’t take a chance with Somerset’s prospects. The Samosa was for lunch and the roll for tea. I fancied eating them the other way around but dare not take the chance. So the samosa it was. I know. I know. It makes not a jot of difference. And I do know that but the samosa it was.

And then off to ‘inspect’ the pitch. Me and a host of others. It had some grass on it but apart from the normal footmarks that you see on any pitch it looked as featureless as a bowling green. I would not make a pitch inspector. I think most onlookers were looking with the same perplexity that I was. How does such a benign looking strip of grass produce such demons? What do pitch inspectors look at when they look at the pitch? Or captains for that matter when they toss?

And so back to the north face of the Somerset Pavilion. Lamb joined Croft who had perhaps played the most traditional innings of the match. He had taken his time, held an end before and during Livingstone’ assault; and perhaps most important of all the end he held was, for several overs, against Leach thereby gaining Lancashire vital time and runs. Fours he took but they were almost entirely against the Somerset pace attack. Against Leach it was largely defence.

I sensed that no-one gave Lancashire a ‘prayer’ as they say but to my eye, since the start of the Croft Livingstone partnership, Lancashire had batted with a purpose. Whether they thought they had a chance I have no way of knowing but it looked as if they at least intended to see how far they could get. I didn’t think much beyond that but their approach did set free a mildly uneasy thought about just how far they might get.

When Leach started to beat Croft’s defensive push the ball steadfastly refused to find the edge and it was back to sharp intakes of breath. How do so many balls pass the edge compared to the number that take the edge? Whatever the ratio it is inclined to negate the effects of my blood pressure medication. And if anyone is wondering why I was not wearing out the surface of the roof terrace and the soles of my shoes with little anti-clockwise circles there was a corporate event and so I had to suffer in my seat.

It was Craig Overton who induced an inside edge from Croft. Davies took the catch moving to leg. Croft 51. 131 for 8. Lead 38. Somerset had reached the ‘tail’. The ‘tail’ did what ‘tails’ used to do and applied the long handle. Maharaj pulled and drove Craig Overton for two fours, charged Leach and was stumped. 146 for 9. Lancashire lead 53.

CC Lancs (H) Sept 2018 Day 2 Keshav Maharaj st Steve Davies bld Jack Leach Copyright Mike Williams
Tight lines. Maharaj fails to get back after charging Leach.
Photo courtesy of Michael Williams

When Onions, as destructive with the bat as with the ball, charged Leach he lifted Lancashire to 170 before he attacked Leach once too often and was caught right on the square leg boundary by Bess. The target would be 78. Hardly a mountain but there is a tendency for sides chasing small totals to make bad starts and Somerset had to face a fired up Onions.

The first ball of his second over trapped Trescothick lbw. The second, to Azhar, was sharp, lifted, cut away off the pitch and flew off the edge to Croft at slip. It looked a brute of a ball. Somerset 5 for 2 and a bit of a chilly feeling and not just in the air as people started to look at the 78 target in a different light.

Hildreth lifted the mood as so often he does but only momentarily. In successive balls he swept Maharaj for four and drove him through mid wicket for two to some relieved applause. And then that empty feeling again as he tried to cut a fast arm ball from Maharaj and lost his middle stump. Too close, even if it had turned, someone who knows something about the technical aspects of the game told me. Somerset 12 for 3 still needing 66 to win. Two texts ‘crossed in the post’ as it were. “We could be in trouble here,” outgoing. “This could get messy,” incoming.

And messy it became. Abell cut his first ball from Maharaj for four to more relieved cheers but when he played forward in defence he failed to reach the pitch of the ball, leaned further, his back foot lifted and he was stumped. 20 for 4. 58 short. The number, ‘runs required’, in the bottom left hand corner of the scoreboard was taking an interminable time to come down and the one further up, ‘wickets’, was rising at an alarming rate.

That uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the stomach that accompanies the sudden realisation that a foregone conclusion has become a dark well of uncertainty was afflicting us all. Or at least that is what rows of anxious faces and mumbled conversations portrayed. I was making a determined attempt to convince myself that early collapses against small targets were not uncommon and that teams invariably recovered to win.

And then Davies was out and Somerset were 23 for 5, 55 short. Onions again. It really was getting messy and it was another brute of a ball. Fast, angled in, pitched middle, straightened, passed Davies bat, clipped the pad and up went the umpire’s finger. Davies could have been further forward but I am not sure how much difference it would have made against that ball.

It was difficult for emotions and thoughts to keep pace with the happenings in the middle. Onions look irresistible, Maharaj looked unplayable. Moving from anticipation of victory to the likelihood of defeat in the space of eight overs leaves eyes wide open in disbelief, hearts in stomachs in despair and hopes of a way out searching for a rationale to support them.

And then it got worse. Green, opening on debut, had somehow survived the carnage unscathed. He had looked as calm as the proverbial mill pond. What was going on inside that helmet who can say but whatever it was it had kept him there. Now he drove Maharaj for four to applause and cries of “Shot!” and drove again through the on side for two.

“Green is looking solid,” someone said. Green immediately stretched into a forward defensive against Maharaj and was beaten. Next ball he did it again, foot firmly anchored in his crease and was caught at slip for 16. Somerset were 39 for 6 with 39 needed. Half way but the conversation around me did not see them making it.

“The new batsman is Dom Bess,” pronounced the announcer. “Cometh the hour cometh the man,” said the man who thought Green ‘solid’. My heart sank further into the pit of my stomach and someone said, “Will you be quiet!” Gregory struck a back foot drive off Onions through extra cover to the Somerset Stand for four. Parkinson bowled a full toss to Bess who drove it straight for four. The crowd got behind the two applauding every single and cheering the fours to the echo. When Gregory left a ball from Onions which pitched outside off someone shouted “WIDE” and a ripple of laughter replaced the tension for a moment.

For five overs Bess and Gregory battled. At 52 for 6 Somerset needed 26. A quick calculation revealed they were two thirds of the way there and still had four wickets left. Gregory and Bess had edged Somerset to within range and the crowd was cheering every run whatever the denomination. And then the umpires took the players off for Tea. Tea? Now? Was the disbelieving reaction. But cricket is cricket, rules is rules and Old Father Time will have his way.

Tea is only 20 minutes but counting the seconds sitting in splendid isolation was likely to extend the Tea interval beyond Christmas so I set off on a circumnavigation of the ground. Anti-clockwise of course. I wasn’t the only one. I walked with someone I knew and a bit of conversation shortened the seconds.

A bit more conversation with a row of sages sitting under the scoreboard and the players reached the wicket. I was too late to return to my seat so I stood and watched from Legends Square. “Do you know what I like about Gregory?” someone who I often speak to asked. He answered his own question, “He plays the situation. Like Buttler.” Gregory stretched into a forward defensive and was lbw to Maharaj. 56 for 7. 22 needed. And you could see from their reaction that the Lancashire fielders were really believing.

Craig Overton came to the wicket and I went back to my seat. Bess took two singles and a two and Overton drove Onions through the on side for four all to mounting applause and cheering. Then Overton stretched forward to defend against Maharaj and was lbw. 64 for 8. 14 needed.

Jamie Overton took up the baton and almost immediately drove Maharaj high back over his head. Mid off set off in hot pursuit and just failed to get under the ball as it bounced just inside the boundary and rolled over. “You couldn’t make this up,” someone said. And you couldn’t. Bess drove Onions like a rocket only to see the ball crash into the non-striker’s stumps and cannon off for a single. An off drive from Overton brought a call of, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” and another hurtled single.

CC Lancs (H) Sept 2018 Day 2 Dom Bess wicketkeeper Dane Vilas Copyright Mike Williams
Tight lines. Dom Bess keeps his foot behind the line as he misses the sweep in Somerset’s desperate pursuit of 78.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Every run brought a wall of sound. Every missed stroke a groan. Every defended ball applause and sighs of relief. And suddenly the scores were level. Just one more needed. Just one. Breath held all around the ground. People leaning forwards in their seats, edges worn out, again, eyes wide open. Maharaj bowled, Bess charged, missed, stumped. 77 for 9 and just that one more still needed.

Leach to the wicket, Overton to face, Onions to bowl, eight fielders close enough to prevent a single, one fielder at ‘cow corner’. One run needed. Or one wicket. Onions to Overton. Six times. Six times Overton kept him out. Maharaj to Leach. Three times Leach kept him out. The eight one savers too close. Maharaj in again, Leach drove over the top, mishit, Bailey searching the sky, picking up the flight, moving fast to intercept the ball. Caught. Tie.

An outside chance of the Championship gone some thought. But in truth all whom I knew who had been at Guildford left that match certain in their minds that they had seen the Champion County and it was not Somerset. Nothing had happened in the interim to cause them to think otherwise. Surrey were just too powerful this year.

As to the batting in this match, on both sides, it has come in for heavy criticism from all sides. 25 wickets fell to spin and 15 to pace and only 538 runs were made in the match. There is a context to that though. The pitch obviously. It took spin from the start and it also provided pace and some movement for pace bowlers. Unusually in these days it was an all-out bowler’s pitch. But the bowling too. There was one proven world class spinner and one who has all the qualities to fill that berth for England. There was one proven world class pace bowler and two who have the potential to reach that class. All five bowled to the conditions.

It should be no surprise then that batsmen were challenged. And the pressure was constant throughout from both sides with the ball. No let up on a bowler’s pitch. Both Leach and Maharaj bowled unchanged throughout the two second innings. No escape for the batsmen. No-one is surprised when batsmen score runs on an all-out batsmen’s pitch. No-one should be surprised when bowlers take wickets on an all-out bowlers pitch.

The key to me, apart from some persistent high-class pace bowling, particularly from Onions, was the batsmen’s response to the spin. Of the 25 wickets to fall to spin 15 fell, essentially, to the same forward defensive stroke. Nine of the 13 Somerset wickets to fall against spinners fell to the forward defensive. One or two batsmen might have stretched a little further but most stretched forward to the limit, Abell too far and was stumped. In short batsmen rooted their back foot to the crease and could not reach the pitch of the ball. And the ball regularly passed the edge of the bat. Only Gregory, brilliantly, and Livingstone, in a brief all out attack, used their feet consistently.

This is not to criticise the Somerset batsmen as individuals. The same applied to the Lancashire batsmen with the exception of Livingstone and it applies to virtually every batsman from every other county who I see playing Leach or Bess. If virtually all have the same technical fault there is something more fundamental than individual error amiss. If batsmen are to free themselves against the turning ball as Gregory, in the form and confidence of his life, did in the first innings that needs to be addressed.

There was another tie, or almost. Maharaj 11 for 102 in the match. Leach 12 for 102.

And as to Tea. That hummus roll never was eaten. Completely forgotten in the heat of the match. Oh Somerset, what you do put us through.

Result: Lancashire 99 (MJ Leach 5-28, J Overton 3-32) and 170 (SJ Croft 51, MJ Leach 7-74, C Overton 3-43). Somerset 192 (L Gregory 64*, KA Maharaj 4-65, G Onions 3-40) and 77 (KA Maharaj 7-37, G Onions 3-28). Match tied. Somerset 11 points. Lancashire 11 points.

The original version of this report was first published on on 7 September 2018.

Aftermath. Following an inspection by an ECB Cricket Liaison Officer (CLO), confirmed by a second CLO inspection, the pitch was rated ‘below average’ because of what was judged to be excessive turn. Somerset had received a similar rating in the final match of the 2017 season against Middlesex.

The matter was therefore considered by the ECB Cricket Discipline Commission. No evidence of intent to produce a ‘below average’ pitch was found and Somerset were not charged with any breach of regulation. However Somerset were warned that any proven breach of pitch regulations in the future could be expected to result in a points deduction.

My thoughts on issues relating to pitches, the turning ball and the techniques used by batsmen to play the turning ball are contained in my reports, particularly in the report on on the first day of this match. Essentially they ask whether the greater issue is the nature of the pitch or the techniques used by English batsmen in playing spin bowling.