A test of class

County Championship Division 1. Hampshire v Somerset. 10th and 11th September 2018. Southampton. Final Day.

As with the first day of this match I was unable to attend the second and final day. I followed virtually the whole of it online. Classic, although uncomfortable, armchair cricket following from a distance. Hampshire’s Abbot and Steyn continued to dominate in seam friendly conditions. The only real Somerset resistance came from Trescothick who demonstrated real determination, concentration and skill at the crease and the Overton brothers who briefly threatened Hampshire with the ball.

Overnight: Somerset 106. Hampshire 142 for 9. Hampshire lead Somerset by 36 runs with 1 first innings wicket standing.

From 100 miles distant the most that can be given is an impression of what occurred at Southampton garnered from any available facts and such opinions as were expressed by those present at the match. No more. So, nothing definitive but some narrative did emerge over the two days of this match.

Clearly it was played on a testing pitch. Video highlights show some pitched up wicket taking balls seaming up to a foot from pitch to stumps. When balls such as those are bowled at the pace of Abbott and Steyn and are pitched in the right place they are likely to genuinely merit the label ‘unplayable’. Abbott in particular seems to have been a master at exploiting such conditions with a ball that ‘nips back’ from outside the right hander’s off stump at just the right length to hit the stumps or the pads.

Abbott and Steyn are both bowlers of proven Test class and that is what Somerset faced once Edwards had been dismissed shortly after the start of play on the second day giving Hampshire a first innings lead of 42. Hampshire then bowled in Somerset’s second innings in what appear to have been near perfect pace bowling conditions, overcast and under lights. A lead of 42 followed up by that bowling, in those conditions seemed, from my distant armchair at least, potentially match winning. At such times an armchair, however comfortably appointed, is anything but comfortable.

Faced with a situation like that I decided to fortify myself with a mug of hot chocolate, for the conditions in my part of Somerset did not seem any more inviting than those at Southampton. The commentary and an occasional look at an online scoreboard were my links with ‘developments on the ground’ as they say. I had barely sipped my hot chocolate, I like it to live up to its name – hot, when Green was bowled by Abbott and Somerset were 0 for 1.

When you are at a match and a Test-class fast bowler gets it right at pace and settles into a wicket-taking rhythm in helpful conditions on a helpful pitch it is as if a force of nature has been unleashed on the batsmen. Even more so when there is such a bowler at each end. The balls do what damage they do in the air or off the pitch and at whatever pace they are delivered. But what really seems to produce memorable match winning performances is batsmen facing the seemingly irresistible force which seems to emerge from that potent combination of pace, class, skill and conditions.

I once heard that Andy Caddick (9 for 32 to bowl Lancashire out for 72) had done it as the sports desk came on the radio whilst I was circumnavigating a roundabout in Walthamstow. Roundabouts are one of the few places where I defer to the clockwise circumnavigation theory. I have seen Alfonso Thomas do it. For his four in four he was transformed briefly into just such a force of nature. I was glad I was in the safety of the Botham Stand at the time and not 60 yards closer.

Devon Malcolm once memorably did it in a Test match and held me chained to a car radio tuned to TMS in a multi storey car park in Birmingham in 1994 whilst he took 9 for 57. Malcolm made that the most comfortable car seat I ever sat in bar one. The one was the back seat of the family car, crushed in with three other children, in the two-hour queue for the Aust Ferry. It was 1963. TMS on the radio. Fred Trueman took 6 for 4 in a spell in a Test against the West Indies. But I digress. Easy to do when Somerset are on the wrong end of a game.

As to happenings at Southampton it sounded, and felt, like Abbott, bowling at batsmen constrained at the other end by Steyn, was in the same sort of area in Somerset’s second innings. When Ali and Hildreth went with my hot chocolate still more hot than warm I found myself sitting in what had become the most uncomfortable of comfortable arm chairs. Somerset almost certainly needed to score the highest score of the match to have a realistic chance of winning. They were 12 for 3 and bowled, caught behind and lbw had all the hallmarks of classic fast bowling in action. And it was still in action.

Trescothick was still there and Abell had played some important innings during the year. That was hope of sorts I suppose but as I was on the way to the sink with my mug Abell was bowled by Abbott. 20 for 4. Four for Abbott. A bowler on fire in helpful conditions. There was barely a run to be stolen at the other end, Somerset were still 22 behind and Trescothick was barely scoring.

When Trescothick barely scores and doesn’t get out it tends to be a measure of the quality of the opposition bowling and of his batting against them. He took most of the bowling after Davies came in until Abbott and Steyn ended their spells. When Hammond and Edwards took up the ball Somerset began to make some progress. Trescothick and Davies took them into the lead and nearly 20 runs past it.

My arm chair was feeling a little less uncomfortable but it resisted going so far as to feel comfortable. The Northeast Dawson partnership in Hampshire’s first innings apart, for part of which the overcast conditions had apparently lifted, the Trescothick Davies partnership was reaching the limits of tolerance for this match. Apart from that Northeast Dawson partnership no other had exceeded 47. It would take a stand of considerably greater proportions than that if Somerset were to build any sort of challenging lead and Davies had twice edged in front of first slip.

As Lunch approached Abbott and Steyn returned. Immediately Davies was dropped at slip. Immediately afterwards he was caught at slip and Somerset were 61 for 5. 19 ahead. When Gregory was bowled for 5 on the stroke of Lunch, as they say, by Abbott Somerset were 30 ahead with just four wickets left. Six wickets had gone in less than a session, the armchair had taken on the comfort of a bed of thistles and there seemed no way in which the match could be retrieved.

IMG_1100 FW takes a break
Uncomfortable comfort. The author’s viewpoint at Lunch on Day 2 re-enacted.

Another hot chocolate after I had eaten lunch didn’t seem to ease matters much either in spite of Trescothick’s pillar of calm untroubled by the mayhem around him. And what of that mayhem? If video highlights can be believed Green was bowled by a ball that seemed to pitch perhaps three stumps outside off, moved off the seam, and hit middle or leg. Hildreth was lbw to one that moved in perhaps two stumps and Gregory was bowled middle stump buy one that pitched at least two, perhaps three stumps, outside off. Not all the wicket taking balls were like that, many just moved enough off the seam, but balls like those three will always take wickets when bowled with that pace and accuracy.

Abbott the bowler on each of those three occasions. Fast and with the skill to pitch the ball perfectly in precisely the position needed to take those wickets. I do not have the technical knowledge to know if those balls could have been defended by better technique but bowling of that quality and pace when supported by bowling of the quality of Steyn at the other end in helpful conditions will create the pressure which induces errors and takes wickets.

I hoped that one of the Overtons would hang around long enough for Trescothick to stretch Somerset’s innings well into the afternoon, even score a few runs themselves. In the event the afternoon consisted of me shifting uneasily about my chair while Trescothick shepherded the last four wickets to the tune of 44 runs. When nine were down, he tried to extend Somerset’s score as far as it would stretch, twice hitting Steyn for six. Abbot and Steyn had bowled virtually unchanged through the latter part of the Somerset innings. They pressurised the Somerset batsmen relentlessly with three of those last four wickets falling to Steyn including Trescothick, now on the attack, last out for 50.

The extent of Hampshire’s reliance on Abbot and Steyn in Somerset’s second innings is demonstrated by two facts. They took, between them, all 10 Somerset wickets. Of the 37 overs Somerset faced in scoring 116 they bowled 28.

It left Hampshire needing 75 to win. Hope sprang briefly when Craig Overton took his third wicket and Hampshire were 21 for 3 although I was not ready to quite move to the edge of my arm chair. Gregory and Davey had opened the bowling as they always do when they both play. It never felt though when they were bowling, even from the well of hope that is my arm chair when I am not actually at the cricket, that they built the intensity that Abbott and Steyn had. They do not bowl with the same pace and it was pace allied with accuracy and sharp movement off the seam which seemed to have created the circumstances in which Hampshire thrived.

Briefly, when the Overton brothers bowled in tandem, it felt like some intensity was building and Jamie did remove Northeast. Pace again but that was Somerset’s last success. I did wonder at the start of the innings whether Somerset might have been better starting with the Overtons’ pace given that Steyn and Abbott had taken 18 of the 20 Somerset wickets to fall but in reality this was Steyn and Abbott’s match.

Somerset were beaten by two very experienced world class pace bowlers bowling in tandem in conditions and on a pitch which they could not have designed better themselves to suit their skills.

And a final word. That Trescothick could bat through such an intense period of sustained pressure from such quality bowling in such conditions suggests that if he is indeed to have a further one-year contract he still has much to offer. That prospect at least brought some comfort back to my arm chair.

Result: Somerset 106 (KJ Abbott 5-31, DW Steyn 3-37) and 116 (ME Trescothick 50, KJ Abbott 6-40, DW Steyn 4-34). Hampshire 148 (SA Northeast 53, J Overton 3-22, JH Davey 3-40) and 75 for 4 (C Overton 3-22). Hampshire won by 6 wickets. Hampshire 19 points. Somerset 3 points.

The original version of this report was first published on grockles.com on 12th September 2018.

Elsewhere in the Championship. Surrey won their match against Worcestershire by 3 wickets and were crowned County Champions with two rounds of matches still outstanding. The impression created at Guildford that they would be unstoppable in the Championship in 2018 had come to pass. Essex won their match against Nottinghamshire by 8 wickets and, as a result, posed a distant threat to Somerset’s second place.