Surrey on the road

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Surrey. 18th, 19th and 20th September 2018. Taunton. First Day.

Surrey came to Taunton as County Champions on the back of nine successive Championship victories. In the away match at Guildford in June they had beaten Somerset by an innings. With that win they had overtaken Somerset at the top of the table and had remained there ever since. Surrey were undeniably the Championship team of the season.

The assessment of the pitch for the Lancashire match as being ‘below average’ and its implications for future pitch preparation was a repeated point of discussion among supporters and that is reflected in this post.

Lewis Gregory, injured in the previous match, was not available for this match.

Toss. Surrey. Elected to bat.

As someone said to me as I left my seat after the first day of this match it was like being transported back ten years to the days of the Taunton ‘roads’. Days when bowlers laboured, batsmen plundered and spectators slumbered. Or at least that is what they were inclined to do by the time 450 for 6 was replying to 600 for 7 declared or whatever it happened to be. Surrey closed on 368 for 4. Déjà vu was the depressing emotion of the day as concerns were expressed about the implications for the nature of future pitches of the ECB Cricket Disciplinary Commission’s determination on the pitch for the Lancashire match.

No-one I spoke to wanted a return to the days of ‘roads’. To what extent this pitch fits those concerns may be better understood when Surrey have concluded their innings and Somerset have batted. Although given Surrey’s overwhelming record in the Championship this season full judgement may have to wait until next year. What is already clear is Surrey have made the most of winning the toss although no batsman has yet reached three figures. Dean Elgar, on 72 not out, is ideally positioned to do that on the second morning.

I arrived for the first day as the first over was in progress, post-lagged from working late on my T20 Finals Day report. There was a pleasant half hour to be spent chatting alongside the Gimblett’s Hill scoreboard as I am wont to do when I arrive late. Championship cricket is as much for chatting as watching on some days and all the richer for it.

Deficient in the multi-tasking department, as I chatted the cricket took place as if it was in some detached other world on the far side of a glass screen. The intricate detail I missed. The broader picture stood clear. Craig Overton and Davey were bowling to Burns and Stoneman. The occasional “Oooooh,” or “Aaaah” in the first few overs and the air shot of the batsman which preceded it suggested the ball going past the bat but for the most part thereafter the batsmen seemed untroubled.

I found a seat at the top of the Somerset Pavilion as the scoreboard read 36 for no wicket from 12 overs. I settled myself down for a long day. Leach came on at the Somerset Pavilion End and ran in to bowl into the pitch preparation dilemma which brought to mind the old country squire Magistrate’s finding of ‘not guilty but don’t do it again’. Groenewald meanwhile took the River End as he returned from his long sojourn in the wilderness of a persistent groin strain. Both must have wondered quite what the immediate future held.

Almost immediately Leach turned one past Stoneman’s bat and then took the inside edge with what looked like a perfect arm ball. If it was not exactly a case of ‘one swallow does not a summer make’ the few balls that turned did not turn enough to trouble a Cricket Liaison Officer or a decent batsman. Groenewald, meanwhile bowled as if he had bowled his last ball in anger as recently as the previous day.

The crowd, whilst sufficient to be the envy of many First-Class Counties, did not reach the proportions of recent matches. The chill wind which normally blows through the top of the Somerset Pavilion at this time of year had absented itself too and my two coats and a scarf spent the day surplus to requirements.

As the morning progressed, and more so as the rest of the day unfolded, the confidence which the Surrey batsmen have developed over of a season of perhaps unprecedented success was evident in the batting of Stoneman although Burns always seemed vulnerable. A cover drive through extra cover off Craig Overton from Stoneman sticking in the mind whereas the stroke which floats there from Burns was a drive off Groenewald which flew off a thick edge to Gimblett’s Hill. “Stoneman looks the better batsman,” the judgement delivered by one seasoned cricket watcher.

The pair reached Lunch with Surrey on 109 for no wicket. Stoneman 66 not out and Burns 40 not out reflected the different impressions the two had made. Lunch was spent in my customary circumnavigation of the ground, anti-clockwise of course. A day at the cricket is not a day at the cricket with out a circumnavigation.

Circumnavigations open up endless possibilities of serendipitous chat. Regret about the apparently inevitable relegation of Worcestershire, the pitch of course, away games attended and a roll call of who is going to Trent Bridge among the subjects which floated by this time. A stop off on Gimblett’s Hill to touch base with the philosophers there and then back to the top of the Somerset Pavilion, dawdling behind it as I went in a failed attempt to take a wicket.

The bowler who had made the impression of the morning was Jamie Overton. He had bowled with pace and no little accuracy in his four late overs as he hurried the batsmen more than once. Not long into the afternoon session he followed through by hurrying Stoneman into a belated defensive stroke, took the shoulder of the bat, the ball looped over Craig Overton at gully apparently destined to roll towards the boundary. Not that ball. Overton took off seemingly impossibly high, like a rugby player being lifted in the line out, and caught the ball as he leaned backwards in the climb. The better of the two openers, on this day at least, gone to the best of the bowlers and to a catch for the memory bank. Stoneman 85.

Roy joined Burns and for a while looked as if the red ball came as a mystery to him. He was initially troubled by Leach, who in the process turned one a stump’s width to beat the edge and then immediately induced a top edge into the no man’s land behind square. Twice Groenewald, quickly picking up his line from where he had left it when he last played in July, went straight through him. But, as is the way with good batsmen on seemingly flat pitches, Roy settled and began to play with more confidence and precision.

CC Surrey (H) Sept 2018 Day 1 Jason Roy beaten by J Leach Copyright Michael Williams
Steven Davies on the ball. Jack Leach beats Jason Roy.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Leach, unusually bowling from the Somerset Pavilion End, continued to find some turn but seemed to struggle to find his normal settled rhythm. “Why is he bowling from this end?” I asked no-one in particular. “Short boundary the other end against the left handers,” replied the man who had earlier pronounced Stoneman a better-looking bat than Burns.

It was Groenwald in the midst of a golden patch of testing balls who finally removed Burns with a ball that seemed to swing in late to scythe through his defence and take the off bail with it as it passed through. Burns had battled through to 78. On another day a catch might have gone to hand off an edge a little thinner or a ball that looped a little less. On this day, in addition to the edges, he had played some class strokes with confidence and precision, both hallmarks of the Surrey batting though the day, and he had taken them to 206 for 2 and a gargantuan score in prospect.

The eventual total might have reached even higher than it did at the end of the day had Somerset not kept hard to the task. As someone said to me the heads never went down and the shoulders never slumped. Somerset in the field were exemplified by Abell at cover. I lost count of the number of times a ball flew off the bat with ‘four’ written all over it only to find itself snared by Abell’s electrifying dives.

As the cricket did its thing in the middle the chat continued to meander on beyond the boundary. And not just with those around me. There was time and space to conduct a bit of mild business whilst the cricketers went about theirs and not miss a bit of it. A reciprocal visit from a Gimblett’s Hillian passed another pleasant hour as the sun finally found its way into the upper terrace.

As to the cricket, that continued much as before. The Surrey batsmen diligently harvesting the apparent geniality of the pitch, the fielders giving not an inch and the bowlers searching for any little assistance they could find. Craig Overton perhaps went for more runs than he would like. Leach continued to search for rhythm and still occasionally troubled a batsman. Groenewald, as understated as ever, kept the batsmen honest and to less than three an over on what looked like a four an over pitch.

Jamie Overton, the occasional misdirected ball apart, continued to look the most threatening bowler throughout the day. It was he who broke through Roy’s defence with a ball angled in and which perhaps just moved on a shade off the pitch. It instantly looked to be hitting middle and leg or leg from my angle. The umpire took what seemed an age to consider his view of it and then raised a finger to turn a hundred strangled breaths in the top of the Somerset Pavilion into grateful applause. Roy knew the truth of it for he checked the line of his pads in relation to the stumps and walked off without looking at the umpire. Roy 63, including a ball damaging six swept to the Caddick Pavilion off Leach. Surrey 263 for 3.

And Davey. It is easy to forget about Davey, the invisible man of the Somerset bowling attack. He seems to leave no impression as he runs in and bowls as undemonstratively as the invisible Stephen Davies operates behind the stumps. He leaves an impression on the cricket though. Identical figures, 17-3-49-1, to the only slightly more demonstrative Groenewald. Together they held the innings to its closing 368 for 4 when the strength and power of the Surrey batting might have been expected to be the other side of 400 and where it had at one time looked like it might be.

It was Davey, still persevering, who removed Pope late in the day for 48, Surrey’s lowest completed innings of the day. Pope clipped a full ball low to Jamie Overton at mid wicket and departed, apparently annoyed with himself, as batsmen have been doing all season to Davey, now only one wicket behind Gregory, Somerset’s leading wicket taker. Quiet persistence has its place and it would not be a safe endeavour to place a bet against it finding itself at the top of the list of Somerset Championship wicket takers at the end of season.

So Surrey ended the day dominantly placed on 368 for 4. With a bit of luck or on a different day Somerset might have had another wicket or two; an edge carrying to Trescothick at slip rather than falling just short, and edge going to Hildreth at first slip rather than through an empty second and so on. But overall Surrey had batted with the confidence and the application which both wins Championships and is borne of winning them.

As to the pitch and the rest of the match? We shall have to see. See how Morkel and the rest of the Surrey attack perform on it. Morkel is the cutting edge of that attack and clearly, from his performances, the Championship bowler of the season by some distance. The Surrey attack though is more than Morkel as anyone who was at Guildford could see. He was the spearhead of an impressive bowling force which worked as a unit, gave nothing and demanded everything. It is the primary reason Surrey are where they are.

We will have to see too how Somerset, from a position in which they will always be chasing this game, bat on this pitch. It is never easy to hold your own against a bowling attack of such strength and Championship winning confidence as Surrey’s. The default Surrey result this year is victory by an innings. Their batsmen have had and made good first use of a flat looking pitch after winning the toss. It will be an interesting second day finding out how their attack and Somerset’s batsmen perform on it.

Close: Surrey 368 for 4.

The original version of this report was first published on on 19th September 2018.