Somerset under the weather

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

I often fail to make the start of play if I have to complete one day’s post on the following morning. This was such a day. Surrey had threatened a gargantuan score at the end of the first day. Somerset pegged them back on the morning of the second. The question was how would Somerset bat against the Surrey attack that had swept all before it in 2018. Included in this report are some outline statistics about the strength of the Surrey attack.

Tom Banton made his First-Class debut in this match.

Overnight: Surrey 368 for 4.

Apologies for the delay with this but it is never easy to write when Somerset come off second best, particularly to the degree to which they have in this match. But, for what they are worth, here are my thoughts on the second day with and on Somerset, Surrey and the Championship this year. Just thoughts to float in the wind. No more.

What a difference a day makes. 368 for 4 on the first day. 238 for 15 on the second when play ended early. Bad light and then the rain that had been threatening from the west and hugging the point of the Quantocks for the preceding two hours had finally taken control of the ground.

The umpires decided to take, or as it looked, follow the players off when the hint of rain that accompanied the lowering clouds began to pick up. As the umpires debated the players were frozen in a tableau of various poses primed to head for the Pavilion if given the word. Then all 13 players suddenly bolted leaving the umpires to trail in their wake. It was as if the entire field of a middle-distance track race had just heard the starting pistol.

The Tea interval had been delayed because Somerset were by the appointed hour nine frenetic wickets down for 122 in forlorn pursuit of Surrey’s first innings 485. The difference in class between first and second in the County Championship laid bare as it had been at Guildford.

On the first day, when Surrey had extracted runs from the pitch as if they were harvesting corn, there had been only occasional movement off the pitch and that mainly for Leach. That had changed on the second day by the time I arrived at the ground just before noon. There was movement off the seam although most of the outstanding Surrey wickets to fall were incidental to it.

The day had not had an auspicious start. As I snatched a peek at the live stream before I left home Davies dropped Elgar waist high as he dived across Hildreth at first slip. By the time I arrived at the ground Groenewald had bowled Pope for 44, Elgar was 98 not out, Surrey were 420 for 5 and on target to reach 550 or beyond. Within the hour they were 485 all out.

It was a curious array of ways of losing wickets for a side so dominant in the Championship this season and on the first day here. Perhaps instinctively they knew they already had more than enough runs although those of us beyond the boundary have no way of knowing what goes on in the minds of players in the middle.

Clarke charged Leach in premeditated fashion and was stumped by the proverbial country mile. Elgar was caught behind for 110 trying to cut a ball from Abell which was angled across him and was perhaps two feet wide of off stump when he tried to play it. It may also have moved away just a fraction off the seam.

Curran cut a wide ball from Leach which turned further away and was caught at backward point by Banton. Morkel wafted at another widish ball from Abell and McKerr was lbw to a full ball homing in on leg stump, perhaps the only Surrey wicket, other than Pope’s which I did not see, to be forced by the bowler.

Two wickets each for Leach, Jamie Overton and Groenewald. Three for Abell, including numbers 10 and 11. Captain’s perks I suppose. More seriously Abell has proved useful on more than one occasion this year in rooting out wickets which might otherwise become irksome.

The clatter of Surrey wickets, although apparently often to injudicious shots, seemed to bring more anxiety than hope. It was not so much the wickets but the fact that there was, from the top of the Somerset Pavilion, noticeable movement off the seam. And so to Lunch.

I took a short-cut on my usual lunchtime circumnavigation as I ventured to look in my normal inscrutably unknowing fashion at the pitch. After a considered perusal, from both ends, by me and several dozen others, I concluded it looked like virtually every other pitch I had looked at. Flat. Read nothing into that conclusion. I am a past master at causing a major collapse by pronouncing a pitch flat. Occasionally I have seen one full of hairline cracks which has turned out to be a ‘road’.

Then to the ice cream kiosk in the back of the Somerset Stand. I have been commendably restrained this year in making only occasional visits to that kiosk but one cannot end a season with out a final visit. It is a pleasure, at a cricket ground, to buy an ice cream that is not whipped and where they do not run out of vanilla when the sun comes out.

And so to the Gimblett’s Hill scoreboard where I usually find myself watching the first ball after Lunch. The first ball after Lunch was from Morkel and it was edged by Trescothick to Clarke at second slip. It didn’t look very edifying. A discussion after the close of play with someone who saw it from the Botham Stand thought otherwise. He thought it a good ball and that Trescothick had no option but to play it.

I took the opportunity of the wicket to regain my seat at the top of the Somerset Pavilion in time to see Morkel remove Azhar Ali. Another ball directed at the stumps, although drifting onto leg, but perhaps not the best time to try to turn it to leg against a bowler of the quality of Morkel. 2 for 2. Hildreth was lbw to Curran to a ball that pitched on off and looked, from Hildreth’s rushed attempt to play it, to be heading towards leg. 11 for 3. “They be to good for we,” the comment from across the aisle. There was perhaps more truth in that than even the speaker, who I find to be perceptively knowledgeable about cricket, realised.

By now the gloom that was descending on the crowd was reflected by the gradually lowering cloud base and a glove of light rain nestling on the point of the Quantocks. To the west, towards the now engulfed Brendons, a good stock of raincloud was building and sliding along towards the Quantocks and, to add insult to injury, drifting towards the ground. The general conclusion being that the cricket would not see the end of the day.

Meanwhile Abell and Banton, in his first First-Class match, were trying to effect a recovery. Banton, virtually runless, except when he edged chest high through the vacuum that might usefully have contained third slip. Curiously, given the frequent fall of wickets and their huge first innings score, Surrey rarely employed a third slip.

Abell, taking the fight to the opposition, drove Curran perfectly through backward point and upper cut Clarke, both for four to the Ondaatje Pavilion. Then, just as it began to feel like he and Banton might establish a base from which to build an at least respectable score, Abell edged Clarke down the leg side where Foakes took the catch diving full length. I am sure, somewhere in my memory bank, I have an image of Abell being ‘strangled’ there by Clarke before. I do wonder if Clarke deliberately bowls the occasional ball there when Abell is at the other end. 37 for 4 and the embryonic recovery over before it could gain meaningful traction.

Davies tried to drive through the covers and was caught there when a ball from Mckerr angled in to the area around his off stump and straightened noticeably off the pitch. Davies’ bat though did seem to be away from his body when he played the stroke. 42 for 5. 42 for 6 when McKerr got one to swing in to Craig Overton and removed his off stump. Jamie Overton, after hitting two boundaries, pulled, and skied, a shortish ball from McKerr to Virdi at fine leg. 53 for 7.

Banton, still at the crease despite the mayhem at the other end, attacked Virdi. He reverse swept him to the Ondaatje and drove him for six to the Trescothick Stand. He was then caught for a finely and calmly crafted 30 when he top edged a sweep off Virdi which Foakes caught diving forward of the stumps. 84 for 8.

Davey and Groenewald tried to make something of a hopeless situation and for a while looked settled. Groenewald looked his usual calm self and Davey becomes more impressive by the match. An unsung hero someone called him but I hear his praises being increasingly sung around the stands. He is now just one wicket behind Gregory, Somerset’s leading wicket taker, and he looks more and more like a solid lower order batsman every time I see him.

They added 25 before Groenewald was lbw to a ball from Clarke which seemed to move in sharply. When the rains came Davey and Leach were still there with Somerset on 122 for 9. Both players had shown positive intent. Leach drove his first ball through the covers for four. Davey reverse swept Virdi to the Ondaatje boundary. By the bad light and rain induced early close they had added 13 runs.

And so whilst a number of Somerset wickets fell to good balls, Trescothick’s in particular, some seemed to suffer from shot selection errors. It may be that some of the good balls might have been defended with better technique but I am not qualified to judge that one way or other.

There was much criticism of Somerset’s collapse and the perceived attitude of the batsmen. Seen in isolation 122 for 9 in response to 485 does raise serious questions even when the apparent change in nature of the conditions is taken into account. Seen in the wider context, like Somerset’s defeat at Chelmsford in 2017, it does not seem so surprising. Somerset are not alone in being overwhelmed by Surrey since Morne Morkel joined the side in their fifth Championship match of the season.

Looked at in a little more detail the dominance of Surrey in the Championship this season is stark. They are worthy County Champions. Prior to this match Surrey had won all eight Championship matches they have played since Morkel joined the side. Their record prior to Morkel joining was won two and drawn two. The average first innings score by Surrey since the arrival of Morkel has been 361. The average opposition first innings score 188. Prior to the arrival of Morkel the average Surrey first innings score was 323, the average opposition first innings score 335.

Curiously, and I have no explanation for this, the two sides which have come closest to beating Surrey, and have been involved in Surrey’s two draws, have been the two prime relegation candidates, Worcestershire and Lancashire. Lancashire have come close to defeating Surrey twice, once with and once without Morkel. Worcestershire have come within sight of beating them once. No other team has. In counterpoint to that Essex, Somerset’s only challenger for second place, scored 126 and 226 in their only Championship match so far against Surrey this season.

There is a harsh reality here as there was last year. As near as any team can be Surrey appear unbeatable and, since Morkel joined them, no team has managed to even draw with them. When Lancashire came close Morkel stepped in with 6 for 57 in the second innings. When Worcestershire came close it was 5 for 24.

It is not just Morkel, even with his 52 wickets at an average of 14; Clarke has taken 45 at 21, Tom Curran 17 at 15, McKerr 13 at 16. Virdi 36 at 27. And that across a number of matches. None of those statistics are flukes. They constitute a force that has proved irresistible against which, thus far, no team has been able to constitute an immovable object. None of those, apart from Morkel, are world beaters but in this Surrey team, doubtless aided by the presence of Morkel, they appear to play like them.

Doubtless some of Somerset’s batsmen, technically, could have played better strokes. But there is far more to it than that. The reality of human nature is that people facing the sort of intense and unremitting pressure that Surrey apply make mistakes. Most teams did against Essex in 2017. All have done so against Surrey in 2018. Even the two that came close to beating them collapsed at the crunch.

The secret of success is not in trying to work out how to beat a team playing like Surrey are this year or Essex did last year. The evidence of the last two years is that it doesn’t happen. The trick is to be the team that plays like those two teams have and to play like it through a season.

Somerset are not a bad team. They have had a continuous run in the First Division longer than any of the other 17 counties. They will finish second, or at worst third, in the County Championship this year despite a rocky few weeks. They have been a team in transition and have at least two or three years yet before they reach their peak. Most teams are relegated into the Second Division during periods of transition, including Surrey. Somerset were not. It has taken Alec Stewart five years to bring Surrey to their present situation. Andy Hurry has been in place one. Let us see how things develop.

Close: Surrey 485 (D Elgar 110, MD Stoneman 85, RJ Burns 78, TB Abell 3-52). Somerset 122 for 9. Somerset trail Surrey by 363 runs with 1 first innings wicket standing.

The original version of this report was published on on 20th September 2018.