Fighting hard

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

Somerset entered the third day of this match in a virtually hopeless situation. I was unable to attend until after Lunch but was able to follow most of the proceedings of the morning online. The question at the end of the second day had been whether Somerset would survive the third. Few I had spoken to expected the match to reach a fourth.

Overnight: Surrey 485. Somerset 122 for 9. Somerset trail by 363 runs with 1 first innings wicket standing.

What a difference a day makes, or at least half a day. There were more clouds than people watching the cricket on the third day of this match as the weather forecast, and perhaps the overnight score, kept people away.

Cricket is essentially a game of the balance between runs, wickets and time. By the end of the second day of this match the scales weighing all three had slammed down heavily in Surrey’s favour. It was as if one of those greengrocers’ scales of old had had the weights dropped in one side before the apples or pears, or whatever, were put in the other.

On days such as the third day here time becomes an unpredictable variable as the weather consumes large chunks of it. For a quarter of an hour, late in the day, the sun took a fleeting interest in proceedings. Perhaps it was curious as to why there was still cricket given the hopelessness of Somerset’s position at the start of play. Otherwise the cricket was played out in varying degrees of meteorological gloom.

In all about half of the third day was lost, mainly to the light which must have been at the margins of playability most of the time. Unable to attend until after Lunch I caught most of the pre-Lunch session via the online commentary and, in snatches, the online stream. I am not sure how helpful the stream was because Somerset only lost wickets when I was actually watching it.

As far as I could tell from the bits I did see the ball had returned to its first day habit of going more or less straight through as Davey and Leach continued to build their last wicket stand. I saw Morkel put one straight through Leach but otherwise the Somerset last wicket pair did not seem unduly troubled. At least until Davey cut Morkel straight to Stoneman at backward point to top score with 36 and Somerset were all out for 146. A deficit of 339 with the tenth wicket stand of 37 the largest of the innings.

The start of the Somerset second innings, following on, was a different matter. Trescothick was bowled by the last ball of Morkel’s first over. It was the same ball that he had edged to slip in the first innings. Around the wicket, full, spearing in on off stump. The uprooted stump testament to what would have happened in the first innings had Trescothick not played the ball.

Banton, a rock of stability as others fell about him in the first innings, got off the mark by clipping Curran square. When he repeated the stroke off the next ball he edged down the leg side to the keeper. Somerset 4 for 2. And then Hildreth. Hildreth did what Hildreth does. An on driven boundary of perfection off his first ball.

Azhar, caught and bowled off a leading edge early in the first innings as he tried to turn Morkel into the leg side, got right behind his first ball from Morkel and played it straight back down the pitch. Intent at least. Of a different kind than Hildreth’s but intent nonetheless. To do my bit I conducted a couple of anti-clockwise circumnavigations around our dining room table as I gathered together a couple of things for the afternoon.

With the batsmen playing Morkel and Curran with some confidence Somerset reached 28 for 2 at Lunch. They were though still 311 adrift and an eternity of time remained for Surrey to mop up and achieve another victory. My timing was not as good as Hildreth’s and Azhar’s had looked. By seeing it out until Lunch I contrived to miss my bus by about 30 seconds. Why do buses always pull away just as you come into view of their stop?

You used to be able to see the old scoreboard as you entered the ground through the Brian Rose gates. It immediately put you out of your misery if you were late. Now you see the batsmen before you see the board which leaves your anxiety burning a hole in the pit of your stomach while you work out which head is under which helmet.

42 for 2 the score when the new scoreboard hove into view. That at least removed the immediate anxiety. No wicket had fallen. At the same time the score emphasised the impossibly high mountain that Somerset needed to climb.

An over of solid defence from Azhar against Morkel settled the nerves a little but still, in the light of all that had gone before, the main consideration was how far through the day would Somerset get. Standing by the Gimblett’s Hill scoreboard chatting awhile confirmed the impression that Hildreth’s and Azhar’s first balls on the screen before Lunch had created. Azhar holding the fort, Hildreth sallying out to plunder runs.

Hildreth seemed to be scoring at about twice the rate of Azhar but, and fingers were firmly crossed as I thought this, the pair did seem to be making a fist of it and there was some certainty in the way they played their strokes. A lot of the play was square of the wicket and the heart did tend to travel up to the mouth every time they played across their pads but gradually the sureness of stroke allowed it to stay in its rightful location.

When the score reached 70 for 2 I entered the race to get all the way along the front of Gimblett’s Hill during a gap between overs. It is as if Gimblett’s Hill has been designed to be just long enough to make the transit possible but not without it being a challenge, especially if any number of people want to enter the race at the same time. At least this time there was no steward at the far end with a rope threatening to trap you on the Hill for another over if you are one of the hindmost.

I never reached the top of the Somerset Pavilion because I saw an old work acquaintance sitting in the Draculian gloom right at the back of the lower terrace, almost as near hiding behind the sofa as you can get at the Cooper Associates County Ground. That said I have never ventured as far as the very upper reaches of the members seating in the Botham Stand so I know not what lurks there.

From the back of the Somerset Pavilion the cricket looked much the same as it did from Gimblett’s Hill although you could see that the movement of the second day was no longer evident perhaps assisting with the certainty of stroke. My acquaintance and I chatted with our eyes set firmly on the cricket. You don’t need eye contact to chat when you have known someone for 40 years. The cricket was worth watching too because Azhar and Hildreth were starting to build a score. 101 for 2, still 238 behind, when the cloud that had been building to the west of the ground finally persuaded the umpires that it was time for an early Tea.

Somerset fears at the start of the day that the match might not see the end of it had turned to hopes that it might for Somerset were at least fighting hard. But intervals do not help batsmen’s concentration and soon after the return Hildreth drove at Curran and edged straight to Foakes behind the stumps. 107 for 3. Hildreth 60. Still 232 behind but the partnership had at least started to restored some pride.

CC Surrey (H) Sept 2018 Day 3 James Hildreth sweeping Surrey - Copyright Michael Williams
Hitting back. James Hildreth sweeps during his innings of 60 in Somerset’s second innings.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

That brought Tom Abell to the wicket and, with no Gregory, anxiety about the strength of batting to come. Abell raised the heart rate as he played and missed while he tried to settle, then reduced it with a beautiful on drive off McKerr. Azhar raised it again when he edged Curran to Clarke at slip but it fell again with the ball as Clarke dropped the catch.

The crowd had been desultory all day perhaps a few hundred at best, but I don’t think I have ever seen the Trescothick Stand completely empty before. Not a soul in residence. It looked like one of those stands at Test grounds that you see closed to the public at Championship matches.

As the evening session progressed Azhar’s class began to become evident. Solid in defence yet capable of steering Curran past the slips to the empty Trescothick Stand and of pulling Clarke perfectly to dissect deep square leg and long leg. Abell too was now inspiring confidence. He glanced Morkel perfectly to the Colin Atkinson boundary although the heart will always miss a beat when he plays that stroke.

Morkel is Morkel of course and he still managed to beat the bat from time to time as Somerset saw themselves through to 168 for 3 when the light finally got the better of the day and the players went off for the last time. Azhar, Hildreth and Abell had at least battled and perhaps even put a ray of hope into one or two hearts that the match might be saved.

And finally, a word about Morkel. His class and skill cannot be doubted as the ball which took Trescothick’s wicket testified. But I did note one aspect of his play that I have never noticed before. Why I have not noticed it I cannot say. At the top of his run, before every single ball, he walks around in a small but complete circle before heading off in the direction of the wicket. In an anti-clockwise direction. You see. It does make a difference.

Result: Surrey 485 (D Elgar 110, MD Stoneman 85, RJ Burns 78, TB Abell 3-52). Somerset 146 (M Morkel 3-19, C McKerr 3-20) and 168 for 3 (f/o) (Azhar Ali 61*, JC Hildreth 60. Match Drawn. Surrey 13 points. Somerset 6 points.

The original version of this report was published on on 21st September 2018.

Aftermath: Storm Bronagh struck the West Country for an extended period on the night of 20th-21st September, between the third and fourth days of this match. When the groundsman arrived at the ground the next morning he discovered the storm had lifted the covers at one end. The pitch had been damaged and rendered unplayable. There was therefore no play on the fourth day and the match was abandoned as a draw. The storm denied Surrey the opportunity to press for a tenth successive County Championship victory.