Of genius and the sublime

County Championship Division 1. Nottinghamshire v Somerset. 24th, 25th and 26th September 2018. Trent Bridge. First Day.

Somerset travelled to Trent Bridge for what had looked, in the early weeks of the season, like it could have been a County Championship decider. When Nottinghamshire came to Taunton in June they were top of the table. Somerset won that match and replaced Nottinghamshire as leaders. 

Later that month Somerset travelled to Guildford where they lost to Surrey who replaced them at the top of the table. Now Somerset, with the Championship already won by Surrey, needed six points to ensure second place and Nottinghamshire needed six points to ensure safety from relegation.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

At the start of the day most Somerset supporters at Trent Bridge would probably have taken 353 for 7 given the lateness of the season. By the close most were probably slightly disappointed with it. Three wickets in the last hour the difference. All would take Hildreth’s 137. And none would swap it for anything. It was an innings of sheer delight. He made the batsman’s end of the wicket his own and the bowler’s sent the ball there at their peril. He stroked balls from the pace bowlers with the precision of the mythical local hero’s bow. The patterns he cut with his feet when playing the spinners would have graced the finest Nottingham lace.

Depending on where you sat this was a day made for cricket or a day which questioned the wisdom of playing a First Class cricket match which starts after the autumnal equinox. If you sat in the sun it felt like June. If you sat in the shade it felt like October. I spent the first session in the Radcliffe Road Stand roughly in line with first slip. Within the hour I was encasing my face and arms in sun lotion. After Lunch I retreated to the Fox Road Stand square of the wicket. Within minutes I was searching for my coat. The crowd, some burning, some freezing, numbers always difficult to assess in a Test ground, was probably no more than 1000-1200.

The day had started with a bold uncompromising contrail set against the barest trace of wispy cloud in an otherwise clear blue sky. The pitch looked, from beyond the boundary, devoid of any meaningful grass and light brown in colour. It was no surprise therefore when Somerset batted on winning the toss.

Somerset spent the first five overs lazily fashioning the occasional single in the sun against an apparently somnolent Nottinghamshire attack. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Wood, who had looked the more threatening of the Nottinghamshire openers, trapped Banton lbw for three in the sixth over. It reminded you that however somnolent the appearance of proceedings every ball in a cricket match brings the possibility of a sharp awakening for the batsman.

The fall of Banton’s wicket seemed to lift Trescothick into some dreamlike state out of which he began to caress the ball as if it were guided off the face of the bat by stardust. The bat, the stroke and the resulting motion of the ball all playing out in seamless succession as if they were the same entity. The first, a straight drive off Fletcher, flowing back past the bowler’s stumps and disappearing to the boundary as if transported there on a cushion of air. The second, two balls later, from the same stable but despatched on a mission to the cover boundary.

There followed a lean into a drive through extra cover with the body balanced in perfect reflection of the angle of the bat which sent the ball skimming to the boundary as if it had spent its existence waiting to play its part in such a stroke. Three balls later they repeated the stroke, Trescothick, the bat and the ball as if it was the simplest thing in the world to do. The world knows otherwise and so did the crowd if the gasps of some were to be believed.

Azhur Ali meanwhile, playing the role of human being, had not looked entirely comfortable, sometimes seeming to rush his stroke but otherwise looking secure. Now he played a square drive which rocketed to the boundary as if in reminder that he had powers of his own.

Nottinghamshire replaced Fletcher and Wood with Gurney and Mullaney but it did not alter the developing pattern of the match. In fact Gurney showed a wayward tendency early in his spell and Azhar profited to the tune of a pull and a drive, both through midwicket. It was Trescothick though who continued to carry Somerset forward with drives, mainly though the covers, occasionally straighter but always gliding along as if that cushion of air was only available to him. Occasionally a fielder would try to intervene, but the ball seemed always to have the advantage, either streaming past the intercepting fielder or outrunning the chasing one.

The Nottinghamshire bowlers were not suppliant partners in proceedings. They bowled with persistence, Wood looking the most likely to take a wicket with Gurney improving by the over. Carter was introduced into the attack but it was Gurney who struck. Azhar edged him to Wessells at slip for 19 and Somerset were 75 for 2. Hildreth joined Trescothick and together they began to adjust to Carter’s off breaks with Trescothick cutting smoothly behind square for a brace of twos and Hildreth sweeping square for four. Lunch came neatly at 100 for 2 with Trescothick on 55 and Hildreth on 12.

June in September was too much to bear for more than a couple of hours so I moved square to the upper reaches of the Fox Road Stand where October had set itself up. Having established a residence I embarked on my lunchtime circumnavigation. Fewer Somerset supporters than usual at an away match but relief at the start especially in the context of other scores around the country where there seemed to have been an autumn sale of wickets.

The Fox Road Stand at Trent Bridge on the last day of the match. The author watched most of the first two days from high up in this stand.

I was delayed on my return to my seat of course. But what is a circumnavigation of a cricket ground without a delay for a friendly chat in which the world, or at least the cricketing world, is put to rights? Putting the cricketing world to rights is of course one thing. Putting the real world to rights quite another. I left that to the two people I overheard trying to sort out Brexit, or at least trying to work out the difference between “Chequers” and “Canada plus plus plus”.

I tried to keep my eye on the middle whilst catching snatches of the Brexit debate, discussing all things cricket and keeping a weather eye on the sky where clouds were beginning to build although none looked threatening. The detail of what happened in the middle during that conclave of play, politics, and meteorology, is lost but what is clear in my mind is a montage image of Hildreth sorting out the spin of Carter. The dancing feet, the swinging bat, the flying ball, the late adjustments, the certainty of stroke, the sheer joy and freedom of his whole being as he drove Somerset forward.

Standing out from the montage are two strokes which epitomised the freedom with which Hildreth played the spin. In the same over he twice came down the pitch with intent, was through the stroke in an instant, the ball was over the deep midwicket boundary for six and then across the same boundary for four.

And at the heart of that magical montage always those dancing feet. Like headlights after a long night time motorway drive those dancing feet stayed in the brain long after the innings was over. And dancing not just in attack. In defence too where the ball merited it. Wherever the pitch of the ball was, unless Hildreth wanted to cut, his feet were there.

Then, interrupting the developing Hildreth montage, as if some well-oiled machine had missed a stroke, Trescothick chipped Gurney low to Duckett at cover and was gone for 71. Somerset 146 for 3 and generous applause for that sublime Trescothick masterclass from the Nottinghamshire crowd. Abell arrived and announced himself with a square driven four, a leg glance and a searing on drive, all off Gurney.

Now Hildreth launched into the golden heart of his innings. Down the pitch to Carter for a pair of devastating drives though the covers; from the crease off Gurney; and then, when Patel replaced Carter, back down the pitch, the bat straight down the line of the ball and the ball straight back past the bowler and the stumps for a coruscating four. This was Hildreth at his glorious, apparently carefree, but doubtless intensely focused best. As the clouds gathered in they might have been the chariots of gods come to see who was creating such perfection in the imperfect world below.

And still Nottinghamshire came. Three times Wood found the edge of a bat but no fielder. Patel began to constrain Hildreth forcing him to defend as he came down the pitch. But always Hildreth met the ball with bat or just occasionally a pad. Together, Abell and Hildreth cut, pulled and drove Somerset to Tea and 237 for 4 with Hildreth on 90 and Abell on 42.

My second circumnavigation took me as far as the Pavilion. This was perhaps my fifth visit to Trent Bridge and I had never before ventured inside the Pavilion. It was friendly in every respect and around the walls pictures of past Nottinghamshire players who had represented England and of Club Presidents. As they looked down they had a better view of the spectators inside the Pavilion than those spectators had of the play outside.

As with most of the old Victorian pavilions, unless you can find a seat against the window the view is very restricted. Unrestricted enough though for me to see Abell edge Carter to slip where Mullaney dived, palmed the ball and then caught it at the end of his dive. 248 for 4. Abell 42. Carter had changed to the Radcliffe Road End from where the first three wickets had all fallen. A bit of variable bounce at that end someone thought.

As I chatted Hildreth seemed almost to go into hibernation. Through the 90s his runs came in singles with much time for contemplation in between although Davies scored a little more freely. “The light is going. Are the lights on?” asked the person I was chatting to. They were. My circumnavigation incomplete I decided to make progress and emerged onto the Pavilion Terrace with Hildreth poised on 99 whilst Davies had made his way to 24.

Almost immediately Hildreth cut Fletcher through a diving backward point for four. 103. A thunderous cheer erupted from above and behind me. I was standing immediately under the Somerset dressing room. No sooner had the cheering died down than Davies was dropped by Moores as he tried to glance down the leg side.

As the sun returned, minus much of the heat it had so liberally distributed earlier in the day, Hildreth and Davies started to trade in singles as they took every scoring opportunity, rotated the strike and took the four wherever they could.

I was back in my seat in the Fox Road Stand when Hildreth finally didn’t quite get it right, pushed at a Gurney delivery and edged it to Moores behind the stumps. 137. The longevity, class, pace and sheer freedom of the innings was perhaps reflected by the fact that many in the Nottinghamshire crowd rose to their feet and the entire crowd applauded Hildreth enthusiastically from wicket to picket as you might say. When he reached 48 Hildreth had passed 1000 Championship runs for the season, only the second First Division player to reach the milestone in 2018. Somerset 328 for 5.

And then, the icing off the cake, as it were. Gregory struck Carter back over his head for six, losing the ball in the process before glancing into the keeper’s gloves. 348 for 6. Davies drove Carter over midwicket for four and then edged Gurney to the keeper off the last possible ball of the day. 353 for 7. Five for Gurney who had left behind his early waywardness.

And so Somerset had arrived, leaning towards disappointment, at a score they would perhaps have settled for had they been offered it at the start. Such is the way of cricket. Of its twists and turns. And such is the way of cricket that when the stars align you can see an innings of sublime cricketing beauty in the first part of a day only for it to be followed by one of sheer cricketing genius in the second part of the day. Let the philosophers, or the gods in their chariots, choose between genius and the sublime.

Close: Somerset 353 for 7.

The original version of this report was published on grockles.com on 25th September 2018.