Somerset rampant

RLODC (50 overs) South Group. Somerset v Surrey. 18th May 2018. The Oval.

In 2018 Somerset made their best start to a County Championship season for a quarter of a century. This was the first match of the Royal London One-Day Cup campaign.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.

My coach from Somerset carefully times its journey to ensure I miss the first 15 minutes of any match starting at eleven o’ clock at The Oval. I arrived at the ground in a slightly disoriented state after changing tube trains at Kennington. I had hopped on the next clearly indicated ‘southbound’ train only for an equally clear announcement to inform me the train was going northbound to Ealing Broadway and the next stop was Elephant and Castle. As the overs slipped by I jumped off at ‘Elephant and Castle’ with the intention of running to the southbound platform only to discover I was already on it and at Oval station. The next announcement said a normal service was running on all lines.

I took off for the sanctuary of The Oval only to find the authorities there had pitched in with a bit more disorientation. No bag search. A white ball match without a bag search. What is the world coming to? I really began to wonder when I reached the top of the steps into the Peter May Stand. The scoreboard said 13 for 3. When you are in a bemused state your eyes don’t focus and the batsmen’s names on the scoreboard opposite the May Stand are in a font so small you need focusing eyes to see them. Who was 13 for 3? A quick look at the players and I was more confused than ever. They were all dressed in black. Both sides. And a royal wedding in the offing too. It was like watching a Championship match in negative. Then Overton bowled.

I floated to my seat. I sat directly in line with the popping crease at the Pavilion End near the top of the May stand. Always my preferred location at The Oval. In the lee of the gasometer now in a permanently deflated state which belies the history it has seen. It didn’t belie the mood of the Surrey crowd as the match went on. At least the mood of half of it. The traditional half, which more or less stretched from my left through the quarter of the ground to the other side of the Pavilion. The other half consisted of an army of school children arranged in concentrated perpetually chattering ranks in the stand which stretches for the Peter May to the OCS Stand at the Vauxhall End.

Foakes got me concentrated on the cricket by driving Gregory hard to the Pavilion for four. As my eyes followed the ball to my left my ears pulled them back to the right as the schoolchildren erupted into a high-pitched rendition of, “Surrey! Surrey! Surrey!” whilst their stand turned into a mass of frantically waving turquoise flags.

Had there been no scoreboard I would have assumed Surrey were ahead in the game for Foakes and Burns started to attack the bowling with apparent ease. The traditional buzz of a cricket crowd started to return on my left as it tried to compete with the playground cacophony on my right. Surrey were just beginning to forge the basis of a fightback.

Then Foakes fell into that ubiquitous trap of the batsman starting to make progress, the leg side ‘strangle’. The umpire’s finger was a little slow in going up but the appeal was instantaneous, certain, brooked no argument and Overton had taken three. The sort of bowling performance with which he dominated in 2017. The buzz was silenced, the cacophony subsided to a hubbub and the Somerset fielders celebrated. 41 for 4 and Surrey’s embryonic counterattack had stumbled as it tried to emerge from its first few steps.

Sam Curran joined Burns but ran into Peter Trego in his first match of the season. He immediately asserted his influence on it. Burns looped his third ball straight to Waller at mid-on. 50 for 5. “Oh no,” said a Surrey supporter just along from me, whether bemoaning the unravelling of the Surrey batting or the precious day’s holiday he had probably taken from work to watch it I know not.

Then his day got worse. Borthwick drove Trego quietly and safely, to Waller and charged down the wicket for a quick single. He met Curran at the bowler’s end as Davies fumbled Waller’s return but by then Borthwick had given up and just asked the umpire who was out. 58 for 6. “For goodness sake,” said the Surrey supporter, the opportunity cost of his day’s leave perhaps being calculated.

I kept trying to tell myself there is always the chance of a late batting revival from this sort of score as Roelof van der Merwe demonstrated to Surrey last year. But somehow, even for this eternal cricketing pessimist, it didn’t seem likely. Somerset’s performance looked so assured, so natural, so quietly clinical I was actually starting to relax; the edge of my seat benefiting from an unexpected and rare rest.

Rikki Clarke is one of those perpetual thorns in Somerset’s side so anxiety could not be quite put to bed. He dug in for a while whilst Curran tried to collect runs at the other end. Even Clarke’s efforts had no air of permanence. It almost seemed inevitable when eventually he pulled Trego high enough for Overton at deep mid-wicket to run in and take one of the easier catches he will be faced with. In a way it summed up the innings. Surrey limp and directionless. Somerset quietly, efficiently, overwhelmingly ruthless.

The desperate oath emitted by the Surrey supporter at Clarke’s fall might have had a place in the Watergate tapes but it had no force or edge to it. Involuntary it sounded, as if his spirit was being squeezed out of him as the Surrey batting was being squeezed into submission on the field. Surrey were 84 for 7 and Trego had figures of 6.5-3-9-2. New or old, Somerset’s players just keep performing this year.

84 for 7 became 84 or 8 as Gregory and Davies ended Curran’s run collecting at 30. The Surrey supporter said nothing, his head perhaps buried too deep in his hands which did not seem to have the strength to lift it from his lap. All sports supporters have been where he was. Just ask any Somerset supporter who was at Horsham in 2013. This was just desperate if you were a Surrey supporter. Pinching yourself time if you were a Somerset one.

Van der Merwe was the only Somerset player to be on the defensive in the Surrey innings. He had twice started to warm up in earnest only for a wicket to fall before the end of an over and the pacemen continue. The result was he found himself fighting a hopeless rearguard action against the advance of a well organised column of autograph hunters from the playground stand. 45 strong at its peak and persistent. He signed 4/6 cards by the pile whilst constantly being moved from the boundary to the inner ring and back again. Sad to report by the time he was able to retreat to the Pavilion his position had virtually been overrun.

The Surrey tail was overrun too after a brief flurry of defiance. Meaker drove Gregory square to the legside boundary and then straight to the Pavilion boundary. Dernbach hit Groenewald for six onto the pathway between the Pavilion and the Laker and Lock Stands. That provoked a final eruption of “Surrey, Surrey, Surrey,” and a frenetic waving of flags. The reality though was that Somerset were not to be denied. 129 in 35.2 overs Surrey’s final tally.

It was too early for the ‘interval’. Perhaps caterers need a bit of notice of collapses. And so we had an echo of the old days of one day cricket. A ten minute interval between innings and a ‘lunch’ break part way through the Somerset innings. What had once been so familiar now seemed incongruous. Although lunch starting at 2.31 would look a little odd in any age.

And so to the Somerset innings. Johann Myburgh began as if he had never been away. He hit the ball ferociously hard from the outset. No gentle start in the face of a small total. He has immense bat speed, so someone who has played cricket tells me. He drove Dernbach to the Laker and Lock Stands, edged Curran furiously over slip to the Pavilion and then cut him hard, true and square to the May Stand. Davies, as finessed in style as Myburgh is pugnacious, on drove and swept Dernbach for two more fours and Myburgh drove him through the covers for another. After five overs Somerset were 35 for none and over a quarter of the way to their target.

Davies lifted the first ball of the sixth over gently to mid-on. Difficult to pick from where I sat but perhaps a leading edge off the sort of slow pitch at least two of the Surrey dismissals and some of their shots I saw had suggested. Trego followed two balls later when he was struck on the pads. 35 for 2. The Surrey crowd was cheering now and the playground was delirious. I just told myself Somerset were playing with such discipline this year that the wobble would pass.

Hildreth started as if intent on security then square drove perfectly to the Archbishop Tenison boundary for four. It didn’t quite settle him because soon he edged past the keeper and mishit a hook which looped past the fielder for a single. Then he did start to settle and in among the consolidation he left point standing with a drive that provoked an incoming text from an online watcher: “What I have noticed, having available only a view of the pitch, is that often when Hildreth hits a boundary it looks the same as another player pushing for a one or a two.”

Myburgh meanwhile seemed to have opted for a period of consolidation with defence and ones and twos. Somerset found themselves 56 for 2 after 11 overs but needing just 74 more to win. ‘Lunch’ was taken with Somerset 81 for 2, just 49 short of victory, Myburgh having just launched a pull for four via a flock of foraging pigeons which took to the air in a synchronised fluttering hop.

Sights were reset at ‘lunch’. After it Myburgh’s batting immediately exploded into a welter of batting pyrotechnics. No boundary between the two points just behind square on either side of the wicket was safe. Any inner ring fielder more than three or four yards or so from the path of the ball was redundant. The speed of stroke and the speed of shot off the bat brought gasps of wonder from some around me, stunned silence from others and applause from the rest. One Surrey supporter said, “They don’t mean to hang about do they.”

The playground had by now been emptied, more because the school day was at an end I imagine than to save such young eyes from witnessing a scene of mayhem. Some Surrey supporters began to absent themselves too but most stayed although it must have been dispiriting for them to watch.

Hildreth, who had played a supporting role, taking the boundary where it presented itself but holding an end secure for Myburgh for the most part, finished the game with a cover drive of perfection. It reflected a Somerset’s performance which even the most scrupulous of auditors would struggle to fault.

Somerset have started this season in a way which could only be dreamed of in recent years. In this match they were on top from the start; they never relinquished their stranglehold; there was not the slightest sign of relaxation of their grip. It is the sort of performance that intimidates the opposition into submission; it is the sort of performance that, if it becomes the norm, wins trophies; it is the sort of performance that Essex put on at Chelmsford in the Championship against Somerset in 2017 and Somerset had just had the same effect on Surrey that Essex had on Somerset.

The teams that win trophies are the ones that perform like this, match in match out, throughout the season. Somerset have had the sort of start this season of which dreams are made. If the dreams are to be realised they will have to turn this season’s dream start into a way of cricketing life.

Result. Surrey 129 (35.2/50 overs) (C Overton 4-27). Somerset 131 for 2 (21.3 overs) (JG Myburgh 75* (65 balls). Somerset won by eight wickets. Somerset 2 points. Surrey 0 points.

In the end Somerset had a very successful season in terms of matches won but no dreams were realised. They came second in the County Championship and reached the Vitality Blast T20 Finals Day where they were knocked out in the semi-final. The RLODC was their least successful competition. They just failed to reach the knock-out stages.