Somerset’s ‘Dorian Gray’ portrait

 RLODC. Taunton. 10th May 2017. Somerset v Hampshire.

This match was played a few days after Somerset’s stunning performance against Glamorgan at Cardiff. Tolstoy is joined by Oscar Wilde and the occasional artist. At the time Taunton’s scoreboards were famously erratic.

On Friday after Somerset’s all but perfect performance at Cardiff I reported that Leo Tolstoy, denier of perfection, turned in his grave. Today at Taunton Oscar Wilde must have smiled in his for we had the cricketing version of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The scoreboards, both of them, like Dorian Gray the man were the epitome of presentational perfection. Not a digit wrong or a blank screen all day. Not normally anything to remark on at a cricket match. But a scoreboard achieving perfection at Taunton these days is.

Meanwhile on the field Somerset’s performance, in counterpoint to the scoreboards, like the painting of Dorian Gray, seemed to decay horribly. Unlike Dorian Gray’s picture which had the good grace to do decay out of sight in the attic Somerset’s performance did it in full view of everyone.

Ryan Davies, opening in place of the injured Steven Davies and out of place in the batting order, was the first bit of paint to peel. A fast late inswinger, or so it looked from my perch at the top of the Somerset Pavilion, straight onto his pads from Kyle Abbott would hardly have been his introduction of choice. Jim Allenby fared little better against Fidel Edwards popping one back to the bowler. At least at 1 for 2 Somerset were in familiar territory in this competition this season. A few blemishes in the developing portrait but none that have not been repaired in other matches.

Dean Elgar has applied Somerset’s base coat on which the rest of the four innings to date have been portrayed. He set himself to do the same again on Wednesday. Peter Trego, laying on the vibrant colours at speed worked in tandem with him. Elgar’s solidity giving Trego the freedom to attack and Trego’s scoring rate giving Elgar the time to build a base. Trego had some of the good fortune which fast workers sometimes need. Dropped before he had barely started, one or two fortuitous edges and some miss-timed shots falling safe, but for the moment his fast brushwork served Somerset well in this age when 300 plus first innings are needed to fill the canvas of a competitive 50 over cricket match.

Then once too often he tried his no-nonsense expressionism, missed the ball altogether and another piece of the Somerset painting fell away. 86 for 3. Trego had scored 55 from 46 balls in a partnership of 84 in 13 overs. Elgar remained and a restoration job, given Somerset’s recent performances, remained a realistic if demanding possibility. Hildreth, following an innings worthy of the colour and genius of a van Gogh at Cardiff, had barely lifted his palette when he pulled a ball straight down the throat of long leg. Modern art at its worst. Difficult to understand. 90 for 4 and a long partnership was becoming a necessity if the flaking picture which Somerset were presenting was not to disintegrate beyond repair.

Step up Adam Hose. He is yet to display the brilliance of a Hildreth or the dominance of a Trego but he has, in this tournament, shown the confidence and controlled aggression necessary to repair the sort of damage which awaited his arrival at the wicket. A confidence increasingly evident in today’s young cricketers. With Elgar he started to rebuild the crumbling canvas which 90 for 4 represented. His hand was a little shaky against the leg spin of Mason Crane, the ball taking or missing the edge on several occasions. Otherwise he went about the second re-touching job of the innings with assurance along with Elgar who worked away steadily at one end while Hose reached a deserved 50 at the other.

The Somerset innings, although nowhere near reflecting the perfection with which the scoreboard continued to portray it, was beginning to show signs that, with judicious application of technique, it might get somewhere near a presentable exhibition. Then Hose, emboldened, tried a Tregoan flash of colour, attempted to hit Crane back over his head, slightly misjudged the leg break and skied it to Dawson at long off. And so, the part-repaired portrait of Somerset’s innings peeled away for the third time as the scoreboard continued its dogged perfection.

Enter Roelof van de Merwe whose majestic masterpiece worthy of a Turner or a Constable destroyed Surrey. He set out with Elgar to, yet again, repair the increasingly serious and largely self-inflicted dilapidation of the innings. Two glorious sixes left no doubt that he knew the scale of the restoration project ahead of him. The score, when he rolled up his sleeves to start work, was 170 for 5 in the 31st over. At least another 130 would be needed in the last 20 overs although a doubling of the 30 over score would normally be expected in this day and age before the innings could claim to be fully restored. Just as those two sixes, with Elgar apparently secure at the other end, gave hope that this might just be achieved Elgar and van de Merwe tore a huge strip right out of the middle of Somerset’s fragile canvas by racing each other, neck and neck and flat out, to the same end of the pitch. 203 for 6.

The picture which Somerset would have intended to portray at the outset was in tatters. Beyond repair. By 224 for 9 the art of stealth run collection that is Elgar’s batting was spent. He has given so much this season but the disintegration at the other end in this innings was more than even he could repair. He had nothing more to give. What had seemed a painstaking filigree of an innings actually fashioned 78 runs from 88 balls. Apart from the occasional six, two this time, he scores his runs almost invisibly. Were he an artist he might be accused of forging his runs, for the eye seems to leave no evidence in the memory of how quite how so many came to fill the scene.

Jamie Overton tried his best to patch up one or two of the holes and hit 28 from 24 balls before summing up the totality of the innings by apparently trying to despatch a Fidel Edwards yorker to the boundary. And that was it. 249 all out, more than five overs unused and a bigger hole in the canvas than the bowlers could reasonably hope to patch over. The scoreboard meanwhile, faithful to the end to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, remained a picture of absolute perfection. Would it had been kept in the attic for it painted a perfect representation of an imperfect innings.

And so to the Hampshire innings of which the scoreboard kept an ominously perfect record throughout. Roscoe Rossouw played an innings of which Jackson Pollack might have been proud. Just as Pollack poured paint repeatedly and at speed in every direction on huge canvases so Rossouw scored at speed, hitting the ball repeatedly and in every direction to every corner of the canvas which was the Cooper Associates County Ground. As with Pollack there was coolly directed method in the apparent mayhem and the result was decisive. Hampshire reached the halfway point in the 18th over with nine wickets left and Somerset’s canvas in shreds.

Somerset tried to stop Roussow’s innings before it started by pitching short and, in the case of Jamie Overton, fast. No doubt there was theory behind the approach. There was enough discussion on the field about it. All it seemed to achieve though to my untrained eye was the same as would have been achieved by handing Pollack more paint. The canvas was filled all the more quickly. Davey went for 10 an over. Overton for 40 in his first three overs. By comparison Tim Groenewald, pitching it up, had one spell of 8-0-31-1 although for most of his spell the pressure such as it had ever been, chasing only 250, was off Hampshire.

The answer seemed to be that the secret of the art of bowling is to pitch it up. Yet the more I think about that the more a doubt nags. Even Groenewald’s four an over spell with one wicket would not have put Hampshire under enough pressure at any stage in their innings with a target of 250. It needs to be remembered too that the one wicket that did fall in the first half of the Hampshire innings was that of Alsop caught skying a pull shot off a short ball from Craig Overton. In his second spell Jamie Overton bowled very fast and dropped it short as much as he pitched it up yet the figures for that spell were 6-2-24-4 with the short-pitched balls looking particularly effective.

Perhaps the real picture of this match was this. A Somerset score at least 50 below par was no obstacle to a long innings of endless artistic perfection from Rossouw. At the innings break I found no-one who could see a route to a Somerset victory. The bowlers, in the knowledge that a containment policy alone would present the match to Hampshire, perhaps tried to attack on an unhelpful pitch. Pitching it up worked to a degree for Groenewald but firing some in short also worked to a degree for Craig Overton, bowling short failed for the slower paced Davey, bowling fast and short failed in Jamie Overton’s first spell; bowling fast and short and fast and full worked brilliantly in in his second spell. It was a spell to savour.

Another thought. Rossouw hit as many boundaries forward of cover and midwicket as he did behind them. They could not all have been off short balls. In fact, his innings was a piece of near-symmetrical, abstract art that you could understand. Perhaps in the end it would have made no more than a few overs difference wherever Somerset had bowled to him.

Cricket is as much art as science. Perfection is rare. Perhaps Somerset had theirs at Cardiff. Perhaps Rossouw had his on Wednesday. The Somerset batsmen overall could undoubtedly have done better than they did in this match. But perhaps the bowlers, whether under instruction or not, and faced with a near impossible task, rather than keep it tight until the match ebbed away as inevitably as a Salvador Dali clock, tried for a win. It didn’t work but they did after all, in spite of Rossouw’s monumental masterpiece, come within four wickets of it.

And a final thought. In spite of all the criticism most of Somerset’s top seven and some of the bowlers in this competition have been subjected to over the past couple of weeks Somerset did come into this match having won four out of four, the only unbeaten team in either group of the competition. They cannot have played that badly. In the old days, once (occasionally if) a side had disposed of its minor county four wins was what it took to win the Gillette Cup. Overall the picture Somerset have presented in this competition to date is not a bad one.

ResultToss. Hampshire. Elected to field. Somerset 249 (44.2/50 overs) D Elgar 78(88 balls), PD Trego 55(46), AJ Hose 50(63), GK Berg 3-44(econ 5.50). Hampshire 250-6 (37.2/50 overs) RR Roussow 156(113) J Overton 4-64 (7.11). Hampshire won by 4 wickets. Hampshire 2 points. Somerset 0 points.

The original version of this report was published on on 12th May 2017.