County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Kent. 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th April 2019. Taunton.
First day. 5th April – No play. Rain.
Second day. 6th April – ‘Rushing your fences’
There was a heavy mist on the Quantocks as if they had not quite kicked off their winter duvet in time for the start of the season. The point, which, viewed from the top of the Somerset Pavilion, sits neatly on the end of the Sir Ian Botham Stand, was virtually invisible as it slumbered in the mist. The ground was just as somnolent. The crowd rather lazily gathered itself together.
The news imparted to people as they arrived by those already there was that there would be an inspection at eleven o’clock. The outfield belied any suggestion that the inspection might herald a start soon afterwards. It was as sleepy as the rest of the scene, and completely void of life or evidence of life. There were no stumps, no covers, no boundary rope, no players warming up. There was not even a football match. Nothing. The only evidence that it might be intended to play a cricket match was a dozing blotter resting against the boards in front of the Sir Ian Botham Stand.
The crowd sat, meandered or occupied the Stragglers drinking coffee or eating a late breakfast with no real sign of impatience that I could detect. A visitor from Mars would truly have wondered what was going on; or perhaps concluded a priority landing area had been cleared for them. It proved otherwise. News started to circulate that parts of the outfield, especially the perimeter where the heavy equipment needed to install the floodlights in the winter had passed or taken up station, were very wet.
The eleven o’clock inspection produced a twelve o’clock inspection. That was preceded by the stumps and a measurement being taken from the centre of the pitch, which did not look as green from the top of the Somerset Pavilion as it did from ground level, out towards the Sir Ian Botham Stand. The twelve o’clock inspection produced an early lunch, a loss of 16 overs and some short boundaries especially straight. And the start time produced practice nets and a football as the start of the season began to take on a more familiar look.
It also produced an uncontested toss and a Somerset side in which a seventh batsman had been wedged, presumably in place of Jack Leach. Somerset had a new batting order too with Hildreth and Abell each promoted a place to three and four. Byrom and Bartlett found themselves batting lower than last year at five and seven respectively. It was the old hand at the top though. Marcus Trescothick turned the first ball into the leg side for a single to get the season underway.
The Quantocks still dozed, the blotter was by now fast asleep for it had not moved an inch and the crowd only slowly roused themselves into the familiar Taunton buzz. The Somerset batsmen though jumped from their winter beds and ran full pelt at the opposition or so it seemed from my seat. Azhar Ali began with a thick edge for four past the slip cordon before finding the middle of the bat with a boundary neatly and forcibly clipped square off his legs to the Somerset Stand. He followed up with another neat turn for a single towards the Old Straggler’s boundary. It had just enough power to nudge the ghosts that reside there into rousing themselves for the new season and ten runs had come off Podmore’s opening over.
An Azhar drive to the Colin Atkinson boundary sizzled along the ground to gasps of approval from the crowd. It appeared that Somerset meant to take control of the match from the start. A Trescothick straight drive to the very short Sir Ian Botham Stand boundary seemed to confirm it as perhaps did his attempt to drive Podmore through the on side which resulted in his off stump cartwheeling.
Hildreth announced his claim to the number three slot with a clip off his legs which might reasonably have been expected to raise steam from the two days of rain which had saturated the outfield. It would have been four on any ground with any length of boundary. Azhar gave him an enthusiastic congratulatory ‘punch’ on the shoulder as they aborted their token start to a run and hope seemed to attend the chatter in the crowd which it generated. Twice Hildreth fed the hope as he cut past point towards the closed Ondaatje Stand for two and once cut just in front of square to the Somerset Stand for a grass skimming four.
Kent are newly promoted. Perhaps no-one has though to inform them of that for they quietly stuck to their task. The bowling gradually tightened after the fall of Trescothick until Milnes forced Azhar to edge to slip for 24 and Somerset were 49 for 2. Hildreth responded in kind, as he is inclined to do, with a back foot drive through the covers off Stevens that elicited cries of “Shot!” from around me at the top of the Somerset Pavilion. There was another cut to the Somerset Stand boundary as Somerset approached four an over in conditions where the ball was moving at times and where the batsmen were being beaten. The approach had the appearance of making up for the four lost sessions in the match. If that was the approach, and I have no insight to the thinking within the boundary, it threatened to prove a costly one although Hildreth’s dismissal owed nothing to positive stroke play. He seemed to push the bat at a ball from Claydon, too far in front of his body, and edged to slip. 63 for 3. Hildreth 27.
Abell, meanwhile, had been developing an innings which promised the decisive, powerful classic stroke play which is his hallmark. He clipped Milnes powerfully to the Somerset Stand boundary and then cut Claydon back there. “Shot!”. Byrom, newly at five, took up Hildreth’s baton and drove Milnes hard to the Sir Ian Botham Stand. Four! “Shot!”. Next ball he charged Kent again, forgot to move his feet and Stevens, at backward point, spectacularly plucked the shoulder high rocket out of the air. 80 for 4. It had all the feel of a Grand National field intent on dominance through rushing their fences.
And yet on they pushed, Abell finding the Caddick Pavilion boundary with a clip and Davies appearing to turn and drive backward of square to send the first four of the season to the old Stragglers and properly bring the erstwhile occupants into the new season. A cut to the Caddick Pavilion from Abell brought a shout of “Hooray!” whilst two cuts for four to the Ondaatje boundary in three balls from Davies had an almost heavenly quality about them and brought admiring gasps from all around. Hope began to rise too that a partnership might be developing which would take Somerset forward.
As Abell began to drive powerfully and straight the sun was tempted into shining gloriously on the pitch and the Quantocks into dragging themselves out from under that duvet of mist that had hugged them thus far. Only a thin shroud now hung on the point. And yet my residency on the north face of the Somerset Pavilion was still subject to a gale that seemed to have blown there straight from the depths of winter. Involuntary shivering was threatening to become the order of the day.
Even as Abell and Davies drove Somerset beyond 120 and to at least a semblance of a base for a substantial early-season total anything cut through backward point was liable to be intercepted by some spectacular and accurate fielding. Kent had come into this match with their senses sharpened. Thoughts of Somerset’s rude awakening against newly-promoted Essex in 2017 were picking teasingly at the back of the mind.
And then at the front of the mind. When he was on 18 Davies pushed at a ball outside off straight into the hands of backward point. 130 for 5. 140 for 5 at Tea. Time for a circumnavigation and an escape from the north face. Anti-clockwise for those with short memories. It reminded me of the days of my eastern exile and mid-winter forays to the mudflats of Shoeburyness. There was little at Taunton on the first day of the season which resembled mid-winter Shoeburyness. Except the attire. Layers, zips fastened to the chin, hats, gloves, scarves, red faces and blue noses. Well, not quite the blue noses but one would not have been a surprise.
I halted my circumnavigation at the Garner Gates gap to avoid continuing on through the shade in front of or behind the Somerset Stand. It did Bartlett no good as he tried to play to leg. His boot seemed to swing across and the ball was impeded on its course to the stumps. A third wicket to Claydon.
I quickly proceeded to the Brian Rose Gates gap. Gregory twice drove imperiously. Once for four and once to Renshaw standing at slip on his return to Taunton. Kent’s persistence and discipline, perhaps a moving ball and Somerset’s headlong charge were turning into a Foinavon Grand National. When Abell made to hook Claydon and tried to withdraw the bat he only succeeded in a looping top edge to long leg where Milnes waited for the manna to fall from heaven.
I moved on as far as the covers store for a while before returning for final vigil on the north face. Craig Overton and Davey began to play more circumspectly, mainly pushing the ball around apart from a full-blooded lift over backward point by Overton. It looked altogether more convincing until Davey was ‘strangled’ down the leg side. When Overton was caught and bowled by Podmore Somerset were 171 all out and on the back foot before the first two sessions of the season were out. “Oops!” said the text from someone who is not a cricket person but who can read a scorecard. In times when Championships tend to be won by teams that dominate a season from beginning to end “Oops!” might not cut it.
It was back to my seat at the top of the Somerset Pavilion for the Kent innings. The chill that still held sway up there added itself to the emotional one which had settled on the mind after the Somerset innings. So many promising starts and no fulfilled finishes. Even Abell’s certainty of stroke seemed to desert him at the last with that truncated hook.
Much responsibility now lay with the Somerset bowlers. Gregory, as always, started from the Somerset Pavilion End. The cloud that is supposed to aid swing bowling returned to greet him. There seemed more fire in his bowling than there had been in the latter part of 2018. Accuracy and testing movement too. Dickson and Crawley played him circumspectly watching the ball as if it was a threat not to be trifled with. Gregory went past both sides of the bat and hit the pads well enough for two loud appeals and suffered a drop at first slip by Hildreth who would usually have taken it without fuss. Brooks, from the River End, looked much less threatening and was driven repeatedly.
Overton and Davey, Davey in particular, looked threatening. Both beat the bat more often than the law of averages should allow without allowing the bowlers a wicket. The Kent batsmen played straight, eschewed risk and built the innings at nearly a run an over less than Somerset had tried to do. It didn’t seem to affect the chatter in the crowd much. Perhaps people still had plenty of reserves of winter remembrances to chat about or perhaps they were just glad to be back at the cricket. Or perhaps it was just their teeth.
As I have said previously there is usually an Overton on hand when you need one and it was Craig who finally broke the opening partnership. He got a ball to lift a bit, rushed Crawley into a jabbed defensive stroke into Trescothick’s midriff, probably the worst place in the first-class game to edge the ball. 71 for 1. Just 100 behind. Kent sent Podmore in as nightwatchman and Davey, deservedly, sent him back in the penultimate over. 84 for 2 at the close, just 87 behind, the Australian cricketer’s version of ‘Nelson’ with Matthew Renshaw, late of these parts, at the crease to fac Somerset on the morrow.
Close. Somerset 171 (T.B. Abell 49, M.E. Claydon 5-46, M.E. Milnes 3-40). Kent 84 for 2. Kent trail by 87 runs with eight first innings wickets standing.