A repair job for Somerset

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Kent. 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th April 2019. Taunton.

Third day. 7th April – Repair job

Overnight. Somerset 171. Kent 84 for 2. Kent trail by 87 runs with 8 first innings wickets standing.

It was a morning of sustained Somerset brilliance. The bowlers, particularly Gregory, Davey and Overton attacked, pressurised and harried the Kent batsmen. It is true the conditions favoured the them. The Quantocks had retreated behind the haze that had shrouded them on the second afternoon. On the third day the scene was even darker than on the second. Taunton’s newly installed lights were on before mid-day and they stayed on until mid-afternoon and, as the evening light faded, for the final over. How many extra hours of Championship cricket they will afford Somerset in a season would be worth monitoring. It may be enough one day to give Somerset the time they need to win a Championship, or to avoid relegation.

I arrived an hour before the start, the Sunday bus timetable and the gathering Taunton marathon seeing to that. It may have been darker than the previous morning but it was much warmer too. The wind had dropped. In two coats it was actually quite pleasant and two teams of cricketers playing football brought an air of familiarity which had been strangely absent from the scene on the previous morning.

Gregory and Davey opened the bowling and immediately found enough movement to warrant four slips. Both sent balls tantalisingly close to the edge, a ball from Gregory tying Renshaw up as it squeezed past the inside edge. Davey twice went past the outside edge of Dickson’s bat and then found the edge from where the ball flew arrow-like neatly into the waiting hands of Hildreth at first slip. It was a dual demonstration of the art of swing bowling and the smooth curving patterns which the ball described through the air fell very properly into the category of art.

The same could be said of the cover drive off Gregory which Renshaw sent to the Ondaatje boundary. By what device Gregory induced a leading edge from a Renshaw attempt to turn him to leg I know not but the ball traced a perfect arc straight to Tom Abell at mid off from where he moved sharply forward to take the catch. The Somerset machine was beginning to crank into gear after its creaky performance on the second day. Kent, in the ascendancy at the start of the third day were 97 for 4 and no further advanced than Somerset had been at that stage of their innings.

Now Bell-Drummond and Kuhn did for Kent what Abell and Davies had done for Somerset. They began to move the Kent innings towards the prospect of stability. For Somerset Overton began to test the batsmen as Gregory and Davey had done with movement spiced with his ability to obtain lift. Only Brooks with his persistently full length offered any leeway and was driven as a consequence. A couple of people I later chatted to spoke of Brooks’ ability to take wickets in conditions where others struggled. His time would come they thought.

It was cut and thrust stuff as it had been throughout the match and it continued in like manner. Kuhn cut Davey viciously through point to the Caddick Pavilion dug outs. Bell-Drummond drove Brooks through extra cover to near where the old Stragglers used to be. In reply Overton fizzed a ball past Kuhn’s forward defensive to half-raised hands and cries of, “Ohhhh!” and then forced an inside edge which somehow evaded the stumps and provoked a sharp intake of breath. And yet gradually the batsmen were accommodating to the situation and the conditions and were moving Kent closer to the Somerset score.

As the intense struggle continued Azhar walked over to offer advice or perhaps support to Brooks as he walked back to his mark as he had done with Davey earlier. A succession of appeals were turned down my the umpires and the Kent score moved to within 30 of Somerset’s as Bell-Drummond drove Brooks straight to the Somerset Pavilion. The familiar buzz that usually permeates the stands at Taunton began to subside into a contemplative hum as Kent threatened to take control of the game.

And then there was a piece of sheer cricketing magic from Overton. Kuhn, whose batting reputation had come before him, was threatening to break away from the grip of the Somerset bowlers. Overton induced what appeared to be a distinct inside edge from my vantage point directly behind the keeper’s head. There was a marked deviation, although from 80 yards it is impossible to be sure what it deviated off, and Davies moved to leg to take the ‘catch’. Overton set off down the wicket, arm extended aloft and emitted a fearful roar of celebration as the cordon appealed in unison. The umpire’s finger stayed quietly by his side.

Back to his mark walked Overton. Kuhn took his stance. The crowd, or at least me, and, I suspect, Kuhn expected an Overton flier to whistle past his ears. Instead it whistled past the edge of the bat, hit the top of middle stump on the way through and deposited it a yard or too back from its moorings. What a cheer went up at the sight. It was a stunning piece of bowling which made the trip worthwhile on its own. The hum was gone and the crowd moved straight to chatter without stopping to buzz. 144 for 5 was progress for Somerset against the Kent top order but it was only only 27 runs short of Somerset’s total. Kent, in spite of the formidable efforts of the Somerset bowlers, were still keeping ahead in the match.

Blake threatened briefly to extend the advantage before trying to cut Gregory, only to edge the ball into his stumps. 160 for 6. Just 11 runs short. And then a piece of cricketing magic to match Overton’s dismissal of Kuhn. Bell-Drummond edged Gregory towards the slips. The ball flew like a bullet in a steep trajectory. Someone who was watching the batsman through binoculars assumed four runs over the heads of the slip cordon. Unfortunately for Bell-Drummond the part of the slip cordon over which the ball flew consisted of Marcus Trescothick. From the top of the Somerset Pavilion a catch looked impossible. Until that was Trescothick’s outstretched hands caught the bullet far above his head. There was a hesitancy, perhaps of disbelief, from the field and then a huge roar and engulfment of Trescothick.

The memory of that catch rippled around the ground for some time afterwards. “That was quite a catch from Trescothick,” and “Did you see that catch by Trescothick?” the most common things I heard during my lunchtime circumnavigation. “Well done Banger,” the immediate response from the top of the Somerset Pavilion. 165 for 7. Somerset pegging back Kent’s advantage.

Lunch came with Kent 172 for 7. One run ahead. My customary lunchtime circumnavigation registered a general consensus that Somerset had bowled extremely well and stuck at the task of retrieving a disadvantageous position. There was also a consensus that any Kent score over 200 would put significant pressure on Somerset in their second innings, given the prevailing conditions. I managed to reach the covers store just as play resumed and so I watched from there in conversation with two other Somerset supporters for the rest of the Kent innings.

The innings realised another 37 runs and took Kent to 209. Overton had Stevens caught neatly at slip by Gregory. Robinson seemed to check a shot against Brooks or perhaps it was a slightly slower ball and Byrom took the catch at midwicket. Abell brought himself on at the end to beat Milnes’ defensive push and induce an edge to Davies behind the stumps. Kent were 38 in front. “We don’t want to find ourselves 40 for 3,” was my statement of the blatantly obvious but the obvious contained the seeds of a fear in this low scoring match.

The fear began to bite before I had time to return to my seat. Returning from a purchase from the kiosk next to the covers store saw me seeing a perfect cover drive from Trescothick followed by an attempt to drive again, this time through the on side. The umpire’s finger was raised as the ball deflected off the pad. Time, I thought, to get back to my seat. Not enough time because as I emerged at the top of the stairs I heard, “The next batsman is …” and in walked Tom Abell with Hildreth in the last wicket slot on the scoreboard. 7 for 2 according to the top of the scoreboard. 17 for 3 when Azhar pushed almost reluctantly at a ball from Podmore, as if he had failed to judge it, and was caught at third slip.  When Byrom edged a defensive shot to the keeper Somerset were 32 for 4 and the seeds of my fear had borne an unwelcome fruit.

Any remaining vestiges of hope of a Somerset victory were now in the hands of Abell and Davies. Almost immediately one of those silken cover drives of which Davies is the master fed the hope. It seemed to cover the ground like a snooker ball does baize. If hope has to be borne of something that stroke would do as well as any. It signalled an attempt by Davies and Abell to turn the tide of the match. When Abell drove through midwicket towards the Somerset Stand the batsmen took two runs, Somerset moved into the lead and an ironic cheer rose from several voices around the ground. It was perhaps Somerset’s nadir in a match of lows. Only the exceptional bowling of the morning stood apart.

The irony soon turned to genuine cheering and applause when Davies drove again through the covers to the Somerset Stand with a timeless quality which transcended anything that was going on around it in this match. It is one of the joys of watching cricket that however badly your team is doing there is always the prospect of seeing one of its members playing the sort of stroke or bowling the sort of ball that has held spectators in awe for generations past.

At tea Somerset were 53 for 4, 15 runs ahead. I found myself in conversation in the small gap between Gimblett’s Hill and the Somerset Pavilion when play resumed. We discussed the spirited fightback by Somerset’s bowler’s before lunch rather than the batting collapse which followed it. As we talked Abell and Davies set about trying to continuing to try to retrieve the near hopeless situation they had inferited. They are perhaps at opposite ends of the classical batting spectrum. Right and left-handed but above all the contrast between the sharp, overtly powerful stroke play of Abell and the silken, deceptive power of Davies’ strokes.

The detail is lost in our conversation but the impression left is of the two distinct styles combining to push Somerset forward. And then Abell drove hard with the most classical of cover drives at a ball wider than was safe and edged to the keeper. 90 for 5. 52 ahead. Abell 30. Not far enough ahead but just enough to dare to hope. As Davies moved into the 30s I commented that he was on “borrowed time” in this match as no-one had reached 50.

I reached my seat at the top of the Somerset Pavilion just as Davies’ “borrowed time” ran out. As I took my seat he was bowled for 39. “He played on,” someone said. 103 for 6. 65 ahead. When Gregory lost his off stump trying to keep Claydon out Somerset were 111 for 7. 73 ahead. The Somerset fightback was fast fizzling out as Craig Overton strode out to join Bartlett, Somerset’s seventh batsman.

Overton started by turning Claydon square for a single as the cloud, which had permitted an interlude of sun, began to close in again. Stevens swung a ball past Bartlett’s defensive push. It has been thus for the entire match but it emphasised Somerset’s precarious position. Overton put the other side of the equation when he drove Claydon powerfully to the Somerset Pavilion boundary for there has been much driving in this match as the bowlers search for movement as they strive to keep the wickets coming in a low-scoring game. Somerset led by 81 and the power and precision of Overton’s stroke seemed to inject a frisson of tension, revealing a slither of hope, into the air.

Overton continued by pulling Milnes for four in front of square to the Ondaatje boundary and Bartlett drove him straight to the Somerset Pavilion before being almost caught and bowled off the next ball. When he cut Milnes backward of square a brilliant diving stop saved four runs as the furious cut and thrust of this game continued unabated. Bartlett responded with a hook, top edged over the keeper’s head for six over the short boundary in front of the Sir Ian Botham Stand. He drove the next ball through the covers for four. Somerset were suddenly 140 for 7 and had Overton and Bartlett taken the lead just past 100.

Now Overton began to make real progress. Podmore was turned behind square for two and driven to the Trescothick Stand for three, the very slow outfield more than negating the effect of the short boundaries. In the next over he leaned into an on drive which went along the ground to the covers store against Milnes. It was as good a specimen of that stroke as you will see. When Milnes bounced Bartlett, trying perhaps to test Bartlett’s propensity to hook, he cleared Bartlett and tested the wicketkeeper’s ability to jump to the extent that four byes and two height no balls resulted.

Bartlett ended the day with a perfect cover drive to the Ondaatje Stand. He and Overton had added 60 to take Somerset to a lead of 133, Bartlett on 35 and Overton on 27. It had been a typical Bartlett innings of risk and progress whilst Overton had showed considerable skill in playing some of the more orthodox strokes in difficult conditions.

Estimates of how many Somerset would need to set as a target to have a realistic chance of pressuring Kent ranged from 150 upwards. They were still 27 short of setting the minimum target but they were an awful lot closer than they had looked when they lost their fourth wicket still six runs behind. If the final day brings the weather of the second and third mornings and Somerset’s bowlers bowl as they did on the second morning we may be into edge of seat territory. For Somerset supporters ’twas ever thus.

Close. Somerset 171 and 171 for 7. Kent 209 (S.R. Dickson 43, L. Gregory 3-26, C. Overton 3-46). Somerset lead by 133 runs with three second innings wickets standing.