Abell and Bartlett turn the tide

County Championship Division 1. Nottinghamshire v Somerset. 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th April 2019. Trent Bridge.

Overnight. Nottinghamshire 263. Somerset 74 for 3. Somerset trail by 189 runs.

Second day. 12th April – Days don’t come much better than this

“Days don’t come much better than this,” said the text. And they don’t. Somerset entered the second day of this match barely clinging on to parity. They ended it in a position of dominance. The change was almost entirely due to the quiet determination, skill and patience of Somerset’s captain, the 25-year-old Tom Abell, and 21-year-old George Bartlett. They carried on with the bat where they had left off the previous evening; with quiet, controlled, purposeful accumulation.

The overriding impression of their partnership was of solid straight-batted defence pushing the ball neatly back down the pitch or along the ground to mid-on or mid-off. That solidity of defence was interspersed with guided ‘hooks’ to fine or long leg, ‘soft’ pulls to deep square leg or deep midwicket and smooth ‘slow’ drives to deep cover as the singles and occasional twos gradually carried the Somerset score forward. In those places the Nottinghamshire boundary patrol held station throughout the partnership and gathered the ball as if it were their lifetime occupation, such an air of permanence did the partnership develop.

It was not just the singles and twos. Both batsmen contributed periodic well-struck and well-directed boundaries to sharpen the mix. The ball was not struck with the ferocity of the driving in Nottinghamshire’s innings. More the strokes impressed with their apparent minimisation of risk, precision of placement and effectiveness, one just beating the chasing boundary fielder to the rope but never leaving any doubt that it would cross the line. It was as if some great choreographer had directed the whole display and Abell and Bartlett had carried out the directions with perfection.

The driven boundaries seemed almost to float across the grass like stones skimmed gently across a frozen pond. Bartlett seemed to favour, or find opportunity for, the cover drive; the smoothness of the stroke and flowing movement of the ball even more impressive than the rocket-like cover and straight driving of the Nottinghamshire batsmen of the day before. Not that Bartlett eschewed entirely the use of main force. Once when Patel tried his slow left arm, he unleashed a straight drive and the ball sped to the straight boundary. Abell used the cover drive too to reach the boundary but also the straight drive and the square drive off the back foot. Once, off Broad, he too unleashed a stroke of sheer power, a cover drive which left no doubt as it crashed into the short boundary.

There was playing and missing too, whether onto the pad with the resulting appeal or through to the keeper to cries of “Ooooh” from the field, but it rarely seemed to raise anxiety and the frequency diminished as the morning wore on and the certainty of the batting increased. Nottinghamshire worked through their hand of pace bowlers. Broad was sharp in his short opening spell and Fletcher often looked the most likely to take a wicket. Ball looked the least likely. Broad, Ball, Wood and Fletcher is a formidable list of Trent Bridge names but Abell and Bartlett had their measure. Only from the last ball before lunch, delivered by Broad, was a significant wicket-taking chance created. Abell edged to first slip but slip was there none, only a fine gully, and a third man who retrieved the ball as Abell gathered the single.

As I discussed the morning’s play with another Somerset supporter towards the end of my lunchtime circumnavigation we glanced at the scoreboard. Somerset were 174 for 3. We looked at each other a little startled as we recalled that Somerset had started the day on 74 for 3. 100 runs had been scored in that morning of careful choreography. It hardly seemed possible. We would not have questioned 70, even 80 but 100 seemed beyond the evidence of our eyes. Careful choreography but determined choreography played out with a purpose had made the difference between spectator perception and reality. Bartlett had 66, Abell 59 and they had given Somerset the opportunity to take control of a match where Nottinghamshire had started the day with the stronger grip on that opportunity.

 

I had spent the morning in the upper reaches of the Fox Road Stand to where I returned for the afternoon session. The morning had started bright with clumps of white cloud challenging blue patches for control of the sky just as Abell and Bartlett had challenged Nottinghamshire for control of the match. As the morning wore on the cloud had gradually overcome the blue. By the re-start it had all but triumphed. Soon there was a complete covering of highish grey cloud. Within half an hour or so the lights were on and they remained on for the rest of the day. Still hatless, I had initially taken up residence in the Fox Road Stand because it afforded shade and protection from the bitter east wind which ravaged the rest of the ground wherever shade took hold. Now, with the sun completely gone, the temperature resurrected winter wherever you sat. Bulging anoraks, bulky scarves, a smattering of woolly hats and hunched shoulders were the order of the day as I looked down through the stand as Somerset gradually shifted the balance of the match just as the cloud shifted the balance of the sky.

Somerset had started the day somewhat precariously placed at 74 for 3. The evening before had involved, at least as it seemed from my seat, a tense defensive operation to avoid the loss of a fourth wicket which would have left Somerset in serious trouble. Looking at the scoreboard at the start of play there was another figure which held my attention. “Somerset trail by 189 runs.” It seemed an awfully long way behind. The few Somerset supporters I was able to speak too were hoping the team might achieve parity or somewhere near but none were confident. I think most would have taken an offer in the region of 250-280. In spite of the increasing certainty of the batting and the steadily rising total that deficit figure seemed to fall unconscionably slowly, in the Somerset mind at least. When Somerset are under pressure time travels in the slow lane.

In the afternoon Abell and Bartlett began to move time into the faster lanes. Suddenly that falling “trail” figure was accelerating downwards. Before lunch, whenever I had looked at the scoreboard, it barely seemed to have moved. Now it was moving down in tens and twenties rather than one and twos. The anxiety that a wicket might fall at any moment during the morning was replaced by the hope that Somerset might forge a lead, even a useful lead.

Bartlett gradually moved ahead of Abell and from fewer balls. As he moved into the 80s he began to accelerate. A paddle sweep off Patel went for three; a pull off Ball between two long legs, part of a 6:3 leg side field, for four; another, in the same over, wide of mid-on for another four; a reverse sweep, four again to strains of “Somerset La La La”; and, finally, a square-driven four to bring up his century. It was his second for Somerset, his most accomplished innings to date, and made in the most pressurised of circumstances. Without wishing to jinx a young man this innings spoke of more centuries to come.

Abell followed soon after, a cover drive to the long boundary for four and a square drive for two bringing up his century. The stand between the two was well past 200, the “trail” figure had raced down into single figures and it felt very good to be a Somerset supporter in spite of that chill wind now biting deep into the bones. It was not just the centuries that drove the rise in spirit, although they were more than cause for celebration. It was the manner of them and the quiet, determined, and apparently confident way in which Somerset’s two young men had gone about the task of turning a Championship game around. They lifted the spirits of Somerset supporters by what they had done in this match and by what their performances promised for the future.

Abell fell soon afterwards, edging Wood to Moores behind the stumps. Bartlett had nearly gone the same way, edging over the slip area for four just after his hundred but they had broken the back of Somerset’s task. The deficit was now just four runs. Soon “trail by” would metamorphose into “lead by”. Davies joined Bartlett who took Somerset into the lead by one run with an on drive to the Radcliffe Road Stand. By tea, mainly by dint of a combination of straight and cover drives, they took Somerset to 309 for 4. A lead of 46, the new ball, used by Ball and Fletcher, passing almost unnoticed in terms of its effect. Again, a glance at the scoreboard and a calculation surprised. Somerset had added 135 in the session for the loss of one wicket. I had to pinch myself to realise only one wicket had fallen all day. The match was now fast turning in Somerset’s favour.

But this was the first division and first division teams receiving a mauling are liable to bite back. That is precisely what Nottinghamshire did after tea. Trent Bridge is a Test match ground and if you are inclined to stop and chat a 20-minute tea interval is inadequate for the purposes of a circumnavigation. I had made it about four fifths of the way around when I stopped to chat to a couple of Somerset supporters. Terminal as far as circumnavigations are concerned. I cannot recall what we discussed but I do recall being responsible for two wickets. I had sat four hours in the Fox Road Stand and only one Somerset wicket fell. Ten minutes in my new seat accounted for Davies, caught behind, and Bartlett, shouldering arms, of all things, on 133. 316 for 6. A lead of 53 ideally needed a boost so I swiftly moved on as they say.

The boost came from Gregory. A brief partnership with Overton, which took Somerset to a lead of 69 was followed by one with Davey which all but doubled that lead and gave Somerset a real grip on the match. After a watchful start Gregory targeted Ball. In one over he glanced him for four and drove him through the off side for two. In Ball’s next over he pulled him over midwicket to the short boundary where the ball beat Fletcher’s boundary run before it cleared the rope and crashed into the boards for six.

Nottinghamshire brought back Broad who promptly had Davey in his sights. The intent was obvious from a field which included fine leg, long leg, and, in line astern, short leg, square leg and deep square leg. Davey hooked Broad’s first ball. It cleared the short and square legs, fell short of deep square leg and Davey ran a single. The look on Broad’s face from 80 yards could only be imagined but his body language spoke volumes. Gregory’s immediate response to Broad continuing with the short stuff was, in successive balls, to hook him to the long boundary for four, six and six.

In Broad’s next over he clipped Davey’s helmet and the ball flew for four. After a concussion test and helmet inspection the next ball, short again, was fended to short leg who dropped it. A fuller ball from Broad was driven through mid-on for four. The next ball, short again, caused Davey to duck, the ball to hit his bat and to loop safely to the ground. Eventually Broad, still bowling short, induced a pull which landed in the hands of long leg and Davey departed for 25 runs. Within three runs Gregory and Leach had departed. Somerset 403 all out. Gregory 50. Broad can still make a point if he wants to. 25.1-4-73-5. But by then Somerset had a lead of 140.

There were about a dozen overs for Nottinghamshire to face in light that was beginning to fade. They had not just to face the ball but the intensity of Somerset in the field. Somerset opened with Gregory and Brooks. To my eye Brooks bowled his best spell yet for Somerset. If Somerset were intense in the field Brooks was at the sharp end of it. In Brooks’ first over Duckett cut him straight to Bartlett at backward point. The ball went straight through Bartlett’s hands. It was Bartlett’s second drop of the match, both the sort of catch regularly taken at first-class level. The disappointment and the wondering about how costly the drop might be were still sinking in when, in Brooks’ next over, Duckett drove low to cover, Abell dived and took the catch. Relief as much as joy the emotion.

Brooks continued in the only sun since lunchtime. It still had just about enough warmth left in it to faintly remind a body, that felt as if it had been chilled beyond redemption, what warmth felt like. Not enough to make a difference for within ten minutes or so the clouds had reclaimed the sky but not before Brooks had rushed a ball through a hurried looking Nash, via the edge, to Davies and Nottinghamshire were 16 for 2. At 25 for 2, with Nottinghamshire still 115 behind, the umpires called the fading light in aid and took the players from the field. Whether with respect for the batsmen’s safety or of the survival of several hundred refrigerated spectators I know not.

It took me an hour and a half to get to a restaurant via my hotel. There I spent two hours in the ambience of Southern India, where I suspect the temperatures spectators and players had endured in that wind are beyond imagining, and consumed a curry to a recipe from the region. I returned straight to my hotel with feet still cold from a day in contact with the concrete of the Fox Road Stand. Why do I do it? Compare the match scorecard at the end of the day with that at the beginning and within it see a Somerset performance and a youthful partnership capable of warming the cockles of a Somerset heart whatever the temperature.

Close. Nottinghamshire 263 and 25 for 2. Somerset 403 (G.A. Bartlett 133, T.B. Abell 101, L. Gregory 50, S.C.J. Broad 25.1-4-73-5, L.J. Fletcher 26-6-66-3). Nottinghamshire trail Somerset by 115 runs with eight second innings wickets standing.