Relentless

Royal London One-Day Cup. Somerset v Kent. 19th April 2019. Taunton.

Toss. Kent. Elected to field.

Relentless

“Kent didn’t really turn up did they?” said the person with me as Davey caught Milnes to give Craig Overton his fifth wicket, Somerset their tenth and the match by 264 runs. It was true in both senses of the phrase. Firstly, in the literal sense, five key Kent players were unavailable for various reasons. Secondly, in the sporting sense, the Kent team that did enter the field of play, at least when it came out to bat, did not appear to perform. The truth of it though was not that Kent didn’t ‘turn up’, but that Somerset did not permit them to play. It was an utterly uncompromising Somerset performance cast in the mould of the Championship victory over Nottinghamshire the previous weekend. Somerset simply overpowered Kent.

We turned up about 20 minutes before the start. The car park we used was half empty and so we ambled along to the ground feeling secure in the knowledge there would be plenty of space in the Somerset Stand. Until we walked through the Brian Rose Gates. A quick look at the top of the Somerset Pavilion, my usual match day residence, revealed not a spare seat visible from that angle. Similarly, the Marcus Trescothick, Sir Ian Botham and Colin Atkinson Stands looked to be fully occupied. Some empty seats could be seen in the Ondaatje Stand which faced us. Looking along the length of the Somerset Stand the rows of spectators seemed endless. A walk along the front of the stand revealed a goodly number of pairs of seats but I do not recall ever seeing the Somerset Stand so full other than at a T20 match. We were fortunate enough to find a pair of seats on the end of a row, high up and square to the centre of the wicket. Perfect viewing unless you particularly want to be behind the arm.

As Somerset started their innings there was little hint of what was to come. Azhar and Banton felt their way through the first three overs. A ‘watchful’ start as used to be said in the days when, even in one-day cricket, the ball was red and the Somerset players’ clothes were white rather than the other way around. There was some playing and missing suggestive of a moving ball I thought. Then, suddenly, Azhar was forced to jab down and pull his bat towards his legs as the ball crashed into his stumps. A review of a replay suggests the ball, coming across him from the left-arm pace of Klaassen, swung in late and straightened onto the stumps. Somerset 7 for 1 and Kent with the initiative.

Not for long. Having presumably seen enough to gauge the conditions the 20-year-old Tom Banton immediately began to set the match on a course from which it barely wavered from there until the final crushing victory nearly six hours later. There was still evidence of the ball moving from the occasional piece of playing and missing but Banton seemed to have its measure. His first boundary was clipped off his legs behind square. The next two were driven, one with such force between extra cover and mid-off to where the old Stragglers bar once stood that someone said, “He looks like he can play.” The comment could have as well come from those who used to frequent that bar in days gone by. A square cut fizzed to the boundary in direct line with my seat. As one stroke followed another the whip-crack sound as the ball left the bat spoke of powerful clean stroke play perfectly timed; the thud on the boundary boards of perfect placement.

Peter Trego spoke up for the older generation among Somerset players by raising a huge cheer with a trademark six into the Somerset Stand. The score had reached 43 for 1 from nine overs. The slightly tense mumble in the crowd that had followed Azhar’s wicket had given way to an anticipatory buzz. If there were anxieties still picking at the stomach that this might not go on Banton did his best to drive them away with an immediate cover drive off Klaassman to the Somerset Stand followed by a hook to the Colin Atkinson boundary.

Kent changed the bowling but they could not change the batting. Banton drove Milnes to the Colin Atkinson boundary in his first over. A top edged pull towards the Caddick Pavilion looped high but fell wide of the fielder who, in trying to get to it, fell over to a pantomime “hooray” from parts of the burgeoning and increasingly buoyant crowd. It might have been, for Kent, a portent of all that was to come. What immediately came was a reverse sweep from Banton, unlike the traditional reverse sweep, played down and fine to the Trescothick Stand boundary. A single followed and he had 50 from 44 balls. The applause was instantaneous and prolonged. It seemed to reflect my own feeling that this was not a fifty scored by a youngster chancing his arm. This was a fifty played with consciously controlled stroke play which promised much more to come, in this innings and in many more innings beyond that. It felt like Banton had arrived. Somerset were 78 for 1 in the 14th over and the Taunton buzz was in full flow.

Trego had played a supportive role punctuated by the occasional boundary. A lofted drive to the Colin Atkinson boundary off Milnes just before he was out was ferocious. He was bowled trying to push or defend a ball from Stevens, evidence perhaps that there was still some movement. In the next over Milnes bowled a leg side wide. “Kent have bowled a lot of wides,” someone said, perhaps further evidence of movement. Hildreth joined Banton and, keeping Somerset’s momentum going, almost immediately pulled Milnes forward of square towards the Somerset Stand. The ball just cleared the rope to huge cheers. Momentum lifts or depresses a crowd depending on its direction.

People were now bubbling and I looked around me. I was struck not just by the number of people but by who had come to watch the cricket. Totally different from a Championship crowd. I didn’t count but there was far more of a gender balance than the predominantly male Championship crowd. Ages ranged from children to retirement age with large numbers of late teens and twenty-somethings. Not all the attention was on the cricket and a fair amount of alcohol travelled up and down the stairs but the general focus was on the cricket. Many of those of an age rarely seen at Championship games were wearing membership lanyards and I wondered if the T20/50 over membership was bringing new blood to the crowds for 50 over cricket in a way in which the previous T20 seven match pass did not.

It was not just the Somerset batting which took the attention. Kent’s fielding, the trip apart, was electric as the fielders tried to stem the flow. The score would have been higher than the 101 for 2 brought up by four leg byes from Banton without it. “Great fielding,” someone shouted as the fielder dived full length to take a vicious Hildreth cut on the bounce. A running, diving save just cut off a Banton cover drive before it could cross the boundary.

Yet it was an uneven struggle. Banton launched a fusilade of sixes. A lofted drive into the Garner Gates gap and a scoop over the Gimblett’s Hill boundary, both against Milnes, were followed by another drive over the distant covers store boundary off Qayyum’s slow left arm. Podmore replaced Milnes. Banton pulled square, the fielder ran, dived and slid along the boundary beneath our seats, his outstretched hand deflected the ball which shot upwards, looped over his body as he slid through and just evaded his other hand as it grabbed at thin air. It was a tremendous effort to prevent a boundary but it simply illustrated the way the match was going and a huge cheer erupted from the Somerset Stand. A single brought up Banton’s century. The ground stood as one and cheered and applauded. Indeed, this young man can play I concluded. Somerset 156 for 2. Banton 100. Hildreth 17 and nearly 26 overs still to play.

As far as Banton was concerned that was virtually it. A steepling six landed half way up the Somerset Stand but the next attempt landed in the long-suffering Milnes’ hands. Banton 107. The two top edges apart, it had been a chanceless and virtually faultless innings. Hildreth followed, caught from another steepling attempt at a six, for 23. 176 for 4.

Now the middle and lower order set about building on the tremendous foundations Banton had laid. Abell, van de Merwe and Bess all played cameos. As one was out, so another came and pushed the score on. It was relentless and the momentum Banton had unleashed was driven forward even harder by Gregory, and then, finally, in the first half of a decisive two-pronged contribution from Craig Overton, who bestrode the end of the Somerset innings and the start of the Kent one like a colossus.

Gregory batted in the destructive mode he has developed in T20 and which he sometimes deploys to give a Championship innings a crucial surge. He cut and pulled the ball hard and fast. One drive past extra cover to the old Stragglers’ area flew so fast along the ground that none of the ghosts that reside there would have been able to discern the colour of the ball. It was a stroke that could scarcely have been bettered with any colour of ball in any age. A pull, in front of square, cleared the long Caddick Pavilion boundary and another, driven high, bounced from the seating on the Colin Atkinson Pavilion terrace. Where the boundary could not be reached the placement of ones and twos was relentless as he and Abell hurried the scoreboard along.

I took breath between overs to glance along the Somerset Stand. A picture of sunlit holiday joy stretched out in both directions along the packed and serried ranks of kaleidoscopically-dressed spectators dotted about with white wyvern hats to match my own. Into and beyond the Trescothick Stand in one direction and around to the truly packed Somerset Pavilion in the other the joyous throng stretched. And what cricket they had been watching.

With the score on 249 with 12 overs to go Abell was out for 28 to a brilliant catch by Blake, stretching diagonally upwards from short cover. Qayyum the bowler. An even better catch, if that were possible, by Blake reaching even further in the next over, removed Gregory for 51 off the persistent Podmore. Somerset were 251 for 6 with still 11 overs to go and for the first time since Azhar’s dismissal a faint doubt clawed. Kent were still fighting hard in the field as Blake’s two catches showed and a charge for 11 overs with just the last four wickets was still needed if Somerset were to post a commanding total.

And now we saw what, in spite of Banton’s glorious hundred, was perhaps the defining performance of the match. Craig Overton, with van der Merwe and Bess, took Somerset to the heights beyond 350 and reduced Kent to 26 for 4. It was a performance on which the match pivoted and it pivoted violently. In his innings Overton seemed to cut and pull for four and drive for six. His first six, off Qayyum, was caught perfectly on the terrace of one of the second-tier boxes of the Somerset Pavilion. His second went straight over the Sir Ian Botham Stand and into the Tone. The third was caught, this time by a fielder right on the Trescothick Stand boundary but his foot went over the rope before he had released his throw back onto the playing area and he signalled ‘six’ to the umpire. The fourth went between the Sir Ian Botham Stand and the Trescothick Stand as it joined one of its predecessors in the Tone. In all Overton made 66 not out from 36 balls and took Somerset to 358 for 8.

Any doubts about the size of Somerset’s total fed by the propensity of 50 over matches to produce mammoth scores were soon dispelled. There is something of an aura around Somerset’s bowling this year. It seems to constitute more than the sum of its parts. And each of its parts are more than capable of cutting a swathe. Here it was Overton who cut the swathe. He struck with the first ball of the second over. Dickson caught, straightforwardly, by Banton. Then Renshaw, who had been warmly applauded to the wicket, took ten rather edgy runs from Davey as he appeared to be trying to play the sort of hard-driving innings he had played for Somerset in 2018. When he tried to guide Overton fine, he edged to Hildreth at slip. Crawley edged Davey to Banton and then Robinson seemed to check a shot off Overton and Gregory took the catch at square leg. 26 for 4. It was not just Overton’s three wickets. There was something about his bowling, in this match with the new ball, which had conviction about it. He constantly pressurised and severely tested the batsmen. It brought constant expectation of a wicket.

Now Rouse and Blake tried to shore up the Kent innings through some careful defence with the result that the required run rate, which had started at just over seven an over, rose past eight and started to climb towards nine whilst the DLS par score had risen into the stratosphere. Kent were caught in the classic one-day trap when early wickets are lost. You can feel tension rising in a cricket match when the score is not rising fast enough to suit the purposes of the batting side. The buzz in the crowd becomes subdued, the concentration on the cricket harder as people sense that something has to give, one way or the other.

The drop in volume was noticeable where we were. We had long since concluded we were in the noisiest part of the Somerset Stand. Perhaps everyone in the Somerset Stand concluded the same for it is a noisy stand on white-ball days. The level of alcohol consumption in a couple of groups around us doubtless had something to do with that. Including a small group in our row. Their cheering was loud and not always coherent but it seemed to come in all the right places. The frequency with which they had to pass us to enter and leave the stand increased as the afternoon wore on but it mostly came between overs, always with a polite request and increasingly with an apology. I was dripped on but once and only one drop. I suppose carrying four pints in the fingers of one hand is a bit of a challenge when more than that have probably passed your lips.

Blake tried to break the stranglehold. Twice in an over he took four runs from Groenewald, a cut backward of square and a straight drive just wide of the bowler. When he tried to pull Groenewald, the ball took the top edge, steepled and was caught by Banton, pretty much at the place from where it had left the bat. When, two overs later, Groenewald broke through Rouse’s defence Kent were 64 for 6, nearly 300 runs behind and the match was to all intents and purposes over. A run out, a wicket, caught and bowled, to van de Merwe, two in an over to Overton and it was. Kent 94 all out. It was as decisive a victory as could be imagined and was finished in a similar manner to the Championship match against Nottinghamshire.

As we descended the steps to the walkway at the back of the Somerset Stand I noticed the photograph of Brian Close looking up at me. I think he might have recognised the hard, relentless cricket Somerset are playing this year. He would have known too the need to pursue it, as relentlessly, all the way to the end of the season.

Result. Somerset 358 for 9 (50.0 overs) (T. Banton 107, C Overton 66*, L Gregory 51). Kent 94 (27.0/50.0 overs) (C. Overton 5-18). Somerset won by 264 runs. Somerset 2 points. Kent 0 points.