Relentless

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

Somerset. Azhar Ali, T Banton (w), P.D. Trego, J.C. Hildreth, T.B. Abell (c), L. Gregory, R.E. van der Merwe, C. Overton, D.M. Bess, J.H. Davey, T.D. Groenewald.

Kent. Z. Crawley, S.R. Dickson, M.T. Renshaw, O.G. Robinson, A.J. Blake, A.P. Rouse (c) (w), D.I Stevens, H.W. Podmore, H.E. Milnes, Imran Qayyum, F.J. Klaassen.

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 did not ‘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.

I arrived about 20 minutes before the start. The car park was half empty, and so I ambled along to the ground feeling confident there would still be plenty of space in the Somerset Stand, even for a 50-over match. Until I walked through the Brian Rose Gates that was. A quick look at the top of the Somerset Pavilion, my usual match day residence, revealed not a spare seat visible. Similarly, the Marcus Trescothick and Sir Ian Botham Stands, and the Colin Atkinson Pavilion looked to be fully occupied. Some empty seats could be seen in the Ondaatje Stand which faced me. 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 empty seats, but I do not recall ever seeing the Somerset Stand so full other than at a T20 match. I was fortunate enough to find a seat on the end of a row, high up, and square of the centre of the wicket. Perfect viewing unless you particularly want to be behind the arm.

IMG_1187 RLODC 50-over 190419 Somerset Stand Crowd Som v Kent
The Somerset Stand early in the Somerset innings. The crowd exceeded 5000.

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 players’ clothing was 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 pads but 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 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 Somerset’s 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 a bit.” The comment could as well have 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. The 37-year-old 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 pit of the Somerset 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.

RLODC 190419 v Kent Tom Banton 4 runs (C) M Williams
Tom Banton on his way to a century. “The whip-crack sound as the ball left the bat spoke of powerful, clean stroke play perfectly timed.”
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

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, entertained the burgeoning and increasingly buoyant home crowd by falling over to a pantomime “hooray”. 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 it was 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 of some remaining vestiges of 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.

People were now bubbling, and so 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 among the predominantly male Championship watchers. 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 steps, 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 Somerset’s 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 tumble 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 a fielder dived full length to take a vicious Hildreth cut on the bounce; and 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 fusillade of sixes. A lofted drive to the Garner Gates 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 my seat, 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 onlooking Somerset Stand. A single brought up Banton’s century. The ground stood as one and cheered and applauded. Indeed, this young man can play a bit 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 halfway 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.

RLODC 190419 v Kent James Hildreth ct Harry Podmore bld Darren Stevens 2 (C) M Williams
Kent’s fielding was electric in spite of the Somerset onslaught. Here, Harry Podmore clings on to a steepling catch from James Hildreth.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

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. Then, finally, after Gregory, in a decisive two-pronged contribution, Craig Overton bestrode the end of the Somerset innings and the start of the Kent one like a colossus, as he drove Somerset into a position of complete dominance.

For his part, 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 were dotted about white wyvern hats to match my own. Into and beyond the Trescothick Stand in one direction, and around to the crammed Somerset Pavilion in the other, the joyous throng stretched. And what cricket they had been watching.

With the score on 249 with 12 overs left, 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 remaining, 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 standing 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. The overall impression of Overton’s innings was of him cutting and pulling for four and driving 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 back on the Trescothick Stand boundary, but a foot touched ground beyond the rope before the ball was released from the throw back into the playing area. The fielder 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.

 

RLODC 190419 v Kent Craig Overton 6 runs (C) M Williams
Craig Overton targets the Tone in his innings of 66 not out which drove Somerset’s total beyond 350.
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Any doubts about the size of Somerset’s total fed by the current propensity of 50-over matches to produce mammoth scores were soon dispelled by Overton. 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 through the opposition. Here it was Overton who cut the swathe. He struck with the first ball of the second over. Dickson caught behind, 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 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. 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 rose 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 I sat. I had long since concluded I was in the noisiest part of the Somerset Stand. The level of alcohol consumption in a couple of groups around me doubtless had something to do with that. Including a small group in my 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 me 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 a full four-pint carrier in the fingers of one hand is a bit of a challenge when more than that has probably already 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 I 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 (50/50 overs) (T. Banton 107, C. Overton 66*, L. Gregory 51). Kent 94 (27/50 overs) (C. Overton 5-18). Somerset won by 264 runs. Somerset 2 points. Kent 0 points.