Count no chickens

Royal London One-Day Cup. Glamorgan v Somerset. 21st April 2019. Cardiff.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

Back to the edge of my seat

This was a Somerset win of the old kind. Not to be bestowed on supporters without an extended stomach-wrenching occupation of the narrowest of narrow edges of the seat. Not to mention an assault on the blood pressure which ought to be illegal in this day and age. “Self-inflicted,” the extent of the sympathy I received when I finally arrived home and slumped in a chair.

At least on this occasion two other Somerset sufferers travelled to Cardiff with me and so the agony was shared. We took our seats in the Castell Howell Stand, right at the top to gain protection from the Welsh sun which beat down all day with a summer heat. We arrived twenty minutes before the start and had no difficulty finding seats next to the sightscreen. By my eye there were less than 300 people visible in the ground and if the crowd stretched much above 600-700 at its peak I would be surprised. There were 5038 at Taunton for the match against Kent. This was a different world.

When the cricket started my Somerset nerves were not helped by the Glamorgan bowlers getting assistance from the pitch. “There is variable bounce,” said one of my companions, “Azhar is using his feet to try to counter it.” There was movement as well. Twice Azhar mishit pulls, both of which fell safe. Twice the ball appeared to come off the back of the bat. “I wonder if the pitch is a bit slow too?” was the comment. When Azhar middle a pull behind square for four the comment was, “Lovely.” When he tried to cut de Lange the top edge was palmed ‘over the bar’ by the keeper and taken brilliantly and one-handed by Lloyd and Somerset were 16 for 1 in the seventh over. Azhar 13. Banton, who opened with Azhar, made a slow start, seemingly trying to gauge the nature of the pitch but a clip behind square for four and a hook which just cleared the boundary suggested he was getting its measure. Until de Lange bowled short outside off, gained some lift, and Banton, appearing to wave his bat at the ball was caught behind. Somerset 29 for 2 in the ninth over. Banton 14.

Trego began to make progress with a clipped and two driven boundaries but edged two more. And, as so often, Hildreth came in and immediately looked as if he was playing on a different pitch to everyone else. One ball from de Lange clearly swung away from him. He drove it along the ground through cover for four. “Well played,” the admiring comment but he too had to survive an edge past the keeper for four before settling into some carefully placed and controlled shots. One cut behind square to the boundary, “No point in chasing that!” someone said. More often he guided or stroked the ball into the gaps for ones and twos. No chance of a run was missed by a pair of old hands who had been in this position together many time before. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” rang out Trego’s voice as he called Hildreth back to turn a single into a two. There were some close-run things but no real chance of a run out. A “NO!” from Trego usually saw to that. When Trego calls, the entire ground hears the instruction.

Meschede, late of Somerset, took up the bowling from the Cathedral End from where we watched. “He’s bowling leg-cutters”, said my cricket-playing companion, “you can see him rolling his hand over the ball.” Perhaps that accounted for Trego losing his leg bail for 28. Somerset 77 for 3 in the 18th over. Now Abell joined Trego, these two the engine room of the Somerset batting order. Their response the pitch seemed to be to push determinedly for singles and twos. Attacking the ball brought risk of a mishit. Although if the bowler strayed Hildreth punished him. Wagg dropped a ball short. Hildreth hit it through point for a coruscating four. “What sort of shot was that?” I asked my more knowledgeable companion. “I don’t know, “he replied. “He sort of poked it over point. There is no point in bouncing Hildreth at that pace.” The second, perhaps overpitched, Hildreth drove straight back for four. The cheer from the Somerset support was as loud as any we had heard all morning. “It sounds like a home crowd,” someone said and there were an awful lot of Somerset hats and lanyards to be seen.

At the halfway point Somerset were 118 for 3 and Hildreth’ fifty had come up in 51 balls but, the occasional boundary apart, my companion concluded, “They can’t get the ball away.” Even so Somerset perhaps held the advantage if the pitch continued to help the bowlers constrain the batsmen. And yet a doubt nagged for it was hard not to wonder how the match might go if the pitch improved later in the day or if Somerset posted a total which Glamorgan could reach, through knowing what it was, by their own accumulation of runs.

When Glamorgan introduced Labuschagne, their Australian leg spinner, the questions picked harder at the mind. He bowled with more pace than is usually seen from a leg spinner and he persistently troubled the batsmen. Abell had never looked settled as he worked to support Hildreth’s meticulous accrual of runs. He had moved along to 18 when Labuschagne deceived him and he was stumped advancing on the ball. That the leg spinner had broken through did not come as a surprise.  Abell had never looked comfortable and Somerset, their supporter’s anxiety edging up, were 134 for 4 in the 29th over. 141 for 5 in the 31st when Gregory tried to use his feet, which is usually effective for him against spin, and yorked himself for 1. Suddenly a match which had been edging Somerset’s way was close to being in Glamorgan’s grip and the home crowd, small though it was, began to sound like one.

When Hildreth eschewed the controlled placement for ones and twos with which he had built much of his innings and tried to clear the boundary he was caught at long off for 67. Somerset were 160 for 6 in the 35th over. It was Labuschagne’s third wicket and he had ripped out the Somerset middle order. “They can push it around for ones and twos,” said my companion, “but once they try to hit out, sooner or later, they are out.” As if in confirmation, van der Merwe, who had tried to push the score along, drove at van der Gugten and was caught behind. 161 for 7. When Bess followed it was 178 for 8 in the 40th over and there was now a sense of hope in the Glamorgan cheers. There were two questions in the Somerset mind. How many runs did Somerset need to put Glamorgan under enough pressure to have to do more than accumulate? And, could Somerset bat out their overs?

The answer to those questions lay in the hands of Craig Overton, Davey and Groenewald, for they were now all that lay between Glamorgan and a target which, with due care and attention, they might expect to overhaul. Groenewald momentarily stopped Somerset hearts with a drive of van der Gugten which flew off the edge but which passed harmlessly through the vacant slip area for four. In the next over Overton raised Somerset spirits when, with the certainty he had shown against Kent, he drove Labuschagne through the covers for four. “Shot!” the spectator response. And that, in miniature, was the shape of the Somerset advance which followed as the batsmen worked to pick up the pace of scoring. Groenewald cut over rather than through point and seemed to push square at a ball which went through backward point whilst Overton edged a drive through slip, all for four. Whether the edge of the bat or the edge of the seat was under more pressure was a moot point. When Groenewald drove through cover for four the heart raced, when he hooked de Lange high towards one of the long square boundaries it sank. “You can’t do that,” someone said as the ball dropped into Hemphrey’s hands. 215 for 9 with six overs to go, Groenewald 23, and the cheer from the Glamorgan support sounded both relieved and anticipatory.

At 178 for 8 my two companions and I had speculated on what sort of total might give Somerset a chance. There were clearly wickets to be had from the pitch but batting had seemed easier, if still subject to the occasional misbehaving ball, as the white balls had softened towards the end of the innings. 220 we concluded might give Somerset a chance. 250-260 we thought would. The first had almost been achieved. The second was still some way off. When Davey popped the ball straight back towards Wagg, the heart stopped. Wagg dropped it, heart beating again. “That was as easy as a caught and bowled gets,” I said. “They always surprise you as a bowler my once leg-spinning companion said, “all your focus is, and has to be, on delivering the ball.”

Davey’s batting had improved through 2018 as he became a regular member of the side and in 2019 Overton has found the touch which, with his exceptional bowling in 2017, had taken him into the England side. In 2019 he has seemed determined to squeeze, or hit, whichever fits the state of the game, every last run out of a Somerset innings. Here the pair added, undefeated, 46 for the last wicket. The partnership was built around purposeful pushing and steering of ones and twos and some perfectly targeted hitting. Along the way Overton hit Wagg straight for six and Davey glanced and drove for four. 261 for 9 the final score. Overton 41 not out. Davey 22 not out. It was at the very top end of our calculations at 178 for 8.

 

Somerset started the Glamorgan innings where they had left off their own. With Davey and Overton. Davey was an early-season green-top bowler in 2017. In 2018 he forced his way into the front rank of Somerset pace bowlers. Here he forced his way through the Glamorgan top order, Hemphrey, Meschede and Root all dismissed for ducks before the end of his third over. “Ridiculous,” the Glamorgan comment as Root went. “Davey is all over them,” the Somerset one. A huge Somerset “home crowd” cheer accompanied Davey’s third. “Overton is all over them too,” someone commented. Labuschagne offered his pad to him, a risky option since the impact of DRS on lbw decisions, and the umpire’s finger went up. “Utter rubbish,” said a Glamorgan supporter as he picked up his things and left. As Overton ran in to bowl to Carlson someone from the Somerset support said, “Look at Overton powering in.” The ball hit the pad and Glamorgan were 21 for 5 with one run between the five batsmen.

Only Lloyd had managed to make headway and he had looked in no trouble at all. When he drove Davey through the on side and along the ground for four someone said, “Lloyd looks as if he can bat on this.” When Gregory, testing the batsmen as he has all season, had Cooke caught behind the score was 41 for 6 in the 12th over. The Somerset crowd, sounding ever more the home crowd, were rampant and the Glamorgan one silent. And then, as if someone had switched channels to a more sedate programme, things suddenly settled down. Lloyd and Wagg began by pushing the ball around, taking no risks, and were seemingly in no trouble at all. It looked a different game to the one we had been watching. The score mounted only slowly as Gregory and Groenewald kept it tight but the require rate was less than six and Glamorgan had, if nothing else, time. When Bess came on Glamorgan targeted him. 16 runs came from his first two overs. By the end of the 23rd over the score was 91 for 6, Lloyd was on 52 and the expectation of wickets had gone. The required rate though had risen to 6.3 and would rise faster as the overs ticked by unless the batsmen continued the acceleration, and the resulting risk, they had started against Bess.

When Lloyd edged Bess to third man for two the cry from Abell was, “Come on boys!” When, after a couple of tight overs from Bess, he drove him back over his head for six and then took two fours in succession off Groenewald the Glamorgan crowd began to find its voice. Then he was bowled by van der Merwe and the Somerset crowd found its voice. Glamorgan were 140 for 7. With Lloyd gone for 84 and still 122 needed any rising Somerset anxieties were given relief, for only Lloyd had scored freely.

Not for long. De Lange joined Wagg. In an instant the tempo of the game changed. The careful acceleration of the Glamorgan batsmen was replaced by an all-out assault. Twice in an over Groenewald was hit for six. Wagg lifted him straight into the Castell Howell Stand to my left and de Lange hit a gargantuan pull half way up the Fosters Grandstand to my right. Memories of the comparative ease with which Somerset’s last three batsmen had seemed to extend Somerset’s score now played on our minds.

The Somerset bowlers stuck hard to their task. Davey got one to lift alarmingly and hit de Lange on the helmet but otherwise the ball did nothing and run-scoring seemed easy. Van der Merwe switched ends to replace Groenwald and was promptly driven through extra cover for four by Wagg. Glamorgan were 165 for 7 and now needed less than 100 with 15 overs remaining. “We needed those five early wickets,” someone said. The Glamorgan batsmen were hitting through the air but always the ball seemed to land wide or just short of the fielder. Or that is how it seemed to a Somerset supporter. Once de Lange drove straight and the ball just cleared Overton’s upstretched hand on the boundary. Of the next ball a swing through midwicket landed between two fielders. Somerset hearts rose with the ball and then fell as it found safe ground. “C’mon Roely,” someone shouted as van der Merwe started an over. The Glamorgan crowd cheered as another lofted shot from Wagg beat the fielder and went for four. “C’mon lads,” shouted Bess from the boundary.

Then Wagg drove Davey straight into the hands of van der Merwe at mid-off and the score was 193 for 8 with 12 overs remaining. Glamorgan were in range though for Overton, Groenewald and Davey had built Somerset’s final total from here. As I did the calculation I noticed I was literally on the edge of my seat. Where else? Gregory returned. “He’s got his length right straight away,” said the cricket-player next to me. Hope. When Overton returned at the other end he speared his third ball in at the stumps. It seemed to surprise de Lange who started to step away to leg. Bowled! Glamorgan 202 for 9. 60 runs short. De Lange 23, 18 of them in sixes. Hope indeed and the home crowd was again Somerset.

But this match would not lie down and neither did the Glamorgan last-wicket pair. Carey and van der Gugten set about their task with a purpose. There were some boundaries of mixed provenance. Twice in succession van der Gugten edged Overton through the slip area for four, Carey drove and clipped him for two more and scooped Gregory perfectly for six, then edged him for four. Somerset emotions, and I imagine Glamorgan ones, and blood pressure were on a yo-yo. The cheers came from Glamorgan for they were moving from despair to hope. For Somerset it was just constant anxiety with occasional pin-pricks of hope if the ball flew in the air, expunged when it fell to earth.

The later Glamorgan batsmen had scored at such a pace that overs were now no longer an issue. Somerset would have to take the final wicket if they were to win and Glamorgan could take less risk as they began to push the ones and two rather than try to reach the boundary through the air. A target chased in ones and twos rachets up the tension more slowly than one chased in boundaries but it is all the more gruelling an experience for that.

With twelve runs needed I received a text. It said simply, “VDM”. With seven runs needed Abell turned to van der Merwe. A brave call to turn from pace to spin at the ‘death’. With three runs needed van der Merwe gave a ball some air. An even braver call but something was needed if Glamorgan were to be stopped. Carey drove it through the air straight to Azhar at mid off. And still the match would not lie down. Azhar fumbled the catch, let go of the ball, fell backwards, clutched it at the second attempt, and held it to his chest. There was a moment’s hesitation from the rest of the Somerset team and from the Somerset crowd. Then the team descended on Azhar and buried him beneath a pile of bodies, the Somerset crowd roused itself to a relieved cheer, the drive home was rather shorter than it might have been and two Glamorgan supporters probably got a shock when they checked the score, for their team had been anything but “rubbish”.

Result. Somerset 261 for 9 (50 overs) (J.C. Hildreth 67, C Overton 41*, M. de Lange 3-37, M. Labuschagne 3-46). Glamorgan 259 (48.1/50 overs) (D.L. Lloyd 84, G.G. Wagg 62, J.H. Davey 4-36, C. Overton 3-51). Somerset won by two runs. Somerset 2 points. Glamorgan 0 points.