Back to the edge of my seat

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

Glamorgan. C.R. Hemphrey, C.A.J.Meschede, M.Labuschagne, D.L. Lloyd, W.T. Root, K.S. Carlson, C.B. Cooke (c) (w), G.G. Wagg, M. de Lange, L.J. Carey, T.van der Gugten.

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

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 20 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.

IMG_1193 RLODC 50-over Glam v Som 210419 Sophia Gardens in the Somerset innings
The view from the author’s seat at the top of the Castell Howell Stand during the Somerset innings. The Riverside Stand is at the far side of the ground. The River Taff is beyond the trees.
IMG_1209 RLODC 50-over Glam v Som 190419 - height - XXX Stand
The other view from author’s seat.

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 to add to the anxiety, “Azhar is using his feet to try to counter it.” There was movement too. 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 middled a pull behind square for four the comment was, “Lovely.” When he tried to cut de Lange the top edge was palmed over his head by the keeper and taken brilliantly, one-handed, at slip by Lloyd. Somerset were 16 for 1 in the seventh over. Banton, who had opened with Azhar, made a slow start, seemingly trying to gauge the nature of the pitch, but then 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 stump and gained some lift. Banton, appearing to wave his bat at the ball, was caught behind. Somerset were 29 for 2 in the ninth over, both openers gone. Azhar 13. Banton 14.

Trego, in at three, 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 flew 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 times before. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” rang out from Trego as he called Hildreth back to turn a single into a two. There were some close-run things as they took Somerset forward, but no real chance of a run out. A “NO!” from Trego usually saw to that. When Trego calls, the entire ground shudders at 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 Hildreth, these two the engine room of the Somerset batting order. Their response to 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, although it looke like neither cut nor drive. “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 of their innings Somerset were 118 for 3. Hildreth’s 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.

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.

IMG_1199 RLODC 50-over Glam v Som 210419 Som in trouble as C Overton leads the revival.
The scoreboard at the River Taff End shows Somerset struggling with 13 overs remaining. Bess fell shortly afterwards before Craig Overton led Somerset to a defensible total.

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 hope in the Glamorgan cheers. Anxious looks on the Somerset faces, There were too, two questions in the Somerset mind. How many runs did Somerset need if they were to put Glamorgan under enough pressure to have to do more than accumulate runs? 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 off 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. 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 remaining, Groenewald 23, and the cheer from the Glamorgan support, relieved and anticipatory.

IMG_1197 RLODC 50-over Glam v Som 210419 C Overton at the start of his innings
Craig Overton preparing the ground for his crucial innings.

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 Somerset’s final score. Overton 41 not out. Davey 22 not out. It was at the very top end of Somerset supporter’s calculations at 178 for 8.

IMG_1204 RLODC 50-over Glam v Som 210419 Pavilion during interval
The Pavilion during the interval between the innings.

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. In this match, 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 cheer worthy of a home crowd accompanied Davey’s third wicket. “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 to leave the ground. As Overton ran in to bowl at 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 against the persistent Somerset bowling, 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.” But 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 almost in an instant, as if someone had switched television channels to a more sedate programme than the one they had been watching, things 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. The score mounted only slowly as Gregory and Groenewald kept things tight, but the required 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 constant 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 back over the bowler’s 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.

The relief was short-lived. De Lange joined Wagg. Immediately, 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, the ball landing not far 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 Somerset minds.

The Somerset bowlers though stuck hard to their task. Davey persuaded one ball 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. Off the next ball a swing through midwicket landed between two fielders. Somerset hearts rose with each of those two balls, and fell with them as they 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,” responded Bess from the boundary.

Wagg promptly 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 Somerset supporters again sounded like the home crowd.

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 boundaries, although 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 on both sides were all helplessly clinging on to a yo-yo. The cheers were coming 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 twos rather than try to reach the boundary through the air. A target chased in ones and twos rachets up the tension more excruciatingly than one chased in boundaries, and 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 came to the same conclusion and turned to van der Merwe. A brave call to turn from pace to spin at such a stage and under such pressure. With three runs needed van der Merwe gave the ball some air. An even braver call, but something was needed if Glamorgan were to be stopped. Carey drove through the air straight to Azhar at mid off. And still the match would not lie down. Azhar fumbled the catch. He let go of the ball, fell backwards and landed flat on his back, clutched the ball at the second attempt as he fell, and held it tight to his chest as he lay on the ground. 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 as the Somerset crowd roused itself to a relieved cheer.

The drive home was rather shorter than it might have been, and a Glamorgan supporter probably got a shock when he checked the score, for his 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.