A batting and bowling masterclass

Royal London One-Day Cup. Sussex v Somerset. 24th April 2019. Hove.

Toss. Sussex. Elected to field.

A batting and bowling masterclass

Tom Paxton again. Last year a concert of his ended up with my being involved in one of those mad rushes to Taunton for the first day of the season, from the wrong end of the country, that had marked the days of my exile. This year his concert put me at the right end of the country for the match but having to relive the London commuting days of my exile. Would I had then known the antidote to a 1200 strong tide of people pouring off a train and threatening to swamp you. A Wyvern hat on your head and a Somerset umbrella held out before you cuts a swathe through the most determined flood of people late for work. One of them even managed a shout of “Somerset!” and a ‘thumbs-up’. There were perhaps 700-800 people in the ground when the match started although that grew later. A Sussex supporter told me there had been 4000 in the sun at the weekend. On this day two coats were needed.

It did not seem a good toss to lose. The three forecasts I had looked at before I left had, between them, rain falling the whole day. There had been hope though, for none of them had it falling at the same time as either of the others. I took my usual wimp’s view of rain and proceeded to the covered seating at the top of the Pavilion. The view from there is through backward point to the right-handed batsman if the bowling is from the Sea End. The sky was heavily overcast too and within five overs the floodlights were on. Sussex began with Wiese and the left-arm pace of Mir Hamza. They started with some testing and tight pace bowling. Somerset’s Banton and Azhar started with some watchful defence and carefully pushed ones and twos. The eyes watched the cricket but the two Sussex supporters in front of me discussed ‘The 100’, or more to the point, its planned impact on this competition. It is impinging already.

It was the eighth over when Azhar played the first really incisive stroke of the day. A cut for four off Hamza. An over later Banton defended forward to Wiese and lost his off stump. A very un-Banton-like innings of 7 from 26 balls and Somerset were 29 for 1 in the ninth over. Three balls later Trego drove Hamza low but full to Finch at mid-off and Somerset were 30 for 2. It looked a slow pitch dismissal. That brought Hildreth to the wicket where he immediately looked, as so often, as if he was playing on a different pitch. His first ball was turned behind square for two and in the next over a cover drive rocketed to the boundary. And yet with Somerset at 37 for 2 in the 11th over in testing conditions the initiative lay with Sussex.

The Sussex bowling had been sharp and consistently on the mark and it continued in like vein when Garton, and particularly Jordan, replaced the opening attack. The response from Azhar and Hildreth looked considered, calculated and determined. The level of concentration required must have been enormous. This was one-day cricket at its best and as the intensity of the contest between bat and ball continued the first of two phases of the Somerset innings which defined the match began.

Hildreth, as much as Azhar, was now fashioning his play to the nature of the pitch and the quality of the bowling. Runs were mainly scored with carefully controlled guiding rather than forcing strokes. Often the bowling did not permit scoring at all and normally forcing strokes tended to result in a lack of timing or simply a mishit. An over from Jordan from the Sea End was typical. Hildreth mistimed a pull off the first ball to wide mid-on and failed to score. Then he drove benignly through mid-off for a single. Azhar mistimed the next ball to the same place that Hildreth had pulled the first with the same result. No run. Off the fourth he was forced to jerk back in defence of his stumps. The fifth he steered gently to third man for a single and off the sixth Hildreth repeated the stroke for the third and final run of the over. “Tight bowling,” said a Sussex supporter. Tight batting too I thought and the tension of a close match developing in the hushed buzz of the chatter that accompanies a cricket match. 62 for 2 after 17 overs, a third of the way through the innings and the match perfectly in the balance if the pitch was as slow as the batting suggested.

The sky momentarily brightened as the first loose over of the innings was severely punished by Hildreth. Watchful progress was turned into opportunistic advance as he drove Garton back over his head and over the Cromwell Road End boundary for six. “Hooray!” the shout, as much of relief as exaltation I thought, from a Somerset supporter at the Sea End. A bottom edge for two reminded of the nature of the pitch and a pull for four reminded of the price of bowling a long hop even on a slow pitch. 15 runs from the over, priceless to Somerset in a tight game.

Now Sussex turned to the slow left arm of Briggs and the leg spin of Beer. They immediately fell to testing the batsmen, perhaps further evidence of the nature of the pitch. There was a finely swept four and a reverse sweep for another four from Azhar but other than that it was tight defence and carefully nudged singles, ‘nurdled’ used to be the term and I find it is still in the dictionary. Along the way Azhar passed his first fifty of the season. “They are not turning it,” said the text, “assuming they are trying to.” Whatever they were doing they were constraining the Somerset batsmen and periodic mishits and edges constantly threatened. It was a testing time to watch in the Somerset interest. Crucially though, the score was creeping up. Even more crucially perhaps Azhar and Hildreth were keeping their wickets intact. A base, if a painstaking one, was being built. At the halfway point of the innings Somerset had carefully gathered in 108 runs. Sussex, in spite of the persistence and accuracy of their bowling were still only two wickets to the good but the mishits and edges constantly reminded that wickets were an ever-present threat.

Once, Azhar tried to break out with a powerful drive towards long off, got under the ball, it rose high, the boundary fielder moved sideways and back, got both hands to the ball but, off-balance, dropped it and it rolled over the rope. It exemplified the risk of attacking strokes. “Made hard work of that. He had it,” the comment of the unforgiving home supporter on the luckless fielder. When Hildreth drove and the ball loosely looped over mid-on for a single “Somerset are riding their luck,” the comment of another Sussex supporter. Somerset supporters must have been glued to the spot wherever they sat. This was no time to break a spell or, more to the point, a partnership.

Eventually the spell was broken as Azhar’s luck ran out. he used his feet to play Briggs, missed the ball and was stumped. Azhar looked stunned. He looked down the line the ball had taken and at the pitch before he walked off. “That was the first one I have seen turn,” said the online-watcher’s text, “although I have not seen every ball. The pitch seems to have a lot of cracks on it. Perhaps it hit one.” Somerset were 131 for 3 at the end of the 30th over, the point at which it is generally considered the score can be doubled if enough wickets are still in hand. Azhar 68 from 91 gruelling balls. Somerset perhaps on target for around 260. Not enough in many 50 overs games these days but perhaps with this pitch, just perhaps, thought the seed of hope growing in the Somerset mind.

Hildreth had gone to his fifty the ball before Azhar was out. Abell joined Hildreth and got off the mark with a cut off Beer for one. Hildreth immediately drove Beer brilliantly through the covers, the speed of the ball along the ground awakening thoughts of the normal Hildreth fare. An outside edge off Briggs, which nearly reached the boundary at the Sea End, reminded those thoughts of the risks in this match but brought three precious runs. The next ball Abell drove through midwicket for four but for the most part the batting, and the bowling, settled back into the pattern of the Azhar-Hildreth partnership. Tight bowling, nudged runs and mistimed strokes.

Hamza replaced Beer at the Sea End. Four times in his first over the batsmen turned or pulled the ball into the on side. Four times the ball made its way dutifully to the deep fielder. For times a single was scored. “Not much driving so the pitch probably is slow,” said the text, “Bowlers well coached by Gillespie I imagine.” Hildreth tried to pick up the pace. He reverse swept Beer for four but an over later a top edge off Jordan looped over mid-on and was caught. Hildreth 81 from 92 balls, but just one six and four fours provided the statistical evidence for the nature of the pitch, the quality and restraint of Hildreth’s innings and the unrelenting nature of the Sussex attack. It also helped explain the tension which Somerset hearts had been holding as every ball was bowled, every squeezed run scored, every ball defended and every stroke mishit. 186 for 4 with just ten overs left and barely an inch of ground in the match given up without a fight by either side was a grinding experience for both sets of supporters.

The subdued chatter in the crowd matched the mood. The chatter was there and people were talking in numbers but the conversation seemed to be being spoken in hushed tones as if no-one could judge how the match was going. To the Somerset supporter the batsmen had seemed, if a little scratchily, in control. The runs total though was concerningly low for the stage of the game. To the Sussex supporter the bowling must have seemed reassuringly disciplined but the wickets had obdurately refused to come. It was tension of the old sort from the days when 250 was a good score in a 55 or 60 over match and the tension was built up and drawn out as the match slowly unfolded and took shape.

With the match capable of going either way, Gregory joined Abell and the second key phase of the Somerset innings began. For two overs they continued the steady advance. Then Somerset struck. Edgily at first. A top edge from Abell off Briggs flew over the backward point fielder. Just. But it went for four. Two balls later Gregory stood firmly astride his crease and drove Briggs back over his head and over the Sea End boundary for six. Off the final ball of the over Abell reverse swept for four. In the next over Gregory pulled Wiese twice in succession. From the top of the Pavilion, as at the top of the Somerset Pavilion at Taunton, you cannot see the boundary. Twice the ball flew high in our direction, twice the players stood, as if in a tableau, watching it, twice, after it disappeared from view, it was the scattered Somerset voices in the crowd and the Somerset players that cheered, and twice the umpire’s arms were raised. Somerset were 232 for 4 with still six overs left. Now the Somerset supporter’s spirit was rising although the prospect of a final score of under 300 played on the anxiety.

From here Gregory and Abell pushed Somerset forward with a succession of ones and hard run twos, scoring off most balls. Once Gregory mishit and once a fielder misfielded, perhaps the pressure to score and the pressure to stop the scoring playing a part. When Abell tried to scoop he misjudged and the ball looped limply into the hands of short third man. Almost invisibly, alongside Hildreth and then Gregory, he had made 44 from 46 balls with only four fours. With Gregory he had added 64 in under seven overs and Somerset were 250 for 5 with nearly three overs left. If the pitch really was slow then Somerset had pieced together what was becoming a substantial score was the hope which steadily grew, although the old adage ‘you can’t tell a good score until both sides have batted’ was mentioned by more than one watcher.

Somerset promoted Overton above Bartlett. I have never been convinced by such tactics. It would be an interesting piece of research to find out how often a suddenly promoted batsman actually succeeds. My sense is that the tactic fails more often than it works. It didn’t work here. When Overton was out for a well-struck boundary Gregory followed almost immediately. He had twice driven through the on side, once for a spectacularly struck four and then for two which had brought up his fifty. It had taken just 25 balls. There was applause and, from Somerset supporters dotted around the ground, cheers. When he tried to drive Jordan he lost his middle stump. He had though spectacularly built upon the foundation so carefully laid by Azhar, Hildreth and Abell. Bartlett, whom Overton had displaced, came in and with a flurry of strokes, including a six over the square boundary and a scoop for four to third man, scored 17 from nine balls. He took Somerset to 283 for 8. 23 runs beyond the halfway estimate.

“Do you think we have enough?” was the question I was asked, and asked in return, in the interval. I was not sure and those I spoke to weren’t either. There was a general view that Somerset had batted well against some excellent Sussex bowling. That they had given themselves a real chance. There was confidence in Somerset’s pace attack to bowl well and put Sussex under pressure. The unknown factors were how the Sussex batsmen would perform, how the pitch would perform as the day wore on and, as much as anything, the great unpredictability of cricket.

When Salt struck Davey’s first ball for four it was a reminder of what he is capable and perhaps an indication of his intent. Only three days previously he had hit a maiden 137 from 106 balls against Kent. When he was lbw to Overton in the second over “Oh no!” was the reaction of a Sussex supporter. When Hildreth dropped van Zyl at slip in the fourth that must have been the thought of every Somerset supporter, especially as the ball had flown straight into Hildreth’s waiting hands and popped straight back out again rather as a brick might unexpectedly fall out of a wall. By now the cloud was beginning to thicken and those with rain radar on their phones were beginning to worry about the weather and DLS par scores. There is always something to rachet up the tension in a tight one-day match. Wickets devastate batting sides’ chances in a DLS calculation as much as they do in a full match which is precisely what DLS calculations are designed to do. Dropped catches can have the opposite effect if wickets do not soon follow.

After three boundaries from Evans under the ever-gathering cloud the impact of that dropped catch began to weigh heavily on the Somerset mind. When van Zyl clipped Davey to midwicket and Overton took a good low diving catch Sussex were 27 for 2 and the spirit lifted. Not just because of the wicket. Because too the DLS par score rose well beyond Sussex’s total and it was also impossible not to see hope for Somerset in that stroke. It looked a typical slow pitch dismissal, the batsman failing to connect cleanly and the ball misfiring into a catchable loop. Somerset hearts began to beat a little faster. When Evans played and missed at two balls in succession, drove one through the air tantalisingly short of mid-on and was dropped off a sharp return catch, all against Davey, it had become apparent that the Sussex batsmen were finding the pitch no easier than the Somerset batsmen had done.

Indicative of the mountain which Sussex were beginning to face, even after Evans had lifted Davey over the deep midwicket boundary for six, was the score. Sussex were still only 46 for 2 after 11 overs and the DLS score was nearly 30 higher. Somerset relinquished nothing of the pressure they had created. Off the last ball of the next over Finch drove hard at Gregory, who had replaced Overton, towards the Sea End. The ball flew towards the Cromwell Road End. A lucky edge the initial thought of myself and the two Sussex supporters in front of me for we had heard the ‘snick’. But the Somerset players were celebrating and the stumps, on closer inspection, looked misshapen. Bowled. “We’re in big trouble now,” the home supporter’s conclusion. An over later Evans lifted Groenewald over midwicket towards the Pavilion. The ball dropped below our sightline and towards the boundary edge. The Somerset players watched, then cheered as Overton ran in from the boundary having taken the catch. Sussex were 48 for 4 with the DLS par score nearly 100 runs into the distance. Somerset supporters were suddenly breathing more easily and hearts were lifting fast.

Then, with the score on 62 for 4, 222 runs short of the target with 33.3 overs remaining the rain came. It stopped long enough for a restart to be announced and then, as if affronted by the decision, came back to fall twice as heavily as it had done at the first attempt. In retrospect, and as far as can be judged from a truncated match, the conclusion must be that the Somerset score was probably considerably above par. Somerset’s bowlers, taking full advantage of the pressure that must have created, lost absolutely nothing in comparison with the Sussex attack and had good reason to believe they were well on the way to out bowling their opposition when the match was ended by the rain. And Somerset had won their first five matches of the season.

Result. Somerset 283 for 8 (50 overs) (J.C. Hildreth 81, Azhar Ali 68, L. Gregory 50, Mir Hamza 3-54 (econ 5.40). Sussex 62 for 4 (16.3 overs). Somerset win by 68 runs DLS method. Somerset 2 points. Sussex 0 points.