Slow pitch blues

Royal London One-Day Cup. Gloucestershire v Somerset. 28th April 2019. Bristol.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

Slow pitch blues

“Does this bus stop at Nevil Road for the cricket?” I asked the bus driver. “I hope so, because I don’t know what I am going to do with this lot if it doesn’t,” was the reply as he pointed to about a dozen assorted men all dressed more or less as I was. Observation is not necessarily my strong point it seems. “We can expect some fireworks today then, can we?” was the question put to me by a Gloucestershire supporter when I told him, in answer to his previous question, that Somerset had topped 350 from 39 overs in their last match.

A goodly number of people walked with us to the ground. Enough to make the paucity of people, compared with Taunton at least, inside the ground a surprise. By the start there were perhaps 1000 although there was an encouraging number of school children present. There was no difficulty finding a seat near the sightscreen at the Ashley Down Road End. The boundary cuts in quite sharply at the side I sat, third man to the right-hander, and the wicket was well over towards me so the stumps looked very close. It was easy to see the first ball clip Banton’s pad and run down to the Pavilion End for four. Little was anyone to know that in the next 35 overs only three more balls would reach the boundary.

For those 35 overs it was as if the ball was being played with complete safety for fear that introducing any force into a stroke would result in disaster. A “steady start” as it might have been described in a Championship match half a century before. Here, a pointer that Bristol was living up to its name for slow pitches, the ball was either defended or pushed gently into gaps or to the deep fielders for ones, sometimes twos and, rarely, a precious three.

The temperature was more friendly to the spectator than it had been at Taunton on Friday or Hove last Wednesday but unless, as it occasionally did, the sun broke through there was still a hint of a chill. A one coat rather than a two-coat day. The cloud was fairly high, light grey, trying to become white. It fitted what, to my eye, is a rather utilitarian-looking ground. It does not have the character of Worcester or the compactness of Chelmsford and it has no covered seating to speak of. The seating though is comfortable and views are uninterrupted.

The crowd may have been small compared to Taunton but it was a chattering crowd and not just about the match in hand. There was much chatter about Gloucestershire cricket off the field and even more about football, Bristol Rovers in particular, and club football. But there was talk about the match in hand too. As the Gloucestershire bowlers ran in and dropped the ball on the spot the Somerset batsmen tried to find the gaps but could not the boundaries. “No-one is going to score 400 on this. If they keep their wickets and push up to 260 it would make life difficult for us,” turned out to be a prescient Gloucestershire comment on proceedings.

The pattern seemed to be set by the ninth over when Higgins called the keeper up to the stumps for Azhar in an attempt to constrain him further. When in the next over Azhar edged Payne narrowly past the keeper van Buuren ran hard from third man, slid along the boundary and gathered the ball, restricting the batsmen to a single. It was typical of the sharpness of Gloucestershire’s interception of the ball as the pattern of the innings developed into accurate containing bowling with no pace, measured stroke play and fielding intent on restricting runs. It came as a surprise when a ball from Payne rushed Banton’s stroke and yorked him. Somerset 28 for 1 in the tenth over.

Trego did fashion a rare boundary with a neatly executed glance but when he tried to sweep van Buuren’s slow left arm he was leg before wicket and Somerset were 38 for 2 after 12 overs. When Hildreth, unusually as constrained as anyone, tried to break out with a ferocious on drive against Higgins’ nagging accuracy it lifted off the ground and Howells, at midwicket, took off and plucked it out of the air above his head with one hand. Hildreth had, for him, gathered a meagre harvest of five runs from a sumptuous offering of 15 balls. It was a worrying equation reflected in Somerset’s score of 51 for 3 as they began to consume the second third of their overs. It fed a worry with slow pitches that a constrained first innings score apparently commensurate with the nature of the pitch can suddenly look achievable when the second team starts their innings.

The hope of the Somerset supporter now was that Azhar, Abell and Bartlett could build a base from which Gregory could launch an assault. The Gloucestershire crowd had become quite animated, perhaps sensing an opportunity for their team. When Gloucestershire turned to the slow left arm spin of van Buuren and Smith, Azhar and Abell began to push the singles just a little more often. Twice in two balls Azhar took two from van Buuren but the Somerset run rate was still nearer three an over than four with overs slipping by.

When Azhar tried to reverse sweep Smith to the short boundary he seemed to lose control of the stroke, take one hand off the bat and was bowled. Somerset 86 for 4 just after they had entered the second half of their overs. 260 seemed an awful long way off even with the prospect of the rapid acceleration that tends to come in the later overs even on slow pitches “Can you remember when a team last came here playing 11 right-handers in a one-day match?” asked one Gloucestershire supporter of another. “It makes it much more difficult to attack the spinners when we have a huge boundary on one side.

Abell and the new batsman, Bartlett, continued the apparent policy of pushing for singles and taking the occasional, very occasional, two. It was more assertive now though. The singles began to come more often and the batsmen seemed, to the supporter’s eye, to take ever shorter singles, challenging the fielder’s throw, trying to build the score. Applause from Somerset supporters began to make an impression. “Come on Gloucestershire, stop this run stealing,” the invocation from the Gloucestershire support. “They are very fast between the wickets, Somerset,” followed an electrically-fast run two. “No other team would have run two there.” Perhaps fortunately for Somerset, Gloucestershire’s throwing did not quite match the quality of their pick-ups. I think I saw the stumps hit only once.

It didn’t pay off every time. Once, Abell and Bartlett, like two greyhounds after the same hare, found themselves hurtling to the same end. They both made it. Bartlett turned on the proverbial sixpence and hurtled back to the other end. If a human being can fly Bartlett did just that in his dive and he flew fast enough to beat the returning ball. Undaunted, in the next over Abell called, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” and a hard-run two resulted. It was hair-raising to watch but it started to re-plant the hope of a competitive score in the Somerset mind, and Somerset applause and one or two shouts of encouragement began to make themselves heard.

With Gloucestershire beginning to rotate their bowling Bartlett broke the boundary famine by driving Payne straight back over his head for four. With the growing ration of singles and a rare hard-run three, as the fielder could only knock the ball away from the boundary rope before gathering and throwing it in, the over produced ten runs. Relief. In the next over a hard-run two produced another dive from Bartlett but, even looking down the pitch as he ran towards me, it was clear he had not made it. 141 for 5 in the 38th over, the run rate now nearer four an over than three but the Gloucestershire comment about needing 260 left a question hanging. Had the pair been able to get Somerset far enough quickly enough? Bartlett had made a tightly run 29 from 36 balls in the attempt.

Gregory began as if he had all the time in the world. Solid defence his initial intervention. Then his first scoring stroke. A drive straight of mid-on, it cleared the straight long on fielder and my head, hit one of the balconies on the flats at the Ashley Down Road End, bounced back, cleared my head again, and bounced out of the seat next to someone ducking in the front row. To cheer or take more note of the Gloucestershire supporter who had warned me on arrival to “keep your eyes on the ball if you sit here”? The ones in the back of your head too I concluded. Gregory clipped the next ball fine of fine leg for four and suddenly we were watching a different game. “Well done Lewis,” the cry from the now animated Somerset support.

When Abell tried to pick up the tempo he drove at Smith but only managed to connect with the edge and was caught at backward point for 42 from 53 balls and Somerset were 154 for 6 with ten overs left. Oh, that Abell had stayed with Gregory a little longer was my anxious thought. Needing to attack hard over ten overs with just four wickets standing reduces probability to possibility. Gregory and van der Merwe tried to bridge that gap by reverting to pushing for singles and twos although at a faster rate than earlier. Once they ran a very tight three from a van der Merwe square drive. “Well run,” the Somerset cry as the supporters added their encouragement.

More Somerset cheers erupted when Gregory promptly changed the tempo by driving Higgins back over his head and into the Ashley Down Road Entrance. Even louder cheers when he hooked the next ball over the short boundary, over the concourse behind it, wide enough to take a large temporary stand on T20 days, and, on the bounce, in through the serving window of the ice cream van from whence it was ejected like a hot potato.

When van der Merwe drove and was caught at third man for 15 from 14 balls Overton joined Gregory. Soon he had driven Payne straight back for four and turned Howell fine for another as the singles continued to come. Gregory pulled Payne over midwicket and cleared the boundary. Two balls later Overton drove him flat over long on for another six. The ball landed about ten feet to my right, scattering the occupants of the seats as it came. A cricket ball hit flat and which carries that far looks like an incoming missile and a lethal one. The Somerset cheers were now loud and plentiful as the size of the Somerset score grew and the size of the Somerset contingent in the crowd became apparent.

With just over two overs left and the Gloucestershire man’s 260 a more than fanciful thought Gregory drove at Howell, miscued, the ball flew high and he was caught. 52 off 33 balls. 229 for 8. Thereafter Overton, Groenewald and Davey could only manage ones and twos and Somerset came up 18 runs short although Overton had managed 25 off 20 balls. As I conducted my customary interval circumnavigation I was concerned the Gloucestershire batsmen might be able to score more quickly off Somerset’s faster bowlers, or that one batsman cutting loose might make the difference. Someone else was concerned Somerset do not have a genuine ‘death’ bowler. The consensus was, given the turgid nature of the pitch, Somerset would hold the advantage provided they took enough early wickets to put and keep Gloucestershire under pressure.

Within two balls they were under pressure. Dent, the non-striker, had set off on a run, been sent back and Overton, the bowler, had run him out. 1 for 1. Overton and Davey tightened the screw with some very accurate bowling and the Somerset fielders were their usual predatory selves. After ten overs Gloucestershire were but 26 for 1. The DLS par score had jumped at the fall of the wicket and the gap had only closed marginally. But, helped by an edge from Hammond that flew through the slip area for four, the gap began to narrow. A pair of twos to Roderick off Davey and a steady trickle of pushed singles helped the score along and at 43 for 1 it caught up with the DLS par score. The match in the balance according to DLS and it felt like that in the stands, at least to a Somerset supporter. Gloucestershire voices were less optimistic.

When Gregory replaced Davey, Roderick edged him through to Banton. “You could hear the snick from here,” the comment. My ageing ears concurred. When, next ball, Howell edged Gregory towards backward point van de Merwe leap forward and held the ball. 43 for 3 the score. Somerset were ahead but when the Somerset cheers were done the tension still hung in the air. “Why did they change the batting order?” a plaintiff Gloucestershire voice asked. “They have left two youngsters to deal with it.” The two “youngsters”, Hammond and Bracey, played as the early Somerset batsmen had. Balls were defended, singles were pushed, the occasional two was snatched and the only boundary was a four through the ‘slips’. The fielders attacked the ball hard and threw hard at the stumps but the batsmen were increasingly finding the deep rather than the inner ring fielders as the Somerset hope felt at 43 for 3 began to turn into anxiety.

The fourth Somerset wicket had fallen at 86 in the 26th over. The fourth Gloucestershire wicket fell at 89 – in the 26th over. Bracey had skied Davey and van der Merwe, moving in from the boundary, judged a difficult catch perfectly. Glances at scorecards had people looking at each other. This match was in the balance again. When Hammond edged, Banton dived full length to his right, only the ends of his fingers touched the ball and the balance of the match was unchanged. The required run rate had though risen above six an over, just enough on a slow pitch, with wickets lost, to start to rachet up the tension.

Gradually, as the Somerset bowlers and fielders stuck to their task the required rate edged up. The DLS par score still gave Somerset the edge but the edge never seemed to increase at least not meaningfully. They were ahead but unable to build on their ascendancy. The signs of rising tension were in the air. The clenched pit of the stomach, the gradual quietening of the crowd, the increasingly taut faces, the quiet expressions of anxiety from spectators on both sides, and the constant glances at the scoreboard.

Then Groenewald struck. Azhar moved in from the cover boundary as Hammond skied the ball towards him and took the catch. Gloucestershire 114 for 5. Hammond 48. At the end of the 32nd over it was 117 for 5. At the end of their 32nd over Somerset had been 117 for 5. The required run rate was over seven and the bowling gave nothing but the identical scores gave Gloucestershire hope. Van Buuren and Taylor were at the wicket. “Van Buuren only has one fifty for us and I wish Taylor was the Taylor of four years ago,” said a Gloucestershire voice as the tight bowling, incisive fielding, single pushing and the two-snatching continued. When Taylor pulled Davey hard, and wide of long on, van der Merwe set of from deep square leg, ran as if he was chasing the wind, dived and kept the scurrying batsmen to two. “Now, that is fielding,” the comment as Somerset hopes rose as the required run rate grew to eight.

Two balls later the smack of leather on willow left no doubt as Taylor drove Davey over long off. Six! When van Buuren drove him over long on for another six someone said, “The crowd has come alive.” Not exactly. It had been avidly alive throughout but metaphorically holding its breath as the match edged one way or the other. But now the Gloucestershire supporters had found their voice, Gloucestershire had two batsmen at the wicket able and prepared to hit out in tandem and they had created some real momentum. Suddenly Gloucestershire were 162 for 5, 81 short of their target with 11 overs left and the required rate falling. It was a dangerous moment for Somerset.

Abell brought back Overton for his final three overs. Overton stemmed the flow but in two overs at the other end van der Merwe conceded three boundaries. The Gloucestershire onslaught had all but enabled the score to catch up with the DLS par score. It sank into this Somerset mind, and, I imagine those behind the anxiety strewn faces of others, that to win Somerset would now have to bowl Gloucestershire out. The anxiety was fuelled by the ease with which the two batsmen were playing and scoring. Then, with Somerset’s hold on the match being loosened by the ball, Overton broke the partnership. Van Buuren skied a pull, Azhar ran in from the boundary and took the catch. 197 for 6. 46 needed with five overs left and the required rate rising again, now towards nine.

When Gregory bowled an over for four runs the rate reached ten. ‘In the balance’ is a much-overworked phrase but it seemed appropriate now. When Groenewald replaced Overton, the batsmen, having played out the Gregory over with gently placed singles, targeted him. Their approach was confident, not desperate, and 17 runs flowed from the over. Taylor drove Groenewald back over his head for four and the new batsman, Higgins, drove him onto one of the balconies of the flats, then cut him behind square to tumultuous cheering from the Gloucestershire supporters. The match was now in Gloucestershire’s grip. Another tight Gregory over conceded five singles before the batsmen targeted Groenewald again. This time the pressure told as he bowled three off-side wides and a full toss which Higgins deposited over the square leg boundary for a huge six. Gregory was left with the impossible task of defending one run and 260 seemed a pretty good assessment of a winning first inning total.

We did not get the fireworks feared by the Gloucestershire supporter on the bus before the match and we did have to negotiate a heavy ration of turgid overs, but, in the end, we did get quite a match.

Result. Somerset 242 for 9 (50 overs) (L. Gregory 52 (33 balls), Azhar Ali 43 (85), T.B. Abell 42 (53), B.A.C. Howell 3-45 (econ 4.50). Gloucestershire 246 for 6 (49.2/50 overs) (G.L. van Buuren 61 (62), M.A.H. Hammond 48 (83), J.M.R. Taylor 48* (45). Gloucestershire won by four wickets. Gloucestershire 2 points. Somerset 0 points.