Nightmare on Watling Street

Royal London One-Day Cup. Middlesex v Somerset. 1st May 2019. Radlett.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.

Nightmare on Watling Street

It was like the reverse of being in one of those nightmares in which, however fast you run, the plodding steps of the chasing ogre always closes the gap until you wake up in a cold sweat. At Radlett it was Somerset who did the plodding in pursuit of the Middlesex ogre which raced increasingly far into the distance and never really looked like being caught. There was no cold sweat. Just a sinking feeling, which started when the Middlesex openers snatched control of the game, and which sank deeper and deeper as the day wore on. There was never any respite for Somerset.

There was a decent size crowd, perhaps a couple of thousand. The first indications of that was the trail of people walking up the hill from the railway station to the ground about a mile away. Differently dressed they could have been Roman traders or soldiers going about their business nearly two millennia before, for the road to the cricket from Radlett station is Watling Street. It had a timeless tree-lined feel about it once you were out of the town. The thing about Roman roads is they are dead straight. No chance of starting to wonder if you have missed a turn. And being a Roman road Watling Street takes no prisoners where gradients are concerned. However steep, it just goes straight up.

The ground has gradients of its own. It is shaped rather like an upturned saucer with one end, in line with the pitch at the Pavilion End, propped up. The downward gradient, away from the square, at that end is only marginal. At the other end it is, in first-class cricket ground terms, as steep as you are likely to see. The outfield is mildly undulating. Not the ideal outfield, in modern terms, for a match at this level but it brings some of the spice of variety back into the game. A variety which has been gradually ironed out of top flight cricket in recent decades.

Once in the ground, the car park aside, there is no real visible sign of modern civilisation. The ground is almost entirely ringed with trees and, where you can see beyond them, there are more trees on the hills. There is nothing to suggest the scene has changed since the Romans cut Watling Street through it. If an off duty Roman soldier had emerged from those trees to watch an afternoon’s cricket it would not have been a total surprise. In an age when plans for the future of the game change rapidly and mutate endlessly some reference to the perspective of cricket over centuries rather than a few short years might do the game no harm.

The automatic toss which has existed in cricket since the first code of laws was introduced in 1744, and probably before, still persists in this form of the game. The old adage, “When you win the toss – bat. If you are in doubt, think about it, then bat. If you have very big doubts, consult a colleague then bat.”, attributed to W.G. Grace, does not. At Radlett Somerset followed the modern convention in one-day cricket and asked Middlesex to bat. From there the match accelerated away from the age of Rome and into the modern world of big bats and express scoring. It ran away from Somerset at the speed of the hurtling commuter trains which could be heard just beyond the trees from where I sat at the top end of the ground. Middlesex never paused to look back.

Holden was first away when he struck Craig Overton for two fours in his first over although one owed as much to the edge as the middle. The other was a lofted on drive. The lofted drive was to be a feature of the Middlesex innings which Somerset were unable to contain. That was particularly so when the ball was driven to the end of the ground with the deep slope. It was not just the bowlers who struggled to contain the batsmen. The fielders struggled to contain the ball. Once, in the early stages, the fielder was clearly beaten by a spiteful bounce. At other times the fielder would dive across the ball with it bouncing over or under his outstretched arm or hand. At least twice I was close enough to see the look of surprise on the face of the defeated fielder. The Middlesex batsmen played their part too by the force of their strokes.

By the end of the eighth over Middlesex were 37 for 0, Holden had complemented his on drive with one on the off side and Robson had neatly driven Overton to the square boundary. Davey, the pick of the Somerset bowlers, had managed to concede only seven runs but, crucially, neither he nor Overton had taken a wicket. Middlesex were loose and I wondered, as I often do, if W.G. Grace had a point. The crowd responded to the Middlesex batting with growing chatter, out of which rose cheers for the boundaries. The chat was not all cricket. There was surprise, laughter and camaraderie too as groups of friends met as much for the act of meeting as for the cricket, such is the nature of crowds at outgrounds; and such is the dual enjoyment which many derive from going to them. The increasing early ascendancy of Middlesex’s cricket gave added impetus to their enjoyment as appreciation of the cricket and the chat fed one another.

Groenewald came in for particularly heavy punishment as Robson took the lead in the Middlesex charge. He systematically hit through the air as Somerset continued to struggle to field the ball cleanly on the bounce. Three times in an over from Groenewald Robson lofted the drive. Once for six and twice for four. Once, Bartlett and Groenewald ran towards each other and dived full length at a ball just inside the boundary. Both failed to connect as they slid past each other. After 20 overs Middlesex were 118 for no wicket and Somerset seemed to have few answers to the onslaught. After van der Merwe had bowled two overs Abell turned to Azhar’s occasional leg spin, perhaps an admission that the selection of a second spinner in the side might have been advisable. Chasing a large total against a pair of spinners on the right sort of pitch can be as uphill a task as walking from the station to the ground had been. I waited for W.G. Grace to emerge from the trees with some words of wisdom. The best decisions are of course easiest made after the event. And Middlesex seemed to have been no wiser before the event than Somerset for they had also only played one specialist spinner.

Two fours over midwicket from Holden in Azhar’s first over suggested Somerset were fast losing any remaining grip they had on the match. In Azhar’s second over Holden tried to repeat those strokes with the result that the ball dropped into the hands of Davey, the quiet but increasingly effective man of Somerset cricket, at deep midwicket. Middlesex were 138 for 1 after 23 overs. Holden 45. There was growing foreboding in the watching Somerset mind as to how large the final total might be, for the inherent risk in the lofted drive apart, Middlesex appeared to be advancing at their leisure.

Gubbins joined Robson and, after the briefest of looks at the bowling, tore into the Somerset attack. Once he was in his stride, rather like a Roman legion on the advance, no-one stood long against him apart from van der Merwe. As Gubbins’ score grew, Azhar, Trego, who replaced him for an over, Overton, Gregory and even the quietly restraining Davey were all struck for two fours in an over. The ball seemed forever to be scything over the grass, or streaking in low arcs across the sky, or past the trees before bouncing across the boundary. Gradually though the fielders got the measure of the slope and the undulations. The misfields fell away although once or twice, on another day, a perfectly-timed dive might just have stopped a boundary.

This level of cricket is played at such a pitch that players must have to be completely fired up and have all their senses and focus in perfect harmony to pull off some of the fielding of which Somerset are capable. And, just as much, to systematically contain and break through with the ball too, for on most modern one-day pitches the margin for bowling error is razor thin. There will be days when it just does not come together with theball or in the field. Perhaps this was one such for Somerset. Where, on such a day, those things come together for the opposing batsmen, as they must have done for Middlesex, and Gubbins in particular, the game runs away at an alarming rate. When, eventually Gubbins was out to van der Merwe for 90 from 59 balls Middlesex were 255 for four with ten overs still to be bowled. It was a devastating innings which left a score far beyond what Somerset must have bargained for in prospect. While Gubbins was charging through the Somerset defences Robson advanced to a century at a, by comparison, almost invisible run a ball. He and Taylor (6), fell to Davey and Overton but the damage had been done. Even van der Merwe conceded nearly six runs an over.

I watched the last ten overs or so of the innings from the bottom end of the ground in conversation with three or four other Somerset supporters as Middlesex built on the start given to them by Robson, Holden and Gubbins. Only from there could you appreciate the full extent of the slope particularly at the bottom end of the ground. There was a small secondary scoreboard at the top end of the ground. Stood at the bottom end, the ‘saucer’ effect meant you could only see the top line of numbers. Behind us, even further down in a shallow hollow stood the “Food Village” of three or four outlets. One of which, at the very bottom end, was an ice cream van. Investigation revealed the, now all-too-common, absence of scoop ice cream. A ‘choc-ice-on-a-stick’ the barely adequate substitute. How do you eat those things without the chocolate cascading perilously close to your shirt? The man in the van was in an even more invidious position. He said he was used to being at the top of the ground where he could position his van with a perfect raised view of the cricket. From his new position all he could see was a collection of players’ heads bobbing up and back along his foreshortened horizon.

The last ten overs of the Middlesex innings were a bit of a blur. The detail of the conversation with my fellow supporters I recall better. Our estimates of the final Middlesex score stretched beyond 350 and upwards with the consensus being with the upwards. The slope and the undulating outfield we concluded were probably responsible for some of the Somerset fielding errors for as the innings progressed the errors died away. The Middlesex players, we thought, might cope better having probably played some second eleven cricket at Radlett but the slope alone could not account for the Middlesex dominance.

As to the last ten overs the ball continued to fly and the fielders continued to chase it as it accelerated down the slopes. Two wickets fell in an over from Gregory. Simpson bowled for 32 and Eskanazi caught by van der Merwe for 30. The wickets did not slow the Middlesex charge. That continued at 11 an over. Most of the Middlesex batsmen who were out perished through being caught in the deep as the apparent policy of lofted driving and, where the ball was short, pulling, continued unabated to the end. The last over, bowled by Gregory, conceded 16 runs including a no ball and a wide. Middlesex it seemed were scoring at will. It was difficult to comprehend after Somerset’s astonishing start to the season and you could see the disbelief in the watching Somerset faces. 364 for 6 the final tally. Len Hutton’s 364, made at the Oval in 1939 against Australia, was once famous in cricket for being the highest individual first-class innings. It took a cricketing genius, Garry Sobers, to overhaul it nearly 20 years later. Somerset would need a performance of comparable proportions to overhaul Middlesex.

The Middlesex crowd were all achatter and wreathed in smiles. I set out on my circumnavigation in good time before the Somerset innings got underway. I never completed it. About two thirds of the way around I was met by a barrier and a sign which forbade further progress. A shame. I am far from being the only one whose day at the cricket is not complete without a circumnavigation of the ground. Instead, I negotiated my way into the Middlesex members enclosure as that was the only place with access to the outfield to where spectators had been invited. An inspection of the pitch as it was rolled revealed nothing to my enquiring but entirely blank mind, at least it is blank where knowledge of pitches is concerned.

The Somerset innings was as much a procession as the Middlesex one had been a charge. There were flurries of resistance, even of advance, particularly from the lower order, but the Middlesex total was never in danger. Twice, Banton, opening, tried to drive balls pitched wide of the off stump by Helm, and missed. Perhaps Banton was conscious of the size of the task ahead, and Helm intent on tempting him into the risky drive. At the third attempt to a similar ball the drive flew to Sowter at backward point and Somerset were 10 for 1. From beyond the boundary Banton’s strokes seemed more speculative than convincing and the heart sank at the prospect of what might follow. Trego immediately looked more convincing with two well-placed pulls for four but then advanced down the wicket to Roland-Jones and pulled the ball limply to Robson at midwicket. He and Azhar had at least made progress for the score was 36 in the eighth over but the two wickets weighed heavily on the Somerset mind. Already, with nearly 330 still needed, the Middlesex net was closing in.

Something exceptional was needed, or so it felt from beyond the boundary. Hildreth raised a flicker of hope with two spectacular cover drives, both of which had Middlesex supporters saying, “Shot!”, and a clip behind square which resulted in a shout of “Hild!” from the players’ balcony. When he appeared to play on to Harris the score was 62 for 3 in the 12th over. Hildreth 18. Somerset were not too far behind in runs but the price paid in wickets was telling heavily. When Abell was run out whilst backing up by a Sowter deflection of a ferocious straight drive from Azhar Somerset were 73 or 4 in the 15th over and Somerset supporters knew in their hearts that, barring a miracle, the game was gone.

The batsmen kept coming to the wicket of course, they kept consulting one another and they kept looking for runs. But it never felt like there was the prospect of the type of destruction wrought on the bowling by van der Merwe against Surrey in 2017 in a similarly hopeless situation. The Somerset innings just didn’t have that sort of feel about it and it would take the start of something of that order, at least, to ignite a flicker of hope. Azhar was still standing firm, keeping an end secure, but if that was the tactic runs needed to flow from the other end and when they did it was at the cost of wickets.

Bartlett has played some key innings in 2019 and they have played a significant part in turning games Somerset’s way. Here he found himself mainly exchanging singles with Ali as Middlesex turned to spin at both ends, the leg breaks of Sowter and the occasional off breaks of Holden. The batsmen took Somerset forward but the lack of boundaries pushed the required run rate to nine an over with 29 overs left and the DLS par score was nearly 100 runs distant. Somerset were trapped in the classic ‘need quick runs but daren’t risk wickets’ syndrome. Eventually Bartlett tried to break free with an old-fashioned lap against Sowter, got too far under the ball and was caught. Somerset were 104 for 4 in the 22nd over and still 260 runs short. Bartlett 17. When Azhar was finally caught behind for 46 trying to hook a high bouncer Somerset were 124 for 6 half way through their innings. The scoreboards at Radlett are club scoreboards and they do not calculate required run rate but no calculation was necessary to work out that it was on an ever-steepening upward curve. “Run rate protection the order of the day now,” someone said.

‘Tails’ are inclined to wag these days and Somerset’s lower order did not disappoint the hard-pressed emotions of the Somerset supporter. Gregory looked like he might make progress as he seemed to be setting himself up for an attempt on the impossible. He cleared the marquees at the lower end of the ground with a huge six over long on. Van der Merwe twice employed the scoop to find the boundary. “This match could change if these two stay in for very long,” said a Middlesex supporter as the boundaries started to flow. Then, out of the blue, Gregory chipped the ball to Robson at midwicket, rather as Trego had done. Somerset were 146 for 6 in the 28th over. Gregory 22.

Overton joined van der Merwe and they tried to consolidate. For several overs they pushed the ball around for singles. It may have looked like net run rate management but there seemed more purpose to it than that. Then, suddenly, just as, according to my mental arithmetic, the required run rate reached 11 both batsmen launched an attack on the bowling. Overton drove Sowter through midwicket for four. Van der Merwe responded with a six over long on. When Harris replaced Sowter at the Pavilion End van der Merwe hit him straight back over his head for four and Overton pulled him high and long through the top of the trees, behind which lies the car park, for a colossal six. The next ball took his pad as he tried to play Harris to leg and he was lbw for 21, banging his pad in frustration as he left the field. Somerset 192 for 8. Still 173 run short with 16 overs left. The Overton-van der Merwe charge had actually reduced the required run rate but only by half a run an over and once again it had cost a wicket.

When, four runs later, van der Merwe was lbw to Sowter for 38, “He was an awful long way forward,” the comment, it was all but time to hand the ground back to the solitude, the trains apart, that the setting had probably enjoyed since the Romans left. All but over, but not quite. Groenewald and Davey put on one of those last wicket partnerships which brings into question the batting that has gone before. Precisely 50 they added in nine overs as I stood chatting to a couple of other disappointed Somerset supporters. The pressure was off by then of course and pressure in cricket, scoreboard pressure in particular, can be as deadly as the most unplayable ball.

And so Somerset lost by 118 runs in a match in which they never really gained a foothold. There are arguments both ways on what to do if you win the toss, W.G. Grace notwithstanding, and both sets of arguments have validity as the Championship match at Trent Bridge showed. But I have always thought, with the Romans, that you take a risk if you concede the high ground to the opposition. And at Radlett the high ground allows you to hit the ball downhill.

Result. Middlesex 364 for 6 (50 overs) (S.D. Robson 106(106 balls), N.R.T Gubbins 90(59), M.D.E. Holden 45(53)). Somerset 246 (43.4/50 overs) (Azhar Ali 46(60), N.A Sowter 3-50(econ 5.00). Middlesex won by 118 runs. Middlesex 2 points. Somerset 0 points.