Royal London One-Day Cup. Somerset v Hampshire. 5th May 2019. Taunton.
Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.
Bewilderment and dismay would best sum up the feelings of every Somerset supporter I spoke to after the Somerset innings and again after the Hampshire innings. It had been as if the two innings had been played on different pitches. The Somerset innings was a disjointed, directionless, stop-start affair which fizzled out with barely a single coherent passage of play. The Hampshire innings knew exactly where it was going and went there virtually untroubled and at speed, doubtless helped by the fact that it did not have far to go. A target of 217 in a 50-over match, in this day and age, is unlikely to trouble any team on any but the most troublesome of pitches. By the end it was clear that the pitch for this match did not provide a reason for this defeat.
The crowd was large, perhaps as large as the 5,000 strong throng that turned out on that glorious Good Friday when Somerset routed a weakened Kent side by 264 runs. The weather for this match was less friendly than on that day, but there were only obvious spaces, and not many, in the Ondaatje and Somerset Stands. Everyone else was on sardine duty. By the end of the match, the bitter breeze which blew along the north face of the elevated section of the Somerset Pavilion had reduced some of those hardy enough to spend an early season day up there to shivering. It was warmer in the sun, but it was a day that, in terms of temperature, harked backwards rather than forwards.
The home crowds for the Royal London Cup this year have seemed larger than hitherto. Perhaps the Club policy of adding Royal London Cup attendance to T20 membership is paying dividends. If so, to hold the interest of the new attendees, the team will need to perform on the pitch. Instead, today we witnessed a continuation of the deterioration in form which began at Bristol, accelerated at Radlett and was even more stark here. A week ago Somerset were joint favourites to head the group. Now, work remains to be done if qualification at all for the next round is to be achieved.
Banton began with intent and, after a couple of early edges, started to look the part he had portrayed in his astonishing century against Kent. That was only two or so weeks ago, but it now seems to have taken place in a different time. A straight drive to the Sir Ian Botham Stand off Edwards brought forth memories of that innings and instant applause. When he tried to drive Abbot to the Somerset Pavilion the ball crashed into his stumps and Somerset were 21 for 1 in the fourth over. Trego immediately dug out a fast yorker, then cut hard and square to the Somerset Stand. When Azhar cut Edwards through backward point for a bullet-like boundary nerves began to settle. Trego began to make progress with some controlled leg side boundaries, including a perfectly executed glance to Gimblett’s Hill which produced gasps from the crowd followed by a ripple of chatter. The run rate rose above six, and hope began to rise that the early loss of Banton might be overcome. It was the seventh over of the match and the crowd were beginning to get behind Somerset.
It was the high watermark of Somerset’s day, for almost immediately the Hampshire bowlers, backed up by some sharp fielding, began to cut off the supply of runs. The boundaries dried up and singles became the main fare of the batsmen. An off drive from Trego off Abbot to Gimblett’s Hill for a tightly run three spurred on by a typically Tregoan, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” was a rare exception which brought forth applause and cries of, Well run!” In four overs just 14 runs were squeezed. The introduction of Dawson’s slow left arm continued to apply the pressure. Off the last ball of his first over Trego cut hard and was bowled, the attempt to break out beaten by the arm ball perhaps. Somerset were 63 for 2 at the end of the 12th over. When, off the last ball of the next over, Azhar reached out and up to cut Berg he edged the ball to Alsop behind the stumps. Somerset were 67 for 3. Azhar 21. “The third to get a start and not go on,” someone said. The buzz which normally permeates the air at Taunton melted into a nervous quiet, for the batsmen who had lost their wickets were all beginning to look comfortable.
Hildreth and Abell, the hard core of Somerset’s batting, were now at the wicket and it felt like much depended on them for the pitch looked like it had runs in it. Hampshire employed Dawson’s slow left arm and Crane’s leg breaks against them. For seven overs the two teams engaged in that cricketing ballet so often evident when spinners bowl. Where they could the batsmen pushed the ball to the deep field for singles and ambled through the run as the fielder retrieved the ball and threw it in. Just occasionally, the ball was played between the deep fielders as two slightly more hurried runs were gathered.
Not once during those seven overs did the batsmen succeed in piercing the field. “Milking the spinners,” someone said and there seemed no threat of a wicket. “Milking the spinners” is a recognised tactic but the Somerset run rate, which had once topped six, had drifted below five. Two spinners in tandem on a good pitch does not produce spectacular cricket, but if they bowl tightly and are backed up by tight fielding they can build pressure. Perhaps the pressure told. Crane sent down a full toss. Hildreth targeted the upper reaches of the Trescothick Stand. The ball seemed to travel more slowly than it should and then fell away into the hands of Fuller advancing in from the boundary. Somerset were 106 for 4 in the 23rd over. Hildreth 22. The anxious chatter which had accompanied Hildreth and Abell’s slow waltz was replaced by a collective sigh.
The ballet continued when Bartlett joined Abell as the spinners continued to consume Somerset’s overs. When the pace of Edwards replaced the spin of Dawson, Abell immediately struck with two boundaries. Then, in the next over he swept Crane towards the Somerset Stand but the ball flew arrow-like into the ever-waiting hands of Fuller on the boundary. Somerset were 128 for 5 in the 27th over. Abell, usually one of only a few batsmen who is secure on the sweep, out for 36. He was the fifth Somerset batsman to get a start and fail to go on. There was a sense of disbelief in the comments I heard around me, for none of the batsmen had looked in difficulty, although the Abell-Hildreth partnership had seemed on the slow side, and yet all had contrived to get out trying to lift the score. The Somerset innings was in disarray, and while Somerset still had batsmen who could score heavily and quickly, it was hard to see how enough runs could be made with just five wickets left to stretch Hampshire on this pitch. Those four successive wins at the start of the competition seemed an awfully long time ago.
A Gregory innings has given the Somerset innings a match-defining spurt on more than one occasion this season. His arrival at the wicket raised hopes but Somerset still had nearly half their overs remaining. They had more when he came to the wicket at Radlett. That was not his day and this was not to be either. For the sort of innings he has been playing perhaps the top order need to get him closer to the eventual goal for his innings to come off. Clarity of goal is always likely to drive an innings such as Gregory plays. I always thought Jos Buttler was at his best for Somerset if the end was within his finishing range when he came to the wicket. Gregory plays a similar type of innings. He is a tremendous asset. As with Buttler, part of the role of the top order should be to get him close enough. Here a drive through extra cover off Edwards to the old Stragglers area brought shouts of “Shot!” and might have done so too from the ghosts that must frequent that spot. Off the next ball, what looked from 80 yards like an inside edge ended his innings at nine and Somerset were 141 for 6 at the end of the 28th over.
22 overs with only four wickets standing is a very long way in this type of cricket. The increasingly impressive Bartlett and the ever-inventive van der Merwe made a spirited attempt to travel the distance. They scored at six an over, perhaps not enough on a good wicket, but in the circumstances the best that could be done to build a base for a final charge towards some sort of defensible total. Perhaps the pressure of those six wickets and the overs still left in the innings was a factor in the nature of the partnership. The ball, generally, did not fly to the boundary as it is inclined to do when either of these two is batting. Repeatedly the ball slowed over the outfield as it approached the boundary, particularly the long boundary in front of the Ondaatje Stand. Often two rather than four runs resulted, sometimes driven by “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”.
There were, alongside the general tussle of the partnership, boundaries struck with intent. Bartlett, the more conventional of the two batsmen, pulled Crane through midwicket to the Somerset Stand and clipped Berg neatly to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. An on drive to the Somerset Stand was as good as any you will see, but then he got under a drive towards Gimblett’s Hill off Dawson and Donald moved in to take the catch as another Somerset batsman fell to a catch in the deep. The pair had added 60 with the crowd beginning to lift the applause a level as hopes began to be kindled that some sort of score might be assembled. “I was beginning to think we might get to 280 or even 300, but it looks more like 220 now,” the comment. 204 for 7. Bartlett 40.
Van der Merwe’s innings was, typically, a little more idiosyncratic than Bartlett’s. An inside edge bobbled along the crease as he did a pirouette trying to locate the ball. He followed that up with a perfectly struck one-bounce four to the Trescothick Stand. A six lifted off Crane into the top of the Somerset Stand bounced onto one of the balconies of the flats and back onto the Somerset Stand. An edged hook off Abbot found its way safely to the boundary and a cut was lifted over backward point for another four. But that was the virtual end of the Somerset case as Abbot dismissed van der Merwe, lbw for 38. Jamie Overton was run out first ball by a direct hit as he played the ball straight to mid-off. His brother, who had replaced Bartlett, was at the other end. There was a clear call but which brother made it is impossible to say from the top of the Somerset Pavilion, although Jamie did cast a glance or two back at his brother as he strode off. And for once, it cannot be expected to every time, the last wicket failed to prosper and Somerset had set Hampshire 217 with three balls short of ten overs of their innings unused.
As I did my between innings circumnavigation I passed several familiar faces. Not much was said. A shake of the head said all that people felt they needed to say. There is not much to say when seven batsmen are out for between 18 and 40, with none capitalising on what, for the most part, seemed to be either careful or confident starts. Many of the wickets looked like what I term ‘slow pitch’ dismissals with the batsman getting under the ball. There had though been enough perfectly struck boundaries to give the lie to that. Lack of focus at key times? Anxiety about just how large a total might be needed? Who from beyond the boundary can know the reason? Whatever the cause, the outcome left supporters dismayed, especially in the context of such a spectacular start to the season. As I walked by I noticed a large number of people in good spirits in the concessions area in the St James Street car park. Whether they had come to the match for what that offered as much as for the cricket, or whether they had decided to enjoy their day out in spite of the cricket who can say, but enjoying themselves they were.
The Hampshire innings followed what most I spoke to considered its inevitable course. Some hoped-for early wickets might give Somerset some sort of chance, but it was the sort of hope that tries to keep the spirit up rather than the sort that has any expectation in it. For four overs Craig Overton and Davey held the line, held Hampshire to seven runs. A cheer roused itself in the Trescothick Stand when Overton beat the bat. In the fifth over, from Davey, Donald put matters into perspective. The fifth ball was driven into the Trescothick Stand and the sixth into the Somerset Stand, both for six. If it had not been before, it was now clear that 216 would put Hampshire under no pressure whatsoever. In Davey’s next over Alsop removed any doubt about the nature of the pitch and showed what a batsman can do when there is no scoreboard pressure. In consecutive balls Davey was struck for three fours, and a six was driven into the Sir Ian Botham Stand.
With the exception of Craig Overton all the Somerset bowlers suffered as the Hampshire batsmen found the boundary with apparent ease. That eight sixes were hit to Somerset’s one was a measure of Hampshire’s dominance. They were big sixes too. One, driven by Donald, scattered a small group of spectators watching from in front of the Garner Gates. Another, Rossouw drove into the midst of those standing at Legends Square. The fours flew fast too. In an over from Azhar, Markram pulled him over midwicket to the long boundary which the Somerset batsmen had often failed to reach, and twice cut him perfectly behind square to the Somerset Stand.
Of the bowlers, Craig Overton stood out. He bowled, and is bowling, with the skill and intensity which he showed throughout 2017 and in the later stages of 2018. His figures of 7-0-25-2 in an innings in which Hampshire were under no pressure and which raced along at seven an over are exceptional and did not flatter him. Indicative of his approach was his dismissal of Markram. The ball was driven as ferociously as a ball can be driven virtually at Overton’s head. His hands flew up, parried the ball back over his head whereupon he twisted around and made the catch. It brought a cheer, but Hampshire were 171 for 3 and need just 45 more runs. It was reassuring too to see Jamie Overton back in action for the first time this season, looking fully fit and bowling fast and accurately. He troubled the batsmen too on one or two occasions even though the match was slipping away. “He bowled well,” someone said. Lewis Gregory looked the part too, but there was just too high a mountain to climb for the bowlers. Hampshire passed Somerset’s total with more than 18 overs to spare which fairly reflected the difference between the two performances on the day.
Somerset will have to re-focus hard for the Surrey match if they are to qualify for the knock-out phases. There is every reason to think they might. This team is often at its best when its back is to the wall as it is now in this competition. In fact, Somerset will have to re-focus for both Surrey matches for the re-start of the Championship is only a week away. Just a thought on that. To date, there has been no rotation for Craig Overton, Gregory and Davey as Somerset are set on going all-out to try to win all three competitions this year.
No team has ever won all three. In the two decades of the Championship first division only one team, Sussex, 13 years ago, has won the Championship and one other competition in the same year. There is a price to be paid for putting the best team out for every single match in a season. Bowlers only have so many miles in their legs and perhaps in their ability to focus at the level they need to if they are to beat the quality of opposition in the first division. To reach the final of this competition Somerset will have to win three highly competitive matches in a week, and then, two days later, face Surrey in the Championship. That would be an awfully big ask for a pace attack three-quarters of which have not missed a day’s cricket this season. Against Gloucestershire, albeit on a pudding of a pitch, and against Hampshire, accurately bowled spin bowling was particularly effective in constraining the Somerset batsmen. Perhaps there is something to be learned from that. The side might not be weakened by resting one of the pace attack in favour of Jack Leach. He and van der Merwe in tandem might pose problems for the Surrey batsmen.
Result. Somerset 216 (40.3/50 overs) (G.D. Bartlett 40 (42 balls), K.J. Abbot 3-36 (econ 4.80)). Hampshire 221 for 3 (31.3/50 overs) (A.K. Markram 61 (60), A.H.T. Donald 57 (53), S.A. Northeast 51(46). Hampshire won by seven wickets. Hampshire 2 points. Somerset 0 points.