A Somerset performance to match the splendour of the Quantocks

Royal London One-Day Cup. Somerset v Surrey. 5th May 2019. Taunton.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

A Somerset performance to match the splendour of the Quantocks

And so, it was all or nothing on this match. From a Somerset perspective it was an old-style knock-out match. Realistically, a win would mean a place in the quarter-final play-offs, a defeat would mean elimination from the competition. That focuses the mind. No second chances. No next game in which to rectify matters. Just win or have a week watching others trying to reach the final. For Surrey there was nothing to play for but, as they say, pride. I have often wondered about that. How focused teams really are when there is nothing on the game for them. As far as I could see there was no lack of effort or focus from Surrey. They came at this game hard. They were, it is true, not at full strength. No Currans, and in particular no Morne Morkel. He will doubtless return, fresh, for the Championship match next week. Nonetheless, over half of the Surrey team which played here had featured, if only briefly in some cases, at international level.

I sat in the top of the Somerset Pavilion with someone who can only rarely watch Somerset. It was the first time he had watched from there. His first comment was on the spectacular sun-drenched view of the Quantocks. The vibrant yellow and maroon and the multiple shades of green made a wonderful Somerset backdrop to the Cooper Associates County Ground. A smartphone camera was soon recording the panorama. It was a scene which called out for a Somerset performance to match. A performance to raise the spirits after the overwhelming defeat against Hampshire, talk of which was on many lips as we made our way around the ground to our seats.

Somerset won the toss and fielded a team unchanged from the Hampshire match. That had been a poor performance, but this is not a poor team and have good performances aplenty in them yet. Abell asked Surrey to bat first in front of a crowd smaller than the one at the weekend but significantly larger than the normal Championship crowd. For a working day it was a crowd which most counties would envy, and sufficiently large for the gaps between the stands to have a line of people standing and chatting as they watched. The Somerset Stand, the standard indicator of the size of a crowd at Taunton, although with plenty of space, was very well populated, as was the Ondaatje Stand. The members areas were all but full and the people we climbed over to get to our seats, and those around, were full of those smiles that always seem to accompany the anticipation of a cricket match.

As the first over ended the pre-match anticipation and began the action, Stoneman top-edged a pull off Davey. It fell two yards short of Jamie Overton running in from the Caddick Pavilion boundary and two yards beyond Gregory running out towards it. There was no suggestion they had got in each other’s way. Just a ball falling, irritatingly from a Somerset perspective, between two fielders. It was but the precursor of a succession of such incidents which punctuated the rest of the match. More than either I or the person with me thought within the bounds of the law of averages.

Stoneman was not able to ride his luck as some batsmen do. In the fifth over he edged the ever-persistent Davey to Banton behind the stumps. The deviation was marked and easily visible from the top of the Somerset Pavilion, and Banton’s reaction was quick enough for him to take the catch. The Somerset cheers were back after the despond of Sunday, and Surrey were 18 for 1. Jacks, who had opened with Stoneman, and Elgar soon began to make progress but it was an uneasy progress. “Craig Overton is getting some to lift,” said my cricket-playing companion and Davey clearly moved one ball away to beat Jacks. As if in response Jacks drove Overton square to the Somerset Stand for four. But when Jacks drove Overton high towards the Ondaatje Stand the ball fell short of the boundary and just bobbled, as if reluctantly, over the rope. Overton responded by going straight through Jacks’ defence. The batsmen were not looking entirely secure and the bowlers were rueing their luck a little more than the norm.

RLODC 50-over Som v Surrey 070519 Mark Stoneman ct Tom Banton bld Josh Davey (C) M Williams
Tom Banton celebrates catching Mark Stoneman off Josh Davey
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

The 11th over allowed the fielders back but Abell kept a slip in for Davey, a sure sign that the pitch or the conditions were at least encouraging the bowlers. Before the over was out Elgar had miscued a drive to long on. It rose into the sky like some screaming fairground-goer on one of those contraptions that catapults people skyward and then lets them fall. Here, as the ball fell towards the Colin Atkinson boundary, Jamie Overton set off from deep midwicket in front of the Caddick Pavilion on one of those searing boundary runs which can set people achatter. The ball returned to earth three feet before he got there. It was both a disappointment to see the ball just win the race and a joy to see Overton back to full fitness, in a Somerset shirt and in full majestic flow.

In the 12th over Overton had the ball in is hand and was running in from the Somerset Pavilion End. He bowled with real pace. The batsmen immediately used the pace to deflect the ball for singles. Overton responded by bouncing Jacks. Jacks responded by hooking. The ball, perhaps from the extra pace of Overton, found the top edge and flew high towards the Caddick Pavilion, the longer of the two square boundaries, and into the hands of the waiting Bartlett. Surrey were 52 for 2. Jacks 17.

Now Elgar and Burns began a tussle with the Somerset bowlers as the match rested in the balance. The pace of scoring gradually picked up but the risk of a wicket hung in the air. Although Elgar drove Gregory just over the Colin Atkinson Pavilion rope, Overton and Gregory kept Burn’s score on nought. Burns tried to chip Overton over third man and looked beaten by the bounce. “Forced into taking risks by the dot balls,” said the cricket player with me. He took the risk again and the ball just cleared Gregory and the rope in front of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. “We are starting to need a wicket,” said the cricket player as Gregory beat Burns to applause.

RLODC 50-over Som v Surrey 070519 Dean Elgar 6 runs (C) M Williams
Dean Elgar clears the boundary on his way to 64
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

When van der Merwe replaced Gregory at the River End the batsmen started pushing singles. “He’s getting milked quite safely,” the comment. When Gregory returned at the Somerset Pavilion End Elgar drove him hard to Gimblett’s Hill for a four that brought up his fifty. Surrey were starting to push Somerset back. Abell responded to the singles by bringing the on side field in. Burns charged, van der Merwe fired the ball down the leg side and Banton broke the stumps. Surrey 113 for 3 in the 23rd over. Burns 22. Now Abell rotated his bowlers. Craig Overton replaced Gregory, and virtually cut off the run supply. Elgar tried to chip a short ball and edged it to Banton behind the stumps. Surrey were 129 for 4 as they passed the half way point of their innings. The cheers for the wicket, and the extended and warm applause for Elgar’s innings died away as the buzz in the crowd became animated as now Somerset pushed and the balance of the match began to bear down on Surrey.

With Ben Foakes and Jamie Smith at the wicket the bowler rotation reached almost windmill proportions. In 12 overs the batsmen faced van der Merwe, Jamie Overton, Davey, Gregory, Azhar Ali and Jamie Overton again. In half a dozen overs van der Merwe and Azhar conceded one boundary. At the other end the pace bowlers probed, challenged and searched for wickets. Occasionally they got it wrong and Surrey took full measure of the opportunity offered. Jamie Overton overpitched and Foakes drove him to Gimblett’s Hill for four and Smith drove him through the covers for another in the same over. Davey dropped short and drifted to leg, “Oh no!”, said the cricket player even before Foakes had pulled him fine to the Colin Atkinson boundary. Then he pulled a ball from Gregory high over the Somerset Stand boundary from where it disappeared down one of the stairwells. Surrey were making progress again.

At 198 for 4 at the end of the 38th over, the match was back in balance and the excited buzz that had followed 129 for 4 had subsided into a more anxious chatter. A  Surrey score upwards of 300 started to play on the Somerset mind. Matches in the balance, with the pressure bearing down on both sides, can be turned by moments of exceptional play or by calculated risks being taken, but being taken forthrightly. Here it seemed we had two calculated risks followed by two pieces of exceptional, even great, fielding.

After a particularly tight over from Azhar, Jamie Overton appeared to drop a little short to Foakes but at considerable pace. Foakes drove furiously, the ball climbed steeply towards the Trescothick Stand, lost momentum and started to fall well short of the boundary. Craig Overton, fielding at long on, sprinted in hard and long towards the falling ball and, with his feet before him, caught it on the slide. By the time he came to a halt his feet were almost touching the 30-yard circle. It was an astonishing catch. A few overs later, Overton dropped much shorter to Smith than he had to Foakes, again with immense pace. It generated lift, Smith hooked, the ball was too high for the stroke, took the edge and looped towards, but short of mid-on. Four fielders ran towards the falling the ball. The heart stopped at the prospect of collision, but Azhar, from mid-off, took responsibility, hurtled across the outfield, dropped to one knee, slid seemingly impossibly far and caught the ball in front of mid-on. Two pieces of calculated bowling, two pieces of astonishing fielding and two Surrey batsmen who had looked as if the were capable of building a competitive score for their county were back in the Pavilion. Surrey were 218 for 6 with ten overs remaining. Somerset now with the edge, and the swell in the chatter which followed the cheers reflected the momentum moving Somerset’s way.

RLODC 50-over Som v Surrey 070519 Jamie Smith ct Azhar Ali bld Jamie Overton (C) M Williams
Azhar Ali receives congratulations on his astonishing catch
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

Immediately Surrey attempted to feel their way forward again but the Somerset bowlers were holding them short of the near ten-runs-an-over not uncommonly needed at the end of 50-over matches. “If they try an assault from here they will probably lose wickets,” said the cricketer next to me. Jordan Clark immediately aimed for the Somerset Stand off Craig Overton and van der Merwe took the catch just inside of the boundary. Meaker made a similar attempt off Overton and van der Merwe collected the proffered ball again. Finally, Jamie Overton bounced McKerr. The pace took the top edge and Banton claimed his fourth victim.

In the end, Surrey reached 289 for 9 largely thanks to some determined driving from Ryan Patel. He ended on 41 not out having driven Craig Overton into the Somerset Stand and, in the final over, Gregory straight over the Somerset Pavilion boundary. He too would have perished had Bartlett not dropped him on the Caddick Pavilion boundary off the penultimate ball of the innings. It had no impact on the match, but it is the third relatively straightforward, at this level of cricket, catch I have seen Bartlett drop this season.

It had been a concerted, at times inspired, Somerset performance in the field. Even so, my between-innings circumnavigation revealed anxiety that the target of 290 might be beyond Somerset. This was based mainly on the batting performances of the previous two matches in both of which Somerset fell far short of 290 on pitches which gave the opposition batting no difficulty. It did though feel that Somerset had bowled and fielded with purpose and intensity, and had prevented Surrey from building the end-of-innings momentum which batting sides like to carry forward into the field in these matches. The Somerset bowlers had worked away at Surrey and they had given their batsmen a real chance.

We watched the first few overs of the Somerset innings from the gap in the Ondaatje Stand. Almost immediately Azhar edged McKerr backward of point. Patel dived, an attempt to field the ball it seemed. In fact, almost miraculously, he caught it just above the ground. It was a stunning catch, the third of that quality in the match, and looked all the more spectacular because we were standing in direct line of the ball as it flew off the bat. There is something magical about standing behind a hand, at the end of a full-stretch dive, intercepting a ball in full flight only inches from the ground, whoever is making the catch. Somerset were 3 for 1.

As we walked back to our seats Banton and Trego settled the nerves a little with back foot drives to the Somerset Stand boundary. I took a detour to watch an over from the Somerset Pavilion roof terrace. It was the over in which McKerr, running in from the River End, bowled Trego. It looked from an angle between the keeper and first slip as if the ball had moved in. Somerset were 41 for 2 in the ninth over. That brought Hildreth in to join Banton, and me back to my seat. The people over whom I had to climb now had their legs wreathed in a blanket such was the temperature as the day wore into evening.

Since his spectacular century in the first match Banton has done little with the bat. He did more with it in this innings. Clark drifted into his legs with a half volley. It landed in the back of the Ondaatje Stand on the longer of the square boundaries. A reverse sweep, powerful and kept down, towards the Garner Gates off Gareth Batty left the fielders standing, for there was no point in moving. A glance, perfectly placed just wide enough of the keeper and bouncing before it reached him, raced to Gimblett’s Hill for four. He pushed into the gaps on the on side created by Surrey defending against his reverse sweep. But he persisted with the reverse sweep too in spite of those waiting fielders. One looped a little but safely. Then he one struck straight into the hands of the fielder placed at deep cover for the shot. He had made 53 and had looked, as he did in his century at the start of the competition, to have great potential but that reverse sweep had left Somerset nearly 200 runs short at 98 for 3. “Surrey had placed three fielders for that stroke and opened up the rest of the field for him,” said the cricket player. But Banton is 20 years old and that stroke to that field, and its consequences, was one I suspect he will place in his bank of learning experiences. Here it had helped Surrey stay in the match.

It was Hildreth who steered Somerset towards their goal. He played an innings which seemed almost to sit in the background, but as he played it the Somerset score kept neatly within a decimal point or two of the required rate. The mood of the crowd seemed to rise with the score as the applause became more frequent and more extended. There were one or two alarums in Hildreth’s innings as there are in any innings of any length, but he did not seem to be in any great danger. For the most part, his selection, execution and range of stroke was the equal of any ball sent down by the Surrey bowlers. Twice in succession he drove Meaker. Once through the on side to the Somerset Stand boundary, and once through the off side to the Colin Atkinson boundary. A six pulled fine off Clark crashed into the Somerset Pavilion boards to be followed later in the over by a clip off his legs between deep square leg and long leg. When Surrey employed Elgar’s part-time slow left arm Hildreth reverse swept neatly, and safely, to the Ondaatje boundary twice in succession. It was a controlled innings which progressively lifted the pressure from Somerset.

RLODC 50-over Som v Surrey 070519 James Hildreth 4 runs (C) M Williams
James Hildreth drives powerfully
Photo courtesy Michael Williams

After the departure of Banton, Hildreth batted first with Abell and then with Bartlett. With Abell he took the score past 150, and together they brought the required rate down towards five and a half an over. Abell scored just two boundaries, but his placement and running helped keep the score moving and the crowd cheering. He was out for 25, caught at long leg hooking and top edging McKerr. Somerset were 152 for 4 with 138 still needed in 23 overs and perhaps just with the edge in the match. Now Bartlett joined Hildreth and continued to draw on the vein of form he has been mining in recent matches. He cut McKerr beautifully past point to the Somerset Stand boundary. He used his height to get over a short ball from Meaker and steer it into the leg side for two. A cover drive off Batty crashed into the boards where the old Stragglers used to be.

Then, almost apropos of nothing, on 93, Hildreth pulled Clark towards the Somerset Stand and miscued to the extent that the ball limped into the hands of Meaker at midwicket. Somerset were 223 for 5. The ovation Hildreth received took him all the way to and across the boundary. It had been an innings worthy of the applause. At Radlett, and particularly against Hampshire, a string of Somerset batsmen had got starts and not gone on. Here Hildreth had gone on. He had not gone quite as far as perhaps he would have liked, but he had stayed long enough to bring the target within range. 67 were needed in 12 overs.

That is within Gregory’s range. Off virtually every ball he and Bartlett began to push the ball into the gaps and take the singles. It was Bartlett who began the final assault. Surrey had resorted to Elgar’s occasional slow left arm. Bartlett pulled him and the ball flew high over midwicket towards the Somerset Stand boundary. Two fielders converged as they approached the ball’s landing point. Both stopped, and the ball, always carrying just that little bit too far for either fielder’s comfort, landed about a foot over the rope. Perhaps, if one fielder had called, the catch might have been taken, but the space to jump over the boundary rope and throw the ball back is very constricted there.

In Elgar’s next over Gregory stamped his mark on the remains of the game. In successive balls he drove Elgar onto the balcony of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion and onto the roof of the Sir Ian Botham Stand where the ball, as it sometimes does when the ball is struck there, ran some considerable way horizontally along the roof perhaps revealing something of the kinetic energy carried by a cricket ball struck so hard. The strokes had the crowd roaring and applauding in that crescendo of noise released by a crowd when a stroke, or a wicket, marks the point where a match finally tips and tension metamorphoses into anticipation of victory.

The victory came in an over from Mckerr, who had kept coming for Surrey and taken three wickets, when Bartlett pulled him to the Ondaatje boundary for four to release prolonged applause for his maiden white ball fifty. It seems unlikely it will be his last, for he seems to grow as a player with almost every innings. He celebrated with another four pulled fine to the Colin Atkinson boundary, rotated the strike to Gregory who finished the match with his fourth six driven to Gimblett’s Hill to release a cheer of joy at the victory and relief at the manner of it after the disappointments of the previous week.

The cloud, providing as good a covering of the sky as the summer blankets did for the knees of some spectators, was causing day to fade into night. The floodlights, on since the innings break, and clearly casting shadows by the time of day that Championship cricket would have been drawing to a close, suddenly erupted into a mad whirligig of swirling light which drew racing patterns, as if of relief, on the outfield. The Quantocks, in all their spring glory, had never seen its like at the end of a cricket match. They had too, seen a comprehensive and professional Somerset victory, made up of a variety of contributions from across the team to match the variety of the fields which make up the glory that is the backdrop to every Somerset victory at Taunton.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Result. Surrey 289 for 9 (50 overs) (D. Elgar 64 (77 balls), B.T. Foakes 46 (47), R.S. Patel 41* (32), J. Overton 4-64 (econ 7.11), C. Overton 3-48 (4.80). Somerset 292 for 5 (45.4/50 overs) (J.C. Hildreth 93 (89), G.A. Bartlett 57* (52), T. Banton 53 (61), C. McKerr 3-56 (5.79). Somerset won by five wickets. Somerset 2 points. Surrey 0 points.