Unity of purpose

Royal London One-Day Cup. Worcestershire v Somerset. Quarter-final play-off. 10th May 2019. Worcester.

Toss. Worcestershire. Elected to field.

Unity of purpose

In the old days this match would have been a major event on the cricketing landscape. Quarter and semi-finals were anticipated for weeks in advance. The great set-piece battles of the domestic cricketing landscape. Victory or defeat remained enshrined in the memory of the county supporter for weeks and months afterwards. Sometimes years, even decades afterwards. I remember to this day arriving at Lord’s for the Gillette Cup semi-final of 1979, climbing the stairs at the back of the Compton Stand and, as I emerged at the top, seeing an ocean of white floppy hats drowning the Middlesex support by a ratio of three or more to one. Somerset had 14,000 of the 18,000 present according to one press report I saw. I remember Peter Denning providing the backbone of Somerset’s innings and the fuel which drove the Somerset cheers as he cut and battled his way to 90 not out. He took Somerset to the final which produced Somerset’s first ever trophy. And that is not to mention the pulsating quarter-final that year when at a packed and tumultuous Taunton Joel Garner and Ian Botham bowled Kent out for 60. Great cricket. Great days. Eternal memories.

It was a different picture at Worcester. Great cricket aplenty we had from Somerset but the crowd, at most, might have stretched to 1000 dotted around the ground or concentrated in and around the Pavilion. A high proportion of Somerset supporters, although not with any great number of floppy hats, made their presence felt. With rain forecast I took a seat in the only covered seating, ‘behind the arm’ in the New Road Stand. Seats were easily available there all day. Against Kent at Taunton in 1979 the last available seats, in the back row, square of the wicket, filled up an hour before the start.

Worcestershire won the toss and Somerset batted. “Rain about. DLS.” Someone said. Captains always seem to put the opposition in when there is rain about. I wonder how much note they take of the pressure which the DLS ‘par’ score can put on the side batting second if the side batting first is able to bat its full 50 overs. And DLS ‘par’ scores, to my mind, reflect the state of the game pretty well. In 1979 the side batting second with all their wickets available would simply have had to exceed the overall run rate of the side batting first, however few overs they had to bat. Thank heavens for DLS. Especially if the heavens empty.

Banton was beaten by the first three balls of the Somerset innings. Apparently, as those balls were recorded, a piece of cricket history was made. For the first time in a match at the top level of domestic cricket both scorers were women. Polly Rhodes for Somerset. Sue Drinkwater for Worcestershire. What they had to record was Somerset starting as if they did not expect it to rain for a week and as if they had some suspicion of the pitch. 38 for 0 after ten overs the result.

The score masked a somewhat fortuitous start to Banton’s innings. A cut at a ball from Morris could not have kept the bat’s edge away from the ball by much. An edged drive straight to Ferguson at slip was ‘tipped over the bar’ for four towards where I and another Somerset supporter were sitting. Before the tenth over was out Banton edged to Ferguson again. This time the fielder dived low and failed to take the ball. I and the other Somerset supporter thought the ball had not carried. The Worcestershire supporters around us thought it had. None of us could be sure for Ferguson had dived part-forward and was between us and the ball. Different hopes producing different instinctive interpretations perhaps. Both edges were off Brown.

Those early alarums aside Banton started his innings with apparent confidence and precision. In the first over he had driven Morris between the bowler and mid-on, the ball coming down to the boundary in front of us. When Azhar drove Morris even straighter to the boundary there were cries of, “Shot!” and “Beautiful” from some of the Worcestershire supporters. When Barnard replaced Brown Banton drove his first two balls through the covers, the first being collected by the deep fielder as the batsmen ran two, the second evading the fielder and reaching the boundary. The third Banton pulled square for four to the small Ladies Pavilion, quaintly perched on high at the top of a steep bank of seats, from whence, apparently, heavenly cakes emerge on Championship days as if it was still 1979. Those three strokes marked the start of the established phase of Banton’s innings. And perhaps the beginnings of the establishment of a cricketer of note.

Azhar, who was building a base at the other end with none of the alarums which Banton had survived, drove Wayne Parnell through the covers for four, “The stroke of a Test player,” someone said. And a stroke which, alongside the rising score, swelled the chest with hope that Somerset were coming to terms with the pitch and prompted hopes of a significant total. When Azhar, his first error, edged to the keeper it came almost as a surprise but 66 for 1 in the 14th over on a pitch that was not entirely a batsman’s paradise gave the edge in the opening phases to Somerset.

If Somerset had edged the opening phases the partnership between Banton and Trego eventually put them firmly ahead and the applause and cheers from the Somerset contingent grew in response. At first neither Trego nor Banton seemed to find batting easy. Trego edged Parnell’s pace through the empty slips, the ball running along the ground to the boundary in front of us. The Worcestershire supporters around us shook their heads or sighed at what might have been.

Gradually the batsmen got the measure of the pitch and the bowling. When Trego pushed the first ball of a Mitchell over into the off side he seemed to demand a rise in tempo. “Maybe, maybe,” he roared, as only Trego can, and hurtled along the pitch on his first run. The “maybe” turned the single into two. “Well run!” encouraged some Somerset supporters. Two balls later Banton pulled Mitchell and the ball hit the boards in front of some marquees to the left of the Ladies Pavilion. “That’s not a six is it? Oh no!” said a Worcestershire supporter as if he had seen some awful portent of the future. “That’s a fair hit,” said another with a hint of awe in his voice.

There were no more “maybes” from Trego, just cries of “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” as he and Banton picked up the pace and began to take the game away from Worcestershire. Running like that picks up the supporters too. “Well run,” the frequent comment as the tempo increased. Trego took advantage of two long hops in Brett D’Oliviera’s only over and pulled them both through midwicket for four. But it was Banton who really shaped the match with an exceptional innings.

He selected from an array of spectacular strokes. A scoop bounced a hairsbreadth inside the third man boundary. A pull cleared one of the long square boundaries although it needed the chasing fielder to signal the six. A reverse sweep along the ground was so forceful it blasted through backward point’s hands sufficiently powerfully for two runs to be taken. A drive wide of midwicket produced an exceptionally well-run two when Trego boomed, “YES!” Is there anything more emphatic on a cricket field than a Trego call? A scoop over long leg carried the boundary rope and beyond. A pull behind square for four took Banton to 99 and a driven single off the next ball to his century, his second in this competition.

There had been some luck along the way, a reverse sweep had been swung around and shot past the stumps, a scoop was missed altogether for four byes and another seemed to take the toe end of the bat but fell safely. But this was white-ball cricket, risks will be taken with the bat and Banton is a young man. With shot selection honed by a little experience he may become a very formidable player indeed.

As Banton charged, Trego, having pulled Brown for four was caught behind trying to repeat the stroke. He had made 37 in a partnership of 115. His innings was invaluable for it kept wickets intact as Banton took the score forward. When Trego was out the score was 181 for 2 with 18 overs remaining. Somerset supporters were calculating that a score of 350 might be reached and Banton apart, scoring runs quickly had not looked an entirely straightforward exercise. Then Banton finally got under a big hit and was caught at midwicket, Somerset were 203 for 3 with 16 overs left.

Within an over of Banton’s dismissal the players were off for the much-threatened rain. It had been threatened, depending on which forecast you favoured from hardly at all to half the afternoon. By the time the players were off the covers were following them and play had resumed within 15 minutes with no loss of overs. Whether it was the dismissal of Banton or the rain break that changed the pattern of the innings the steady progress towards the heights of 350 became what, from beyond the boundary, appeared to be an expensive, in terms of wickets, rush to sustain the momentum.

Hildreth and Abell began at eight an over, an impossible prospect in 1979, with Abell reverse sweeping two boundaries along the way. Hildreth employed the straight drive for four to cries of “Hild!” from the Somerset dressing room and a lofted drive for four through long on. He further picked up the pace with sixes over square leg and back over Barnard’s head. Hard running in between the boundaries added to the sense of Somerset trying to race ahead with supporters cheering them on. The Worcestershire faces around us were long as the Somerset ones were loud and the mood was down.

Then, at 246 in the 40th over Somerset faltered. Hildreth tried again to clear the boundary and was caught at deep midwicket for 38 from 26 balls. Abell soon followed, caught at backward point, for 20 from 18 balls. Gregory, having driven brilliantly to the long off boundary, was caught at midwicket by Barnard running in hard. He took the ball low down as he slid forward on his knee. It was a brilliant catch. Gregory, eight, had posted his second low score in succession after a string of brilliant innings. Somerset, 264 for 6, had lost three prize wickets for 18 runs. “We are losing our way a bit,” someone said and thoughts of Worcestershire’s successful overtaking of Derbyshire’s 351 for 9 earlier in the week began to pick at the mind. The Worcestershire faces had lifted too and chatter was beginning to re-emerge among their supporters.

Bartlett took up Somerset’s charge, largely with van der Merwe in support, taking 24 off just 18 balls including some hard running, a reverse sweep perfectly played, a lofted off drive which brought loud cheers from the player balcony and another caught just inside the boundary. When van der Merwe went Somerset had reached 305 for 8 with 16 balls remaining.

It left Craig and Jamie Overton at the wicket. They contrived a final charge which, if it did not quite reach 350, did add 32 runs in those 16 balls. It took Somerset to 337 for 8. It felt like Somerset had re-established the momentum the innings had had until Hildreth was out. The Worcestershire supporters had lost the buoyancy the flurry of wickets had brought them and Somerset supporters were wreathed in smiles. My between-innings circumnavigation of the ground revealed a confidence among Somerset supporters that, with the eternal proviso ‘that we bowl well’, Somerset were in the ascendancy. One or two even dared mention Trent Bridge. One I met had even booked accommodation for the semi-final in anticipation that Somerset would get through.

The Worcestershire innings started when I was about half way around the ground. I dawdled in my progress to get a different perspective. The Worcestershire openers seemed in little trouble and a couple of boundaries seemed easily and well-struck. They were scoring at a good rate too. 338 was along way off but their 353 for 6 in the last match hung in the mind. As I meandered past point The Overton brothers combined to check Worcestershire. They removed Wessels. Caught Jamie, at point, bowled Craig. 33 for 1 and someone said, “That was probably the match in that ball.” It certainly left Worcestershire faces looking askance.

Now the Somerset bowlers, who have at times looked almost invincible this season bore down on Worcestershire as the fielders tightened the net. The run rate fell away to barely three an over. As Somerset, with the ball and in the field, piled on the pressure Fell was lbw to Gregory, and before he could make any great impact Ferguson, running furiously as if on an impossible mission, was run out by a direct hit by Abell from midwicket. It was an electrifying piece of fielding seemingly as controlled as the attempt at the run looked desperate. Worcestershire were 68 for 3 with all but a third of their overs consumed and with the batsmen showing no signs of being able to break the Somerset stranglehold.

D’Oliviera joined Mitchell but struggled from the start. An edge through ‘slip’ for four off Gregory was followed by a chip which fell just short of cover. The pressure from the Somerset bowlers was relentless. When D’Oliviera tried to steer a van der Merwe delivery towards third man it turned and hit the stumps. The score was 81 for 4 in the 19th over, the required run rate had risen from under seven to above eight and it was fast enveloping Worcestershire as the wickets remaining to challenge it diminished. Somerset’s bowlers were indeed “bowling well” and the fielders were supporting them every inch of the way. From beyond the boundary it felt almost as if the team was a single living being with its various parts operating as an integrated whole.

Worcestershire would need a special performance to stand against it. Looking at the scorecard they had capable players although it would take two or three exceptional performances to lift them from 81for 4. A further 257 to win was an awfully long way to go. Sitting in the stand watching what was unfolding before our eyes it did not seem that such a turnaround against Somerset in this mood was possible. Cox and Mitchell battled but the Somerset bowlers and fielders kept them to under five runs an over as the required rate rose above nine.

Crucially the batsmen could not reach the boundary. Even the strokes that pierced the infield had insufficient force in them to cross the rope. When van der Merwe bowled five successive dot balls in one over Cox swept the sixth behind square with some force. It had ‘four’ written on it. Jamie Overton put in a searing run along the boundary, dived full length and cut the ball off just inside the rope. He had saved just one run but it added to the sense of the batsmen being unable to break free. Such stops can be crucial in building pressure. When Mitchell drove van der Merwe hard through the covers Abell dived like a mouse trap slamming shut, cut off the four and left no space for a single. The pressure on the batsmen must have been intense. My notes at this stage of the innings are littered with Somerset fielders, particularly in the off side inner ring, cutting off one run after another.

It was proving an impossible task for the batsmen and it came as no surprise when Cox spooned a catch straight back to Azhar who had started to bowl his leg spin opposite van der Merwe. “That looked like it stuck in the turf,” someone said. If it did it added to the suspicion first mooted in the Somerset innings that the pitch was not entirely straightforward. If so it can only have added to the pressure on the Worcestershire batsmen. It would also point to the Somerset score and Banton’s innings as being exceptional performances. It might too, in part, explain the regular loss of Somerset wickets when the batsmen tried to maintain the momentum after the loss of Banton. That wicket seemed to signal the end as Worcestershire supporters began to leave. One shook my hand warmly and wished Somerset well in the semi-final as he went.

Now Azhar the overseas batsman, who seems to play as hard for Somerset as anyone in the side, came into his own with the ball. Doubtless it helped that he had a mountain of Somerset runs behind him, vulturous Somerset fielders all around him, a slightly difficult pitch in front of him and lower order batsmen with a virtually hopeless task opposite him. He did not pass up the opportunity. The last four wickets fell to him with in the space of 35 runs. The penultimate wicket, Brown, offered the perfect view of a googly as the ball flew through the gap between bat and pad and hit the stumps. The last he took with another googly to leave himself on a hat-trick when the team arrive at Trent Bridge and Somerset victors at Worcester by 147 runs. Here was a Test batsman, playing as overseas player for a county, bowling his occasional leg spin as if he was one of the county’s own and as if he had signed as a bowler. Such are the effects of team spirit at its best.

With, at most, 1000 spectators present and less than three days build-up to this match it would not have qualified for a set-piece battle in the old days. However, the intensity, power and unity of purpose with which the Somerset team played made it feel like one and perhaps it should qualify as one in these compressed times. Worcestershire are not a bad white-ball team. They came second in their group with a better record than Somerset had in theirs. And yet they wilted in the face of Somerset’s onslaught. That is the measure of the spirit and skill of this Somerset side when everything comes together.

There may be better technical selections for specific matches, including perhaps this one, but it is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive victory whoever had played and that is a measure of this Somerset team at its best. I still have concerns about the effects later in the season for key bowlers if they continue to play every match. But Somerset have now won eight of their 11 matches. They are top of the County Championship and have qualified for the semi-finals of this Cup. That did not happen by accident and those with their hands on the tiller must take their share, alongside that of the players, of the credit. If they have as good a view of how to manage the rest of the season as they have had in managing it thus far there may be much to hope for this year.

Result. Somerset 337 for 8 (50 overs) (T. Banton 112 (103 balls), W.D. Parnell 3-50 (econ 5.00), P.R. Brown 3-80 (8.00)). Worcestershire 190 (38/50 overs) (Azhar Ali 5-34 (4.85)). Somerset won by 147 run. Somerset qualify for the semi-finals.