Having a whale of a time

Royal London One-Day Cup. Nottinghamshire v Somerset. Semi-final. 12th May 2019. Trent Bridge.

Toss. Nottinghamshire. Elected to field.

Having a whale of a time

Alex Hales played the first three balls of Roleof van der Merwe’s over quietly back down the pitch. It felt like he had signalled the end for Nottinghamshire. It marked a sea-change in his approach. Until then his batting had been belligerent and had threatened to become devastating. It had reminded me of something someone said on the Somerset supporters’ coach on the way up: “We don’t want to see 30 overs of Alex Hales batting.” Azhar Ali seemed to sense the change as he shouted encouragement to van der Merwe. The change in Hales’ approach was startling. Until then he had tried to dominate the Somerset bowling at every opportunity. He had demonstrated the capacity to take control of the match. The fear of the Somerset supporter was that, unchecked he would do precisely that. Now he was feeling his way, perhaps giving himself time to re-assess the situation after Ben Duckett had announced himself by mishitting van der Merwe to Craig Overton who took a finely judged catch right on the rope. Nottinghamshire found themselves 125 for 3 in the 20th over still needing another 213 with the required run rate rising past seven and a half.

During the interval between innings some I spoke to thought Somerset’s 337 as much as 30 short of what they might have scored after six wickets had fallen for 62 runs in the latter third of the innings. Those wickets had come as Somerset tried to accelerate and some of them had suggested acceleration might not be straightforward on that pitch. Now, as Nottinghamshire needed to accelerate they found themselves in a similar situation but with the pressure of nearly 340 runs bearing down in them. Perhaps Hales’ sudden introspection, as it became apparent that his wicket was now fundamental to Nottinghamshire’s hopes of success, signalled that Somerset had posted an above par score.

What had impressed about the Somerset batting, and was to impress about their bowling and fielding, was the sense of intent and belief it embodied. The Somerset heart always fears the fall of a wicket at the next ball. Here that feeling was countered by one that sensed the team was in control of the situation, at least as far as that is possible in sport. Banton’s innings, in spite of his usual brushes with batting mortality at the outset, an edge just short of second slip to the fore, exuded confidence and certainty of purpose. Azhar was, at least to the onlooker, a sea of calm which would have been envied by any philosopher.

Asked to bat by Nottinghamshire Somerset started, as has become their fashion, with watchful circumspection. Then, the job sized, Banton began to assemble his innings with his usual certainty and variety of stroke, increasingly and then devastatingly finding the boundary. A cover drive off Fletcher played with minimal backlift which seemed to start slowly and then accelerate to the boundary signalled his intentions. Two more off side drives and a pull, all off Ball, built up the momentum which rose to a crescendo in Carter’s second, and last, over of off breaks, bowled as the last over of the first powerplay. The first two balls were driven high over long on for six. The third was swept so violently it burst through short fine leg’s hands far enough for two runs to be taken. The fourth was slog-swept for six and the final ball was reverse swept through point for four. 24 runs in the over, a key part of the Nottinghamshire attack effectively removed from the game and Nottinghamshire served notice that Somerset meant business.

Whilst the eyes were on Banton, Azhar was making an impact in his own way. Less emphatic, perhaps barely noticed, ‘under the radar’ to use the modern parlance, but equally effective. In the end his strike rate was barely less than Banton’s and he kept the Somerset door closed to the Nottinghamshire attack whilst Banton opened the Nottinghamshire door to Somerset.

When Banton left, pushing forward and caught behind off Gurney for 59, Somerset were 93 for 1 after 14 overs. Azhar and Trego continued Somerset’s advance almost seamlessly as they pushed forward. The whirlwind impression that Banton had portrayed was gone but steadily, intently, they kept the pressure on Nottinghamshire who must have been beginning to question the wisdom of asking Somerset to bat. The sixes stopped flying, with the exception of a slog sweep off Patel from Trego, the fours made up less of the mix but the partnership was driven forward by ones and twos constantly searched for. They were hard run where necessary and driven occasionally by a “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” from Trego. By such a mix was the scoreboard hurried along at nearly seven an over.

Somerset reached 183 for 1 with nearly 22 overs still to come. Perhaps the batsmen decided the time had come to build the total faster still, for Azhar, out of character from the rest of his innings, seemed to signal a step change in tempo by trying to whip Ball behind square and lost his middle stump. A scoop for two and a one-handed pull behind square apart, his innings had been built on orthodoxy and safety but alertness to opportunity and positiveness of stroke. A back foot drive for four off Gurney and a razor sharp cut behind square off Ball hurtle through the mind. 72 from 71 balls as a foundation to the innings was a contribution worthy of an overseas player.

Trego, buccaneer by batting reputation and often by fact, now carried the Azhar role forward whilst the batsmen around him flared and burned as they tried to increase the run rate in the heat of a resurgent Nottinghamshire attack and some determined fielding, particularly on the boundary. Hildreth, off his third ball, tried to pull a short ball forward of square but succeeded only in returning it to the bowler. Two wickets in an over for Ball to the relieved applause of the ever-growing Nottinghamshire crowd, too many now to accurately assess by eye but it must have been significantly in excess of 5000. 185 for 3.

Abell joined with Trego in the constant push for singles and twos or a boundary where it could be found. Then he seemed to look beyond that for acceleration as he scooped Fletcher for four. Fletcher is as skilful and experienced a bowler as you are likely to find and when Abell repeated the stroke off the next ball Fletcher found the edge and Moores, behind the stumps, duly caught the ball. Abell 18. Somerset 227 for 4. When Bartlett stepped away to drive Mullaney off only his second ball Somerset were 228 for 5 in the 36th over and Somerset’s attempt to take the game away from Nottinghamshire was at risk of foundering.

The Nottinghamshire crowd were now in full flow, chattering joyfully in the glow of their team’s successes in the sunshine which lit up the ground, and exploding into cheering at the fall of a wicket as they sensed their team were pushing their way back into the game. And yet perhaps the seeds of doubt should have been sewn for it was in the act of trying to accelerate the score, rather in the way of the sort of run chase on which Nottinghamshire might need to embark, that the Somerset batsmen were losing their wickets.

Gregory emerged and started to play the ferocious attacking innings for which he is fast developing a reputation. A huge six, straight, onto the first terrace, second or third storey, of the modern centrepiece of the Radcliffe Road Stand and another over midwicket were cleanly and ferociously hit. But a high, looping miscue out of reach of the closing fielders, a badly under-hit drive straight into, and out of, the hands of Mullaney at mid-off and a general sense that he was sometimes not quite connecting as he normally does in this sort of situation raised a question about just how many runs there were in 50 overs on this pitch. It did not Somerset trying to press further forward.

Perhaps the pressure to increase the tempo contributed to the running out of Trego who had been looking as if he might bat through the innings. Gregory played Mullaney towards mid-on with no power in the stroke. There was a call for a run, a call of “No!”, Mullaney rushed across, gathered the ball, swivelled and hit the stumps with Trego still two yards short of regaining his ground. Trego 73 from 72 balls. Somerset 252 for 6 with ten overs still to use. When, five overs later, both Gregory (37), caught on the boundary, and van der Merwe (11), caught miscuing to mid-off were out in the same over Somerset were 289 for 8. The Nottinghamshire crowd were rapturous and wreathed with smiles to match the sunny weather for as far along the stand as I could see, and on the big screen too. 289 for 8 from 183 for 1 was a significant return for them.

As at Worcester, where the Somerset innings had followed a very similar pattern, it was Craig and Jamie Overton who finally carried Somerset forward to somewhere near the land that the innings of Banton, Azhar and Trego had promised. Both managed to clear the leg side boundary but they added 47 runs whilst only reaching the boundary on two other occasions. They took Somerset to within a run of their eventual 337 before Jamie Overton and then Davey were run out going for impossible runs off the last two balls of the innings.

“We should have got 380,” was the first comment I received form a Somerset supporter on my lunchtime circumnavigation. “The pitch looks very flat.” Even I had thought that when I looked at it although my reputation for misreading pitches by looking at them is well-established. “I thought it had a bit of Worcester about it,” I replied, based on the way the Somerset batsmen had struggled to accelerate in the last third of the innings and had tended to be caught off miscues when they did.”

It was a generous gesture of Nottinghamshire to allow such a large crowd access to the outfield in the interval. Large numbers, including me took advantage of it. It reflected the warmth demonstrated by stewards when they were required – they were virtually invisible when not – and by the Nottinghamshire crowd. An unusually high proportion of the crowd were of school age and negotiating your way out to the middle through a forest of overlapping cricket matches and flying balls was a welcome throwback to an earlier age. Nottinghamshire are clearly doing something right. Perhaps, in addition to the weather and the Sunday weekend fixture £12 adult advance tickets and the availability of family tickets had something to do with it.

Nottinghamshire did not top their group by accident and they set about overhauling the Somerset total with a purpose, scoring at near the required rate. Then, with their score on 38, Joe Clarke, in a manner reminiscent of a number of Somerset dismissals miscued and drove Craig Overton straight into the chest of Azhur at short mid-on. This brought Hales to the wicket to huge applause from the Nottinghamshire crowd perhaps wishing to show their support following recent publicity.

He and Slater continued to drive Nottinghamshire forward, moving at only a fraction below the required rate and steadily closing the DLS gap opened up by the loss of Clarke. Hales began to demonstrate the quality of his batting. A drive back past the stumps off Craig Overton and a straight six off Davey left no doubt of his capabilities. It was not just the strokes but the manner of them. There was something about his poise and the ease with which he struck the ball which inspired confidence in the Nottinghamshire crowd and anxiety in the Somerset one as those 30 overs feared on the supporters’ coach began to pick at the mind.

Slater too showed his class as he turned Davey neatly to the boundary and pulled Jamie Overton, and then drove him through extra cover, in the same over, both times for four. The singles and twos though the batsmen seemed to find much harder to come by than Somerset had done. The Somerset fielders fielded every ball as if winning the match depended upon it as, in a close-run match, it very well might. This was fielding over and above the normal professionalism of the first-class cricketer. This was fielding driven by passion for the Somerset cause, or so it looked to me. “NO!” was a frequent cry killing off a speculative start to a run. Often the fielding was so sharp a run was not even speculated about. That sort of fielding builds pressure because the ball has to be sent to the boundary to sustain a challenge.

Perhaps the constant need for boundaries, contributed to the loss of Slater’s wicket. He drove at Jamie Overton, bowling with pace and accuracy sufficient to make him the most economical of the Somerset pace bowlers. He is a joy to watch. The epitome of ‘putting your heart into it’. When he bowls as he did here it lifts the heart. The ball flew low towards mid-off where another piece of sharp fielding found van der Merwe, who knows how to do nothing but put his heart into it, diving low to his left and taking the catch just above the ground. Slater 58 from 60 balls, Nottinghamshire 110 for 2 in the 18th over. Then came Duckett’s miscue, Nottinghamshire 125 for 3, and the sudden stagnation of Hales’ innings. Within four overs the required rate rose from just over seven an over to nearly eight. The increasingly loud response of the crowd to the boundaries of Slater and Hales slid into a nervous chatter.

Craig Overton returned to replace Gregory and bounced Hales who, perhaps forced by the rising pressure into playing a less than controlled stroke, tried to chip the ball over the slip area, edged to Banton who reached for and took a good high catch. The Somerset fielding was at such a pitch in this match it never occurred, even to this worrisome Somerset supporter, that Banton would miss the catch. Hales 54 from 51 balls. Nottinghamshire 131 for 4, still 207 runs short of their target, with nearly half their overs gone. The Nottinghamshire crowd were stunned, Somerset supporters, dotted about, were clearly identifiable by the scattered points of applause and cheering, and the Somerset players were in an exultant huddle. The unanimously high valuation on the Hales wicket was clear for all to see.

So constrained had the Nottinghamshire batsmen become that Samit Patel, so often a thorn in the Somerset side, scored just three runs from 17 balls. It was as if Nottinghamshire had suffered a sudden loss of direction after the Slater wicket. Difficult to credit with just two wickets down but the intensity of the Somerset performance and the precision of its attack and fielding were such that perhaps the loss of a key wicket in the face of it opened the door to doubt.

Mullaney and Moores tried to retrieve the situation for Nottinghamshire. It looked a concerted effort as they strained to break out but they managed just three boundaries and 30 runs in six overs as the Somerset net closed and the required rate rose towards nine an over. Abell even felt confident enough to remove a fielder from run-saving duties and bring him into the slips to deter the batsmen from steering the ball through third man. When Moores struck van der Merwe straight back over his head the ball threatened to clear the rope but Jamie Overton hurtled along the boundary from long off and caught the ball high over his head. It was phenomenally spirited boundary run, a phenomenal catch and a perfect example of what Nottinghamshire were up against.

It remained only for Mullaney to try to flick Davey behind square and be bowled and for Fletcher, all the pressure off, to hit some mighty sixes to score 43 from 31 balls before Carter pulled Azhar Ali to Bartlett on the boundary and Fletcher final succumbed to Gregory, caught by Azhar Ali. I cannot recall where he was caught and my notes end abruptly because I was by then on my feet applauding a Somerset performance which might properly qualify for the much overused word, ‘awesome’.

I had left home at 5.15 that morning and returned at about 10.00 in the evening. A long day as they say and nearly seven hours of it spent sitting on a coach. But it was a day in which I saw a match played at an intensity and in an atmosphere which brought back memories of those great quarter and semi-final set-pieces of old. And such a match had Somerset won convincingly. It was a match arranged at less than a week’s notice and yet it attracted a crowd of thousands which, to my eye represented, in gender and age, a pretty full cross-section of society and, as far as I could see, everyone, leaving the result aside, was having a whale of a time.

Result. Somerset 337 (50 overs) (P.D. Trego 73 (72 balls), Azhar Ali 72 (71), T. Banton 59 (55), J.T. Ball 4-62 (econ 6.20). Nottinghamshire 222 (38.2/50 overs), B.T. Slater 58 (60), A.D. Hales 54 (51), L.J. Fletcher 43 (31), R.E. van der Merwe 3-29 (3.22). Somerset won by 115 runs. Somerset qualify for the final.