White clothing and red ball

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Surrey. 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th May 2019. Taunton. 

Toss. Surrey. Elected to bat.

First day. 14th April – White clothing and red ball

It was a curious sight that greeted me as I stood chatting on Legends Square. 13 men in white and two in white coats. Rather like a hospital ward walking onto the field. At least that was the thought that jumped into my head after a whirlwind three weeks criss-crossing the southern half of the country and the Midlands as I tried to keep up with Somerset’s 50 over campaign. I had become inured to technicolour cricket. Coloured clothing and a white ball. Now we had white clothing and a coloured ball. As if that was not enough my brain had struggled to keep up with the high-speed, almost daily, cricket watching, ping-pong travel, overnight stays and late-night writing of match reports. I can, without a hint of exaggeration, say that at one match I had to ask someone which day of the week it was. And now my brain was struggling to accommodate cricket being played in whites. Oh, what a mad cricketing world we live in. At least for those of us who remember when Championship matches started every Wednesday and Saturday and one-day matches were played every Sunday and, for cup matches, on a Wednesday in place of the Championship. There could be as long as 28 days between a quarter-final and a semi-final. This year there were not many more than 28 hours. All the old reference points have gone and the sudden reappearance of two of the few that are left, white clothing and a red ball, suddenly jarred on the mind.

We did have a toss which helped get my equilibrium back into some sort of order although Surrey winning it and electing to bat on a glorious day for batting hardly settled the nerves. Gregory’s first ball from the Somerset Pavilion End almost did. It whistled through Stoneman’s defence to a huge appeal and imploring looks at the umpire. As the morning wore on that scene was to be repeated. Ball beating bat time and again, unrequited appeals to the umpire and, I imagine, at times, to the heavens. It had all the hallmarks of a ‘flat’ pitch where, to my mind, bowlers seem to beat the bat but never find the edge. The thought of Surrey building a huge total was never far from the mind or the chat, memories of 2018 still fresh in the mind.

Gregory’s first spell, from the Somerset Pavilion End, looked sharp and constantly challenged the batsmen. Brooks, from the River End, threatened too and, across the day, apart from Gregory’s evening spell, looked the most likely to take a wicket. To get from Legends Square to my favoured location at the top of the Somerset Pavilion you have to cross close in front of the Gimblett’s Hill spectators so it can only be done between overs. If you are at the end of the queue to cross, Gimblett’s Hill is just long enough to make it a challenge to complete the journey before the steward at the far end is waiting to close the exit next to the sightscreen with a rope. Dallying to complete a conversation I realised I was not going to make it and scurried back to the sit on the step before making another more successful attempt at the end of the next over. Rather different from white ball crowds where the historic sanctity of the view during an over can be less well observed.

Once I was in my seat the old world began to fall back into place and players in whites once more felt like the natural order of things. The talk though was often of Somerset’s colossal performances at Worcester and Trent Bridge and of tickets and travel for the final at Lord’s. On the field of play the Surrey batsmen continued to play and miss but were settling ominously. By 12.15 Leach was bowling from the River End but with no more effect on the score, which had reached 63 for 0, although one ball fizzed past the edge of Stoneman’s bat. Craig Overton had taken over from Gregory at the Somerset Pavilion End after half an hour and had his share of balls beating the bat but with no more luck than Gregory or Brooks. How many times the ball has to beat the bat before an edge is taken would be an interesting piece of research although the results might not encourage the recruitment of bowlers. Even allowing for some balls that look like they have beaten the bat having actually been the batsman deliberately playing inside the line the ration of wickets always seem exasperatingly low on mornings such as this.

The crowd although back to Championship proportions after the large 50 over crowds was still of a size to make many other counties green with envy. It got right behind its team. Applause followed any ball which troubled or beat the batsman and was especially in evidence at the end of any testing over, of which there were many. But Burns headed the list of first division run scorers by a distance in 2018 and Stoneman has five test fifties. Any slight leeway in the bowling resulted in the ball piercing the field and finding the boundary as the sun beat down on an outfield seemingly faster than it had been for the 50 over matches. Stoneman reached fifty to characteristically generous applause from the Somerset crowd as lunch beckoned. Someone who has an uncanny feel for the game sat behind me for a chat and started by saying, “Brooks is going to take a wicket.” As if following an instruction from on high, three balls alter he did. The pressure of the bowling finally told or the luck finally changed and Stoneman edged Brooks to Davies, back behind the stumps for the game in whites. Surrey 96 for 1. Stoneman 50.

When my lunchtime amble around the ground reached the Caddick Pavilion I diverted onto and across the outfield. It involved a detour to the Colin Atkinson boundary to navigate around a couple of players having boundary catching practice. Being able to walk within five yards of the target area for a high velocity missile, even if someone is trying to catch it, seemed incongruous in an age of risk assessments and safety rules. But provided you kept our eye on the ball as they say, and didn’t stand immediately behind the fielder as the ball was struck, it felt as safe as houses. That really was the old times coming to visit even if the ball was white.

As is the way with my perambulations at lunchtime I failed to make it back to my seat for the resumption. I found myself watching from Legends Square again. It was fortuitous on this occasion for I had a perfect view of the ball as Gregory, now bowling from the River End, finally found the edge of a bat. The ball flew fast and on a downward trajectory directly towards Overton standing at third slip and towards me standing at third man beyond the boundary. Overton’s hands moved down and intercepted the ball perfectly a foot above the ground. In the one of the 50 over matches I had seen him take a stunning, running outfield catch with just as much assurance. Quite a fielder.

Before returning to my seat I watched an over or two from where the covers are stored next to the Ondaatje Stand. Burns tried to hook Gregory, the ball flew down the leg side, Davies took off at full stretch, got a hand to the ball but it fell to earth. It was impossible to see from my angle whether the ball had touched bat or something else or how much of a hand Davies got on the ball. Most in a better position to see than i and to whom I spoke afterwards were certain a chance had been spilled. Such moments can alter the course of a match. This one did not alter the course but it did confirm it on the course it had been following for Burns now began to work his way towards a century with increasing certainty although not without further luck. An edge off Groenewald flew safely through a gap in the slips. On one of only two visits to the kiosk at the back of the seating at the top of the Somerset Stand I heard a huge slowly building cheer rise and then deflate into a slowly descending groan. I went onto the terrace to find out what had happened. Burns had pulled Brooks straight to Azhar on the Somerset Stand rope. The ball had gone straight into his hands and straight back out again. The looks of disbelief told me all I needed to know.

Meanwhile Elgar was building what seemed to me a perfectly constructed innings at the other end. Burns made it to his century in the end but Elgar always looked as if a century was in no doubt, at least as far as that is possible in cricket. For much of the afternoon he played the ball around the field and to the boundary, held in check only by the continuing persistence of the Somerset bowling and the excellence and intensity of the Somerset fielding which was repeatedly encouraged by applause from the crowd. At tea Surrey were 217 for 2. Burns 95. Elgar 60.

For 40 minutes after tea the pattern of the day continued unabated as Burns and Elgar built Surrey’s score past 250. Once an edge flew but bounced short of slip. It was not the first of the day to do that. “Should the cordon not move forward a little?” asked someone who had played a lot of cricket in his youth. It seemed a reasonable question given the propensity of the ball to fall short but I don’t know how far forward a slip cordon can move before reaction time becomes an issue. A fine judgement to be made by those standing there I imagine.

During that passage of play I decided to try the last gambit of the supporter when wickets will not come and set off on a circumnavigation of the ground. “Back to reality I am afraid,” someone said as we chatted next to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. We watched Burns go to his century before moving on in our different directions. I took solace at the ice cream kiosk near the Garner Gates. It was just the weather to watch from their whilst the ice cream met its demise. Much warmer than the chill on the north face of the Somerset Stand. No good was done though so I set off behind the Somerset Stand towards Legends Square. That provoked a huge cheer as I was about half way round the back of the stand. Overton had caught Burns somewhere in the infield off Groenewald it was explained to me when I emerged. Surrey 265 for 3. Burns 107.

Somerset now turned to Abell. In his second over of this spell the newly arrived batsman, Foakes, edged him to Davies as I spent an over or two watching from next to the Ondaatje Stand. Surrey 268 for 4. I returned to my seat with some anxiety because none of the four wickets Somerset had taken had fallen when I was in my seat. I received much advice to remain on my feet for the rest of the innings but you have to sit down at some point. It made no difference. After one or two worrying boundaries from Elgar, Gregory bowled a spearing yorker, as was his wont before his back problems, and hit Elgar full on the foot. Elgar hobbled painfully off, lbw for 103. Surrey were 291 for 5 and Somerset were working their fingertips back into contact with the game. When Gregory hit Jacks on the pads and the finger was raised Surrey were 295 for 6 and the fingertips were beginning to grip.

Somewhere during my perambulation, either whilst I was behind a stand, queuing for an ice cream or deep in conversation I had missed Elgar hitting the ball into the river. It had meant a change of ball and the bowlers had begun to trouble the batsmen. Somerset delayed the new ball by about ten overs. But, on the demise of Jacks, Rikki Clarke, so often Somerset’s nemesis, emerged from the Caddick Pavilion. He and Ryan Patel worked to settle things for a few overs and Somerset took the new ball. It seemed to make no difference. “I don’t think the new ball is moving like the old one,” said the text from an online watcher. And it didn’t appear to be from my vantage point at the top of the Somerset Stand.

There were no more wickets and at 330 for 6 at the close with Clarke there to menace Somerset in the morning I left the ground with more anxiety than anticipation, although reminding myself that there was something altogether more resilient about this Somerset team this year. Kent and Nottinghamshire have been beaten and Somerset are top of the Championship. Surrey are likely to be a different proposition and when Clarke has finished with the bat he and Morne Morkel will be waiting with the ball. This match has all the makings of being every bit as much of a test for Somerset’s Championship ambitions as it looked like being when the fixture list was first published in November.

Close. Surrey 330 for 6.