The artists keep Somerset in the game – just

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

Second day. 15th April – The artists keep Somerset in the game – just

Overnight. Surrey 330 for 6.

Somerset ended the second day more or less where they ended the first. Just behind Surrey. Anxiety still remains for Somerset supporters for Surrey have their runs on the board. However, Somerset are still in the game. Buy the end of the second day in last year’s two Championship encounters with Surrey, by the end of the second day, they were well and truly out of it.

Unable to be at the start I followed the first half an hour or so from home by when Surrey had taken their overnight score forward by ten runs without losing any more wickets. I spent a rather anxious journey to the ground wondering just how high Clarke and the Surrey lower order might take the Surrey total. Anxiety used to be ended, or increased, when the old scoreboard hove into view as you approached the Brian Rose Gates. The new scoreboard by the Colin Atkinson Pavilion is hidden from view by the Somerset Stand as you approach the gates and the anxiety is prolonged until you get into the ground. Today the kindly steward who scanned my membership card compensated for the loss of the view by saying, “Not too bad. Nine down.” The scoreboard confirmed, and added the news that Groenewald had taken one of the wickets and Leach two. It also confirmed that that eternal thorn in Somerset’s side, Clarke, was still there and that Leach had removed Batty lbw for nought.

A discussion with people at Legends Square revealed Surrey had just gathered a fourth batting point before the end of the 110th over and that Somerset had just failed by an over or two to gain their third bowling point. The information was imparted with a wince at the juxtaposition of those two facts. Leach finally ended the Surrey innings with his third wicket, a slight anxiety with Somerset having to bat last, but inevitably it feels to the Somerset supporter, the eternal Clarke ended his innings unbeaten. It left Somerset a “tricky”, as someone put it, 20 minutes or so to bat until lunch. It was long enough for Trescothick to drive Clarke perfectly straight back to the Sir Ian Botham Stand boundary and Azhar to drive Morkel, as perfectly, through the covers to the Somerset Stand boundary and Somerset lunched on 10 for 0.

I watched the start of the post-lunch session from next to the Ondaatje Stand among the small ever-changing group of spectators that always gathers there. Almost immediately Trescothick seemed to push at a ball from McKerr and edged to Foakes behind the stumps. The dip in the spirit of the crowd was almost audible as Trescothick departed for his fourth low score in four this season. “They kept McKerr back until after lunch. He bowled two balls over the wicket to Trescothick and then that one around to change the angle. I wonder if they planned it,” said someone who I find to be pretty unerring in his judgement of cricket. Cricket is becoming ever more sophisticated in its planning and I suppose it is not entirely impossible that he was right.

I returned to my seat at the top of the Somerset Pavilion from where I watched the start of a small masterpiece of a partnership between Azhar and Hildreth. The apparently flat nature of the pitch doubtless helped but any artist needs a decent canvas on which to portray their best work. And as the pair went about their business it was indeed as if a pair of artists had been sent out to paint a masterpiece. There were brush strokes finessed with perfection interspersed with those flashes of vibrant colour necessary to set the rest of the picture off.

A back foot drive from Azhar flashed square and smoothly along the grass on its way to the Somerset Stand boards. It was followed by a cut off Morkel of equal pedigree as it graced the outfield on its long journey down to the far boundary in front of the Ondaatje Stand. Then one of those flashes of colour, again off Morkel, as he chipped a short ball over slip from where it flew, glinting in the sun as it went, into the Trescothick Stand boards for six. Azhar was already rousing the Somerset crowd.

It was not all Somerset though against an attack of the quality portrayed by Surrey. There was a cry of “Ohhhh!” from the slip cordon as Morkel sent a ball straight through Azhar’a defence and a gasp from the crowd as he dug out a perfect yorker from McKerr. But I suspect no artist completes a painting without a setback or two. Hildreth meanwhile, as he worked his brush strokes in with Azhar’s, was leaning into an on drive which crossed the grass through midwicket on its way to the Ondaatje boundary and brought forth gasps of its own from the crowd. Now Azhar was cutting past gully off Clarke and to the Somerset Stand boards and, with perfect placement, pulling McKerr to the same place. It caused Surrey to add a deep square leg to the long leg already in position.

When Hildreth cut Mckerr to the Ondaatje boundary it was as if we were witnessing the flawlessly smooth unwinding of his entire body from its stance as it passed all its power and finesse through his arms to the bat and from there to the ball. It was such a stroke as might be played by any of the great batsmen from one or other of cricket’s so-called golden ages as they now portray their artistry on the Elysian fields. If there was ever true perfection in a stroke it was there, right in front of our eyes, in that one. When Patel, he of Guildford fame, began his first over Somerset supporters might have been forgiven some feelings of trepidation. Not Hildreth. He pulled Patel’s first ball ferociously in front of square for four to the Somerset Stand. As if to make the message clear he repeated the stroke although some might have thought it had simply been 3-D printed from the first.

Azhar’s batting brought forth cries of “Beautiful shot” as balls sped along the ground to the boundary. They seemed to be played with such natural ease and confidence even this Somerset supporter, whose emotions trade on anxiety when Somerset are batting, began to relax. Relaxing when Somerset are batting is always risky. Surrey placed a short midwicket to Azhar when Batty bowled. Azhar drove the ball low straight at him and the catch was taken inches from the ground. Azhar 60. Somerset 104 for 2. “He was going so well too,” someone said.

Abell joined Hildreth and was immediately becalmed. He batted for nearly half an hour but just could not get a start. He had scored a single when he drove Morkel waist high to Elgar at cover. “He was there a long time for that single,” someone said. Bartlett announced his arrival by twice driving the otherwise quietly parsimonious Batty, once through the covers and once square to the Somerset Stand, for four. And that was tea and evidence of the ingrained superstition of the cricket supporter. “I am responsible for those two wickets,” said the text of a distant-living Somerset supporter, “I logged into the live stream the ball before Azhar was out.”

As I stood chatting, two thirds of the way around my teatime circumnavigation, in the Garner Gates gap the tea interval merged seamlessly into the evening session. “That is not the first time I have seen Azhar out like that and he slapped his pad with his bat last time too,” was the comment about Azhar’s dismissal. “Sides know all about other players and Surrey clearly placed Patel there to wait for that stroke.” As we stood there the evening session started with Bartlett trying to force the ever-dangerous McKerr across his pads, missing and having to depart in the face of the umpire’s finger. “He has shown he has so many strokes you wonder why he feels the need to play across his pads so early in his innings, if at all,” was the instant comment as a match which had slowly been threatening to turn Somerset’s way when Azhar was with Hildreth was now threatening to move firmly into Surrey’s hands as memories of the two Somerset collapses of 2017 stalked the mind.

But this is a more resilient Somerset team under pressure and Hildreth and Davies set about shoring up Somerset’s position. It was a partnership much of which I watched from Legend’s Square having managed to get three-quarters of the way around the ground. Circumnavigations at Championship matches can be tardy affairs as opportunities for cricket chat with people with different perspectives on the game constantly present themselves. It was the perfect position from which to watch Davies set out his easel. And set it out he did. A couple of drives, one square and one behind square set the blood running. The wicket is pitched well over towards the Somerset Stand and it seemed as if you could almost reach out and touch the bat as it connected with the ball. The drive backward of square had the face of the bat almost turned towards you as the ball left it and sped across the outfield in front you. There can be no better view of a left-hander with the fineness of touch of Davies playing that stroke. He played across his pads too, and that has got him out in the past particularly in his difficult start to the 2017 season. Here you could see why he had such belief in that stroke. The ball left the bat with the same certainty as the drives had and found the boundary in the same way.

I returned to the top of the Somerset Pavilion as Hildreth continued his brushwork from the other end as his drives, straight and on both sides of the wicket, were worked in with the pulls and the cuts as he advanced his score towards a century and Somerset’s towards a position from which they might begin to threaten Surrey’s. It was an innings which you dream of seeing when having to contend with a cold, wet February afternoon picking sodden deadwood out of the garden with fingers frozen to the bone. In February such innings always end in centuries. Here, as if the artist had inadvertently spilt a bottle of indelible ink across his canvas, Hildreth popped a ball back low to the ever-present Clarke. He had made 90. Somerset were 211 for 5, still 169 runs adrift, and the spectre of Surrey dominance once again reared its head.

It is not the ideal time in a match to have booked tickets for a folk concert during the evening more than thirty miles from the ground. But life is not perfect and compromises have to be struck when two things which you ‘cannot miss’ clash. Missing the last half hour of the cricket and perhaps the first hour or so of the next day as my report was written seemed a reasonable compromise when the tickets were booked on one of those cold February days. Now, with the match seemingly in perpetual balance, I was not quite so sure. Still, a bus ride later, a quick log in to my laptop revealed that Davies and Gregory had seen Somerset through to within 137 runs of Surrey with five wickets left. A long way to go, especially with Morkel and the new ball only 12 overs away, but Somerset were still in the game and, equally importantly still fighting.

Close. Surrey 380. (R.J. Burns 107. D. Elgar 103, R. Clarke 59*, L. Gregory 3-52, M.J. Leach 3-85). Somerset 243 for 5. Somerset trail by 137 runs with five first innings wickets standing.