Gregory shapes the day

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

Third day. 16th April – Gregory shapes the day

Overnight. Surrey 380. Somerset 243 for 5. Surrey lead by 137 runs with five second innings wickets standing.

After two days spent fighting to stay in this match Somerset made this their day and are now, at worst, at parity. On the last day much will depend, as it did on the third day, on the first session. Surrey’s have five wickets remaining, four if Elgar, absent through illness on the third day, cannot bat. If they can stretch their innings much beyond lunch Somerset may be faced with a difficult equation and will need to get through Morkel’s new ball spell, and Morkel has a record for Surrey of performing at the crunch, whatever the equation. It would be a good time for Trescothick to find some form after his four successive low scores in this season’s Championship.

At the heart of Somerset’s performance was an outstanding century from Gregory, his second in first-class cricket following his 137 at Lord’s in 2017. He came to the wicket on the second evening with Somerset five wickets down and still 169 runs adrift. He was still undefeated on 129 mid way through the third afternoon when Somerset ended their innings 18 runs ahead. It was a tremendous performance which had the crowd cheering and, as he ran through for the single to bring up his hundred, on their feet applauding.

It had been an innings of undisputed class, determination and intent. It had included passages of ferocious but, as far as can be determined from beyond the boundary, calculated hitting; as well as passages of studious and equally calculated defence. He bestrode the first half of the day like some batting colossus. He has often threatened to play such an innings and has played some crucial innings of defence, Chelmsford in 2018, or attack, Headingley in 2018, which have helped save or win a game. This innings changed the shape of this game. Surrey were ahead when Gregory began. They were not when he had finished.

I was delayed in arriving at the ground because the previous evening’s folk concert had deferred the writing of my second day report until the third morning. The last hour of the report writing had been punctuated, and probably delayed, by frequent peeks at the score as the third morning got underway. It was a question of balancing the need to know with the need to concentrate. How on earth did Brian Close score runs whilst wondering about the result of the 3.10 from Kempton? No commentary in the background because multi-tasking to the extent of writing about one day’s play whilst listening to commentary on another is beyond me. Davies going early for 58 was one shock I could have done without and, finally unable to resist a look at the live stream before I left, I saw Overton gloving a ball from Mckerr to Foakes behind the stumps for another. The bus ride to the ground was an anxiety riven one as I awaited the text which would announce the fall of another wicket. The text never came but that seemed to make the bus ride all the longer. Lack of news when there is an intense need to know the score, even when the lack of news is supposed to be good news, is one of the most effective elongators of time known to the lifelong cricket supporter.

When I finally arrived I was fortunate to be watching the third day with someone who still plays the game. Davies, he told me, had been lbw to a ball ‘fired in’ by Batty after the previous ball had turned and lifted so much it had gone to first slip. Gregory and Overton had then added 59 runs in nine overs. Gregory, he said, had hit some lovely fours including two cover drives in successive balls and a pull for four in the same over. Overton had driven Batty into the Trescothick Stand for six and had also cut a ball perfectly between deep backward point and third man for four. That was a stroke he mentioned several times. Overton had been out for 15 which gives an indication of the dominance of Gregory’s scoring, and the importance of Overton’s innings in staying with him.

I arrived just in time to see Gregory drive Patel, Somerset’s nemesis in the first innings at Guildford last year, into the second row of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. That helped drive away the anxieties of the morning. When he followed it up an over or two later with a six pulled over the Caddick Pavilion boundary it started to set the blood running and the crowd to exuberant cheering. The pitch is set just about as far over towards the Somerset Stand as it can be pitched and the Caddick Pavilion boundary for this match provides pretty well the longest boundary it is possible to have at Taunton. It was an almighty hit, and off Morkel of all people. Before the over was out Gregory had also driven Morkel through the covers to the Somerset Stand for four. When in the next over he lofted Patel into the Colin Atkinson Pavilion the innings really was becoming the stuff of storyland.

“Gregory has been good. He wore down the attack when the new ball was taken, came out all guns blazing before it and now he is attacking hard again,” my cricket-playing co-watcher said. Groenewald had played his part too. Apparently he had been subject to a barrage of fast short pitched bowling form Morkel who barely pitched a ball up to him. Groenewald had been far from comfortable as he evaded the onslaught but he had stuck with Gregory as they worked to ‘see off’ the new ball. Gregory had paced his innings perfectly to meet the situation. Groenewald had been hit painfully on the hand just before I arrived but had stuck to his task and not given an inch to Morkel.

Just before lunch Patel hit Groenewald what looked to be an excruciating blow on the same hand which had suffered before I arrived. The glove was torn off and the hand repeatedly shaken violently as Groenewald went to ground. It would not have surprised me if he had gone off or if he had suffered some serious damage. But five minutes or so of recovery time and repairs got him back in front of his stumps to face the next ball. “He may not last long,” the comment but two more balls with three short covers saw Somerset through to lunch on 353 for 7 with Gregory on 96. “Well done lads. Really well done,” a cry from the stands expressed with true pride. Indeed it had been really well done. 110 runs added in the session for the loss of two wickets and Somerset were fast approaching Surrey’s first innings score.

It had been a morning of rising hope Somerset supporters. As I went on my lunchtime amble around the ground the morning, Gregory’s innings and Groenewald’s grit in particular, had expunged from discussion Somerset’s appearance in the upcoming Lord’s final which had previously held sway particularly on the first day. It was commented upon several times that Somerset had progressed in the face of persistent short pitched bowling from Morkel. It all stood out in marked contrast to the despond of 2017 when Surrey had inflicted those horrendous collapses on Somerset and, it is easy to forget, every other team in the first division.

Gregory drove Morkel’s first ball after lunch straight into the hands of the cover fielder. The heart sank as the ball floated unerringly towards him, and rose again as it went into his hands and came out again. “What a let-off on 96. It wasn’t travelling very quickly was it,” the disbelieving comment. When Gregory pulled Morkel’s next ball to the long Ondaatje boundary the heart rose and sank again as the ball was hauled in and the batsmen restricted to three. “He’s on the dreaded 99,” someone said. But in this mood Gregory seems to dread nothing and in the next over he steered the ball through backward point for a single and the ground was on its feet.

Groenewald continued after lunch but when he turned Morkel behind square for a single he took his hand off the bat which raised the question on more than one set of lips as to whether he would be able to bowl. An over later he tried to steer Morkel to third man and was caught at slip for 13. He had defended his wicket for over an hour and a half of gruelling defence for those 13 runs but crucially he had protected an end whilst Gregory drove Somerset forward. The reception he received as he left the field reflected the appreciation of his efforts. It was part of a Somerset performance which, seen in the context of a year ago against this team, grew out of the intent and determination which is flowing forth this year.

Leach held his wicket for another half hour against Morkel which must have taken some grit given the fearful concussive blow on the helmet I saw him receive from the same bowler at Guildford last year. It gave Gregory time to score the bulk of the runs in their 32 run ninth wicket partnership. Leach was out trying to drive Clarke through the off side to take Somerset past 400 and to a fifth batting point. Instead he edged the ball to Borthwick at slip and Somerset were 398 for 9. Brooks walked out somewhat gingerly and alongside a runner because of his calf injury. He was bowled two balls later through a very leaden-legged stroke and Somerset had missed that point by two runs.

The ten minute break between the innings gave me the opportunity to buy an ice cream for the person with whom I was watching the cricket. He is rather fond of ice cream but has not been able to have one at a cricket match for some years. Not since he became a vegan. But this year, for the first time, Somerset are selling vegan ice cream and rather good vegan ice cream apparently. As far as I can tell from my travels around the circuit it is probably a first, in the first division at least. And scoop ice cream to boot, not just for vegans but for all. That is now quite rare too in the cricketing world. Somerset really does head the rest when it comes to match day catering of all sorts.

Ice cream bought, it was back to the cricket. As I took my seat I could feel, and hear, the tension in the air as Surrey began their second innings amidst a hushed mumble. When Trescothick dived to his right to add another slip catch to the pile he has gathered over the last quarter of a century the mumble burst into a cheer, Stoneman walked off, Gregory had added another wicket to bis tally and Surrey were 4 for 1. When Borthwick drove Gregory for three fours and a three in an over someone said, “Gregory has been batting since eleven o’clock this morning. He is probably tired.” When Overton broke through Borthwick’s defence and let forth a mighty appeal the umpire stood unmoved for what seemed an age and then raised his finger. Out came the smart phone of the cricket player to reveal the ball had straightened a bit off the pitch. 19 for 2, with Surrey just one run ahead, was worth the wait for that finger, although more timely decisions by umpires would help keep the blood pressure in equilibrium, at least as far as is possible for those who support Somerset.

Now came a crawl of a stand between Burns and Patel which saw Somerset stretching every sinew for a wicket and the batsmen grimly holding on, with Burn’s score growing at about half the rate of the number of overs bowled. Both batsmen played and missed several times to disappointed gasps from the crowd and questions about how many times a batsman has to play and miss before he finally finds the ball with the edge of his bat. Burns’ playing and missing tended to involve drives as well as ferocious attempts to cut, the latter provoking the loudest gasps. When batsmen are in the runs it seems they are in the luck just as much as they are out of luck when they are not in the runs. Luck can be a very fickle friend in cricket.

As Leach began to settle and test the batsmen Hildreth donned a helmet and moved to a position between leg gully and leg slip. With Gregory at slip and Trescothick at short leg the area around the batsman was becoming crowded. Leach needed none of them as he bowled Patel, almost yorked him, as he seemed to play around the ball. 43 for 3, Surrey just 25 ahead. You could really feel the tension in the air now. The conversation fell in volume and at the same time became more intense as people sensed an opportunity for Somerset. So did Trecothick it seemed, “C’mon boys. C’mon!” he implored. This was perhaps the high point of Somerset’s day. It demonstrated, for all to see, the progress the team had made in a year. This was the same Somerset as in 2018 but, against a top team, a different Somerset. Capable now it seemed of facing down the best in high pressure situations. It was a very different picture from the matches against Surrey in 2018 or Essex in 2017.

But Surrey are still County Champions, no doubt expectant of retaining their title. They are unlikely to relinquish it without a fight. They fought here as Burns and Foakes defended firmly and Surrey went in for tea at 49 for 3. After tea Burns began to take the fight to Somerset whilst Foakes continued to shore up an end with runs from his bat only rarely adding to the score. Leach was now bowling with a slip, short leg and silly mid-off and turning the occasional ball quite sharply. Burns seemed to live a charmed life as he played and missed, and edged the ball unerringly wide of any encroaching fielder, and not just against Leach. First Overton and then Gregory constantly tested the batsmen from the other end as gasps rent the air from fielders and spectators alike. A gasp as Gregory forced an edge from Burns turned to applause as the ball flew to the boundary and the four runs brought up Burn’s fifty. When Gregory forced an lbw against Foakes later in the over a huge cheer erupted as finally a ball that had beaten the bat had struck home. Surrey 94 for 4. 76 ahead. Foakes out for an over and time-consuming nine.

Jacks joined Burns and the two sides, County Champions and the early County Championship leaders, toe to toe, strove for the ascendancy. As the day moved in to its last hour Jacks punctuated Surrey’s defiance of the Somerset bowlers with some well struck boundaries. Gregory tested the batsmen with some particularly well-directed yorkers which they managed to ‘dig out’, sometimes with centimetres or split seconds to spare. Leach, after conceding some early runs began to impose some restraint on the batsmen. At one point, after an extended discussion between Abell, Leach and Azhar, Leach experimented with a seven/two leg side field. “It’s a long time since I saw a field like that,” commented my cricket player. It cost Leach ten runs as Burns twice drove him for four through the cavernous gap in the off side.

Leach soon reverted to a more orthodox field and immediately regained the virtual stranglehold he had begun to impose on the batsmen. Eventually Burn’s, who had strained to get Leach away, advanced a step or two out of his crease intent on attacking the ball, the ball evaded the bat and with some minimal, barely visible, hand movement Davies had the bails off. “Good work!” someone said and Surrey were 148 for 5, 130 ahead. Burns 78. Somerset had come from behind after the first two days of the match, and through an all-round effort spearheaded by Gregory’s astonishing innings now, perhaps, just had the edge. The prospect of an edge-of-the-seat final day, with all four results perfectly possible, hung in the air alongside a promise from the forecasters of some spoiling rain.

Close. Surrey 380 and 152 for 5. Somerset 398 (L Gregory 129*, J.C. Hildreth 90, Azhar Ali 60, R. Clarke 3-74, C. McKerr 3-94). Surrey lead by 134 runs with five second innings wickets standing.