Somerset edge the day

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Warwickshire. 20th, 21st , 22nd and 23rd May 2019. Taunton.

Toss. Uncontested. Somerset required to bat

First day. 20th May -Somerset edge the day

As I walked through the Brian Rose gates I saw two sets of stumps pitched more or less in the middle of the playing area. From ground level at that distance they served as well as markers to indicate the location of the pitch as equipment necessary for a game to take place. There was no other way of locating the pitch for it looked as green as the rest of the square. From my seat, next to the sightscreen in the lower level of the Somerset Pavilion, the pitch could be discerned by its colour but it still looked very green. The news that Warwickshire had opted not to toss and had inserted Somerset came as no surprise.

The other thing that struck me was the crowd. Or the comparative lack of it. It was large enough to have gone unremarked at most county grounds but it did not quite reach Somerset’s usual bumper, in County Championship terms, turnouts. The Trescothick Stand was just over a third full and the Somerset Stand had a polka dot look about it although the polka dots were quite plentiful in number. It was a good weather day for cricket watching too. Sunny and warm when I arrived, cloudy and a little more chill either side of lunch before the sun returned during the afternoon.

There was the usual anticipation of the match to come before the start but it lacked some of the atmosphere which larger numbers bring. There were seats to be had all day near the sight screen although not too many as the afternoon wore on. The pitch, unusually for a Championship match, was set over towards the Caddick Pavilion with less of a short boundary on one side than isn usually the case. Talk, in the stand and elsewhere, was of Lord’s on Saturday. Not so much of the match but of who was going and who was not. In years gone by the talk would have been of who had managed to get a ticket and who had not. There have been no such problems for some years as T20 Finals Day has taken on the role of the Blue Riband white ball competition. Given time to grow back to prominence and played in a less compressed timescale the recent growth in crowds and the tremendous family atmosphere at the Trent Bridge semi-final suggest this competition would have life in it yet.

But this day was about the Championship and Somerset’s latest challenge for it. That they had been ‘invited’ to make first use of the pitch was perhaps the least surprising aspect of the day. That Trescothick, having once driven beautifully through the on side for four, drove at a ball angled across him by Oliver Hannon-Dalby and was caught at first slip surprised few after his run of low scores this season. The slight flip of the head as the ball left the edge of the bat perhaps spoke of exasperation. The dismissal fuelled the talk which has increasingly been doing the rounds among some supporters of whether it is time for him to move on. I have heard such talk for a number of years past even when he has answered, emphatically, the criticism on the field of play. Whether he can do so again remains to be seen but it would not come as a surprise if he did. When he does finally move on the loss of his presence and influence, his contribution has been far more than the runs he has scored, will leave a cavern to be filled.

From there the Somerset innings took on the look of a cavalry charge against heavy odds. The odds being the Warwickshire bowlers, Hannon-Dalby in particular, and the pitch. The pitch will play a significant role in this match especially if, as Taunton pitches are inclined to do, it flattens later in the game. With Warwickshire to bat last Somerset may need to establish a distinct advantage before that time comes. Essex, who in the first match of 2017 found themselves chasing a relatively low score on a suddenly flattening pitch, sprang to mind. Perhaps the haste to score runs as the wickets fell was more strategy than the recklessness which the cries of “poor shot” which accompanied some dismissals suggested. Somerset may yet come to be thankful for the way they batted as Warwickshire may come to rue the rather more studious way in which they batted, and the profligacy with which Brookes bowled no balls and Ambrose was defeated by balls which bounced over his head or were bowled down the leg side at pace by most of the bowlers when he stood up. 47 extras in a total of 209.

And so to Somerset’s morning cavalry charge. Hildreth began with his usual brilliance of stroke. A cover drive to cause the ghosts of the old Stragglers bar to drool as it glided across the grass towards them and a cut through point which provoked cries of “shot” and applause which suggested a crowd larger than it looked. When, five balls later, he played the same stroke to a ball which perhaps moved away from him off the pitch it flew hard and down in front of point where Yates took a brilliant catch. The difference between the two strokes can only have been marginal but the outcome was terminal and the marginal error which Hildreth had made was interpreted by one disgruntled supporter as him having “given his wicket away”. Hildreth 15

Abell came to the wicket and played two cover drives and a square drive within two overs, all off Norwell from the River End, all attracting enthusiastic applause for they were classic in the true use of the word. The correctness of the strokes raising a hope that Abell might stay the course. Then, within a another over, he was, in the true use of that word, pinned lbw by a tremendous ball from Hannon-Dalby. It was full, angled in, and straightened off the pitch. Unplayable. Abell 14. Azhar meanwhile had been playing in his own carefully correct way. He had battled from the start for his 15 when Norwell perhaps drifted an angled in yorker away from him and removed his off stump. Somerset were 61 for 4. 77 for 5 when Bartlett, two drives and a clip off his legs, all for four, to the good tried to pull Brookes and got the ball tangled up in his midriff from where it toppled onto his stumps. Bartlett 15.

It had been an hour and a half of assertive Somerset batting against a swinging seaming ball. Azhar had battled whilst Hildreth, Abell and Bartlett had constantly looked for runs. They pushed hard for singles, struck scintillating boundaries, played and missed and then, when their time came on a testing pitch in testing morning conditions, lost their wickets in the attempt to move Somerset forward. Hannon-Dalby had constantly tested the batsmen with the best piece of bowling I have seen from him. “We wouldn’t have wanted to face Morkel on this,” was the comment. The other bowlers tested too but in testing they were profligate with their no balls and byes over and past the keeper for none of which it seemed was Ambrose was responsible.

“It wasn’t meant to be like this,” someone said and there was a hushed mumble in the crowd as people wondered if Somerset’s early Championship challenge was about to trip over the bottom club. As if in response Davies began to bring some calm to the Somerset innings with some solid defence and the occasional run-scoring stroke played with that velvety smoothness of his which, of itself, exudes calm. Gregory was a little more assertive and a little less reassuring with a cover drive to where the old Scoreboard Stand used to be, a slightly miscued lofted drive to the Trescothick Stand boundary and an edge though an empty third slip to where the covers are kept. When Hannon-Dalby returned for a new spell his first ball held its course and then swung away late. Gregory, driving, edged it to Banks at slip. It was an exceptional ball. Gregory 20. Somerset 123 for 6.

Davies and Overton, with a cover drive for four as good as anyone’s, took Somerset to lunch at 143 for 6, perhaps one of the more unusual first day lunchtime scores of the season, with a spell from Jeetan Patel providing some calm and a slower rate of extras to the Warwickshire bowling. Immediately after lunch Overton was bowled by a ball from Norwell which caused someone to comment, “That one moved in.” Overton 15. Somerset 147 for 7. You could feel the anxiety driven tension in the air and hear it in the muffled voices. But now came the partnership that may prove to have been crucial when the final reckoning for this match is made.

Davey joined Davies who had been an oasis of calm amongst the maelstrom of crashing boundaries, tumbling wickets and profligate extras. He continued in like vein, punctuated by only two boundaries, whilst Davey, a different batsman from a year ago, began to raise Somerset spirits, and cheers, with an innings of forceful hitting. He does not have the grace of Hildreth or the classicism of an Abell but for a lower order batsman he can be quietly effective. Quietly because, as with his bowling, he seems almost invisible as he goes about his business. Here he made a difference. In an over from Patel he both bludgeoned him over long on for four and deftly late cut him for four. A reverse sweep to the Ondaatje boundary brought cheers as did the fifty partnership as did the score going past 200. It was a score which could only be hoped for at 147 for 7. Now it was beginning to draw comments to the effect of, “This might be a decent score on this pitch”.

It was the virtual extent of Somerset’s recovery as the last three wickets fell in the space of four runs, Davies finally succumbing lbw in an attempt to lap Patel, Davey being caught off the persistent Hannon-Dalby and Leach driving at a wide ball. 209 the final score. Davies 23. Davey 36. Opinions were divided. Some thought it a competitive score. Others spoke of ineptitude, as they saw it, in the Somerset batting and foresaw a Warwickshire lead. Who would be a batsman on a pitch such as this?

When Somerset bowled against Warwickshire the movement, both off the pitch and in the air seemed to have diminished as it had begun to do for the Warwickshire bowlers after lunch. But the Warwickshire start was undermined by a piece of running to match the profligacy of some of their bowling errors as both batsmen ended up at the same end and they found themselves 13 for 1 with Rhodes walking back to the Caddick Pavilion. From there they moved forward slowly as they tried to grapple with the constant persistence and accuracy of the Somerset bowling. They never broke free from the net which gradually closed around them. Runs were at a premium. Occupation of the crease it seemed their aim.

Overton responded with a spell of bowling which kept Warwickshire at bay and at the same time began to peel their top order away. Yates caught behind, Hain and Hose both lbw, all to balls that seemed to ‘do something’, the one that took Hose’s wicket cutting back sharply off the pitch, almost as unplayable as the one which had removed Abell. It was brilliant sustained pace bowling from Overton to four, sometimes five slips. Somerset kept those slips in place for him even when wickets did not seem to be coming and in spite of there not being very many runs in the bank. It was another case of Abell holding his nerve as captain, keeping the pressure on the opposition and reaping the reward. With Warwickshire at 51 for 4, Overton in such form and the other pace bowlers not far behind, the mood of the crowd was beginning to lift. Mumbles became chatter, smiles were returning to faces and expectation rode the air.

The final period of play saw Warwickshire digging in ever harder, their defence built around Dom Sibley who, although virtually scoreless, did not look like getting out. He remained on 26 for what seemed an eternity. Somerset supporters knew his worth following his string of centuries in Championship matches and his name was on more than one set of frustrated lips. It was Groenewald who sliced through the tension. A ball homing in on off stump brought Sibley’s bat down to meet it. Late, very late, the ball moved away, took the edge and flew low and just wide of where third slip’s feet would have been had there been one but Abell had relaxed the field against Sibley. Four runs the thought. The thought reckoned without Overton at gully. A monumental dive, full stretch and low to his left scooped the ball and must have scorched the tips of the grass. The gasps which followed it momentarily delayed the cheer which followed the gasps and the smiles were now well and Somerset smiles were now truly in the ascendancy.

It remained only for Gregory to find the inside edge of Ambrose’s bat as he edged a fierce drive onto his stumps and for Leach, having apparently innocuously bowled a couple of overs, to elicit a slither of turn and take the edge of Brookes’ bat. Gregory moved neatly to his left at slip and took the catch as smoothly as any boundary comes off the face of Davies’ bat and that was it for the day. Warwickshire were 110 for 7, 99 behind. Somerset are ahead but, with the wicket liable to flattening they will need to take the final three wickets as promptly as possible and then bat themselves some way ahead if they are to remain in control of this game.

Close. Somerset 209 (Hannon-Dalby 5-18). Warwickshire 110 for 7. Warwickshire trail by 99 runs with three first innings wickets standing.