Somerset retain the advantage

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

Overnight. Somerset 209. Warwickshire 110 for 7. Warwickshire trail by 99 runs with three first innings wickets standing.

Second day. 21st May – Somerset retain the advantage

Tom Abell must loom large in the minds of opposition batsmen when they are at the crease. Fielding at cover he forms what must at times seem to be an impenetrable wall as he dives full length to strangle ‘certain’ fours in their infancy. For the second ball of the second day of this match it was not a dive but a jump which apparently took the eye. Jeetan Patel, one of the more dangerous among lower order batsmen, drove Leach hard and high over cover. Four! Except that Abell catapulted himself upwards, reached even higher and snared the ball. Patel’s threat was ended before it had begun. It was an astonishing catch as it was described to me, for I had missed it. It must have been quite something because it was often the first thing on people’s lips for the rest of the day whenever I stopped to chat to someone new.

As I sat on my bus as it queued patiently to get past the hedge-trimmers blocking our side of the road and my route to the cricket the text came in from the ground. “Warwickshire gone for 135. Patel – brilliant catch from Abell. Norwell arched back to avoid a ball from Overton. Bowled behind legs. Somerset 15 for 2. Azhar and Hildreth ducks. Trescothick going at it brutally. Ball moving and bouncing.” It read like a telegram despatched from some crisis in a distant land in the days before communications satellites made it as easy to report news from Australia as it is to see what is going on outside your front door. And yet its staccato delivery painted the picture well enough for me to suffer the classic angst of the cricket supporter delayed in getting to the ground when ‘something is happening’.

On my deliverance from my bus I took my seat in the lower terrace of the Somerset Pavilion next to the despatcher of the text. The news report continued with a stop press update, “Wickets from the other end. Runs from this end.” As if to emphasise the point made about his innings Trescothick crashed a cover drive to the Caddick Pavilion boundary. It set the great phalanx of schoolchildren, who had filled the Ondaatje Stand as part of Somerset’s ‘Schools Day’, into a frenzy of waving arms and excited chatter. It stood out two octaves above the general chatter which, by comparison, rumbled around the ground like a distant thunder storm.

Abell seemed to be “going at it hard” too. A square on-side drive off Norwell crossed the Somerset Stand boundary, the longer boundary in this match, when on the first day it would have waited for the fielder to haul it in for three. Trescothick despatched another cover drive, this time to the Somerset Stand. “His wagon wheel is nearly complete,” said someone who had watched from the start. When he was lbw to Norwell for 23 trying to turn the ball to leg the cricket-player with me said, “Shame. He was just starting to play himself in to some form.” Somerset were 37 for 3, 111 ahead as the steady fall of wickets began to hold back the flow of runs.

When Abell glanced Brookes to the Colin Atkinson boundary for four the schoolchildren cheered, the rest of us applauded, someone said, “Lovely shot!” and I remembered the number of times I had seen Abell caught down the leg side to that stroke. Low scoring matches are nervous affairs. Somerset may have been ahead but the prospect that the pitch might flatten for the second Warwickshire innings, or one of the opposition batsmen get in and make a score sufficient to eradicate the gap between the sides, prodded away at the brain’s worry buttons. When on 23 Abell played well forward to Norwell and edged the ball to the keeper he depressed the atmosphere and prodded another worry button. Somerset 46 for 4. Just 120 ahead.

Bartlett and Davies tried to push Somerset forward. Bartlett started with a square drive to the Somerset Stand and a straight drive to the Somerset Pavilion off successive balls from Brookes. It was indicative of the way Somerset were playing. No quarter was asked. None was given. Only Davies was more circumspect; looking, waiting, and waiting again for the ball to persuade to the boundary. Cheers followed the boundaries, applause the singles and gasps the ball beating the bat. And all the while the perpetual torrent of jubilant chatter from the Ondaatje Stand floated in the background. One ball in particular from Patel, bowled from the River End, turned and bounced nastily. There was no stroke from Davies and it passed harmlessly to the keeper but it kept the nerves pitched on the edge between hope and fear.

When Bartlett drove hard at Brookes he only connected with the inside edge and Ambrose took an exceptional catch, diving well down the leg side to pluck the ball out of the air as if it were his standard practice with every ball. It was an exceptional catch in a match of exceptional catches. Somerset 68 for 5, Bartlett 14. Gregory to the wicket. The lead just 142. Somerset faces were beginning to become a little anxious as estimates of a possible target percolated the chatter. “At least 200,” someone said. “I think we would be safe with 250,” someone else said but without much confidence that Somerset would stretch it that far. Somerset were having to fight for every run. The steady supply of no balls and byes with which the Warwickshire bowlers had bolstered Somerset’s first innings total had completely dried up and the way that ball seemed to tuck Bartlett up and the inside edge which resulted suggested the pitch still had life in it. With Warwickshire having last use the continued movement at least settled the nerves a little as lunch approached.

My usual lunchtime circumnavigation, anti-clockwise as always, as usual failed to get me back to my seat before the restart. The chat which helps make the day at a Championship match wondered about the pitch produced for this match and compared it to the one for the Surrey match. Much greener for this match, much more lively, against, according to the table, a weaker team. Could not Somerset win on a ‘better’ pitch with more bonus points? Would a ‘better’ pitch run the risk of a draw against a team Somerset might otherwise reasonably expect to beat? Is it possible to prepare a pitch with that degree of accuracy? Has the new drainage affected pitch preparation? Has this pitch narrowed the scores sufficiently to open up the possibility of defeat? Whatever the answers, if answers there be to such questions ahead of the outcome, the pitch had produced a match which was holding the attention.

I watched the overs after lunch from Legends Square. A different perspective from the one watching from my seat in the Somerset Pavilion, and in line with gully. Good enough to see Gregory’s off stump part company with its moorings, and hear the groan, as his forward defensive stroke, beaten by Norwell, looked forlorn as he held it for a few moments after his off stump had left the ground. When Davies’ departed for a, as they used to say in the old days, ‘watchful’ nine Somerset were 78 for 7 with a lead of 152 and the chatter that attends a cricket match had developed a more than anxious tone. 152 was in range of one decent partnership and a few odds and ends. It brought the prospect of defeat forward from the far horizons of Somerset supporter’s minds to the middle ground. Closer in the anxieties of some.

But cricket is cricket, Somerset are Somerset, Overton is Overton and on this day the ball needs must fly from the bat. It wasn’t just Overton of course. He was helped along the way by Davey, Groenewald and Leach but it was Overton who provided the core and direction of their partnerships with six fours and a six. Groenewald too can wield a bat with the best of lower order batsmen. His six, hooked, flew high over the Ondaatje boundary. He, and Somerset, also had a stroke of good fortune. An intended six went high but not long towards the Ondaatje boundary. Hannon-Dalby, hero of Warwickshire’s bowling in the first innings, became villain in the field. He back-peddled hard towards the boundary. Spectators can often sense when a skied catch is not going to be taken. It is as if the fielder telegraphs a sense of uncertainty. Hannon-Dalby’s run never looked right and had no certainty about it. He took the ball with his hands high over, and slightly backward, of his head. And then seemed to throw it forwards as if he had caught a red-hot potato shot towards from some heavenly oven. “It probably came out of his hands and the jerky movement was probably him trying to catch it again,” said my cricket-playing companion.

In 18 overs Somerset’s lower order added 86 runs, nearly five an over, and took the target somewhere back towards the far horizons of Warwickshire hopes and at the same time lifted Somerset spirits. The spirits of the Somerset crowd at least, for cheers replaced the turbo-charged chatter of the gradually departing groups of schoolchildren. The hitting was clean, the defence determined and the running decisive. It must have given Somerset some momentum to take into the field as Warwickshire set out in pursuit of 239. By 30 runs they needed the highest score of the match on a pitch still suited to bowlers.

When Rhodes began the Warwickshire innings he played Gregory’s first five balls as if he were having a gentle defensive net. He did not look remotely challenged. To the sixth ball he went forward as defensively as to the others and edged to Davies. Warwickshire 0 for 1 and the slight intrusion of Somerset anxiety that the first five balls had induced was dissipated. But a voice behind me saying, “We need to get the wickets in the first 25 overs before the ball goes soft,” did not make for restful watching since it had a ring of truth about it. By tea Sibley, the Warwickshire ‘dangerman’ who was on everyone’s lips had beautifully driven Gregory through the on side to the Ondaatje Stand for four. Gregory’s run-up and delivery are so smooth he can lull you into thinking he is not presenting a threat. Then, without looking any different from those that have gone before, a ball utterly defeats a batsman. This time it was Yates, completely tucked up by a lifting ball, and Davies again took the catch. 26 for 2. Warwickshire were still 213 short and as the players left the field for tea the chatter in the crowd had a more relaxed tone about it than it had dared when the Warwickshire innings was getting underway.

After tea the rest of the match began to take shape. There would be no Somerset-style assault on the bowling. Warwickshire attempted to build their way to the target slowly, safe run by safe run as if they were carving a statue out of stone. Somerset’s bowlers often talk of bowling with patience, probing away and giving nothing away until pressure builds on the batsmen and a ball finds its way through. When the batting and bowling both follow the same ‘patient’ strategy the pattern of a match, or of what remains of it, is elongated and so are the developing emotions, of anxiety or expectation, felt by supporters.

It took nine overs for Sibley and Hain to add 20 runs. That pace of cricket, without a wicket, in the fourth innings of a close match, of itself, builds tension. The knot in the pit of the stomach tightens just that little bit more with every passing over. The more so in this case because, arguably, Warwickshire’s two best batsmen were playing themselves in and the ‘runs required’ number on the scoreboard had fallen below 200. Then, as so often, patience in bowling paid off. Leach had joined the attack, Sibley played back, the ball found the edge, the hands of Gregory at slip moved smoothly to his left and took the catch. It was as if the movement of the hands and the movement of the ball were part of some synchronised piece of living art. 46 for 3, Sibley gone for 12 and a huge cheer of jubilation tinged with relief resulted for Sibley was a real threat. “That one turned a bit,” the instant incoming text.

Hose, who had left Somerset two years before and scored but two in the first innings of this match, drove Overton straight for four, repeated the stroke against the next ball, mistook the line and the ball hit his pads. As the umpire raised his finger the cricket-player said, “That wasn’t going anywhere but into the stumps.” 55 for 4. 182 needed and Banks in to join Hain. Somerset hopes rose now and the animation of the chatter with them. “Another wicket tonight,” implored a voice from further back the stand as the need to keep taking wickets against a low target was never far from the front of every Somerset supporter’s mind.

Unless the pitch is entirely suited to a bowler Abell rarely seems to keep bowlers on for long and he replaced Leach at the River End with himself. As so often seems to be the case with Abell, the change of bowling brought a wicket. Whether Abell’s bowling changes actually do bring wickets as often as supporter’s think they do is for the statisticians. Here it needed no statistician to find the answer. Banks sent Abell’s first ball over point for four with an uppercut that brooked no argument. With his fourth Abell struck the pad and Warwickshire were 84 for 5. Banks 11. 155 needed and the cheers now beginning to signal the belief that Somerset had the winning of this match, and first place in the Championship table, in hand. As the seagulls began to gather over the Trescothick Stand, the customary harbinger of the end of a day’s play, a lightning-fast throw from Bartlett at point hit the only stump he could see. Ambrose, apparently running at the absolute limit his legs could manage, failed to make his ground at the end of a single that, completely out of kilter with the rest of the innings, always seemed to rely on the fielder missing the stumps. Warwickshire 89 for 6. 150 short.

The match was now firmly in Somerset’s sights. At the close only Hain stood firm against them on 43, the highest score to date in the match, with Warwickshire still 136 short of victory. It had been an exceptional innings from Hain as Somerset, bowlers and inner ring fielders alike, closed in around him and Warwickshire. He exuded calm and control and held the striker’s end against all comers. First and foremost, he played defensively. Some thought he posed a distant threat to the target Somerset had set but few thought he could garner enough support to accompany him for as far as he needed to travel especially at the speed he was going. He had ridden some luck, edging short of Hildreth at slip and then fine of backward point for four off the next ball. He had though demonstrated his intent with a drive off Leach through wide mid-on to the Trescothick Stand and a glance off Davey to the Colin Atkinson boundary, both for four. He might present a threat in the morning but only if he could find someone to hold the other end tight. If he could, there was still the prospect of another Taunton Championship nail biter on the morrow.

Close. Somerset 209 and 164 (L.C. Norwell 7-41). Warwickshire 135 (C. Overton 5-31) and 103 for 6. Warwickshire need 136 to win with four second innings standing.