“Never in doubt …”

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

Overnight. Somerset 209 and 164. Warwickshire 135 and 103 for 6. Warwickshire need a further 136 runs to win with four second innings wickets standing.

Final day. 22nd May – “Never in doubt …”

“You can’t afford to be late today,” was the comment as I left the house. “Somerset only need four wickets.” True, but for this supporter, who has been worrying about Somerset on the field of play since the launch of the first sputnik in 1957 the Warwickshire threat to the 135 runs which Somerset still had left to defend, however distant, nettled away at the back of the mind. Yesterday’s hedge-clipping was no more, so my bus delivered me to the ground with time to spare. As 11 o’clock approached there were about 400 people in the ground, perhaps 500 with those behind glass. They were spread around the stands and there was even a good smattering in the Somerset Stand. It was enough. The atmosphere in the ground as the morning developed suggested there were several times that number, for this was a Somerset crowd in a season in which winning the County Championship is more than a fanciful dream. Winning this match really mattered.

The first question I was asked, almost light-heartedly and rhetorically as I stood and chatted on Legends Square, was “Who will win?” With over six decades of watching Somerset burned into my soul it was not a question I dared risk answer. The superstition which lurks in the psyche of virtually every cricket supporter would not permit a single Somerset chicken to be counted or opposition goose to be cooked before the event, however certain their respective destinies seemed to be. When Brookes edged Gregory and Davies took off to take the catch low and far to his right Warwickshire were 109 for 7, still 128 runs short. Somerset’s chickens began to line up for the count, although no-one in my hearing counted, and Warwickshire’s goose looked forlornly towards the oven.

Even so Jeetan Patel walking to the wicket brought back memories of Edgbaston 2012 when Warwickshire had needed 55 to win with just two wickets left and he came out after lunch to blast Warwickshire home without the need for the last batsman to leave the Pavilion. It was a different matter here as Overton sent his off stump flying and Warwickshire were 120 for 8, still 119 short. As Patel walked off, the flying stump and Somerset closing in on victory notwithstanding, some of the talk was still of Abell’s catch of the previous day. Moments like that live long in the memory of those fortunate enough to see them and the fall of another wicket can bring them vividly back to the forefront of the mind. When Hain brought up his fifty the comment was, “The only fifty of the match,” and then a heartbeat-missing pause before “Sorry, the first fifty of the match.” The bug of superstition still bit, still demanded that no loose words risk another fifty, even with eight wickets down. Only moments later it seemed the bug might not have been assuaged when Hain glanced Gregory fine, Davies took off, got his hand to the ball but let it fall to the ground. “He’s dropped it!” the desperate comment.

For over half an hour Hain and Norwell resisted and edged Warwickshire forward. Although Somerset eyes kept a watch on the slowly advancing score a pause for breath, a cold assessment of the situation and balls beating the bat left anticipation of impending victory the overriding emotion. Eventually, inevitably it seemed, Norwell was hurried into trying to fend off a lifter from Groenewald and edged the ball to Davies. This time Davies made no mistake. 140 for 9. Warwickshire 99 short. Just one wicket left. Now relief mingled with anticipation as Hannon-Dalby walked to the wicket although some remembered his long vigil in defending Warwickshire’s last wicket for over an hour to prevent Somerset winning in 2013.

He set himself to the task again. He had seemed to lead a charmed life in 2013 as he played and missed time and again. He seemed to do the same here, repeatedly hanging his bat tantalisingly outside the off stump only for the ball to pass harmlessly by. At the other end Hain looked secure but did not progress the score or seem much inclined to ‘farm’ the strike. The “runs required” figure at the bottom of the Gimblett’s Hill scoreboard seemed to be frozen on “96” for an eternity as Groenewald and Leach probed away. It was as if the match was suspended in some limbo land where the players played on but time and the score stood still. Only when Abell replaced Leach did the cogs of the fourth dimension begin to whirl away again. Hain triggered the movement with an edge wide of gully for four and an off drive to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion for another. In an over the runs scored in the previous 40 minutes had been doubled. It was as if a sleeping giant had suddenly been prodded into life. Once come to life he began to take control of events and those “runs required” began, inexorably, to reduce.

With 85 still needed there should have been no cause for concern but tension began to infiltrate the air. You can ‘hear’ tension in sport. The chatter reduces in volume but increases in intensity as every ounce of concentration is on the cricket. A hushed hum settled across the ground. Then, a voice from the Somerset Pavilion shattered the moment. “Come on Somerset!”. From the middle there immediately followed the unmistakable sound of Trescothick calling, “Come on boys!”. Then Abell, “C’mon,” followed by the urgent clapping of Azhar’s hands. Almost immediately Davey induced an edge from Hannon-Dalby’s waving bat but it fell short and wide of the slip cordon and crossed the Colin Atkinson boundary for four.

Still Warwickshire needed 73 to win. It was a chasm in the context of this match, and yet the tension was palpable as Hannon-Dalby gradually looked more secure and Hain began to score runs. It was difficult to explain with Warwickshire in such a parlous position but the hush was such that a single conversation being conducted some way along from me in the lower section of the Somerset Pavilion could clearly be heard in every detail. Perhaps the importance of Somerset winning this match in the context of sustaining a Championship challenge weighed in people’s minds. Perhaps a glance at the scoreboard revealing that Hain had reached 72 on a pitch on which no-one else had scored more than half that number and a realisation that Hannon-Dalby’s innings was beginning to reach 2013 proportions provoke worries that the impossible might just become possible.

Some well-struck fours from Hain drove Warwickshire a little further towards the impossible and demonstrated the quality of his innings as it stood out further and further above all others in the match. Often in such situations a batsman finds a way to stay at the crease where all others have failed and to score runs where all others have struggled. But this innings was at a level above such performances as increasingly, with the occasional, and on this pitch inevitable, edge he batted with assurance and apparent safety. If Hannon-Dalby could just hold on and Hain could keep scoring the tension now gripping virtually everyone might reflect a real threat and perhaps the growing realisation of that was its source. Perhaps too it was the source of a change in Warwickshire tactics for now Hain was farming the strike. Singles were being declined as the gradual brightening of Warwickshire’s dim hopes began to turn some of the pressure on the batsmen.

Groenewald, Davey and Abell tried their all but the batsmen stood firm. Voices within the ground, and a text from an online watcher, were calling for the return of Leach who had not bowled for some time. As lunch approached and a further half hour of play to be added before the interval beckoned Abell declined the thought which must have crossed his mind too and turned to his senior pace bowlers, Gregory and Overton. Hain continued to take Warwickshire forward with three boundaries, the last of which was a top-edged hook off Overton which Groenewald first ran towards and then pedalled back from but it evaded him and bounced for four. It left Warwickshire 50 to win. The last wicket partnership had gone half way to its goal but it still had half way to go which at least put the rest of Warwickshire’s task into perspective. Then, finally, Gregory put it properly into perspective. He found the edge of Hannon-Dalby’s hanging bat and Overton took a good low catch at gully. Somerset’s chickens could finally be counted.

Somerset had won by 49 runs. “Never in doubt …” someone said with the emphasis on irony rather than certainty. In truth, as far as anything can be certain in cricket, it probably never had been in doubt but the tension had built up just the same as that last wicket stand ground interminably on. Inexplicable perhaps but the genie of never having won the Championship sits on the shoulder of every Somerset supporter. It can focus the mind on the consequences of defeat rather than on its likelihood in circumstances such as these and defeat in this match, and perhaps in any other in this competition this season, would be a severe blow to Somerset’s Championship propects.

That is a thought to ponder as Somerset set off to Guildford on their three-match ‘South-Eastern Tour’. The four sides Somerset have played to date are currently the bottom four in the division. Three of those four matches were played at home. The next two matches are the return matches against two of those sides. Beyond that, six of Somerset’s last eight matches will be against the three other teams currently in the top four alongside Somerset. The ‘hard yards’ in this season’s Championship may yet be to come. Just as they were in 2017 when Somerset set off to Guildford in June. Guildford defined Somerset’s Championship campaign in 2018. If Somerset are to reach those ‘hard yards’ later in the season, and still in contention, Guildford 2019 it is just as crucial.

Result. Somerset 209 (O.J. Hannon-Dalby 5-18) and 164 (L.C. Norwell 7-41). Warwickshire 135 (C. Overton 5-31) and 189 (S.R. Hain 92*, L. Gregory 4-48). Somerset won by 49 runs. Somerset 20 points. Warwickshire 3 points.