Bartlett’s day

County Championship Division 1. Surrey v Somerset. 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th June. Guildford.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

First day. 3rd June – Bartlett’s day

In 2018 Somerset came to Guildford on top of the Championship. In three traumatic days they were unceremoniously despatched by an innings. Abell had won the toss and, inexplicably to most Somerset supporters, asked Surrey to bat. Surrey had made 459 and bowled Somerset out for 180 and 210. Surrey moved to the top of the table, never looked back and Somerset never looked like catching them. In 2019 Abell won the toss again and this time opted to bat in circumstances for batting that were less propitious than they had been in 2018.

During the 2018 season the engine room for Somerset’s runs had come from Hildreth at four and Abell at five. Moving the pair up one place in 2019 has been only partially successful. Abell has performed at four but Hildreth has yet to convince at three. The news that Azhar was absent through illness further complicated matters. The solution, to move Abell up to open with Trescothick and bring the 20-year-old Banton in at four, further disrupted the batting order although in the circumstances there was no perfect alternative solution. Gregory’s absence through injury also weakened the lower order for at present there is no like-for-like replacement at seven. In the absence of Gregory either a seventh batsman has to be played or an additional bowler. The solution here was to play an additional bowler and move Craig Overton up to seven. At least, as someone said, the Somerset lower order is not entirely devoid of batting skill.

Overhead conditions were not propitious for batting either. The sky was covered in grey cloud for most of the morning. In fact, at one time, an ominously dark cloud formation edged towards the ground, passed over it, unleashed a stiff breeze which chilled the air and dropped a few spots of rain on the players and the rest of us. The cloud was of such a foreboding nature that it might have driven Julius Caesar’s soothsayer to declare that the Ides of March had indeed come. As it was, by then, Banton and Bartlett, for all their youth, had taken up residence in the engine room of the Somerset batting order and had set about the task of getting Somerset underway.

There were one or two trademark reminders of Trescothick at his best. A chip for four over slip off the first ball of the innings and a cover drive, both off Morkel, and a beautifully leaned-into on drive off Dunn, stick in the memory. But the dab outside off stump to Clarke which neatly touched the ball through to Foakes and the ‘furious-with-himself’ jab of the arm which followed quickly returned recent failures to mind. Abell, caught at slip off Morkel, and Hildreth, lbw to Dunn, suggested a moving ball by the mode of their dismissals as did a fair amount of playing and missing. 35 for 3 brought worried looks to the faces of Somerset supporters and gloomy memories of 2019 to their minds. When Bartlett edged his first ball to slip the gloom instantly gripped harder, only for Clarke, of all people, to drop the catch. That drop may have changed the shape of the day, for by lunch Somerset were 100 for 3. Lunch had not been reached without alarm. Bartlett seemed to be beaten repeatedly outside off stump especially on the drive. Banton had twice in an over edged Patel past slip for four although a third four to the same place in the same over was, according to someone who saw it from behind the arm, steered there.

Banton had announced himself by swivelling to his first ball, from Clarke, and pulling it with the minimum of assistance from the bat for four. “Reminiscent of David Gower’s lightness of touch,” said someone recalling it later in the day. But this was not the Banton of Somerset’s Royal London One-Day Cup campaign. The driving was not there. Instead, he took every opportunity to pull and clip the ball off his legs to the boundary and the score mounted in consequence. In fact, the majority of Banton’s runs came in boundaries. Occasionally the ball was played to the deep fielder but in the main when the fours did not come the defensive stroke was deployed. Twice he played out a maiden to Morkel. But it was an innings for the situation. Somerset were behind in the match, Surrey were prowling, there was a position in the Championship to be defended and ground to be made up from 35 for 3.

While Banton took the score forward Bartlett held firm at the other end although not without a periodic swish and miss, not least a fearsome attempt at a cut off Clarke. I had the perfect view of one cut which did connect as the ball flew towards backward point, and me. It bounced over the diving fielder, doubtless aided by one of several patches of rough ground on the outfield and rocketed to the boundary where, without needing to leave my chair I stopped it with the bottom of my foot.

100 for 3 at lunch, given the overhead conditions and the apparent movement being obtained by the bowlers was, by common consent of the small group of Somerset supporters around me, a blessed relief, especially after the shock of 35 for 3, almost 35 for 4. It could have been so much worse. A walk onto the outfield at lunchtime to look at the pitch revealed nothing. It had been covered with some sheeting because of the threat of rain after the brief pre-lunch shower. There was much Somerset support in evidence as I meandered around the ground. Many faces I recognised from Taunton but many were new, perhaps London and environs exiles taking an opportunity to watch their team, perhaps combining it with an opportunity to meet up with an old friend from the days of Peter Wight, Bill Alley and Harold Stephenson as I was doing.

The crowd lined the boundary along the length of the square boundaries in two or three rows in front of the trees which surround this ground. At the Railway End the bar and marquees were well populated too as was the one ‘stand’ between the marquees and the side of the ground opposite the Woodbridge Road. A good crowd although not quite in the proportions that had packed the ground in 2018 when more chairs had to be added more than once during the day.

Banton seemed to become becalmed after lunch as Bartlett began to take the match to Surrey, beautifully cutting Dunn for four in the process. It was Dunn who finally ended Banton’s innings. Banton seemed to shape to steer him to third man, the ball seemed to surprise him with lift and flew to Jacks at gully. He had scored an invaluable 44 in difficult conditions but those three early wickets dragged down on Somerset’s score for even with the efforts of Banton and Bartlett Somerset had only reached 130 at the loss of the fourth wicket.

If the morning had belonged to the Surrey bowlers and Banton the afternoon belonged to Bartlett and Davies. Davies played an innings of calm assurance with his trademark ability to coax rather than coerce the ball off the bat and yet watch it travel to the boundary as if drawn there by some powerful magnet. In two overs from Batty, bowling a spell earlier in the match than might have been expected, he late cut, and cut and drove square, all for four. They were masterful strokes for it was not uncommon for balls which looked bound for the boundary to suddenly slow as they approached it as if brakes had suddenly been applied. A look at the grass on the outfield suggested the reason. It looked, to my horticulturally untrained eye, longer and more coarse than that normally seen.

It was Bartlett though who imposed himself on the afternoon with an innings of pace, skill and assurance although not without reminders of the playing and missing of the morning. It was rather reminiscent of his century against Lancashire in 2018 in that respect. It was though equally effective and some of the strokes were out of the very top drawer. A reverse sweep off Batty for three looked as safe as that stroke ever does. His cutting and late cutting was a feature of the innings. One late cut, in the same over as the reverse sweep, again for three as the ball seemed to apply brakes as it approached the boundary, brought forth a cry of, “Beautiful shot. That really was a late cut.” It had almost been worth the entrance money on its own as they say.

As the afternoon progressed and the Somerset score, and Bartlett’s, rose he extended his range. A six off Batty crashed over long on, although it was immediately followed by another late cut. He drove Clarke through the covers and, in Clarke’s next over glanced him for four to bring up the third century of his career. Like the other two he had begun it with Somerset in difficulty, away from home, and, as the incoming text said, with a world-class bowler in the opposition on each occasion. Morkel here, Broad at Trent Bridge and Anderson at Old Trafford. The applause he received from the large number of Somerset supporters present and the Surrey ones too was warm, extended and richly deserved. Somerset reached tea at 214 for 4, riches indeed after 35 for 3, with Bartlett on 100 and Davies on an invaluable 31 as he kept one end secure as Bartlett drove Somerset forward at the other.

I was standing next to the Pavilion End sightscreen just after tea when Dunn bowled Davies with a ball angled in and which perhaps moved in a little more off the pitch. Somerset were 225 for 5, Davies 41, and the question of what impact the absence of Gregory at seven would have was about to be answered for 225 for 5, those three early wickets still dragging the score down, did not feel convincing. The question was answered in the first instance by Craig Overton reaching out to a ball from Batty and depositing it over the long on boundary. In the next over Bartlett added his contribution with a spectacular drive to the deep point boundary and a clip, at 180 degres to the drive, to the square leg boundary. Bartlett is one of those players who meets challenge with challenge. He fits this Somerset team perfectly. And he certainly brought a smile to the faces of Somerset’s travelling band of supporters. A straight drive for four off Morkel with the new ball brought forth admiring cries of “Shot!”.

But Morkel had the new ball and now he began to make it tell and to keep Surrey in the match. First he found the edge of Bartlett’s bat as he pushed at a ball outside off stump and edged to the keeper. Bartlett’s 137 had Somerset supporters standing around the ground and generous applause from all present. Craig Overton had played his part too scoring 35 in a stand of 73 with Bartlett and had used the drive and the cut particularly effectively. He was finally bowled by Clarke when he chopped onto his stumps trying to cut again. He had though made 40 invaluable runs batting at seven. Another 20 were added by Jamie Overton at eight, including an on and an off drive in the same over from Dunn, both for four, before he too was bowled by Clarke driving at a ball which perhaps moved in off the pitch. This match was moving forward at a pace which reflected County Champions and Championship contenders going toe to toe as they grappled for the ascendancy.

There was a briefly entertaining, and Willoughbyesque, flurry from Brooks mainly consisting of an unlikely 11 off one over from Morkel which ended with him being bowled off a no ball, and then caught behind off the re-bowled ball. One stroke almost defied description. A “poke” over point for four suggested one apparently bemused and experienced Somerset watcher. A more dignified description might be a square uppercut if there is such a thing. There is now.

So, 344 it was in the end. Six short of what some of us had guessed might be a par score but far beyond what a likely Somerset score might have been assessed as at 35 for 3. Whatever else this Somerset team possesses it certainly possesses fight. This was a performance a world away from the one here in 2018. Whether Bartlett’s innings and Somerset’s fight have produced enough runs remains to be seen but it would be a brave gamble to bet against it when it is to be defended by this Somerset team and this Somerset bowling unit.

Close. Somerset 344 (G.A. Bartlett 137, T. Banton 44, S.M. Davies 41, M. Morkel 4-64, R. Clarke 3-72, M.P. Dunn 3-85). Surrey 0 for 0. Surrey trail Somerset by 344 runs with ten first innings wickets standing.