Astonishing things on an astonishing day

County Championship Division 1. Kent v Somerset. 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th June. Canterbury.

Toss. Uncontested. Kent required to bat.

Overnight. No play. Rain.

Second day. 12th June – Astonishing things on an astonishing day

Riding the top deck of the bus from Whitstable to Canterbury and back was rather like watching a team bat on the first day of play in this match. Never restful and full of unpredictable and frequent jolts to the system. Indeed, it soon became apparent that the only thing that was predictable was the unpredictability. There seemed to be more potholes on that road than craters on the face of the moon as every piece of repair work seemed to have settled into the soft subsoil. No-one was likely to fall asleep on that bus. Or at the cricket. 22 wickets fell in the day and the day ended with the match in the balance although with Somerset holding the faintest of edges. Only the faintest of edges because partnerships of any size were at a premium. As someone said to me, “Somerset are ahead by two decent partnerships to one.” And a 2-1 lead is always fragile especially when unpredictability is the order of the day.

The overcast conditions of the morning might have accounted for the seven wickets that fell. But not for the 15 that fell under the clear blue skies and warm sun of the afternoon. Perhaps the pitch had some say in that and the quality of the bowling had a say in proceedings all day. A vibrant green pitch might have accounted for it, except that the pitch was pure straw in colour and my visit to the middle at lunch failed to detect a single blade of grass, at least not a green one. Neither was there a crack to be seen, at least to this untrained eye. And yet the ball seemed, from my position over first slip, to be doing ‘something’ all day, or at least enough balls beat the batsmen or took their wickets in ways which suggested testing movement. Ten lbws, four batsmen bowled and three caught behind in a day tell a tale.

I arrived at the gate as the first ball was bowled. At the moment I arrived on the top deck of the Woolley Stand Brooks, running away from me, and the Somerset slips let forth a huge appeal, Dickson departed lbw for nought and Kent were 5 for 1. By the time I had found a seat and got myself organised it was Craig Overton, from the Nackington Road End, who was letting forth the appeal and Denley who was walking off lbw. “C’mon boys!” shouted Abell as Brooks went straight through Bell-Drummond’s defence. It was as if the Somerset bowlers had walked straight off the field at Guildford and re-emerged at Canterbury without pausing to take breath. And before many more breaths could be taken Bell-Drummond was walking back to the Pavilion from whence he had recently come. He was Brooks’ second wicket and the third lbw of the innings as Kent, at 27 for 3, looked like they were batting on the road that had bounced my bus from Whitstable to Canterbury although I suspect the air through which the bus had travelled had as much or more to do with proceedings than the pitch. Three wickets so quickly provoked a level of chatter in the Woolley Stand which suggested I was not the only Somerset supporter up there.

The next wicket demonstrated the skill of the bowler in utilising helpful conditions. Jamie Overton, bowling at Kuhn from the Nackington Road End, produced a ball of genuine pace which both generated lift and moved away. It took the edge of the bat and Davies took the catch. It was breathtaking delivery when seen from over first slip. “Jamie Overton can do astonishing things with the ball,” said a Somerset voice and Somerset voices could be heard now all along the Pavilion End as the prospect of a decisive advantage opened up. When Gregory, returning from injury, replaced Brookes at the Pavilion End he seemed to be bowling at not much above medium pace. And yet a bouncer forced a hook and a top edge from the previously restrained Crawley. It fell toward Brookes at long leg. The fielder seemed to make a couple of adjustments as the ball arched across the sky towards him but the final adjustment saw the ball drop neatly into his hands and Kent were 45 for 5. It was a moment to savour as the prospect of as near a knock-out blow as a team is likely to deliver in the first innings of a match seemed to present itself. Here, it seemed, was a real opportunity to at least sustain, perhaps increase Somerset’s lead at the top of the Championship. Anticipation hung in the air driven there by the hope that Somerset might be taking one more step towards that elusive prize.

But Kent have their heroes too and on their return to the first division they have made their presence felt. In Blake they now had someone at the wicket capable of delivering a meaningful counter-punch to Somerset’s initial onslaught. Gregory, picking up his pace, was driven several times through the covers and Abell suffered the same fate when he replaced Jamie Overton. “He is bowling too many half volleys,” someone who until recently played the game said of Gregory. “Searching for movement,” I wondered in response. Blake, playing and missing more than he might have liked, with more circumspect support from Robinson, brought up the fifty partnership with a scintillating cover drive off Abell. In a low-scoring match fifty partnerships are gold dust.

In the next over Somerset suffered a blow which they can ill-afford when Craig Overton took his sweater and left the field after the fifth ball of an over. He has been a key and increasingly important part of the Somerset attack for half a decade and the sight of him walking off must have set anxiety loose in every Somerset mind. There are a string of Championship matches over the next month and the loss of Craig Overton would remove a key section from the backbone of the Somerset attack when they are probably in the best position they have ever been in from which to launch a title run.

Gregory completed the over with a ball which drew a cover drive from Blake. The ball evaded the middle of the bat, took the edge and Jamie Overton took the catch at second slip. Gregory was now, as far as I could judge, bowling at or very near his full pace and what looked like a late inswinger found Steven’s pads and he departed for nought, Kent 101 for 7. It would very soon have been eight, and another wicket for Gregory, had Azhar not spilled a catch which went straight to him at third slip. The Somerset groan could be heard along the rows of seats. A huge Somerset contingent has travelled to Canterbury. The catch was perhaps the first casualty of Trescothick’s absence for Jamie Overton was at second slip and would probably have been at third had Trescothick been at second. The Overton brothers miss few catches anywhere.

121 for 7 at lunch had Kent further forward than most Somerset supporters would have hoped when Kent were 45 for 5 but most would have accepted it at the start. It was though a slightly anxious lunchtime circumnavigation given the frailty of the Somerset top order in 2019. These looked to be bowler-friendly conditions and the Kent pace bowlers had run Somerset close at Taunton. A cold hard look at the Ames Stand scoreboard settled the nerves as the reality of seven wickets taken before lunch set in. The Ames Stand scoreboard gives you time to absorb the detail of the score at the end of a session because, unlike modern digital scoreboards, it does not remove the score within seconds of the umpires removing the bails. That said, its landscape, as opposed to the standard portrait, layout does take a while to adjust to. The other thing that settled the nerves was a rare scoop ice cream from a van next to the scoreboard as opposed to the whipped ice cream which is all that is normally available from the vans which appear at cricket matches.

Then a joy to behold at this cricket club which exudes friendliness. Hundreds of schoolchildren released en bloc from the stands, where they had sat in organised groups throughout the morning, and onto the outfield where they were allowed to roam wide and free. Or play cricket as many did with huge enthusiasm. For the second time this season I have walked through dozens of loosely organised cricket games on the outfield of a first-class county headquarters sanctioned by the ground authorities provided only that the participants use a soft ball and keep off the square. It was nineteen-sixty-something all over again. And then they were all gone, almost in an instant, in good time for the players in whites to re-emerge and play their game with as much enthusiasm although with a hard ball and on the square.

The Leslie Ames Stand is barely half way around the ground from the Woolley Stand and so I tried to make progress. The quality of the view from next to the sightscreen at the Nackington Road End was such that the hundred or so seats placed there had a very high level of occupancy. They were very close to the action too. It seemed as if you could almost reach out and shake hands with Gregory at the top of his run. It was a good place from which to watch that smooth easy run of his. The ball struck the pads of Robinson who departed for 37. 126 for 8. By the time Gregory had removed Stewart I had moved around to the young lime tree that replaced the historic one taken down at the beginning of the century after it fell to a fatal disease. Outside the boundary, unlike its predecessor, but beautifully shaped. From there I watched as Gregory took the last two wickets, both bowled, to complete career-best figures of six for 32. Kent 139 all out.

It was the same spot from which I had stood to watch a titanic struggle between Kent and Somerset in the Gillette Cup semi-final of 1974. A young Somerset side containing Viv Richards and Ian Botham just failed to prevail on that occasion but went on to win five one-day trophies. Now another young side was striving to go on to even greater things and seemed to have bowled themselves into a position to put one more block in the wall of that ambition.

I was back in the Woolley Stand for the start of the Somerset innings as news came though that Hampshire, Somerset’s closest rivals in the Championship, had lost a second day’s play against bottom-placed Nottinghamshire. These things tend to average out over a season, and may do so during the course of this match according to the latest but ever-changing weather forecast, but Hampshire’s loss of play gave Somerset a real opportunity to move further ahead in the table if only the weather held.

But this was the first division and Kent were in no way abashed by the apparent paucity of their first inning score. Within minutes Somerset’s hopes were teetering in the face of a total of 14 for 3. Azhar, who has yet to make an impact this season in the Championship, was palpably lbw to Stevens for nought. Hildreth, batting one place above the number four spot he had made his own in recent seasons, was caught behind. “The way he plays he will be out early more often at three than he was at four,” said the text. Abell, out of position and opening in place of the out-of-form Trescothick was lbw to Podmore for 3. Hildreth and Abell, at four and five, were the run-making engine room for Somerset in 2018 and a heavy price in runs may be being paid for their elevation in 2019. But the alternative is to expose new young batsmen to the fire of opening attacks. Coaches sometimes have to make judgements on a par with those of Solomon.

And yet 14 for 3 exposed young batsmen to the opening fire as Banton and Bartlett took up the baton for Somerset. Banton prospered but on this occasion Bartlett, who has helped turn matches for Somerset more than once this season, did not, as he was caught behind off Podmore to leave Somerset on 35 for 4. The two innings were beginning to look remarkably similar in shape. Blake and Robinson had taken Kent forward from 35 for 5 in a fifty partnership. Now Banton and Davies did the same for Somerset. Banton playing with some restraint but also with some shimmering boundaries and a driven edge to third slip which fell to the ground. A clip square off his legs off Podmore flew to the boundary. Another, behind square off Milnes was followed immediately by an on drive which brought forth a comment from behind me of, “That’s a lovely shot!”.

Davies meanwhile played his usual range of understated glances and drives. One glance was so perfectly touched fine past the keeper it might have convinced Plato it was the perfect form of the leg glance. A cover drive with minimal bat movement and maximum acceleration along the ground brought the comment, “I think the cover drive is the most elegant stroke in cricket.” That one would have been as good an example as any to make the point. Another behind square came from the same stable and for a moment batting seemed to be an easy occupation. It isn’t of course and suddenly Davies drove at two balls in an over from Milnes, missed both, drove again and edged high and fast to Kuhn at slip. 97 for 5. Davies 31.

Banton continued his assault and in a crucial partnership with Gregory took Somerset to parity still five wickets down. It was an absorbing 42 runs or, as the text from the online watcher put it, “Quite a duel between bat and ball.” Kent bowled with intensity and accuracy and beat the bat more times than were good for a watching Somerset heart. On 139 Banton drove Stewart straight and low to Milnes at midwicket. Milnes dived full length and took the catch at ground level. A few millimetres shorter and the ball would have landed safely. It mirrored perfectly the closeness of the tussle unfolding in front of us. Closer still when Craig Overton was bowled by a beauty from Stewart with the scores still level. First division. Toe to toe as Kent forced their way back into contention.

Gregory, who had maintained something of a watching brief whilst Banton brought Somerset level, took them ahead with a cover drive off Podmore that cleared the boundary. A pull for four brought cheers from the Somerset balcony whilst a pull for four in front of square from Jamie Overton brought forth, “Well played,” from somewhere in the Woolley Stand. But just as the prospect of a Somerset lead of substance presented itself Kent came again. Gregory was lbw to Milnes trying to turn the ball to leg and Jamie Overton seemed to kick a ball that forced its way through the tangle of bat and pads onto his stumps as he tried to prevent it bouncing into them. When Leach was lbw to Milnes Somerset were all out with a lead of 30. “I would rather be 30 ahead than 30 behind,” said the text, “but it’s awfully close.” And awfully close it was.

That left Kent starting their second innings before the end of the first day of actual play. Craig Overton took the field but not the ball. That was taken by Brooks and Gregory. Gregory bowled from the Nackington Road End from where he had taken most of his wickets in the first innings. He took another in the second, Crawley lbw. When Jamie Overton bowled Denley with a stunning ball it looked, from my angle, as if it went through a gap that wasn’t there. It took a look at a replay to realise that Denley had closed the gap perfectly, bat in line and with no gap to pad. But after the thunderbolt had gone through. If ever there was a definition of ‘beaten for pace’ that was truly it. Indeed, Jamie Overton can do astonishing things with the ball. Kent were 24 for 2, which is where they ended, still six runs behind and the emotions of the crowd, in whichever interest, were as buffeted as my body had been on that bus ride from Whitstable. A bus ride which, by the end, seemed to have taken place an aeon before.

Close. Kent 139 (L. Gregory 6-32) and 24 for 2. Somerset 169 (T. Banton 63, H.W. Podmore 3-37, G. Stewart 3-37, M.E. Milnes 3-39). Kent trail by six runs with eight second innings wickets standing.