County Championship Division 1. Kent v Somerset. 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th June. Canterbury.
Overnight. Kent 139 and 24 for 2. Somerset 169. Kent trail by six runs with eight second innings wickets standing.
Fourth day. 13th June – “Incredible. Just incredible.”
“Incredible. Just incredible.” said the text. And incredible it was. Eight Kent wickets in less than an hour and the sight of Somerset’s Overton brothers gathering slip catches at second and third slip as if they were catching tennis balls thrown to them on a beach. That is the overriding picture that sticks in the mind after a final afternoon sitting in the top of the Frank Woolley Stand at the Pavilion End of the St. Lawrence Ground. Sitting among the images of those Overton catches is one of Davies flying effortlessly down the leg side at full stretch to snare a ball which had found the inside edge of the bat. Seen from behind on a small ground the view of slip and wicketkeeping catches is to my mind one of the great sights of cricket. The action is close, nothing impedes the view and you can watch the arc of the ball all the way to the hands of the fielder unless it flies straight to him. Whereas the ball which flew of the edge of Dickson’s bat and straight into the hands of Hildreth at the far end disappeared into a flurry of distant movement from bat, batsman, bowler and keeper. Only the instantaneous celebration of the cordon and Overton running to the far end, arm held aloft, set the heart racing yet again.
The other sight which sticks in the mind is of Gregory endlessly, and seemingly effortlessly, running in towards me from the far, Nackington Road, end and delivering balls which repeatedly left Somerset hearts beating in anticipation of a wicket. There wasn’t a wicket from every ball of course but beaten edges and pummelled pads kept the heart rate of most Somerset supporters well above the level they would want their doctors to know about. Then, when the increasingly inevitable wicket came, Gregory carried his follow through on in an easy curve towards the slips until he was engulfed in a forest of players. Gregory’s celebration of a wicket seemed to come almost as an afterthought. He started as if he had just extended his follow through and then his arms stretched out, almost apologetically, to the sides and only just above the right angle before he disappeared into the flurry of players. Or perhaps the arms are just tired for they have had to celebrate a Championship wicket 35 times this season and the Championship is yet to reach its halfway stage. The years of promise and increasing perfomance of Gregory, with bat and ball, have exploded onto the scene this year like some heavenly supernova.
It wasn’t like that at the beginning of the day when the heavens were not a sight to relish. As I arrived at the ground 15 minutes before the start they welcomed me with a flurry of rain sufficient to be unpleasant as I searched for someone to collect my £10 entry fee. The other sight that welcomed me was a cloud of billowing white smoke from the middle as if someone had set fire to the pitch. It was the blotter being started up for one of many attempts to battle the elements which continued virtually unabated throughout the morning even as light rain fell. The Kent ground staff were truly a marvel. Throughout a morning of heavy, glowering cloud which constantly threatened and often delivered showers both light and heavy the ground staff were constantly removing or replacing covers, driving the blotter and pushing hand-pushed blotters up and down the areas which the umpires had identified as being of concern. The umpires too were pro-active throughout. Twice inspection times were announced and twice, as perhaps it looked as if conditions were improving, they were out inspecting 15 to 20 minutes early. The inspections took some time for there were a number of areas of concern. Not surprising after eight hours of continuous heavy rain the previous day and more rain that morning. Umpires are often criticised over their response to playing conditions. Not at Canterbury. In this match both umpires and ground staff deserved only the highest praise.
The match was eventually scheduled to start at 1.45 p.m. in front of a rump of Kent supporters and a diminished force of Somerset supporters. The unexpected change in the weather and in underfoot conditions wrought by the drying wind and the sterling efforts of the ground staff had not been in the expectations of many an hour or two before. Numbers of Somerset supporters, despairing of seeing any meaningful amount of play, had left the ground to make the long trek west on a summer Friday. At the time of their departure I doubt many of us who had stayed thought we had made the more sensible decision.
During one of the breaks in the rain I decided to undertake my circumnavigation. There was no-one around to talk to so I meandered over to, rather than past, the ice cream van which was looking rather forlorn after the steady queue which had attached itself to it throughout the second day. Not a single ice cream had been sold on the washed out third day I was informed, although there had been a fair number of spectators around, and none so far on the fourth. Being of a philanthropic nature I broke the duck. Vans that sell scoop ice cream at cricket matches need to be encouraged.
And so from the top of the Frank Woolley Stand where, from over straight mid-on when the bowling was from my end, I watched one of the more astonishing passages of play I imagine that stand has seen in the 46 years since it was re-named in Woolley’s honour and probably in its entire 92 years of existence. With 63 overs to be bowled and Kent having eight wickets in hand and only six runs to make up there was hope rather than anticipation in the minds of Somerset supporters. It would, we all knew, take another performance of the proportions of the final morning at Guildford to open up a realistic hope of a Somerset victory.
Hope, even when it is challenged by realistic expectation, is what drives supporters in search of a first Championship title. It set the heart racing a little faster as the umpires and players took up their positions. It fell away just as quickly as rain drove them from the field before a ball could be bowled. I doubt it surprised any one given the weather of the morning and the fast-moving grey cloud which still filled and raced across the sky. But this time the rain threatened only to deceive and had blown itself through before an over was lost. Even so the hurrying low clouds and employment of the floodlights served as a constant reminder that the continuance of play depended on the vagaries of the weather system that had played havoc with the game all week.
In the event, it was the Somerset attack which played havoc with the Kent batting. After a couple of quiet overs Brooks swung a ball late into Podmore, went through his defence and struck the pads. That dispatched any Somerset worries of a nightwatchman consuming valuable overs and kept the hope intact. Kent were 32 for 3 and the game proper was underway. Dickson looked to be settling the home team’s nerves as he drove Brooks through the on side to the Colin Cowdrey Stand for four but it was the falsest of false dawns for Kent. In an over Gregory forced an edge from Bell-Drummond, and three balls later, another from Kuhn, both to balls angled in on off stump or a fraction outside. Craig Overton took both catches at second slip with the smoothest of hand movement and with complete assurance. I had the perfect view from over his shoulder As the ball flew towards him he left no room for doubt that the catches would be taken.
Kent were 39 for 5. In the space of those four balls Gregory and Overton had combined to rip the heart out of Kent’s top order batting. The speed at which the Kent total had imploded had instantly metamorphosed the hope of a Somerset victory into breathless anticipation of one. After the Somerset cheers and applause finally died away a momentary stunned silence gripped the ground. It was broken in the Woolley Stand by a Kent voice saying, “We are going to lose this,” and an animated chatter from the Somerset supporters who seemed to have gathered together in two groups, one in front of the Cowdrey Stand at one end of the Pavilion End and one in front of the Lime Tree Café at the other.
Craig Overton immediately replaced Brooks at the Pavilion End and just as immediately drove the expectation of victory into overdrive. His first ball, angled in on off stump, cut away with the slope, flew off the edge of Dickson’s bat and, as if steered there, went straight into the waiting hands of Hildreth at first slip. As my heart raced at the thought of what the avalanche of wickets might be doing to drive Somerset’s Championship ambitions forward my brain tried to organise my hands as my pencil fell over itself trying to simultaneously complete a scorecard and take notes for this report whilst my hands queued up to applaud at the same time as my fingers demanded priority to send wicket by wicket texts to two people at work and unable to actively track the score.
39 for 6 said the scoreboard, still manually operated apparently as it has been since it was built in the days when Frank Woolley still played before the Second World War. Although it never fell as much as a ball behind the play the pace of manual operation, one number at a time, seemed at times to give the impression of meandering at a pace in line with one’s imaginings of leisurely cricket in the 1930s rather than the breakneck pace with which Somerset were driving their Championship cause forward. We had hardly absorbed 39 for 6 when Blake pushed at a Gregory ball angled in on or just outside off stump and edged it low to Jamie Overton at third slip. 40 for 7.
The Kent lead was just 10 and what had seemed a preciously short afternoon suddenly seemed to stretch extravagantly far into the distance for the work still in hand. In a few short minutes hope of an unlikely Somerset victory had turned at first to anticipation and now to numbed expectation. The intensity and unerring accuracy and skill of the bowling, the now typically predatory nature of the fielding, the belief exuded by the entire team and the sheer strength of the will to win simply seemed to have overpowered Kent. Some of the Kent batsmen seemed stunned as they stood momentarily in the crease before turning towards the Pavilion and almost dazed as they walked back to it. Five wickets had fallen in four overs for eight runs. Guildford 2018 and Chelmsford 2017 sprang to mind. Then Somerset seemed to have been overwhelmed by the power of the then Championship-chasing opposition. Now it was Somerset demonstrating their ability to overpower opposition just as they had on the final day at Guildford only a week before. The result was an overwhelming feeling of exploding emotion layered upon exploding emotion all contained inside a chest fit to burst and let rip through the roar of a cheer which bore the thought that perhaps, just perhaps, this was the team, this was the year.
Then a brief interlude of Kent defiance. Stevens, supported by Kent’s first innings top scorer, Robinson, tried to mount a counterattack. He drove Gregory straight for four and Robinson edged Craig Overton for another. Gradually they inched Kent forward but the partnership never looked convincing, at least to this Somerset eye, and the greater anxiety came from looking at the sky where the grey cloud had continued to roll over the ground like some great conveyor belt of Damocles. The cloud had though risen a little higher and the tone of grey had lightened just enough for experienced cricket-following cloud-watchers to conclude that the prospect of rain was beginning to recede. Somerset were on the brink of a victory even more astonishing than the one of the week before.
As with so many things on the brink the end came quickly. Within five balls as 59 for 7 became 59 all out, just four runs more than Kent’s lowest ever Championship score against Somerset made at Tonbridge in 1926 when the Kent opener H.T.W. Hardinge carried his bat for 30. Stevens and Stewart were both lbw to Craig Overton within three balls. Watched from behind Overton looked far taller than his six feet five inches as his arm raced through its arc and propelled the ball into the pads of Stevens and then did it again to clip the pads of Stewart, both times seemingly cutting the ball into them and up the slope. Finally, Gregory, still running in towards me from the Nackington Road End, as he had all morning, perhaps moved a ball in a fraction, took the inside edge of Robinson’s defensive stroke and Davies finished the innings with that spectacular leg side flying leap to take the catch. Somerset needed 30 to win. They team walked off to extended applause from the two concentrated groups of Somerset supporters and others dotted among the small crowd and from the few Kent supporters still in the ground.
Any thoughts of a classic Somerset wobble when chasing a small target were immediately dispelled by Abell. He drove Podmore’s first ball crisply through the covers for four with the umpire’s outstretched arm adding two for a no ball. The third legitimate ball Abell clipped square for another four and the fourth he drove firmly through the on side for a hard-run three. Somerset were nearly half way to their target by the end of the first over. The batting was more circumspect from there but the batsmen never looked threatened although Abell was a little surer of stroke than Azhar who found the third man boundary with a thick edge and brought the scores level with a neat glance to the fine leg boundary. The winning run came when Azhar pushed into the on side although I am not convinced he saw the single until Abell demanded the run with a, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” as he hurtled down the pitch gathering 16 precious points as he went.
As the text had said, “Incredible.” A Championship win inside four sessions. As the Somerset batsmen left the field of play after the winning run stereophonic applause broke out. To the right of me the group of Somerset supporters in front of the Cowdrey Stand were all on their feet; and from the left from the group, also all on their feet, in front of the Lime Tree Café. They applauded Abell and Azhar all the way to and across the boundary. In return Tom Abell raised his thumb to both sets of supporters, perhaps fifty in all, who had stayed behind through the dispiriting rain in the morning to be rewarded with a Somerset bowling performance which raised real hope that the Championship might be brought home this year, for five wins and a draw out of six matches is Championship winning form.
It does though need to be set in the context of all six of Somerset’s matches played so far this season. All six have been played against the bottom four clubs even though the position of those clubs will in part be due to them having played Somerset. Those in the three places immediately below Somerset in the table have yet to be played and matches against them will constitute six of Somerset’s eight remaining matches. Those six matches may present tougher challenges than most of those already played. Of 14 defeats in the first division this year 12 have been suffered by the bottom four clubs. The top four clubs have suffered only two defeats between them and both have been against other clubs in the top four. The task of overcoming the stronger teams in the division begins in one week’s time against the 2017 County Champions now reinforced by the full-time availability of Sir Alistair Cook. That match will provide a crucial pointer to whether or not Somerset supporters can begin to turn the hopes of a lifetime into anticipation of an event of a lifetime.
Result. Kent 139 (L. Gregory 6-32) and 59 (L. Gregory 5-21, C. Overton 3-7). Somerset 169 (T. Banton 63, H.W. Podmore 3-37, G. Stewart 3-37, M.E. Milnes 3-39) and 30 for 0. Somerset won by ten wickets. Somerset 19 points. Kent 3 points.