A test of a match

County Championship Division 1. Essex v Somerset. 23rd, 24th, 25th and 26th June. Chelmsford.

Toss. Essex. Elected to bat.

First day. 23rd June – A test of a match

Somerset travelled to Chelmsford for the greatest test of their Championship ambitions to date. This is Somerset’s seventh match in the competition, they have won five of the previous six, but it is their first against a county in the top half of the table. It is also against Essex, perhaps Somerset’s strongest challengers, on the ground where Essex have won every Championship match this season. Key to Essex’s success has been Stephen Harmer’s off spin and the 31 wickets he has taken on a pitch which has a reputation for increasing turn as a match progresses. When Essex won the toss and elected to bat they handed themselves the prospect of building a score which Harmer could exploit.

By lunch they must have felt they were well on their way to achieving that aim. And I was well on my way to arriving at the ground. The vagaries of the Sunday railway timetable being such that the earliest I could arrive at Chelmsford from the far end of Somerset was a few minutes after lunch. The trains, to give them their due, all ran perfectly to their timetable. Not unlike the Essex innings I concluded as my trains were chased all the way to Chelmsford by a series of texts keeping me up to date with the score. Whether the purpose of the texts was to inform or torment I leave the reader to determine.

They arrived as follows:

10.50: “Lost toss. Essex batting. Groenewald in for Craig Overton.”

11.32: “Looks like you are missing an Essex masterclass.”

11.42: “43 for 0. 10.3 overs.”

12.14: “64 for 1.”

12.34: “77 for 1.”

12.48: “94 for 1.”

13.00: “110 for 1”

It was a bit like being pummelled unmercifully by some unseen force as thoughts of Essex building a gargantuan score for Harmer to play with formed in my mind. I didn’t dare ask if the one wicket was Cook. The news was bad enough as it was. I arrived at the ground just after lunch with the score on 117 for 1 with, inevitably, Cook still batting. From the gate I was escorted to the ticket desk in the Essex shop, that being the only place you can buy a four-day ticket at just under half the price of buying four separate single tickets on the gate. The thing that was immediately obvious as I was taken to buy my ticket was the size of the crowd. Very large in Championship terms. As large as any you will see at Taunton although it was more tightly packed because of the smaller confines of the ground.

Armed with my ticket I emerged from behind the Pavilion to see Jamie Overton streaming in and delivering a perfectly directed bouncer at Westley who looked hurried into the hook and edged the ball with the faintest of touches straight into Davies’ patiently waiting gloves. 126 for 2. Westley 36. When Overton runs in like that it is a sight to behold and to be treasured. A fast bowler ‘in his pomp’ and at the top of his form is one of the great sights of cricket. It is the sort of arrival at a match you do not forget quickly.

“He looks a bit sharp, this lad,” said an approaching Essex supporter. When Overton bowls like that, and increasingly he does bowl like that, he does indeed look a ‘bit sharp’. A Somerset supporter added that the ball with which Overton bowled Browne had been a beautifully directed ball, “a peach” a later text described it as, although Browne had not played a stroke. Such dismissals are usually attributed to misjudgements made by the batsman. In a sense leaving a ball which goes on to hit the stumps can only be a misjudgement but I do wonder how often such misjudgements are, in part at least, brought about by the quality and penetrating persistence of top quality fast bowling.

It was now that I noticed the Somerset flag was at half-mast and the players were wearing black arm bands in remembrance of Somerset’s late Chairman, Charles Clark, who died last week. There had been a minute’s silence before the start of the match and the Essex flag was also at half-mast and their players also wore black arm bands. There had been a minute’s silence before the start of play as cricket honoured one of its own.

I stood behind the Tom Pearce Stand at the River End for a while chatting to the Essex supporter about ground developments. I first went to Chelmsford in 1986. The Cooper Associates County Ground has been almost completely redeveloped since that time. The ground at Chelmsford is virtually unchanged. It looks its age but for anyone who hankers after ‘the old days’ of county grounds Chelmsford is probably the one, floodlights apart, most frozen in time. Some things may be moving on though for an echo of the old days, the roving scorecard seller of my last two visits, was not in evidence on this occasion. Perhaps a window on the past has closed for I have not come across one at any other ground in recent times.

One Somerset supporter thought the bowling in the morning had not been quite of the intensity and standard it has reached for most of this season. Neither had it been quite so cloudy as it was during the afternoon and for most of the evening session. As the afternoon warmed up the cloud covered the sky and the bowlers found their mark. At least Gregory found Lawrence’s pad with a ball which cut in sharply as the batsman tried to work it to leg. 138 for 3. It still seemed a good score in the context of a match in which spin was expected to become a factor later in the game and in which Cook still loomed large at the other end.

For the committed supporter the balance of a match can make a greater impact than the actual quality of the play. The quality of the play is seen. The balance of the match is felt. And for the Somerset supporter this year there is another layer to be experienced. The balance of matches is increasingly being felt in the context of a possible first Championship for Somerset. As long as the Championship remains a realistic possibility that feeling will grow. With Essex starting this match 30 points behind Somerset a victory for Essex would at least halve that gap and act as a chill reminder that the Championship will have to be fought for all the way to the line. But one of the joys of watching this Somerset team has been the way in which, time and again, they have worked their way back into matches where they have fallen behind.

I worked my way around to the Felsted Stand and found a seat in the front row. There are often front row seats there because the sun can roast their occupants after lunch. With no sun you can comfortably sit in a seat within touching distance of boundary fielders. “Will we see Essex bowl?” asked a child of her Essex parent. “Only if Essex collapse badly,” the horrified reply. With that Bopara tried to pull Gregory, a replay suggests the ball moved away off the pitch, and skied the ball to Brooks at midwicket. 147 for 4. Cue exasperated sigh from parent. Somerset were beginning to redress the balance of the match. Leach was bowling from the River End and barely conceding two runs an over. Even Cook seemed to be affording him due care and attention and the pressure was beginning to build on the Essex batsmen.

As Cook and Ten Doeschate tried to hold on to what still felt like Essex’s advantage the bowling began to impose that vice-like grip that has been a feature of Somerset’s season and the scoring rate began to grind rather than flow. It was the sort of situation that nurtures tension. Not yet intense but the signs were beginning to develop. A quiet was beginning to descend on the ground although it was broken by smatterings of chatter as the scoring rate tightened up. As Leach tied up the River End the pace bowlers rotated from the Hayes Close End. The Essex innings was turning into an ‘old-fashioned’ Championship tussle and it just felt as if the bowlers were getting on top.

Cricket can create moods depending on how the play is going. Joy at a side moving into a winning position, despair when it moves into a losing one. Sometimes though it seems as if moods create the cricket. It seemed like that here. As the tension ratcheted up Essex became increasingly bogged down, especially compared with their swift progress in the morning. The Somerset bowlers piled on the pressure. Something, it seemed, had to give. When Overton bowled another ‘peach’ which cut in sharply off the pitch ten Doeschate was too late with his desperate jab down and the ball crashed into the pads. Even from square the raising of the finger seemed inevitable. 166 for 5.

You could ‘hear’ the tension now. At times the ground was almost silent although the apparently disconnected smatterings of chatter continued first from one part of the stand and then another. But still Cook, that interminable obstacle, or rock, depending on your point of view stood firm although the exquisite boundaries with which he had apparently festooned the morning were now virtually extinct and eventually even he succumbed. Groenewald managed to find the edge from where the ball found the pad and looped in a fairly gentle arc to gully where, running hard across from second slip, Overton made a difficult catch look easy. 182 for 6. Cook 80. Just how precious that 80 will be for Essex remains to be seen but no other Essex batsman reached 40. If the ball continues its lateral movement it could turn out to have been an absolutely crucial innings.

Tea was taken at 192 for 6 with the general opinion of those I spoke to being that 250 would be a good score on that pitch. This year is the 40th anniversary of Essex winning their first ever trophy, the Benson and Hedges Cup. They also won the Championship in that year. Co-incidentally 1979 was also the year in which Somerset won their first two trophies, the Gillette Cup and the John Player League. In the tea interval several members of the Essex Benson and Hedges team were presented to the crowd. They included Keith Fletcher, Graham Gooch, Jon Lever, Ray East, David Acfield and Stuart Turner. What an anniversary 2019 will create for Somerset cricket if the Championship challenge can be sustained through the forthcoming matches against the top half of the table.

The evening session was one of those passages in a match which seems to last interminably but which grips the attention relentlessly. Only 56 runs were scored in it and just five wickets fell but the amount of nervous energy burnt was enormous. The Somerset bowlers bowled, if that were possible, even more tightly than they had before tea and the pressure on the batsmen intensified as they focused almost entirely on keeping the ball out, just squeezing the occasional run where they could. Such pressure tells and when Groenewald moved a ball away slightly from Wheater he edged it towards Hildreth at first slip, Davies dived across and took the catch just as Hildreth’s hands seemed to have it lined up. 197 for 7. From a Somerset perspective it was a tremendous transformation from 110 for 1 at lunch but the potential value of that 110 in a low-scoring match could not help but tug at the mind. But Somerset were, as they say, where they were and they worked their way quickly forward from there. The last three batsmen in the order all fell to Leach in quick time as Essex went from 211 for 7 to 216 all out to now almost complete silence from the Essex crowd as the tension bit hard at their nerve ends.

That left Somerset to face what promised to be a difficult final hour as the humidity continued to build and the light began to fade. Abell drove Porter’s first ball through the covers for four. Porter’s immediate response was a piercing yorker which Abell had to jab hard down on to survive. In his next over Porter was beautifully cut behind square by Azhar for another four but the picture of that last hour is of the batsmen playing with the utmost care, being beaten past the outside edge, and past the inside edge onto the pads to appeals that had the sound of conviction about them. By 5.30 the lights were on and the Somerset run rate of precisely two runs an over confirms a tale of gritty survival very occasionally punctuated by an aggressive stroke from Abell. It was no surprise when Porter found the edge of Azhar’s bat for he could have found the edge of either batsman’s bat a number of times with a millimetre or two more or less of movement.

That Somerset reached the close on 32 for 1 with Abell, now accompanied by Groenewald as nightwatchman, on 22 left two thoughts in the mind. It had been a tremendously disciplined and skilful piece of batting by Somerset’s opening pair. In the conditions and against the quality of bowling they faced it had been quite an achievement to lose only one wicket. At the same time it showed the size of the task ahead on a pitch giving help to the bowlers and in overhead and atmospheric conditions ideal for swing bowling. There is an awful lot for the Somerset batsmen to do on the second day when the conditions are expected to be very similar to the first. This does indeed look like being a match which will test Somerset prospects in the matches to come against the better teams in the division.

Close. Essex 216 (Sir A.N. Cook 80, M.J. Leach 3-30, J. Overton 3-43). Somerset 32 for 1. Somerset trail by 184 runs with nine first innings wickets standing.