Somerset fall behind

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

Overnight. Essex 216. Somerset 32 for 1. Somerset trail by 184 with nine first innings wickets standing.

Second day. 24th June – Somerset fall behind

The morning of the second day was very like the afternoon of the first, at least as far as the behaviour of the ball, pitch, overhead and atmospheric conditions were concerned. The dominance of bowlers over batsmen was equally pronounced on both occasions. On the first afternoon and evening Essex lost their last nine wickets in the space of 90 runs. Now, on the second morning and early afternoon Somerset lost their last nine wickets in the space of 77 runs. Food there to feed the debate about whether an individual’s prospects are most shaped by their endeavours or by their circumstances. Here the circumstances, or conditions, in which each side bowled and batted were the same and, unless 13 runs is cause for dispute, so were the outcomes. The difference between the sides on first innings was the 110 runs scored for the loss of one wicket in the much more batsman friendly conditions of the first morning.

The second morning began with me arriving for the first ball, not always an achievement I can claim when I have written a report about the previous day. As I walked along the Hayes Close End towards a seat in the Felsted Stand I stopped next to the sight screen to watch an over from Siddle bowled from the far end. Twice he bowled down the leg side to Abell, not something I imagine he does by accident. Twice Abell tried to flick the ball, twice he missed although once to the tune of four leg byes. I wondered, as I did with Rikki Clarke at Guildford in 2017, if Siddle was playing to Abell’s one-time apparent propensity to be ‘strangled’ by that stroke. Fortunately Abell seems less susceptible to the edge off that stroke these days.

As I turned to move on I was passed by the scorecard seller who I had not seen on the first day. That old tradition is not yet dead at Chelmsford it seems. I can also confirm that this year the ice cream van at Chelmsford sold scoop ice cream from the start and had supplies of vanilla,

Somerset’s progress was as slow and stilted as was not uncommon in the heyday of scorecard sellers half a century and more ago. As I took my seat Abell and Groenewald were battling with the hostile and accurate bowling of Siddle and Porter. Impossible to be sure from square but everything pointed to at least some balls moving either in the air or off the seam. It was a gruelling watch as Somerset’s score struggled to advance at above the two runs an over at which it had ended the first day. A gruelling watch but a curious listen. The tension in the air was palpable as, with the match in the balance, both sets of supporters saw their hopes and fears jostled about as each ball was defended, passed the bat or occasionally went for runs. The result was a heavy ‘quiet’ from the two sets of supporters punctuated by applause for a run or a beaten bat. Although if you were in the Felsted Stand the whole thing was enveloped in the constant high-pitched noise which came from what can only be described as an aviary of schoolchildren at one end.

In the middle Somerset could not break free from two runs an over in part because Groenewald played the nightwatchman role to perfection and simply closed Essex’s opening bowlers down at one end. Abell scored such runs as came but a rare boundary only came courtesy of a thick edge. When he was out it was lbw for 36 to a ball from Porter that, according to highlight footage, cut back into him viciously at pace. Somerset were 54 for 2 and the descent through those 77 runs and nine wickets had begun. Abell’s departure after half an hour, brought a comment of, “That didn’t take long,” from an Essex voice tinged with hope and it left an uncomfortable feeling in the Somerset mind. Somerset were still 162 behind and the run rate had barely crawled its way to 2.1 an over. In the prevailing conditions batting at two an over against Siddle and Porter, and perhaps Harmer when his turn came, gave no realistic prospect of Somerset matching the Essex score.

Perhaps that was what drove what followed. Groenewald, having scored two from 42 balls, suddenly launched into a lofted on drive against Siddle, cleared midwicket and tripled his score. When Beard replaced Porter, Hildreth started to attack and turned him behind square for three whilst Groenewald drove expansively at him and was caught by Westley at slip off a ball which swung away late. It might have accounted for a better batsman than Groenewald intent on attack. 63 for 3 and the tense quiet had been transformed into an Essex buzz. When Hildreth pulled Beard and top-edged to just backward of the empty square leg position Browne charged across from midwicket, always looked just out of range, and then judged a full-length dive perfectly to take the catch with his fingers scorching the grass as they went and Somerset supporters looking on with dropped jaws at the stroke and at the catch.

If the strokes of Groenewald and Hildreth had been the intended start of an attempt to break the pressure of the two-runs-an-over straightjacket by attacking the new bowler it had imploded spectacularly. Banton’s dismissal was more orthodox. A forward defensive sroke to a ball from Beard which perhaps swung away just enough to take the edge and for Wheater to take the catch low to his right in front of first slip. 54 for 1 had become 68 for 5 and suddenly Somerset were staring the prospect of defeat in the face on a pitch with a reputation for becoming more difficult as a match progresses.

Davies, so often a steadying if not heavily scoring influence in the middle order this season, drove Beard through the covers with not much more than a gentle push, the ball just beating Browne and ten Doeschate to the boundary in front of me. As they gave up the chase just short of the rope ten Doeschate said something to Browne with what I interpreted to be an ‘knowing’ look on his face. Davies repeated the stroke to the next ball and it floated to ten Doeschate at mid-on. The ball gave the impression of having ‘stopped’ but, and it was doubtless no more than the ramblings of an over-interpretive thought, I did wonder what ten Doeschate had said to Browne. Whatever it was the score was 74 for 6, Somerset still 142 adrift and the scoring rate for the innings had only just reached 2.3.

There is usually some resistance in the midst of a collapse, either from a single batsman or from a partnership. Somerset’s came from Bartlett and Gregory in a seventh wicket partnership of 40. It was scored at four runs an over with some of the positivity which these two tend to show at the crease. IPositivity comes with attendant risk and they sometimes need a slither of luck to make progress. Bartlett drove Beard through the on side for three and Gregory drove him through the covers or four as they looked like they might take runs from him. Harmer replaced Siddle at the River End but made no progress against the batsmen and they made no progress against him. Before we could see where that little contest would go light rain fell and after playing on for a while the umpires took the players off more it seemed because the pitch was getting wet than because the players were. 90 for 6.

After the interval Essex reverted to Siddle and Porter and Bartlett and Gregory tried to take Somerset forward. Almost immediately Bartlett glanced Siddle, steered Porter past slip and drove him through the covers, all for four and gaining the accolade of “Nice shot!” from the Essex supporter behind me. Gregory lofted Siddle over midwicket and drove him through extra cover, “Good shot!”, and both for four. But Porter and Siddle were equal to the task. Gregory was caught at slip for 14 off a ball from Porter which seemed to lift and Bartlett was lbw to Siddle for 25 seemingly trying to clip the ball to leg and Somerset were 120 for 8. A ten run flurry from Overton ended when he pulled another lifting ball from Porter straight to Browne at deep square leg and Brooks lost his middle stump when another ball from Porter went straight through his drive. 131 all out. A deficit of 88 and those 110 Essex runs on the first morning weighed havily indeed. The helpfulness of the conditions to the pace bowlers can perhaps be gauged by the fact that Harmer, Essex’s destroyer-in-chief at Chelmsford this season, only bowled six overs and that Siddle and Porter bowled 38 of the 49 overs in the Somerset innings.

I watched the first hour of the Essex second innings from next to the sightscreen at the Hayes Close End. The bowling came from Gregory and Overton. Gregory was swinging the ball in to the right-hander and Overton got some lift and away movement off the seam. Most of Essex’s initial runs came from Browne repeatedly driving Brook’s full balls, pitched just outside off, for four. A repeat of the first innings I was told. When Groenewald replaced Brooks he pitched a little shorter and Browne, playing back edged him to gully where Gregory indulged in a little juggling but caught the ball one-handed in the end. Essex 43 for 1. Browne 29. Lead 131.

When Jamie Overton got a ball to rear up at Westley the edge ballooned towards gully where Leach homed in to take the catch. 72 for 2. Westley 12. Lead 160. Essex were moving forward at four an over. When Gregory produced a bit of extra lift to Lawrence he edged the ball to Davies for 21. Essex were 104 for 3 with a lead of 192 and it began to feel like one of those matches where one side is so far ahead you wait for the declaration, not that anyone was expecting Essex to declare. At 125 Sir Alistair Cook, on 47, edged Groenewald to Overton at slip where Overton scooped the catch from between his ankles just as Trescothick might have done had he been stood there. Cook had played an almost invisible innings with only four boundaries mainly behind square on the off side. Like many of his innings I have seen it hardly set the blood running but it was mightily effective for all that.

When Groenewald pushed a straight ball through ten Doeschate and Davies took the ‘feathered’ catch Essex were 134 for 5 and three wickets had fallen in the space of 30 runs. The heart said Somerset were edging their way back into the match. The head looked at the pattern of the match thus far and an Essex lead of 222 with five wickets standing and overruled the heart. Another 29 runs followed from Bopara and Wheater before Overton moved a ball off the seam and down the leg side causing Bopara to lift an attempted push to leg into the hands of Bess fielding substitute at short midwicket.

Play ended early when, even with the lights on, it was demonstrably too dark to play. As I walked back along the Hayes Close end to leave the ground a couple a few thoughts rambled around in an otherwise empty mind. It had been stiflingly hot all day, particularly in the morning. More uncomfortable than on the first day. I felt as if I had spent the day wearing a raincoat in a greenhouse. Wickets though, for both sides seemed to have more to do with movement off the pitch than in the air. Gregory was moving the ball but the swing was long and slow rather than sudden and late. Groenewald’s length had been more effective than Brooks’. Overton was the pick of the bowlers with his lift and movement off the seam but Groenewald was not too far behind. It still felt like Somerset had a chance, perhaps because of the loss of those four Essex wickets before the end, but my head would have none of it. The series of short partnerships between the wickets had kept Essex well ahead. The head concluded that with continuing movement off the seam and Somerset already needing by some way the highest score of the match any thoughts of a win were perhaps more suited to the writing of fiction than fact.

My head also tried to put Somerset’s position in the Championship into context. The fears I had expressed before the start of the match that the strongest teams were yet to be played had not been assuaged. Essex are Somerset’s nearest challengers, much nearer after this match it seems. But, and there is a but, all three of their victories have been at home, all three batting first. They have not outplayed opposition away from home and after this match they have four away games to three at home. For Essex to win the Championship they will have to start winning away from home. Their bowling has been heavily dependent on Harmer, Porter and Siddle although based on the evidence of this match so far Beard should not be underestimated. Somerset seem to have deeper reserves of bowlers and that may become increasingly important as the season wears on.

Winning the Championship was never going to be easy and it is likely to become even harder after today but looked at in the round it is still very much all to play for.

Close. Essex 216 and 164 for 6. Somerset 131 (J.A. Porter 5-51, A.P. Beard 4-23). Essex lead by 249 runs with four second innings wickets standing.