Routed

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

Overnight. Essex 216 and 164 for 6. Somerset 131. Essex lead by 249 runs with four second innings wickets standing.

Final day. 25th June – Routed

Perhaps Guildford 2018 should have sprung into my mind as Somerset were being routed on the third day at Chelmsford in 2019. But it didn’t. It has appeared there now but only because I have been searching for a benchmark against which to measure my feelings during the inexorable descent to a 151-run defeat to Essex in a low scoring match. There is a distinct difference between the two defeats. Guildford was a seismic destruction of Somerset’s 2018 Championship hopes. The destruction of those hopes was plain to see for many of us present long before the match was over. Neither the Somerset batsmen nor the bowlers remotely competed with their Surrey counterparts and many of us left Guildford in no doubt that Surrey would be champions.

Chelmsford 2019 was a different proposition. It was played on a far more testing pitch, off which the ball cut both ways, and beneath, with the exception of the first morning, overcast skies and the heavily humid atmospheric conditions ideally suited to swing bowling. In that context much of the final Essex advantage of 151 came from the 110 runs for the loss of one wicket scored during the only period in which the match was played under bright skies. It formed the foundations of an Essex lead in the match which proved beyond Somerset’s resources to overhaul and formed the basis from which Essex gradually tightened their grip on the game.

By the third morning the Somerset cause appeared hopeless. Essex were 249 runs ahead with four wickets still in hand in a match in which the higher of the two first innings scores was 216. The pitch had showed no sign of flattening and in previous matches had shown a propensity to turn significantly by the third day or before. Even if Somerset found a way to deal with the seam movement Harmer’s off spin waited ominously at mid-on.

It was one of those mornings on which I was delayed through completing the previous day’s report on the next morning. I arrived, half an hour into the day, in still quite humid conditions although the heavy rain which had fallen in the night had reduced the temperature. Somerset’s bowlers had quickly found their mark, removing Harmer, bowled by a ball that cut in from Groenewald and Siddle caught in the gully off a Gregory lifter. He had also edged a ball to Overton that the Somerset players were convinced had carried. Such success was bitter-sweet news. 178 for 8 on the scoreboard as I arrived meant Essex had barely increased their lead but that the wicket was still offering considerable assistance to the bowlers.

I found my now customary first-few-overs-after-arrival spot next to the Hayes Close End sightscreen in time to see Gregory, running away from me, cut a ball away from Wheater just enough for the edge of the bat to send the ball to Overton standing in Trescothick’s old position. Overton took his third catch of the match as if he were to the second slip manor born. When Porter chased a widish ball from Groenewald which swung away Overton took his fourth catch of the match and Somerset needed those 269 runs to win.

I meandered to find a seat in the far front row of the Felsted Stand. The aviary of the first two days at the near end had been replenished with more schoolchildren. Unlike Taunton, where schoolchildren are admitted in the form of a single horde on one day of the year, Essex seem to prefer to take their schoolchildren in a succession of small doses. However small the dose, be assured, the effect is ear-shattering in a covered stand.

The worst fears of Somerset supporters were realised when Abell pushed Porter’s second ball back at waist height and in the direction of his follow-through. No caught and bowled is easy to take because, so a club bowler of my acquaintance tells me, the bowler’s entire focus is on delivering the ball unlike a fielder whose entire concentration should be on receiving the ball. However, Porter took this one with apparent if, as is the way with return catches, hurried ease. When Porter hurried Azhar’s bat into edging to Westley at slip Somerset were 7 for 2 and even those wisps of hope that flutter through the mind in impossible situations were dashed. Somerset were going to lose this match. The heart sank to the pit of the stomach and the mind to checking the calculations of what the gap between Somerset and Essex in the Championship table would be at the end of the match. I sent the score by text to someone working. “I was afraid that would happen when I saw the card of the end of the Essex innings,” the reply.

It was a better than average fourth day rather than a third day crowd for there would have been few who expected the match to reach a fourth day once the threatened weather had blown through in time for a prompt start. Hildreth and Banton began to build a partnership although it did nothing to dissipate the feeling hanging in the air, and being spoken on the expectant lips of some Essex supporters, that it would only be a matter of time before the Essex bowling burst through the Somerset dam. Against that running Essex tide Hildreth and Banton ran their singles and ‘twos’ hard. Essex chased the ball as hard, Beard once pulling a racing, bouncing ball back as it bounced over his horizontal, diving body, but for the most part the batsmen raced home for the runs. They found the boundary too. Hildreth had early crossed the rope with a cover drive although it went through the air where no fielder stood. A hook flew, too low for comfort, just cleared midwicket, and found the boundary.

The bowlers pushed their cause too. Once Porter let out a thunderous appeal to a rap on Hildreth’s pads. Hildreth instantly responded by charging half way up the pitch as the ball ran loose but Banton sent him back. Whether Hildreth’s dive would have saved him had the throw not missed the stumps probably only the umpire knew but it left no doubt of the precariousness of Somerset’s position. Banton, after he had turned Siddle neatly to fine leg for four and Porter equally neatly square for two, top-edged rather than middled Beard high over fine leg for six. A cover drive for two took the score to 36 for 2. Progress for Somerset of sorts but the mixture of class and luck necessary to get them that far served only to emphasise the enormity of the chasm Somerset still had to cross.

When Browne chased a looping drive from Banton and dived to save it just in front of me to save a run the aviary erupted into gleeful cheering. A smile and a wave from Browne resulted in a repeat performance. Had ear plugs been offered to other spectators in the stand most would probably have snapped them up and given thanks for such mercies but in truth it was good to see so many incessantly chattering faces still with enough attention to acknowledge an excellent piece of fielding when they saw it. It was followed by an excellent piece of bowling from Harmer. First, he defeated Banton’s drive to the extent that the ball seemed to become tangled in a flurry of bat and pads and then, next ball, he enticed a slightly lofted mis-drive to mid-on and Banton was gone for 24. Perhaps Banton might have resisted the second stroke with some more experience but, given the progress of the match overall, 24 was probably a ‘par’ score on that pitch.

Somerset were 39 for 3. Bartlett joined Hildreth. With Somerset’s last two specialist batsmen at the wicket 269 seemed as far away as the Blackdown Hills at the other end of Somerset and just as foreboding to contemplate. Harmer beat a Hildreth sweep and then went through his defensive stroke. “He’s settling into his groove,” said the Essex voice behind me.” Even so Hildreth and Bartlett worked the score forward with some intense concentration. As the score moved past 60 with still three wickets down and lunch fast approaching I tried to convince myself that perhaps, if the pair could continue beyond lunch, they might just build something of a base but the hope was barely yet even a wisp.

And then, with the last available ball before lunch any thought of hope was dashed. Siddle pitched short, the ball raced towards Hildreth’s throat, Hildreth shaped to chip it over the keeper or slips to the empty boundary but directed it straight into the keeper’s gloves. The Essex cheer was deafening. The sort of cheer that says, “the match is in the bag”. Somerset jaws simply dropped. A replay shows it was a brute of a ball rising on Hildreth and cutting sharply into him off the pitch. The reason for his edging rather than guiding the ball obvious. But the stroke? It was a deliberate stroke, not a reaction to the ball and the ball was good enough to defeat it. But on the stroke of lunch when an opportunity to re-assess had all but been reached? The looks on the faces of Somerset supporters said it all although I don’t think anyone seriously thought it changed the outcome of the match with Somerset still over 200 behind at 64 for 4

There was not much to be said at lunch so old ground was gone over. The fragility of the top three this year and how out of form Azhar looked. Hildreth, Somerset’s most consistent batsman in recent seasons – he has achieved the increasingly uncommon feat of a thousand runs in a season in three of the last four seasons – but still with the propensity to play the chip off the last ball before lunch. The price to be paid we concluded for the glorious days which have produced 45 first class centuries, nearly 17000 first class runs and an average of 43. Another question passed between us. How destabilising has it been to the batting to play the two most successful batsmen of 2018, Hildreth and Abell, out of place in 2019? Would it have been better to have avoided that and keep the erstwhile engine room of the batting in place at the price of exposing young players at the top of the order? Such discussion and speculation perfectly fills a cricket lunchtime even if the two of us involved were perfectly aware that we have no knowledge of the myriad factors unseen on the field of play that coaches have to consider.

The discussion meant I forget to buy the excellent vegan curry which is now available from one of the outlets at Chelmsford. That and other vegetarian and vegan offerings now available are such an improvement on the days when a vegetarian was limited to chips and an ice cream and a vegan to chips at this ground.

There was not much discussion at the start of the afternoon session as I watched from near the sightscreen at the River End. Davies replaced Hildreth and within an over had edged a ball from Harmer to slip. The ball drifted into him and turned away. “Beautiful ball,” the comment. Bartlett, having perfectly reverse-swept Harmer for four all along the ground through third man, drove at a wide ball from Porter which didn’t seem to do much and was also caught at slip. Overton provided a live action-replay of his first innings dismissal as he was again caught by Browne trying to clear the long square boundary off a ball from Porter that cut in slightly. Somerset were 73 for 7 and it looked as if the hopelessness of the situation, the bowler-friendly pitch and the relentlessness of the Essex bowling had finally undermined all Somerset resistance. Somerset supporters were left hoping for no more than that someone would drag the score into three figures. And, for those who had not already come to that conclusion, the realisation must have dawned that if the end of the road to the Championship is to be reached in September it will be a long and relentlessly tough one to travel.

Gregory tends not to subside this year. Neither does he drag the score forward. He emerged and promptly set about making some sort of Somerset statement. Or rather launching a spirited Somerset sally at the Essex attack. Four times he hit Harmer for six. Three times off the first three balls of an over, one of those going into the top tier of the Tom Pearce Stand at long on and one clearing the stand in search of Chelmsford’s river. Harmer did not tease Gregory again with a tossed-up ball but rather began to fire it in flat. Gregory’s innings was exhilarating whilst it lasted. His reputation is spreading too. “He’s a dangerous player, this Gregory,” said an Essex supporter even before the sixes started to fly. He was out, just beaten for pace by a straight ball from Beard which removed his off stump as he stretched well forward in defence. He was the only batsman in the match, other than Cook who did it twice, to reach 40. Somerset’s last two wickets added seven runs and the Championship ‘race’ had been opened up, Essex having beaten the top two sides in successive weeks now have the wind in their sails.

The challenge to Somerset at the start of the match was: can they beat teams from the top half of the table as they have so impressively beaten the teams from the bottom half this season? The question remains unanswered. It will be asked again at Taunton on Sunday when third placed Hampshire visit whilst Essex play bottom placed Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. There is no weather ‘about’ according to the forecast. Those two matches may set the pattern for the rest of the season. To remain the team to be overhauled rather than become one of those playing ‘catch-up’, and to regain their momentum, Somerset may need to beat Hampshire, for all the form books say Essex should beat Nottinghamshire.

Result. Essex 216 (Sir A.N. Cook 80, M.J. Leach 3-30, J. Overton 3-43) and 183 (Sir A.N. Cook 47, T.D. Groenewald 5-51, L. Gregory 3-37. Somerset 131 (J.A. Porter 5-51, A.P. Beard 4-23) and 117 (L. Gregory 40, J.A. Porter 4-22, A.P. Beard 3-22). Essex won by 151 runs. Essex 20 points. Somerset 3 points.