Tremendous cricket

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Hampshire 30th June, 1st, 2nd and 3rd July. Taunton.

Before beginning the report on the first day’s play I would like to record that a minute’s silence was held before the start of play in memory of Charles Clark, Somerset CCCs late Chairman, who died recently.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

First day. 30th June – Tremendous cricket

That was a day of what Championship cricket should be all about if it is to bring the crowds in and keep them there. And it was certainly played in front of a bumper Championship crowd. Well upwards of 2000, possibly nearer 3000, by my estimate if the numbers in the Somerset Stand and the Temporary Stand where the old scoreboard used to be were any indication. And quite a few younger people than the norm for the Championship. I even had to field a ball when I went out to look at the pitch at lunchtime. It was the sort of first day in the days of three-day cricket which you would go home waxing lyrical about, especially if it were a Saturday after a working week.

There were liberal measures of cut and thrust, ebb and flow, batting to scintillate, bowling to exhilarate; not to mention 423 runs and 11 wickets. If your team is trying to win the Championship you might prefer all those terms to apply only to your own side. On the first day of this match they were shared although Somerset deserved the major portion. Perhaps. It will take at least another day of cricket to be sure, for by tea Somerset were in a position to bat Hampshire out of this match; by the close Hampshire had bowled themselves into a position from where they could at least see a route towards parity. Who knows where this match will be by the close of the second day.

At the beginning of the first day the overnight cloud was still hanging around and occasionally dark enough in colour to remind me that I had opted not to bring my umbrella. As the morning wore on the cloud gradually lifted in line with the forecast and the cricket brightened with the weather. By the evening session blue rather than grey ruled the heavens and the sun was drenching those of us sitting near the back of the ground level terrace of the Somerset Pavilion. It was a perfect day to watch cricket.

The first hour provided a considerable test for the Somerset batsmen as Abbot bowled a piercing opening spell from the Somerset pavilion end although Barker, largely bowling around the wicket from the River End, seemed less of a threat. Azhar began by cutting Barker and clipping Abbott square so effectively the stroke brought cheers but the text from the online watcher said, “Abbott is getting into the groove and finding some movement.” Almost immediately he swung a ball perfectly into Azhar, took the pad and Azhar was gone for 12. Somerset 18 for 1.

The fall of early top order wickets has been the bane of Somerset’s season and thoughts of more to follow hovered over proceedings as Hildreth joined Abell. Both bat this year in positions in which they have struggled and above the places in the order in which they scored so many runs in 2018. Immediately they worked away at the bowling. Abell keeping it out, Hildreth taking runs where he could with strokes of characteristic audacity. The lightest of steers wide of third slip and a delicate cut backward of square, both off Barker, flew to the boundary. An hour into the morning session the pair had taken the score, not without the ball passing the bat or crashing into the pads to thunderous appeals from Abbott, to 45 for 1. Abbott’s initial force though was spent.

Fuller replaced Abbott and Edwards replaced Barker. The score began to accelerate as Hildreth began to play with the freedom and precision of the artist unleashed. He outscored Abell by two to one as Abell fought to secure the other end. It gave the artist the freedom to display his artistry and begin to build Somerset’s score. Hildreth’s stroke of choice seemed to be a rare delicacy of a cut between backward point and third slip, often played in defiance of a carefully placed gully. Before long the slip ‘cordon’ had been transformed into a skirmish line of first slip, fourth slip and gully and still the ball found its way through to the third man boundary. “He does like that shot doesn’t he,” someone said.

As lunch approached, Abell began to pick up his score but only just dented Hildreth’s two to one advantage. A straight drive to the Botham Stand off Edwards seared along the grass but it was the running of a rising number of ones and twos which really helped pick up the scoring rate. The Hampshire fielding was aggressive and precise in the pick-up although the throws often arrived too wide of the keeper to apply real pressure as Hildreth and Abell ran their bats through the crease at speed time and again. When in the penultimate over before lunch Crane dropped very short outside leg stump Hildreth was on the ball like a lion on its prey as he pulled viciously behind square to the Somerset Stand. Three runs later lunch came with Somerset at 98 for 1 with Hildreth 51 not out and Abell 30 not out. It was Somerset’s best first morning with the bat this season.

 

A lunchtime look at the wicket, along with about two hundred others curious to know if they could see anything other than grass, revealed only that it had more of a tinge of green than was evident from beyond the boundary and that there might be the early stages of a foot mark developing at the Somerset Pavilion End which might be of some use to Leach against Hampshire’s three left-handers later in the game. Whether Leach would think so might be another matter. After lunch Donald appeared as the substitute keeper in the absence of Alsop who it subsequently emerged was unable to return to the field after lunch due to a hamstring injury.

 

Hildreth began after lunch with the same intent he had shown before it. He started by crashing Fuller, bowling from the River End, through the covers to the World Cup Temporary Stand where the old scoreboard used to be. In an over from Abbott, bowling from the Somerset Pavilion end Hildreth brought up the 100 partnership with a cover drive, “Shot!”, to the old Stragglers, an on drive along the ground to the Ondaatje boundary and a clip just in front of square to the Caddick Pavilion boundary. When Crane, with his leg spin, replaced Abbott, Hildreth was merciless. A long hop which pitched a yard outside leg stump was clubbed to the boundary for four. Another, completely helpless, long hop was pulled half way up the Temporary Stand for six. It brought up Hildreth’s century and Somerset were 169 for 1 in the 44th over. If brutality to a cricket ball were a crime Hildreth would have no defence after those two strokes. Crane’s next ball was a no ball, one of four he bowled, which almost bounced twice, pitched well outside leg stump and ran down to the Sir Ian Botham stand for four byes. It was painful to watch but the first division is a ruthless place and teams which want to win it have no choice but to be ruthless if they get into a position where they can be. Hildreth’s onslaught had pushed Somerset’s run rate beyond four an over.

Facing Edwards after lunch was a very different proposition as he bowled opposite Crane. His post-lunch spell was fast, accurate and constantly tested the batsmen. His short-pitched bowling was frighteningly accurate. Eventually he hit Hildreth on the helmet and removed him next ball for 105 when another short ball was pulled downwards, but not steeply enough, towards midwicket where Barker took a good catch diving forward. Somerset were 196 for 2. Hildreth 105.

Abell had contributed 53 to the partnership of 178 but his increasing solidity opposite Hildreth was crucial to giving Hildreth the licence to play as he did. Hildreth is a batting artist and the longer Abell held firm the more did Hildreth’s stroke play flow. Abell exhibits the batting art himself but his art is of a less free, more structured, variety. A carefully constructured, powerfully built Palladian mansion to Hildreth’s impressionist masterpiece. Two sweeps off Weatherley, whose occasional off spin had been drafted in to replace Crane’s wayward leg spin, crashed into the Caddick Pavilion boards. The power in the stroke the antithesis of Hildreth’s deft stroke play. Abell took the score forward as Banton established himself, scoring 24 of their partnership of 41. The partnership came to an end after Hampshire successfully requested a replacement ball. “It’s moving more,” said the text from the online watcher as Abbott returned at the River End although the ball which Abell edged to slip seemed to owe more to bounce than movement. He had made 82, priceless in this summer of top order Somerset batting collapses. Somerset were 237 for 4 after 55 overs.

Abell’s departure brought together Banton and Bartlett, two young men fast establishing themselves in the Somerset batting order. Neither tarries at the wicket and each has a distinctive style of play. Banton hits clean, hard and long. He repeatedly leant into on drives which raced across the ground. A square drive to the Somerset Pavilion off Abbott took the breath away. He pulled Weatherley square for six and played a perfect reverse sweep along the ground towards the Trescothick Stand for two. Bartlett appears to me more idiosyncratic in his strokes, sometimes taking a hand off the bat or a foot off the ground. He cut, pulled and drove his way forward at a rate which matched Banton’s and Hildreth’s. The number of Bartlett’s significant scores, and scores made at crucial times, is mounting. Together they added 116 runs in 21 overs of spectacular stroke play by the end of which Hampshire’s ground fielding was fraying at the edges as three times a ball went through the hands of a boundary fielder. Eventually Banton was lbw to Fuller who seemed to get movement with the replacement ball which he had been unable to do with the original. Along with the Hildreth-Abell partnership, they had raced the score along at truly breakneck speed.

The noise in the crowd was constant, the cheers for the boundaries cacophonous and the talk, at least that which you could hear above the universal hubbub, was all about the pace of the play, the dominance of the Somerset batting and the immense promise of the two batsmen currently at the wicket. Somerset reached 289 for 3 at tea. “191 runs in the afternoon session,” someone said to me as we passed in the tea interval. It was draw-dropping and this was the first division. Watching Somerset bat does not get much better than that. After tea the assault continued as Banton and Bartlett added another 64 runs at five an over. Banton hit Crane for three fours in an over leaving Crane with final figures of 12-0-88-0. When Banton was lbw to Fuller to a ball that cut in sharply of the seam Somerset were 353 for 4 in the 76th over. Banton 79. 361 for 5 when Fuller moved another another ball in, although not by nearly as much, to beat Davies’ defensive stroke for another lbw. They were two crucial wickets for they opened up Somerset’s lower order to the ferocity of Abbott and the new ball.

With the new ball Abbott bowled like a man possessed. Alphonso Thomas, to be seen on the outfield before the start of play coaching the Hampshire bowlers, used to bowl like that occasionally. It can be devastating when it happens. Initially Gregory fought fire with fire. The harder and faster Abbott bowled the harder and further Gregory seemed to hit him. Six fours in the 19 balls he faced. Abbott looked increasingly frustrated the harder Gregory hit the ball but he kept his cool and kept coming. Eventually Gregory tried to drive a ball which was slightly too wide outside off stump and which might have bounced a little more than he expected. He was caught at slip for 25 and Somerset were 401 for 6, Gregory having just brought up the fifth batting bonus point with a straight drive off Abbott. And then, within minutes, after Bartlett was ‘strangled’ down the leg side off a short ball from Edwards for 68, Abbott, moving the ball sharply in off the seam took the last three wickets within two overs and Somerset were all out for 408.

The last seven wickets fell for 55 runs, the last five for seven runs, Abbott took four of those five in a blisteringly accurate spell of fast bowling in which he also found movement of the seam. He had changed, or rather halted, the course of the Somerset innings. Whether he has altered the course of the match is the question hanging over the second day.

Before the close Hampshire faced six overs from Gregory and Overton during which Overton bowled a phenomenal ball to Soames. It was Overton’s third ball of the match. It was angled in, straightened, lifted off the pitch and was edged to Davies. Or as the text said, “Fast, straight, shape, lift, movement. Not sure what the batsman could have done.” Hampshire ended on 15 for 1 with Rahane looking like he might bring some calm to proceedings on the second morning.

It had been a phenomenal day of cricket. Somerset were racing away with the game at tea. By the close Hampshire, mainly in the form of Abbott, had torn back into contention by ripping out the Somerset lower order. Punch and counter-punch. Abbot’s savage fusillade had left some Somerset supporters disappointed after the dizzy heights of 353 for 3. But the overwhelming impression I was left with was of the Somerset top order rampant with the bat who had played with coruscating vigour and driven the Hampshire bowling headlong before them until a bowler of proven Test class had broken through the middle and lower order and halted the charge. But 408 runs in 88 overs left more of an impression than Abbott’s riposte. Whether Jamie Overton’s thunderbolt or Rahane’s calm will prove to be the more predictive of the second day’s play remains to be seen but the spirit of the Somerset batting in the first five hours of the first day will stick long in the memory.

Close. Somerset 408 (J.C. Hildreth 105, T.B. Abell 82, T. Banton 79, K.J. Abbott 6 for 84). Hampshire 15 for 1. Hampshire trail by 393 runs with nine first innings wickets standing.