Overton excels

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

Overnight. Somerset 408. Hampshire 15 for 1. Hampshire trail by 393 runs with nine first innings wickets standing.

Second day. 1st July – Overton excels

Somerset’s Championship prospects may have been encapsulated in this single match. In three of the last four seasons the team that has won the Championship has won ten or, in the case of Yorkshire in 2015 when 16 matches were played, 11 matches and not lost more than one. With Essex now playing in overdrive, driven by winning all four of their matches at Chelmsford, three inside three days, and challenging for Somerset’s top spot, there is no reason to think this season will be any different. The team that wins the Championship will probably win ten matches or very close. Essex, who have yet to win away from home, appear to be overwhelming favourites to win their current match against bottom placed Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. Having won their last two matches they are building real momentum as the business end of the season approaches. With their next two matches being at Chelmsford there is every prospect that their momentum will continue. To win the Championship Somerset will have to match it.

Which brings us to this match. Somerset scored at breakneck speed on the first day. They scored over 400 runs and gave themselves time to take one Hampshire wicket before the close. The second day was an altogether more turgid affair. Hampshire, in overhead conditions more conducive to batting than Somerset had experienced, scored at three and a quarter runs an over to Somerset’s four and two thirds. They lost only seven wickets in the process and have two remaining to carry into the third day. In spite of Somerset’s efforts on the first day, time may already be running out in this match for the pitch was showing every sign of flattening with little indication of turn developing for Somerset’s two spinners. If, as is the tendency at Taunton, this pitch flattens even further on the third and fourth days a Herculean effort will be needed if Somerset are to match Essex’s likely win at Trent Bridge. That may be indicative of the challenge of the rest of the season. Even on the second day Somerset’s bowlers had to strain every sinew to make as much progress as they have. There was little sign of the lateral movement off the pitch with which Abbott demolished Somerset’s lower order on the first evening, or with which had Overton removed Soames.

The first few overs of the day produced comments around me like, “It doesn’t seem to be doing very much,” and “It looks like it’s going to be hard work today.” And so it proved. Rahane, in spite of being beautifully beaten outside the off stump by Gregory in the first over, and again by Overton, immediately looked in control. Against that background the overriding story of the second day was of Overton’s pace battling the pitch, the batting-friendly overhead conditions and some determined Hampshire batting. In three spells, and a short two over one, he posed a constant threat. He bowled a searing opening spell resulting in the wicket of Weatherley when he bowled a ball across the batsman which lifted and moved just a little off the seam. Weatherley followed it and Davies took a straightforward catch. Hampshire were 37 for 2 and Overton had figures of 6.1-0-13-2. He is taking wickets this season at an average of around 15 with an economy rate of under three. A force to be reckoned with.

It looked a different game when Overton was not bowling in spite of some pretty determined efforts by the Somerset bowlers. Gregory followed by Groenewald and Abell all tried their arms from the Somerset Pavilion End as the morning progressed but the Hampshire total crawled inexorably upwards. Gregory and Abell contained but did not particularly threaten the batsmen but Groenewald looked out of sorts and bowled only seven overs in the day. Rahane and Northeast seemed to pursue a policy of attritional accumulation in the face of Somerset’s first innings total. Only against Overton was Northeast troubled. In one over he was badly beaten twice and Overton walked back to the boundary at the end of it to extended applause.

Somerset turned to Leach at the River End when Overton’s first spell was spent and, after the other seam bowlers had completed their spells, Bess at the Somerset Pavilion End. Here, it felt, lay much of Somerset’s hope in this match for Overton can only bowl so many overs at his pace and wickets will need to come from elsewhere too. Leach almost immediately fell into his rhythm with two runs an over the miserly ration he permitted the Hampshire batsmen. Bess took a little longer and was initially expensive, almost five runs an over, but once he settled Somerset had control from both ends although it was apparent that wickets would be at a premium. Bess looked a little more threatening than Leach, as he sometimes does, but that may have been because I was watching him from behind in the lower terrace of the Somerset Pavilion and had a better view of the batsman’s efforts to play him.

With Hampshire reaching 105 for 2 at lunch the afternoon consisted largely of the Somerset spinners, and a spell from Overton, battling away at the Hampshire batsmen. I could see very little evidence of turn, at least anything that could be detected from beyond the boundary. I watched mainly from the Somerset Pavilion but also a few passages of play from the covers store. Conversations with other spectators all had the same ring about them. Hard work for the Somerset bowlers, scores from Trent Bridge marking Essex’s increasing dominance over Nottinghamshire and hope, rather than anticipation, that the pitch might turn later in the match. Tension was not quite the word for that only bites hard when a match is tightly balanced with the prospect of a positive result clearly in view. Here the feeling was of an underlying, and gradually growing, anxiety that Somerset might be unable to find a way through Hampshire on an apparently incresingly benign pitch.

Then, almost apropos of nothing, Rahane drove at Leach and edged to Gregory at slip and Hampshire were 138 for 3. The cheer was one of surprise, and not a little relief, as much as congratulation for it had been a long time since the second wicket and Rahane and Northeast had been looking unnervingly secure. I doubt many would have bet against a Rahane century and probably not against a large one at that. It was impossible to tell from my position whether the ball had turned but it had the feel of a wicket borne of the nagging persistence of Leach rather than of help from the pitch. “408 is still a long way away,” someone said. But when the new batsman, Rossouw, drove Bess to the boundary and Northeast stepped back and drove him perfectly to the old Stragglers area for another four the same person asked rhetorically, “There is no leeway for the bowlers on this pitch is there?”

A spell from Overton from the FRiver End produced an inside edge from Rossouw which barely seemed to miss the stumps and a glance or perhaps a thick inside edge from Northeast which Gregory, diving far to his left at leg slip just could not hold or perhaps his hand was behind the pitch of it. Again, Overton received generous applause as he returned to the boundary but such near misses seem to be prevalent on flat pitches and rarely seem to be rewarded. Perhaps when wickets are falling such things just do not impact the mind in the same way as they do when the mind is desperate for a wicket. A top edge from Rossouw off Leach which ballooned over slip but just out of reach of a desperately chasing Gregory also tugged at the nerve ends and brought gasps of disappointment form the crowd. And interspersed between such rare chances was the Hampshire score grinding ever upwards. Upwards far enough for Northeast to pass his century almost at the same time as Hampshire passed 200 for 3. Suddenly 408 did  not seem so far away.

And just as suddenly Bess intervened. Although he did occasionally trouble the batsmen it still came as something of a surprise when Northeast drove him limply to Abell, diving forward at midwicket. I wonder just how many wickets Abell is responsible for there and in the covers as he takes some outstanding catches and pressurises the batsman as he cuts off expected boundary after expected boundary. Northeast had made 101 and, like Rahane, had looked like he might make rather a larger hundred than that. When, in his next over, Bess pinned, in almost the literal sense of the word, Rossouw right back on his stumps Rossouw’s somewhat fortunate 44 was over and Hampshire were 225 for 5, still 183 runs behind Somerset. It looked as if Bess had angled the ball into the left-handed Rossouw and then straightened it. That brought hope that there might just be something in the pitch for Somerset’s spinners. Or perhaps it was just the anxious spectator’s wishful thinking. A look at replay of the ball showed little evidence of turn, perhaps just a shade of straightening.

In the absence of the injured Alsop this brought Fuller and Barker to the wicket and hopes that Somerset might make more quick progress. In an hour they added 62 runs at four an over against Leach and Bess. It could turn out to have been one of the more crucial partnerships of the match. For the runs they scored for Hampshire, for the time they denied Somerset and for the doubt they cast on the likelihood of help from the pitch developing. It was an hour of gradually lengthening shadows and Somerset faces as news of Essex’s ever-rising total, over 300 with still only three wickets down, was set against Hampshire’s determined resistance.

It took the new ball and the return of Overton to lift spirits. In six overs of sustained hostility with the new ball he constantly tested the Hampshire batsman as he and Gregory put a brake on the Hampshire scoring, Just 27 runs came from 12 overs with the new ball as Overton took three wickets. Barker fenced a ball to Davies, Fuller stepped away to leg as Overton bowled, the ball followed him and Davies caught the edge off the reaction stroke; and Abbott edged a ball, which would have taken out his off stump had he not played it, defensively to Davies. Overton had taken three wickets in the space of four runs off his bowling and eight runs in total. It was a wonderful forty minutes of cricket watching with real tension and expectation in the air again when Overton ran in. The eyes opened wider, the heart beat faster and the breath seemed to hold itself expectantly as he moved through that powerful, smooth, momentum-building run-up of his and into his delivery stride. And then the explosive delivery of the ball and the hurried reaction of the batsman before it was safe to breath again. Of such sights are the jewels of cricket-watching forged.

Hampshire were 314 for 8 at the end of Overton’s spell and suddenly 408 seemed a long way away again. The point about those wickets, from my vantage point by the covers store at wide third man at least, was that they looked like they had been taken by sheer pace. There was no obvious movement off the seam and replays seem to confirm that. The lower order batsmen had looked in difficulty against Overton and the pressure eventually seemed to tell as his spell progressed and those three wickets fell. It looked a different game again when his six over spell ended and Leach, Groenewald and then Bess bowled out the overs before Hampshire closed on 329 for 8. 79 runs behind. Essex finished on 345 for 3, already 133 ahead of Nottinghamshire with two days till to play.

If Somerset do not beat Hampshire it is likely that their lead over Essex in the Championship will have shrunk from the 30 points it was when Somerset travelled to Chelmsford ten days ago to three or four points. At the end of the day anxiety that a draw might result here was etched in the faces of several people I spoke to. It may also have reflected the fact that if Essex continue to win on the pitches at Chelmsford Somerset’s prospects of winning their first Championship may hang on whether Somerset can win at Taunton where historically pitches have had a tendency to flatten as a match wears on. If the second day here is anything to go by, and the pitch does not provide help to the spinners on the last day, Somerset’s prospects in the second half of the season may lie in the control and periodic wickets taken by Leach and Bess and the ability of Jamie Overton’s pace and lift, and perhaps Craig Overton’s accuracy and lift, to break through opposition defences at home.

Close. Somerset 408. Hampshire 329 for 8. Hampshire trail by 79 runs with two first innings wickets standing.