Somerset race for the line

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

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

Third day. 2nd July – Somerset race for the line

When I worked in London I used to walk along the Embankment in the evening to unwind. In the summer it was a restful experience watching the Thames flow by and the party boats slide up and down as if they were floating on air rather than water. It was less restful in the winter and early spring. In those dark evenings I would be constantly overtaken by an endless succession of runners toning themselves up for the London marathon. It mattered not how narrow the pavement nor how many obstacles had been planted there in the form of ‘street furniture’, the endless stream of runners just kept on coming past. It must have been a bit like that for Hampshire on the first and third days of this match as an endless succession of Somerset batsmen relentlessly passed by as they stacked up runs at the rate of four and a half an over.

For 171 overs Somerset batted as nearly 800 runs were scored. It was glorious uproarious stuff. Somerset to the core, in both innings, and it made the heart race. Hampshire’s only tactic in response has been to try to slow the match down to minimise the amount of time Somerset would have to bowl them out in the fourth innings and, given the apparent number of runs in the pitch, give themselves an outsider’s outside chance of chasing down a large victory target. In the end Somerset managed to fashion themselves 100 overs for their bowlers to try and force the win they will surely need to keep a two-digit lead over Essex in the championship as Nottinghamshire are already holed below the water line at Trent Bridge. The final day promises a return to the edge of the seat especially if Rahane and Northeast get set.

The third day started with me unwittingly overriding my alarm when it tried to wake me up. It had been set to give me time to write my second day report in time to get to the start of the third day. The report was still completed but at the price of the third day starting without me. As I typed, the tab at the top of the screen tipped me off about Gregory’s two wickets and Somerset’s resulting 59 run lead. I arrived at the ground with the scoreboard reading 51 for 1 at the end of the 12th over. Somerset’s first 50 run opening partnership of the season and scored at four runs an over. I took a seat high up in the Somerset Stand as Azhar turned the ball behind square with some force. Those four runs set the tone for the rest of my day. When Abell cut Crane hard behind square for another four there was no doubting Somerset’s intent.

The three quarters of an hour from there to lunch was Somerset heaven as Azhar and Abell drove Somerset spectacularly forward. Literally drove them forward. Abell drove Barker into the heart of the area where the ghosts of the bygone inhabitants of the old Straggler’s bar reside. If they had not already been awakened by the sights of this match then that stroke will have had them all awake and drooling over its sheer quality as they recalled great Somerset batsmen down the years batting like this on other sun-drenched days when there was a match to be won and time was of the essence.

Abell’s on and cover driving lit up the rest of my morning as Hampshire’s Mason Crane was not allowed to settle after the nightmare of his bowling in the first innings. It was not just the boundaries. When Abell is batting no single or two is allowed to escape if they are there to be had. Azhar responded in kind as the pair constantly pressurised the field, time and again running through the crease just ahead of the incoming ball. The incoming ball wilted in the face of the assault as it repeatedly came in too far from the stumps to be a threat. Lunch came with the score on 110 for 0 after 23 overs. That was an old Sunday League score at that juncture of an innings and those near five runs an over had, a couple of thick edges aside, been scored without sign of risk.

The atmosphere in the crowd as I slowly made my way to a seat in the Somerset Pavilion for the afternoon session was electric, pumped up by the batting and by the hope it fuelled. For there is a Championship to be won this year and batting of this sort will be needed if the rising challenge from Essex is to be seen off. As someone put it to me as I stopped for a chat, “If Somerset are to have a chance of winning the Championship they may have to bat like that to chase down a target before the season is out.” Generally, talk was of the need to win and, given the historical difficulty of bowling sides out on the fourth day at Taunton, whether Hampshire should be given a ‘sniff’ of victory to encourage them to take risks. Or, as the text put it, “I think Somerset will have to go out and win this Championship rather than simply not lose it.” And all the time the buzz generated by the run scoring of the morning was continuous throughout the interval and still there as I sat down for the post-lunch session.

The first hour after lunch was a different game to the one I had walked into in the middle of the morning. Barker bowled around the wicket from the Somerset Pavilion End and was immediately, “in the groove,” as the online watcher put it and severely limiting the batsmen’s options. He and Edwards restricted themselves to 13 overs in the first hour according to someone I spoke to in the tea interval. That further reduced the tempo. They restricted the batsmen to just 35 runs in that hour with singles rather than boundaries the batsmen’s staple fare. It was rather as if those runners on the Embankment had suddenly found themselves running into the congestion of a crowd blocking the pavement and their planned progress.

As when a runner’s rhythm is broken the break in the rhythm of the batsmen took its toll. Two wickets fell in that hour of congested scoring, both to the persistently accurate Barker as Hampshire tried to fight their way back into the match. Abell, on 58, seemed to shape to pull a ball that appeared to keep low and hit his off stump as he tried to jab down on it. Hildreth, attempting as always to speed the score along, drove at a ball which perhaps just moved away a shade off the seam as he edged it to slip. Azhar, like Abell, had been restricted in his scoring after lunch and was perhaps the most obvious casualty of the brake Hampshire had applied. When Abbott replaced Barker, Azhar chipped a short ball over slip but only succeeded in reaching third man where Weatherley ran in and took a good catch. A replay shows the ball cutting in at Azhar quite sharply off the seam which perhaps undid what may have been an attempt to get the score moving again.

Somerset, stalling a little, were 165 for 3, 224 ahead in a match in which a par score seemed to be at least 350. They would surely want to set Hampshire a minimum of 400 was the general thought on a pitch which did not seem to be changing its behaviour. It was a moment at which a lesser team might have taken stock and reigned in their ambition. Not this Somerset team. It was as if, with Barker and Edwards taking a rest, the runners on the Embankment had seen a break in the cohesion of the group of pedestrians blocking their way, re-established their rhythm, and ran on through. In short, Banton and Bartlett set about the Hampshire bowling which gave way just as a group of pedestrians eventually does to determined runners.

Banton with the bat can be as much a force of nature on a cricket field as Overton can be with the ball. Bartlett’s stroke play perhaps looks more subtle but it can be just as effective. Now they worked together although with Banton taking more of the strike. The scoring rate was soon reaching the heights of the morning and Somerset, clear of the congestion imposed by Barker, forged ahead and any worry about the loss of wickets was pushed to the back of the mind. Banton’s on driving was a delight of classicism laid out on the canvas of the cricket field and the boundary boards suffered in consequence. A cover drive off the back foot to the Temporary Stand from the bowling of Fuller showed his power on the other side of the wicket. A hook for four off Abbott bowling from the Somerset Pavilion End led to Abbot bowling a bouncer so high it cleared the keeper and ran down to the Sir Ian Botham Stand for four. Somerset were again shaping the game and running free.

Tea came at 236 for 3, a lead of 295. Somerset had seven wickets and 32 overs in which to build that into a lead which would give the bowlers time to run at the Hampshire batsmen for long enough on a pitch still seemingly full of runs. My teatime circumnavigation was as interrupted as can the exercise of those runners be on the Embankment. But they were welcome interruptions as people wanted to talk about the way in which Somerset were pulling away from Hampshire. Banton of course was a topic for discussion as I dallied next to the Caddick Pavilion. The pace of his development and adaptation of his batting to the requirements of the four-day game almost beyond believing. Bartlett too, “A lovely stroke maker,” a batting gem to be cherished.

By the time I reached the Garner Gate gap to await the shortening of the queue for ice creams the players were back out and Bartlett and Banton were again illustrating the discussion I had just had. The person I spoke to had seen Gimblett play and was sorry I had not. We settled on Peter Wight as someone we had both seen and who might have driven Somerset forward on a day such as this. As we talked, the ball left the driving Bartlett’s bat and arched across the sky towards us to land somewhere in the Trescothcick Stand as Crane suffered more punishment. That was followed by a pull through midwicket which punished the Somerset Stand boards as the smiles on the faces that had seen Gimblett and Wight play broadened.

But Crane was at last beginning to find some semblance of the control that had deserted him thus far in the match just as Barker returned at the Somerset Pavilion End and Somerset were trying to force the score ever faster upward. Bartlett attempted to drive Barker back over his head, did not get the bat fully on the ball and was caught at deep cover for 33. When Banton was out apparently gloving a reverse sweep to the keeper Crane had suddenly taken two key wickets, Somerset were 270 for 5, 329 ahead. The figure on everyone’s lips was still 400 and a few overs “at Hampshire” before the close. That was still over 70 runs away and as I returned to the Somerset Pavilion the animated buzz that had enveloped the ground during the Banton-Bartlett partnership had turned into an almost audibly tense quiet. Somerset still had work to do and Essex were remorselessly overwhelming Nottinghamshire with a lead of over 300 on first innings.

It was now that Somerset’s true mettle and confidence were shown as a succession of middle and lower order batsmen came and went rather like those runners intent on passing me on the Embankment. Momentarily the scoring eased as Crane from the River End and Barker and Abbott from the Somerset Pavilion end tried to block progress. Then Davies and Gregory freed themselves and the runs flowed again. The Somerset innings never looked back from that point. As each batsman came the bowlers suffered and as each went he left a package of quickly scored runs on the scoreboard. Gregory began matters with a trademark six off Abbott which slammed into the sightscreen just to my right and an over later cut Abbott spectacularly for four. Davies pulled Crane over the Caddick Pavilion boundary for six and two balls later drove him to the Temporary Stand for four. The Somerset blood was up now and where the boundaries were not there the singles remorselessly fed the rise of the total on the scoreboard.

Davies stayed there to the end, making 36 in all, keeping the score moving with deft turns and pushes. When Gregory miscued a hook Northeast, jumping high and falling backwards at mid-on took the catch, he had added 28. Bess came to the wicket and slammed two on side boundaries through a flailing Hampshire fielder. The first a boundary ‘catch’ went straight through the hands and the second, along the ground, was dived over. Pressure tells. A third attempt saw Edwards through to Bess’s stumps. When Overton was stumped charging Crane for a duck and sprinted off the field towards a dressing room of Somerset players all in whites it was clear a declaration was coming but not before Groenewald had come out to land a ball from Edwards over the Temporary Stand boundary.

358 for 8 declared the final tally when Abell declared Somerset’s batting race run and Hampshire would need 418 in a minimum of 100 overs. A maximum requirement of 4.18 and over for Hampshire against their first innings rate of 3.27 and Somerset’s 4.64 and 4.31. 400 run targets have been chased down at Taunton before but it would take something miraculous for Hampshire to reach 418 with Alsop known to be injured and with Weatherley not seen on the field for some time.

Four overs Abell had allowed his bowlers before the close of play. In that time Rahane showed his threat with two scintillating boundaries. Gregory showed his with a ball which cut in at pace to shatter Soames’ stumps and with another which led to a very loud lbw appeal against Rahane before he had scored. Gregory and Overton no doubt will start the final morning against Rahane and the nightwatchman, Abbott, who had opened in the stead of the injured Weatherley. Hampshire’s efforts will be hampered by the injuries to Weatherley and Alsop and much may depend on the contest between the Somerset bowlers and Rahane, Northeast and Rossouw. Hampshire’s lower order showed resilience too in the first innings. Somerset will have to work hard on the last day but their bowling attack have overcome obstacle after obstacle this season. Only the brave will bet against them doing it again.

Close. Somerset 408 and 358 for 8 dec (Azhar Ali 79, T. Banton 70, T.B. Abell 58, M.S. Crane 3-122). Hampshire 349 (S.A. Northeast 101, A. M. Rahane 55, R.R. Rossouw 44, J. Overton 5-70) and 12 for 1. Hampshire need 406 more runs to win with nine second innings wickets standing.