A dream of a match

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

Overnight. Somerset 408 and 358 for 8 dec. Hampshire 349 and 12 for 1. Hampshire need a further 406 runs to win with nine second innings wickets standing.

Final day. 3rd July – A dream of a match

There are times in life when a simple truth becomes, as the American constitution has it, ‘self-evident’. When the nagging questions are answered beyond dispute. When the doubts are expelled headlong from the mind. The final morning of this match was one such time. Somerset, now beyond any doubt, have a team capable of winning the County Championship. A team capable of becoming the greatest Somerset team of all time. Chickens though are best not counted. This team is ‘capable’ of those things. They are not yet written in stone. The Championship still has to be won, and this year Essex, and perhaps Yorkshire, may have their say and other counties will in subsequent years. Three of Somerset’s remaining six matches this season will be against those two sides. But after this performance those three matches may be considered opportunities at least as much as threats. Somerset now have their destiny firmly in their own hands to an extent unparalleled in their history.

The final day of this match began with two obstacles in particular likely to stand in Somerset’s way. Rahane and Northeast are both capable of batting through a day. Rossouw too might pose a threat for he had batted unbeaten through the best part of the final day in the corresponding fixture in 2018. In this match Alsop and Weatherley had both suffered disabling injuries to their legs and whilst they might bat their threat was likely to be greatly diminished. Much would depend on Rahane, Northeast and Rossouw. The pitch, often flattens if a match at Taunton reaches a fourth day. Hampshire, in danger of an innings defeat in 2018, defied Somerset throughout a gruelling final day, losing only two wickets in the entire day, to save the game with, in the end, some ease. That memory was on many minds as the players took the field. This pitch though was subtly different to that one. Full of runs undeniably, 1127 on the first three days alone, but for bowlers with the skill to use it, especially with a new ball, it had offered the prospect of bounce and movement off the seam throughout those three days. It was a pitch which produced a dream of a match.

I arrived at the ground just before the players took the field, my third day report unposted. It was complete apart from being proofread and edited. Normally I would have completed the job at the price of the first hour of the day’s play. Not this time. That still small voice within told me to get myself to the ground for the start, come what may. How prescient that voice turned out to be. There were not many of us. More familiar faces than unfamiliar ones as I walked past Gimblett’s Hill to my seat in the lower deck of the Somerset Pavilion. That reflected the total attendance which I doubt topped 600 at any time in the proceedings. As on most other final days the size of the crowd reflected the fact that it was the final day rather than the state of the match.

Gregory, from the Somerset Pavilion End, and Overton from the River End, began where they had left off the previous evening. Powering in at the batsmen under a blue sky although now with a scattering of white tufts of cloud. Eyes strained at the pitch looking for any sign of movement or other help for the bowlers. It may have been a small crowd but the intensity of its attention on the cricket was evidenced in its eyes. Focused and unmoving as the bowlers ran in. Gasps filled the air as Overton twice passed Abbott’s bat and as Gregory all but forced a route through to the stumps off Rahane’s bat. Breaths were audibly caught as the ball rattled around in the crease before going dead. Here was hope. The ball must be ‘doing something’.

In just the third over of the morning Gregory bowled what looked to be a quicker ball. Rahane drove hard at it and the ball flew fast off the edge to the right of Overton’s head at second slip. Overton moved neatly across and took the catch with the smoothness and certainty that is becoming the hallmark of his slip catching. What a cheer went up then. It would have done the first day’s 3000 proud let alone the fourth day’s 600. Hampshire were 18 for 2 and a major threat to Somerset’s hopes had gone, in the context of a day’s cricket, in the blink of an eye. A look at a replay of the wicket shows an absolute ‘jaffa’ of a delivery from Gregory which might have taken a wicket on any pitch for the pitch had no part in it. The ball left Gregory’s hand perfectly directed for the drive. Only when the batsman was fully committed did the ball swing away markedly and late to take the edge of the bat. On bowlers who can bowl such deliveries to such batsmen might Championships be made. Hampshire 18 for 2.

At the other end Overton was now running in and exuding smoothly generated power and threat with every succeeding stride. Several times he had passed Abbott’s thrust-forward bat to gasps and flung back heads. Now he found the edge and the ball flew through to Davies’ gloves. 18 for 3 and the cheers of the 11 in the middle and the 600 beyond the boundary rent the air. The win was on. By the time Overton bowled the next ball to the newly arrived Rossouw you could have heard a pin drop.

At first Rossouw defended against Overton’s pace and then seemed to try to fight fire with fire. In three successive balls he first tried to defend and a thick edge flew between third slip and gully for four. Next he tried to pull a ball pitched well outside his off stump. It moved away off the seam, seemed to take the toe end as the bat swung around and again the ball flew for four between third slip and gully. The next ball Rossouw tried to cut. It lifted and flew off the edge straight to Banton at gully. 28 for 4. One or two around me began to rue bringing their lunch, others cautioned against chicken counting. For the third time I sent a ‘wicket’ text to someone unable to follow online but where a glance at an incoming text might be possible. This match, as all Somerset matches, was being followed far beyond the confines of the ground.

When Overton beat a Northeast drive and Gregory twice went through Fuller’s defence gasps erupted around the ground. “Great over,” the comment from behind me when Gregory took his cap from the umpire. When Leach and Groenewald replaced Overton and Gregory Northeast began to suggest a semblance of permanence. Fuller less so. An edge off Leach looped towards square leg but fell harmlessly. When a ball from Groenewald flew past the outside edge of Fuller’s drive and another past his defensive push the gasps around the ground spoke of frustration at the iniquities visited upon bowlers by the cricketing gods. “It can only be a matter of time,” said the man behind me as Groenewald troubled the batsmen again and again. The ball must have been swinging the conclusion from beyond the boundary. The expectation generated by Groenewald’s early overs was intense. No pin dropped during that period for if it had the sound would have echoed around the ground. As each ball was delivered everyone was silent, still, watching, waiting.

At the other end Leach began to spread his net at the rate of a run an over as the batsmen looked warily at each ball. It was impossible to tell from behind the batsman whether Leach was turning the ball but there was nothing I saw to suggest it apart from that looping edge. 6-3-4-0 showed the extent of Leach’s control and the batsmen’s care. At the other end Groenewald had conceded a few runs to end with figures of 5-0-23-0 but four of those were off an inside edge from Northeast which missed his leg stump by inches and the ‘0’ in the wicket column was one of those injustices frequently visited upon bowlers.

But, through fortune and application the batsmen began to settle. Northeast in particular looked composed. Fuller took more risk but kept the score moving and perhaps the spirits up. When Northeast started to score, his on and cover driving suggesting confidence, the feel of the game began to change. The atmosphere was calmer and tinges of anxiety emerged. I found myself timing the partnership. 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes as the first hour of the day ticked by on the Colin Atkinson clock that has overseen nearly a century of Championship hope. 45 minutes seemed something of an age compared with the wicket-falling mayhem which had preceded it. The head said, with the man behind me, “It is only a matter of time.” The heart though recalled that interminable Vince-Rossouw stand of a year before and knew that so much might depend on winning this match.

Somerset now turned to another match-winning bowling combination. Leach and a rejuvenated Bess, the latter brought on to bowl at the Somerset Pavilion End to huge cheers following his loan period with Yorkshire. Almost immediately things started to ‘happen’. Northeast appeared to try to turn Leach into the leg side and the ball flew into the off side straight towards Abell at short cover. The ball ‘died’ as it flew but Abell took off in what looked like levitational flight and came down with his fingers just over the grass as the ball arrived. I had a perfect view and let out an involuntary, “Out!”. 85 for 5. Northeast 23 in an hour and a half of studious defence. The cheers and celebrations of the 11 and the 600 erupted as they only can when the key wicket is taken in a drive for victory. A split-second later cheers must have erupted across the county, up and down the country, and beyond the seas as countless others watching, listening and otherwise following online knew the door to victory had been well and truly opened.

It does not take Leach and Bess, once they are in their stride, long to charge through an open door. Barker joined Fuller and seemed to show intent to score rather than defend with a well-enough executed reverse sweep against Leach. What the ghosts of the old Stragglers thought of such a stroke when the ball arrived at their boundary is not recorded. When in the next over Barker attempted to turn Leach into the onside the ball found the edge. As it flew more easily to Abell someone along the stand shouted, “Catch it!” for the vestiges of the tension of the preceding hour still hung in the air. Sometimes the emotions take a while to catch up with a fast unfolding reality.

Bess had started with four legside byes but he quickly settled and began to look a threat. When Leach bowls on a pitch which is not turning markedly it is as if nothing is happening until something does and yet another batsman is making his way back to the Pavilion. He shows no emotion as he builds the pressure. Inscrutable was a word waiting for him to come along. When Bess bowls he is Leach’s polar opposite. There is no doubting his emotion, at least as far as it can be interpreted from beyond the boundary. A jack-in-the box bowler with a box of tricks to match. Quickly into his stride here he made great show of pushing Overton back to the long on boundary as he prepared to bowl to Fuller. Fuller drove his first ball, a full toss, wide of Overton to the Ondaatje boundary. His third ball Bess tossed up again, this time it pitched full and was driven to Gimblett’s Hill. For his sixth he went around the wicket, bowled with a flatter trajectory and beat Fuller’s full forward defensive to hit the top of off stump. Fuller, who had made 35, froze in the pose in which the stroke had left him. It looked from where I sat to have been an absolutely stunning delivery. From everywhere else too from the astonished reactions.

Hampshire were 97 for 7. There was no doubt about the outcome now and chatter, relieved and disbelieving, began to reassert itself for it had been a remarkable morning of cricket. The impact on the mind had been all the greater because the speed of the demise of the Hampshire innings had been beyond expectation. Another wicket apiece for Leach and Bess ended the match five minutes into the extra quarter of an hour added to the morning session because of the number of wickets remaining at one o’ clock. The injured Weatherley did not come out to bat with the injured Alsop, already at the wicket, looking decidedly uncomfortable every time he tried to move. Hampshire had ended on just 104.

A day which had been expected to extend to somewhere near the tea interval and, in the fears of some, beyond, was over by lunch. The emotions though still had some way to run. Small groups gathered with eyelids spread wide at what they had seen. I joined one such on Gimblett’s Hill. There were insufficient superlatives to describe what had happened and how we felt but the faces said it all. This team really could win the Championship. It had every base covered in its bowling attack and frontline reserves in depth. In the cricket we had just witnessed it had shown itself capable of the ruthlessness that is an essential component of Championship winning teams. It may not be the Somerset way but it will be an essential way in what is to come.

The top order batting has been a concern this year but it had fired in this match. Crucially the batting had shown one essential attribute where matches are to be won on run-filled wickets. The ability to bat over long periods at four and a half runs an over to create the time needed to bowl sides out on such pitches. There is a crucial equation in such situations. The longer a side has to bat to save a match the quicker are they likely to be bowled out as the sheer length of time they have to face builds its own pressure to add to all the others.

The Championship really is a possibility this year but there are still hard yards to be run if in one match at the end of the season the lungs of the 11, of those those around the ground and far beyond are to unleash a Somerset roar the like of which has never been heard before. Nottinghamshire are the next opponents. An ostensibly strong side rooted at the foot of the table. That was Somerset in 2017. Then came that astonishing win at Scarborough. Nothing in cricket can be taken for granted. Matches have still to be played against Essex and Yorkshire who have Test quality spinners to pit against Somerset’s own as pitches can be expected to take spin. Those matches will be hard fought. Nothing can, nor I am sure will it be within the boundary, taken for granted. But the whole course of this match and the utter ruthlessness of the final morning against the weakened Hampshire batting lent credence to the hope that this might, just might, finally be the year.

Result. Somerset 408 (J.C. Hildreth 105, T.B. Abell 82, T. Banton 79, K.J. Abbott 6-84) 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 104 (M.J. Leach 3-14). Somerset won by 313 runs. Somerset 24 points. Hampshire 6 points.