Vive la différence

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Nottinghamshire. 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th July 2019. Taunton. 

Overnight. Somerset 326.

Second day. 8th July – Vive la différence

“How are you going to make that sound interesting?” I was asked. Asked at lunchtime. It wasn’t an unreasonable question. At the time. The most exciting adjective anyone could offer me about the morning’s play was ‘turgid’. 91 for 1 Nottinghamshire had scored in the morning session but it felt as if the grass, if that was what you had been watching, was growing ever more slowly as the morning went on. There was, I suspect, method in Nottinghamshire’s approach. With Ashwin in their side, on a pitch which was expected to take spin later in the game, time spent occupying the crease might serve their purpose. A first innings lead of any proportion could prove critical.

Turgid the play may have been but it gripped my attention. From the upper reaches of the Somerset Stand I watched with growing anxiety as Nottinghamshire’s total edged up. Anxiety because of the apparent lack of threat from the Somerset bowlers. Anxiety because it appeared the Somerset team were ‘flat’. From where I sat, the occasional “C’mon” and pat on the back from Abell or Azhar apart they seemed to be playing in silence. The over rate, as recorded on the scoreboard, remained steadfastly on minus one all morning. Not like Somerset at all. It called out for a Trescothick to be constantly calling, “Come on boys, Come on.”. Anxiety because Libby and Nash seemed to be playing with control and intent. Anxiety because of the threat of Ashwin if Nottinghamshire gained a lead. And anxiety because Essex were well ahead in their game at Chelmsford. Somerset had made the pace in the Championship all season. There seemed a risk that Essex might take up that mantle.

There was yet another large crowd, bolstered even further by an Ondaatje Stand full of schoolchildren who kept up a high-pitched chatter all day. Any fielder chasing a ball to the boundary in front of them received a colossal cheer if he managed to rein the ball in. Their occupancy of the Ondaatje Stand meant the rest of the ground, the Temporary Stand apart, distant from the pitch, looked very full. Another 2000 plus crowd for a Championship match at Taunton.

The steady Nottinghamshire accumulation through the morning was interspersed with the occasional flash of Somerset hope. An edged drive from Nash off Leach fell short and wide of Bess at point. When he edged Groenewald the ball flew just too wide of Overton at slip. Libby drove Leach and the ball ballooned into the only part of the on side inner ring where no fielder stood. “They just aren’t going to hand today,” I heard someone say. It had the feel of one of those days when the bowlers cannot make headway and the fretting mind holds onto the hope generated by the occasional looping ball. In reality Libby and Nash were playing the bowling with some ease if with a ‘turgid’ approach to scoring. The buzz in the crowd seemed uncharacteristically lacking in energy too. There were usually one or two elbows to be seen resting on a knee so that the hand might support a resigned head.

My lunchtime circumnavigation revealed a similar view of the morning play to my mine. There was less anxiety among some who thought a wicket or two would put pressure on Nottinghamshire. And Nottinghamshire were still 235 behind which was a more reassuring figure than 91 for 1. “With their propensity to fold this season I wouldn’t bet against us having a lead of 70 or 80”, someone said. With Essex only 15 runs behind Yorkshire with six wickets standing that at least was something to hope for. As often when Somerset are in the field and not taking wickets my circumnavigation, rarely completed before the end of the interval, becomes almost glacial in its progress as I stop to watch play from the various gaps between the stands. As far as I could tell from the gaps between the Somerset Pavilion and the Ondaatje Pavilion, from the gap in the Ondaatje Stand, from in front of the Caddick Pavilion, from between the Temporary Stand and the Colin Atkinson Pavilion, and between the Colin Atkinson and the Sir Ian Botham Stand the first part of the afternoon continued much as the morning had. Flat in the field. Although of course that could have been my mood projected onto what my eyes were seeing.

The narrow gap between the Sir Ian Botham Stand and the Marcus Trescothick Stand, now even more cramped by the base of a floodlight pylon, was crammed with people. The pitch is over that way and there was a perfect ‘behind the arm’ view. It was from that perfect position I witnessed the pivotal moment in the day’s play. Jamie Overton bowling with some real ‘vim’. He was running in from the far end. From that angle it really was one of those sights which, as they say, was worth the entrance money on its own. A true fast bowler approaching his ’pomp’ accelerating towards the wicket all concentration, power and energy focused on and fuelling a flowing run and an explosive delivery of the ball. It is a rare sight these days at least in the county game.

Four times in succession he bowled perfectly directed bouncers at a furious pace. So perfectly directed they tested the batsman, Nash, to the limit. So perfectly directed Nash could only take evasive action. So perfectly directed not one attracted the ‘one for the over’ sign from the umpire. So perfectly directed each produced gasps of awe from around the ground. This was the Somerset that had won six matches out of eight this season. Suddenly, to me at least, the field seemed energised. The crowd were certainly energised. The Taunton buzz was back. More of a hubbub for the moment. The fourth ball was too much for Nash. He could not get his head out of the way and the crack on the helmet reverberated around the ground. Overton raised his hand to Nash in apparent apology and, after some discussion with the Nottinghamshire physio, Nash retired hurt on 50 to sympathetic applause.

Back in my seat as Duckett replaced Nash a slightly more hopeful text about the Essex score arrived. “Essex 34 ahead. Seven down.”. Somerset though had to endure some aggression from Duckett. He was rushed enough by Overton early in his innings to loop the ball into the on side as others had done before him but it fell well wide of Banton at short leg. Then in two overs he hit Leach for two fours and a six and deposited a ball from Bess onto the roof terrace of the flats before settling back into a more sedate progress. Less sedate than the almost non-existent scoring of Libby at the other end. But there was a different feel to proceedings than in the morning even if wickets refused to come even as the Nottinghamshire score passed 150 and then the half way mark at 163.

Then Duckett tried to cut Bess, edged and Davies took the catch to be engulfed in the Somerset team. Relief. A wicket. At last. 169 for 2. 157 behind. Duckett 38. Mullaney joined Libby and Nottinghamshire resumed their pre-Duckett funereal progress. Tea was taken at 189 for 2 and the similarly funereal progress of my teatime circumnavigation had reached the back of the Somerset Pavilion when I heard a cheer which could only mean a wicket. I wish I had kept count oft he number of wickets that have fallen whilst I have been behind that Pavilion. Libby had edged Leach to Gregory at slip for 77 off 192 balls. 201 for 3.

From there it took me half a dozen overs to reach the Garner Gates. I always watch for a while from there. Mullaney who seemed to have been batting for an age for 24 suddenly, and apparently apropos of nothing, tried to pull Bess but this time the mishit ball travelled straight to Abell at midwicket. 217 for 4. “Oh for goodness sake,” said the Nottinghamshire voice behind me. “Prods around forever, lets your spinners settle, then gets out to a shot like that.” The frustration in his voice was deep, heartfelt and borne of a season of disappointment. “We’ll fold now,” he said. “We have been all season.” There was despair mixed with exasperation in his eyes. Cricket supporters the country over care about their team in their every fibre.

Despair for Nottinghamshire. Hope for Somerset. It really did feel like Somerset’s bowlers would now charge through an open door. There was real energy on the field. A team closing in on a struggling opponent. The atmosphere had fast run through the gamut of emotions from anxiety to hope and now to expectation. Expectation of a wicket every ball. Gasps from the Somerset players every time the ball evaded the bat and with apparent genuine hope of better to come rather than the more mechanical gasping of the Nottinghamshire players on the first day. Moores came forward to Leach, the ball popped up and Banton dived forward to take the catch. 222 for 5. The crowd were cheering now and their were no chins resting on hands. 226 for 6 when the Nottinghamshire debutant, White-Patterson, played forward to Leach with the exact same result. Another catch for Banton.

Ashwin had launched a brief sally with some success, defending with his long reach and attacking with four boundaries and 23 runs in total off the spinners. But when Bess produced a full toss he tried to reverse sweep the ball, missed and it clattered into the stumps. Whether the ball was there to be hit I don’t know but it looked as if it might have come through higher than he expected. He seemed to try to get the bat up to it as he went through the stroke. It was one of the more ugly-looking of dismissals. 236 for 7. The Nottinghamshire batting was, as their supporter had predicted, on an irreversible downward slide. Wood drove hard at Bess and the ball looped straight to Leach at backward point. 238 for 8. It does seem that when the batting side is on top an edged ball is inclined to loop into empty space and when the bowlers are on top it unerringly finds the fielder. I am sure the law of averages, if applied to the evidence, would disprove the thought but I suspect most cricket supporters would give the law of averages an argument on the point.

When Hildreth took a neat catch at leg slip to dismiss Fletcher off Bess the innings was over, Nash not being fit to bat. Nottinghamshire were 241 all out and Bess had taken five wickets with his jack-in-the box off spin. Unlike Leach who seems to bowl evert ball the same but clearly doesn’t you can never be sure what the delivery will look like when it appears from Bess’s hand. Vive la différence for it certainly works for Somerset. Eight wickets between the pair. It had been a stunning hour of sudden Somerset dominance. People were sitting back in their seats either looking out at the outfield or talking too each other as if trying to work out quite how it had all happened. It felt rather as the sea looks after a bumper wave has crashed into the sea wall and fallen back in a foaming swirl. The excitement of the wave followed by the swirl of emotion trying to take in the enormity of it all.

There remained just five overs, three of them inevitably from Ashwin. It would provide a foretaste of the test Somerset would face on the third day. They revealed, I thought, the same anxiety as most in the ground must have felt by sending Groenewald out to face the first over. Almost inevitably he did not survive the over and Azhar had to come out anyway. He did survive Ashwin, without too many scares although Abell again seemed to struggle.

And so Somerset will start the third day facing one of the world’s top spin bowlers on a wicket suited to his needs and probably needing to win the match to stay ahead of Essex in the table. Essex finished the second day at Chelmsford still 82 runs ahead of Yorkshire with Yorkshire already having lost three second innings wickets. Somerset lead Nottinghamshire by 92. If they could stretch that to 250 and the pitch continues to turn, there is always a concern it might flatten at Taunton, then Somerset would probably start the Nottinghamshire second innings as favourites. Even a lead of 200 might be enough. But as we discovered in that hour after tea on the second day cricket is synonymous with uncertainty and that is one of the reasons why a thousand or two people will turn up to watch the third day and countless others will follow from afar.

Close. Somerset 326 and 7 for 1. Nottinghamshire 241 (J.D. Libby 77, C.D. Nash 50 ret. hurt, D.M. Bess 5-59, M.J. Leach 3-79). Somerset lead by 92 runs with nine second innings wickets standing.