County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Nottinghamshire. 7th, 8th and 9th July 2019. Taunton.
Overnight. Somerset 326 and 7 for 1. Nottinghamshire 241. Somerset lead by 92 runs with eight second innings standing.
Final day. 9th July – The view from the ‘popular’ seats
For the second and third days of this match I sat in what, in childhood days spent watching Test match cricket on the BBC, would probably have been referred to as the ‘popular’ seats. Usually the largest bank of seats in the ground sold at the cheapest prices. At Taunton that is the Somerset Stand, at least by measure of size for at Championship matches it will cost you as much to sit there as anywhere else. Often, especially in the biting chill of April, it is a sparsely populated part of the ground. Now, in the warmth of the old Championship summer month of July and the glow of Somerset’s longest ever occupation of the top of the table the Somerset Stand is drawing people in ever larger numbers. Truly popular seats.
It helps when the pitch is set over that way as it usually has been in Somerset’s long tenure in the first division. Successful teams draw crowds but it is not just the success of this team and the drive for the Championship which is driving the rising numbers. It is too the nature of the cricket, the very essence of which is, in spirit, Somerset to the core. It exudes joy, excitement and intense nerve-jangling, risk-tinged pursuit of that perpetual goal which is the ‘holy grail’ lodged deep in every Somerset heart.
There is something special about this team which drives that Somerset spirit. At its core is a group of players who have, in cricketing terms, grown up together through the successes and the hard knocks of three successive relegation-threatened seasons. Those were their learning times. And, perhaps crucially, they have grown up entirely in the furnace of competition that is the first division of the County Championship. There has resulted a strand of the toughest tungsten at the core of this team and a ruthlessness which, in the end, wins matches, often from positions where backs are against the wall. We saw the ruthlessness against Hampshire and we saw it again in this match. “When we win the Championship …” is a phrase which underpins many an unattainable promise made in jest down the years. Well, this year there might just be a day of reckoning on those impossible promises.
The cricket in the last two matches at Taunton has been truly breathtaking. The Somerset spirit of old and the ruthlessness working hard together. 408 scintillating runs in a day to set up a victory against Hampshire. That was the Somerset of the great days of its history come to visit. The Somerset of Peter Wight and Bill Alley. The Somerset of Vivian Richards and Ian Botham. No world-class superstars this time it is true. Yet. But those times have come to visit in the nonpareil of competitions that those great teams could not quite bring home.
Awesome bowling too, in the true sense of the word. Not just in these two matches. Ten devastating wickets in a session to defeat Kent on that great, rain-sodden day at Canterbury. How important might those two hours prove to have been in the shadows of September? Ten wickets in under two sessions to deliver a victory in this match. In those two performances, and on the final morning against Hampshire, was Somerset’s ruthlessness and the will to win laid bare. Irresistible bowling such as that has kept Somerset at the head of the Championship for longer than at any time in the Club’s history. Perhaps. Just perhaps this time …
And yet the fragilities in the batting, perhaps sometimes driven by that Somerset spirit, still remain to ensure the edges of the seats in the Somerset Stand, and everywhere else, are unlikely to be made redundant this next ten weeks if this Championship challenge persists. If Somerset enter September with the winning of the Championship still in their own hands the edges of those seats will bear the weight of hope like they have never borne it before. Every slip, every blemish, every opportunity missed, however inconsequential will be magnified beyond endurance by the 128-year wait for the title. If the winning of the Championship is still in Somerset’s hands in September an hour before lunch such as the one on the third day here will be unendurable but it will have to be endured.
Somerset were 65 for 2, 150 ahead when I arrived at the ground an hour into the day. Abell, after an innings of intense concentration, had gone for 24 to a freak dismissal not long before I arrived. Freak enough for several people to describe it to me before the day was out. He had pulled Ashwin hard into the midriff of Slater at short leg and Slater had managed to hang onto the ball. It had though, by all accounts, been an innings of grit which had helped establish a base.
Hildreth followed for 7 as I sat down, advancing down the pitch to Ashwin as a spectacular attempt to drive him through midwicket ended up, off the edge, in the hands of the keeper. Hildreth’s way. That old Somerset spirit. What price the blood pressure had that been September with Essex still snapping at Somerset’s heels? Then Banton was pushed back by Patterson-White, in an outstanding debut performance, and was unable to keep the ball from his pads. Bartlett stepping away and trying to cut the slow left-armer found the ball crashing into his stumps. Those three wickets did not fall in the short time it takes to read this paragraph but it felt as if they had. And the heart found itself sinking towards the stomach at the prospect of the door being left even a little ajar for Nottinghamshire, especially if, dreaded thought, the pitch should flatten.
Davies battled but survived just three overs for 2 runs before he was lbw to a ball from Ashwin which was flighted beautifully, and almost unbelievably far, into his pads and Somerset were 94 for 6. 108 for 6 at lunch, 193 ahead when most I spoke to thought a lead of 250 was needed. It did not need to be September for the breath to blow heavy. Yorkshire were subsiding against Essex. If Somerset did not win this match they would find themselves a point behind Essex. It was a long, long lunch break waiting for the restart.
Like Hildreth, Gregory and Bess are attacking batsmen in the Somerset tradition. Like Hildreth their assault on the Nottinghamshire bowlers foundered. Gregory, unlike perhaps some of the younger players, has, as someone said to me, clearly developed and sticks to a method against spin. He uses his feet, often extravagantly, à la Nick Compton in his Somerset days. His default seems to be to get down the wicket to the pitch of the ball, however many strides it takes, from where he defends or drives. It has been a successful approach, notably against Maharaj of Lancashire in 2018. It failed here as he came down the wicket to drive Patterson-White and miscued limply to mid-on for 7. Bess swept Patterson-White twice, once into the Somerset Stand for a one-bounce four. The second time he failed to connect and was lbw for 5. Somerset were 115 for 8 as seven wickets had fallen in the space of 63 runs. The Somerset charge had drawn heavy casualties. Somerset were exactly 200 ahead. Some thought it enough but most I spoke to still wanted 250 and the crowd was pensive, murmuring rather than chattering. Championships potentially on the line breed introspection.
Such collapses are nothing new in the experience of those of us who have been following Somerset for more than half its time as a first-class county. 126 for 8 in the 1979 Gillette Cup quarter-final at Taunton before winning by 130 runs. Bowled out for 110 in a John Player League match at Lord’s in 1979 before winning by 28 runs just three days before that quarter-final. 52 for 5 chasing 223 in the NatWest Trophy semi-final at Lord’s in 1983 before winning by losing fewer wickets. And all those in the years of the Club’s greatest success to date in those 128 years. Batting collapses are part of a long Somerset tradition. Fasten your seatbelts for the Yorkshire match.
Miraculous recoveries are part of the tradition too. Overton is one of those players who does not give the impression of being introspective, at least at the crease with bat or ball. He can turn up the volume of the Taunton crowd in an instant, bowling or batting. When he stepped down the wicket to drive Patterson-White he was following another Somerset tradition as the ball flew over the Trescothick Stand and into the Tone. A huge cheer erupted from around the ground and from my vantage point, at that end of the Somerset Stand, the occupants of the Trescothick Stand bubbled en bloc like a simmering Monday stew of old.
That stroke raised the whole crowd and Overton drove the message home with a cut off Ashwin that sent the ball curving away behind point and into the Somerset Stand Boards. A sweep to the other end of the ground kept the cheers coming and the volume of the crowd up. Overton certainly sets the heart racing. Eventually he was out for 24, the faintest of inside edges off Patterson-White, scored in a partnership with Azhar which lifted Somerset’s total by 51 runs and the lead to 251. You could sense the relaxation in the crowd. Nothing is certain in cricket but chasing 250 plus on that pitch would be a tremendous achievement for the bottom team in the Championship.
And Azhar. What of Azhar? He had endured a torrid time on the seaming pitches of the first half of the Championship season. Now he was on a pitch which might have been made with him in mind. It might also have been made for Ashwin, 342 Test wickets to the good and a bowler who might have been made for such a pitch. It was a duel worth the watching and one crucial to Somerset’s chances in this match. Azhar had come in at the fall of the first wicket on the previous evening.
For three hours Ashwin probed and tested with infinite variations of flight, direction, bounce and turn. He bowled every over Nottinghamshire bowled from the Somerset Pavilion End in the entire innings. Azhar defended his wicket and scored over a third of Somerset’s runs, being at the wicket for all but the first five balls of the innings. Constantly he stretched forward to smother the spin. Periodically he shaped a cut or a push into the on side. With such care did he play he struck only four boundaries but gradually he accumulated precious runs. Always he kept an end secure. There were alarums of course. No-one can bat for three hours on such a pitch against such a bowler without being beaten. But the overriding impression was one of an innings of serene calm in the face of the most persistently testing spin bowling. Bowling which tested every other batsman in the side to the limit. In such battles are Championships won and lost.
Somerset reached 169, a lead of 254. Azhar ended with 65 not out. His fifty was met with extended applause and many stood as they would to applaud a century. Indeed, someone said to me the fifty was worth a century on that pitch. The applause was appreciation too of the fact that that innings had kept Somerset ahead in the match and, in the end, steered them to a position from where they might expect to win. And when the Somerset innings was over Azhar was applauded all the way to the rope.
When Nottinghamshire set out in response an ineffective opening spell from Gregory was accompanied by the iron grip of Leach bowling from the River End. After 10 overs he had conceded 11 runs and taken two wickets. Of such bowling at the crunch of a match are Championships kept within range. With his first ball he forced Libby back towards his stumps and struck his pads. When the umpire raised his finger the cheer was immense and the relief palpable. This really was going to be difficult for Nottinghamshire. When Slater edged Leach hard to Banton at short leg and Banton got a hand to it but only managed to bat it towards his other hand the ground held its breath. When the second hand shepherded the ball back towards the first hand until both hands were around the ball the ground erupted. 21 for 2. 28 for 2 at tea with Ashwin generating a twinge of anxiety as he seemed to be playing spin with almost as much skill as he bowls it, a long stride with the front foot much in evidence.
Overton replaced Gregory at the Somerset Pavilion End after tea. He is bowling fast, seriously fast and in this innings the ball flew. When you have a seriously fast bowler in your side who is getting it right it really does raise the spirits. When he slanted a ball across Moores, who had shown intent with four boundaries in an innings of 22, so quickly that Moores could not withdraw his bat it flew off the edge to Hildreth at slip. Nottinghamshire were 35 for 3 and the cheer which went up left a wave of animated chatter reverberating around the ground as a morning of anxiety turned into an afternoon of anticipation.
There followed an hour of intense defence from Mullaney, with Ashwin apparently ‘mentoring’ him at the crease, and judicious run-pushing from Ashwin. As the score passed 60, and the target fell below 200 with Ashwin apparently establishing himself the chatter of anticipation diminished and anxious glances began to be exchanged. Like Azhar, Ashwin looked at home on the turning pitch. Then, stunningly, Bess turned a ball sharply from outside off stump, it bounced and flew off the edge of Mullaney’s bat wide of Hildreth at leg slip. Hildreth took an astonishing catch diving backwards and to his left to catch the ball well behind himself and low down. 67 for 4.
Samit Patel has been a thorn in the Somerset side more times than I care to remember and now he was walking to the wicket as the concussion regulations replacement for Nash. This time though he seemed to carry no conviction or perhaps with nearly 190 runs still needed, the ball turning and bouncing and Overton brewing for another spell it just seemed that way. Ashwin continued his gradual accumulation but when Patel drove at Leach he edged just wide of second slip from where Hildreth reached for another good catch. 78 for 5 and you could sense anticipation in the crowd again and see relaxation in the faces. When the cheer for the wicket subsided, and there is real energy in the cheering for wickets which might contribute to a Championship, the buzz was animated, expectant.
The fall of Ashwin came as he seemed to try to accelerate after the fall of the fifth wicket. He had hewn 41 runs out of that turning pitch over nearly two hours of intense application – an indication in itself of the size of Nottinghamshire’s task. When, somewhat incongruously, he miscued a drive so badly that Bartlett at mid-on had to dive full length down the line of the approaching ball to get his fingers between it and the grass Nottinghamshire were 95 for 6.
From there, as the close of play hove into view, the Somerset bowling was merciless, dare I say ruthless. Nottinghamshire, with an air of disintegration, slid to defeat in less than half an hour in the face of another searing spell from Overton. After hitting a six into the Somerset Stand Duckett, batting late because he had been off the field on the previous day, skied a drive off Overton to third man from where Gregory took another catch diving forward. Fletcher top edged a pull off Bess to mid-off where Groenewald collected the falling manna. And finally, Overton overran the tail with two bouncers followed by a fuller ball which burst through Patterson-White’s defence, and a missile which upended Ball’s off stump as he backed away with a dab of the bat towards the ball.
The anxieties of earlier in the day had been swept away and you wondered what there had been to be anxious about. But a 128-year wait tends to breed anxiety out of anything but absolute certainty. Now all was anticipation as faces wreathed in smiles left the ground amidst intent talk of another game won. Of Azhar’s batting. Of another stunning performance from Overton. Of the wickets of Leach and Bess. Of the catching. Talk of another step on the road to the Championship. And the reality of a trip to Headingley to play Yorkshire, still third in the table, one of five more hurdles on the rocky road which stretches all the way to those shadows of September.
Result. Somerset 326 (S.M. Davies 74, D.M.Bess 51, J.C. Hildreth 44, L. Wood 4-85, R. Ashwin 3-93) and 169 (Azhar Ali 65*, R. Ashwin 5-59, L.A. Patterson-White 5-73). Nottinghamshire 241 (J.D. Libby 77, C.D. Nash 50 ret hurt, D.M. Bess 5-59, M.J. Leach 3-79) and 122 (R. Ashwin 41, J. Overton 4-24, M.J. Leach 4-42). Somerset won by 132 runs. Somerset 22 points. Nottinghamshire 4 points.