A day of ennui and oak trees

County Championship Division 1. Yorkshire v Somerset. 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th July 2019. Headingley.

Somerset. T.B. Abell (c), Azhar Ali, J.C. Hildreth, T. Banton, G.A. Bartlett, S.M. Davies (w), D.M. Bess, C. Overton, J. Overton, T.D. Groenewald, J.A. Brooks.

Yorkshire. A. Lyth. W.A.R. Fraine, G.S. Balance, T. Kohler-Cadmore,, J. Shaw, H.C. Brook, J.A. Tattersal (w), M.D. Fisher, K.A. Maharaj, S.A. Patterson (c), D. Olivier. 

Jack Leach and Lewis Gregory were not available for selection for this match having been selected to play for the England Lions at Canterbury.

Toss. Uncontested. Yorkshire required to bat.

First day. 13th July – A day of ennui and oak trees

At the Oval, if you sit in the Peter May Stand, the aircraft slide in over your left shoulder and cross the pitch in a line from long on to backward point as they find their way to Heathrow. At Headingley, if you sit in the Fred Trueman Enclosure, they come towards you over second slip and long-on, as they descend towards Leeds-Bradford Airport. I imagine they would have kept to the same course had Trueman bowled to May here more than 60 years ago now although the airport would have been known as Yeadon in those days. Had they played on the pitch used for this match I imagine May would have blessed the day and Trueman would have had words of another variety. From my seat in the Trueman enclosure, beyond a straight long-on, and directly under the approaching aircraft the ball seemed to be going through on a line as straight as the flightpath which the aircraft followed and with bounce as even as their smooth computer-directed descent.

I had arrived at the ground about twenty minutes before the start just as an announcement was made that the toss had been uncontested and Yorkshire would bat. There was a blanket of low cloud but when I caught sight of the pitch between two stands my heart sank. It was white. Now, I know little about pitches but I do tend to associate white ones with runs. I have held for many years a view, or is it an ingrained instinctive feeling borne of much experience of watching cricket, about insertions not dissimilar to that of W.G Grace. Essentially: Don’t. My anecdotal memory and instinct tell me the weight of history is against insertions. Perhaps not on an April green-top. But otherwise it is. Not every time. But in the majority of cases. Abell’s insertion of Surrey at Guildford in 2018 is still seared on my psyche. It symbolises the end of the Championship dream for that year.

In spite of Somerset being nearer the Championship two thirds of the way through this season than they had been when they visited Guildford one third of the way through the 2018 season it was to be a slightly detached day at the cricket for this ardent Somerset-watcher. I was meeting an old schoolfriend for the first time in 56 years and the cricket was watched through a haze of memories revived. His journey to the ground had not been as smooth as the descent of those planes. He had had to travel some way and his infrequent bus had drifted in towards him as he waited at the bus stop and then suddenly veered away to leave him stranded, rather like a Jack Leach delivery might a bemused batsman. Somerset supporters are not so easily thwarted and a story involving a dog, a car wash and a fortuitous lift described his odyssey to the ground. Perhaps too some confusion in our arrangements can be allowed after 56 years but we really should have done better than to have been unable to find each other in spite of each directing the other by mobile phone towards a meeting point at the entrance. It would have helped had we both been at the same entrance.

We were equally bemused about the decision to insert Yorkshire, and when Craig Overton and Jack Brooks with the new ball seemed unable to make any impact, it did not settle our nerves. The runs were hardly flowing, the score was just 9 for 0 after five overs, but that lack of threat from bowlers who had driven virtually all before them this season was worrying. Lyth did miscue a pull off Brooks but the ball looped harmlessly, well over midwicket’s head. When Brooks dropped short again the ball rocketed to the midwicket boundary. There would be no room for error on this pitch.

Jamie Overton replaced Brooks at the Kirkstall Lane End but his pace, if perhaps grabbing the attention of the batsmen, scarcely seemed to trouble them as it has everywhere else in this season of seaming pitches. Pitching full he was driven straight for three by Lyth. When he dropped slightly short Fraine pulled him to the boundary and Lyth pulled him over it. Then, as so often seems to be the case on flat pitches, the edge he found was so thick it flew well wide of the slip cordon for four. Batting was looking ominously easy for Yorkshire. As the morning wore on that miscued pull and the thick edge were confirmed as false prophets rather than glimmers of hope.

Groenewald and a returning Craig Overton gained some control by bowling particularly tight lines and the Somerset fielders were as parsimonious as ever in the allowances they made the batsmen. But the batsmen worked carefully towards lunch within the limits imposed on them and Bess found himself bowling from the Rugby Stand End with lunch still half an hour away. He was driven over the Rugby Stand boundary for six by Fraine but boundaries in truth were the exception rather than the rule of the morning.

With lunch fast approaching and Somerset supporters’ hopes of a breakthrough before the interval receding Brooks joined Bess for a second attempt at the batsmen. Within the over Fraine was walking back to the Pavilion having pulled a ball limply straight into Bess’s midriff at midwicket. Bess barely had to move his hands let alone his feet. With lunch an over away Lyth played an odd-looking stroke, somewhere between a drive and a cut, and, as it looked, spooned the ball towards Abell at mid-off. It took a dive but Abell took the catch. Yorkshire lunched at 83 for 2 off a full 32 overs, about 30 runs short of the normal first session allowance.

It had felt an odd morning. Somerset inserting Yorkshire when to my mind at least the pitch cried out to be batted upon. Then Yorkshire batting on it at about the same tardy pace at which those gently descending aircraft seemed to crawl across the sky towards Leeds-Bradford although the Somerset bowlers would have had a say in that. And then the sight of the aircraft produced a thought. The cloud could not have been that low for me to have seen them. And then those two precious wickets, and yet both being limply driven out of a morning of batting care did not raise hopes of a sudden Somerset breakthrough. Then as I walked through the tunnel under the new Rugby Stand on my lunchtime circumnavigation the PA announcer revealed Essex were 74 for 2 at lunch against a Warwickshire team denuded of its two best batsmen by the England Lions selectors. Given 200 seems to have been par score at Chelmsford this season 74 for 2 added to the sense of unease I was feeling about Somerset’s position.

The afternoon session was a continuation of the morning one. It continued to be played at the pace of those seemingly gently moving aircraft. Whenever I looked at the scoreboard the Yorkshire run rate seemed to be stuck on a perpetual 2.8. There was a higher ration of boundaries from Ballance and Kohler-Cadmore than the morning had afforded but they did not seem to accelerate Yorkshire’s cause at any greater rate than had Lyth and Fraine. The Somerset bowling did not seem to have quite the intensity of recent times although it seemed well-enough directed, particularly by Groenewald, Craig Overton and Bess, and it certainly did not encourage any extravagance from Yorkshire. Abell encouraged even less with a tight four over spell for four runs in the lead-up to tea.

Flat cricket all around was the impression and it seemed to result in a flat crowd. There was very little of the endless running commentary on the cricket from the home spectators that had so illuminated last year’s visit here. Perhaps because I was in a different stand, perhaps because the crowd was more spread out because the new Rugby Stand was open whereas it had been a noisy building site last year. More I think because of the lethargy of the cricket. I do not recall ever seeing spectators at Headingley reading newspapers and magazines during the course of play as several were this year.

My friend and I, whilst keeping our eyes peeled for any sign of a Somerset breakthrough, fell into discussing other cricket. Cricket from sixty or so years before played in a field normally inhabited by cows. The only available pitch in the six-inch-high grass was a dirt footpath barely a foot wide but mercifully straight. It encouraged straight bowling for if the tennis ball pitched in the long grass either side it would founder and stop thereby offering the batsman a free hit as it perched atop a tuft. The ‘outfield’ did not encourage strokes along the ground for a well-struck ball that travels six feet does not do much for the scoring rate. I once, but only once, hit three successive ‘sixes’ into the oak tree which stood just inside the fence which formed the boundary at long leg to the right hander, just as the old lime at Canterbury stood at long leg just inside the boundary to the left-hander. The oak was the only place you could sensibly hit a six because there was no boundary straight, the field was too long and rose steeply into the distance, and beyond the square fence boundary was a field of corn and the other way a stream. Both were ‘six-and-out’. Such was childhood cricket on the edge of rural Somerset when May and Trueman played.

Tea was taken with Yorkshire on 181 for 2 and Essex on an even more glacial, but, if the rest of the season at Chelmsford is an indicator, potentially match-winning 157 for 3. Neither score did anything to ease a worried Somerset mind. It is normally defeats that are fatal to a Championship challenge. In this season of a fast-developing close ‘two-horse’ race failing to win could be. My teatime circumnavigation resulted in a discussion in the depths of the tunnel under the new Rugby Stand which focused on Somerset’s decision to field. It came to no serious conclusion as is often the case with such discussions for, apart from anything else, those having the discussions on this side of the boundary have no knowledge of the considerations to be taken account on the other side.

The evening session seemed to bring more progress for Yorkshire as Ballance looked to accelerate in the overs before the new ball and against it. Three times in the first two overs with it he drove and once cut the ball, each time for four. It was now that I noticed Bess, fielding at deep midwicket, constantly shouting encouragement to the bowlers. Genuine attempts to encourage I thought, not the sometimes mechanical shouting you hear from deep fielders. It stood out but Somerset had never gone quiet in the field in spite of the mounting Yorkshire total. Once Jamie Overton kicked the air in apparent frustration but I thought the team stuck to the task if not with quite the full-on intensity of the season to date.

With half an hour to go to the close Bess was still calling out, “Come on Jamie O!” from his distant outpost. Whether it spurred Overton on I know not but finally he found the edge of Ballance’s bat. The ball flew straight into the hands of Hildreth at first slip, and out again almost as if he had not noticed it coming. Perhaps the ennui of the day had him thinking of hitting sixes into oak trees. More probably it was just one of those things. The beneficiary was Groenewald who, in the very next over found the edge of Ballance’s bat from where it flew to the thwarted Overton at second slip. Ballance was gone for 111 having raised Yorkshire’s scoring rate to 2.9. Kohler-Cadmore finished on 77 scored in 66 overs at the wicket.

Yorkshire finished the day on 282 for 3 and Essex on 245 all out. It had not been Somerset’s day, at either ground if the Chelmsford pitch is playing true to type this season. Whether the day will play a significant part in the eventual destination of the Championship in a tight contest may only be known when the trophy reaches its destination. For the moment Yorkshire will start the second day with the slow-moving Kohler-Cadmore and Shaw, the nightwatchman, at the wicket. It has been a tenet of Somerset’s season that where they have fallen behind in a match, almost invariably, someone has stepped up to halt or reverse the course of the match. If Somerset are to maintain their lead over Essex it may need another such intervention today. If the intervention comes, as another Somerset supporter whom I bumped into on the streets of Leeds after the match put it to me, Yorkshire’s caution in the face of the Somerset bowling on the first day has kept them within Somerset’s reach.

Close. Yorkshire 282 for 3.