Of friends and Somerset reviving

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

Overnight. Yorkshire 520. Somerset 76 for 4. Somerset trail Yorkshire by 444 runs with six first innings wickets standing.

Third day. 15th July – Of friends and signs of Somerset reviving

My friend from the days of May and Trueman, Alley and Wight came to the cricket again. No problems with his bus this time. Apparently, it was as reliable as a Bill Alley over and he arrived for the start as perfectly as a Bill Alley delivery would have arrived on a length. My bus was a different matter. My habitual, report delayed departure, was further delayed as my bus waited obstinately at the stop for three minutes for the timetable to catch up with it. Three minutes is an age as interminable as thirty minutes in the dentist’s chair when Somerset are trying to save a game with the Championship potentially on the line. And the journey can take as long as having the nerve removed from your root canal if the bus decides to make acquaintance with every red traffic light in Leeds as well as pick up every member of the population it can find.

The journey is even longer if all the while Yorkshire are extracting Somerset batsmen like a dentist removing a job lot of teeth and your friend is providing a running commentary as you go. “Hildreth lbw Maharaj,” said the first text. Whilst I was absorbing that blow another text came in. It was from my occasional cricket-playing correspondent. He was watching the online feed and had decided to provide an expert summary of the wicket. “Hildreth out. Playing for the spin to a ball that did not turn.” Hildreth had made 37. Apparently, Maharaj was turning some balls although “not massively” and not turning others.

“Bess lbw Maharaj,” said the next text from my friend. In the midst of my composing a reply the ‘new text’ icon appeared at the top of the screen on my antiquated unsmart phone. “Another wicket or an expert summary on the last one?” the thought. It produced more anxiety than the dentist deciding to have another poke around in your mouth when you thought the ordeal was over. “Bess playing for spin to another ball which did not turn,” the expert summary. At least by now my bus had extricated itself from the centre of Leeds and looked as if it had decided to make a real effort to get me to Headingley before lunch. Not quickly enough. It was beaten by another text. “Craig Overton bowled Maharaj,” the seemingly by now almost inevitable news.  “Bowled by a quicker ball,” the assessment of the expert summariser as the bus finally reached my stop. I have had more restful bus journeys, even ones travelling to watch Somerset play.

108 for 7 the stinging reality of the score as I emerged between the stands. Davies, who my wicket-battered brain had entirely forgotten was still at the crease, 33 not out. Jamie Overton was at the other end and before I had sat down he had crashed Olivier through the off side for four. It provided some balm to the shattered soul. More, when after some overs of studious front-foot-down-the-wicket defence and some occasional single swapping with Davies, he stepped down the wicket twice in two overs to hit Maharaj back over his head for six to the Rugby Stand sightscreen not far to my left. I didn’t change the inevitable deep-lying despond of Somerset still nearly 400 runs behind but it did lift the layer of the spirit which sat above the despond.

Davies had been playing an innings of intense defence. He had scored but four runs since I arrived and eight in all in his partnership of 35 with Overton. He had never looked comfortable against Maharaj but to the distant eye he had not looked to be in any undue trouble either and with Overton looking in even less trouble at the other end it came as something of a surprise when Davies didn’t get forward to a ball from Maharaj and edged it to Lyth at slip. Somerset were 138 for 8 and at 382 runs behind with Maharaj rampant the discussion centred around whether the innings would reach lunch and whether the match would reach the end of the day. As it was Overton and Groenwald, with some front foot defence and the occasional boundary including an inside edge past his stumps for four from Overton, steered Somerset to lunch at 168 for 8, the pair having added 30 runs in the half an hour or so since the fall of Davies.

During the course of that bit of relief my friend and I were joined by another friend of mine with whom I had work for a few years nearly 40 years before. My customary lunchtime circumnavigation was forgotten as our discussion of Somerset cup finals variously attended and not attended between the three of us all those years ago, but in the memory only yesterday, ate our lunch break. How two friends could between them collect their tickets on the day before one cup final, lose them between then and the next morning, end up watching the match on television and still be friends 40 years on must be one of the greater testimonies to the bonds of friendship in the annals of those supporting Somerset.

We were brought firmly back to the present by Jamie Overton. In the first over after lunch he struck Olivier for two fours and off the final ball despatched a bouncer over the cover boundary with a stunning uppercut that had all our jaws dropping. It was the stroke of the day and exemplified the fight Overton and Groenewald were taking to the Yorkshire attack. It took Overton to 51, Somerset to 178 for 8 and even to thoughts of a bonus point. But Maharaj still provided an ever-present threat and a slog-sweep for four by Groenewald was followed by two ferocious but unsuccessful lbw appeals and a third successful one. Groenewald had made 15 but Somerset were still 18 short of that precious, perhaps all-important, bonus point with only Brooks, who received warm applause from the Yorkshire crowd, remaining to bat.

Overton struggled to get the strike but after a boundary from Brooks and two no balls from Olivier Somerset needed just eight runs for the bonus point with Brooks on strike against Maharaj. “He won’t last the over against him,” the spoken thought. The second ball he swept for four. When I saw him coming forward to defend the third my heart sank for Brooks always looks to me safer on the attack and the attack has on occasion come off. To his defensive stroke the ball looped nicely off the edge to Lyth at slip and Somerset were all out for 196. A deficit of 324 runs.

The follow-on was inevitable and Abell and Azhar emerged to try again. Abell got the innings underway with a cover drive which brooked no argument. An edge through third man for four apart he and Azhar did not look unduly troubled by Patterson and Fisher who opened the bowling for Yorkshire. “I thought they might have tried opening with Maharaj,” said one of my friends and the thought had crossed my mind for he was clearly the main threat and the extra bounce of the new ball might have aided him.

As it was Yorkshire persisted with pace for 14 overs. It seemed a blessing after the perils of facing Maharaj before lunch and Abell and Azhar took full measure from the opportunity with drives through the covers, glances to fine leg and steers to third man. 44 for 0 the score when Maharaj finally took the ball. “The real contest starts here,” someone said. That thought was reinforced when in the next over when Abell took the attack to Shaw, glancing him for four and turning him square for another. Between the two he had benefited from a thick edge from a defensive stoke but it had travelled safely to the boundary for four but in essence Abell was playing an innings of growing assurance.

The pair then proceeded to play Maharaj with care but, as far as I could judge, with some confidence. There was much studied defence and the occasional beaten bat but no more than the ordinary against a quality spinner on a wicket offering a little help. There was some good fortune too. A firm drive from Azhar sped along the ground straight at the cover fielder but struck the edge of the matting protecting another wicket, took off and flew over the fielder’s head for four. A perfectly executed steer to third man found the boundary without such artificial aid. The pair took Somerset to tea at 79 for 0 which seemed like riches indeed after the cricketing disaster of the first innings.

The partnership must have had at least an air of permanence about it because as it developed my friend from schooldays and I fell into to piecing together some of our different but complementary fragments of childhood memory into a coherent picture of some of those times. Other friends no longer in contact were remembered and yet others who had been rediscovered with the aid of serendipity. It came as a surprise therefore when Azhar was beaten by a ball from Fisher which cut into him off the seam and he was lbw for 41. Somerset 89 for 1.

94 for 2 when, off his fourth ball, Hildreth attempted to loft Maharaj back over his head but only succeeded in looping it slowly to the mid-off fielder. The gasps of irritation from Somerset supporters were audible. “What an awful stroke, and after such a good start,” the general opinion and it was difficult to disagree but I always temper my thoughts with the other side of the Hildreth coin. The innings of sheer genius, many of which will have started with strokes of such audacity, which have brought Somerset over 40 centuries and an average over 40. To my mind the cost of such dismissals as today’s, exasperating though they are, is worth the riches he has delivered for Somerset over the years.

It hurt more when, almost immediately, Abell was caught behind off Fisher for 53 defending against a ball which perhaps moved away a fraction off the pitch and Somerset were 101 for 3 still 223 runs behind. As thoughts of a collapse began to take shape Banton and Bartlett, in diametrically contrasting styles, began to despatch them back whence they came. Bartlett was all defence, scoring five in an hour. Banton, as is his style, amidst periods of intense defence, essayed a full-blooded attack on the bowling. None were spared. Even Maharaj was driven square and beautifully reverse-swept along the ground, both strokes spectacular and both delivering four runs. Olivier was driven through the covers just as spectacularly for four off the first ball of an over. Three times in the same over he resorted to bouncing Banton. Three times Banton hooked him to the Western Terrace boundary for four. “You can pitch it at this end of the pitch you know,” was the response of a Yorkshire supporter a few rows in front of me.

A quarter of an hour before the close Yorkshire made what may have been an important breakthrough when Bartlett played forward to the ever-persistent Maharaj and was caught at slip. He had scored five in an hour of determined defence. “A bit early,” one of my friends said when Groenwald came out to perform the nightwatchman duties with twenty minutes or so still to the close. But Groenewald was equal to the task and held his end secure.

A defeat from the position Somerset find themselves in with Maharaj in such form and the pitch offering occasional help to the seamers seems all but inevitable but some semblance of calm had been restored to the Somerset batting by the end of the day. Some more of the same on the final day might at least give some hope that Somerset might re-vitalise their challenge when the Championship resumes for another round of matches in a month’s time. And, whatever the outcome, I had had a wonderful day watching cricket in 2019, reliving cricket in 1978 and 1979 and childhood years lived before the Gillette Cup marked the beginning of a change in cricket the ramifications of which are with us still.

Close. Yorkshire 520. Somerset 196 (J. Overton 52, K.A. Maharaj 7-52) and 159 for 4 f/o. Somerset trail Yorkshire by 165 runs with six second innings wickets standing.