Descent into despond and the will to prevail

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

Overnight. Yorkshire 520. Somerset 196 and 159 for 4. Somerset trail by 165 runs with six second innings standing.

Final day. 16th July – Descent into despond and the will to prevail.

As I made to leave the ground a Yorkshire member asked me how I rated Somerset’s chances of winning the Championship. “We will need some consistency from our top order,” my reply. “This puts Yorkshire in with a chance,” he said although with half a wry smile. Yorkshire are 34 points behind Somerset and 38 points behind Essex with each having four matches to play. “You will need some help from Essex and Somerset,” I suggested. And added, “I think it unlikely both will slip up to the extent you need.” He was rooting for Somerset, he said, if Yorkshire couldn’t do it. That has been an almost universal comment, with their own county inserted, from opposition supporters around the country over the last two years and in the great majority of cases it seems a genuine sentiment. Somerset’s eternal pursuit of the Championship has assumed almost mythical status among knowledgeable lifelong County Championship watchers.

Thinking about Somerset’s prospects as I left the ground it occurred to me Yorkshire have yet to play Essex at Headingley and Somerset at Taunton, and in the final match of the season Somerset and Essex play at Taunton. Perhaps a Yorkshire title is, if unlikely, not entirely fanciful. As to a Somerset title the pattern of the fixture list may play a part. Somerset stormed to a 30-point lead after the first six matches of the season. All six were against the bottom four counties, then and now. Since then three of Somerset’s four games have been against teams in the top half of the table. Two of those three games have been lost. Three of the remaining four games are against those same three teams. Both of the defeats were away from home and the two teams in question have still to play at Taunton. The third team, Hampshire, were beaten at Taunton and have to be played at Southampton. It will not be the easiest of run-ins especially with the weight of hope those matches will be played under. There is much food for thought and there will never be a better time for the Somerset top order to produce a feast of runs.

There was never a particularly realistic prospect, with four top order batsmen already out and Maharaj bowling with such confidence and in such form, of Somerset batting well into the evening session which they would have to have done to save this match and garner the five points they would need to keep above Essex in the table. Even so I had set my alarm even further back into the night than usual in an attempt to complete my third day report in time to get through the gate for the start. I failed by about 15 minutes in part because of the inordinate amount of time it takes to buy a ticket at some grounds these days. It was as if the man behind the ticket window was engaged in some intense game of online poker as he looked intently at his computer screen and engaged in some sort of game of cat and mouse with it until, eventually, it yielded up a ticket.

“One gone already,” said one Yorkshire supporter to another as I emerged from the automatic turnstile which read my ticket in far less time than it had taken to produce it. “Always good to get one early,” the reply.” “Who was out?” the desperate question in my mind that the informant did not answer. Groenewald or Banton? It might make quite a difference. “Groenewald, trying to drive a wide one from Fisher,” said my old work colleague as I sat down near the sightscreen in the Rugby Stand. “He had already edged two balls for four. Didn’t need to play the one that got him out.” 171 for 5 the scoreboard read. Banton and Davies now at the wicket, probably Somerset’s last two batsmen who could bat ‘long’.

Banton looked as if he was trying to play ’long’. His front foot kept planting itself well down the wicket to Maharaj with the bat alongside to push the ball back down the pitch. To the seamers he seemed to leave or defend. It left an uneasy feeling. It is not Banton’s style and I wondered if he did not have enough to think about without having to concentrate on playing contrary to what has appeared to be his usual free-flowing game. When he reached forward to block a ball from Patterson it cut back, went through the ‘gate’ and upended his off stump. He had scored 63 but only five of them on the final morning. The heart, already looking down at the pit of the stomach, sank painfully towards it. Without long innings from Banton and Davies any remote hope of salvation in this match would be all but gone.

My friend and I had barely absorbed that shock when Bess was also bowled through the ‘gate’ by Patterson, also playing forward. Before the clock over the Western Terrace reached noon Davies, having beautifully late cut and then square cut Patterson for a brace of fours was out when, off the same bowler, he miscued a drive horribly to mid-off. Patterson had taken three wickets in less than half an hour. Too say Davies dismissal summed up Somerset’s demise would be harsh but that is exactly how it felt. My friend was lost for words, not something either of us much suffers from at the cricket, and I could not help him.

That left the Overton brothers at the wicket but a deficit of 113 and five hours of the day still unused was a situation beyond even their powers to rectify. That didn’t of course stop them tackling Yorkshire head on. Craig had already driven Maharaj about as straight as it is possible to drive. The ball had cleared the rope in front of the sightscreen to my left. When Jamie repeated his brother’s stroke off Maharaj it came down the same line but travelled about six feet further. I have recorded the six feet for posterity in case the brothers ever keep a reckoning. They each struck a pair of boundaries too, Craig reaching 23 and Jamie 21. They were both out lbw, Jamie for Maharaj’s third wicket and Craig for Patterson’s fourth after their rate of scoring had slowed, often a precursor of a wicket to my mind. And with that Somerset had lost by an innings amid an explosion of Yorkshire cheers and before the umpires had called lunch.

The news from the phones was that Warwickshire, only one wicket down overnight in their attempt to hold on for a draw against Essex, were subsiding. Somerset were still, technically, top of the table but the faces of Somerset supporters knew such technicalities would count for nothing in an hour or two. With just four matches still to play Somerset had ceded top place in the Championship to Essex. The 128-year wait suddenly weighed heavily indeed. The hope that had steadily risen on the crest of Somerset’s five victories in their first six matches had been dented at Chelmsford. After Headingley the prospect of another second place took its place alongside the hope. It produced an empty feeling. The pit of the stomach felt like a chasm and the heart plummeted into it.

I made my way back into Leeds to spend the hours before I could use my advance rail ticket, selected to minimise travel costs, on a train selected to ensure I could stay until close of play had the need arisen. Leeds is a vibrant city with much new-build in the old industrial quarter. When I spent my first exile in Leeds nearly 50 years ago I once counted over 130 factory chimneys from a vantage point on the side of the hill below the University of Leeds. There is now one and no smoke seems to emerge from that. Plush office blocks, residential accommodation, coffee bars and open spaces have taken their place at least in the section I walked through. It is not just the cricket world that moves on.

Green areas, real and artificial, are dotted about the city, covered shopping areas abound and the streets swarm with people. The city has nearly 60000 students in its two universities, a life-giver to a city if ever there was one. On the day Somerset lost to Yorkshire, hundreds, perhaps thousands, had returned from their summer break with parents in tow to attend their graduation ceremonies. Others had not gone home or live permanently in the city. On the green areas the City Council provides deck chairs and it was in one of these that I spent several hours, at times surrounded by students, as the newly-fledged graduates and their families paraded up and down.

I carry an e-reader with a goodly supply of historical texts, all bought for 99 pence or less, for just such circumstances as I now found myself in. It was an hour or more before I could bring myself to open it. The effect of Somerset’s defeat was numbing. Worse than the feeling after Guildford in 2018 even though after that it had been obvious to most of us there that Somerset would not win the Championship that year. But at the time of Guildford Somerset had only reached, and only just reached, the top of the table in the previous match, one third of the way through the season and Guildford had immediately shown Surrey to be the better team, not just in the match, but per se and that was all there was to it. The season and the world, for me at least, moved on.

But now, we were two thirds of the way through the season, Somerset had been top of the Championship since the second match and had come to Leeds 15 points ahead of Essex. The Championship, on paper at least, was within reach even if the bulk of the remaining matches were against the stronger teams. A defeat therefore of such proportions as that suffered here after the season Somerset had had thus far could not fail to shock. There had been mitigating factors at Chelmsford, not least the loss of the toss, and those might have made up for a good proportion of the difference between the two sides. At Headingley there were no mitigating factors after Yorkshire were, incomprehensibly to most supporters, invited to bat without a toss.

Eventually I forced myself to continue reading a life of Sir Robert Walpole, a man of unbounded calm and possessing an unshakeable will to prevail even in the face of the deepest crisis. An unshakeable will can take you a very long way. But even my deep interest in history could not keep thoughts about the cricket and the implications of Somerset’s defeat from disturbing the picture of Sir Robert’s twenty-year long dominance over all opponents. Eventually thoughts of the discussion with the Yorkshire member brought some balance. The Championship is still wide open. There are still four matches to be played. But if Somerset are to have a chance of winning the title they will now have to win an almighty three-way scrap involving the team above them and the team below them in the table. Crucially the batsmen, particularly at the top of the order, will have to score runs in greater numbers and more consistently than they have done thus far this season.

But above all the unshakeable will to prevail, particularly shown by the bowlers and fielders, which marked the victories against the teams at the bottom of the table at the beginning of the season, will have to be shown again at the end against the teams at the top. Every single ball faced or delivered will have to be faced or delivered as if the Championship depends upon it for, in a tight race, it very well might. This team has shown often enough this season it is capable of just that. If it can show it again September may be interesting yet.

Result. Yorkshire 520 (G.S. Balance 111, T. Kohler-Cadmore 102, H.C Brook 101, D.M Bess 4-130). Somerset 196 (J. Overton 52*, K.A. Maharaj 7-52) and 251 (T. Banton 63, T.B Abell 53, Azhar Ali 41, S.A. Patterson 4-54, M.D. Fisher 3-61, K.A Maharaj 3-75). Yorkshire won by an innings and 73 runs. Yorkshire 22 points. Somerset 1 point.