The chill of defeat

T20. Somerset v Hampshire. 26th July 2019. Taunton.

Somerset. Babar Azam, T. Banton (w), P.D. Trego, J.C. Hildreth, L. Gregory (c), T.B. Abell, T.A. Lammonby, R.E. van der Merwe, C. Overton, M.T.C. Waller, J.E. Taylor. 

A.H.T. Donald, R.R.Rossouw, J.N. Vince, S.A. Northeast, L.A. Dawson, C.H. Morris, J.K. Fuller, L.D. McManus (w), C.P. Wood, K.J. Abbott, M.S. Crane. 

Toss. Hampshire. Elected to field.

The chill of defeat

A chill blew through the Cooper Associates County Ground at the end of this match. A chill in the air, at least on the north face, the elevated section, of the Somerset Pavilion. And a chill in the spirit after a defeat for Somerset that had looked for all the world a victory in the middle section of this match. A chill too because Jerome Taylor, Somerset’s overseas ‘death’ bowler, had looked bereft of ideas in an over of astonishing hitting from Hampshire’s James Fuller which turned the match.

Or perhaps it was just astonishing hitting to which there was no answer from Fuller for he has form of this type at Taunton. In 2016, he played two innings which might just have cost Somerset the County Championship that year. Batting at ten he helped take Middlesex’s first innings from 212 for 8 to 381 all out with an innings of 93 from 126 balls. In their second innings, promoted to seven, he supercharged their victory push with 36 from 18 balls, memorably changing his bat for a T20 club at the point at which Middlesex decided to mount their final victory push. Middlesex won by two wickets with less than an over to spare and, eventually, the Championship from Somerset by four points.

Hampshire had held the upper hand in the first half of Somerset’s innings too. Banton, so often the leader of Somerset’s charge this year, got under a lofted drive against Abbott, more than once Somerset’s nemesis, looped the ball to mid-off and Somerset were 3 for 1 in the second over. Cheers from the row of Hampshire supporters next to me. Uneasy looks from Somerset supporters. Hampshire maintained the immediate control that wicket had given them throughout the powerplay. Babar and Trego tried to break the hold with some strokes of real class. From Trego a cut behind square off Abbott to the Ondaatje Stand took the breath away and another, a hook for six, cleared the Colin Atkinson scoreboard. A ground hugging late cut, again off Abbott, from Babar brought gasps as it ran perfectly past the keeper to the Sir Ian Botham Stand boundary for as exquisite a four as you are likely to see in T20.

Cheer-raising strokes all but the real story of the powerplay was Hampshire’s bowling and fielding which held Somerset to 30 for 1 in the six overs. Abbott, Wood and Morris bowled with immense discipline and constantly had the batsmen defending in the part of the innings designed for them to attack. The fielding was voracious with dives inside the circle and sweeping runs on the boundary reining the score in. Once Babar drove, apparently perfectly, to the Trescothick Stand boundary only for the wide long on fielder to complete a determined boundary chase with a stop and a throw which restricted the batsmen to three.

And yet the slow start did not seem to much affect the atmosphere as a sell-out, 7.400, crowd settled. There were large gaps in the Somerset Stand and the Colin Atkinson as the match started at 6.30 with the floodlights already casting shadows under a leaden sky. Then as the evening wore on the sky lightened, the cricket gripped ever harder, the stands filled out and the buzz in the crowd which had been there from the start grew into an almost constant background roar, erupting into cheers as the ball flew or a wicket fell.

The first sign that Somerset might break their shackles came at the start of the seventh over when Trego, to relieved cheers, lofted Dawson’s first two balls straight to the Somerset Pavilion, and to long on, for six and four. From there Somerset took the fight hard to the Hampshire pace bowlers but never quite came to terms with the leg spin of Mason Crane. He held Somerset to 18 from three overs whilst Somerset picked up the pace at the other end with Babar executing a mixture of finesse and force as he guided fine and pulled hard where the ball demanded it. And yet when Trego tried to deposit Wood somewhere in the region of the Caddick Pavilion and lost his middle stump the anxiety in the Somerset mind remained for Somerset had reached only 72 for 2 in the 11th over as the overhang from Hampshire’s grip in the powerplay overs and Crane still dragged on the score.

Over the years Hildreth has made changing the face of a Somerset innings a hallmark of his batting. He did it again in this match. He built his career with, for the 21st century game in this country, an almost unparalleled degree of artistry which only the lightest of touches of bat on ball can produce. He has added to it a T20 bludgeon. He sounded the clarion call of the Somerset advance with one of those huge sixes he has developed the ability to hit between midwicket and long on. This time he carried the Ondaatje Stand and roused the crowd to a roar so resounding it was as if it were made of solid rock.

Babar answered the clarion. 36 not out at a little over a run a ball when Hildreth arrived he began to show the substance which underpins his rating as the top T20 batsman in the world. A nicely-directed pull perfectly bisected two converging fielders on the Somerset Stand boundary. “Oh yes!” someone said. From the other end he repeated the stroke, this time bisecting two fielders on the Ondaatje boundary. “Oh yes indeed!” I thought. When Morris bowled full on leg stump he drove him with minimal effort and maximum effect as the ball landed in an Ondaatje Pavilion box. When Morris pitched full on off the ball landed in the churchyard. Now it was the Somerset supporters who were cheering, and loudly, as the stands filled and found their voice. Somerset were on the move.

Hildreth, when he had the strike, was on the move too. A pulled six off Morris pummelled the dug outs in front of the Caddick Pavilion. A reverse sweep of Dawson, a phenomenal stroke, brought first gasps and then mountainous cheers as the ball slammed into the Caddick Pavilion. The row of Hampshire supporters next to me looked on in apparent disbelief as the advantage of the first ten overs was being swept away by Hildreth. Somerset, 133 for 2 after 16 overs, had added 103 runs in ten overs. And yet, in the Somerset mind a doubt lingered. If Somerset could score at ten an over so might Hampshire. There was work to do yet.

Now Hampshire turned to the three bowlers who had so determinedly held Somerset in check in the powerplay. Ranged against them were Babar, Hildreth and, with only two wickets down, a string of Somerset batsmen to come. “Wickets are crucial in T20,” said a worried Hampshire supporter. Then Hildreth went to Abbott, bowled for 28 from 17 balls, as he attempted to steer a yorker. Yorker’s were a feature of the closing overs and they particularly troubled Gregory, promoted above Abell, as he tried to find his touch. Gregory is probably Somerset’s fastest scoring T20 batsman so the logic of sending him in early was easy enough to see. But, but, but. My anecdotal memory tells me batting promotions fail more often than they work. This one produced ten runs from eight balls, somewhat less than Gregory’s normal ration. I know nothing of what goes on in a batsman’s head but I do wonder if the mental preparation focused on batting at a particular place in the order is disturbed when that place is changed mid-innings.

Whilst Gregory struggled Babar prospered. He drove Abbott for six over the Gimblett’s Hill boundary and, in the final over, clipped Wood to where the old Stragglers bar used to be with such ease the stroke must have had every one of the ghosts that reside there sitting up and applauding. They must have already been awake for Somerset’s ten-runs-an-over batting since the powerplay had lifted the crowd through the normal Taunton buzz to an almost permanent roar as the final overs of the innings unfolded. The roar was lifted by the intermittent music, but above all by the toe to toe cricket of the final four overs, and punctuated by Somerset cheers whenever the ball reached the boundary or by Hampshire ones next to me when Morris was getting past Gregory with his series of yorkers.

With two balls to go Babar cut Wood to the Ondaatje boundary to take him to 94. His attempt to reach the Somerset Stand off the last ball of the innings foundered with a bounce into the hands of the deep fielder and he ended unbeaten but five short of his century. Somerset ended on 172 for 3. As I looked at the score, still mindful of the lost runs of the powerplay overs, one of the Hampshire supporters next to me said, “You have enough.” When I replied, “That has been around the par score here and I thought your bowlers bowled well,” she replied, “Our batting has been abysmal this season. You have enough.”

 

The ‘interval’ in T20 is ten minutes. No prospect of circumnavigating through such crowds in that time. I had taken the precaution of doing that before the start. I took the opportunity of looking down on the ‘fan village’ which was awash with people seemingly having a good time. Back in my seat I took in a spectacular and strangely restful, among the mayhem of T20, sunset which hung over the Somerset Stand flats and which seemed all the more spectacular for being framed by the floodlights.

 

Those words of the Hampshire supporter had the ring of prophecy about them when Somerset cut early into the Hampshire batting. Waller, at mid-on, took off horizontally and seemed to float rather than fly against the background of the Sir Ian Botham Stand as he intercepted a drive from Rossouw. Taylor, bowling from the River End, had taken his first wicket and Hampshire were 8 for 1. 9 for 2 when Vince tried to turn Overton’s first ball into the on side only for a leading edge to find Gregory at mid-off. The roar which resulted was cacophonous and rumbled on until it subsided into wildly animated chatter. Suddenly the Somerset total looked reassuringly distant. It would have looked even more distant had Overton clung on to a return catch when Northeast drove his first ball hard to the off of the pitch. Overton dived, his outstretched hand looked to be around the ball but the ball fell to earth.

The Somerset bowling matched Hampshire’s for accuracy and menace. Donald fought to break free with two successive boundaries, one pulled and the other driven, against Gregory but Northeast drove Taylor straight to Hildreth at midwicket. By the end of the powerplay Hampshire were 38 for 3, the Somerset bowlers and fielders were tightening their grip, Taylor had figures of 2-0-7-2, the required run rate was nearer ten than nine, the Somerset crowd was bubbling noisily with hope and the Hampshire supporters around me looked resigned. And above the flats that sunset lit up the western sky. It was a wonderful backdrop against which the ball by ball intensity of the struggle below was being played out. It is a sight you do not see in daytime cricket except perhaps on one of those days beyond the equinox in which the County Championship, these days, is still being played.

As is Somerset’s wont Gregory rotated his bowlers an over at a time. For six overs they tightened the screw and drove the required rate above 11. After only one over did the required run rate fall, and then only marginally when Waller conceded a boundary each to Donald and Dawson and 12 runs in total. Van der Merwe bowled two overs of his slow left arm for just ten runs. As so often his was suffocating bowling. No-one else conceded more than nine runs, and Gregory only four in the over after the fall of Northeast. As the match edged ever more Somerset’s way the volume of the noise from the crowd edged upwards with the hope. The concerns for the Somerset supporter were the lack of wickets and Donald establishing himself but even when Donald cleared Overton and the Somerset Stand boundary off Gregory the required rate remained above 11.

I had been chatting away to the two Hampshire supporters next to me for some time as we traded their gloom about the fragility of the Hampshire batting with my innate anxiety whenever Somerset are involved in a match that is remotely tight. When Gregory pitched full and wide Donald, perhaps under the pressure of the rising required rate, reached for the ball and drove it straight to Lammomby at extra cover. Hampshire still needed 85 to win with seven overs and six wickets standing. The rate had climbed above 12 an over. Difficult but far from impossible in T20. But, from a Somerset point of view at least, the rate was rising. When Waller kept Hampshire to eight, and only that because two Somerset fielders collided on the boundary, in a rare error, as they tried to stop a Dawson drive and converted two into four, it almost touched 13. That number is displayed at the bottom of the Gimblett’s Hill scoreboard and both sets of supporters were now increasingly turning their eyes to it. It moved ever upwards as that sunset journeyed around and sank towards the north but remained still visible over the Trescothick Stand.

We were into the crux of the match. Hampshire could not delay their final assault any longer and Somerset must hold their nerve. It was Morris who first charged for Hampshire. Two sixes off Overton the result, one clattered into the front edge of the roof of the Caddick Pavilion, the other was driven back over Overton’s head. The Hampshire supporters were on their feet, arms aloft and cheering. Then the Somerset crowd were up, applauding, cheering, roaring as Overton splayed Morris’s stumps. The Hampshire supporters looked on aghast. When Overton had finished, van der Merwe, looking as innocuous as ever rustled through an over so quickly the umpires did not notice he had not bowled the sixth ball. Neither Fuller, newly arrived, nor Dawson, who had been in since the sixth over, could make more than a single from any ball.

Hampshire needed 56 from four overs. 14 runs an over said that number at the bottom of the scoreboard. The Somerset chatter, expectant and excited, now filled the air competing with the biblically loud announcements, snatches of music and the occasional clarion-induced cheer. It is an odd quality of the senses that, with all that noise around, and often from an uncomfortably close speaker, chat with your neighbours is still perfectly possible. The Hampshire supporters were all but resigned to defeat. I was conscious they still had five wickets left but the counter-argument was that at this stage Somerset still had top order batsmen in.

And so, the eyes turned back to the pitch. And then came that Taylor over. Bowled from the Somerset Pavilion End. “He’s switched ends,” said the Hampshire supporter next to me. Whether that made a difference I know not but his first ball, to Fuller, came straight back at us and disappeared from view as it dipped below the front of the stand. “Six!” shouted the Hampshire supporter next to me but that much was clear to us all. Taylor’s second ball cleared the long on boundary. The third came straight back over Taylor’s head, disappeared from view again but this time the umpire signalled four. Disappointment from the Hampshire supporters. Difficult for the Somerset mind to accommodate to the suddenly changing balance of the match. A bit of blessed relief as Fuller and Dawson exchanged singles but the full toss, presumably an attempted yorker, with which Taylor ended came straight back at us again, dipped below the front of the stand and up went the umpire’s arms. Up too went every Hampshire supporter I could see. They were all on their feet, applauding and roaring with decibels to match the PA speakers.

From needing 56 runs from four overs Hampshire needed 32 from three with the momentum of the match flowing like a torrent in their direction. Looked at in the cold light of day that was still a challenge, and the hope in the Hampshire faces was encrusted in anxiety, but to the Somerset mind the atmosphere Fuller had created spoke of a Hampshire victory. Van der Merwe was tried for the last time. Fuller and Dawson exchanged singles. Van der Merwe, inexplicably, bowled a no ball, kept the free hit to a single but then, crushingly, found Dawson slog-sweeping his last ball high into the Somerset Stand. Momentum and a reduction in pressure brings confidence and that six told of it.

With just 18 needed off two overs, normally a case of waiting for the right ball to hit, Gregory replaced Taylor. Fuller tried to cut his first ball, the ball flew to the keeper and I am certain I heard the snick from eighty yards away in spite of the cacophony in which the match was now being played. All that mattered though was that the umpire heard it from 22 yards and Fuller, furious with himself, departed the field. He was replaced by McManus. With just two runs coming from the next three balls Gregory exerted such pressure as he could. The Somerset mind hoped and the Hampshire faces looked a little more taut. But, in truth, Taylor’s over, or Fuller’s hitting, had left too much for the Somerset bowlers to do. When McManus scooped Gregory’s penultimate ball to fine leg for four and followed with a pull only slightly wider for another four the Hampshire supporters were on their feet again.

The final six from McManus off Taylor straight into the Sir Ian Botham Stand sight screen sheeting brought the loudest roar of them all from the Hampshire supporters around me as one of the more remarkable T20 matches seen at Taunton came abruptly to its end. And as the crowd got up to leave that chill began to bite, the sunset faded gently away and Somerset supporters asked each other quite how such a match had, in the end, been lost.

Result. Somerset 172 for 3 (20/20 0vers) (Babar Azam 95* (61 balls), P.D. Trego 35 (29)). Hampshire 174 for 6 (19.3/20 overs) (A.H.T. Donald 48 (34 balls) L.A. Dawson 47* (39), L.Gregory 2-31 (econ 7.75), C. Overton 2-39 (9.75), J.E. Taylor 2-40 (11.42). Hampshire won by four wickets. Hampshire 2 points. Somerset 0 points.