Batting with the brakes on

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

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

Sussex. P.D. Salt, L.J. Wright (c), L.J. Evans, A.T. Carey (w), D. Wiese, D.M.W. Rawlins, Rashid Khan, O.E. Robinson, D.R. Briggs, R.J.W. Topley, T.S. Mills. 

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.

Batting with the brakes on

Batting with the brakes on. That is how it looked in the Somerset innings. The brakes though, it seemed from almost directly over the umpire’s head at the top of the Somerset Pavilion, were being applied more by the Sussex bowlers than the Somerset batsmen. Try as they might, Babar apart for much of his innings, the batsmen could not break free. The Sussex batting, the powerplay apart, was more freewheeling, the Somerset bowlers’ unable to apply the brake to quite the same degree. 13 runs the eventual difference. Finals Day seemed an awfully long way off at the end of the day as I threaded my way out of the ground through the slow-moving drinkers who were being required to empty their ‘glasses’ before they left.

Somerset had won the toss in front of another full house which fast filled the stands in the quarter of an hour either side of the start. The Temporary Stand was a wonderful sight all afternoon, not an empty seat to be seen from 150 yards away with scenes of exuberant joy whenever Somerset found the boundary or took a wicket. By three o’clock there were few gaps of consequence anywhere.

A T20 crowd enjoying itself as it awaits the start of a match has a particular ring to it. There is pace to the multitudinous conversations as they merge, from near and far, into the crackle of a thousand frying eggs, if an octave lower. When the sun shines and the air is warm it is a wonderful sound, and sight. People dressed in all the colours of the rainbow and some besides. People sitting, chatting, anticipating, moving to their seats, queuing for a drink or a snack as the smell of cooking food permeates the air if the wind is in the right direction. Music blasts at a volume even louder than some of the shirts that walk by. And the PA thunders information with decibels to deaden any stray sense that has survived the rest of the onslaught. T20 cricket is a festival and people swarm in their thousands to fill its temples, the great historic county cricket grounds around the country.

And if you are enjoying the spectacle the start of the cricket may catch you unawares. By the time the umpires and players cross the boundary rope and pass through the honour guard of cricketing children you are expecting something spectacular to get proceedings underway. While you are waiting the fielders, almost surreptitiously and seemingly silently, take up their positions, a batsman quietly takes his guard, an umpire holds an arm up to the scorers as if he is asking to be excused and the bowler, apparently apropos of nothing, runs in. If the bowler is Somerset’s Max Waller his run up is so inconsequential you could be forgiven for missing it.

This match started with Waller running away from my seat in the Somerset Pavilion and the ball coming straight back over his head towards me. Four. The ball had been struck by Philip Salt, who carries with him a reputation for hard hitting. He tried it again off the next ball but Waller has a reputation for wily leg spin bowling in T20 and the ball flew straight to Gregory at short extra cover, presumably there for the misjudgement. Sussex were 4 for 1 from two balls. Such is the cut and thrust of T20 and the crowd, and Waller, celebrated it.

Somerset, as always in T20, rattled through their hand of bowlers, using five for the six powerplay overs. Unusually they opened at the other end with spin too, and equally unusually van der Merwe conceded ten runs, twice being cut for four either side of Trego at backward point. The first, at catchable height, brought forth gasps. Gasps again followed by a disbelieving silence which resonated for some seconds when Taylor dropped Wright, a looping ‘catch’ off Gregory.

There was encouragement from the crowd for Taylor. “Well done,” after his first over had allowed just two runs off the bat. And more, “Come on Jerome,” when he began the final powerplay over. Cheers when he went through a Wright drive with a stunning yorker and upended a stump. Applause when he completed the over for just two runs. Sussex were 38 for 2, Wright, destroyer of Somerset in the 2018 semi-final, gone for 20. Taylor had figures of 2-0-4-1 and the ground buzzed in hopeful anticipation of more to come.

But Sussex soon had their say. Van der Merwe, Somerset’s bowling rock in this campaign, came up against Carey, recently of the Australian World Cup squad and, apparently literally, just flown in from a visa-signing hop to Geneva. Such is the labyrinthine complexity of the modern world; and the strength of Sussex’s intent in this competition. Carey announced himself to the crowd with a reverse sweep to Gimblett’s Hill and to the rest of the Sussex team with a slog sweep of such power it rattled the roof of the balcony of their dressing room.

It heralded a four-over assault of mounting violence on the Somerset bowling. Waller, seven runs, one four, pulled by Carey off a ball dragged down. Gregory, nine runs, one four, this time from Evans driven past the bowler and through Overton’s dive. Van der Merwe, back again, 16 runs, the first and last balls driven back over his head by Carey towards those of us in the the Somerset Pavilion for six. Overton, 17 runs; dropped short, Evans pulled behind square to Gimblett’s Hill, six; Carey, straight drive, four; dropped short, Carey, pulled, one bounce to the Caddick Pavilion, four.

The momentum which had been Somerset’s at 38 for 2 was now sweeping Sussex along at 100 for 2 after 12 overs. It might have been more but for some tight Somerset fielding particularly from the constantly running and throwing Overton in front of the Somerset Stand. The buzz in the crowd was quieter, more contemplative. Some were quiet, anxious, perhaps wondering how the Somerset bowling, so uncompromisingly dominant in the 50-over cup and in the first half of the Championship season, suddenly looked vulnerable.

Into the maelstrom was thrust the 19-year-old Lammomby in only his third Somerset match and yet to be on the winning side. His first ball, from the Somerset Pavilion End, well up, was lofted by Evans straight back with one bounce for four. His second, full again, was pitched well outside the blue ‘wide’ line. Lammomby has nerve. He bowled the same ball again, perhaps encouraged by Gregory, this time where I suspect he had intended the first two to go, full and just inside the ‘wide’ line. Evans stretched, drove hard again but this time the ball flew high and square. Overton, running again, this time in towards the ball, sank to his knees, slid further than the laws of physics should allow and caught the ball perfectly. “Well bowled,” someone said as Lammomby and Overton were engulfed in Somerset players and the cheers of the supporters. “Well caught too,” I thought but such catching is becoming commonplace in the modern game.

Waller and Lammomby then held Sussex with overs of nine and six. It was but temporary relief. In the three following overs the Sussex batsmen broke, perhaps decisively, through the Somerset attack with 43 runs. Gregory bowled a no ball and a wide, kept the free hit to a single but every ball was scored from as he conceded 14. Taylor, doubtless straining for the yorker bowled two successive full tosses to Carey. The first flew straight back over Taylor’s head. Six. The second was cut backward of point. Four. Overton, in successive balls, was driven to the Trescothick boundary, cut to the Ondaatje and pulled over the Somerset Stand boundary as Wiese drove Sussex forward. It was spirit numbing stuff as heads shook, and hopes shrank. The chatter still rumbled but the anticipation had gone. Sussex were 166 for 3, perhaps four or so short of Taunton’s normal par, with still two overs to come.

Gregory kept his cool, regained his discipline and shattered, for a moment at least, the Sussex charge. Carey pulled hard at Gregory’s first ball, the ball found the top edge, flew high towards long leg and the Trescothick Stand; Lammomby, fielding straighter, ran hard, the ball began to fall short of the boundary but agonisingly distant from the closing Lammomby, harder Lammomby seemed to run, just beyond his reach seemed the falling ball to stretch, one of those you expect to go down, and then, miraculously, the catch was taken as low as a catch can be it seemed from 120 yards away. Carey was gone. 78 from 46 balls. What an innings he had played. And what a catch to end it.

It felt as if an over’s worth of action had been consumed by that one ball and the hubbub that reverberated around the ground spoke of astonishment. But Gregory had not finished. Another miscued pull off his second ball, this time from Wiese, looped rather than flew to midwicket and Babar ran quietly around to take the catch. There was no hat-trick but when the left-handed Rawlins tried to find the leg side boundary he was bowled. Gregory had taken three wickets in four balls and conceded just three runs from the over.

But, somehow, in this innings, the Somerset bowlers could not sustain pressure. In the final over batsmen were twice run out by the super-coolness of Banton. Once with a careful lob to the bowler, as they tried to run a bye. And yet Taylor conceded 14 runs. A no ball was driven for six by Khan, the ‘free hit’ ball, to gasps of disbelief, was another no ball. Three times off one ball the fielders threw at the stumps and missed and somehow the stop-start batsmen survived as a single emerged from the chaos and Sussex emerged with, I thought, the advantage with a score of 184 for 7.

 

“There are about 50 people in the queue,” someone said in the ‘interval’ after a failed attempt to buy a drink. Probably an exaggeration but it was enough to keep me in my seat. From the top of the Somerset Pavilion you have the most glorious view of the Quantocks although by July the maroon fields of spring have metamorphosed into the pastel straw-yellow of harvest. When the sky is summer-blue and lit by a brilliant sun it all makes for a heavenly setting. I doubt though in heaven they allow your eardrums to be pummelled by millennial music and shattered by announcements that detonate without warning. And yet, if you go with the flow and float with the festival atmosphere you soon find yourself enjoying it all along with everyone else. Well, nearly all. I am a time-traveller from the ‘Sixties’. Now there was music!

 

If you go too much with the flow you will not realise the most recent detonation was the announcement that play is to resume. For Somerset that meant Banton and Babar. It was a curious partnership. The pattern was set in the first two overs. Banton drove Topley exquisitely between two fielders, one either side of point, to the Somerset Stand for four but struggled to get Robinson away at all. There followed though some strokes for the connoisseur of classical cricket to savour. Off Robinson a straight drive to the Sir Ian Botham Stand from Banton, “Proper shot!” from behind me; and the latest of late cuts fine of third man from Babar. There were strokes for the T20 connoisseur too. Against Khan’s leg spin a reverse sweep, one bounce into the Trescothick Stand from Banton. A sweep behind square from Babar that bisected two fielders placed there for it so perfectly it reached the boundary “Lovely shot!” someone drooled.

Cheers for them both but there was a niggling doubt and it showed in some taut faces in the rows around me. 49 for 0 from the powerplay, Banton 23, Babar 22 but Banton had faced nearly twice as many balls, 24 to Babar’s 13. Banton, who has fast developed a reputation this season for ferociously destructive batting, seemed somehow unable to dominate as he tends to when he gets a start. Even the reverse sweep had flown high although quite safely. The classic Banton reverse sweep hugs the ground as it rockets to the boundary.

The second six overs did nothing to mitigate the unease. Banton and Babar had established a base but seemed to be batting with the brakes still applied. Not by policy, it seemed to me, but by necessity. They did attack Brigg’s but played and missed too. Banton slog-swept him square into the dug-outs for six and drove him straight to the Somerset Pavilion for four, the top deck having to await the cheer of the bottom deck to know the ball had evaded the fielder. When Babar lofted Briggs over long on the ball would have landed in the top deck had it not passed wide of it.

But against Mills and Wiese the pair struggled. Time and again the batsmen were forced hard back on to the defensive or pushed into nudging the ball for a single rather than striking it to the boundary. In three overs from the pair just 17 runs were eked out. An over from Mills exemplified the batsmen’s difficulties. Banton managed a single off the first ball, Babar could do nothing with a yorker pitched wide outside off, drove the next straight to a fielder and managed just a single off the fourth. Banton then missed a firm drive altogether and edged another to third man for a single. Three from the over and the number at the bottom of the Gimbletts Hill scoreboard told those casting a weather eye towards it that the required rate had risen from ten to nearly 11 in just six balls.

The rate of progress did not look like policy from Somerset. It looked and felt as if Mills and Wiese were systematically shackling the batsmen with some piercing bowling. There was not a single boundary off those three overs. It was an uneasy feeling watching from a distance. Somerset had ten wickets in hand but as the overs remaining shrank to nine they were still all but 100 runs short. The required rate was ratcheting up ever faster and there was still no sign of acceleration. Somerset’s actual run rate after 11 overs was the same as it had been after six.

In the 12th over Banton appeared to try to break free, to provide a much-needed boost to the tempo, but it was not the fluent Banton Somerset supporters have come to know. Still he seemed to be battling against the brakes in his attempts to steer the bowling to the boundary. He pulled Robinson between two fielders but with power only for two runs. Breaths were held as he ballooned a top edge fortuitously into the empty midwicket area for another two. A yorker wide of off defeated him entirely. Finally, to cheers, a short ball was pulled between two fielders for four. But when Banton repeated the stroke the ball ballooned again and this time Mills was waiting for it. Banton had scored 51 from 45 balls. He was generously applauded although the atmosphere from which the applause rose was more anxious than electric. Somerset were 97 for 1 at the end of the 12th over but 87 were needed from eight and there is no Corey Anderson this year.

Trego replaced Banton but looked even more constrained as he was forced to defend his first two balls from Khan and missed a drive off the third. “Come on Peter,” called an anxious voice from the back of the Somerset Pavilion as the overs threatened to slip away. When Trego faced Khan again he bottom-edged onto his boot, drove straight along the ground to the bowler, relieved the pressure with a pull into the back of the Ondaatje Stand but when he attempted to follow it with a lofted drive the ball went through to the keeper.

Seemingly struggling to make sufficient progress himself he diverted the strike to Babar whenever he could and Babar played another outstanding innings for Somerset, all but matching Carey’s strike rate. The image that sticks in the mind is of him repeatedly pulling the ball and perfectly bisecting two closing boundary fielders as it went for four. Precision as much as power his method although a drive off Wiese which flew over cover had ample portions of both.

With five overs to go the number at the bottom of the scoreboard reached 13.4. Or put another way, 67 runs were needed from 30 balls. With the intensity of the Sussex bowling I doubt many thought those 67 runs likely. Somerset were being squeezed. In response Babar launched an furious assault on Wiese. The first two balls were driven through gaps at cover and extra cover. The third was pulled for six. It just cleared a fielder in front of the Somerset Stand, perhaps an indication of the level of risk Babar needed to take against Sussex’s strike bowlers if Somerset were to win. Even Mills felt the power of his strokes. A pull once more perfectly bisected two fielders and a thick edge found the boundary. But such batting only just held the rate to around 13.5 and such batting against such opposition has a span. Babar was caught at long on trying to clear the rope again and Somerset needed 33 runs from two overs as hopes of victory became increasingly faint.

Gregory, promoted with no time to find his bearings, pulled one boundary but lost his leg stump, perhaps inevitably, trying to attack the ever-insistent Mills. 23 off the last over was too many in spite of the assistance of two wides, a no ball and a free hit from Topley. Hildreth was caught at deep midwicket with no time to get going, and Trego, still soldiering on, was run out off the free hit desperately trying for a second run. It was a measure of the hopelessness of Somerset’s situation. Trego had made 14 from 17 balls. That he had spent eight overs at the wicket was indicative of how much of the strike had been directed Babar’s way.

And as I threaded my way through the dawdling drinkers whilst they consumed the remnants of those once proud pints the thought that first occurred to me was that whichever team wins this year’s Vitality Blast, if it is not Sussex, will, in all probability, have to defeat Sussex somewhere along the way.

Result. Sussex 184 for 8 (20/20 overs) (A.T. Carey 78 (46 balls), L.J. Evans 33 (27), L. Gregory 3-30 (econ 7.50). Somerset 171 for 5 (20 overs) (Babar Azam 83 (50), T. Banton 51 (45). Sussex won by 13 runs. Sussex 2 points. Somerset 0 points.