The three ‘B’s and the men from Truro

T20. Somerset v Surrey. 2nd August 2019. Taunton.

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

Surrey. W.G. Jacks, A.J. Finch (c), S.M. Curran, O.J. Pope, T.K. Curran, J. Clark, B.T. Foakes (w), J.L. Smith, R. Clarke, G.J. Batty, Imran Tahir. 

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.

Cricket on fire – The three ‘B’s and the men from Truro

As Eddie Byrom walked out to bat I was looking down at my scorecard to see from where, in the absence of Gregory, Somerset’s final explosive charge might come. I was looking in the wrong place. There is a feeling that Somerset have missed Corey Anderson’s soaring sixes this year. They may be missed no more. Byrom, on T20 debut, was a revelation of Damascene proportions. The barnacle-like opening batsman of 2018 had been transformed into an incandescent purveyor of batting pyrotechnics. In future when he comes to the wicket T20 bowlers might do well to heed the age-old warning: ‘light blue touch paper and retire’.

It was a perfect evening for cricket and T20 is perfect cricket for an evening. From the top of the Somerset Pavilion the Quantocks were glowing in the light of a hazy evening sun and the floodlights were on ready to take the strain when the sun finished its shift. Ten minutes before the start the stands were barely half full. Ten minutes after they were heaving. The lights, enabling a 6.30 as opposed to a 4.30 start, have done away with the unsold seats of last year.

It usually takes something in a match to bring a crowd to life but this crowd seemed to be self-igniting. It was buzzing with excited chatter well before the umpires and players emerged. There was a palpable wall of sound as the crowd rapidly formed in the steep stands and pavilions which surround this small ground. This was a cauldron waiting to be brought to the boil.

The opening powerplay had the cauldron in two minds as first Somerset then Surrey established footholds. In the first over Jacks drove Waller straight, Waller jumped for the catch but catching rockets is beyond even him and the lack of a cheer from below told those of us above that the ball had crashed into the Somerset Pavilion boards. An over later there would have been no doubt in your mind, wherever you sat, that a wicket had fallen. Jacks had repeated the stroke off Taylor, miscued, the ball rose above Lammomby at mid-off, Lammomby took off, stretched upwards and pulled the ball down and a mammoth cheer erupted. Surrey were 12 for 1.

By the end of the powerplay Surrey were forcing their way back, particularly against the Overton brothers, who were driven if they pitched slightly too full and pulled if they dropped short, at whatever pace, particularly by the left-handed Sam Curran. Taylor, as is becoming a pattern, held the batsman in close check in his two powerplay overs. Once he forced Finch to jab down on a yorker, the ball squirted past leg stump to groans and Banton got across sharply to cut it off to cheers. “Well stopped!” someone said. And “Well bowled,” as in his second over Taylor conceded just three runs to growing applause as piercing ball after piercing ball constrained the batsmen. Surrey were 47 for 1 after six overs.

With five fielders now on the boundary Jamie Overton found himself being driven through mid-off and back over his head one bounce to the Botham Stand by Curran. When, immediately, he forced Curran to dig out a yorker applause broke out. The difference in length between the balls which found the boundary and the one which nearly breached Curran’s defences was minimal. Such is the margin of error for a bowler in T20. And on such differences will he find himself criticised or praised.

In two overs Van der Merwe, so often Somerset’s Mr Reliable, was driven onto the roof of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion and into a window at the top of the Sir Ian Botham Stand by Curran. Van der Merwe has been playing T20 since Curran was at Primary School and with the remaining ten balls from those two overs he rationed Surrey to a miserly five runs. But at the other end the batsmen were pushing Surrey forward against Craig Overton. He was driven one bounce to the Somerset Pavilion and glanced fine to the Sir Ian Botham Stand as those fine margins of line and length cost Somerset again.

Abell turned to Lammomby who found himself bowling to Finch. Finch had been feeding the strike to Curran but now took a hand himself. A cover drive to the Somerset Stand just evaded one of those long, running, diving boundary chases from Jamie Overton; another, Overton saved by the length of his finger tips to restrict the batsmen to three but Finch ended the over by clearing the Ondaatje Stand to land the ball in the midst of the food village. 15 runs Lammomby had conceded and Surrey were 101 for 1 after 11 overs. The festival atmosphere which had permeated the ground since the start kept its hold but Somerset faces were wreathed in anxiety.

The two men next to me had travelled from Truro, an indication of how just how strong the commitment to Somerset cricket is. As we tried to talk amongst the perpetual background chatter, cheering, music and announcements, they wondered why Somerset seemed to have lost their way somewhat after the barnstorming start to the season. They had hopes of the ‘treble’ but the course of the first half of the Surrey innings, and what they thought some poor balls, had dampened their hopes for this match.

As we turned things over between us two overs from Waller and one from Jamie Overton curtailed the Surrey charge. Waller, who completes his overs with the speed of a weaver’s shuttle, pitches the ball with the spread of a scatter gun and consistently confounds batsmen in the process, kept Surrey to six runs. Overton promptly bowled the fast bowler’s version of a Waller over with a range of differently paced and directed short and full balls with a full toss to spice the mix. He had the same effect as Waller and restricted Surrey to four. “That’s better,” said one of the men from Truro.

And better it was. And perhaps it applied a frisson of pressure to Surrey’s previously freewheeling batsmen for in Waller’s next over, Curran attempted an expansive drive only for Craig Overton at long off to take off on the run, almost glide through the air, and take a brilliant catch high and in front of him and hold on to it as he came down. What a cheer went up then, followed by long applause for Curran as he walked off for 53 from 37 balls. Surrey were 111 for 2 with seven overs still to come.

After the cheers had died down the realisation sank in. Surrey were still in an immensely strong position and in the last two matches Somerset’s late innings bowling had been unable to contain some explosive opposition batting. For Surrey it was Finch who erupted in two overs of destruction against Craig Overton and Waller which cost 29 runs. Finch drove Overton off the thickest of edges backward of square to the Trescothick Stand to bring up his fifty. A straight drive lofted high towards the Somerset Pavilion dropped from sight but the drop in Overton’s shoulders signalled six before the umpire could raise his arms. Waller was driven straight into the Sir Ian Botham Stand sight screen and pulled half way up the Somerset Stand before, finally, he induced Finch to drive to long off where van der Merwe took another good overhead catch. Finch 72. Surrey 147 for 3 after 16 overs.

“We are going to need a good last four overs,” said one of the men from Truro. Taylor took up Somerset’s cause but ran straight into Surrey’s Pope. He was pulled, cut and driven, each time for four. When an attempted yorker turned into a full toss Pope reverse swept to the Trescothick Stand for six. There were 20 runs in all from the over. 167 for 3 from 17 overs, not far short of a 20 over score it seemed. Van der Merwe, again, held the line with an over for seven but Jamie Overton was pulled onto the roof of the Caddick Pavilion by Pope, and conceded two fours besides. 18 from the over. Even the final over from van der Merwe ended with Curran driving him into the Sir Ian Botham Stand, the run out of Pope during the over not seeming to matter as the Surrey batsmen walked off. 147 for 3 after 16 overs had become 203 for 4 after 20. It was devastating batting.

It didn’t quieten the crowd. A T20 crowd comes to enjoy the atmosphere and the spectacle as well as the cricket. During the ‘interval’ hundreds were enjoying themselves in the ‘food village’, the chatter continued unabated in the stands and in the gaps between the stands where people gather to watch the cricket or to chat if their allocated seats are not together. People are constantly on the move at T20; up and down the aisles or to and fro to food or drink outlets. It is not for those who want to want to watch their cricket in peace. But it seems to have captured the zeitgeist of the age for those who do go, and they go in their thousands and they are of all ages, for the most part take it in their stride and ride the festival atmosphere. It doesn’t mean the cricket doesn’t matter. It mattered a lot in the faces of those around me in the interval. If you are a Somerset supporter your team taking a pummelling hurts no matter what the format of the game.

It was the first time the men from Truro had sat at the top of the Somerset Pavilion. They were struck by the view, by the redeveloped ground and by the Quantocks beyond. They were much less sure about the floodlights. The purpose, even the necessity, of them in this day and age they could see but they were less sure about the impact on the ambience of the ground.

And then, for the ‘interval’ is over in the blink of an eye in T20, Banton and Babar came out to bat. One of the men from Truro said, “I just hope we show some fight.” One run from a tight first over from Sam Curran did nothing to raise the spirits. Neither did memories of Banton’s seemingly constrained innings of the last two matches. And then, as if in one of those Saturday morning adventure films of the 1950s, with one bound he was free. Suddenly it was the Surrey bowlers who were watching the ball fly to all parts. Banton launched an assault of such intent and ferocity that within minutes the continuous background chatter erupted into a deafening roar.

Banton pulled Tom Curran to Gimblett’s Hill twice in succession, Sam Curran was driven back over his head for four and reverse swept with minimal bat movement over the Somerset Stand boundary for six. That was a phenomenal stroke which brought forth gasps of wonder. In Tom Curran’s second over it seemed not to matter where the bowler put the ball for Banton had an answer for it. He pulled to the Caddick Pavilion for six, clipped fine to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion for four and reverse swept to the Somerset Stand for another four. “Well played!” said one of the men of Truro, “Absolute class.” The cheering for that stroke almost drowned out his words. It was deafening and continued as Banton ended the over by pulling to the Temporary Stand boundary and driving to the Ondaatje Stand. Some were on their feet applauding whilst others looked around the ground at the sight of stands heaving with cheering Somerset supporters.

Somerset ended the powerplay on 66 for 0 and yet a reality check on the required run rate at the bottom of the Gimblett’s Hill Scoreboard had Somerset still needing 9.9 an over, barely down on the required rate at the outset. Banton’s innings had both made a Somerset victory possible and laid bare the enormity of the task. Banton struck three successive boundaries off Clark but the spin of Batty and Tahir suddenly applied the brake. He could not break the shackles and when he tried to sweep he top edged and was caught at long leg. Banton had made 71 of an opening partnership of 93 as Babar constantly fed him the strike. And yet Somerset still needed ten an over. They were matching the original rate but there was no leeway and any slowing down would now rachet up the requirement exponentially.

Banton was applauded every inch of the way to the Caddick Pavilion and the backwash from the applause rippled around the ground until the new batsman, Hildreth, reached the wicket. The cheering picked up again as Babar took up the charge, particularly against Batty who had, with Tahir, thus far successfully applied the brake. Somerset could not afford more quiet overs against the spin. Babar struck. He drove Batty straight to the Sir Ian Botham Stand for six, cut behind square for four and lofted a drive through the off side towards the Colin Atkinson boundary. That last stroke brought a moment of humour when it bounced in front of the fielder running to intercept it, span markedly back and flew behind him to the boundary as, prompted by the PA, strains of the Beatles rang out around the ground. And then Babar tried to drive Tahir back over his head and was bowled. He had done a crucial job as anchor of the innings and yet when he was out he had scored 43 from 31 balls and was applauded off.

It was now that Byrom joined Hildreth with still 77 needed, still at ten an over. “Byrom?” I heard someone ask, for Byrom had a reputation for playing gruelling innings as an opening batsman in the Championship. The men from Truro had not seen him bat. “Who is this guy?” one asked. By the end of the over he was asking, “Who IS this guy?” for Byrom had torn into Batty. His fourth and fifth balls had been pulled and reverse swept, both for four, and the last was driven over the Temporary Stand for six. Hildreth drove the first ball of Tahir’s final over beautifully through the on side to the Ondaatje boundary and Byrom finished the over by driving him into Gimblett’s Hill for six and to the Ondaatje for four. By now the men of Truro, in common with the whole ground, were singing along to strains of Neil Diamond. Everyone was believing now.

Next Rikki Clarke, so often a thorn in Somerset’s side was tried but as he ran in from the River End he did not seem to carry the threat of old. The match was moving too fast Somerset’s way and the continuous roar of the crowd carried the emotions along. It seemed that nothing would stand in Somerset’s way. When Hildreth reverse swept Clarke over the Ondaatje boundary the men of Truro and countless others around the ground were on their feet, arms held aloft in applause and adding to the roar which now drowned out all other noise.

As I looked up the evening darkness was filling in the landscape beyond the confines of the ground. The Quantocks were taking on that forbidding look of hills in the half light. Above the now blazing floodlights the sky was all but dark. Down below the outfield was lit in a bright but eerie green with a slightly darker halo around its edges. The stands were a shadowy ring around the whole and filled with a still visible pulsating crowd. And at the centre of it all the cricket had been on fire, for one team or the other, throughout. One of the men of Truro turned to me and said, “It’s actually quite something watching this under lights isn’t it?” And it was.

A look at the scoreboard showed 26 needed from four overs, a rate of 6.5 an over. Even Somerset supporters could begin to relax. But not Eddie Byrom. He charged on. There was another reverse sweep, “All these reverse sweeps!” someone said. A steer to fine leg and a six pulled into the Temporary Stand followed as astonishing stroke followed astonishing stroke. It had been an evening of sixes, from both sides, and I don’t think a single Stand or Pavilion was spared. And finally, a four pulled behind square to Gimblett’s Hill and another driven straight to the Sir Ian Botham Stand saw Somerset home with eight balls to spare. Byrom had, on debut, scored 54 runs from 19 balls. When, with the penultimate ball of the match, he had gone to his fifty the entire ground rose to its feet and applauded as one. Sometimes you see something very special. Here over 7000 people saw something special.

It had been another astonishing match at Taunton, with this time Somerset on the right end of it. Astonishing matches cannot be made by one side and the batting of Curran and Finch should not be forgotten. For Somerset there was the bowling of Waller and van der Merwe to keep that gargantuan Surrey total just within range; and the batting of Hildreth and the three ‘B’s, Banton, Babar and Byrom. As to the men from Truro, they had seen a game worthy of a 240-mile round trip. They will, they said, be back.

Result. Surrey 203 for 4 (20/20 overs) (A.J. Finch 72 (44 balls), S.M. Curran 53 (37), O.J. Pope 37 (19), M.T.C. Waller 2-34 (econ 8.50). Somerset 207 for 2 (18.4/20 overs) (T. Banton 71 (37), E.J. Byrom 54* (19), Babar Azam 43 (31)). Somerset won by eight wickets. Somerset 2 points. Surrey 0 points.