The A.B. de Villiers show

T20. Middlesex v Somerset. 4th August 2019. Richmond.

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

Middlesex. P.R. Stirling, D.W. Malan (c), A.B. de Villiers, E.J.G. Morgan, J.A. Simpson (w), S.S. Eskinazi, T.S. Roland-Jones, T.G. Helm, N.A. Sowter, S.T. Finn, Mujeeb Ur Rahman.  

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.

The A.B. de Villiers show 

When you see a cricket ball repeatedly describing an arc across the sky with the precision a Galileo or a Newton would have employed you know you are in the presence of greatness. Of cricketing greatness at least. For when A.B. de Villiers hits a six there is no doubt about the destination of the ball, at least there wasn’t on this small ground. No split second of calculation to work out whether the ball will carry the rope or slow and begin the terminal drop into a boundary fielder’s hands. No need for anyone to say, “That’s gone!” The statement would be embarrassingly superfluous for it would be the ultimate example of stating the obvious.

De Villiers’ sixes will be one of the more enduring memories of the cricket at Richmond for me, in part because of their quality and in part because Richmond is an outground and outgrounds were rarely intended to have nearly 4000 people watching the cricket. Unless you were in the front row or two of the seating that ringed the ground or the front row of those standing behind the seating you had what a theatre would call a ‘restricted view’ of the play. It didn’t though, in the end, seem to matter much because outground cricket is about so much more than the mechanics of the game.

The match had been sold out for a couple of weeks. When I arrived about an hour before the start there was a continuously renewing, fast moving queue of about 50 people. The queue was fast moving in part because few had bags to be searched as is increasingly the way with T20. The ground was already teeming with people and the nearest I could get to the front and have a seat near the end of a row was the fourth row. There were also a couple of rows of people standing behind the seating and another rather haphazard row further back still, beyond the impromptu walkway along which people were meandering from one place to another.

Apparently, Somerset won the toss, although I didn’t notice the announcement as I chatted away to various Somerset supporters I knew. Somerset’s poor start in the T20, the stumble, or perhaps it is more than that, in the Championship, the Hundred and its implications, worrying most thought, for county cricket, the Ashes, Jack Leach and the Richmond ground all up for discussion and all subject to different points of view. The surprising amount of space between the seating and the perimeter of the ground, the number of groups of people standing and sitting around chatting and the vibrant buzz of conversation all leant the place a festival atmosphere. Perfect for cricket on a Sunday afternoon. And so was the weather with frequently passing cloud keeping the heat of the sun within bounds.

Somerset started by breaking their habit of opening the bowling with the leg spin of Waller. Instead they opened with the pace of Taylor. Taylor has a mixed record this year with a tendency to be frugal in the powerplay and to leak a torrent of runs in the closing overs. Even so he has taken more wickets than any other Somerset bowler and his other statistics, for someone who bowls most of his overs in the powerplay and at the end are not wildly out of kilter with the rest.

Cricket at an outground has a pesonality all of its own. Supporters have become increasingly used to purpose-built grounds allowing an excellent view of the cricket from wherever they sit. To watch through a forest of moving bodies and heads, even when, as I was for the opening overs, you are stood well back, will become an increasingly common experience as the big counties start to come to terms with the implications of The Hundred for where they play their own cricket. At an outground you pick up a picture of the cricket through a combination of watching the bits you can see, filling in the bits you can’t from instinct borne of years of watching cricket and from the reactions of those who can see.

The picture that formed of the first four overs was of the two sides fencing for an advantage. Somerset restricting the score, keeping the match within bounds. Middlesex, perhaps crucially, not losing a wicket and building a base. Early wickets in T20, as in any other form of cricket, can act as a drag on the scoring of the batting side well into an innings. 21 for 0, the score after four overs. Somerset had stuck with their usual policy of largely single over spells in T20, only Taylor opening the bowling instead of Waller was different to Somerset’s norm.

Taylor returned to bowl the fifth over. The heart rate rose a little and the eyes searched that bit harder between the heads for Taylor’s overs have tended to be feast or famine for the opposition batsmen this year. This over was feast for Middlesex. Three lightning-fast destructive drives, two sixes and a four, all in the ‘arc’, all igniting a joyous Middlesex cheer and all deflating the Somerset spirit. It was not the strokes themselves. Fours and sixes happen in T20. It is what it was designed for. It was the thought of Taylor conceding so many in one over so early in the innings, perhaps opening the door to Middlesex with A.B. de Villiers and Eoin Morgan waiting ominously in the wings.

In fact it was Malan and Stirling who first rushed through the door they themselves had opened. It was not always easy to see which was striking the ball as I chatted away but it was easy to see, and hear from the cheers of the crowd, that someone was, mainly lofted drives. As both Overtons were tried the signals of the umpires counted the boundaries, two off each. After each boundary a cheer erupted out of the gradually growing buzz of excitement in the crowd. Somerset turned to van der Merwe’s slow left arm spin. He can normally be relied upon to apply a brake. Not here. Malan drove his first ball over midwicket and beyond the closing boundary fielders for six to now ecstatic cheers. Middlesex were forging ahead far too fast for Somerset’s comfort. 18 runs from Taylor’s over. 34 from the next three. 73 for 0 from eight.

At last, if you were there in the Somerset interest, a communal groan signalled a wicket as Stirling mishit a pull to a short ball from Craig Overton and was caught well inside the boundary by Lammonby running across to take the catch with ease. “A.B. de Villiers,” I heard the announcer say. I do not recall previously having seen him bat in the flesh but the mere mention of his name, coming in at 78 for 1, was enough for the nerves to tense.

Before Overton’s over was out de Villiers repeated the stroke which had been the downfall of Stirling. There was no winding up into the stroke as Stirling had seemed to do. It was all smoothness of movement, speed of stroke and a crack of perfection off the bat. The umpire could have signalled as the ball left the bat, perhaps even as de Villiers went into the stroke. The ball, for the record, I saw being retrieved by a member of the crowd running back from behind the rows of seats. Occasionally I say one moment in a match is worth the entrance money on its own. Never having seen de Villiers before that was one such. You could, as ‘they’ say, see what all the fuss was about.

With de Villiers at the wicket, already one six to the good, it was time to stop chatting and find my seat, for the crux of the match was about to unfold. Not as easy as it might sound, finding my seat, such was the number of people and the sameness of the rows of seats stretching between the entrance and the Pavilion. As I looked, the sense of anticipation was almost palpable as Waller bowled one of his classic scattergun overs for five runs. I searched up and down the rows, looking through the standing watchers and into the seated multitude for my seat but none of the reference points that a headquarters ground offers, were there.

I spotted my seat just as Waller finished his over. As I sat down the man in front turned, spotted the wyvern on my hat and, with a Geordie accent as strong as my Somerset one had been before I entered on my series of exiles, asked if I thought Somerset would win. The doubtful look on his face probably reflected the one he saw on mine. I wonder if A.B. de Villiers knows doubt when he has a bat in his hand? But which of us on this side of the boundary knows what goes through the mind of those on the other side of the rope?

The memory of what followed is of those sixes, de Villiers hit nine to a single four, flying through the sky like some daytime meteor shower to the sound of what seemed to be almost continuous Middlesex cheers. I wonder if the ten-storey pagoda, which looks down from the neighbouring Kew gardens with the stony look of an umpire not responding to an appeal, has seen such a sight in all its two and a half centuries.

It wasn’t all sixes. Waller and van der Merwe each bowled an over for just five runs, and Lammonby one for four and the wicket of Malan out edging a drive high to Abell at wide mid-off. Malan’s innings, beginning to be overshadowed by de Villiers, had actually realised 56 runs from 37 balls. Morgan came in to a colossal cheer, hit a huge six back over Lammonby’s head, and departed as he skied a catch to Abell trying to repeat the stoke. Middlesex were 143 for 3 after 15 overs.

It was now we really saw what all the ‘fuss’ was about as for four overs de Villiers held sway. It was now that the meteor shower was at its height. It was now that the Middlesex crowd must have cheered itself hoarse as the sixes flew, and where they didn’t the singles and the occasional hard run two filled in the gaps. As the score raced towards 200 the Somerset fielders, persisting to the end, hunted down every ball not destined for the boundary.

De Villiers went from 39 to 88 in four overs. With seven balls to go Simpson, on strike, took a single. The woman behind me let out a shriek of, No!” as if she were sending Simpson back for she knew, as all of us knew, that a de Villiers century was at stake. There were a couple of mid-wicket consultations but de Villiers did not face another ball to mounting dismay among some Middlesex supporters even though Simpson took 16 runs from Taylor’s and Somerset’s final over. 215 for 3 the final reckoning with de Villiers 88 from 35 balls.

 

“Can Somerset top that?” asked the Durham supporter, “what an incredible innings.” “We topped Surrey’s 203 with eight balls to spare,” I replied. “We just have to score at the same rate for those extra eight balls and we will be pretty well there.” Chasing the top side of 200 twice running is a very big ‘ask’ though, I thought, and everything went right against Surrey including an innings of 54 from Byrom scored at a faster rate than even de Villiers had managed.

We easily fell into conversation, the Durham supporter and I, for I have found something of a bond with Durham supporters perhaps borne of our two clubs being located on the geographical outer fringes of the first-class counties and, in non-cricketing terms, remote from the country’s centre of major decision making that is London. I know the difference between the fringes and the centre for I worked extensively in both and love both. But there is a huge gap between the two. I heard the difference best described by a man of Surrey at Somerset’s Championship match at Headingley a few weeks ago. He had left Surrey about ten years before to move north. He said to me, “When I lived in Surrey I thought the ‘north-south divide’ was a myth. It isn’t a myth” he said, “or a divide. It’s a chasm.”

A bond between Somerset and Durham too for those of us who went to Chester-le-Street for that gruelling final match of the season in 2010 when Somerset failed to win the County Championship on the last day by dint of winning fewer matches than Nottinghamshire. Several hundred Somerset members swamped the Durham members area, the lounge had television pictures of the Nottinghamshire match, and were treated like kings by the Durham staff and members. You do not forget friendship of that ilk.

 

The man from Durham had come to watch because he was in the area but also because he wanted to see Banton bat. And see him bat he did, for after a ball or two finding his bearings Banton launched into the Middlesex attack. But not before Mujeeb Ur Rahman’s off spin had broken through the charging Babar Azam’s drive to bowl him with the innings barely underway. It was a critical blow, for Babar has the capacity to bat deep into a T20 innings.

Somerset did not check their scoring in response to the fall of Babar. Instead Banton set about the Middlesex bowling, and Steven Finn in particular, with a vengeance. Suddenly there were meteors again. This time Somerset ones. Banton launched three towering sixes, two over the leg side boundary and one straight over the sight screen. Hildreth struck a straight six and drove over cover for another as Roland-Jones suffered at his hands just as Finn had at Banton’s. Fours proliferated too as the pair raced Somerset forward at over 11 an over and the Somerset supporters dotted about applauded and cheered. The Durham supporter looked over his shoulder and said, “I see what people see in Banton. Do you think …” but I cut him off. “There is a very long way to go yet,” I cautioned.

And there was. Hildreth, who had raced to 24 from nine balls drove Finn through extra cover for four and then reached for a short ball wide of off and pulled it back onto his stumps to a cheer more relieved than celebratory from the Middlesex supporters. Somerset were 79 for 2 in the eighth over, ahead of the required run rate and perhaps, just perhaps on target for a sensational victory. But it was the apogee of their efforts as Sowter bowled an over which virtually settled the match. Banton was lbw sweeping for 41 and Byrom caught at short third man trying to cut, out second ball for four. When, in his next over, Lammonby was bowled by Sowter Somerset were 96 for 5 but still close to a required rate of 11 an over. The Middlesex cheers from all around were deafening and as the cheers died down excited chatter and emotion rolled up and down the rows of seats for this was cut and thrust T20 cricket at its best.

And in the best traditions of cricket Somerset never gave up as Middlesex piled on the pressure and the crowd, men, women and children, for this was a family crowd and a crowd of all ages, cheered them on. This was the type of crowd cricket should be targeting and if this crowd was anything to go by, and if they can be brought through the gate on a regular basis, they will have a right royal time. Van der Merwe and Craig Overton soon went, both trying to clear the rope, in what was looking an increasingly forlorn but determined headlong chase as Somerset subsided to 107 for 7.

Now, with Somerset’s hope to all intents and purposes gone, Jamie Overton made a determined effort to stay with Abell as Somerset refused to give up. Finn suffered again, this time at the hands of Abell, a six and two fours, one beautifully steered to third man; as did the previously destructive Sowter driven through the off side for four by Abell and lofted over long on for six by Overton. But this was not a typical Overton innings. This one consisted almost entirely of singles as he fought to keep the free-scoring Abell on strike.

When Overton finally attempted to drive Roland-Jones for his second six he slightly miscued and was caught at long off. Somerset were 147 for 8, still 69 short but still, astonishingly within one of the required rate. But the reality was that the succession of wickets which followed the fall of Hildreth had increasingly weighed unbearably down on the Somerset innings and on the spirit for, in the light of Abell’s late assault, 216 might just have been within reach with a little more caution then. Easy to say after the event and even easier to say from this side of the boundary.

As it was Abell and Taylor launched yet another Somerset assault, this time on Roland-Jones and Mujeeb, but Middlesex had too many runs and too many Somerset wickets in the bank. Watching from over the Durham supporter’s shoulder I could feel the faintest of faint hopes trying to stay alive as the required rate steadfastly refused to rise much above 11 and the Somerset score rose to 170 for 8, but my head firmly kept to reality. This match was gone and indeed it was when Finn, after all his travails with the ball, took a stunning catch just to my left as he ran along the boundary, dived full length and caught the ball with one hand far outstretched and sliding along the ground. 170 for 9. Abell 41 from 23 balls, questioning the view that some hold, namely that he is not a T20 batsman.

The end was an anti-climax as both Taylor and Waller slipped trying for a second run to keep the run chase going to the end. Somerset had lost by 35 runs. In truth 216 always looked an unlikely target, at least after the fall of Hildreth, Banton and Byrom in quick succession, but in keeping going at the pace they did for as long as they did Somerset might just believe that with a little thought about how to ‘manage’ the middle of the innings, especially against spin, such targets may well be within their compass on another occasion. As the match ended I took my leave of the man of Durham with a shake of the hand and a promise to look out for each other should Somerset and Durham find each other in the same division of the County Championship again. “We are a bit behind but we are pushing for promotion,” he said.

As I travelled back to Somerset I reflected on T20 cricket at Richmond. The first thought was that when I left the ground a quarter of an hour after the end of the match there were still an awful lot of people sitting and standing around chatting away. There was no rush to leave the venue and the tree-lined surroundings drew you in rather than ushered you away. As I stood and took it all in I realised that I had long since stopped noticing the heads that obstructed my view. Or perhaps I had just adapted. And what were all those people talking about? Work in the morning perhaps. Middlesex’s victory certainly. What I took away was a tremendous game of cricket, a wonderful atmosphere, that astonishing innings from de Villiers, the burgeoning promise of Banton and the incredible determination of Abell not to give up whatever the odds. As to the bowlers, a brilliant over from Sowter. But at the end of the day T20 did seem to be a batsman’s game.

Result. Middlesex 215 for 4 (20/20 overs)( A.B. de Villiers 88* (35 balls), D.J. Malan 56 (37), P.R. Stirling 31 (25), T.A. Lammonby 2-32 (econ 10.66.). Somerset 180 (T. Banton 41 (25), T.B. Abell 41 (23), N.A. Sowter 4-29 (7.25), Mujeeb ur Rahman 2-36 (9.00), S.T. Finn 2-62 (15.50).) Middlesex won by 35 runs. Middlesex 2 points. Somerset 0 points.