From van der Merwe to van Gogh

T20. Essex v Somerset. 7th August 2019. Chelmsford.

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, T. Groenewald, J.E. Taylor, M.T.C. Waller. 

Essex. T. Westley, C.S. Delport, A.J.A. Wheater (w), D.W. Lawrence, R.N. ten Doeschate, R.S. Bopara, P.I. Walter, S.R. Harmer (c), A.P. Beard, A. Zampa, Mohammad Amir. 

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

From van der Merwe to van Gogh

The thing about staying in London to watch evening cricket is you can take in something else the next day before starting the long journey back to Somerset. This time it was the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at Tate Britain. The tickets were cheaper than for most T20 matches but the event was just as crowded. It was rather like watching cricket at an outground. Through a forest of heads. The Starry Night probably attracted the largest crush. Almost impossible to get an unimpeded view. Until I happened on the idea of looking from almost side on. The view was completely unobstructed. And the light was different from that angle. The painting seemed a deeper, richer blue than from head on and the fast-moving, swirling, sweeping lines that make up van Gogh’s dazzling night sky almost overwhelmed the senses. A van Gogh masterpiece.

It was rather like the sight of Somerset sixes and fours blazing, if not swirling, their way across the gradually darkening Essex sky, and across the face of the packed stands at Chelmsford. It wasn’t all Somerset in the way that The Starry Night is undeniably all van Gogh but it was not far off. It was a dazzling batting display against which only Ravi Bopara’s bowling stood firm and no Essex batsman shone like Abell and Somerset’s three ‘B’s. A Somerset masterclass.

Chelmsford is probably the most compact ground on the county circuit. The outfield looks smaller than Taunton, the spectator areas are even more confined, the stands, with one exception, are of a more-shallow rake and, with two exceptions, less deep. There are no areas within the spectator area into which spectators can spill like the St James and Priory Bridge car park areas at Taunton. Only in front of the Pavilion and in the two-tier Tom Pearce Stand is there any depth in the crowd. And yet 6500 people can cram themselves into this ground. The noise that an Essex crowd of that size shoe-horned into that space can make is prodigious. Once the match is underway the crowd, and the noise, becomes one of the most partisan in the country. It is not called ‘Fortress Chelmsford’ for nothing.

Like most T20 crowds the Chelmsford one seemed to appear from nowhere and fill the seats during the 15 minutes or so either side of the start. My preference is always to sit on the end of a row. There I can easily stretch a pair of legs designed for someone at least six inches taller than me and I can come and go as I please. The price I pay for that, at a T20 match, is a constant flow of people leaving and re-entering their seats, often carrying cardboard cradles of newly dispensed beer on the return trip. Partisan the Essex crowd may be but, to this wyvern-hatted Somerset supporter, they were endlessly courteous as they went too and fro.

Abell won the toss and, with what sounded like the inner doubt of those who have to make crucial decisions, announced Somerset would bat. I could almost hear from on high W.G. Grace saying, “And not before time young man. And not before time. Let ‘win the toss and bat’ be your watchword.” Tim Groenewald replaced Jamie Overton in the side. The first two of the three ‘B’s, Banton and Babar, walked out to bat as the crowd buzzed, almost bubbled, with anticipation. The buzz never went away all evening, never was the crowd entirely ‘quietened’ as sometimes happens to a crowd when the opposition run away with the match. There was though an almost eerie absence of applause from the home crowd, as far as I could see and hear from the bottom of the Tom Pearce Stand, when Banton tore into the pace of Beard in the second over.

For those who had, thus far, not seen Banton that over must have confirmed all they had heard, or feared. In five successive balls he drove straight, one bounce for four; lofted over mid-off, one bounce for four; with the two boundary fielders permitted in the six-over powerplay both deep on the leg side boundary he reverse swept over short third man, one bounce for four; pulled behind square, fine of the leg side fielders, one bounce for four. For Beard’s final ball Banton dispensed with the bounce and cleared the long off boundary between the Tom Pearce Stand and the scoreboard which promptly recorded 27 for 0 from 2 overs.

Some judicious hitting followed as Banton and Babar pushed Somerset forward against Zampa’s leg spin and Walter’s medium pace. Each was driven to the boundary, Zampa twice. When the boundary could not be reached singles were taken. When, off Walter, Banton failed by about two feet to clear the boundary over which his six had flown a faint groan of anti-climax among some in the crowd resulted; and when Babar failed to score off a ball from Walter there were ironic cheers for the bowler.

Somerset had raced with the audacity of a sweeping van Gogh brush stroke to 51 for 0 after four overs when Bopara took up the ball. Bowling from the Hayes Close End he struck almost immediately. A dot ball brought a cheer from some in the Essex crowd and a brief strain of “Somerset La La La” in response from the other end of the Pearce Stand. Then, in successive balls, Banton mistimed a scoop to be caught at short third man and Hildreth was brilliantly caught first ball at midwicket by Walter diving long and low. There were tremendous, instantaneous cheers for each of the two wickets but, apart from some in front of the Pavilion, there was no applause when Banton was out for what was a stunning 39 from 17 balls.

From 51 for 2 the Somerset innings was more deliberately paced as the batsmen looked to regroup and the Essex bowlers looked to capitalise on the Bopara breakthrough. There was just one run from Bopara’s over and from there Babar and Abell picked their way with some care but with sufficient intent to take Somerset forward at eight an over. Every dot ball from Bopara, and there were a few, was cheered. When Abell scooped Beard for six and drove him for four he attracted some cheers from the other end of the Tom Pearce Stand. When an attempted scoop bobbled forward a few feet off the toe of the bat the cheers turned to laughter.

In the 11th over Babar brought up the Somerset hundred with a lofted drive over extra cover. With nine overs left Somerset were 104 for 2 with Babar on 37 and Abell on 26. It was from this base that the batsmen launched a ferocious assault on Harmer, and on the Pearce Stand. Harmer’s first ball was driven straight by Babar and cleared the boundary just wide of the stand. When Abell took strike the ball landed on the roof. The next ball cleared the roof, hit something hard beyond and flew into the stand from behind. Off the next ball Abell drove furiously through the off side. The boundary fielder ran into take the catch, seemed perfectly positioned but missed the ball altogether and then looked bemused as it went through to the boundary. Somerset 128 for 2 with still eight overs remaining.

With Somerset threatening to run riot Zampa struck for Essex. Abell came down the pitch, attempted to steer the ball, and was stumped for 45 from 29 balls. T20 is often thought to be about runs but it is wickets that time and again stem, or at least restrict, a torrent of runs. For two overs Essex damned the flow. Then Babar tried to break out. Twice he found the boundary off Harmer and began to draw a response from the crowd. A lightning-quick cut which brought forth an almost involuntary cry of “Shot!” was followed by a sublime glance which drew applause.

Now Bopara struck again. It was as if he was bowling in a different match to the other Essex bowlers. Babar pulled his second ball straight to Harmer at wide long on and Somerset were 150 for 4. Babar 56 from 39 balls, perhaps because he had passed 50, walked off to more than a smattering of applause. Byrom, the third of the three ‘B’s, almost followed as a reverse sweep to third man provoked a cry of “Catch it!” from behind me and then a groan as the ball just fell short of the fielder.

Is T20 played by numbers? Mechanical rotation of bowlers often seeming to bear little relationship to what is taking place on the field sometimes suggests so. Whether it is or not, with four overs remaining Somerset’s flow of runs suddenly exploded into a virtually unstoppable flood. Byrom fell to Zampa along the way but not before he had run Amir and Zampa ragged. Twice in two balls Amir was pulled high, long and square over and beyond the spectators just to the side of the Pavilion. Zampa was pulled over midwicket for six and then the same stroke landed in the flats outside the ground.

Because of the furious pace at which T20 is played slapstick comedy visits it more often than it does the other forms of the game. Here it was visited upon Bopara. Byrom tried to clear the long off boundary off Zampa, the ball started to fall short, Bopara ran in, perfectly placed to take the catch, his heels flew out from under him and he landed flat on his back as the ball bounced over the rope. Groans from Essex supporters. Laughter from some of the Somerset supporters dotted about.

The last laugh was with Bopara however. When Byrom immediately repeated the stroke with the same lack of power Bopara made no mistake and the laughter was replaced by cheers. As with Banton, Byrom, 44, left the field to no more than a smattering of applause. But Somerset were now 192 for 5 with still two overs remaining. Van der Merwe hit a six and was out; Lammonby struck a brace of fours and Craig Overton completed what must have been a miserable evening for Beard (3-0-55-0) with a pair of huge sixes, “That one’s gone in the river”, someone said of the first and the second flew into a hospitality tent at long on. 225 for 6 the final brutal reckoning.

 

Starting out with a required run rate of 11.3 runs an over immediately places a side in the proverbial cleft stick. Attack from the outset in an attempt to keep up with the rate, as Somerset did at Richmond, risks wickets as Somerset discovered to their cost. Play yourself in or regroup after wickets and the required rate rises exponentially. Essex opted to attack from the start. As so often with such an approach it started well. Delport in particular was severe on the Somerset bowling, striking Taylor for three successive fours to huge cheers from the Essex crowd. If it were possible the cheers grew with each successive boundary. Even a Westley edge off Overton to third man for four had the Essex supporters cheering their team on. A straight drive from Delport off Overton was as good as any you will see. It was a spirited response. And yet at 30 for 0 after three overs the required rate had risen to 11.8. As so often such starts serve as much to identify the size of the task ahead as the brilliance of the cricket which got the batting side that far.

By the end of the fifth over Delport had gone for 22, sharply caught off Groenewald by Abell diving low to his right. Westley had followed skying Overton impossibly high but, with Waller hovering beneath, his fate was sealed long before the ball came down. The required rate had risen to over 12 and strains of “Somerset La La La” could be heard from the far, scoreboard end, of the Pearce Stand.

Wheater and Lawrence now worked to keep the Essex score moving but they were batting against an ever-rising required rate. The bowling of Groenewald and Taylor was persistent and Somerset’s fielding was at its predatory best. Lammonby once dived brilliantly to stop a ferocious pull in front of square from Wheater which all but the fielder had given up for four. Despite a beautifully cut four from Lawrence which flew to the boundary in front of the flats and a scooped four from Wheater the end of the seventh over saw the required rate approaching 13.

The inevitable Essex attempt to accelerate came in the eighth over for which Abell had reserved van der Merwe, one of Somerset’s two spinning T20 enforcers. The assault on van der Merwe brought a six for each batsman and a catch to Hildreth at backward point to remove Wheater. It was almost as inevitable as the start of the Essex assault had been, for trying to score at 13 runs an over for 13 overs is fraught with unavoidable risk. Lawrence and ten Doeschate attempted to continue the full-blooded Essex assault with a straight-driven six and a four against the other enforcer, Waller and his mischievous leg spin. The outcome was the same. This time a Lawrence attempt to clear long on resulted in a classic Overtonian chase along the boundary which ended with a running leap and another falling ball being plucked mercilessly from the air.

And still Essex, now four down, needed nearly 13 an over as Somerset extracted a high price in wickets as Essex tried to keep up the flow of runs. Essex now had to face van der Merwe with no leeway for caution. The result was devastating. Ten Doeschate drove him hard, but to Abell, as deadly a catcher in the ring as Waller is on the boundary. Bopara top edged so high that Banton, from behind the stumps, took the catch at cover and Walter was, almost anti-climatically, lbw. From 89 for 7 there was no return for Essex. Beard slog-swept van der Merwe over long leg for six to ironic cheers but foundered trying for another as Overton plucked another ball from the air above the boundary.

A final wicket apiece for van der Merwe and Waller left van der Merwe with five and Waller with three. There can be few better combined purveyors of spin in the competition than van der Merwe and Waller. When they get it right in such circumstances as these I sometimes wonder if the ball seems to the batsman to swirl like van Gogh’s sky. And what a painting of that floating, dipping, swirling, fast-turning ball might van Gogh have devised.

Result. Somerset. 225 for 5 (20/20 overs) (Babar Azam 56 (39 balls), T.B. Abell 45 (25), E.J. Byrom 44 (22), R.S.Bopara 3-18 (econ 4.50), A. Zampa 2-43 (10.75). Essex 111 (12.5/20 overs) (R.E. van der Merwe 5-32 (10.66), M.T.C. Waller 3-26 (6.78)). Somerset won by 114 runs. Somerset 2 points. Essex 0 points.