Turning the hop tide

T20. Somerset v Kent. 10th August 2019. Taunton.

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. 

Kent. D.J. Bell-Drummond, Z. Crawley, H.G. Kuhn, S.W. Billings (c), Mohammad Nabi, A.J. Blake, O.G. Robinson (w), A.F. Milne, G.C. Viljoen, F.J. Klaassen, M.E. Claydon. 

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat. 

Turning the hop tide

The hop tide had swept Somerset aside for far too long for either comfort or logic. For 11 successive T20 games to be precise. The chances of a tossed coin landing on the same side 11 times in succession are 2047 to 1 against. It doesn’t work like that in terms of match outcomes of course but even so that number gives an indication of the relentlessness of the Kent tide which has overwhelmed Somerset in T20 in recent times. Somerset came into this match on the back of two impressive wins but the Kent ‘bogey’, powered by the return of Billings, still hung heavy in the air even if the evening itself was bright and breezy. The pitch on the other hand, as seen from the top of the Somerset Pavilion, looked a dark greasy green as if it were the arm of a sofa which had not been cleaned for years.

Amidst the usual ear-splitting music, booming announcements, voluminous chatter and, for this televised match, mammoth flamethrowers the umpires and the cricketers emerged from between two rows of flag waving child cricketers. Almost apologetically it seemed the players and officials took up their positions for the start of the match and, apparently apropos of nothing, Milne ran into bowl to Banton. Immediately he got Somerset going with five leg side wides which allowed the crowd to exercise its voice with pantomime cheers. Real cheers followed when Banton drove Milne’s first legitimate ball off the back foot through point to the Somerset Stand for four. Two balls later he pulled through midwicket from where the ball beat the deep fielder to the Caddick Pavilion boundary. “Come on. Take a wicket,” shouted the Kent captain, Billings, his voice carried through the persistent hubbub to the top of the Somerset Stand on a breeze strong enough to keep the flag on the Caddick Pavilion horizontal.

The audacity, timing and power of Banton’s first stroke and the placement of his second stirred Somerset hopes. Hopes had been stirred and dashed before over those 11 Kent victories but if Banton ‘came off’ Somerset might ask questions of Kent. Whilst Banton threatened, Babar, an off drive to the Colin Atkinson boundary apart, seemed uncharacteristically constrained by Nabi and Viljoen. When he steered the latter fine of third man towards the Sir Ian Botham Stand he set off for a second run that produced a sharp groan even before the stumps were broken for the run had looked an impossible venture from the outset. The heads around me had barely finished shaking when Banton tore into Klaassen. Two stunning drives through extra cover to the Temporary Stand, one ground-hugging, the other lofted were followed by a reverse pull to the Ondaatje, all for four. Each stroke brought cheers which left a pulsating swell of chatter and anticipation behind them for in those strokes lay promise of more to come.

At the other end Hildreth struggled to find any fluidity at all. Three balls in succession he was forced to defend by Viljoen. At the fourth he launched a sharp cut and missed. The fifth he pulled, miscued and the ball looped wide but short of the closing square leg fielder for a single. Although an off drive found the Gimblett’s Hill boundary, Hildreth never broke free and in the attempt was lbw to Nabi reverse sweeping. He had made seven from 11 balls. “Come on Somerset!” implored an anxious voice from the back of the Somerset Pavilion.

Banton too was occasionally constrained by the Kent bowlers but soon the bat was flying. It was an innings of power and invention. There was a cover drive off Milne which neatly bisected two fielders. A huge driven six off Nabi bounced on the top step of the Garner Gates gap where, amidst the tumultuous cheers for the stroke, an orange-jacketed steward, with his eye on the ball, watched it all the way in and then neatly side-stepped it as it landed. In T20 it is not just batsmen and fielders who must keep their eye on the ball. And you had to keep your eye on the scoreboard too for while Babar and Hildreth struggled Banton had taken 42 runs from 24 balls and Somerset to 67 for 2 in the eighth over.

After Hildreth came Abell. The Abell who had first shown himself in the T20 semi-final in 2018 and who has sharpened his cutting edge since. His normal method is as correct as Banton’s is swashbuckling. The legionnaire to the cavalier. Although where the need arises or the opportunity presents they can each play the other’s game. Devastating both when the spirit is upon them. It was here. When Claydon threatened to apply the brake Banton lifted a ball off a length from where it crashed into the Caddick Pavilion wall. When Klaassen threatened to contain it was Abell, with the most mouth-watering of late cuts, who sent the ball, to gasps of astonishment, skimming the ground to the Somerset Pavilion boundary.

In T20 luck tends to be a greater part of the batsman’s armoury than in other forms of the game. Both Abell and Banton benefited in this innings. A textbook drive from Abell off Klaassen would have provided a textbook chest-high catch for first slip were such to exist in T20 beyond the first over. A miscue from a Banton drive off Viljoen looped in a perfect arc to point where it fell neatly into Milne’s hands and bounced out again as if it had landed on a spring. But it was skill that really drove the partnership forward. Abell, showing he is not entirely devoid of the cavalier spirit, scooped Viljoen straight over the keeper’s head towards the Somerset Pavilion. Bated breath on the top tier as the ball fell from view was followed by a great cheer from below. Six. ‘Hit and giggle’ T20 is sometimes referred to by the lover of traditional red ball cricket but the skill involved in playing such a stroke simply takes the breath away. Somerset were 98 for 2 with nearly 10 overs to go as the hope grew.

The prodigious talent that is Banton was then unleashed on the off spin of Nabi. In three successive balls a reverse sweep crashed into the Trescothick Stand boards, a drive through midwicket bisected two fielders and turned one run into two, “Come on!” shouted the man at the back of the stand. A classically driven six cleared the wall behind the Trescothick and Sir Ian Botham Stands, bounced on the river bank and floated off towards Burnham-on-Sea. Abell meanwhile attacked Claydon. He pulled to the Ondaatje boundary and when Claydon pitched short and several feet outside off he stretched far after the ball, shaped to cut and the ball rocketed to the Somerset Stand boundary. It was batting to lift Somerset spirits to the heights after the long dark winter of defeat at the hands of Kent. Cheers followed every boundary and supercharged chatter filled the evening air after every cheer. Even the ghosts that reside where the old Stragglers bar stood received a six into their midst when Banton clipped Klaasen over long leg with an ease which might have prompted them to forgive him that he had done it with a white ball.

Banton’s was a devastating innings. He slowed only when Bell-Drummond’s medium pace restricted both batsmen to a succession of singles. Banton’s riposte was to pull Bell-Drummond brutally to the Caddick Pavilion for another six. It brought up his hundred from 52 balls. He had hit five sixes, nine fours and taken Somerset to 169 for 3 with nearly four overs remaining. But no-one was counting overs for as the ball crossed the boundary the ground was enveloped in a deafening roar as everyone who could stand stood, arms aloft and applauding for all they were worth. Every Kent player I could see joined in the applause. And then it was over. Banton miscued and was caught by Blake at long on and another standing ovation followed him all the way to the Pavilion.

While the crowd bathed in thoughts of Banton’s innings Kent’s ever-persistent bowlers got to work. Byrom, himself fast developing a reputation for devastating hitting, swept Bell-Drummond twice. The first ball found the boundary; the second hit his pad and the umpire raised his finger. Lammonby, making a mark with some useful bowling and spectacular fielding, is yet to make his way with the bat and was bowled here trying to drive Milne through the on side. Wickets strangle scoring and Somerset added just ten runs in two overs. 179 for 5 at the end of the 18th over. Abell tried to regain some momentum against Viljoen but re-charging an innings brings risk. A scoop cleared the Sir Ian Botham Stand boundary, a lofted off drive just evaded the outstretched hands of a diving boundary fielder, another scoop bounced over the rope at fine leg and, finally, an attempt to clear the long off boundary landed safely in Crawley’s hands. 195 for 8 at the end of the 19th over. Abell had made 63 from 33 balls which was within an ace of matching Banton’s strike rate. Another tremendous ovation followed him all the way from the field.

And then, from the heights of those two innings a classic T20 last over followed. A straight six to the Sir Ian Botham Stand from Overton, a run out with Overton and van der Merwe at the same end, assorted singles, and Groenewald’s splayed stumps as he tried to launch the ball to the Ondaatje Pavilion. Somerset ended on 206 for 8. Perhaps a dozen short of where they might have hoped to be when Banton and Abell were in full flow but precious riches against Kent.

 

The Kent innings started as do so many against Somerset. With five runs off Waller. Taylor, this season, has tended to restrict the batsmen in his opening overs and to suffer retribution, in terms of runs conceded, in the closing overs of the innings. He is though Somerset’s top wicket-taker with 12 in nine matches. Here he conceded four runs. “Good over,” someone shouted. Overton, with 11 wickets, conceded the first boundary when Crawley pulled viciously through Lammonby’s upstretched hands at midwicket, but only conceded six from the over. A steady start from both sides but an asking rate of 10.4 at the start of the innings had risen to 11.3. The crowd knew the value of the early squeeze on the Kent batting and applauded at the end of each over.

When a side facing a large total starts slowly and keeps its wickets it feels like you are waiting for an ever-tightening coiled spring to be unleashed. Everyone knows an explosion of runs or the fall of a wicket is coming and as the coil tightens the expectation rises. You could feel it as the chatter became more intense, more animated. It was Bell-Drummond, perhaps most responsible for keeping Somerset’s score just within bounds, who unleashed the spring. In successive balls he drove Groenewald to the Colin Atkinson boundary and over the Trescothick boundary.

Kent, to win, would have to score at 11 runs an over or better for another 16 overs. Crawley left no-one in any doubt about his intentions. He struck 14 off the first three balls of Overton’s next over, the fifth. An off drive along the ground to Gimblett’s Hill brought groans, more of shock than frustration, when Waller, at mid-off, reached easily down for the ball and let it pass by under his hand. Waller. Missing something as straightforward as that. Waller misses nothing. He stops the impossible. You could see people’s thoughts in their faces. But even Waller would not have stopped Crawley’s next stroke for the ball cleared the Ondaatje boundary. Overton’s third ball Crawley scooped. Four to the Colin Atkinson boundary. By the end of the over Kent were 46 for 0, Crawley had kept the strike but the required rate had only just dipped just below 11.

And it was 11 an over every over. Crawley charged on against Taylor but Taylor was on the mark. A drive flew off the inside edge, just evaded the keeper to groans from the crowd, and raced to Gimblett’s Hill. Taylor ran his long run in again. Crawley drove straight to Babar at mid-on. Babar always seems invisible in the field but if the ball comes towards him he appears, as if from nowhere, and, almost apologetically, takes the catch. Kent 50 for 1 in the sixth.

Now the Somerset bowlers piled on the pressure. Groenewald, van der Merwe, Overton and van der Merwe again. Groenwald, understated, and perhaps often underestimated, kept Kuhn and Bell-Drummond to six singles. “That was a good over,” someone said. Five singles, and Kuhn once deceived, by van der Merwe. You cannot see tension, you cannot touch it, but you can feel it as it grips and tightens the muscles. Kuhn, with the required run rate rising, tried to drive Overton. The ball flew through the ever-empty slips for four but Overton gave nothing and kept the over to six. The muscles tightened further. Even when Bell-Drummond drove van der Merwe straight into the Sir Ian Botham Stand van der Merwe kept the over to 11. That was not enough for Kent for the required rate was now beyond 12 although Kent at 83 for 1 were only seven behind the DLS par score.

The tension, and the pressure, was intense. Abell drew one or two gasps when he gave the ball to the most inexperienced player on the field, Lammonby. Kuhn dropped to one knee and slog swept Lammonby’s first ball over the Temporary Stand. Six. And what a six. Applause  from the crowd. At such times shall ye know your bowlers. Kuhn drove. Lammonby beat him. Kuhn drove again, hugely, the ball steepled high and long over mid-off towards Gimblett’s Hill. Waller, from mid-off, pedalled back, and back, and back again until he was under the ball. When Waller is under a ball mistakes very rarely come into the equation. The cheer which erupted thundered until it felt like a solid wall of noise. It was a cheer for the catch, a cheer for Lammonby’s nerve and a cheer for the shift in the balance of the match for Kent now needed nearly 13 an over with a new batsman at the wicket.

Now Waller with the ball. Billings and Bell-Drummond with the bat. Waller dropped horribly short, Billings mistimed the gift of a pull and had to settle for a single. Six off the over. Applause for Waller. Well bowled but no-one said it. Kent needed over 13 an over for eight overs or what has become known in T20 as a ‘big’ over. The crunch could not be delayed. Something had to give. It gave in the most astonishing and decisive fashion. Bell-Drummond pulled Overton towards the Somerset Stand. The stroke lacked power and the ball began to fall short. On the boundary, Byrom, nowhere near the falling ball, set off at pace, looking like he might just intercept on the bounce. Suddenly he took off, flung himself high and forward and, almost as if he were levitating as he went, took the ball with his outstretched hands, clutched it to his chest and fell to Earth. If a crowd could be stunned the Taunton one was in that instant. But only for an instant for there followed something unique in my cricket watching history. A standing ovation for a catch.

And then, with the pressure ever increasing, Kent, still striving for the line, dashed themselves against the rest of that Overton over. Billings drove hard, the ball flew towards the heavens and Abell moved to catch it half way between the pitch and the Somerset Stand. “Somerset, Somerset, Somerset,” erupted the Somerset Stand. Off his first ball Nabi drove hard too, again the ball flew to the heavens and this time Taylor moved in to take the largesse. Three wickets in the over left Kent on 101 for 5 and the required rate rising above 15. 106 were needed in seven overs with both batsmen at the wicket yet to face a ball. An over of five singles against some searching bowling from Groenewald backed up by predatory fielding took the rate to nearly 17. “Well bowled!” the comment from the back of the stand. Applause for Groenewald from everyone else.

With 101 needed from six overs with four wickets standing Blake launched into Waller as Kent charged on. A six soared high to the Ondaatje Stand to applause for the batsman. A lofted straight drive rose towards the Somerset Pavilion, dropped out of sight, the top deck held its breath, waited for the bottom deck, huge cheers from below, cheers from above in response. Blake gone for nine. Lammonby with the catch. Over 18 an over needed. Robinson attacked van der Merwe as the crowd burst into song alongside the Beatles blasting forth from the PA. 13 from the over but the required rate was nearly 20. That 11-match cloud was receding.

Taylor started an over to shouts of, “Come on Jerome”. Lammonby threw from the boundary, Robinson short of his ground, 129 for 7. “Somerset La La La, Somerset La LaLa,” roared the Temporary Stand. Waller next. Viljoen pulled. Bowled. The crowd sang itself hoarse to the strains of Neil Diamond. Milne ran hard for two. Lammonby threw again. Accurate again. Run out! The crowd on its feet. “Somerset La La La, Somerset La la La,” from the top of the Somerset Pavilion. Taylor again. Milne six into the Somerset Pavilion. Applause. Milne again. The ball steepling. Van der Merwe underneath. Caught. And the game was over. There were no more batsmen. The hop tide had been turned. Cheers, endless cheers. The crowd sang the Beatles unaided. Abell acknowledged the crowd in every corner of the ground. The team were applauded all the way to the Pavilion. T20 at its best.

Result. Somerset 206 for 8 (20/20 overs) (T. Banton 100 (53 balls), T.B. Abell 63 (33), D.J. Bell-Drummond 2-19 (econ 9.50), A.F. Milne 2-35 (8.75)). Kent 151 (18.4 overs) (D.J. Bell-Drummond 36 (26), Z. Crawley 35 (24), C. Overton 3-32 (8.00), M.T.C. Waller 2-27 (6.75), J.E. Taylor (7.36). Somerset won by 55 runs. Somerset 2 points. Kent 0 points.