The view from the Hollies Stand

County Championship Division 1. Warwickshire v Somerset. 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st August 2019. Edgbaston.

Somerset. T.B. Abell (c), Babar Azam, J.C. Hildreth, T. Banton, G.A. Bartlett, S.M. Davies (w), D.M. Bess, R.E. van der Merwe, C. Overton, J. Overton, J.A. Brooks. 

Warwickshire. W.H.M. Rhodes, D.P. Sibley, R.M. Yates, S.R. Hain, A.J. Hose, T.R. Ambrose (w), M.G.K. Burgess, H.J.H. Brookes, J.S. Patel (c), O.J. Hannon-Dalby, G.A. Garrett.

Jack Leach and Lewis Gregory were not available for selection for this match. Leach having been selected to play for England at Lord’s and Gregory being injured. 

First day – The view from the Hollies Stand 

Toss. Warwickshire. Elected to bat.

It is two years since I last stayed in Birmingham. For Somerset’s last Championship match here. The area around New Street Station was a building site then. It had been for two or three seasons. I knew how to find my way around that building site. How to get to and from the hotel. Where to find the bus stop to get to the cricket. Where to buy lunch to take with me. Simple. Now the building site has gone. Replaced by a swish new shopping and eating complex, Grand Central, integrated with the station. It really is very impressive. Impressive, but I couldn’t find a thing. When I finally found the shop I was looking for it had hidden the vegetable samosas I usually take to the cricket.

Eventually I found the samosas (with the salads). Finding the right exit from the centre was another riddle for the unwary traveller to unravel. I do, I assure you, make preparations for these cricketing odysseys. I had checked the all-knowing internet although I do tend to find it knows less than it thinks it does. 63 bus from St Martins Queensway. No such exit from the centre or any such road on the information map. “You need Smallbrook Queensway,” said the man in the high viz jacket. Of course. Found my way onto Smallbrook Queensway. There was the bus stop. The ‘St Martins Queensway’ bus stop. Boarded a 63 bus. “You need a 45 or a 47,” said the driver.

And so I missed the fall of Dom Sibley. A brilliant one-handed catch low down at gully by van der Merwe off Brooks apparently. Warwickshire 4 for 1 when I reached my seat. I tend to sit in the upper reaches of the the vast expanse that is the Hollies Stand, square of the wicket, when I come to Edgbaston for the Championship. And for this match it is very close to the wicket which is set well over to that side. You can spread yourself out in the Hollies Stand in the Championship. I doubt there is one spectator for every hundred seats. For the Championship people tend to congregate in the entirely shaded huge Pavilion that stretches an entire end of the ground, or in one or other of the sun-drenched (on a day such as this) stands at the other end of the ground.

The pitch looked a uniform straw colour, rather as if it had been covered in sacking. Pitches of that colour usually spell only one thing to me. Runs. If Abell had been permitted to pick one toss this season to win I suspect, when he saw the pitch, it may have been this one. As I re-established my Edgbaston bearings Rhodes and Yates, left-handers both, were establishing their bearings on the pitch and making a decent fist of it. They started cautiously but the balls that were struck firmly came sweetly of the bat and anxiety began to grow in the Somerset mind that this might be a long day.

“Come on boys. We can do this,” implored Abell at one point. And for a while it looked like the Overton brothers might give substance to the plea. Bowling together they began to beat the bat. And twice to find the edge of Rhodes’ bat. Off Jamie the ball flew tantalisingly wide of the fine gully. Off Craig the ball flew fast and low towards Jamie at second slip. Some thought it a chance. From square it appeared perhaps to pitch inches in front of his fingers and, from his reaction, give them a stinging blow on the way through. It was Yates who, in that spell of play, began to paint the developing picture of the day. In successive balls he drove Jamie Overton through cover to the invitingly close Hollies boundary and cut him perfectly through backward point to the Barnes Stand. Those strokes were harbingers of the quality of the innings which was to follow.

By the end of the first hour both batsmen were driving with some assurance and the ball had virtually ceased to pass the bat. On the stroke of noon Bess was bowling from the Pavilion End. After four overs he was bowling from the Birmingham End. A sure sign he was getting no help from the pitch. I watched a few overs from behind the Hollies Stand. There are screens there on which, at the same time, you could watch the match taking place in front of the stand and the one taking place at Lord’s. I could detect no real sign of turn for Bess or movement for Brooks, or much intent beyond occupation of the crease from England at Lord’s. Brooks had replaced Overton at the Birmingham End and suffered three boundaries in one over in the process. I am inclined to take wickets from behind stands, Sibley’s being a case in point, but I was doing no good on this occasion so I returned to my seat.

That didn’t do much good either for Rhodes and Yates were into their stride. When Abell took an over to enable Bess to bowl from the other end Rhodes drove him straight for four with such power a man in front of me gasped in astonishment. When he cut Jamie Overton through backward point for four the stroke brought more applause than the usual boundary ration for the Warwickshire crowd were beginning to warm to their side’s efforts. When, just before lunch, Rhodes turned Jamie Overton behind square for the single which brought up his fifty there was warmth in the applause. The Somerset bowlers had though stuck to their task, forcing the batsmen into defence perhaps more than the pitch warranted. But the lack of balls passing the bat suggested the pitch would be more than a little reluctant to yield up wickets although the text from the online watcher worried it might turn later in the match.

 

With the lunch score on 105 for 1 after 32 overs I wandered onto the outfield. It was exceptionally lush, like walking on a thick carpet of the richest green. The pitch, by contrast, looked as if it was made of coarse rock. There was not a mark on it. Apart from the batsman’s guard marks and a bit of footmark scuffing behind the crease there was nothing. It was almost as if it had not been played on. I glanced towards the Hollies Stand. It was less than a stone’s throw away. It seemed so much closer from the middle than the pitch did from the stand. Like those that Somerset used to play on very close to the Somerset Stand a few years ago. From the middle you realise just how large the Edgbaston outfield is. The far boundary seemed impossibly distant. It reminded of when, against my better judgement, I once played in a ‘works’ match on a huge outfield and the batsman called ‘come five’ when I reached the ball as it stopped a foot inside such a boundary.

And then the chat. Always at lunchtime in the Championship I wander into someone or other I know and there is chat. There is never a shortage of Somerset supporters at away matches. “Yates has confirmed for me he looks the best of their young batsmen,” said someone who watches and, in his time, played a lot of cricket. Someone else brought the news that there had been rain at Canterbury, Essex had inserted Kent and Kent were 11 for 1. Essex have had much the better of the latter half of the Championship season when Somerset have had to play the teams near the top of the table they did not have to play in the early part of the season.

 

I returned to my seat via the members lounge on the second floor of the Pavilion. It was teeming with people. There is a tremendous view from quite a height and there are two more floors above that. Craig Overton persuaded one ball to move away quite sharply and beat the bat beautifully but otherwise I saw little to trouble the batsmen. I returned to my seat just as Overton finally induced an edge to the keeper from Rhodes who had reached 82. It seemed, if there is such a thing in cricket, a just reward for Overton’s efforts, for on a tough day he had been the pick of the Somerset bowlers. But 153 for 2 from 40 overs told a tale. Warwickshire had the base to build a score from which they could dominate this match.

The departure of Rhodes marked a change in the tempo of the day. 153 runs were scored in the first 40 overs. 150 in the next 56. The scoring rate fell from nearly four an over to less than three. Or perhaps it was Bess and Jamie Overton bowling in tandem who changed the mood, for they bowled 11 persistently accurate overs for 16 runs. Exceptional given the state of the match. They set the tone for much of the rest of the day. Over the next 15 overs Bess, Abell and Brooks held the batsmen in check and conceded just 26 runs with Hain being particularly constrained. Twice in two balls Brooks beat Yates causing the slips hands to reach for their heads. Abell, with heavy grey cloud coming in and the floodlights coming on for the first time in the day, beat Hain. The real story of that hour, however, was of the determination of the Somerset bowlers to shackle the batsmen. Tea arived at 200 for 2 with the return of the sun and applause for Warwickshire’s first bonus point. Just 95 runs in the afternoon session.

There were worried Somerset faces and smiling Warwickshire ones as the Warwickshire supporters gave their team an extended round of applause as they left the field. A second visit to the middle revealed nothing more than the slightest hint of discolouration, no marks, where the bowlers’ footmarks normally are. It was so slight I did not see it until someone pointed it out to me.

There had been a chill breeze all day in the shade although not enough to persuade me to remove my fleece from around my waist and put it over my shoulders. It did though persuade me to move to the front row of the Hollies Stand and some warmth from the sun. Close enough to hear the players talking in the middle but not close enough to hear what they were saying. To my astonishment I was recognised by a local Somerset supporter who I had met only once previously and that at Edgbaston five seasons ago. It must be the hat.

And so to the final session. Van der Merwe had bowled but one over before tea. Now he bowled six overs for two runs and the wicket of Hain, caught behind for 25, as the batsmen seemed to have no answer to him but to prod the ball back down the pitch. Taking risks to score runs seemed to be outside the remit of the Warwickshire batsmen. “This has all the feel of Warwickshire only wanting to bat once however long it takes,” said the incoming text. It hit home for, however much the Somerset bowlers stemmed the runs, if wickets did not come it had a ring of prophecy about it.

There was, meanwhile, some relief for the batsmen at the other end as Yates pulled Craig Overton for four and, off the next ball, drove into the covers for two to reach 100 for the first time in his first-class career. That brought a standing ovation from most Warwickshire supporters. Loud applause too when he twice cut Jamie Overton behind square and drove him through the covers for four. “Keep working’” called Abell. Van der Merwe and Bess, with Abell bowling one maiden to turn them around, did just that, bowling nine overs for 14 runs. Abell delayed the new ball until the 86th over perhaps in the hope that the stranglehold on scoring might produce a wicket.

From a Somerset perspective the new ball was a mixed blessing. Craig Overton broke through Hose’s defences to find his pads. Even from square I felt no doubt. It may sound an odd thing to say but something convinced me well before the umpire’s finger was raised. Hose had played well back but there was something more. Something about Hose’s body language, and Overton’s, which told a story. Hose 17. It was a much-needed wicket for Somerset and there was hope too. “Something is happening,” said my acquaintance of five seasons ago. And it seemed it was. The wicket. Some playing and missing. A huge appeal for caught behind and there was definitely a noise but it sounded muffled. Perhaps pad or thigh. An edge at a perfect catchable height flew through fourth slip when there were only two. But 45 runs came from the last ten overs. It shifted the momentum back Warwickshire’s way. In among those runs Yates judged a glance to perfection and Hose had driven Overton straight. Ambrose got off the mark with a late cut to savour which reached the R.E.S. Wyatt Stand boundary and Yates reached the long boundary all along the ground with a cover drive.

Warwickshire reached the close on 303 for 4, perhaps 20 runs and one wicket more than they might have had had Abell persisted with the spinners and kept the new ball until the morning. It had been a gruelling day in the field and the batsmen had been made to work their passage pretty hard for their runs. It was cricket of the old sort. Nothing offered. Nothing given. Few risks taken. Somerset have a ball only ten overs old. Warwickshire have a batsman well set and wickets in the bank. There is still life in this match but Warwickshire will feel they have a decided edge.

A word about Yates. At 19 years old he had batted the day for 139 and will return on the second morning. He, and Warwickshire, were applauded off the field. Many Warwickshire supporters watched him every inch of the way to the Pavilion and they were still talking about him on the packed bus into Birmingham as I made my way back for another foray into Grand Central. And to discover that Kent were 125 for 6 against Essex. There really is much work for Somerset to do.

Close. Warwickshire 303 for 4.