The Hollies Stand symposium

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

Overnight. Warwickshire 303 for 4.

Second day – The Hollies Stand symposium

I am a fast learner. I found the samosas immediately today, and the way out of Grand Central. Straight onto a bus too and a 47 at that. I found myself sitting next to a Warwickshire supporter. Our combined ages totalled somewhere over 150 years. How many over is something known only to he and I. I can say he watched his first Warwickshire game before I was born and I first watched Somerset before Bill Alley scored over 3000 first-class runs in a season and for that matter before M.J.K. Smith did the same thing. In all those years we had never met. And yet before we were a minute into our bus ride we were talking cricket and football, apparently they play that in Birmingham, as if we had known each other down all those years. And if we ever bump into each other again no doubt we will carry on where we left off. County cricket supporters are like that. You can strike up a conversation with an opposition supporter just as easily as you can with one of your own side. And if you happen to sit next to an opposition supporter at a match the conversation can stretch interminably.

And so did the queue for tickets in the Warwickshire shop. There are a lot of Somerset supporters at this match and there were a fair number of locals in the queue too. And, of course, I managed to miss the first wicket. I really shouldn’t have done because I had wondered if Yates would be out early. Batsmen who are not out with a three figure score overnight are often out early the next morning. I have no statistical evidence to back up that assertion but it certainly seems that way in my experience. Yates had made an excellent maiden century at the age of 19. He must have been on ‘cloud nine’. I wonder if he slept at all. A second excellent catch by van der Merwe in the gully by all accounts. Brooks the bowler with his first ball of the day. Van der Merwe can be the most ungainly looking of cricketers and the most spectacularly effective.

And so to the Hollies Stand, high up and square, my home from home at Edgbaston. Somerset followed up the wicket with some controlling bowling from Brooks and Craig Overton and some sharp fielding with Warwickshire, a boundary off a no ball from Brooks apart, unable to make progress. Pressure takes wickets. It might have taken the wicket of Ambrose, for suddenly out of a study of careful defence he flashed hard at a shortish ball wide of off stump and edged Brooks to Davies behind the stumps. In five overs Warwickshire had lost two key wickets for ten runs. The general view among Somerset supporters I had spoken to was that if Warwickshire could be restricted to 350 or less then Somerset would still have a foothold in the game. Those two wickets and the lack of runs fuelled that hope.

And then the story of the morning changed. Supported by Brooks and Patel, how many times over the years has he had a hand in frustrating Somerset, Burgess launched an assault on the Somerset bowling that, to all intents and purposes, put the match beyond Somerset’s reach. He scored 52 at nearly a run a ball building on the base of a Warwickshire innings that had been painstakingly forged at barely three runs an over. 16 runs came off one Jamie Overton over. A powerful drive was followed by a neat glance to the Wyatt Stand boundary. Overton responded with an ill-directed bouncer which the batsman easily evaded and which evaded Davies despairing dive to end up where the glance had gone. And then another glance, all for four.

That cameo of an over epitomised Blake’s approach and not just his. Brookes, before he departed for 12, had played an almost contemptuous uppercut for six, just behind square over the microscopic Hollies Stand boundary. His near namesake, Brooks, the bowler. It set the Warwickshire crowd buzzing for it was a stunning, if unorthodox, stroke. It was Somerset supporters though who were buzzing when Brooks departed off Jamie Overton to a van der Merwe catch astonishing even by van der Merwe’s astonishing catching standards. Brookes had tried to turn the ball, which pitched outside leg, behind square. The ball took the back of the bat and flew with Overton’s pace well wide of van der Merwe at gully. “Four” the thought that flashed across the mind. Not across van der Merwe’s mind. He flashed through the air, like a supercharged grasshopper, and took a one-handed catch low and impossibly far to his right. “Ohhhh!” the instant and involuntary reaction of the Somerset supporter next to me. Applause the delayed reaction of the Warwickshire crowd.

Van der Merwe’s catch epitomised Somerset’s fielding, particularly that of Abell at cover or point in front of the Hollies boundary, and on that side of the ground the point fielder in this match is nearer the boundary than the stumps. Drives and cuts, apparently destined for the boundary, were snared by Abell as he pounced, a mousetrap to van der Merwe’s grasshopper. But the fielding, sharp though it was, barely seemed to slow the Warwickshire surge. Patel found the boundary too. Twice in two balls off Jamie Overton. A neat drive off his legs to the short boundary was followed by a straight drive to the Pavilion boundary. Lunch, delayed by a rain break and then forced early by a nasty squall was taken with Warwickshire on 384 for 7, Burgess on a run-a-ball 45 and Patel on a near run-a-ball 13. Just 18 overs in the session due to the rain and a devastating, for Somerset, 81 runs.

A comment on the weather. A sharp shower during the morning session, and another in the afternoon each took the players off for what seemed unconscionable amounts of time for the amount of rain that fell. I have no doubt there was very good reason for the length of the delays. Heavy overnight rain may have been a factor and another short shower did fall before one of the resumptions. But the lack of information to the crowd about why there was no activity either by the umpires or ground staff even in bright sunshine and with no rain falling served only to foster discontent. It is not just at Edgbaston this happens. It is fairly commonplace across the first-class game in this country. I was glad I had not brought someone to their first Championship match. I wonder if they would have stayed. The first-class game is under enough threat as it is without that sort of PR own goal.

I was joined, at various points in the day by several Somerset supporters from different parts of the county and the country. And as is the way of these things we whiled away the intervals and the rain breaks with discussions about all things Somerset cricket, and the rather fractured world beyond cricket too. The County Championship is a wonderful setting for such discussions. There are decent-length intervals, although we would have willingly given up the rain breaks; and the cricket, although played with gripping intensity is played at a pace which fosters discussion. It is a wonderful place to hold an impromptu symposium on any topic under the sun even when there is no sun.

The Championship, of course, was one of the centres of discussion. The hopes of earlier in the season, when Somerset won five of their first six matches against the four clubs, including Warwickshire, in the bottom half of the table now on shaky ground indeed. Essex have the wind in their sails and Yorkshire, still some distance behind Somerset in the table, have the spinnaker out whilst Somerset seem becalmed after heavy defeats to both of those counties. And now they were running into heavy water against Warwickshire. There is still quite a bit of cricket to be played but a sea change in Somerset’s late season form will be needed if Essex are to be overhauled and Yorkshire fended off particuarly as those two teams are yet to visit Taunton.

The tempo of the Warwickshire innings changed after lunch as Craig Overton and Abell finally asserted some control. The final three Warwickshire wickets fell for 35 runs in 14 overs. Burgess drove at a widish ball from Overton and dragged it into his stumps. Patel drove Abell spectacularly back over his head for four but lost his wicket to him caught, typically neatly, at slip by Hildreth for 25. A last wicket stand between Hannon-Dalby, a specialist in last wicket stands against Somerset it seems, and Garrett, added 15 runs in nine overs to take Warwickshire to 419 all out. Abell and Davies revealed the new Somerset opening partnership, after the departure of Azhar Ali, by sprinting to the Pavilion.

The symposium resumed its discussion bolstered by a text from an online watcher who pointed out that Somerset had not used a single over of spin on the second day. It did seem odd given the glut of runs whilst Burgess was at the wicket compared with the run famine on the previous day when van der Merwe was bowling. Bess had bowled tidily too after an expensive start. Good reasons for that decision too no doubt, Abell is pretty astute as a captain and decisive too.

And so to the Somerset innings. Somerset have not often managed to bat ‘long’ this season and that was an ongoing discussion for the symposium through the afternoon. In 2018 Hildreth at four and Abell at five had been the engine room of the Somerset batting. Both had averaged over 40 and Hildreth had been one of only two first division batsmen to score more than a thousand runs in the season. Since the loss of Trescothick to poor form Abell had moved up to open and Hildreth had been moved up to three. There were doubtless very good reasons for the changes, an inexperienced top order would otherwise result perhaps being one of them, but it has, it seems, sacrificed Somerset’s batting engine room in the process.

Perhaps all the time the answer to the top order conundrum has been sitting in the dressing room for Davies now proceeded to play an innings of class, beauty and calm as a storm raged around him. A wicketkeeper successfully opening the batting in first-class cricket is a rare phenomenon. Standing behind the stumps for four sessions and then immediately walking out to bat against opening bowlers is a huge demand on the well of concentration that is a cricketer’s lifeblood. One swallow does not a summer make and neither does one innings but for this innings at least Davies looked the part. But more of Davies later. First, what of the storm?

Abell, after a typically punched straight drive for four off Brookes, left a straight ball from the same bowler, which clipped his off stump half way up. Hildreth after an edge through the slips for four was lbw with little foot movement to Hannon-Dalby adding to the Symposium’s anxiety about him batting at three. Babar, trying to clip his first ball square spooned it straight to Brookes at mid-wicket and Somerset were 44 for 3.

Davies meanwhile, seemingly floating on a sea of calm, was stroking the ball with the ease of that velvet-like touch of his. His ability to drive with barely a sound from the bat and deflect the ball on either side of the wicket with precision and without seemingly taking off any of the pace delivered to him by the bowler is jaw-dropping. Brookes was twice, almost silently, driven through the off side to the short boundary. Brookes was cut there with no apparent effort. Hannon-Dalby, for his pains, was glanced to the Pavilion.

Somerset were 58 for 3 at tea and much was needed from Davies and Somerset’s two young batsmen, Banton and Bartlett. Both tried to ‘get their heads down’, Banton very much against ‘type’ or at least against the ‘type’ he has demonstrated thus far in his career. There were a couple of fours including a sharp cut off Brookes but his innings didn’t suggest permanence, one high lofted drive plugged just short of the long boundary and he had to settle for two when he had intended six. It was not the sort of innings he is used to playing and eventually he was caught behind, defending, for 23 off Rhodes. The innings did not convince but Banton has shown a remarkable ability to learn at warp speed in his short career. He will learn from this and the time when he does play a long innings for Somerset may not be long delayed.

Bartlett has shown the ability to play long innings but he foundered for 26, bowled by the debutant Garret. Bartlett had batted with more aggressive intent than Banton, scoring six boundaries, once using his feet to cut behind point. Garrett impressed, and had badly beaten the batsman with his very first ball in first-class cricket. He showed a lively pace too. He bowled Bartlett with only a couple of overs in the day left, a wicket which might prove crucial interms of Somerst’s ability to avoid the follow-on. Bartlett showed little foot movement and was perhaps surprised by the ball for he stabbed rapidly forward at it.

Just a thought here from the symposium. Somerset, Abell’s periodic shouts of encouragement apart, had been virtually silent in the field. Warwickshire chirped continuously and raucously for the entire Somerset innings. I doubt a bowler walked back to his mark without being encouraged by someone in the field. That was Somerset in the field in those glorious days at the start of the season. The Somerset chorus was led then not just by Abell but by Trescothick. He contributed far more to the side than his batting and his slip fielding. Two heavy defeats and the mountain of runs Warwickshire were piling up doubtless played their part in Somerset’s near-silence but the difference between the two sides was stark. Winning a game would no doubt make the world of difference but perhaps Somerset need to find a new cheerleader to work alongside Abell in the field.

And through it all Davies sailed serenely on. His late cutting was a masterclass in the art of batsmanship. Indeed, it is artistry of the highest class in the broader sense of the word. When he plays the stroke as he did here repeatedly the ball flies off the bat so fine a third man fielder would be superfluous and yet it goes wide enough for a lip to show no interest. He pulled and drove with as much precision too and hit 13 boundaries on his way to 89 not out but the picture that hangs on the walls of the memory bank is of those peerless late cuts effortlessly speeding their way unimpeded to the boundary.

But for all Davies’ efforts Somerset will start day three perilously placed five wickets down and still the wrong side of 250 runs short of Warwickshire. Bess, the first of the bowlers, is already at the wicket. Somerset hopes will lie in Davies’ stroke play, the fact that Bess has a Test match fifty and a first-class century to his name and that the bowlers to come all know which end of a bat to hold and how to use it. Warwickshire’s in the momentum their bowlers have built and the pressure which they and the scoreboard will apply to Somerset.

Close. Warwickshire 419 (R.M. Yates 141, W.M.H. Rhodes 82, M.G.K. Burgess 52, C. Overton 3-98, J.A. Brooks 3-104). Somerset 167 for 5. Somerset trail by 252 runs with five first innings wickets standing.