A Phoenix rises

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

Overnight. Warwickshire 419 and 146. Somerset 308 and 8 for 0. Somerset need another 250 runs to win with ten second innings wickets standing.

Final day – A Phoenix rises.

At the close of the second day of this match with Somerset 167 for 5, still 252 runs behind Warwickshire’s first innings 419 it was difficult to see how Somerset could save the game let alone win it. When, early on the third morning, van der Merwe launched an expansive drive at a ball from Rhodes and edged to Ambrose Somerset were 202 for 7, still 217 behind, the follow-on beckoned. From there the Somerset Phoenix, in the form of Bess and the Overton brothers, roused itself, and began the long rise which ended in Somerset closing the gap to Essex at the top of the table to two points with three matches still to play.

The final day began with Somerset, with all their wickets in hand, needing another 250 runs to win. Their supporters felt Warwickshire had the edge, and Warwickshire supporters perhaps felt Somerset had the edge. Of such days is cricketing purgatory made for the helpless supporter to endure. And endure it the supporter must, for allegiance to a team, particularly a lifetime allegiance, leaves no choice. “Self-inflicted,” I am sometimes told by someone who does not so suffer. But it isn’t. It is infused into your blood, often from the day you are born, and there is no cure or palliative. The purgatory has to be suffered.

And so three members of the second day Hollies Stand Somerset symposium re-convened to do their penance. In accordance with my tradition since I began writing these reports, and to the charge of self-infliction on that point I have no defence, I had got off my bus half an hour after the start. When a first County Championship still a possibility all a Somerset supporter wants to know when a match is in progress, wherever they are on the five continents, is the score. Always, the score. Still capable of scurrying, that is what I did across the back of the Pavilion to the Warwickshire shop to buy my ticket. You pass the main entrance on the way. On the wall at the back, behind the huge plate glass frontage, there is a big television set facing outwards showing the live online stream of the game. Somerset 29 for 0. My sigh of relief would have been repeated on any of the five continents by any Somerset supporter who had found their first internet score of the day at that time.

33 for 0 as I hurried past the screens in the tunnel under the Pavilion. 33 for 1 by the time I emerged into the gap between the Pavilion and the Hollies Stand. Davies had driven at a ball angled across him by Hannon-Dalby and edged to Ambrose. By the time I had joined the other members of the symposium in the Hollies Stand Hildreth was driving Hannon-Dalby fast and straight for four. By the end of the over he had departed, lbw to a ball which, a replay shows, pitched on off, jagged back and would have hit leg. 41 for 2. Suddenly 258 seemed to be set in the stratosphere, even higher than the scoreboard which sits on top of one end of the four-storey Pavilion. Higher still when Abell, on 25, missed a straighter ball from Brookes onto his pads and Somerset were 49 for 3.

“We need a stand,” was my immediate thought. “We need a stand,” said one of the members of the symposium. “We need a stand,” said the incoming text. Statements of the obvious but with the Championship still on the line, the supporter, unable to influence events that mean so much, needs to say something, anything, to try to relieve the tension. It doesn’t of course relieve the tension for that returns with the next breath but we say it just the same.

Babar, out first ball in the first innings, had announced his presence in the second with a back foot drive off Brookes which had us gasping. There seemed virtually no bat movement and yet the ball flew across the grass to the long square boundary. No point in chasing it. Moments like that cannot be bottled, replays do them no justice, but to be there at such a moment is to witness a small piece of cricketing heaven. Heaven the stroke may have been but the purgatory of the Somerset supporter, and I imagine the Warwickshire supporter, was only just beginning. Banton, destroyer of white ball attacks, now came to pit his skill, and his nerve, against a red ball attack with the scent of wickets in its nostrils.

And purgatory it was in the Hollies Stand as Babar and Banton fought to establish themselves with more intent than runs. Time was not an issue, staying at the crease was. Another wicket at that point would have sharply steepened the road to victory. Above all else, Somerset really did need a stand. Every ball, to Somerset supporters watching or listening, wherever in the world they were, was a potential disaster. Every ball survived, a relief. I was texting updates to someone who could not follow progress online. “The batsmen are batting out of their crease, the ball must be moving,” one of them said. “The opening bowlers cannot bowl forever,” the reply. Perhaps the view from afar, not glued to every ball, can detach itself from the intensity of the moment and take a more reasoned view.

In the middle Babar and Banton were engaged with the intensity of their moments as they sent back, pushed to a fielder or left alone one ball after another. There were mistimed drives and balls played at and missed too as the bowlers strove to push home the advantage of those three wickets. There was always something to raise or relieve the blood pressure as gasps were uttered or applause rippled around the ground from one set of supporters or the other, sometimes from both for a stroke to savour, a defence-piercing ball or a brilliant piece of fielding. The blazing thunder of T20 had been banished in favour of the golden struggle of a game of red ball cricket still delicately in the balance after three days of hard to-and-fro competition. Runs there were but they were at a premium as the Warwickshire bowlers gave nothing away and the fielders endlessly chirped their encouragement and kept to their task. Brookes once dived on a drive from Babar which had looked destined for the short boundary. When runs are gold dust fielding like that matters.

Every time a bowler ran in, every pair of eyes seemed glued to the pitch. There is more to cricket than spectacular runs, glorious though they can be. For those who follow the Championship it is hard to match the swaying fortunes that are spread across a tight four-day game. In a tight match balls defended are as gripping, and as important, as runs scored. Babar and Banton’s defence lasted, interminably it seemed, all the way to lunch. I used to talk about sitting on the edge of my seat at times such as these. Perhaps I should notify the Edgbaston authorities that the edge of the seat I used for the final day of this match is likely to be in serious need of repair for I barely left it until the last half hour of the match.

There were boundaries in that pre-lunch partnership. But just four in 18 overs. That is testament to the determined restraint and concentration of the world’s premier T20 batsman and a 20-year-old with the potential to match him. Testament too to the Warwickshire bowlers and their application to their task. Two of the four boundaries, curiously given the overall tenor of the morning, came from Banton in successive balls from Rhodes. A straight drive to the Pavilion and a steer between slip and gully to be followed two balls later by a drive that curved away towards the long backward point boundary for three. Lunch arrived with Somerset on 87 for 3. Babar and Banton had added just 38 runs in an hour and a quarter, 13 of them, including a no ball, in that one over from Rhodes. Babar had scored 11, eight of them in boundaries, from 63 balls. Banton, 29 from 59.

The start of the afternoon session was made in the same image as the end of the morning one. Unbending defence, steady bowling, tight fielding, an occasional single pushed between the inner ring fielders or played to a fielder on the short boundary as Somerset crept forward. When Patel bowled, the front foot and the full face of the bat came steadfastly down the pitch to meet the ball. “We can’t go on scoring at one an over forever,” said an anxious voice next to me and the same thought had occurred to me. But the onlooker does not know everything and cannot read a batsman’s mind. We were indeed looking at intense defence but without knowing it we were also looking at a storm brewing or, perhaps more to the point, being brewed as the batsmen prepared their ground after lunch.

The storm broke with Banton clipping Hannon-Dalby neatly off his legs to the Pavilion for four. In the next over Babar went down on one knee, pointed his bat down the wicket at Patel and paddled the ball as finely as Banton’s clip had gone, for another four. In the same over Banton reverse swept and cleared the jumping, more in hope than anticipation, fielder and the short boundary at backward point. Six. The speed of Banton’s bat onto the ball looked phenomenal and there was never any doubt about the destination of the ball. The tension in the Somerset mind was forgotten for an instant as cheers and applause erupted from the small enclaves of Somerset supporters around the ground.

The tension resurfaced with a look at the scoreboard. 106 for 3. Babar and Banton had passed their fifty partnership but it seemed to have taken an eternity. The fall of Abell’s wicket felt like it had taken place in a different time zone. The intermittent figure at the bottom of the scoreboard told of the reality. 152 runs were still needed. “Intermittent” because the Edgbaston scoreboard deals with the plethora of information it is called upon to divulge by revealing different pieces of it at different times. To the three hunched Somerset supporters half way up the Hollies Stand 152 still seemed an awfully long way off.

Now Babar took the strain for Somerset, Brookes and Patel for Warwickshire. A back foot square drive to the long boundary off Brookes, if not in quite the same league as the one with which he opened his account, left nothing for the fielder to do but collect the ball. A mistimed pull looped tantalisingly over midwicket. It reached the short boundary but Banton walked over to Babar as if to counsel calm. I imagine Somerset supporters around the ground were counselling the same for the one commodity Somerset were not short of was time. This match, one way or the other, would have a result and that only added to the tension. There would be no half measures. In terms of result points, it was all or nothing and, with Essex now 18 points ahead of Somerset in the Championship, 16 points for a win focused the mind and fuelled the tension unmercifully.

116 for 3 now the score and the “runs required” flashed up at 142. Somerset were getting closer and anticipation tried to break through the tension. But even at 116 for 3 the tension held firm as the road to 258 still seemed to stretch into the distance. Babar pushed on, closing the gap with another brilliantly deflected boundary off Patel and a cut off Brookes which took the score to 130 for 3. “Over half way,” the comment and the Somerset applause and cheering was just beginning to hint at confidence as if it were trying to drive the batsmen on. Over half way with wickets in hand always makes the supporter of the chasing team feel better, and 128 to win began to feel within range even if the demands on the edge of the seat did not diminish. Nothing was being taken for granted. 128 with seven wickets in hand may seem relatively straightforward from the relaxed viewpoint of hindsight, and perhaps to Warwickshire supporters on the other side of the equation at the time, but to Somerset minds it still felt anything but.

In the midst of the seemingly interminable battle for supremacy Warwickshire turned to Garrett. On debut, his very first over in the match had made people sit up and take notice. His first spell had been impressive and his performance had not dipped as the match had gone on. Now, under the sort of pressure he will have to get used to if he is to play in the first division of the Championship, he impressed again. His first over to Babar was a maiden. In his second he drew Babar forward in defence and struck the pad with a ball that moved in no more than a trace. Up went the umpire’s finger and with it a tremendous, instantaneous roar from the Warwickshire crowd. 139 for four. Babar 40. 119 still needed. Six wickets left but Bartlett was Somerset’s last specialist batsman. Bess and the Overtons were still to come but they had all been part of Somerset’s first innings revival. For them to do it again would be a lot to expect.

Anxiety was written across Somerset faces and care across the batting of Banton and Bartlett. We were back to the pre-lunch rate of scoring as a new partnership tried to settle. The tension in the middle was reflected around the ground as an audible quiet descended every time a bowler set off towards the wicket. There was relief for the Somerset supporter each time a ball did not take a wicket or resulted in a single. Applause from Warwickshire supporters if it beat the bat or hurried the batsmen. In ten overs there were but three boundaries to release an ounce or two of Somerset tension and the afternoon session, and the nerve ends, seemed to stretch endlessly across the afternoon.

When Patel replaced Garrett he did not concede a run for two gruelling overs whilst Rhodes bowled the intervening over for a single run. The Warwickshire players, quieter during the Babar-Banton stand, were now in full voice, shouting encouragement. Banton, bogged down, struggling against the probing Patel, tried to break out. A reverse sweep against the off spinner failed to connect. A glance failed too but before the over was out Patel found the inside edge, the ball went onto the pad, popped up and Ambrose took the catch. The Warwickshire supporters cheered to the echo and Somerset were 170 for 5. Banton 66. “Warwickshire have the edge now,” said one of the members of the symposium. And with 88 needed and only 5 wickets still standing that is how it felt. Babar, Banton and Bartlett had brought Somerset so far forward but now the melting pot was bubbling again.

And then with no more than a cursory ‘look’ at the bowling Bess, the rock on which Somerset’s crucial final 110 first innings runs had been built, set about changing the face of the afternoon. Suddenly, out of the endless nervous tension the ball was flying to the boundary. Hannon-Dalby, who had taken crucial top order wickets in both innings, was cut twice in two balls behind square to the long boundary. Keeping the pressure on he responded with two maidens. The match was coming to the crunch. Bartlett, quieter than Bess, establishing himself at the other end, now reverse swept Patel for four. Four byes when he missed a sweep brought as much relief to the Somerset support as the most sweetly-struck drive. Every Somerset boundary was being cheered from the enclaves, even the four byes received a cheer. Somerset were getting ever-closer but still the tension bit. “It’s almost worse when the end is in sight,” said one of the symposium members, and it was for the hope and the anxiety were fuelling the tension in equal measure.

When Bess again twice cut Hannon-Dalby to the boundary Somerset were 215 for 5. Just 43 runs short of their target. Now the hope and the anticipation were getting the better of the anxiety but still the doubts picked away for so much might hang on this result. Then with the final act about to be played out the umpires and players left the field. “We do not need tea now!” pleaded the incoming text. But tea it was after two hours of jangling nerve ends which seemed to stretch back in time beyond anything Einstein ever dreamed of. 87 for 3 at lunch seemed a different match ago. Then a realisation settled the nerves. “We only lost two wickets in that session,” I said. “Two?!” the reply. “It feels more like eight.” But two it was and Bess and Bartlett had already put on more runs than were now needed. Just a few more runs would ease the waiting.

And so to the final session. 43 runs needed. Five wickets to fall. Patel, Banton’s nemesis, to bowl, perhaps Warwickshire’s last card. Bartlett, picking up where Bess had left off before tea, struck Patel’s third ball straight back over the bowler’s head for six. In Patel’s next over he reverse-swept for four and Bess, fortune favouring the brave, edged another four. The nerve ends had stopped jangling, the edge of the seat was no longer under pressure and, to all intents and purposes, a Warwickshire miracle apart, Somerset’s Championship challenge was still on.

Garrett was tried one final time but the task was beyond even his young talent of which, I imagine, we have not seen the last. There was a glanced four from Bess, a back foot drive and a brace of cuts from Bartlett, all for four, generous applause from both sets of supporters when Bartlett went to 50 with a single, tenacious Warwickshire fielding to the end; and a few minutes later the strains of Blackbird rang out from the Somerset dressing room and reached the Hollies Stand as I picked up my bag, the last to leave for it had been a wonderful four days of cricket from, at different times, both sides. And the Hollies Stand is a wonderful place to watch cricket from if the wicket is pitched on that side of the ground.

Result. 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) and 146 (R.M. Yates 53, T.B. Abell 4 for 39, J. Overton 3 for 26). Somerset 308 (S.M. Davies 109, D.M. Bess 52*, W.H.M. Rhodes 3 for 37, O.J. Hannon-Dalby 3 for 65) and 258 for 5 (T. Banton 66, G.A, Bartlett 54*, D.M. 40*. Somerset won by 5 wickets. Somerset 21 points. Warwickshire 7 points.