Of Finch and spin

T20. Surrey v Somerset. 27th August 2019. The Oval.

Surrey. A.J. Finch, M.D. Stoneman, S.M. Curran, O.J. Pope, W.G. Jacks, J. Clark, B.T. Foakes (w), R.S. Patel, J.W. Dernbach, G.J. Batty, Imran Tahir. 

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. 

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

Of Finch and spin

I always approach the Oval with foreboding for a T20 match although not for the Championship or 50 over cricket. In fact, after Taunton, the Peter May Stand is, alongside the Hollies Stand at Edgbaston, one of my two favourite places to watch Championship cricket. It’s just T20 at the Oval. For Somerset always seem to lose there. I am sure Somerset must have won a T20 match at the Oval but I don’t recall it happening when I have been there. Aaron Finch was playing in this match too and he has T20 ‘form’ against Somerset. That I have seen. Two years ago at the Oval, Somerset lost by four runs. Finch made 61. Somerset sank to 106 for 8 chasing 181 with five and a half overs to go. Then Corey Anderson launched one of the most astonishing T20 batting assaults I have ever seen. Anderson, batting at seven because he had been off the field with an injury, reached 80 from 44 balls to leave Somerset needing eight to win from four. The left-handed Anderson drove to long on in front of the OCS Stand and raced back towards the Pavilion End aiming for a second run in an attempt to keep the strike. Finch fielded and in a brilliant combination of a cool head and an outstanding piece of cricket threw unerringly to the keeper. Anderson was run out and Surrey won by four runs. More of Finch later.

The final leg of my trip to the Oval for this match started at the Royal Festival Hall where I had taken refuge from the intense afternoon heat. 32 degrees Celsius the forecast. That is 90 degrees Fahrenheit to my mid-20th century generation or as near as, I assure you, makes no difference. “1.8 miles,” said the person with the 21st century phone. With two bottles of water as a precaution I set off along the south bank of the Thames which takes you most of the way until you divert onto the Harleyford Road of TMS fame.

Once you get onto the Harleyford Road, with about three quarters of an hour to go before the match, you get a sense of just how big an event a sold out T20 is at the Oval. There is a multitudinous crush at the two road crossings you have to negotiate to get onto the road, with the central islands disappearing from view beneath the sheer weight of people. Immediately you get onto the road itself you come across The Beehive, a public house where pre-match revellers gather, rather as they do at the Ring of Bells in Taunton. Except at The Beehive the demand seems far greater than it can accommodate and so the pavement is awash with smiling chatting people whilst those intent on going straight to the ground form up in two lines-ahead, one to thread its way through the throng and the other, more adventurous one, to advance along the edge of the road perilously close to the traffic which passes by as if there were not a soul in sight.

The continuous stream of people walking along the Harleyford Road fills the pavement from end to end and from side to side, and ends in another crush, this time at the gate. Fortunately, the Oval has ‘ambassadors’ one of whom directed some of us to the next gate along where the crush was less but just as joyous as a steward asked us to show our paper tickets or our phones. The Oval has a ticket app apparently, beyond the ken of my 20th century text-and-talk phone. My print-at-home ticket still worked, although I wondered for how long even that 21st century innovation will last. I wondered too how long it will be before I will not be able to function generally without buying a new phone as the technological world rushes by all around me.

No sooner was I through the gate than I was approached by another ‘ambassador’ who looked at my ticket and directed me to the right part of the OCS Stand. I didn’t think I looked that bewildered but I wonder what I did look like after walking flat out for those 1.8 miles in the overheated greenhouse that was London on Tuesday afternoon.

And then peace. Or at least an approximation of peace. Seat 249 near the middle of one of 29 rows, perhaps gives some idea of the size of the OCS Stand. Under the overhang of the floors above, purchased because of my aversion to getting wet at the cricket and now gratefully occupied away from the still searing heat of the evening sun. Wide third man from the Vauxhall End stumps my view. As is the way with T20 there were acres of empty seats 20 minutes before the start and yet the ground looked as full as a T20 sell-out crowd does at Taunton 20 minutes after the start.

Somerset won the toss and, with W.G. Grace smiling down, elected to bat. With, to a Taunton-accustomed eye, the players dwarfed by the expanse of the Oval, Banton reverse swept Imran Tahir’s fifth ball. It ran, along the ground, all the way to the boundary as if on a piece of string of which I held the other end. Tahir’s sixth ball was swept square for another four to the Peter May Stand where, had this been a Championship match, it might have been on another string to my favourite area high and square of the wicket.

The first ball from the Pavilion End, from Dernbach, was driven back past him by Babar. And so, the Banton and Babar Show, perhaps Somerset’s best T20 opening partnership since the Trescothick and Kieswetter Show of nearly a decade ago, took to the road. It is a partnership in which Banton seems to bat with no fear whilst Babar exudes confidence and control at the other end. Before Dernbach’s over was out Banton had the strike and, as that crouching, slowly bobbing stance of his settled into absolute stillness the ball was pulled to the square boundary and then steered to long leg and Somerset were 25 for 0 from two overs.

As he waited for the bowler to return to his mark, Banton prowled out of his crease as if looking for prey. When he sensed an opportunity, he pounced. A ball from Sam Curran was driven into the Lock Laker Stand at long on. One from Clark was pulled over the boundary in front of the giant skeleton within which the great gasholder once rose and fell. Babar was more inclined to keep the ball down and drove Clark powerfully through the off side to the Bedser Stand boundary. Occasionally Surrey threatened, Dernbach bowled the sixth over for five runs as the batsmen repeatedly found the fielders, but, overall, for eight overs Banton and Babar ruled virtually supreme. As Somerset raced ahead the bowlers did occasionally bit back. Babar edged Clarke at a catchable height though the vacant slips for four. In the same over he cut hard but shoulder high, Pope at backward point launched himself at the ball, got his left hand to it but only succeeded in diverting it wide of third man for the batsmen to run two.

After eight overs Somerset were 79 for 0 and the crowd, at least around me, was on the move and continued to move for the rest of the match. The number of pints of beer which passed up and down the 29-row long aisle next to me must, by the end of the match, have matched the number of runs both sides managed to put on the board. The twenty-somethings in front of me took turns to bring back four ‘glasses’ at a time. The five next to me all went together as a group each time and each time as I hopped out of my seat into the aisle to let them through, they either apologised or thanked me for my efforts. As I looked down the rows to the boundary, heads were constantly bobbing and moving as people came and went or let others through. The man on the end of the second row down from me chose to stand, rather than hop into the aisle to let the drinkers in and out and seemed as unconcerned about it all as I was. If you choose to sit on the end of a row at a T20 match the bobbing and weaving comes as part of the deal.

And so, it seems to my mind, does Somerset batsmen running into heavy weather against spin bowlers in T20. I have not looked at the evidence but always when the opposition spinners take up the ball my breath tightens and my stomach prepares to clench. Before Tahir had reached his third ball Banton was walking off, his third, slog-swept, ‘six’ dropping into the hands of Curran in front of the May Stand. Hildreth came down the pitch to steer Gareth Batty’s first ball to third man, played over it and Foakes had the bails off in an instant. Babar came forward to drive Tahir, and was caught and bowled when the ball came back along the pitch, almost parallel with and about a foot above it. Byrom looped a ball higher back towards Tahir who caught it, diving as low as he had to catch the first.

Somerset had gone from 80 for 0 to 93 for 4 in less than three overs. That predictive clenching in the pit of the stomach was now gripping like a vice being inexorably closed. There were Surrey cheers for the wickets although I had to listen hard to hear them. Not because they were half-hearted but because of the permanent all-enveloping roar of the chatter which drowned out virtually all sound from outside the enclosed space under the OCS Stand overhang. Voices were raised, not in anger, but because it was the only possible form of conversation. If there was music for the wickets or between overs, I didn’t hear it. There were booming announcements but the words were lost in that roar as the packed ranks spoke continuously with a thousand joyous voices. And for all that, whenever I looked along the rows the great majority of faces were trained on the cricket whenever a bowler approached his delivery stride

And all the while Somerset continued their struggle against the Surrey spinners. Abell drove Batty to the gasometer for four but otherwise had to rely on good placement and hard running. By such means he reached 14 off nine balls before attempting to reverse sweep Batty. He missed the ball and was stumped by the flash of Foakes’ hands. Van der Merwe, his 165 not out against Surrey now a long time ago, continued his run of low scores in this competition with an lbw to Tahir as he tried to turn the ball to leg. Somerset 119 for 6 after 15 overs.

Surrey’s spinners were spent but so was Somerset’s top order. The Surrey pace bowlers strove to keep up the pressure as Somerset’s lower order tried to force their way back into the match against the tide of wickets. Overton pulled furiously at Clark but the ball flew into the hands of Derbach at mid-off rather than through midwicket to the boundary. Lammonby somehow fashioned 19 from 20 balls but only one four which he turned neatly behind square to the Lock Laker Stand. I wonder what those two would have made of bowling in tandem in T20? Quite a lot I imagine. But Lammonby was fighting an uphill struggle and departed, caught Foakes, driving at Dernbach. Groenewald reached wide for a ball from Curran and cut it to the Archbishop Tenison School boundary but when he pulled hard at the next ball it went up and Curran caught it with ease. Cheers and applause for each wicket now breaking through the constant roar. Taylor and Waller managed just eight runs from the final nine balls of the innings and Somerset ended on 157 for 9.

Perhaps not as short of par as had once seemed likely for Somerset had kept going for their full 20 overs. But 20 below par in T20 is a chasm which usually demands early wickets if it is to be bridged. Waller’s opening over of the Surey innings conceded just a single but from there the Surrey batsmen, if unable to match Somerset’s racing powerplay batting, marked time with the required run rate, even advanced on it a little, and crucially, did not lose early wickets.

Finch looked all bustle but played what appeared to be a measured, calculated innings. Included in the calculations was an intent to select balls with which to clear the boundary. Six not out at the end of the second over, Finch lifted Craig Overton’s first ball of the third over long leg down a line to the left of the gasometer and, with a perfect angle from the OCS Stand, I saw it leave the ground. “Out of the ground!” confirmed the scoreboard as it was transformed into a big screen. Indeed, it was a monster hit and the OCS Stand roar turned into a gargantuan cheer. A tight over from Taylor was met with a straight bat and a brace of singles. A well-directed final powerplay over from Groenewald was spoiled when Finch drove the third ball straight back over the bowler’s head to hit the Vauxhall End sightscreen; and redeemed with the wicket of Stoneman for 18, brilliantly caught behind by Banton running backwards to chase a top-edge off a slow high bouncer.

Surrey were 49 for 1 against Somerset’s 57 for 0. That roused a hint of hope in the Somerset heart but the head soon had its say, pointing out that Surrey were scoring perfectly in line with the required run rate and only needed to continue to do so. Wickets. Only wickets, and a succession of them, could help Somerset’s cause. Somerset turned to spin. Over the next ten balls from van der Merwe and Waller Surrey were held to eight runs. That brought a whiff of pressure. Finch pulled Waller over wide long on, Overton ran back to intercept, and, a perilous yard from the rope, jumped. From my seat I had a perfect, close, side-on view. Overton seemed to get both hands to the ball but palmed it over the rope. It had looked for all the world a catch. I was convinced he had it covered. He was furious with himself. I do not recall seeing Overton miss a boundary catch. It was difficult so close to the rope but on another day he might have taken it, at least as far as this non-cricket player can judge. The OCS Stand roared. It was a colossal roar and instinctively it felt that any chance Somerset had of winning the game had gone. Waller watched on motionless, a picture of disbelief.

Finch had looked, until that stroke, as if he was in control of his shots. From there he took control of the match. Van der Merwe followed Waller but with just 157 to defend and Finch in such form bowling was an uphill task. Keeping Surrey to three runs off four balls of an over counted for little when the third ball of the over just cleared the fielder and the boundary at deep square leg and the last was driven into the Lock Laker Stand. To huge cheers a left-handed ‘switch’ drive off Waller, a 21st century stroke if ever there was one, seemed to just clip Babar’s hand as he jumped, right on the boundary in front of the OCS Stand, at what had started out as long off. With such fine margins of fortune are the brave favoured.

Lammonby, barely 19, is Somerset’s most inexperienced bowler but has repeatedly been called upon to bowl at key points in the innings, not without success at times. Perhaps his left arm bowling provides some variety. It came all the same to Finch. Twice he drove Lammonby, once more into the Lock Laker Stand and once into the end of the May Stand next to it. After Finch’s barrage of sixes Surrey stood at 110 for 1 the end of the 11th over. 48 were needed off nine and the OCS Stand was in uproar. And so, I imagine, was the rest of the ground but that was beyond hearing from behind the wall of sound that engulfed me.

Finch’s innings did not seem to much upset the comings and goings of the beer-carrying twenty-somethings and the beer carrying did not seem to much upset their attention on the cricket for I was struck, for all the bobbing up and down, going in and out, apologising and thanking just how focused on the cricket the heads in my part of the stand were whenever people were in their seats. It has struck me too this year that in the nine T20 games I have watched to date there has not been a single Mexican wave. There was a nominal attempt at Bristol but that fizzled out before it left the section of the stand in which the attempt was made.

As to the cricket Somerset, in the form of van der Merwe and Taylor put in a couple of tidy overs, Curran drove hard at van der Merwe, skied the ball to mid-on, Abell ran flat out from midwicket, dived full length and, rather improbably to my eye, caught the ball with arms far outstretched. The two overs went for 10 runs, normally gold dust for a fielding side in the second half of a chasing T20 innings but, thanks to Finch, it was all Surrey needed. With somewhat incongruous timing, given the flow of the play was heavily with Surrey, I heard the strains of Neil Diamond for the first time booming down from the overhead speakers and then from the entire ground. It would hardly be a T20 match without Neil Diamond.

In the next over Pope was run out by a direct hit from Overton but Surrey compensated with four singles and a reverse sweep from Finch which went for four and brought up his hundred. It was an exceptional innings exemplified by an apparent coolness at the crease and sureness of hitting. The century brought the entire 25000 contents of the ground to its feet before Jacks followed Pope, caught and bowled to a leading edge off van der Merwe after hitting him once over and once through extra cover for four. From there, with a final six driven off Taylor by Clark high into the Pavilion the scores were level and two balls later Surrey had won.

A final note on Finch’s innings. He finished on 102 not out from 53 balls. The remainder of the Surrey batsmen scored a total of 51 runs, precisely half Finch’s score, in only six balls less, and four of them were out in the process. Finch hit nine sixes to their one and Somerset’s two. Somerset’s 157 for 8 may have seemed, and probably was, inadequate but there is at least a case to be made that the difference between the sides was that innings.

Result. Somerset 157 for 9 (20/20 overs). T. Banton 47 (28 balls), Babar Azam 37 (31), Imran Tahir 4 for 27 (econ 6.25), G.J. Batty 2 for 24 (6.00). Surrey 158 for 4 (16.3/16.3 overs) (A.J. Finch 102* (53), R.E. van der Merwe 2 for 34 (8.50). Surrey won by six wickets. Surrey 2 points. Somerset 0 points.