Ebb and flow

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Yorkshire. 10th, 11th,12th and 13th September 2019. Taunton.

Somerset. M. Vijay, S.M. Davies (w), T.B. Abell (c), J.C. Hildreth, T. Banton, G.A. Bartlett, L. Gregory, D.M. Bess, R.E. van der Merwe, J. Overton, J.H. Davey.

Yorkshire. A. Lyth. W.A.R. Fraine, G.S. Ballance, T. Kohler-Cadmore, S.A. Patterson, H.C. Brook, J.A. Tattersall (w), T.T. Bresnan, K.A. Maharaj, B.O. Coad, D. Oliver.

Toss. Uncontested. Somerset required to bat.

First day. 10th September – Ebb and flow

Feet up, head back, dozing in the breeze as tufty white clouds float across a warm azure sky. A warm sun, not too hot, plays on the back of the neck and cricketers play lazily on the green. The quintessential English vision of tranquillity. Nerves at rest. The watcher at one with the world. Heaven on earth or as near as it ever comes. The ageless, idyllic view of cricket. But not at Taunton. Not on this day. That age-old view of cricket is not what the County Championship is about, and the County Championship is all that this day was about. And in consequence the day was all about tension and relief, anxiety and elation, desperation and hope, highs and lows, clenching of teeth and clapping of hands, missed heartbeats and racing hearts. Of cut and thrust, of ebb and flow; and any concoction of emotion which can be conjured from that list of ingredients of a day watching Somerset play cricket when the County Championship might be on the line. And no doubt Yorkshire hearts suffer too, and swell, when a Championship beckons as, if Somerset and Essex falter badly enough, it might again this year.

The scene before the start of the first day of this match was anything but idyllic, at least for Somerset. Yorkshire eyes must have been torn between eyeing the heavens above and the pitch below. For above, instead of tufty white clouds, there were glowering banks of smooth grey slate hanging heavily and low, and threatening rain or a swinging ball. If the eyes looked down, the pitch looked invitingly green. Not a day for a toss and so Somerset found themselves facing Yorkshire bowlers seeking their dues from such conditions.

The conditions may have been distinctly autumn but the crowd was high summer. Every stand in the ground with the exception of the Somerset Stand was heavily populated. I have tended to underestimate crowds this season and so with some adjustment for that this one was perhaps 2500. The Taunton buzz filled the air early and was expectant in tone. The Championship was never far from the discussion but anything ‘cricket’ might float by. There was advice too for the Somerset batsmen, usually suggesting one more run than those in the middle thought wise. There was a hint of a chill on the breeze but if the sky was autumn the temperature still had some memory of summer about it. In short, if those clouds held their moisture, it was a good day to watch cricket.

And to play it if you were a bowler. From the start the Yorkshire pace bowlers barely wasted a ball as four slips waited for what the conditions suggested were inevitable offerings from the edge of the bat. Coad and Patterson tested the technique and the patience of the Somerset batsmen from the start. Murali Vijay did find the Colin Atkinson boundary in Coad’s first over with a perfect off drive which never left the ground, and brought cries of “Lovely shot!”, but he was otherwise restricted to intense and determined defence of his wicket, although once an edge off Coad bounced a foot short of slip.

Steven Davies seemed equally determined on defence until he began to unfurl his range of deflection strokes. He turned Patterson fine with the lightest of touches to the Sir Ian Botham Stand for four and again slightly more square for two. Against Coad he dropped the face of the bat onto the passing ball and coaxed it past slip for two. But as soon as he tried to put the bat to the ball with some force he was out, caught at cover trying to drive. “That looked like it stuck in the pitch a bit,” said the person with me. He has played a lot of cricket over the years. “The keeper is standing up to their seamers,” he added. “That, and the wide silly-mid-on, would suggest the ball sticking,” he continued as part of the expert summary he provided for me throughout the day.

Somerset, in the form of Vijay and Abell, got their heads down and battled their way forward at two runs an over for an hour. It was intense ‘toe to toe’ cricket. The tension in the crowd evident from the hushing of the buzz. “Yorkshire haven’t bowled a long hop yet,” said my summarizer. After that hour Vijay had seven and Somerset were 28 for 1. Yorkshire turned to Duanne Olivier who, from the Somerset Pavilion End, injected some extra pace into the proceedings. In his first over, Vijay edged him to the keeper. A replay shows the ball swinging in late and, as Vijay followed the swing, going straight through off the pitch. Two overs later Hildreth misjudged Olivier’s pace, was too late on the ball, and was bowled under the bat as the face came down. “Come on boys,” someone shouted, “the Championship is on the line.” The shout reflected both the depth of Somerset desire for that elusive grail and the intensity of the hope that this group of players might just have it in them to turn that will o’ the wisp into reality.

When Bresnan moved a ball in off the pitch, it took the inside edge of Banton’s bat and flew off the pad towards first slip where Lyth dived forward to take the catch. Yorkshire had taken three key Somerset wickets in seven overs for 15 runs. Somerset were 46 for 4 with half an hour to go to lunch, the stomach was beginning to clench and the chatter had become the hesitant.

Abell, batting well out of his crease, was joined by Bartlett. Bartlett tends to keep the scoreboard busy and he was soon driving Olivier off his toes and past the square leg fielder to the short Caddick Pavilion boundary for four. When he drove Olivier square through the off side towards the Somerset Stand the ball flew off the bat but seemed to apply the brakes as it approached the more distant boundary. Threes, where on most days the ball would have skimmed to the boundary, were to be a feature of the Somerset innings, the rain of the previous day taking its toll on the Somerset score.

Abell meanwhile was chiselling a score out of the rock formed by the conditions and the accuracy of the persistently testing Yorkshire bowling. Forward or back he defended against the seamers. Twice he had edged wide of slip fielders for four and once driven with that classical correctness of his through mid-on to the Trescothick Stand, but through it all he was building the foundations of an innings which would be crucial to Somerset retaining a foothold in this match.

“Here he is,” the comment which marked the arrival of Keshav Maharaj at the River End. After Headingley this year and Lancashire at Taunton last year ‘he’ was all that needed to be said. And immediately ‘he’ had Bartlett, to use the old phrase, in all sorts of trouble. Bartlett stretched forward and the ball flew past the outside edge. He reverse-swept his second ball but with so little connection the ball was comfortably taken on the bounce by slip. His third ball brought forth an appeal as the ball hit his pad. A full toss to Abell found its way to the Somerset Stand boundary but Bartlett’s discomfiture left Somerset supporters with a worrisome memory to carry through the lunch interval and Yorkshire ones, I imagine, with hopes of further inroads afterwards.

“At Edgbaston, against Essex, Warwickshire are 93 for 2,” brought some relief in the face of Somerset’s hard pounding to 70 for 4. A meeting with some old schoolfriends who had paid a visit from the 1950s, for what is Championship cricket if you cannot meet old friends there, passed the interval with a mixture of ‘catching’ up on the passage of time since we last met, trying to remember when we last met, and reminiscences of Somerset collapses of old. Late, of course, returning to my seat, square in the Ondaatje Stand, I managed to miss the fall of Bartlett. According to my summarizer, another attempt to reverse sweep Maharaj, telegraphed as such strokes are, resulted in Lyth at slip moving to his left in anticipation and the ball flying limply into his hands. 70 for 5. Bartlett 12.

That brought Gregory to the wicket, back in the side after the stress injury to his foot. In 2018 against Lancashire, using his feet expansively to defend as well as attack, he had played a wonderful innings against Maharaj and looked in complete control throughout. He began in the same vein here. It didn’t seem to matter where the ball pitched Gregory’s feet were there before it. A running drive to the Colin Atkinson boundary for four brought memories of that 2018 innings flooding back. It was promise unrealised though when Coad got a ball to move away off the pitch as Gregory defended and Tattersall took the catch, still standing up to the stumps. Somerset 85 for 6, Gregory 12. “A shame,” said my summarizer, “Gregory looked like he might take control.” As the applause for Coad’s over subsided a look at the sky brought further anxiety to the Somerset mind for the heavy cloud of the morning was breaking up and turning white.

Bess joined Abell and they dug deep, kept the ball out, edged harmlessly once or twice, were beaten occasionally but they gave no more to the bowlers than the bowlers gave to them. When, eventually, Abell pulled Coad for four my summarizer said, “That’s the first long hop they have bowled.” Otherwise the only Yorkshire lapse was the almost inevitable four byes when Patterson veered to leg with the keeper standing up. The 100 did not come up until the 45th over. Bowling against the grip of the pace bowlers Maharaj continued to threaten as he gathered four fielders around the batsman. Several times the ball flew past the edge of the outstretched front leg and bat but Abell and Bess stuck hard to the task.

Gradually they loosened the bowler’s grip, at least Maharaj’s grip, and began to change the mood of the day. The crowd began to applaud the singles as well as the occasional four as Somerset’s total began to rise. An off drive from Abell off Patterson looked to be four until the outfield applied the brake as the ball approached the rope and held it to three. Two cuts in an over off Maharaj both outran the fielders to the short boundary. A pull just to the right of the old Stragglers brought another four. Bess drove Maharaj square to the Caddick Pavilion boundary. Bess and Abell had added 45 when Maharaj re-imposed himself. Bess got under a drive and Bresnan, at cover, took a good catch, low down, diving forward. 135 for 7. Bess 15. Van der Merwe was lbw stretching well forward. 148 for 8, Van der Merwe 10, and there were anxious eyes all around. “Warwickshire 150 for 3,” someone said and brought some relief.

Jamie Overton, awarded a, to most Somerset minds long-overdue, cap to much applause in the lunch interval, brought more relief as Abell continued his obdurate resistance and occasional run poaching at the other end. Apart from Gregory’s brief foray Overton looked the most confident Somerset batsman of the day. The mood shift begun by Abell and Bess began to take hold as Overton began to drive Somerset forward. He clipped his first ball from Olivier off his legs to the short Temporary Stand boundary and in Olivier’s next over pulled him in front of square to the Ondaatje. An on drive off Maharaj took Somerset to tea at 173 for 8. Hardly riches and Somerset were still behind in the game but from the depths of 46 for 4 and 85 for 6 it did begin to revive the Somerset spirit. “Warwickshire 167 for 3,” gave it a further boost.

A further meeting of the 1950s school convention had been arranged in the Stragglers for the tea interval and it continued into the evening session as we watched the silent live stream. As we continued to ‘catch up’ and debate, the detail of most of what followed on the field passed me by but the impression of Jamie Overton continuing to punish the bowling, at a run a ball it transpired, is firmly fixed in my mind. The temporary departure of one of us at 195 for 8 brought looks of horror from the other two at the prospect of the spell of the Abell-Overton stand being broken.

Not one stand but two. And a bonus point into the bargain. 199 all out, Abell, finally, and Davey both lbw to Maharaj within three balls by the time the guilty party returned. “How crucial might the loss of that point prove?” the passing comment which added insult to the injury of the guilty party. Another topic for endless discussion and, of course, reminder whenever we three meet no doubt. But, breath taken, Abell’s 66, Overton’s 40 not out and 199 all out represented quite a recovery from 46 for 4 and of course there is too much cricket still to be played, too many shifts in the dynamic of the Championship table to come for that point to be blamed for anything very much when the final reckoning is made.

We watched live from next to the covers store as Davey, who has not played a first team match for four months, and Gregory, who has not bowled for two, tried to find their rhythm. The cost was two overpitched balls in Gregory’s first over driven for four and two long hops from Davey pulled mercilessly by Lyth, one onto the roof of the Caddick Pavilion and one, via something of a top edge into the lower tier of the Somerset Pavilion. Those four balls, to cheers from the hefty Yorkshire contingent present in the crowd, probably provided more largesse than did the Yorkshire bowlers in the whole of the Somerset innings. Sharp intakes of breath were almost audible around the ground.

Somerset applause and cheers though erupted when Fraine edged Gregory, and Lyth edged Davey to Davies and Yorkshire were 27 for 2, the balls seemingly bursting through the batsman’s stroke each time. That brought Ballance and Kohler-Cadmore together. They almost saw Yorkshire to the close, still an hour away. Kohler-Cadmore was virtually scoreless as he defended with all the tenacity, if not the occasional boundary, of Abell. Ballance, Overton’s assault apart, played with more precision than any batsman on either side. He was an oasis of calm in a day of batting turbulence.

I was back in the Ondaatje Stand now. The heavy grey sky of the morning had been transformed into bright blue with just a few wispy strands of cirrus intermingling with some spent contrails. Yorkshire voices were speaking encouragement to the batsmen. “Shot Garry,” rang out more than once as Ballance began to find his way through the field. “Come on boys,” the apparent but doubtless co-incidental response from Abell when Overton was driven for four. And again when Bess was driven to the boundary. On drives both, and both driven smoothly along the ground.

When, just before the close, Abell brought van der Merwe’s slow left arm on opposite Bess the scoring virtually ceased. Perhaps van der Merwe’s T20 tight line, perhaps the proximity of the close of play the reason. Just one run was scored in the final five overs as Yorkshire fought their way towards the close on 70 for 2. Just 129 behind. The talk among Somerset supporters was of struggle ahead. Of Bess bowling well but not looking as threatening as Maharaj. The thoughts were of the Championship possibly slipping away if Yorkshire took a sizeable lead and the pitch increasingly took spin.

And then, seemingly ‘out of the blue’, Ballance came forward to Bess, tried to turn the ball defensively into the on side and was struck on the pad. There was a huge appeal, the umpire’s finger was raised, Bess danced a jig, he was engulfed by the close fielders and the crowd cheered to the echo. Ballance walked off, disappointment etched in his face, to some much-merited applause from both sets of supporters. The wicket didn’t change the face of the game but it did bring hope to Somerset supporters that a door into the Yorkshire batting might have been opened for the morning. Warwickshire’s sterling efforts, 269 for 3, at Edgbaston brought a further lift. It had not been a day for putting feet up or for nerveless watching, but it had been a day of ebb and flow that showed the true worth, and grip, of Championship cricket.

Close. Somerset 199 (T.B. Abell 66, J. Overton 40*, K.A. Maharaj 5-54). Yorkshire 70 for 3. Yorkshire trail by 129 runs with seven first innings wickets standing.