When the head rules the cricket

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

Overnight. Somerset 199. Yorkshire 70 for 3. Yorkshire trail Somerset by 129 runs with seven first innings wicket standing.

Second day – When the head rules the cricket

I once had the good fortune to sit next to an ex-Somerset cricketer at a Club dinner. I asked him, once a first-class batsman is in the middle, how much of what happens is down to technique and how much is down to what is going on in his head. “90 per cent in the head,” was his instant reply. Now, obviously it isn’t as simple as that. Without the requisite level of skill, the head would count for nothing. But first-class cricketers, batsmen and bowlers, particularly first division ones, must all have reached a certain skill level to be playing at all at that level and, the really top-flight ones apart, it is what happens in the head that makes much of the difference between their performances on a given day or in a given season. At least that is the theory.

We may have seen some evidence for it in this match. Yorkshire came into the second day on 70 for 3 needing just 129 from their seven remaining wickets to top Somerset’s first innings 199. Those seven wickets realised 33 runs. Somerset’s bowling may have been ‘on the nail’, the conditions may have been perfect for bowling, the pitch may have provided some assistance to the bowlers but I wonder how many of those seven wickets were taken and lost in the head. Were Somerset, at Horsham in 2013, so bad a team technically that technique alone accounted for them being bowled out for 76 and 108 when Sussex made 300? It seems unlikely.

For my own part I was unable to watch the first session of the second day’s play, completing the proofreading and posting of my first day report the, not unusual, culprit. It always takes longer to proofread and post with only one and a half eyes on the job. The other half was on the live stream. A confession. At times it was rather more than half. The morning had started with the worry that from 70 for 3 Yorkshire might overhaul Somerset and take a lead sufficient for Maharaj to put the batsmen under pressure as he had for Lancashire in 2018 and for Yorkshire at Headingley this year.

My attempt to concentrate on the work on my report in one window on my laptop whilst occasionally flicking to the score in another fell with the first Yorkshire wicket. 86 for 4. Kohler-Cadmore had edged Gregory low but straight into the hands of Overton at third slip. Somerset had a chance. By the time I had the live stream up it was the nightwatchman too. Patterson had chopped van der Merwe onto his stumps. 88 for 5. Now, it felt, from my desk, Somerset were ahead. The thing about those two wickets though is that replays suggest the balls which took them had little to do with the pitch or conditions. Gregory’s ball did not seem to deviate at all, it may have kept a scintilla low, but basically it was a straight ball which took the edge. The ball that Patterson chopped on turned slightly away from him, perhaps not as much as he expected but neither ball was driven by demons.

The ball with which van der Merwe induced Tattersall to edge to Hildreth at slip certainly turned but not excessively and there was nothing exceptional about the bounce. Van der Merwe did though toss it up, the ball dipped in the flight and Tattersall, although forward, may not have been quite as far forward as he needed to be. 92 for 6.  Do not try to tell me I cannot multi-task. At least, I can flip between screens with the best of them when Somerset are playing,

Meanwhile at the ground Davey was bowling to Brook. The ball moved in off the seam, the defensive bat was unable to take account of the movement and the ball struck the pad in front of the stumps. The movement was just enough, no more, than was needed to defeat the bat. It was not unlike one or two of the dismissals in the Somerset innings. Movement off the seam but nothing which would warrant the term ‘jagged back’. The ball from Davey which Bresnan edged to the diving Vijay at second slip looked as straight as any you will see. Neither could I detect any demons in the ball which Maharaj chipped back to van der Merwe who took an excellent catch diving to his right.

With Coad unable to bat Yorkshire were 103 all out and I could finally skate through the mechanics of posting my, now proofread, although I dread to think how well, first day report. A lead of 96. But the Somerset psyche has waited 128 years for a County Championship. Even a first innings total nearly double Yorkshire’s did not settle the nerves that such a wait generates when a Championship does come near. There have been too many second places in recent years for that and Somerset are currently, if only just behind Essex, second in the table again. And there was Maharaj’s bowling to come. Trying to forge a winning position against a two-time Somerset nemesis is not to be contemplated lightly.

Batting had seemed harder during these mornings of 10.30 starts and their autumnal air in spite of there being little evidence in the wickets that fell for that to account for the number that fell. Perhaps the autumn moisture causes the ball to grip on the pitch just enough for it to move an inch or so. Or perhaps the effects of autumn were also in the batsmen’s minds.

 

There was time to get to the ground before lunch but, being a smart-phone free zone that would mean missing the start of the Somerset innings. So, the live stream it was. I might have had a more restful time on the bus. Before I, or the Somerset batsmen, had properly settled, nemesis struck. Maharaj, opening the bowling from the River End, the traditional spinner’s end at Taunton, angled a ball into Vijay, Vijay swept, the ball just about straightened off the pitch, evaded the bat, struck the pad and Somerset were 4 for 1. 4 for 2 when Davies drove Patterson to the substitute fielder at cover. The ball was slightly angled in to the left-hander and swung late just enough to straighten. But the real problem for the Somerset batsman seemed to be driving across the line of a ball which pitched eighteen inches outside off stump. The result was a repeat of Davies first innings dismissal. Somerset’s Championship prospects were suffering an uncomfortable wobble.

And then Hildreth. If a batsman can change the mood in an over Hildreth changed the mood against Patterson, or at least he began the change it with successive boundaries. Not without risk. The boundaries were driven in the air, rather un-Hildreth like, through midwicket. It was as if he had decided the spell the bowlers had held over the batsmen on the first two mornings had to be broken. The boundaries didn’t unleash a volley of runs but suddenly Hildreth was dancing decisively down the pitch to Maharaj, smothering any turn there might have been and judging well when to play back. With Abell back in his first innings role of ‘they shall not pass’ at the other end Somerset negotiated their way to lunch at 49 for 2. A lead of 145. Suddenly the world felt a whole lot better than it had when Davies drove that ball to cover.

I met my expert summarizer from the first day in the Temporary Stand, square of the River End crease. I was immediately struck by two things. The size of the crowd and an autumnal gale blowing along the Temporary Stand as the wind and the weather came from over the Quantocks. The crowd was not very far short of that on the first day. Perhaps swelled by a free-entry token in the local paper and by this being Somerset’s annual ‘Farmers Day’ but the prospect of a Championship is beginning to bite.

Hildreth got us under way with a paddle sweep for four off Maharaj who had bowled continuously from the River End since the start of Somerset’s innings. And then the benefits from that shift in mood. The careworn defence or desperate attack which had characterised Somerset’s attempts to play Maharaj, admittedly on a turning pitch in the match against Lancashire, in the past had gone. Now there was quiet but determined intent. Pushed singles were gently adding to the score. And not just against Maharaj. Against Patterson too. So quiet was the intent at times at times it even wrong-footed my expert summarizer. “Did we get anything from that over?” he once asked of a Patterson over. “Five singles according to my notes,” I replied. In a low-scoring match five singles in an over count.

And with such determination and intent did Hildreth and Abell work Somerset forward. Doubtless aided by a 96 run first innings lead they not so much changed the mood of the match as turn it on its head. When Olivier’s pace was tried the batsmen, Abell in particular, used it to advantage. A cut flew to the long boundary leaving the point fielder trailing in its wake. A cover drive went the same way. A hook landed on the terrace of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion and another drive went to the old Stragglers area. Hildreth drove through the off side. The ball hugged the ground all the way until it crossed the boundary into the midst of the ghosts which inhabit where the old Stragglers was. They might have drooled over such a strokes at such a time. And they would have given anything to watch Somerset where they are now.

It was not just the consummate technique of the batting which lifted the spirit. It was the manner of it. The assurance. The intent to take control of the game. It lifted the crowd. The Taunton buzz began to move up the volume scale. The chatter reflected the rising sense of optimism, if guarded optimism for cricket can be a fickle bedfellow. When Hildreth struck a six off Maharaj it hit the top of the Sir Ian Botham Stand sight screen. “You can’t hit much straighter than that,” said my summarizer as parts of the crowd began to cheer rather than just applaud. The single which brought up Hildreth’s fifty and his response to it seemed symbolic of what was happening. It came off Maharaj, still only conceding two runs an over but not seeming to present the threat he once had. And Hildreth’s response. He raised his bat to the dressing room and to the crowd but did it in such away that the gesture seemed to say, “Thank you, but there is work to be done. There will be time for celebration when it is done.”

The work though would have to be continued by others. On 58 Hildreth came down the pitch to Lyth and turned him square but in a brilliant piece of anticipation, Brook, at short leg, followed him down the pitch and took the catch. No doctor could have prescribed a better solution to the need to further shift the mood and the match Somerset’s way than Banton. While Abell continued to resist, and occasionally repel, all comers at the other end, Banton sallied forth and drove them back. 38 of his 43 runs came in boundaries. He faced 48 balls. Picking the right ball to hit to that extent after the batting alarums of the first four sessions, even if conditions are easing, is more than about technique. It is about an attitude focused on taking control of the match.

Banton is a special talent we are often told by the Club. He looked like one. His driving was as powerful as it was correct and it didn’t much matter who bowled. Olivier was driven through the covers. Bresnan straight to the Somerset Pavilion. Lyth was reversed-swept. The Banton reverse sweep is a spectacular affair. It is hit furiously, into the ground and flies, as if powered by rockets, to the boundary. A pull towards the Somerset Stand off Lyth span so much off the ground it flew behind the fielder running to stop it. Banton did have some of the fortune that favours the brave. A sweep ballooned over the keeper’s head for four but a ‘lofted’ reverse sweep off Maharaj, with no assistance from fortune, landed in the T20 dug outs just to my left. And then he was out. Maharaj pitched the last ball before tea 18 inches outside off stump, perhaps with the intention of tempting Banton, from where it turned quite sharply beyond banton’s drive, and Lyth took the catch at slip.

Somerset were 191 for 4, 287 ahead with Abell 62 not out. It had been an afternoon of rising Somerset dominance wrought by some scintillating stroke play built on a base of careful accumulation. Both had been driven by that apparent intent to take control of the match. Technique for sure. Some luck. But batsmen with heads confident and determined to deliver. At least that is how it looked to your correspondent.

I looked around me. It was a sight to behold. Tea is a time when many leave a day of Championship cricket. I have no doubt some did, by way of habit or necessity. But not many. The crowd was as large as it had been all day. If anything, it was growing. The Temporary Stand was as well-populated as I have ever seen it for a Championship match. Any who left were replaced rather as Somerset’s batsmen had replaced one another as they took Somerset inexorably forward. People, I am sure, were coming in from a shift at work, or as in days gone by, having heard the score. And not just the Somerset score. At Edgbaston Warwickshire were 469 for 7 against Essex. In twos and threes people stood by the boundary talking, not with the usual relaxed air but with a quiet intensity as the reality of what might be happening took hold. And the chatter. It had an intensity about it that spoke of minds hoping, wondering. Could this really be the year?

A swift teatime circumnavigation of the ground took me as far as Gimblett’s Hill by the time the players re-emerged. Too late to pass behind the Somerset Pavilion before the first ball, I sat on one of the benches. And there Abell’s vigil ended, lbw trying to drive Bresnan and suddenly Somerset had two batsmen at the wicket, Bartlett and Gregory, both without a run to their name. That took me back to the Temporary Stand and my expert summarizer, still at the cricket in spite of an original avowed intent to leave at lunch. Such was the grip this match had on people. “Abell walked off not out at lunch and tea on both days of the match,” he pointed out. Now that is determination, not to mention two ‘captain’s innings’.

The evening session began under gathering gloom and the lights were soon on. It wasn’t only the lights that lightened the darkness. A coruscating partnership at five runs an over between Bartlett and Gregory lit Somerset hearts more than any floodlight could, no matter how many led lights it contained. Gregory’s playing of Maharaj, just as it had been a year ago, was a delight. He takes ‘using’ his feet to the extreme as he dances, almost runs, three or four steps down the pitch to smother or dispatch the ball. From there the ball was clipped behind square, crashed into the perspex in front of the Long Room Terrace, or driven to long on as if he were striking a golf ball. A lofted cover drive was caught in the sixth row of the Temporary Stand. In the end Maharaj was taken out of the attack. What a difference a year makes.

Gregory was just as severe on Patterson, twice driving him through the on side to the boundary, once over it into the Ondaatje Stand. Bartlett’s strokes are less demonstrative than Gregory’s and so he scores more quickly, and more powerfully, than appearance would suggest. He cut Maharaj, switched away from the River End, to the Caddick Pavilion boundary, drove him, back at the River End, into the Sir Ian Botham Stand boundary board, forcing mid-off back. He turned him fine to the Somerset Pavilion boundary causing Yorkshire to place a leg slip. He drove Bresnan square and clipped Patterson to fine leg, both for four. The crowd had long since added cheers to their applause for such strokes, for this was not just wonderful stroke play, it was stroke play that had arisen from a match which for four sessions had witnessed rampant bowling and careworn batting. It was a transformation to rouse the Somerset heart.

Somerset were 269 for 5, 365 ahead, when the umpires finally sent for a light meter and succumbed to the gloom, no longer gathering but full in the face. Bartlett was on 39, Gregory on 38. It was, in all conscience, too dark for cricket with a red ball, even under lights. Gregory and Bartlett walked off to a resounding round of applause, shouts of, “Well played boys!” and applause form the Yorkshire players closest to them. That was indicative of the spirit in which this match, as far as you can tell from beyond the boundary, has thus far been played. There has been no sign of any ill-feeling among the players, quite the opposite, and, as far as I can tell, no hints of dissention over decisions.

Where this year’s Championship will end up is anyone’s guess. The balance by the end of the second day had swung a little towards Somerset, a little away from Essex and a lot away from Yorkshire. But cricket is a game riddled with uncertainties. Sides have on occasion, Somerset once did it against Worcestershire, won matches from the position Essex are in. Somerset once won a match against Sussex from a position not so very different from the one Yorkshire are in, although Yorkshire’s injuries will mitigate against them. The Taunton pitch too has a habit of flattening rapidly from the middle of the third day, although not always in recent times. Any rational prediction would have Somerset winning this match, Essex drawing at Edgbaston, Somerset moving to the top of the table and Yorkshire out of contention. But cricket is not a rational game and if the ex-Somerset cricketer was right and it is played more in the head than with the hands nothing is certain in cricket, or in this match, until it is certain.

Close. Somerset 199 and 269 for 5. Yorkshire 103 (R.E. van der Merwe 3-14, J.H. Davey 3-30). Somerset lead by 365 with five first innings wickets standing.