In the balance

County Championship Division 1. Hampshire v Somerset. 16th, 17th and 18th September 2019. Southampton.

Somerset travelled to Southampton eight points clear at the top of the Championship. The match against Hampshire would be the second of their last three matches. All three involved other the teams in the top half of the table. Meanwhile Essex would play Surrey who had won only two matches in 2019 to Essex’s eight. Somerset’s final match of the season would be against Essex at 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, C. Overton, R van Der Merwe. J.H. Davey 

Hampshire. F.S. Organ, I.G. Holland, T.P. Alsop, S.A. Northeast, J.M. Vince (c), L.A. Dawson, A.H.T. Donald, L.D. McManus (w), K.H.D. Barker, K.J. Abbott, F.H. Edwards.

Toss. Hampshire. Elected to bat.

First day. 16th September – In the balance

One of the greatest barriers to following Somerset around the country is the A303. In 2017 I went to the first ‘pink ball’ match in which Somerset had played. The ball went soft before its time, the weather was awful and Somerset’s run chase nearly ended in disaster. There was an accident on the A303 and it took us five and a half hours to get back to Somerset. There was no accident this time as we travelled towards Southampton on the day before the match. But there was traffic. Endless traffic. Tailbacks at every roundabout and at every one of those places where a stretch of dual carriageway or your priority on a single carriageway section ends. That is the A303 on a summer Sunday and, the onset of autumn notwithstanding, this was a glorious summer Sunday. It was while we were in one of those queues that my phone rang.

Half an hour before, I had finished loading the car, checking everything was on board. Suitcase, Somerset backpack, wyvern hat, laptop, laptop charger cable, coats, extraneous bags, wallet, Somerset membership and all the paraphernalia of a trip to a Somerset match. Then a check through all the things that needed to be turned off or left on, doors to be secured and so on by the people staying with us but leaving after us. And all the while, do not tell me I cannot multi-task, turning over in my mind a multitude of the important things. What sort of pitch would Hampshire prepare? Would Somerset play two spinners? Craig Overton is back. Presumably he will play. If two spinners are needed which paceman would be dropped? Dare Somerset drop Davey after he took eight wickets against Yorkshire? If not he, then who? Will Surrey be able to put up a fight against Essex? Oh, how Somerset’s prospects swirl and overwhelm all else when there is the hope of winning the County Championship running around the mind.

All done, we were on our way and in those queues. And then my phone rang. “You have left your key in the door,” my travelling companion advised. That was twice in two cricketing days my door key reared its worriesome head in a Somerset cricketing mind with more important things to concern it than the mere whereabouts of a door key. Fortunately, my travelling companion has a door key, instructions were sent as to a ‘safe place’ in which to lodge my key and I got back to the traffic and the cricket.

I am not sure I can recall meeting quite so many Somerset supporters outside the entrance to an opposition cricket ground, except perhaps at Chester le Street on the final day of the 2010 season when Somerset had also had a realistic chance of winning the Championship. The entrance at Southampton consists of a set of fearsome looking turnstiles, beyond which I found more Somerset supporters, some with faces I recognised and many I did not. Some had come to Southampton for the first time. People it seemed had come from near and far and all the faces spoke at the same time of hope, anxiety and a look that asked, “What do you think?”. Others just asked the question outright. A question to which there was no answer. Time would just have to unravel and as long as Somerset have a chance of the Championship the unravelling will become slower by the day. 26th September seemed an aeon away.

I found a seat, roughly behind first or second slip and adjacent to the steps up which the Somerset players climb to their dressing room. Across the aisle from me were a miscellaneous group of about 40 Somerset supporters. Beyond those, a legion in Somerset colours was spread about in twos and threes in a crowd which, to my eye, might have, at its peak, reached towards a thousand. Somerset had opted to have a toss, lost it and Hampshire had elected to bat. The pitch was heavily green, the clouds were heavily grey and there was some humidity in the air. “Why not just put them in?” some asked. The pitch, apparently, was very dry someone had heard. Perhaps batting first was the lesser of two evils.

With ten minutes to the start I decided to go for a walk. Tension seems to bite less when you are on the walk. I watched the first over through one of the passageways beneath a stand. After three balls, Organ was walking back to the Pavilion. He had driven at ball from Gregory pitched wide of off stump and edged straight to Hildreth at first slip. 0 for 1. Back in my seat I had the perfect view of a ball from Davey, angled markedly into Alsop and perhaps moving in a little more. It pierced Alsop’s desperate attempt to get his bat down and bowled him. Hampshire were 3 for 2. The group of 40 across the aisle from me erupted into cheers and applause and more could be seen, and heard, from around the ground.

When Northeast edged a drive off Gregory wide of gully for four someone shouted, “Come on Louis!” When Northeast repeated the stroke, the ball flew like a lightning bolt off the bat and wide of gully again. This time, not quite so wide. “Four again,” the sinking thought. But van der Merwe took off from gully, as if propelled by a giant catapult, and caught the ball far, and high, to his right. What a celebration that provoked among the fielders. And what a celebration among the group of 40. All were applauding or cheering, some rising to their feet in the process. Some looked on in disbelief. It was that sort of catch. “We’ve got a bonus point,” someone said as if it had been forgotten in the commotion. 12 for 3 the score.

When Gregory pitched full and a foot outside off stump to Vince the cover drive to the boundary was met by applause from both sets of supporters. “Shot!” said one from Somerset. When Gregory pitched on the same length but a shade closer to the stumps Vince drove again, the ball jagged back, went inside the bat and hit the middle and leg stumps. It was a viciously unplayable ball which I doubt any batsman on Earth could have played. The cheers and applause from the 40 were reflected wherever Somerset supporters sat in the ground for this was beyond hope. And then an over in which Holland was constantly troubled by Gregory brought gasps from all around. When, in the next over, Overton angled a ball sharply into Holland, it moved a little more off the seam, Holland tried to adjust but edged the ball low to Vijay’s left at second slip. Vijay reached down so smoothly he might have been having gentle catching practice and caught the Overton missile a few inches above the ground. Holland had batted an hour for four. His innings was the first hour in miniature. Hampshire were 24 for 5, Somerset were rampant, their supporters were ecstatic. Hampshire were in disarray, their supporters, at least the ones behind me, talking ironically of being safe from relegation.

And then in the midst of Hampshire’s headlong rout, ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man.’ The man was Liam Dawson. Where others had defended desperately, perhaps with the occasional driven or edged boundary, Dawson launched a counterattack as breathtaking as it was effective. As the cloud lifted a little, but never went away, he looked as if he was playing in some batsman’s paradise, some other cricketing world far away from the careworn purgatory which the rest of Hampshire’s top order had inhabited. His driving, with only one or two exceptions, was faultless and it mattered not which Somerset bowler he faced. An edge off Davey flew between slip and gully. Otherwise the ball came crisply off the middle of the bat and hugged the grass. Nothing seemed to be hit in the air. There were drives through the covers, often the stroke to be treasured in any innings. But Dawson’s cover drives, stunning though they were, were overshadowed by the smooth perfection his on driving and the power of his straight driving. In an over from Gregory an on and then a straight drive brought gasps of awe, cries of “Shot!”, applause from both sets of supporters and epitomised his innings.

It was an innings which transcended the game of cricket in which it was played. It shifted the balance of the match too, whether sufficiently to turn it in Hampshire’s favour only the Somerset innings will tell. As the Hampshire score mounted, the home supporters began to find their voice and the boundaries to bring forth cheers. The Somerset supporters never lost their voices though. “C’mon Somerset.” “C’mon Louis,” “C’mon boys,” typical of the frequent shouts. “C’mon boys,” from Abell too.

Dawson did not stand alone. First Donald, nine in a partnership of 33 at near six an over, stood with him until Davey rushed him into a defensive stroke and forced an edge which Overton, falling forward and to his left, took neatly at gully. Then McManus, 11, in a dogged partnership of 31 with Dawson which stretched for an hour either side of lunch, held the line as the conditions seemed to improve or perhaps the ball began to soften.

Lunch came at 75 for 6 and the group of 40 stood to a person and applauded the Somerset team all the way off the field and up the steps, for it had still been a morning, Dawson’s innings apart, of unremitting Somerset dominance. My lunchtime circumnavigation of the ground, anti-clockwise of course, came across an uncommonly high proportion of Somerset supporters pacing up and down with anxious or distant looks in their eyes. Distantly looking, perhaps, at the possibility, no-one would go further, of a Championship. Anxious that the Hampshire attack, Abbott to the fore, might be particularly effective on that pitch.

When, soon after lunch, McManus drove Overton to Bess at point Hampshire were 88 for 7 and hopes rose that the pre-lunch Hampshire revival might be over. But the afternoon session soon took the shape of the second rather than the first half of the morning. Barker, often thought of as a bowler, but with a batting average higher than his bowling average, almost matched Dawson’s rate of scoring. They added 92 runs at four an over as the cloud came lower and the floodlights came on and remained on. The remained on for the rest of the day. Barker was particularly strong off his legs with a series of deflections and turns to leg. A paddle sweep off Bess brought the comment, “Oh. Well played.” After lunch Dawson prospered as much with the pull, one off Gregory clearing the rope, as from the drive although there were some of those too. The Hampshire supporters roared their support of what was an exceptional innings. “Come on boys. Keep believing,” shouted a Somerset supporter. “Keep working hard,” demanded Abell.

And then in a flurry of Hampshire celebration and falling wickets it was over. Barker fell, lbw, to a full ball from Bess. Dawson, appropriately, going to his century with a straight drive off Abell, was almost immediately caught off the same bowler trying to cut, and Edwards, stepping away to drive Abell was bowled. Hampshire had subsided from 188 for 7 to 196 all out. Dawson had walked off to a standing ovation from many Somerset supporters as well as most Hampshire ones. It was that sort of innings. As a Somerset supporter later said to me, “It was the sort of innings that wins matches.”

Somerset’s reply was stuttering in the face of Abbott bowling in some Stygian light. The floodlights gave the area around the pitch an eerie ghost-like glow when it was at its darkest. A short stop-start 11 over session in which the players left the field and returned twice left Somerset on 30 for 2. In the end a short shower of rain convinced everyone, including the umpires, that hanging around in the gathering September gloom was pointless. Abbott’s figures, 6-5-1-2, are as impressive as was his bowling. Vijay looked surprised by his lbw dismissal but looked horribly plumb. Davies neatly turned Barker just behind square for a four and edged another but he looked disconcertingly uncomfortable and it did not come as surprise when he was bowled by a ball perfectly angled in by Abbott.

Abell and Hildreth saw out the gloom as Somerset supporters watched anxiously on. Twice the not out Somerset batsmen came up the steps in that final session. Twice the Somerset 40 stood to applaud them until they reached the staircase to the dressing room. The importance of ‘wickets for the morning’ had perhaps ever been so important. Somerset will start again on 30 for 2 with Abbott refreshed and the pitch still very green. The light, apparently, may be brighter but for Somerset this match, the one at Chelmsford with Surrey 137 for 4 after a truncated day, and the Championship are all, from a Somerset perspective, no more than in the balance.

Close. Hampshire 196 (L.A. Dawson 103, K.H.D. Barker 40, L. Gregory 3-63). Somerset 30 for 2. Somerset trail Hampshire by 166 runs with eight first innings wickets standing.