Abbott unleashed

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

Overnight. Hampshire 196. Somerset 30 for 2. Somerset trail Hampshire by 166 runs with eight first innings wickets standing.

Overnight. Hampshire 196. Somerset 30 for 2. Somerset trail by 166 runs with eight first innings wickets standing. 

Second day. 17th September – Abbott unleashed

This is a match in which the balance has swung first one way and then the other but by the end of the second day the overall direction of travel was heavily in Hampshire’s favour. With Essex only eight points behind Somerset at the start of this round of matches and well ahead in their match against Surrey at Chelmsford, defeat in this match could end Somerset’s Championship challenge, for although Essex and Somerset meet in the final round of matches the forecast for the final week is poor.

There are no such issues with the forecast here. There will be a result in this match and if Somerset are to maintain their position in the Championship, they will have to win it. I do not recall seeing a cloud in the sky all day. The decision to end play for bad light can only have been related to shadows covering the pitch and the setting of the sun on a day that, along with the heavy defeats at Chelmsford and Headingley, may, if Somerset cannot safely negotiate the new ball in their second innings, cast a shadow over Somerset’s season.

I started the day sitting next to the steps up which the Somerset players ascend to their dressing room and spent it either there, in a cold breeze that never let up all day, or on circumnavigations of the ground. Anti-clockwise, although none seemed to do the Somerset cause much good. The 40 or so Somerset supporters who had occupied seats on the other side of the aisle on the first day returned, and for a period were added to. But once the sun had departed behind the Pavilion the summer warmth was instantly transformed into a sharp autumnal chill. As the day wore on the numbers across the aisle fell away, rather as Somerset’s challenge did in this match, and perhaps in the Championship. It was not only Somerset supporters. The preponderance of Hampshire supporters on my side of the aisle departed too. Both sets of supporters presumably heading for the sunnier climes at the far end of the ground where the crowd gradually increased throughout the day.

Abbott’s dismissal of Abell in the second over set the tone for the Somerset innings, or at least the greater part of it. Abell shouldered arms to a ball, angled in but pitching the best part of a foot outside off stump from where it cut in hard to hit the stumps. Abell 20. Banton followed, edging to the keeper, as he tried pull a ball from Edwards which pitched outside off stump. When Abbott reproduced the ball which had dismissed Abell, Hildreth jabbed down on it without moving his feet and edged the second catch of the day to McManus. Somerset were 45 for 5. “Oh dear,” I heard someone say, and you could sense Somerset hearts sinking all around the ground as the Hampshire crowd erupted into cheers.

Edwards welcomed Bartlett with a spearing yorker although Bartlett was equal to it. Two boundaries in an over from Bartlett off Edwards apart, there followed some desperate defence from Bartlett and Gregory, Bartlett once edging Edwards a foot or so short of slip. Twice Abbott was through Bartlett’s defence to hit him on the body and then struck him on the pads with a straight ball. When Gregory also departed lbw, to a full ball from Abbott which cut in sharply, for a 19-ball duck Somerset were 59 for 7. 65 for 8 when Abbot bowled Overton with a straight ball which cut in from a foot outside off stump. It had been a devastating piece of bowling. Perhaps some of Somerset’s batsmen might have got forward more in defence but with the ball moving off the seam to the extent it did I wonder how much difference in the end it would have made.

With Abbott’s astonishing burst spent, the frenetic mood, and the game changed. It was as if a hurricane had blown through the ground and then, as suddenly as it had come, departed and left the calm of a summer day behind it. The cheers of the Hampshire supporters after the fall of each wicket had subsided into a swell of excited chatter which washed around the ground rather as the sea does in the immediate aftermath of a storm. Somerset supporters, stunned by the cataclysmic speed with which the innings had subsided, steadfastly applauded each batsman up the steps as they returned to the Pavilion. The storm abated, their chatter began to pick up although it had never fully gone away.

Gradually Somerset’s ninth wicket pair began to give their supporters something to chat about and sometimes to cheer. Bess, always a fighter with the bat, and van der Merwe, who rarely plays red ball cricket these days, quickly came to grips with the post-Abbott normality of the bowling, helped at times by some sloppy Hampshire fielding. Determined defence held Somerset’s precarious line and a boundary and the occasional single inched the total forward. 23 were added in ten hard-fought overs. The defiance started to lift the Somerset support with every single being applauded. And then a moment of farce lifted the spirits further, if only momentarily. A single to Bess resulted in a wild throw at the stumps which ran almost all the way to the far boundary, chased long and hard by a Hampshire fielder whilst Bess and van der Merwe ran three more. As the fielder retrieved the ball just inside the rope there was a moment’s hesitation from the batsmen before they hurtled through for their fifth run as the ball made its way back to the middle. “I think that’s the first time I have seem an all-run five,” said the text from the online watcher. I think it may have been the first time many of us present had seen one too if the astonished cheers from the Somerset support were anything to go by.

Bess and van der Merwe saw Somerset to lunch at 103 for 8. 93 runs behind Hampshire’s 196. As I made my way around the vast concourse above the stand on one of the square boundaries, I looked up at one of the two huge scoreboards which somehow manage to have a font too small for many in front of the Pavilion to see. Still having some capacity for mental arithmetic, I calculated Somerset had scored 73 for 6 in that tempestuous morning session. On the first morning Hampshire had scored 75 for 6. For all Abbott’s ferocious bowling the Somerset bowling group had matched his impact and the Somerset batsmen had done no worse than the Hampshire ones. The crucial difference was the two wickets Somerset had lost in that ghostly Stygian evening of the first day. Somerset had two wickets to negotiate the calmer waters of the afternoon. Hampshire had had four, one of whom was Dawson. It made all the difference.

My perambulation among the supporters of both sides revealed two things about the crowd. Firstly, Somerset supporters had turned out in numbers. Everywhere you looked you saw the distinctive Somerset membership lanyard. More than you seemed to see of the Hampshire one although that may have been impressionistic, the Somerset eye being drawn to the maroon of home. If it were shown that Somerset supporters made up half the crowd none that were there would be surprised. Secondly, compared with Taunton or Headingley, the total numbers in the ground was low, perhaps comparable with the first day. Hampshire supporters were all smiles, if reserved, at least in the presence of Somerset supporters. Somerset supporters were pensive, still hoping. Hoping for that first championship. Hoping for a continued spirited revival from the last two wickets, but realistic enough to know that parity with the Hampshire score was almost certainly beyond the reach of the remaining batsmen, particularly when Abbott returned, as surely, he must.

Abbott did indeed return after lunch but Bess and van der Merwe made headway to rising applause and cheers from the Somerset contingent. Every single, the occasional boundary, and all the time the gradually rising score drove the hope with it. News of Surrey subsiding against Essex came as no surprise. Essex have won every match this year at Chelmsford and Surrey, after some initial fight, had been overwhelmed by Hampshire at Southampton a week before. Somerset if they are to win the Championship, as is the way with Championships, would have to do it off their own bats, literally.

At 132 for 8, with 67 already added for the ninth wicket, Bess and van der Merwe had more than halved the deficit to 64. Even with the ball getting older it was a sterling effort. But Abbott could not be resisted forever. Bess fended a short ball to Donald at short leg for Somerset’s top score of 37. He looked furious with himself as he walked off, and devastated as he walked up the steps to extended applause and a series of cries of, “Well played,” from Somerset supporters. Davey began positively, an on drive for four off Abbott particularly impressive, but just as he seemed to be making headway he looked surprised to be given out caught behind for Abbott’s ninth wicket of the innings and Hampshire led by 54 runs.

This match has a pattern about it. Tumbling early wickets followed by lower order recoveries. In Hampshire’s first innings they lost their sixth wicket at 57. Somerset lost theirs at 58. Now, in their second innings, Hampshire lost their sixth at 45. The devastation was just as traumatic as in the two first innings. Davey angled a ball in to Holland who edged it to Vijay at slip. Alsop was tucked up a little in turning Davey square and van der Merwe, at square leg, dived full length towards the ball. “Five maidens. Two wickets,” said the incoming text, emphasising the importance of control in building the pressure that take wickets. As so often with van der Merwe in the field, the ball looked out of reach but his dive seemed to become elongated as he caught the ball with fingers skimming the grass. “Come on Louis,” the shout from the stands as Gregory took up the ball for another over. Gregory, almost immediately, moved a ball away no more than a fraction off the pitch and Organ edged to Davies. Northeast struck successive boundaries off Overton, the second chipped over slip, before Overton moved a ball in sharply off the seam and removed him, lbw, for 22.

A teatime circumnavigation left me on the wrong side of the Pavilion standing and watching with a couple of Somerset supporters as the final two of those first six wickets fell. Dawson lbw to a ball from Gregory that cut into him and Donald, playing no stroke to a ball from Overton, that cut back into his stumps from more than a foot outside off. Hampshire’s lead was 94. Somerset hopes were bubbling but a doubt nagged on the lips of every Somerset supporter. The incoming text spoke for all of them, “We must get Vince.”

But Vince played a determined innings which turned further the match, perhaps decisively, in Hampshire’s favour. Just one run coming from his first 32 balls we noticed on the scoreboard. I returned to my seat and found the rows of seats around me virtually deserted. I doubt anyone, either in the Somerset interest or the Hampshire one, had deserted their team. Just gone to the sunnier climes on the far side of the ground I concluded, for the breeze, aided by the unforgiving shade which now engulfed the seating, was giving a warning of winter not so far away.

I watched awhile as Vince began to assert himself as Somerset’s three main pace bowlers reached the limit of their opening spells. McManus stayed with him, surviving an inside edge off Overton which flew past leg stump for four before being lbw to van der Merwe for 10. By then the lead was 148. And from there it was virtually all Vince. He lost Barker, lbw to Abell at 103, lead 157, but Abbott stayed with him in the evening sun until the umpires called play off for the day.

Vince never really looked threatened and, after one or two early scares, Abbott began to look unmovable at the other end. I walked around the ground for the third time in the day watching the score rise as I went. The final half a hour or so I watched in conversation with another regular travelling Somerset supporter. The evening sun was still warm but was by then so low in the sky it was troubling any fielder who had to field opposite it. After the departure of Barker, with just two wickets left, Vince had begun to attack the bowling. He drove van der Merwe through midwicket to bring up his fifty, and from there pulled, drove, cut and late cut his and Hampshire’s way forward.

By the time I was engaged in that final chat of the day Somerset had resorted to packing the boundary with fielders during the first four balls of the overwhenever Vince was on strike. It is a tactic which contains some boundaries and might reduce the scoring rate but it rarely, in my experience, exposes the tail end batsmen to the strike for long enough to take his wicket. It is a dispiriting experience for the supporter of the fielding side as the match seems to drift away from them. All teams seem to do it but I do wonder if anyone has analysed its effectiveness. It would make an interesting piece of analysis. It seemed to achieve nothing here, although of course I have no way of knowing what the score might have risen to had the boundary fielders been brought into more attacking positions and a wicket not fallen.

As it was, Vince ended 102 not out, his century being met with a standing ovation, he and Abbott had added 73 runs for the ninth wicket, and Hampshire would start the third day with an advantage of 230 runs. News of Essex’s 128 run lead over Surrey with four first innings wickets still standing added to the sense of this being a day on which things had drifted away from Somerset. Somerset will now have to make the highest score of the match if they are to win. They will have to avoid a start to the innings like the three so far and then have to bat uncommonly well for a long time to achieve it. But, if, if they can overcome Abbott and the rest of the Hampshire attack in the opening phases of the second innings, and it is an ‘if’ as tall as the Blackdowns on the evidence of this match to date, perhaps the prospect of the prize that will then open up might just drive them over the line.

Close. Hampshire 196 and 176 for 8. Somerset 142 (K.J. Abbott 9 for 40). Hampshire lead by 230 runs with two second innings wickets standing.