The ‘thousand-mile stare’

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

Overnight. 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.

Final day. 18th September – The ‘thousand-mile stare’

This was a crushing defeat in a match in which victory would have taken Somerset a long way towards their first County Championship. They succumbed to outstanding bowling in both innings by a bowler who bowled throughout as if ‘on a mission’, although 68 wickets thus far this season suggests he has been rather effective against other teams too. Abbott’s 17 wicket’s in the match, apparently the first time the feat has been achieved in the County Championship since before the Second World War, is a phenomenal achievement. At lunch on the final day nothing seemed less likely. Somerset, 62 for 0 in pursuit of 281, with Abbott having bowled an apparently innocuous opening spell, seemed to be in little trouble. Within an hour of the restart the innings was almost over and by the end the only surprise was that Abbott had only taken 17 wickets.

Abbott is an exceptionally skilful bowler, a world class performer plying his trade in county cricket. However, that he took 17 of his 68 wickets this season in this one match suggests a performance which transcends skill. Such performances are rare. Devon Malcolm’s 9 for 57 for England against South Africa in 1994, Alfonso Thomas’s ‘four in four’ for Somerset against Sussex in 2014, Joel Garner’s 5 for 11 in a Gillette Cup quarter-final against Kent in 1979 spring to mind. Bowlers bowling as if they had the force of nature behind them. Abbott’s 8 for 46 in the second innings here was one such, or at least the six over phase of 6-2-12-6 in his second spell of eight overs was. Such performances seem to overpower rather than defeat batsmen. Abbott bowled over a third of Hampshire’s overs in the match, 18.4 of 48.4 in Somerset’s first innings and 17.4 of, curiously, 48.4 in Somerset’s second innings. It was a towering performance. As another Somerset supporter said to me at the end, “We may never see the like again.”

The morning had started rather dismally from a Somerset perspective with the hoped-for early breakthrough into the remainder of the Hampshire innings not materialising. Vince continued to drive Somerset’s eventual target into, for this match, the stratosphere. I, report-lagged, arrived at the ground a few minutes late. “Vince has already hit three boundaries in an over,” the immediate anxious comment from a Somerset supporter. Vince continued in like vein to mounting and increasingly rapturous cheers from Hampshire supporters. They knew, as well as did Somerset supporters, the value of a string of boundaries on a pitch on which wickets fell in piles, especially with Abbott awaiting the start of the Somerset innings.

But Abbott had damage to inflict on Somerset’s cause even before he had the ball in his hand as he continued his unbroken partnership of the previous evening with Vince. Hampshire supporters knew the importance of his contribution, for every defensive stroke he played received applause. For 11 overs he stood with Vince whilst 46 more runs were hammered into Somerset’s hopes. Abbott scored just eight of his 25 runs on the third morning but the time he gave Vince was gold dust to Hampshire. Vince was particularly harsh on Gregory, mainly pulling and cutting him square and behind the wicket. It was not just the rapid accumulation of runs but the quality of stroke which drove those nails into Somerset hopes and caused their supporters to look on with mounting apprehension. The certainty of stroke and the crack of ball off bat had qualities about them which left an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of the Somerset stomach as to just how far Vince might take the Hampshire score.

It came almost as a surprise when Vince drove at a ball from Gregory which cut into him and took the inside edge. Davies took an outstanding catch diving far to his left with Vince on 142. Vince walked off to a virtually unanimous standing ovation from both sets of supporters, with Somerset supporters again present in large numbers. Abbott followed soon afterwards, driving Davey to Gregory at mid-off. Somerset’s target had finally stopped climbing at 281. To succeed Somerset would have to score, by 55 runs, the highest score of the match and just three runs short of double their first innings score. It made for an anxious innings break for Somerset supporters, and, I imagine, one full of anticipation for Hampshire ones; for Somerset’s first innings collapse in the face of Abbott’s fire and the low scores in each of the first three innings made 281 seem a mountain.

As Vijay and Davies came down the dressing room steps behind me the autumn sun was hot on the back of the neck and here was no cloud in the sky for the second day running. The seats opposite the Pavilion were dotted with people bathed in sunlight, their numbers increasing markedly, as is the way with cricket crowds, as the seating approached the sightscreen. The sky spoke of runs to come but the pitch and Abbott threatened otherwise. Vijay and Davies continued down the steps between the seating in front of the Pavilion to enthusiastic applause and good wishes from Somerset supporters gathered there. Meanwhile the Hampshire team walked out from the far end of the Pavilion to loud applause from their supporters.

The pattern of the match to date had been that batting seemed to become easier as the ball approached 30 overs old. The key to Somerset’s prospects of success seemed to be the number of wickets they would have in hand when the innings reached that stage. Confidence among supporters I spoke to was not high but cricket is a game of uncertainties and surprises and that is enough for the heart to hope even when the head counsels otherwise. Somerset’s start encouraged the heart rather than the head. It was as confident as the start of their first innings had been stuttering. Vijay drove Abbott confidently, just to the off of straight, for four in his first over. In Abbott’s second over Davies, with a stroke that was to become a feature of his innings, steered the ball backward of point for another four. That took Somerset to 13 for 0. “That is the highest opening partnership of the match,” said the ominous text from the online watcher.

Vijay, and particularly Davies, then played as if the early collapses which had bedevilled all three innings played thus far in the match had never occurred. Abbott bowled five overs and gave no hint of threat. Edwards was tried from the other end, and Barker from both ends, with the same lack of success. Vijay was circumspect but did not hold back when a ball offered itself up. Davies was more adventurous, “He is playing at deliveries wide of off stump,” said the text from the online watcher. He caused Somerset hearts to miss more than one beat as he played and missed more than was comfortable. But when he succeeded the deflections, particularly the steer or nudge to the off, brought gasps at the delicateness of the stroke and applause as the ball reached the boundary. It was a glorious hour of slowly mounting excitement among Somerset supporters and, as lunch approached, a moment of quietening doubt for Hampshire ones for this was not in the Abbott-inspired script.

Somerset were 62 for 0 at lunch. It was the first time in the match that a team had passed 60 with less than six wickets down. It could not other than bring hope to the Somerset mind. As I conducted my customary lunchtime circumnavigation of the ground, anti-clockwise of course, constantly coming towards me were Somerset faces daring to hope and Hampshire ones for the first time since lunch on the first day with anxiety in their eyes. The sun was bright and warm with still not a cloud in the sky although the chill breeze still found you if you wandered into the shade. It really was a wonderful day on which to watch cricket. A wonderful day to relax in the sun. But not if you were a Somerset supporter. For all the progress of the morning, Somerset’s target and a clear view of the Championship were still 219 runs away, Abbott would be building up for another blow and Edwards had hardly bowled badly. At best it would be an afternoon of purgatory.

Back at the top of the steps, behind my seat and in front of the Somerset dressing room, I stood and chatted with two or three other Somerset supporters as Davies and Vijay walked out to applause and shouts of encouragement from the large group of Somerset supporters in front of us. They started quietly but the cheers rang out when Davies steered Holland either side of the wicket for a pair of boundaries. Somerset were properly on their way towards that distant target. Sporting superstition bites deep. Those of us standing talking knew, in our more rational moments, that superstition makes not a jot of difference to the outcome of a match. And yet none of us wanted to be the one that moved from where we were or talked up Somerset’s prospects in case a wicket fell immediately afterwards. The fact that several people in a crowd of a 1000 or so must move before virtually every ball made no difference. Sporting allegiance makes irrational slaves of us all.

And so, we stood at our posts as Abbot ran in again from the Pavilion End whilst Davies and Vijay carefully picked their way forward. Successive boundaries from Davies off Holland, guided behind square either side of the wicket, soon had the Smerset applause and the cheers going again. A lofted straight drive off Holland from Vijay gave another push to the optimism that was trying to break through. And yet the tension generated by the conflict between the hope arising from the growing score and the anxiety inflicted by the size of the target continued to bite.

And then, as if abruptly awoken from an idyllic sun-drenched dream by a bucket of ice-cold water, Somerset supporters had looks of horror on their faces. Hampshire ones of surprise and relief. Vijay had pulled Abbott from well outside off stump. Abbot seemed to generate some extra bounce and the ball ballooned off the top edge and floated towards mid-on where Donald trotted a few paces to take the offering. There was stunned silence among the Somerset supporters beneath the dressing room before the questions began to flow, all of which amounted to, “Why? Why such a stroke to such a ball?” And above all, “Why now?” The Hampshire support erupted wherever in the ground it could be found. Abbott was ‘slipping himself’ again. But Vijay was a Somerset batsman and the Somerset supporters around the steps to the dressing room roused themselves to clap him as he walked up the steps from the boundary. Somerset were 86 for 1. Vijay 29. It was a score most Somerset supporters would have settled for at the outset, but for the wicket to fall in such a way left an emptiness in the chest, for suddenly 281, and the Championship, seemed a lot further away than they had two balls before.

The spell of the opening partnership broken I descended the steps to my seat. From there the next half hour of play was as dream-like as the hour before lunch but it was a dream of a wholly different order, at least for the Somerset supporter. One of those dreams in which you feel yourself being enveloped by some inexorably unfolding disaster from which there seems no escape. Somerset wickets began to fall in such quick succession that each seemed to blur into the next. Abell, on the back foot, tried to defend and was caught behind. Hildreth, again on the back foot, but this time to Dawson’s slow left arm was bowled past an out-of-sorts looking prod. “Needed a forward defensive,” said the text from the online watcher.

But the real damage was inflicted by Abbott. In successive ballls, Banton tried to turn him into the on side and Bartlett to glance. Both were lbw to balls which might have moved or cut. Then Davies tried to guide Abbott to third man once too often and McManus took the catch. It was Abbott’s third wicket in four balls but that feat seemed to pass almost unnoticed, lost in the far greater bowling feat that was unfolding around it. When Bess tried to turn Abbott square to another ball that looked like it moved into him, he too was lbw and Somerset had fallen headlong, as if in one of those nightmares, from 86 for 0 to 100 for 7. Three lbws, all playing across the line, all early in an innings. Perhaps the pressure of Abbott’s bowling was telling although modern batsmen do have a tendency to play across the line in search of runs early in an innings. “The old way of trying to see off the opposition’s strike bowler seems to have been lost to the modern game,” someone had said to me on one of my circumnavigations. Although I wonder, with Abbott bowling in this sort of form, if it would have done more than stave off the inevitable.

It all seemed to happen in a numbing, confused daze of wickets falling, ever louder and ecstatic cheering from Hampshire supporters, batsmen coming down and going up the steps next to the small group of Somerset supporters who had braved the cold which descended on that part of the Pavilion seating as the sun began to sink towards the west. The Somerset supporters continued to applaud each batsman as he departed to and came back from the wicket but the effort to clap sounded harder with every wicket that fell as the match slipped away and Somerset’s view of the Championship became more distant. “This is painful,” said one Somerset supporter as another Hampshire cheer filled the air. Only the return to the Pavilion of Davies broke through the daze. He had made 51, mostly in partnership with Vijay. It was Somerset’s highest score of the match and the supporters showed their appreciation with some extended applause.

And then Abbott rested and normality was restored. Gregory and Overton suddenly looked virtually untroubled against Edwards’ pace, Dawson’s slow left arm and Organ’s off spin. Overton defended for nearly an hour and took more of the strike than Gregory. Gregory, defensive for the most part, picked singles where he could, took fours off Edwards and Dawson with powerful drives and a pull off Organ. They gradually edged the score forwards and the frenetic emotion created in Somerset hearts by the avalanche of wickets settled into a stunned numbness and thoughts turned to Taunton for the final match of the season against Essex. The steady tumble of Surrey wickets at Chelmsford left no-one in any doubt that Somerset would go into the long-predicted ‘Championship decider’ 12 points adrift of their rivals.

The return of Abbott saw the departure of Overton, caught off a defensive edge by the only slip, positioned between the normal second and third slip positions. Van der Merwe drove at Dawson and edged to Abbott at point and Davey lost his off stump to Abbott leaving Gregory not out on 34, scored in an hour and a half at the wicket. Abbott had returned the best bowling figures in Hampshire’s history and the best first-class match figures, 17 for 86, since Jim Laker took 19 for 90 against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956, two years before I first saw Somerset play. The Hampshire team left the field by the steps used by the Somerset team during the match. They, and Abbott, carrying the ball and a stump, walked off to a standing ovation from both sets of supporters. It had been the performance of a lifetime and was probably the only time, in the lifetime of all those present, that they had or would see such a performance.

And so, Somerset supporters gathered their things and began to depart, mostly in conversation with one another. Most of the conversation I heard or was involved in was not focusing on what we had just seen, that was almost beyond conversation, but on what was to come and the prospects against Essex and the need to win that match if the Championship were to be won. There was though still a look in the eyes of many at what might have been. The ‘thousand-mile stare’ as one Somerset supporter put it to me. And so Somerset’s latest attempt to reach the end of that ‘thousand mile’ stare and win the Championship will, once more, come down to the need to win the last match of the season. This time no other match matters. The situation is simple. Barring some bizarre distribution of bonus points, if Somerset beat Essex, they will be County Champions. If they do not, they will be runners up for the fifth time in ten seasons and for the third time in the last four.

And something about this season. There is a certain symmetry to Somerset’s results. Against teams who were in the bottom four places all season until Kent defeated Yorkshire this week, Somerset won seven matches and drew one. Against the three teams which, with Somerset, have occupied the top four places, Somerset have lost heavily to Yorkshire and Hampshire away from home and beaten them both heavily at Taunton. Against the other team in the top four, Essex, Somerset lost heavily at Chelmsford and play them on Monday at Taunton. A symmetrical end to the season would suit Somersetmand its supporters in the ground and spread far and wide. But the symmetry will have to be fought for. Essex have lost only one match, their first of the season away to Hampshire. Somerset have now lost three and will have to redress some of that balance if they are to top Essex in the table. It has all the makings, if the weather holds, of a mighty match and whichever team comes out ahead will be worthy Champions.

Result. Hampshire 196 (L.A. Dawson 103, K.H.D. Barker 40) 226 (J.M. Vince 142, J.H. Davey 3-22, C. Overton 3-74) Somerset 142 (K.J. Abbott 9 for 40) and 144 (S.M. Davies 51, K.J. Abbott 7-46). Hampshire won by 136 runs. Hampshire 19 points. Somerset 3 points.