Five spinners and a deluge

County Championship Division 1. Somerset v Essex. 23rd, 24th, 25th and 26th September 2019. Taunton.

Essex travelled to Taunton for the last match of the season 12 points ahead of second-placed Somerset. To win the Championship Somerset would need to win the match. For Essex a draw would be sufficient. The forecast for all four days was poor as the remnants of the latest tropical storm swept in from the Atlantic.  

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, M.J. Leach. 

Essex. N.L.J Browne, Sir A.N. Cook, T. Westley, D.W. Lawrence, B.S. Bopara, T.N. ten Doeschate (c), A.J.A. Wheater (w), S.R. Harmer, A. Nijjar, J.A. Porter, S.J. Cook. 

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

First day. 23rd September – Five spinners and a deluge

As we left the house the high white cloud, blue sky and sun recalled the summer warmth of the days before the weekend just gone. The chill on the air hinted, but no more, of autumn. The forecast might have had Noah worried. And so, the final round of County Championship matches of 2019 began on the day of the Autumn Equinox. The Quantocks had cast off their bright summer colours and were dressed in drab winter dowds. The Atlantic storms, which end their days passing through these parts in autumn and winter have begun their annual pilgrimage. They shroud the Quantocks from the view of those of us in the valley as they push by.

The forecast, foreseeing no play after lunch took its toll. The crowd was no more than the normal first day crowd at Taunton although it grew as the morning wore on. The outfield though was a hive of activity when my cricket-playing companion and I arrived about 45 minutes before the start of play. It was so full of apparently disconnected sets of random colours, activities and disjointed noise the goings on might have been mistaken for a school playground rather than the preparation of highly professional sportsmen for what might become the most important match of the season for both teams. The crowd looked more organised as it gradually made its way to, or occupied, its seats, or stood in intent groups discussing, no doubt, that for which the players were preparing, and the weather forecast. Always the ever-changing weather forecast.

Seats secured in the relative security from the prospect of rain in the top of the Somerset Pavilion I set off, anti-clockwise, on my customary pre-match circumnavigation of the ground. I detected no great tension in the air although it was no doubt there in the heart of every Somerset supporter in the ground, and beyond; and, I imagine, in Essex hearts too. There will be time for tension, and thoughts and hopes of history too, if the weather, and the course of the match, allow Somerset a glimpse of victory.

I had reached the Garner Gates when someone pointed out that the captains were about to toss. There would be no automatic insertion. The fast-spinning coin caught the sun as Abell flipped it vertically half a dozen feet into the air. The match is being televised and so the announcement of the outcome of the toss came quickly. Silence fell as people strained their ears. That Somerset had won the toss, would bat and were playing three spinners, and Essex two, left no doubt as to what was expected of the pitch.

I was back at the top of the Somerset Pavilion in time to see Vijay begin Somerset’s quest with a neat drive through the off side for four off Porter. And to push defensively at Cook and edge to Wheater, diving low to his right behind the stumps. Somerset 7 for 1. Batting did not look easy as the bowlers, Cook in particular, beat the defensive bat more often than was comfortable. A check drive from Abell off Porter, square of cover, skimmed the ground to the Caddick Pavilion boundary to settle the Somerset heart a little. Only for Cook to unsettle it with a ball angled into Davies from around the wicket which hit the pad as it homed in on the stumps. The umpire took an eternity, long enough for me think about asking my cricket-playing companion, “Why was that not out?” before raising his finger. Somerset were 14 for 2,

Hildreth, short of runs this season, was at the wicket and Somerset were at risk of beginning this, oh, so important, match with a crisis. Hildreth tends to take the same approach whatever the state of the game. He attacks the bowling. If you are watching in the Somerset interest the beginning of a Hildreth innings both lifts the heart and sets the nerves jangling. In successive balls he drove Porter square through the on side to the Somerset Stand boundary and through the covers to the Caddick Pavilion. “Hildreth attacking makes sense,” said the cricket player. “There has been quite a bit of playing and missing and balls passing near the stumps when they have been left.” As if to emphasise the point Abell came forward to Cook and edged the ball a foot or two short of third slip. “Defending again,” said the cricket player. The cricket player, I should say, in his own game, is inclined to take bat to ball rather more than is good for the nerves although it can be spectacularly successful. Those of a more defensive disposition might have as strongly favoured Abell’s approach. And so, can our differing views of cricket reveal as much of our inner selves as they do of the cricket.

As to the cricket, the floodlights were on, half an hour into the day. I wondered, even with Somerset’s ‘state-of-the-art’ lights, how often, this side of the equinox, we might reach the end of a day’s play even if the rain stayed away. Putting that together with the forecast and two wickets already gone the advantage which Essex brought into this match seemed to be growing by the over. And then Hildreth cast a ray of light beneath the darkening skies. “Harmer has a strong leg side field,” said the cricket-player. It included a short leg, a backward short leg, backward square leg and a deep square leg. Hildreth took them and Harmer on. He swept twice to the boundary. The first just fine of the backward short leg and the backward square leg. The second bisected the two backward short legs. It was vintage Hildreth. Repeatedly, Hildreth played Harmer into the on side, always it seemed safely into the ground. With Abell surviving, mainly defensively, at the other end the Somerset score, and hopes, began to grow. When Abell played Harmer through midwicket for two to take the score to 50 for 2 it brought forth applause with some force in it. “I would have taken that at the start,” said the text from a Somerset supporter from afar.

A glance to the west though brought views of thickening grey cloud across the width of the sky as it spread its shroud towards the point of the Quantocks. Hildreth and Abell were now taking some quick singles which provoked the, perhaps escapist, thought that one-day cricket has improved running as well as fielding, for I doubt the cricketers of my youth would have thought some of the singles taken on the first morning here possible. Essex turned to Aron Nijjar’s slow left arm. In an unsteady first over a long hop was pulled unceremoniously through midwicket for four by Hildreth. Batting against Harmer was a different proposition. He bowled from the River End throughout and the view past the keeper and batsman from the Somerset Pavilion was not of the best. It was difficult to see if he was turning the ball but the intensity of the batting and the effort which seemed to go into playing the ball just a few feet into the leg side whilst keeping it down suggest it was. Once, Hildreth was forced to jab hard down on a ball which kept low.

With the score at 64 for 2 on a wicket clearly providing help to both pace and spin it felt as if Hildreth and Abell might be edging Somerset ahead. There was something of a buzz in the crowd and the hope that Somerset might build a base from which to compete, if only the Quantocks would just stay visible, was beginning to take shape. And then. And then Harmer. Bowling very wide of the crease from around the wicket he angled the ball in towards Hildreth. Hildreth tried to turn it again to leg, the ball, a replay shows, pitched on middle stump, straightened perfectly, evaded Hildreth’s suddenly jabbing bat and hit the pad full in front of middle stump. 64 for 3. Two balls later Harmer, now from over the wicket, bowled straight, pitched outside off, Banton went back onto his stumps, tried to play the turning ball to leg and was also lbw. 64 for 4. Two wickets in three balls from the bowler every Somerset supporter knew was a major threat to their hopes instantly turned the Somerset chatter into an anxious murmur.

Then, when Harmer lobbed a full toss to Abell, Abell’s emphatic response, a ball cracked through the off side to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion boundary, lifted spirits. When Bartlett played an uncontrolled shot past leg slip, Bopara got a good hand to it but could not hold on. As the ball ran away for two runs there was an audible sigh of relief from those of us perfectly positioned to see just how close to a catch it had been. “They are big spots,” said the man looking at the Somerset Pavilion roof terrace. And with that, 15 minutes before the scheduled lunch interval, the promised rains came, the umpires removed the bails and the players headed for the Pavilion. It took another four and a half hours of rain, the disappearance of the Quantocks behind their shroud and occasional periods of hope as they reappeared, before play was called off for the day. A 12-point lead at the start of the start of play, four wickets and two lost sessions made it Essex’s day. Although the four wickets and the help which the pitch offered the bowlers in taking them gave Somerset supporters hope that there might yet be time for their team to find a way to 16 points.

And, as the players left the field after that truncated session, an interlude for attention to turn to a great Somerset player. After 27 seasons as a Somerset first team player Marcus Trescothick formally retires at the end of this match. A presentation was made to him at the start of the lunch interval. Trescothick emerged from the Caddick Pavilion, into the rain, with the Somerset team, coaching staff and other Club staff. The Essex team gathered on their balcony and spectators in the Ondaatje Stand shuffled to the end next to the T20 dugouts where the presentation took place. Others gathered around on the other side of the exit from the Caddick Pavilion. Around the ground those who had not been driven from the stands by the rain stood and listened as Trescothick’s record was read out. It amounted to more centuries for Somerset than anyone else, including Gimblett; more outfield catches for Somerset than anyone else, including J.C. ‘Farmer’ White; and more runs for Somerset than anyone but Gimblett, and second to Gimblett in runs only because of the swathes of time Trescothick spent with England. The crowd rose to him in an extended standing ovation. We may nor see his like again. 

Close. Somerset 75 for 4.