“I want Roelof in the side”

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

Overnight. Somerset 75 for 4.

Second day. 24th September – “I want Roelof in the side”

“I want Roelof in the side. He makes thing happen.” So said my cricket-watching companion before the teams had been announced on the first morning. My protestations that Somerset would not need three spinners, for only two can bowl at once, and that van der Merwe seemed to have ‘lost’ his red ball batting were swept aside. Well, Roelof was in the side, along with Bess and Leach, and on the second day he indeed did make things happen. In a glorious three-quarters of an hour in the afternoon sun he swept the all-conquering Harmer aside. Whether he did enough, and whether the weather will hold long enough, to give Somerset a chance of turning the top of the Championship table upside down remains to be seen. The odds against Somerset succeeding remain horribly long for Essex still hold all the cards, the time remaining in the game is desperately short and the weather stubbornly autumnal. But van der Merwe has kept the flame of Somerset’s hopes alight and, it seems, he does “make things happen”.

It had looked very different first thing in the morning when curtains all over Somerset were being pulled open. Hills had disappeared from view; puddles were alive with splashes from falling raindrops and the glow of street lights was reflected from shining wet tarmac. Then slowly, as the rain stopped and news filtered from the ground that there would be an inspection at 11 o’ clock, people started to gather their things together, leave their houses and make their way to the ground. “We have a confirmed 12 o’ clock start,” said the voice emerging from the gate steward’s walkie talkie. The start would have been later a few years ago but the new drainage system at Taunton, the grid of which is clearly evident on the outfield in this match after weeks of dry weather, has transformed the ground’s drying capability.

The crowd was down on the first day, almost certainly due to the constantly mutating graphics of the online weather forecast and to the actual weather. It grew quickly once noon approached and was soon in good voice. 75 for 4 overnight was hardly a score to shout about but given the fast-decreasing amount of time left in the game it had its attractions. The Somerset innings took up where it had left off in the rains of the previous day. A battle between the Somerset batsmen and Harmer and Cook, for none of the other Essex bowlers really made an impact. Cook, determined, accurate, and lively, bowled nearly a third of Essex’s overs. His eventual figures of 19-9-26-4 perfectly demonstrate the rock against which Harmer might have been expected to crush the Somerset batsmen. The strategy, if that is what it was, almost worked to perfection. Almost.

Before the first over was out the excited chatter which had filled the air before the start had turned to anxiety as Bartlett, for the third time in succession, played Harmer uncomfortably to leg. The ball looped to Bopara at backward short leg and Somerset were 75 for 5. Somerset’s, mainly back foot, defence against Harmer was foundering. The online watcher was in no doubt, “They absolutely have to get forward to Harmer or he will go through them,” was his repeated plea. For two years now Gregory has played spin positively, using his feet, often dancing down the wicket to attack and to defend. There is risk in leaving the crease against top-flight spinners such as Maharaj or Harmer but the painful fall of wickets to persistent back foot play does raise the question of where the greater risk lies.

In one over Gregory changed the face of the Somerset innings. Four times he danced. Four times the ball went to the boundary. It was not quite as conclusive as that. Two of the fours came off fine edges, one either side of the wicket and both just defeating Wheater. Of such slender margins might Championships be made, or lost. A pull and a cover drive completed the quartet and the applause and the cheers grew with each boundary however they left the bat. Having set the scene for a Somerset breakout and got the crowd bubbling, Gregory was out-thought by Cook, Essex’s bowler of the innings. Gregory started to run down the pitch, Cook perhaps changed his length, Gregory stopped, played no stroke and was as lbw as a batsman can be. 96 for 6. “We need at least 150, preferably 200” said the cricket-player. 150 seemed a long way off but Gregory had changed the mood, at least in the crowd which was remarkably buoyant in spite of the score.

The fall of Gregory brought Bess to the wicket and he was immediately on the front foot to Harmer. Not in Gregory’s aggressive style, his only boundary was another inside edge, but he used his feet several times to step down the pitch and drive to long on for a single. “Sensible batting,” someone might have said in the old days when patience with the bat was an unquestioned virtue. Meanwhile Abell, who is becoming the epitome of the patience and style which makes a number three batsman, continued the vigil that had started at 7 for 1. When Gregory was out at 96, Abell had made 28. Gradually he and Bess took Somerset forward. They never looked comfortable against Harmer and runs against Cook had to be hewn out of rock, although one drive inside mid-on to Gimblett’s Hill from Abell had all the hallmarks of the classic drives on which his innings are normally built. Bess and Abell took Somerset to lunch at 126 for 6. Still in heart-in-the mouth land but the Gregory-inspired mood still held sway.

My customary lunchtime circumnavigation ended with me deep in conversation in the tunnel under the Sir Ian Botham Stand. The fragility of some of Somerset’s back foot play, the continuing solidity of Abell in the top order, the brilliance of Harmer, that he gives the batsman no respite, and can vary his pace devastatingly all topics for discussion. The conversation ended abruptly when we heard a ripple of applause which to us signified the return of the players to the field. When we emerged from the tunnel between the Sir Ian Botham and Trescothick Stands we realised the applause had in fact signified the departure of Abell, lbw to Harmer for 45. “Forward. Forward.” The message of the incoming text left no doubt as to how Abell had attempted to play the ball. And then Overton, back again to Harmer, lbw and Somerset were 130 for 8. I had but reached the Garner Gates.

And then van der Merwe. I was half way along the Somerset Stand, perfectly square of the wicket when he took his guard and so took a seat there ‘to watch an over or two.’ Van der Merwe’s first ball was from Harmer. Van der Merwe does not stand on ceremony at the crease. He dropped to one knee, unfurled the slog sweep, the ball flew backward of square and cleared the boundary markers to my right by a foot. ‘Six’ signalled the square leg fielder. “I am behind you,” said the pantomime text from my cricket-playing companion. I am not sure which role van der Merwe would play in a pantomime but you can be sure he would wreak havoc. In Harmer’s next over it was the reverse sweep. Over backward point it flew, and straight over the fast back-pedalling boundary fielder trying to reverse the steps he had taken in from the boundary as Harmer delivered the ball. Anticipating what van der Merwe might do is for the soothsayers.

And all the while, it seemed, Cook was powering in from the other end. His was a gargantuan effort of accurate, testing pace bowling. He did not let up for a single ball. That he bowled so many overs was due, I imagine, to Porter looking a shadow of the bowler he had been at Chelmsford on Somerset’s last two visits. But Porter is the only pace bowler on either side who has played in all 14 Championship matches this season. Pace bowlers rarely ‘coast’ these days. There are no ‘short’ run ups. No ‘dead’ matches until the last game or two, and none for title chasing-sides. He may just be tired as Somerset’s pace attack was at Chester-le Street in 2010 having, between them, played in 47 of the 48 matches that season. It was Cook who finally ended Bess’s sterling defence with a beautifully directed ball which cut in off the pitch to beat the inside edge of Bess’s bat and hit the stumps. Shades of the of the endlessly seaming deliveries at Southampton the week before. Cook’s celebration looked tired, as well it might have done. Essex supporters will hope he has some energy left for the second innings although I imagine the prospect of the Championship will see to that.

I wonder how many sides have a number ten with a first-class double century and a number 11 with 92 in a Test match and a reputation for sticking like glue. At 144 for 9 Somerset had need of such a combination. And, as someone in the Somerset team so often does when the need is at its greatest, van der Merwe and Leach delivered in a last wicket partnership of 69. I had joined the cricket-player in the heights of the Somerset Stand. And there we remained throughout that mesmeric, pulsating partnership, not daring to move lest we provoke Somerset’s final wicket into falling. Van der Merwe’s assault on Harmer had already cleared two of the four close fielders and Leach had not been long at the wicket before Essex had between seven and nine fielders on the boundary for the first four balls of any over faced by van der Merwe. The same tactic Somerset had used against Vince at Southampton with the same result. Runs.

The Somerset crowd were now in overdrive. Every run was applauded, cheered where they had to be hard-run, from the moment the batsmen left the crease until they were safely back in their ground. Van der Merwe still managed to clear the crowded boundary, once hitting Harmer over the Trescothick Stand and into the traditional resting place of balls so struck at Taunton, the Tone. Another, straight off Nijjar, landed in a box on the second tier of the Somerset Pavilion. The sixes, and three boundaries besides, brought cheers but it was the running between the wickets which kept the mood, lifted into the stratosphere by the audacity of the sixes, floating on high. Leach, defensive for the most part, had set the mood for the partnership by steering his first two balls from Cook wide of gully and fine of third man to the Sir Ian Botham Stand boundary. Somerset had just topped 200 when van der Merwe finally lost his off stump to a reverse sweep against Nijjar who looked more settled than he had in his first spell. The stand of 69 had taken 48 minutes. 203 was above the television pundit’s ‘par’ of 180 according to the text from another far-off Somerset supporter. I would rather judge par when Essex and a certain Sir Alistair Cook have had their say with the bat.

A visit to the ‘gents’ told a story. Large though they are under the Somerset Stand, they were absolutely packed, just as they might be at the start of a mid-innings break in a cup semi-final. It was only then that it dawned on me. During that partnership no-one had moved. I cast my mind back over that electrifying 48 minutes. I had watched the crowd’s growing exhilaration as the partnership grew. I could remember no-one moving, it had been as if I were looking at a tableau. No-one wanting to be the one that provoked the fall of Somerset’s final wicket. Superstition, I well know, has no basis in fact, not moving during a partnership makes not a jot of difference, but you will have to travel a long way to find a hardened cricket supporter who will willingly risk being the one who moved the ball before a wicket falls.

And then the match really began, for in all probability, if the weather does not define this match, the Essex first innings will. Any sort of lead for Essex will, in all probability, take the title back to Chelmsford. Anything else, weather permitting, will leave the outcome open although somewhere near parity for Essex would enable Harmer to put Somerset under enormous pressure in their second innings, and if the title remains a possibility it will be pressure the like of which they have never faced before.

And so with terminal cloud moving in from the west Cook and Browne emerged to face Gregory and Overton who bowled testing opening bursts in darkening light as the floodlights burst into life with the flash of a lightning strike. There followed half an hour of “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” from fielders and crowd alike. Somerset hopes raised to the heights and immediately dashed, Essex ones driven to the depths and immediately raised. Three times in succession Gregory seemed to beat Browne’s defensive stroke and, so it looked, Overton twice went past Cook’s. Once, Cook was rushed into edging a ball in a loop into the empty space between gully and backward point. “We could have had two or three,” said a Somerset supporter after the players had been driven from the field by the rain. “We were very fortunate,” said the Essex supporter I spoke to just after the players went off but, as I said to him, these things average out over a season. And no doubt some of those apparent near misses, for all the furious intensity of the bowling, had been finely judged ‘leaves’.

And so the match moves into its third day with Somerset having an apparently ‘useful’ score and with Essex already 25 runs to the good and still ten wickets in hand. It might be an intriguing match if the weather were settled and the result were not so devilishly important to both sides and to both sets of supporters. If it gets close ‘intriguing’ will not cut it. Tension enveloped the stands in that crucial van der Merwe-Leach partnership. The emotions felt then will be as nothing to those that will be felt if Somerset, or Essex, or both, get close to winning this match.

Close. Somerset 203 (R.E. van der Merwe 60, T.B. Abell 45, S.R. Harmer 5-105, S.J. Cook 4-26). Essex 25 for 0. Essex trail Somerset by 177 runs with ten first innings wickets standing.