The County Championship goes east

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

Overnight. No play on Day 3. Somerset 203. Essex 25 for 0. Essex trail Somerset by 178 runs.

Final day. 26th September – The County Championship goes east

The final day of this match left a montage of memories crashing around in the mind. Marcus Trescothick walking out to a tremendous ovation just before the end to field at slip for the last time is one to be treasured. The eerie emotion-pummelling silence every time a bowler left his mark during that, at last, sunlit hour when Somerset supporters hoped, and Essex ones feared, a Somerset miracle might happen. The tumultuous cheers of Somerset supporters and chants of “Somerset La La La” every time an Essex wicket fell or a batsman was beaten and the applause of Essex supporters and chants of “Essex, Essex” whenever a boundary was struck. The pulsating atmosphere surged, roared, throbbed, ebbed and flowed in every corner of the ground. It was as if it were some physical entity you could reach out and touch. You couldn’t of course, but you could feel it in every sinew in your body.

There was too the virtually unique sight of seven Somerset fielders around the bat, motionless, watching, waiting. Of Leach, Bess, van der Merwe, back to their mark and into the crease again and again, ripping the ball, trying to find the spot that would defeat the batsmen. The sight of the Essex batsmen, heads steady, eyes watching; then as the ball fizzed, dipped and turned, stretching every sinew in their legs, backs and arms, as they fought to get to the pitch of the spinning, bouncing ball to keep it out, or perhaps find a precious run. Around the ring were the supporters of both sides stretching the concept of the edge of the seat to the very limit. There was Sir Alistair Cook with his front foot repeatedly stretched far down the pitch to play the spinners with apparent ease, rarely looking in trouble; although you knew he must be demanding the utmost of every one of his batting skills and dipping deep into an apparently bottomless well of determination and concentration. This was cricket at its toughest; at its skill-challenging and character-testing best.

And, in the end, two more very different sights. The first, of Somerset supporters, buoyed up by another tremendous team effort. They were in groups dotted around the stands, sitting, chatting, smiling and staring into the future with hope in their eyes that this could just be the team which might go on to win that long dreamed of County Championship. There was disappointment too of course, and that may grow deeper as the spirit-raising effects of that coruscating afternoon wear off, but, at least around me, the mood and contemplation of the future was upbeat and positive. The second sight was of that future in the here-and-now. Not for Somerset but for Essex. There were two or three hundred Essex supporters gathered tightly around the Caddick Pavilion and in the Ondaatje Stand to watch and cheer their team as they were presented with the Championship trophy on the outfield. The applause was long and heartfelt. It was all watched, from their balcony, by the Somerset team. Thoughts, perhaps of what might have been. And as for what was, many Essex supporters stood together for some time, savouring the moment for as long as they could.

It felt like an eternity since the day had begun with the running leitmotif for this match, a rain delay. Less than 63 overs had been possible on the first three days and, by the fourth, Essex had barely begun their first innings. When the day finally began a minimum of 72 overs remained of the daily allocation of 96. In those 72 overs Somerset would have to take 20 Essex wickets and keep Essex to under another 178 runs to win the match. Essex’s need was simply not to lose, if anything is simple when the ball is turning, the opposition have international spinners and the Championship is on the line.

After two overs, another rain delay. For two overs. 68 overs remained. Still 20 wickets and less than 178 runs the equation. In the two overs that had been played the television ball tracking had apparently shown Leach having Cook plumb lbw. The umpire had not raised his finger. News of Cook’s escape travelled fast. Nothing escapes the know-everything smart phone. Regretful frowns, but no more, the reaction of most Somerset supporters I spoke to. Spilt milk.

On went the game. A paddle sweep to the Somerset Pavilion boundary off Bess from Cook brought applause, enthusiastic from Essex supporters, appreciative of the stroke from Somerset ones. And all the while those long front legs of Cook and Browne stretched down the wicket. “Browne is getting so far forward,” commented my cricket playing companion. And there was the quiet. Not quite silence yet, for there was the occasional piece of chatter, and a periodic cry of “Come on Leachy,” from under the Gimblett’s Hill scoreboard. It was one of those quiets you can hear when a match is tight. An objective assessment would not have had this match tight at all, there was no time for a result. But the Championship was on the line. The importance of every ball, of every run, and above all of every wicket was magnified beyond measure by the importance of that title in the hearts of every player and of every supporter in the stands, on both sides.

And so it continued. The looping, spinning, flighted ball and occasionally the one fired in flat as Leach and Bess strove to find an opening. Down the pitch came those long legs, bat alongside, or occasionally back on the stumps, in contrast to Somerset, so often, trying to play Harmer from the crease. Back down the pitch would be sent the ball, or, once or twice, spin off a thick edge in an arc the shape of a new moon as it bit into the adjacent pitch. Several times the ball came off the edge but although hearts sometimes missed a beat the ball always went safely to one of the slip fielders. Sometimes the bat would be beaten to “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” from the close field and gasps from the Somerset crowd. Just occasionally it would be steered through the close fielders, at first four then five, for a precious run, to applause from Essex supporters.

And all the time the overs ticked by, all too quickly for Somerset supporters, all too slowly I imagine for Essex ones, as Cook and Browne resisted. Just 59 overs were left when Browne, who if anything had looked safer than Cook, went forward to Bess and pushed the ball straight to Hildreth fielding at what can only be described as ‘silly cover’. The cheer that went up from Somerset supporters might have been a little less triumphant had they realised what the seemingly ever-right smartphone revealed. Hildreth had caught the ball between his knees. When the weather leitmotif intervened again lunch was taken 15 minutes early. Just 11 overs had passed during the morning and just ten runs been added but it had been absolutely gripping to watch and had seemed interminable. Worryingly for Somerset only the wicket of Browne had been taken. “We need someone to make something happen,” said the cricket player.

My lunchtime circumnavigation, anti-clockwise as it must be, from my seat, high in the Somerset Stand, next to the square-of-the-wicket television camera, took me as far as the gap between the Sir Ian Botham and Trescothick Stands before the intense tussle of the morning continued. Bess, running away from me, had two loud lbw appeals but neither looked quite out to me although I was standing more or less at long on. Twice Leach beat Westley to gasps from the close field. Each ball was now being bowled in silence so deafening you might have heard the sound of a pin dropping into a bucket on the other side of the ground.

Back to the Somerset Stand. The cricket player, who had intended to leave at lunch to be in good time for work later in the day in another county, was still there. Even work might have to wait for this match. Still there was no sign of a Somerset breakthrough, in spite of all the beaten bats, balls thudding into pads, edges along the ground and gasps of frustration, but somehow, in spite of the inexorable passing of overs, the match still gripped. No-one was leaving the ground that I could see and more people seemed to be coming in. Such is the hold of the County Championship on the committed supporter. Eight more overs had slipped, or for Essex supporters, dragged by. Just ten runs had been added. Essex were 46 for 1 from 30 interminable overs. 51 overs remained according to the number on the scoreboard but with Essex still 157 runs adrift runs were ceasing to be an issue. Wickets were all, for if Somerset could not take 19 more wickets runs were irrelevant. Essex would win the Championship.

As another batch of overs went by, Cook and Westley battled on. The intensity and tension that had wracked every face in the ground since the start of play did not slacken. The two groups of supporters were bound together in that purgatory that is a great sporting tussle in the process of being decided. Supporters of both persuasions were leaning forward in their seats, not moving, hoping, or fearing, that ‘something would happen’. And still, on went the match, over after over, as if suspended in one of those nightmares from which you cannot wake and in which you are engaged in a fearful attempt to make progress but get nowhere at all.

But gradually, imperceptibly at first and then noticeably the day began to ease towards Essex. Cook and Westley began to look a little more at ease. Cook in particular began to find the boundary. He tested the shackles Somerset were trying to apply with a cover drive off Bess and then twice in an over cut him to the Somerset Stand for four. Somerset hopes were raised momentarily when Cook cut at Bess and missed. But when van der Merwe replaced Leach, Westley drove him through the covers for four. Cheers from Essex supporters, and applause of acknowledgement for the stroke followed from Somerset ones. Runs of any description were now being applauded by Essex supporters with the occasional rendition of “Essex, Essex” from a group on the Colin Atkinson Pavilion terrace. “Somerset La La La, Somerset La La La,” often the defiant response. But a cold look at the scoreboard revealed Essex were 74 for 1. Somerset had bowled 40 overs for that one wicket and the day was, if you were a Somerset supporter, fast moving on. There were just 41 overs left on the scoreboard, although a calculation revealed the spinners would get through a few more than that.

I went to watch a while from Legends Square near where the old Stragglers bar used to be. I wondered how the ghosts that reside there were faring, for this was a situation of which, in their time, they could only have dreamt. Now there were seven around the bat as Somerset gave not an inch. Every inch the batsmen wanted they had to take. And every inch they could, they stretched their front foot down the pitch. And less than an inch their back foot stayed behind the crease. Then a rare full toss from Leach. Cook drove it through midwicket for four and he had reached 53. Essex cheers erupted as virtually every person in the ground gave Cook an extended round of applause for an outstanding effort. And then ‘something happened’. Cook edged the next ball to short leg and Essex were 102 for 2. Two balls later Lawrence, on the crease, edged to Overton, diving low, at gully. 102 for 3. The ground erupted. Somerset supporters looked at each other over their applauding hands. Could it? Could it still be on? Realistically not, the head told the heart but the heart still hoped, if faintly. I can only imagine the pangs of anxiety Essex supporters must have been feeling in spite of the 17 wickets still untouched.

109 for 3 is a score etched on my mind for it seemed to have been chiselled into the scoreboard, unable to move on, as Leach and van der Merwe began to take hold of the match. Somerset’s seven close fielders seemed incongruous against such a score. And yet against such a field Westley and Bopara, beaten time and again, were unable to score. “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” proliferated from the middle, gasps from the Somerset supporters rent the air. Essex supporters, I imagined, had heads telling them it was too late for Somerset but hearts pumping with the anxiety that overrules the head when so much is at stake. Somerset supporters, still applauding and cheering every near miss, knew, if you asked them, it could not be done. It was the refusal of their team to give in to the inevitable, to continue to strain for wickets, to believe they could still do it as the odds remorselessly stacked up against them that lifted the spirit. Eventually Bopara succumbed to van der Merwe and pushed the ball to Abell at silly mid-off. Tea was taken at 118 for 4. With only an hour and three-quarters to be played afterwards 16 wickets seemed a mountain beyond climbing.

“I must go,” said the cricket player, “I’ll only be just in time for work,” the wrench obvious from his voice. For the rest, people held their seats as after tea the match continued its hold. And the hold tightened, for the Somerset spinners and close fielders finally made the pressure tell. Ten Doeschate edged Leach to Abell at backward silly point, if there is such a position, but with seven around the bat new positions had to be invented. An over later Westley, after two hours of dogged defence and 32 runs, edged to Gregory at slip. 126 for 6. “Come on Somerset,” the urgent cry from under the Gimblett’s Hill scoreboard where the beating heart of the Somerset crowd resides. Tumultuous cheers from everyone else. And more and louder still when three balls later Harmer went back to van der Merwe and edged to Vijay, one of three fielders crowding the slips. 126 for 7. “Somerset La La La” the chant. “Essex, Essex,” now the defiant cry. “Here we go, here we go,” and, “No rain in the air,” the response.

And on this incredible day of cricket went as the floodlights came on to rachet up the tension further, although soon the sun held sway and, with Somerset well ahead of the over rate, it was the clock on the Colin Atkinson Pavilion, not the fast diminishing ‘overs remaining’ on the scoreboard, which was Essex’s chief ally. Twice in an over from van der Merwe, Wheater, who battled at the end for Essex against Kent at Canterbury in an innings that saw his team over the line and which now held huge significance for determining the balance of power in this match, twice squeezed the ball through the net of close fielders to fine leg for four. “Essex, Essex” the response. “Somerset La La La ,” the reply. And then, in the space of seven balls, the innings was over as Leach, two in two, and van der Merwe tossed that spinning, dipping, turning ball into the Essex tail. Nijjar lbw, Cook bowled by a yorker from Leach, and Wheater, at the last, cutting van der Merwe into Davies’ gloves. Essex 141. The Somerset crowd were on their feet all around the ground, cheering, applauding, shouting encouragement. “Somerset La La La,” from a hospitality box in the Sir Ian Botham Stand. “Essex, Essex, Essex,” from the group in the Colin Atkinson Pavilion. Animated chatter everywhere, from both sets of supporters as far as I could see. Hope, perhaps a dream, just, for Somerset supporters and a final jab of anxiety for Essex ones.

An hour plus an over or two remained. Somerset walked slowly from the pitch. There was no dash for the Pavilion from the Somerset openers. The Somerset second innings had been forfeited. Essex would need 63 to win. Somerset ten wickets. It was, after the half hour that had just gone, still possible for Somerset supporters to believe – just – but the head still said otherwise. An hour and a few minutes to take ten wickets but ten wickets would take out the best part of 20 minutes. Once the final hour had started, if wickets fell, Somerset would get no more than 16 overs, however fast their spinners bowled their overs. Time in cricket can be as hard a taskmaster as the opposition’s bowling, batting or fielding.

“Come on Somerset!” “Come on Jack!” “Essex, Essex,” as the players walked to the middle. A gasp of anguish from every Somerset mouth and a sigh of relief from every Essex one as Vijay’s hands at leg slip followed an edge from Browne, touched the ball, but could not hold it. And from there it was déjà vu. Déjà vu of the battling batting of Cook, Browne and Westley, and the endlessly persevering bowling of Leach, Bess and van der Merwe, from just two hours before; but now, it seemed, from an age ago. So many things had happened, so many hopes had been raised, so intense was the tension, so gripping the cricket that the memory needed to elongate the timescale to fit it all in. But now, gradually, the time in the mind and the time on the Colin Atkinson clock began to run in tandem. Even Essex supporters, I imagine, began to relax a little as anxiety turned to anticipation. “Essex, Essex,” rang out again and a, now valedictory, “Somerset La La La.”

For Somerset supporters it had been a white-knuckle afternoon, the edges of seats long since worn out. Then came the rousing farewell applause as Marcus Trescothick walked out to field at slip and, finally, a draw agreed, though Essex might have won at the last. The Championship remained a ghostly dream for Somerset supporters, still just out of reach, but that Herculean effort to wrest it from Essex on the final afternoon had lifted the Somerset spirit beyond measure.

In 2019 Somerset came closer than they ever had. They had twice been closer in points before this year but this was the first time they had gone into the final round of matches with their destiny in their own hands. In the end the weather took things out of their hands. But it was Somerset’s three defeats to Essex’s one that made the weather Essex’s ally. Over a season the table rarely lies and it did not this year. Essex, particularly away from home, had edged Somerset, and that is what the table shows. But this Somerset team is still young, still maturing, still learning and it is a ‘team’. Greater than the sum of its parts and in Tom Abell they have a captain capable of matching, perhaps surpassing, the great Somerset captains.

And finally, after the reflections of the Somerset supporters and the celebrations of the Essex ones it was time to say, “Winter well,” and move on towards next year.

Result. Somerset 203 (R.E. van der Merwe 60, T.B. Abell 45, S.R. Harmer 5-105, S.J. Cook 4-26) and innings forfeited. Essex 141 (Sir A.N. Cook 53, M.J. Leach 5-32, R.E van der Merwe 4-41) and 45 for 1. Match drawn. Somerset 9 points. Essex 8 points.