2017 ~ Championship reality

This is the second in the series of ‘Farmer White’ reports from Somerset’s 2017 season. The originals appeared on grockles.com immediately after the cricket was played. and are reproduced here with additional information which sets the context of the match. The original reports are contained within quotation marks, appear in a slightly darker font and are headed by the grockles.com post header which gives the time of the original posting of the report. I was unable to attend the final (third) day of the match due to travelling to London for a quinquennial event. There is a brief resumé of the day after the reports on the first two days. The reports start with a brief season preview. The lesson to be learned from the preview – predictions are for soothsayers and not for humble cricket-watchers. 

CHAMPIONSHIP REALITY 

~   ESSEX   ~ 

“And so, in the end, yesterday was more cold water than warm glow and the breeze from beyond the Trescothick Stand … was chill to the bone.”

Specsavers County Championship. First Division. Taunton. 14th, 15th and 16th April 2017. Somerset v Essex.

Somerset did not play in the first round of Championship matches in 2017 and began their campaign in the second against newly promoted Essex at Taunton. The pre-season warm-up matches had been joyfully successful although against weak opposition and Craig Overton, Lewis Gregory and Jack Leach had bowled well in the MCC v Champion County match in Abu Dhabi. On the morning of the first match and following through from my 2016 end of season posts I wrote an upbeat Somerset supporters’ eye preview of the season.

Pre-match Season Preview.

Farmer White (IP Logged) 14 April 2017 7.55 a.m.       

“A new day dawns. A day like no other in the 365. The first day of the season. Or at least of the season proper. Others have skirmished and Surrey have announced themselves as a force to be thought about. But this is the first day of Somerset’s season and that is what really matters. At least to those of us who sport the Wyvern.   

A new season’s start reveals something of our personalities. The optimists see another tilt at the Championship. The pessimists worry that the cold water of reality will wash away the joy of the friendly matches, for after all they were only friendly matches and not against the best of opposition. And for most of Somerset’s sojourn in this Division the early season reality has been cold indeed. Alistair Cook too it seems is playing for Essex. It could only be that his first match since the weight of the England captaincy lifted from his shoulders is against Somerset. It feels sometimes that the cricketing gods take delight in putting obstacles in Somerset’s way. And yet we are a resilient lot and hope springs eternal as it has sprung, unrequited, for a century and a quarter past.  

For all that, the optimists hold sway this year. Somerset’s batting line up looks transformed by the simple addition of Steven Davies, a class batsman who can bat at five and also keep wicket with the invisibility that breeds confidence. Marcus Trescothick looked rejuvenated last year and the years rolled back as his cover drive struck the boards as hard and true as it ever did. Hildreth showed the consistency that eluded him for so many years and in showing it retained all the glory of the genius that only he can show when his planets align. Peter Trego has re-invented himself as a reliable front-line batsman who yet retains the explosive power that can take an innings by the scruff of the neck and turn a game in an hour. And he can take, still, a wicket or two when most needed. Somerset’s bowlers, spurned it seemed by the England Lions but embraced by the MCC, reminded Middlesex that they will face a fight if they wish to retain their title. And so they should have been embraced. For last year with ball and sometimes bat they won games that were, it seemed, beyond redemption.   

And let us not forget Simon Lee the magician who has found a way of producing pitches at Taunton on which results may proliferate without resort to connivance. Can he cast a spell this year which can shift the balances that have sometimes seemed against Somerset this last 125 years when it has often been harder to win at home than away.   

And then finally, Tom Abell the youngest captain in the Championship and by some way. He will need to captain with the same precision and determination to force a win, and in so doing sometimes risk a loss, that Chris Rogers showed us last year. He will need to bring to his batting, with its immense promise and classicism, some of the consistency that James Hildreth seems to be finding later in his career. In both captaincy and batting Abell bears a heavy responsibility and carries the hopes that this County has carried since the century before last. It is for him, and perhaps for all of us, the opportunity of a lifetime to realise a dream of many lifetimes. On whether he feels the weight of responsibility or the glow of opportunity may depend the outcome. Go to it young man. We are willing you on. One and all.”

 

14th April. First Day.

And then, on the first day of the season, optimism clashed with reality. Optimism tends to be a more fragile entity than reality and so it proved. I wrote reports on the first two days of the match. I spent the third and, as it turned out, final day of the match on a coach to London and then in that city and so did not post.

There was much criticism of Somerset’s batting in this match and my posts were written in the context of that criticism as well as of the match. In the light of the optimism of my pre-match post being confronted with an apparently below par batting performance by Somerset this first day post reflects as much on the task it left Somerset facing in the remainder of the match as it does on the play itself. This is out of alignment with my normal posts which focus primarily on the play and its surrounds.

The post starts with a reference to Trescothick starting his twenty-fifth season with Somerset. His first-class debut for Somerset was in 1993. He has played for no other county.

The post was finished well into the early hours of the morning as were more posts through the season than is good for a man’s health but cricket is cricket and must take precedence.

 

Farmer White (IP Logged) 15 April 2017 2.08 a.m.

“And so, in the end, yesterday was more cold water than warm glow and the breeze from beyond the Trescothick Stand, after a morning glimpse of the warmth of the summer sun to come, was chill to the bone. One photographer’s fingers were blue for he showed me the evidence. It must have been cold, for his lens together with his camera had retreated deep within their case.

Before the match started Brian Rose presented Marcus Trescothick with a tankard to mark the start of his twenty-fifth season playing for Somerset. 1993. A single division gentler County Championship. The premier limited overs competition an entirely knock-out affair played over 60 overs. The other limited overs cup was played over 55 overs and started in zones. The Sunday League experimented with 50 overs. Mark Lathwell played for England. Andrew Caddick took 9 for 32 to bowl out Lancashire for 72 when they were chasing 88 in Trescothick’s first Championship match. I heard the result on the car radio on a roundabout in Walthamstow in the days when sports bulletins carried all county cricket scores on an hourly basis. A young Shane Warne bowled the ‘ball of the century’. The last century. T20 cricket was neither a dream nor a nightmare and still a decade into the future. A different cricketing world.

There was a toss. Tom Abell won it and batted. As to the hopes of the morning Trescothick indeed rolled back the years. Hildreth played with the air of god-like genius of which only he seems capable. Dean Elgar reminded me that I had omitted him from yesterday’s post as he began to build a classy score. And all three were gone before they reached 40 with the bowler seemingly contributing little to their demise and the huge crowd for a cold Championship day staring on at what might have been. Trego persisted longer for 48 and got one that might have held up a bit but played it with a stroke that could have been bettered.

Davies and Van de Merwe were beautifully got out by balls which suggested that Simon Lee might just have worked his magic and produced the sort of pitch on which Championships might be won. Perhaps that was the purpose of the used pitch and why so many pre-season games were played at Taunton. But they will have to be won. Championships do not fall in your lap because you get the pitch right.           

The ECB want Counties to produce spin friendly pitches. Perhaps this is how they are produced. If so then so be it. The cricket is immensely better than the interminable high scoring draws of yore. It is not the fault of the groundsman that Somerset failed to reach the 300 that generally seems to have been considered a par score for this pitch. And now, as a good cricket pitch should allow, Essex have the chance to reach the 300 that Somerset eschewed before the pitch starts to spin more sharply. And Somerset will have to bowl with considerably more effect than they did in that first bitter evening if they are to prevent it.

The captain is under pressure. One run and not the best of strokes for his dismissal. His side already, with Alistair Cook in ominous form, further behind in this game than is safe on a pitch such as this. Abell’s bowlers can bowl better than they did and will have to. His batsmen will have to perform to their full potential in their second innings on a pitch which by then may become more difficult by the hour. His team need another performance out of the drawer of backs to the wall counter attacks that they drew on so heavily last season.           

It is in situations such as this that the best leaders are at their best. But Abell is in his first match as Captain and last year it took Chris Rogers half a season to get the team playing as he wished. Abell needs a bit of time as Rogers needed a bit of time. But this is also the situation in which this Somerset team has been at its best. Abell needs some help from his team today if this match is to be turned around. They need to, as we know they can, get to it today and rock Essex back on their heels.

 

Trescothick entered first-class cricket in a different cricketing world to the one cricket is played in today. A world into which five of this team were yet to be born. He will leave it, one year soon, as it turns into yet another cricketing world. A world which, by the time those five depart it, may look even more different to today than today does to 1993. The years in which a Championship worthy of the name, or at all, can be won may now be numbered. If Somerset are to achieve that Holy Grail they will have to stop games getting into positions such as this. And if games are allowed to get into positions such as this, then they will have to be won from those positions.

If Somerset really do mean to win a Championship above all else in the time that is left to us, as a Club, we will. But only a focus on the Championship that sits above all other cricketing considerations will do. All hands will have to be turned to the cause. Nothing less will do. That is the lesson of history. And the lesson of history, to date at least, is that winning a County Championship validates a Club and a team like no other competition in this country. Today would be a good day to make a start.”

Close. Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat. Somerset 209 (PD Trego 48, Ashar Zaidi 3-17). Essex 60-2. Essex trail Somerset by 149 runs with 8 first innings wickets standing. 

 

15th April. Second Day.

The second day was a day very much of two halves for Somerset. Essex, starting at 60 for 2 were routed by a scintillating all-round Somerset bowling performance, the wickets being shared among five bowlers. Cook added only 13 to his overnight score as Essex lost their last eight wickets for 69 giving Somerset an unexpected first innings lead of 80.

At 69 for 2, a lead of 149, Somerset looked to be on course to build a winning position. Elgar (27) and Hildreth (35) were then out in quick succession which opened the gates to the loss of five wickets for 51 runs to concerted accurate short-pitched leg theory bowling from Neil Wagner which Somerset tried to counter by persistent pulling and hooking in spite of the continuing loss of wickets. Wagner took the last six wickets of the innings.

At 124 for 9 Somerset’s position looked precarious to say the least. Only when Craig Overton (22) and Leach (27*) played more orthodox strokes was a stand of substance realised. They added 50 for the last wicket to raise the Essex victory target from 205 to 255. There was intense criticism of Somerset’s approach. I wondered if there was an alternative rationale.

Farmer White (IP Logged) 16 April 2017 1.12 a.m.

“And so Essex were indeed rocked back on their heels in the morning and early afternoon as Somerset’s bowlers kept the Essex batsmen under tight pressure. Somerset then rocked themselves back on their own heels in their second innings by constant attack against the short-pitched bowling of Wagner. Four batsmen in succession caught hooking and pulling to a field especially set for it. It was excruciating to watch by the time the third and fourth fell. Jamie Overton, the last of the quartet, and to be fair a bowler, seemed to swipe at every ball as it flew by his ears with the same success as the rest of us might have trying to swat a fly in mid-air with a bare hand.           

Everyone I spoke to around the boundary were somewhere between critical of the batting to being exasperated by it or in despair especially after a similar if slightly less frenetic performance in the first innings. Chris Rogers* was of a similar opinion saying a lot of runs had been left in the pitch. I had wondered if there was a different slant on it. Everyone to whom I mentioned it looked askance.           

In their first innings Essex scored 129 at 2.35 (2.03 today) an over. In their first innings Somerset scored 209 at 2.88 and in their second 174 at 3.45. At the two extremes Essex batted 54.5 overs for 129 in their first innings. Somerset batted 50.2 overs for 174 in their second.           

My musings this afternoon were around whether it was better to try to prod carefully about or attack aggressively on a testing pitch like this. To date Somerset’s method has produced more runs per wicket spent than Essex’s. If the pitch was such that a batsman could expect only a limited time on it then perhaps Somerset thought it better to get as many as they could whilst they were there. Their, often frenetic, approach through most of the order suggested it might even be their policy for the match.          

Chris Rogers’ statement suggests otherwise. However, if the pitch has uneven bounce as he suggests then perhaps batsmen do have a limited time in the middle. Had Somerset simply not played most of Wagner’s short stuff** and awaited the more normal length that preceded and followed it and played like Craig Overton and Jack Leach, who batted at the same pace as the innings as a whole then the three and a half runs an over might have netted a 300 plus lead. Essex would then have had to bat between 85 and 130 overs on this pitch depending on the approach they adopted. As it is they will have to bat somewhere between 70 and 110 overs at the scoring rates to date. To date the longest innings is Somerset’s first at 72.2 overs and that netted only 209.           

Provided the pitch does not revert to type and flatten (and the Overton Leach partnership might be a harbinger of this), or the Overton-Leach partnership has not shown Essex how to bat on this pitch as it is, and Somerset bowl as well as they did on the second morning, then the target might be taxing for all except perhaps Cook. And even he looked uncomfortable and did not last long this morning when Gregory and Overton got their length and line right. If the pitch does not flatten, Somerset’s approach, persisting with the failed attack on Wagner apart, might after all, albeit it seems unplanned, turn out to have been the better one.           

And if I am wrong and everyone else is right then Somerset will have started to build their traditional hill to climb at the start of the season. Whatever the outcome no doubt the shares of the companies which make tranquilizers will have risen overnight as is their wont whenever Somerset play.           

I shall not be there tomorrow but will suffer the anguish of not knowing interspersed with periodic daggers of information. Good luck with the watching and listening.”

*Chris Rogers. Somerset captain in 2016 and batting coach for part of the 2017 season.

**I have never played cricket at any meaningful level. Those who have afterwards told me leaving short leg theory bowling is not as easy a proposition as I had suggested.

Close. Somerset 209 and 174 (N Wagner 6-48). Essex 129 (AN Cook 52, RE van de Merwe 3-26) and 10-0. Essex need a further 245 runs to win with all second innings wickets standing.

 

 

16th April. Final Day.

During my day in London I received the occasional text from Taunton. As one followed another it became apparent that Essex were going to win with some ease. The texts suggested the pitch had completely flattened as it so often has in the past. My anxiety that the Overton Leach partnership on the previous evening might have been an indication of a flattening pitch proved to be much nearer the mark than my hope that Essex might struggle to reach 255. Batting had become much easier. The texts said the bowlers were trying their hearts out but the pitch was offering them nothing. Cook was playing exceptionally well for his hundred. As the day wore on the texts gave no hope of a Somerset victory.

 

Somerset’s now almost traditional First Division poor start had struck again. This time in a match which Somerset had comfortably led on first innings. For those who follow Somerset there was a dispiriting sense of early season poor form déjà vu and the optimism generated among many at the end of 2016 was immediately and sharply brought into question at the start of 2017.

Result. Essex won by 8 wickets. Somerset 209 and 174. Essex 129 and 257-2 AN (Cook 110, T Westley 86*). Essex 19 points. Somerset 4 points.