County Championship 2017 ~ Nadir

NADIR 

~   HAMPSHIRE   ~ 

“The difference in the way Somerset and Hampshire batted in their second innings was stark and telling.” 

Somerset’s dismal start to the 2017 Championship season continued with a third defeat in the first four matches. The cricket is described, but the reports also reflect the lively debate among supporters about the reasons for the slump and thoughts about the possible reasons. Different times to some of the heights of 2018 and 2019, and a different type of report.

Specsavers County Championship. First Division. Taunton. 26th, 27th and 28th May 2017. Somerset v Hampshire. 

26th May. First Day.

Farmer White (IP Logged) 27 May 2017 8.16 a.m.

“The time of year has arrived when people move to the back of the Somerset Stand rather than away from it when the sun goes behind the flats*. Yesterday was a scorcher both on and off the pitch. The crowd must have been a good bit nearer two thousand than one whilst the monster stand for the T20 International and its smaller sibling glared silently down on the game like a pair of beached leviathans. With another to stretch back over the churchyard from Gimblett’s Hill and the permanent stands closing the circle of 12000 people tight around this small ground the ears of the protagonists in that three hours of cricketing mayhem will know they have been at the Cooper Associates County Ground.

Before the start of this match the teams lined up outside the Caddick Pavilion with its flag at half-mast. The crowd rose to its feet as one, movement ceased all across and around the ground and the buzz of voices that goes around a cricket ground before a match faded away. A minute’s silence was then called for the victims of the Manchester bombing. The silence, apart from occasional birdsong, was total, complete and intense. Never a question of a human sound to break it. Then after its end a ripple of applause and, as we do these things in this country at times such as this, it was business as usual.

Somerset went into this match with Jack Leach and Dom Bess, who was out of sorts in the last match, presumably expecting turn although there was a fair bit of grass on the pitch. Lewis Gregory, back injury included, replaced Roelof van de Merwe to the anxiety of a number of spectators concerned about his health in spite of medical assurances. The Overton brothers making up the attack.

Hampshire opted to toss, won it and batted. Gregory opened with a tight spell, some fairly gentle swing with no great pace but accurate enough to concede only 12 runs from six overs. Craig Overton’s first spell of four overs conceded 11 runs and a fifth over a further two. Jack Leach bowled two overs for five runs. Hampshire scored 34 for 0 from 13 overs without much by way of alarm. The Hampshire batsmen and Somerset supporters were starting to set themselves for the long haul.

Then one of those flashes of brilliance that can bring a match to life. Dawson pulled Leach hard and fast in front of square. Dom Bess took off from mid wicket and caught a stunning catch low and far to his right. Dawson might as well have opened Pandora’s Box and soon must have wondered if he had. Abell, in his increasingly sure-footed way, after two maidens from Leach and Craig Overton, brought Bess on. In his first over Carberry edged to the invisible Davies. 34 for 2.

George Bailey took his own trick out of Pandora’s box and attacked Bess in particular with the reverse sweep and with immediate and repeated success. Pandora though continued to work with Leach inducing a sweep from Vince which resulted in him being bowled and an edge from Roussow to Hildreth at short leg in the same over. Even handed in dispensing favours Pandora switched to the other end and Bess promptly removed Ervine and McManus in two balls. Not to be outdone, like Leach, he too had one bowled and the other caught by Hildreth at short leg. 81for 6. There had been some turn but not six wickets worth. Vince just seemed to miss a straight one. And so to Lunch at 100 for 6. Bailey an aggressive 37 not out.
           

Jamie Overton started up after Lunch. He bowled with pace and accuracy but whatever little movement there was for Gregory with the new ball there did not seem to be for him. Twice short balls seemed to keep low, once hitting the batsman. Overton’s four overs for seven runs sustained the pressure and Jack Leach made that pressure pay. Bailey and Berg briefly attacked him at the other end until Berg charged a long way down the pitch, missed one horribly and was stumped. No help needed from Pandora just pressure from Overton and a straight one fired in at the charging Berg from Leach.

Abbott to the wicket. No fear of Pandora for him or use of her tricks. He just hit out hard and clean. He favoured no-one for he hit Leach and Bess for a six apiece. With Bailey prowling at the other end anxiety began to look at the scoreboard wondering if these two might make a difference in a low scoring match as they reached the highest partnership of the innings. Anxiety reckoned without Jack Leach who promptly bowled Bailey for 49 with one that turned. Abbott was having none of it. Bess and Leach each over the ropes again.

Craig Overton to the rescue to induce the edge from Crane and then Leach finally repaid Abbott’s sixes with an lbw. 162 all out, Abbott 49 and the ground buzzing in the heat. Since Dawson opened Pandora’s Box with that pull to Bess 10 wickets had fallen for 128 runs and the pitch though helpful and complicit in some of the wickets must have been bemused at the fall of some of the others.

A chance here for Somerset if only the batsmen could find it in themselves to find some form. A cracking on drive from Trescothick before he chased one that moved away from him just enough for Berg to take a Bess-like catch at slip and Pandora was smiling again.

I doubt Elgar and Abell believe in such things. Elgar rediscovered the Championship form which brought him a century at Old Trafford and Abell started to play as if he had not a batting trouble in the world. His strokes are not as silky smooth as Hildreth at his best or as majestic as Trescothick at his but for classical correctness look no further. He and Elgar attacked anything which deserved it and went along in their different ways. Elgar stealing runs and hitting boundaries with sureness of stroke and his now almost customary random six. Abell imposing himself with cleanly struck perfectly directed boundaries with the crowd willing him on. The lid was gradually being pressed down on Pandora.

Then Dawson, seemingly getting more turn than Leach earlier in the day took the edge of Abell’s bat as he was driven back. 40 was not as many as he would have wanted but the context in which it was scored both in his season and in this match and the authority with which it was scored took him more than just those five runs beyond the 35 not out he finished with in the last match. Somerset were 90 for 2. Just 72 behind Hampshire. The mist may be lifting for Abell. Not so for Hildreth, at least as it looks from beyond the boundary. He looked strangely out of sorts and it came as no surprise when he was lbw to Abbott although it might have been to anyone.

Elgar’s vigil ended two runs later for 60 as Dawson worked to lever the lid from Pandora’s box once again. Then Trego, having hit two fours off Abbott pushed Dawson to slip and Somerset had lost three wickets for 31 runs. Pandora smiled again. It looked as if it may be one of those matches.

If the ECB want English batsmen to develop skills against spin Taunton may be the place to send them. There was nothing vicious here just good honest turn, perhaps a little inconsistent from the River End, and a number of batsmen with their feet in the wrong place to play it. With pitches like this there will be a few low scores for a while to come. But with enough pitches like this batsmen may learn the skills of old, get themselves into better positions to play the ball and we shall have a glorious view of footwork, bat and spinning ball in a fascinating cricketing ballet.
           

The general view at the end of the day seemed to be that Somerset need a lead of at least 100 to make up for the disadvantage of batting last. This is the age-old doctrine on turning wickets; for historically turning wickets have tended to deteriorate as matches progress. Certainly, Dawson seemed to get more turn in the evening than Leach or Bess got in the morning.

This is Taunton however and historically Taunton has flattened as matches move into the third day. It did against Essex this year. Pandora’s sway fades as the third day waxes and wanes. Taunton has not though in recent times at least until last year produced spinning pitches of this type. Do they behave differently than the traditional Taunton pitch? We don’t know in my view. Last year there were three spinning pitches. Two of the matches finished early on the third morning before the pitch would ordinarily have flattened. The third finished late on the third day but was the pitch flattening as Somerset won the match by one wicket through putting on 64 for the last two wickets of their second innings. Who knows what Pandora might have in mind if this match stretches much beyond today.”

*The Somerset Stand faces east and starts to fall into the shade from the back in the early afternoon. It can be extremely cold early in the season as the shade advances.

 Close. Toss. Hampshire. Elected to bat. Hampshire 162 (GJ Bailey 49, KJ Abbott 49, MJ Leach 6-78, DM Bess 3-45). Somerset 157-5. Somerset trail Hampshire by 5 runs with five first innings wickets standing.

 

27th May. Second Day.

Farmer White (IP Logged) 28 May 2017 8.32 a.m.

“Somerset’s top order batting has been under the microscope and subject to much criticism in this and in the three previous Championship matches. And yet for the third time in four matches the top order has out batted the opposition in the first innings of the match when both sides have batted on difficult pitches. In this match in the first innings Hampshire lost their first six wickets for 81. In similar conditions Somerset reached 162 before the sixth wicket fell. Precisely twice as many runs.

In the matches against Essex and Lancashire the innings which effectively gave those teams victory were played in the best batting conditions of the match albeit Livingstone for Lancashire and Cook for Essex made excellent contributions. In the third match Warwickshire also batted in the better conditions, the pitch taking spin as the Somerset innings progressed*. Depending on the extent to which humidity is a factor today Somerset may for the first time this season play the key innings of the match in the best batting conditions of the match.

Yesterday there were some signs that that may be the case. The last four Hampshire second innings wickets added 153 with comparative ease by attacking the bowling against which their top order had perished with all-out attack. In the past the pitch has sometimes seemed to ease as suddenly as this performance suggested it might have done on what was just the second afternoon.

Trescothick and Elgar, opening Somerset’s second innings, negotiated the hour to the close without too many alarums. They took five fours off Topley and Abbott in the space of two overs although one of Trescothick’s three successive fours off Topley was an inside edge past the stumps. 39 for 0 at the close scored under pressure was a pretty good return. Whether the conditions have actually eased and whether the Somerset batsmen can capitalise only today or perhaps, if the forecasters are right, tomorrow will tell.
           

In the morning Somerset’s hopes of a lead of a 100 or so perished in a clatter of wickets under a canopy of low grey cloud. Lewis Gregory flashed at a wide one from Abbot to connect only with the edge. He had left the previous ball that seemed to go down the same line. He might easily have left both. Stephen Davies having begun to look solid on the first day played down the line of one from Dawson that turned sharply to hit his pads. Jack Leach looked like he might have been withdrawing the bat only to find the ball from Abbott following it to take the edge into the slips. Had the bat not been there the ball would probably have hit the stumps. Craig Overton was bowled through the gate by one from Berg that must have moved in for he seemed to play straight down the line. Bess also playing straight to Berg seemed to be yorked and perhaps played over it. Excellent bowling by the Hampshire pacemen against lower order batting restrained Somerset to a lead of 35 on first innings.

The canopy of low cloud that pace bowlers consider their friend decided to lift and then break up in the ten minutes between the innings. You would think that Somerset cloud might be more helpful to the home side. Dawson and Carberry in particular took advantage and attacked the bowling scoring 84 at nearly four an over. The bowling did not look as penetrative as Hampshire’s although Jamie Overton bowled another accurate fast spell. The overhead conditions were less helpful to the bowlers and the batsmen were openers rather than lower order. Gregory not bowling with any great pace was the most economical of the pace bowlers.

Then as in the Hampshire first innings the direction of play swivelled as a sharp piece of fielding ended the opening partnership. Hildreth parried a fearsome Carberry drive and Abell snapped up the rebound. With Bess and Leach appearing again to be getting less turn than Dawson the Hampshire top order decided to take the spinners on. The result was a furious tumult of runs and wickets. 56 runs and six wickets in nine overs as Bess ripped out the rampaging Hampshire top order with 5-0-26-5. Hampshire 105 ahead with four wickets remaining.

Then, in yet another twist in this match of twists, the Hampshire tail wagged furiously and added a rampant 153 for the last four wickets. Crane at number ten finishing on his highest first-class score of 29 in a last wicket partnership of 36 with Topley. They seemed to bat with some ease. Guarded hopes were muttered that those last four wickets and particularly the last were indicative of the traditional flattening of the Taunton pitch.

 

Trescothick and Elgar started Somerset’s second innings as if they believed it for they batted with real purpose, scoring those 39 off 10 overs, and that inside edge past the stumps from Trescothick apart, it began to look as if the hopes about the pitch might be being realised. Perhaps the Essex match in reverse someone ventured, for the second day had ended in a remarkably similar position to that match vis a vis the pattern of the four innings. Today Somerset need the pitch to behave accordingly and someone to find it within themselves to play the Cook role. Much may depend on those two things plus the extent to which the humidity which is forecast assists the Hampshire pace bowlers and whether Dawson who has extracted more turn than anyone from this pitch still can.

Whatever the course of play and the outcome many microscopes will be focussed on the Somerset batting.”

*This on the last day but the match had lost the best part of five sessions to rain.

 Close. Hampshire 162 and 293(MA Carberry 51, GK Berg 49, DM Bess 7-117). Somerset 197(D Elgar 60, TB Abell 40, KJ Abbott 4-49, LA Dawson 4-63) and 39-0. Somerset need a further 220 runs to win with ten second innings wickets standing.

 

28th May. Final Day

I could not post immediately after the final day although I was there to watch Somerset subside after Marcus Trescothick was out for 34 with the score on 58. As at Old Trafford the fall of Trescothick marked the beginning of an unexpectedly rapid end for Somerset. The remaining 9 wickets fell for 110 runs and Somerset had lost by mid-afternoon. It was jaw dropping to watch. The pit of the stomach became a chasm of despair. Liam Dawson and Mason Crane took nine of Somerset’s ten second innings wickets. This was perhaps the lowest point of the season so far among a season of Championship lows. There was fairly widespread dissatisfaction and increasing calls from supporters for changes in the batting line up after what was a dispiriting defeat. Once again Somerset had led on first innings and trailed badly on the second. Their batting in the second innings, Elgar with his second 60 of the match apart, seemed careworn, almost mesmerised. The Hampshire bowlers dominated and the result looked inevitable long before the end came.

Rather than describe the day’s play which by the time of my post was well known, I focused primarily on the options before Somerset as they sank deeper into the relegation mire and tried to identify what I saw as the complexity of the situation. The calls for Somerset’s up and coming young batsmen to be drafted into the side became more pressing and this is reflected in my post. It was a debate which took place around the ground, on ‘grockles’ and no doubt wherever Somerset supporters gathered. My post is just a part of that debate here frozen in time.

 

Farmer White (IP Logged) 31 May 2017 1.40 p.m.

“Sorry to be late to the debate here but a long family weekend has interfered with my ability to post about cricket. Such is life. It hasn’t stopped me thinking about cricket though. Such also is life. I would like to put a different perspective into the debate. Not a firm one by any means but one which I think needs to be thought about at least. It relates in part to the first half of my post before the Warwickshire match.

In short that post suggested teams have limited First Division life expectancy in any one stay. Somerset, at ten years, have exceeded the length of any one stay of 16 of the other 17 counties. Counties are not uncommonly relegated the year after they have finished near the top of the Championship. Of the current First Division only three of the teams have been continuously in it since 2012. Perhaps co-incidentally, since it is early season, those three teams are the current bottom three and perhaps equally co-incidentally they were the top three in 2012. Further there are now rarely more than two non-Test Ground counties in the First Division which suggests it is even harder for a club like Somerset to sustain that status over time.

This suggests to me it has taken a continuous effort of Herculean proportions spread over a full decade for Somerset to achieve what they have including two credible assaults on the Championship and several successful fights against relegation, in the latter case where others have failed. Perhaps things are cyclical like the Ashes. Perhaps Nottinghamshire last year were a prime example of this. Promoted with Somerset in 2007, they won the Championship in 2010, were third in 2015 and relegated in 2016. At the start of last season their squad suggested they might be Championship contenders. They were, apparently inexplicably, relegated well adrift at the bottom of the table under the same Director of Cricket and Captain that pipped Somerset to the post for the Championship in 2010. Somerset might just be trying to battle against a similar dispiriting ebb tide.

I don’t say this is the case. I don’t know. History though does seem to be against Somerset and I think it is at least worth some thought for if it is the case then the effect on morale when the tide finally ebbs would be significant.

Whether there is anything in that or not what is clear is morale, at least batting morale is at a low ebb. The difference in the way Somerset and Hampshire batted in their second innings was stark and telling. Hampshire showing a disregard for protecting their wicket, particularly their top order, whilst scoring at over five an over for much of their innings. Somerset careworn and insipid for the most part as Nottinghamshire were last year. That Matthew Maynard felt it necessary to go as far as to make it public that some players at least are not working together or helping each other suggests the problem may be significant. A team that is not ‘all for one and one for all’ or is jaded by constant pressure will founder in the First Division.

The analysis of the problem, whatever the reason and others may have different thoughts on this, is much easier than the solution. The problem though must be largely one of morale, whatever the cause, rather than ability. Most of the players who are performing badly performed well enough last year to come second in the Championship. They have not become poor players in the off season. Neither has Stephen Davies. They are good players playing poorly. That is the problem that has to be solved either by motivating them to play better by whatever method or by replacing them.           

The thing about Matthew Maynard’s statement that concerned me most was not what he said but what he did not say at least as I understood his statement. He gave no indication, as I heard it, other than saying they had talked about the problem and it would be a focus of discussion, of what he was doing to rectify the situation. That is not to say he is not taking action. He may well be. If so I would have preferred him, having made clear there is a problem, to have been clear that he was taking corrective action. He would not need to say what it was. We would soon see if it was effective*.           

From his interview and a similar answer he gave at the last Q&A it seems unlikely there will be immediate changes in the batting and there are some arguments in favour of this provided he is taking action with the players. They are good players with proven track records and the comprehensive defeat by Hampshire and the making public of the problems may act as a catalyst to motivation which the coach will need to build on quickly. In 2015 Somerset lost the first three Championship matches and won the fourth. These things have turned around before.           

The alternative of drafting in young players is fraught with risk. The young players most often mentioned are Bartlett aged 19, Byrom 19, and Rouse 21. None has played first-class cricket before let alone in the First Division of the Championship. Is it really wise and is it fair to consider bringing such players into a losing team with admitted problems of team spirit involving some players not helping each other?          

Somerset will now be heavily targeted by the other First Division clubs circling for the kill. Any new young batsman will be at the bullseye of that target, where Tom Abell almost certainly currently is, for it is not in the interest of any other club for Somerset to find a way out of this situation or for new young players to succeed in Somerset’s cause. Those players will be shown no mercy and will need significant support from the rest of the team, the batsmen in particular, if they are to have a reasonable chance of succeeding. That is how ruthless the First Division is.           

Mark Lathwell was sent straight into just such a situation when he played for England against Shane Warne. Alex Barrow was pitched into a team playing well enough and presumably with good enough morale to come as high as fourth in the 2011 Championship just before his 19th birthday. In the Second XI that year he played 6 matches, averaged 63 with two centuries and six fifties. He played seven Championship matches and averaged 19 with one 50. The transition is immensely difficult even in good times. Second XI statistics do not of themselves make a first team player.           

That is not to say Somerset should not call up second team players. Tom Abell fared better than Alex Barrow when he started at the age of 20. What I am saying is, given the young players are part of the Club’s future as well as their own, the effect on them, as much as their effect on the team, of calling them up in the current circumstances and into the current problems needs to be carefully considered before it is done. The long-term interests of the Club and their interests should be put first in the current circumstances especially as there is no guarantee their elevation would come off.           

Dom Bess, it is true, did exceptionally well when he was introduced into the side last year at 19. However, he was introduced into a winning side challenging for the Championship in conditions ideally suited to his game in which he could target opposition batsmen not used to playing spin on spin friendly pitches. He did brilliantly and did so again against Hampshire this year carrying forward his form from last year. If he is typical in character and ability among our young players; and would have performed as well against Hampshire even without last years’ experience; and the young batsmen are as gifted as he then perhaps they may be ready.          

However, if the judgement is, or is reached, that some players currently in the team are not able to turn things round and replacements have to be sought then perhaps the more experienced reserves should be looked to first.          

Johannes Myburg has, to my mind, shown himself to be one of the most adaptable batsmen in the squad in terms of where he can bat (according to my impression but others may know otherwise) and he topped the Championship averages last year with a century and two fifties in three matches.          

Jim Allenby averaged 26 with five fifties over twelve matches last year. Hardly a recommendation and only a slightly better record than Trego (ave 23) and Hildreth (ave 22) this season though better than Abell (ave 13) and Davies (ave 9) but he does have first team and First Division experience and he has scored well in the Royal London Cup this year.          

As to Adam Hose he is older at 24 than the other young second team players and has proved himself in the Royal London Cup with some significant contributions under pressure and based on those two things in my view is likely to be the most ready of the younger second team batsmen for the First Division. Whether in the current circumstances it would be in his or the Club’s interests is another matter and which only the Club can judge.          

With regard to Ryan Davies he looks to me a gifted keeper with significant potential with the bat at the age of 20. However, he played 15 Championship matches last year and averaged 21. The question I think the Club should be asking is should he be risked at number five? If he were to bat lower what implications does that have for the batting order from five to say eight?           

I would add one thing. I know none of the players involved. I know only what I see on the field. I know none of their characters. I know nothing of what goes through their minds. I cannot therefore know if any or all of the players discussed are ready to take a place in the Championship first team in the circumstances which that team faces (very different from taking a place in a winning team with high morale). They would be remarkable young men if they could help turn the current situation around. They may be. If there is confidence in the Club that they could face down the pressures they would face at the moment and it is also judged the current players cannot turn things around then I would be much happier that the youngsters be considered.          

As to who, if anyone, should be dropped at the moment, that should depend on the judgement of the Coach and Captain, and in the Captain’s case the Coach, as to whether or not and to what extent each is likely to be able to turn things around and the extent to which any replacement might do better. In the end those are the two who will ultimately be held accountable for the outcome and those are the two with all the information, not just what is seen on the field, at their disposal.          

I go back to where I started. If Somerset are in the same position this year as Nottinghamshire were last year, and virtually every club has been before, then should the young batsmen, part of the future of the club’s batting, be risked in the hope that they can turn a strongly flowing ebb tide which will be targeted on them. Or should the experienced players who are struggling badly at present, augmented if necessary, by the more experienced reserves be given the responsibility to try to turn things around. If things are that bad at the moment it would not help to make them worse in the longer term by subjecting young players to the pressures of the First Division before they are ready.           

I emphasise again I am not stating anything categoric. I am just trying to throw up some thoughts which I think might be relevant to the discussion.          

And whatever team is put out at Lord’s if it comes back with 12 or 24 points, whether it is the current team proving most wrong or a team of youngsters proving my worries groundless, I will be equally pleased.”

*Matthew Maynard, Somerset’s Director of Cricket had given an interview after the match, more wide-ranging about the defeat than just the part I referred to here. I used the word ‘statement’ but ‘interview’ would be a more accurate description. It was ‘question and answer’ with an interviewer rather than a prepared ‘statement’. It reflected, in my view, Matthew Maynard’s generally open, transparent and immediate responses to questions which was evident at the regular Question and Answer sessions with members which he instituted on his arrival at Taunton. I reviewed the interview when collating these posts and there was emphasis in his voice when he said there would be discussion with the players about the issues which suggests to me he was taking rather more control of the situation than I had at the time gained the impression. 

Result. Hampshire 162 and 293. Somerset 197 and 168 (D Elgar 60, MS Crane 4-40, LA Dawson 4-66). Hampshire won by 90 runs. Hampshire 19 points. Somerset 3 points.

At the end of this match Somerset remained in eighth and bottom place, 15 points behind Middlesex in sixth place. That was three less than after the last round of matches but Somerset had now played a game more than Middlesex. Somerset’s next match was against Middlesex at Lord’s. Neck and neck for the Championship at the end of 2016 they were becoming locked in a perpetual Holmes-Moriarty like struggle to avoid relegation in 2017.