County Championship 2017 ~ Signs of revival

Somerset’s fifth County Championship match of the 2017 season after three defeats and a desperate draw. For the first time in 2017, Somerset got the better of a Championship match, although the first victory of the season remained elusive. Lewis Gregory made a stunning maiden first-class century and was inolved in a huge partnership with Dean Elgar who made 158. The debate about the fragility of the Somerset batting continues. The reports starts with a match preview which looks back at a fighting Somerset draw at Lord’s in 2013.

The match report itself includes a description of what it was like to be in London during the first London Bridge terrorist attack which took place during the course of this match.

As always the original reports are in a darker font and begin and end with quotation marks.

SIGNS OF REVIVAL 

~   MIDDLESEX   ~ 

“As to my weekend in London the Saturday night and London’s response to it will leave a mark long after the match…has merged in with memories of many other matches.” 

Specsavers County Championship. First Division. Lord’s. 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th June 2017. Middlesex v Somerset.

And so to Lord’s…

Before the start of the Middlesex Championship match I posted, by way of a preview, my recollections, still quite vivid, of the Championship match between the two teams played at Lord’s in 2013. There were only four years between the two games yet of the 22 who took the field in 2013 only six remained. Such is the transience of first-class cricket careers. In both 2013 and 2017 Somerset were threatened with relegation after having come second in the previous year. 

Preview – Lord’s 2013 Revisited

Farmer White (IP Logged) 1 June 2017 5.13 p.m.

LV= County Championship. First Division. Lord’s. 28th, 29th and 30th August 2013. Middlesex v Somerset.

“I escaped the confines of my Eastern exile and headed west as far as St John’s Wood for Somerset were in town to take on Middlesex at Thomas Lord’s ground. The season was entering its final stages and Somerset were in relegation trouble. The weather was set reasonably fair and we hoped, no more, we might at least fend off Middlesex for they were having as good a season as Somerset were having a sinking one. Disappointing after a late run to second place in the Championship in 2012. I sat on the Pavilion terrace suitably suited and booted but with my broad rimmed white Somerset sun hat but nobody seemed to mind.           

Middlesex were captained by a gritty Australian by the name of Chris Rogers. Somerset by an old Somerset hand by the name of Marcus Trescothick who managed to win the toss. He and someone by the name of Nick Compton came down the steps. The two of them and Chris Jones pushed Somerset along to 116 for 2 and then, in the Somerset way, before anyone knew it the score was 211 for 7 just after Tea.           

All was not over though, for Somerset were in danger of relegation particularly if beaten and when Somerset are in danger of relegation someone usually steps up. Eventually. The someone’s on that day were Alex Barrow, playing as a specialist batsman with 65, Piyush Chawla 112 and Alphonso Thomas 54 not out off 150 balls while Chawla hit four sixes and 12 fours from the other end. Chawla could have been Somerset of old the way he played. Between the three of them, with 18 off 14 balls from a 19-year-old Jamie Overton, they added 238 for the last three wickets over an edge of the seat, stomach clenching 70 overs. Earlier Trescothick had managed 64 and Chris Jones 58 and by early afternoon on the second day Somerset had somehow racked up 449 and 4 batting bonus points.          

It seemed to knock the stuffing out of Middlesex. The look, or the lack of it, in the eyes of their players as they came up the Pavilion steps at Lunch on the second day and at the end of the innings spoke volumes and sticks in my mind still. So different than the anticipation as they walked out ahead of Trescothick and Compton at the start for they had been challenging for the Championship before losing their previous match and there was still the possibility at the start of the Somerset match.          

The disbelief in the eyes of the Somerset supporters at the end of the Somerset innings was magnified a hundred-fold as Middlesex ended the day 52 for 2 following on. Craig Meschede, Lewis Gregory and Jamie Overton, who removed Chris Rogers, had reduced Middlesex to 55 for 7 in their first innings before Rayner and Harris took them to 104 for 7 only for Chawla to remove the last 3 wickets for 2 runs.           

The next day I found myself heading back to the last three years of my exile a day and a half early after Marcus Trescothick finished the Middlesex second innings with 5 catches and Lewis Gregory topped and tailed it with five wickets. 23 points. It was like living a dream in a season with too many nightmares. It was one of only three of their 16 Championship matches Somerset won all season.
Result. Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat. Somerset 449 (PP Chawla 112, AWR Barrow 65, ME Trescothick 64, RH Patel 4-89, NJ Dexter 3-57). Middlesex 106 (PP Chawla 3-8, CAJ Meschede 3-25) and 164 (f/o) (L Gregory 5-38). Somerset won by an innings and 179 runs. Somerset 23 points. Middlesex 2.
One of the other wins that year was at Derby when Nick Compton probably made the final difference with a gruelling fifty in the second innings in a low scoring match played in ultra-seamer friendly, bitterly cold and wet conditions. I saw him called away from a trip to the team coach just after the match. I have often wondered if that was when he was called to the phone to take the call that dropped him from his first stint with England. A Derbyshire bowler by the name of Groenewald took five in Somerset’s first innings.           

The other win was at Taunton in the penultimate match of the season. Somerset virtually retained their First Division status by beating Surrey and sending them down. The last match was a bonus point counting draw at Trent Bridge when a defeat for Derbyshire and the draw kept Somerset up. It was also Jos Buttler’s last match for Somerset.           

Of tomorrow’s squads, for Somerset only Trescothick, Hildreth, Gregory and Jamie Overton played in the 2013 Middlesex match. For Middlesex only Ollie Rayner and Nick Compton who was then in the Somerset team. With teams as transient as that no wonder the First Division is a topsy turvy place.           

As to tomorrow I thought the words Matthew Maynard has used on the Somerset website might be an opaque window into what might have been said in the dressing room: “There are people queuing up for an opportunity but I believe that these guys can pull us out of this situation and get us playing some good cricket again. …. If it comes to a stage where it doesn’t happen then obviously, we have to change, but I fully trust in these guys to turn it around in the Lord’s match.”           

The substance may be in the last four words.”

 

The Match 

There is no posting time for this report because it was moved from its original thread to the ‘front’ page on ‘grockles’. I wrote one ‘whole match’ post on my return to Somerset.

“Three days at Lord’s, two evenings in London and one day in Somerset with the commentary for the Middlesex match.”

It feels like a corner may have been turned or at least the corner is in sight. It didn’t feel like that as I walked into the ground at the Nursery End on the first day and peeked through the gap between the Compton Stand and the Grandstand to see the score at 20 for 1, Trescothick gone and Abell in the process of edging one through to the keeper.         

Uncomfortable memories of Horsham a few years ago floated by for there I had reached the ground on the first morning with Somerset one down. The second wicket fell as I bought my ticket, the third as I meandered looking for a seat and the fourth as I sat down*. Somerset were all out just late enough for Sussex not to have to bat before Lunch. 

At Lord’s I managed to find a seat on the Pavilion Terrace without causing further damage. I did though wonder why Somerset had dropped Bess, brought in the pace of Davey and Groenewald, decided to have a toss, won it and then batted. One or two Somerset supporters I spoke to were equally bemused for the bat was being beaten a little too often for comfort. 

Some calm from Elgar and some sumptuously struck boundaries from Hildreth began to ease the anxiety until the latter drove at one and was spectacularly caught by Rayner at slip for 25. Steven Davies soon edged defensively behind and Somerset lunched at 78 for 4, the questions about the batting and the decision to bat grew in intensity. The scrutiny then eased when a local old hand announced in a manner that brooked no contradiction, “Always bat first at Lord’s. The pitch does a lot before Lunch and dies after.” Captains always have a reason for their decisions and usually they know more about it than those of us who look on. And so it proved although not in time to avoid Trego edging past the stumps for 2 to fine leg before being caught behind next ball. 80 for 5.           

Lewis Gregory marched out to a silent groan from the Somerset contingent and promptly looked the million dollars he often looks at the start of an innings. In the Championship, at least, the million dollars has so often turned into a pocket of loose change as he drives, pulls or cuts apparently aimlessly at one not there for the stroke. Not on this day. His driving was immaculate, the ball screaming to the boundary. The ball that wasn’t quite there for the shot was left or defended. Discipline and concentration had found their way into his game. Elgar meanwhile was Elgar.    

And the weather was the weather. It played its part in the middle of the afternoon and Somerset ended the day just after three on 161 for 5. Hardly in the ascendency but not quite so deep in the mire as they might have been. I spent the evening watching ‘Love in Idleness’ by a resurrected Terence Rattigan. Like Gregory’s innings the play was a pleasant surprise for Rattigan was once given up as something of a lightweight. The dialogue was as beautifully and securely crafted as Gregory’s response to the pressure of 80 for 5. The plot was as amiable as the pitch on which Gregory was by the end playing, and brilliant comedic eruptions punctured the proceedings as stunningly as Gregory’s boundaries punctured the field.

And so Gregory continued into the second morning and into the afternoon. For the first time this season, the Elgar Leach partnership at Old Trafford apart, Somerset found themselves batting in ideal overhead conditions on a batsman’s Christmas present of a pitch and for the first time in the best conditions of a match. They made it pay. Elgar was still Elgar. I am sure one day there will be an inquiry into where he obtains his runs for it is not easily obvious to the casual observer. Even the boundaries seem to be quietly stolen. His statutory six not enough to convince that he has scored quite as many as the scoreboard alleges. Gregory though leaves no doubt for when the ball is struck the result is classical, spectacular and conclusive.           

Middlesex had no answer apart from an occasional ball that did a bit from the Nursery End particularly later in Elgar’s innings. The score mounted and batting bonus points, a poor harvest so far this season, were gathered in. 200 for 5. 251 for 5. 303 for 5. The match began to take on the shape of the 2013 match with the lower order blunting Middlesex. Perhaps teams should always bat first at Lord’s. Right down to the declaration at 443 for 9 the Somerset tail batted with application and discretion yet piled up the score at 4 an over. This felt like the Somerset of the second half of last season finding its feet again.           

And so to the bowling. The Somerset pace quartet bowled with impressive accuracy through the late afternoon and evening, continuing the impressive bowling start to the season. They held Middlesex to under 2 an over from 22 overs by the close, although the Middlesex openers were less than ambitious and no wicket fell. It was further evidence that Somerset were at last in business. A day of discipline with the bat and discipline with the ball and the smiles on the faces of the Somerset contingent as they left the ground spoke volumes.

 

An evening amble along the South Bank from the Royal Festival Hall, where we had taken refuge from a nasty shower, towards the Millennium Bridge for a bus from St Paul’s, was as idyllic as Somerset’s batting had been during the day. An evening on the South Bank or in the West End demonstrates that London is very much a vibrant young person’s city as diverse as the world it reflects. Having worked in it for over 20 years I feel as much at home there as I do in my Somerset hills and moors. Somerset is my home. London is my city.           

As we approached the old Bankside power station, now Tate Britain, I looked at my watch, discovered in my idyll it had raced round to 10.10 p.m. and realised I would miss the TV newspaper review I usually watch. Then a helicopter crossed the sky in front of us. Helicopters in the London sky are not uncommon even after dark. I particularly noticed this one because it was travelling uncommonly fast.           

Then a few minutes later on the Millennium Bridge my gaze turned down the river towards Tower Bridge for there is a wondrous view that way especially at night. The lights, yellow and white, of the street lights and windows of buildings along the river’s banks, the window-lit outline of buildings in the City and Canary Wharf, the multitude of red lights atop the cranes that say London is a growing, living city all framing the floodlit Tower Bridge. I have looked at that view hundreds of times and it never ceases to move me and I never cross that bridge at night without looking at it.           

On Saturday night it was different. The whites and the yellows and the reds were interspersed with five sets of stationary blue flashing lights a little way downstream. One set on the river and four across and above it. A woman hurried across the bridge from Bankside and asked if we had just come from London Bridge, half a mile away. We hadn’t but she told us she had. She had heard gunshots and the police were getting people out of pubs and restaurants and telling them to run away from the area.           

As we continued across the bridge towards St Paul’s police cars and ambulances, blue lights flashing and sirens wailing, streaked by. Four more followed in the few minutes we waited for the bus as people started to pick up the first news from their phones and us. The police are often criticised, sometimes with good reason, but that night they, and the other emergency services, were rushing in numbers towards the very real possibility of mortal danger. If you are ever in imminent danger you will be very grateful for our police.          

And then back to the hotel to the news although the full horror of what had happened did not become apparent until the next morning and is still emerging.           

And then it was off to Lord’s. London carries on at times like this. The shops were open, the tube and buses were operating normally, and people seemed to be carrying on normally although the atmosphere was quietly subdued in place of the all-pervading buzz that normally permeates London. Subdued and contemplative but as those chalked signs in black and white pictures of bomb damage in the blitz used to say it was ‘Business as Usual’ at least for those not directly affected by the incident or those close to them.     

I was on my way to work in London when the 7/7 bombs were detonated, one at Aldgate only a few trains after I had passed through. It was the same then. The tube and buses were closed down in the immediate aftermath but people walked quietly across London to get home that evening or to a mainline terminus perhaps a little earlier than normal after work until the buses started again. And then as soon as the service was resumed it was back down the tube to get to and from work for most. ‘Business as Usual’ or as near as could be.           

Awful, awful incidents but the response of Londoners, both those I saw and those I have seen in the media, then and now, makes me proud to have been once counted among their number. And this time such young people carrying on with such resolve. Our future is safe in such hands. And London is not alone. The people of Manchester have responded with similar resolve.           

Others in London may have different views of events and how Londoners react but that is how I saw and see things and I hope people do not mind me paying some tribute here.           

Lord’s added its own touch to the one-minute silence held before the start of the afternoon session on Sunday. As at Taunton the teams lined up outside the Pavilion, although at Lord’s they faced the Pavilion, and the crowd rose as one. Then the silence was commenced and ended by the sounding of the bell which normally sends the umpires out. As at Taunton the silence was perfectly observed, intense and total. 
           

The third day cricket was business as usual. Somerset worked away at the Middlesex batsmen on a pitch no more helpful to bowlers than when they had batted after that first morning. The accuracy though was resolute, the fielding tight and wickets were squeezed out of Middlesex considerably faster than they had squeezed them out of Somerset after the pitch flattened. Josh Davey stuck hard at it and deserved his wicket. Jamie Overton bowled fast, straight, economically and had one or two batsmen hopping. His spell which stretched before and after the second new ball and before and after Tea was particularly impressive. He seems to me to be improving by the game. Tim Groenewald was his usual miserly self and Lewis Gregory was back to his knack of quietly taking wickets. He seems to take them as invisibly as Dean Elgar scores runs. Middlesex finished on 358, 85 runs short of Somerset’s 443 for 9 declared.          

Somerset’s innings on the final day was unpressurised after the first few overs at least as far as the team goes. A number of players were under considerable personal pressure. Tom Abell responded best with 71 not out albeit the last few scored against recreational bowling. The young man has the potential I have no doubt to succeed as captain and batsman. Do not be surprised if he pulls it off.            

Indeterminate performances with the bat from James Hildreth and no great progress from Steven Davies or Peter Trego leave concerns but until he was out in the 20s in both innings Hildreth at least looked the part more than he has in recent matches. Perhaps the corner is in sight for him as much as it is for Somerset. 
           

I thought about possible team changes as I watched the match. As the Middlesex bowlers were steaming in on that first morning bowling well in helpful conditions with the ball clearly moving and close fielders straining to pounce in the cauldron of First Division competitiveness at its best I asked myself if I would want to see 19 to 21-year-olds thrown into a ring of highly skilled and motivated cricketing professionals. Not more than one at time at that age I thought and if at all possible not until they are prepared and ready.      

A new young player will be singled out like no other especially in a struggling team. The First Division is not a place, in my view, where you can try out young players without careful preparation. Preparation of the type which Adam Hose seems to have received and which will be planned for the younger batsmen. He has been given the number six slot in the 50 over team essentially, it seems, to make his own and he has, impressively, done precisely that. If there is to be a change he may be the best prepared, as far as any of us outside the management of the team can tell with our limited information, and would probably be best started at six so that he can settle and eventually find his best level in the team.           

As to the current team. It has just outplayed the County Champions. There are some signs of some individuals starting to turn a corner. This may just be the time for calm nerve and a little more patience. However, if there is to be change it should be with the message that the slot any new player is given is theirs to make their own if they can and that they will be given time to do it. The resulting message to the dropped player is therefore their place has gone and they have to win it back if they wish to return. Who would be in the position of those with the responsibility for such decisions for if it is the case that young and untested players may wish to leave if they do not get a slot it may equally be the case with tried and tested players if they lose one.

As to my weekend in London the Saturday night and London’s response to it will leave a mark long after the match, perhaps the minute’s silence apart, has merged in with memories of many other matches.”  

*My memory here had been kind to Somerset. It must have been later, and possibly more, wickets I saw fall whilst finding a seat for Somerset went from 42 for 2 to 43 for 7 in 13 balls. Steve MaGoffin took 8 for 20. Sussex won by an innings and 116 runs by, as I recall, Lunch on the second day leaving a number of Somerset supporters with fixed rail tickets with two and a half days to explore Horsham. I was not among them. I spent the spare days on the sea front at Worthing.

Result. Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat. Somerset 443-9dec (D Elgar 158, L Gregory 137, JH Davey 47) and 161-3dec (TB Abell 71*). Middlesex 358 (AC Voges 86, NRT Gubbins 56, PR Stirling 52, L Gregory 3-59). Match Drawn. Somerset 11 points. Middlesex 10 points.

Somerset ended this match in seventh place 14 points behind Middlesex in sixth place but still having played a game more.