County Championship 2017 ~ Needs Must ~ Warwickshire

NEEDS MUST 

~   WARWICKSHIRE   ~  

“Two batting artists at work painting a wonderful picture of movement on that spinners’ canvas prepared in the middle of Edgbaston. Oh, that we had a Degas to capture these two in this mood on a real canvas.” 

Specsavers County Championship. First Division. Edgbaston. 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th September 2017. Warwickshire v Somerset.           

This match was, by general consent among Somerset supporters, a ‘needs must win’ match. Somerset had 23 points to make up over the sixth placed side if they were to be safe from relegation. If they lost to Warwickshire they would almost certainly slip into last place, for Warwickshire, in last place, were only 13 points behind Somerset, and the gap to sixth place would probably then be virtually insurmountable. I watched this match on a live stream. In those days the live stream came in a small panel, perhaps two inches by three, in the middle of the computer screen. How far things have come in that short time.

Farmer White (IP Logged) 9 September 2017 7.48 p.m.

“And for those at the match this is what it was like not being there (at least for me).

Unable to travel to this match the commentary and live feed it was. When I could get to my laptop. I don’t do smartphones so when I am not at home it is silence, for gone are the days when, in extremis, you could buy successive editions of the evening paper with ‘Latest Cricket Scores’ in the ‘Stop Press’ column, see the score, and wonder who was out and how many they were out for. Many a Sunday School outing to Exmouth was spent waiting for the Stop Press in the next edition.

At least the live feed and commentary when I could watch and listen had Somerset on the right end of the match. Even the last morning was a pretty efficient mopping up job well done, the only tension being supplied by the weather or the uncertainty about it. Cricket is supposed to be about the balance between runs, wickets and time (or overs). The weather rarely gets a mention when that equation is talked of but it often has a say turning time from a constant to a variable. It was shouting the loudest on the third day as a Somerset declaration approached.

And so to the cricket. It was a good sign on the first day I thought as I watched Trescothick, two inches high, on my computer screen, playing as of old, his whole 6’ 2” standing tall for Somerset. Assertive, positive and stroking the ball beautifully. The, as it had looked from beyond the boundary since the Hampshire match, apparent timidity of stroke gone. The anticipation of an edge or bails flying receding with each stroke. The master of the cover drive looked to be back in business. It actually came as a surprise when he edged Patel to the keeper for 28. He had though set the perfect tone. 28 off 32 balls of dominant calculated stroke play with six boundaries. The Master in control. Given the nature of the wicket, a session already lost and rain circling around the ever-changing forecast, it was exactly the start and exactly the template Somerset needed for their innings.

From 150 miles away I wondered hopefully if perhaps the team really had put the Essex defeat behind them. Perhaps the momentum of the Yorkshire and Surrey games was being re-ignited. Perhaps some lesson had been learned from the Essex game. Perhaps there was determined intent to dominate Warwickshire as Essex had Somerset. Or perhaps things are just beginning to come together. Whatever, it was a 50 run opening partnership, if only just. Gold dust this season. Just the fourth in the Championship, none of them above 58. Two Trescothick with Dean Elgar, two with Eddie Byrom.           

And so it was out of the house and into radio silence. When your team’s survival in the First Division is at stake that silence is deafening. Just like waiting for the next edition of the paper on Exmouth front. Nothing else makes much impact. I could still take you to the precise spot where they used to sell those papers. There is just the all engrossing anxiety of not knowing the score and imagining every connotation under the sun. As to what was happening at Edgbaston. Dreams of 150 for 1. Foreboding at thoughts of 120 for 6.           

140 odd for 4 seemed a middling sort of score to return to. Still, Byrom had got another start at the top of the order matching his highest first-class score of 43, and Hildreth something of a score (33) to sustain his renaissance. Only Bartlett (8) had failed. Not the greatest surprise for a 19-year-old batting at three on debut in a high-pressure match. Time for him to come again. He will know what to expect next time.

Then a wonderful hour or so of classic accumulation batting against a turning ball from Tom Abell and Stephen Davies. This was just what the County Championship was made for. Two skilled batsmen against two skilled bowlers on a pitch with something in the pitch for both. You get the atmosphere and the feel of the contest of wills as well as skills when you are at the match. When you watch on a 6 inch screen the skills are all, the atmosphere all in your head and the pit of your stomach. The flight and exact amount of turn and bounce of the ball, the movement of the feet, the speed, precision and angle of the bat as it connects with or misses the ball all laid bare. Mesmerising stuff. And so the first day ended with Somerset on 203 for 4. Relief.

The second morning saw me pitched back into radio silence hoping for as far beyond 300 as Somerset could stretch but with that nagging little questioning voice from within that accompanies optimism over cricket. This time it pointed out that batsmen not out having made a good start at the end of one day so often seem to fall early on the next. I suppose they have to start virtually from scratch again which gives them two chances in one innings to get out before they get their eye in. Perhaps the percentage that fall early on the morning after is the same as the percentage that don’t get a start in the first place the night before. It would be an interesting piece of research.

The not knowing gnaws. The 256 for 9 I returned to jolted. What a relief though to find Abell still batting after the season he has had. Davies at least had made 46. The rest had fallen away presumably, I assumed for I could not know, because the Warwickshire spinners had persisted as they had the previous day and batting can only stand so long against spin of that quality on that type of pitch. My return coincided with a last wicket stand of 26 between Abell and Groenewald and a final total of 282. Five for the 21-year-old Sukhjit Sing and four for the rather older Jeetan Patel. Hopes of another long Somerset last wicket stand taking us past 300 and another precious bonus point not realised. But Abell had reached 82 and his return to form with three games to come after this one might prove bonus enough.

I remembered a Q&A a couple of years ago when Matthew Maynard sang Tim Groenewald’s praises. The Somerset attack of youngsters fortified, and perhaps educated, by the presence of the experienced Groenewald had held a long innings of Nottinghamshire, I think it was, to around three an over on the flattest of flat pitches. It was a Herculean effort. Apparently at the end of the Nottinghamshire innings when the players reached the dressing room Groenewald said, “THAT is how you bowl on a pitch like that!” Perhaps that was the planting of the first seed of the current discipline in Somerset’s bowling.

If ever there was a time to apply that discipline this was it I thought as I had to return into the depths of radio silence just as the Warwickshire innings started. What is it about not knowing the cricket score that makes time stand still however busy you are? Even the ice cream at Exmouth didn’t help the time along. No flake ever made up for not knowing if Bill Alley or Peter Wight had reached their hundred. And no ice cream ever tasted as sweet as Warwickshire on 93 for 6 when I returned although discovering they had been 40 for 5 took a bit of the flavour away.

There has been grit in Somerset’s bowling all season. You only got that in your ice cream at Exmouth on windy days. And then of course there were the wet days. Exmouth on a wet day was horrid. You didn’t know if Bill and Peter would get in at all. This match has been a bit like that. Go out and I didn’t know if it was raining in Birmingham or not. I only had the forecast to go by and that seemed to know as much about the weather in Birmingham as I did. Was the match moving on or was time being washed away and a few more of Somerset’s hopes with it?

No matter, they were playing today. 93 for 6 became 96 for 7, courtesy Dom Bess. Chris Wright joined Keith Barker who apparently has been holding up Warwickshire’s batting this year with Jonathan Trott; the commentary immediately informing me that Wright has limpet type characteristics. When I am not at a match the wickets always seem to fall when I am out. Since I was in Wright promptly started to show his limpet type characteristics and Barker carried on regardless. Suddenly, to my eyes at least, Leach and Bess, who were trying to pin these two, started to look anything but threatening.

Then the impossible happened. It often does in cricket. Stephen Davies missed a stumping. I missed it too. No matter how mesmerising the cricket why is it harder to maintain concentration whilst watching a screen than it is when you are at the match? At 96 for 7, Warwickshire 186 behind, the debate as to whether or not to enforce the follow on had raged. Barker and Wright decided the issue in Warwickshire’s favour in spite of Overton replacing Bess. But you don’t keep an Overton out of the game for long. He was finally too good for Barker who was by the end batting in some pain and was plumb lbw. Against Wright Overton took the pad out of the equation and Warwickshire were soon all out for 146. A Somerset lead of 136. Five for Jack Leach. But the bowler of the innings must surely have been Craig Overton with 4 for 33 on a pitch favouring the spinners. I only saw his last two wickets. They were against bowlers but they were absolute gems. When he is bowling like that he looks ten feet tall even on a six-inch screen.

Sometimes when you watch at home you do get an hour or so of peace and quiet when you can just settle and watch the cricket. The last hour of the second day was just such heaven. The half an hour before it less so. Even the wrong Ryan Sidebottom* can bowl a bit. 17 for 0 in Somerset’s second innings became 17 for 2 as he bowled Eddie Byrom and then had a disconsolate George Bartlett lbw first ball. First Division cricket is a steep learning curve for teenagers. If Warwickshire were to have any chance of turning this game around this was the moment. Somerset 17 for 2 in the Stop Press on Exmouth front with an hour to wait for the next edition would have been purgatory.

Fortunately, I could watch Trescothick and Hildreth’s every move in detail. Never dreamed I would be able to do that in 1962 when only Test Matches were televised. And what a dream this was. Two batting artists at work painting a wonderful picture of movement on that spinners’ canvas prepared in the middle of Edgbaston. Oh that we had a Degas to capture these two in this mood on a real canvas. With only the pitch to concentrate on and nothing to distract me it was a wondrous sight. Not a hint of lost concentration with those two in that form.

I would never not be at a match I could be at but I would miss one hour to watch an hour of what I watched on my computer screen from 17 for 2. The ball was turning and the bowling was probing. In response the concentration, footwork, stroke play, and telepathic running was captivating as these two greatest of the last generation of Somerset batsmen rolled away the careworn batting of the first half of this season and spread batting gold dust about the place once again. This indeed really was the stuff which dreams are made on.

75 for 2 at the close became 165 for 3 the next morning. Another hour and a half of the previous night’s magic. At the 2017 AGM Matthew Maynard said a couple of hours of James Hildreth and Stephen Davies at the wicket together would be a sight to savour. It could surely be no better than this two and a half hours of Trescothick and Hildreth on such a pitch against good spin bowling. And then from 165 for 3 another hour to savour. The Captain future batting with the Captain past. A full hundred they added in that hour of glorious Somerset dominance until Abell, attacking for the declaration, was bowled for 51. Somerset declared with a lead of 401. Trescothick 119 not out.

Oh the glories of cricket. A dream of a cricket wicket. Probing spin bowling from Warwickshire’s veteran Jeetan Patel and 21-year-ols Sukhjit Singh. Heavenly batting. Two generations in tandem. Bowling and batting. The hopes of an entire county hanging on the thread of the timing of a declaration. And all of us without the responsibility with a view about when to declare. And then the weather. In the control of neither team, tantalizing in its coming and going, the forecasts as unpredictable as a Shane Warne delivery. And the game moving to its climax. Somerset should beat Warwickshire but could they beat the weather? The latest forecast showing just two sessions play left in the match. In such a position at such a moment was I pitched back into radio silence. It was as if the latest edition of the paper had not turned up at Exmouth.

The silence lasted nearly all day. Never at Exmouth did I have to wait so long for a score or for that matter to know if there was a score at all. For all I knew the rain had triumphed. It hadn’t. When I returned and managed to coax my laptop into life Warwickshire were 146 for 4, 255 behind but Trott still in. He looked a bit ragged to me but since he was on 64 I assumed he was not playing raggedly. The score suggested the forecast had been wrong. Again. It had played with all our hopes all match and now it was certain there would be rain tomorrow just as, when I entered radio silence, it had been certain there would be rain this afternoon.

That we were still playing was a huge relief. That we had only taken four wickets was not, especially if there really was extended rain about tomorrow. Warwickshire must be applying themselves. Clinging on to an even more tenuous thread than Somerset. If they succeeded they would probably take us both down.

The two-inch-high Jack Leach and Dom Bess were twirling away looking none too effective or so my pessimistic mind thought. Spinners seem to do that, to my mind, when a couple of batsmen are looking set. Then out of the blue, if they are any good one of them takes a wicket. Jack Leach is a past master at it. Looks innocuous and then the bails come off. It was Bess who did it to today. If anyone needs some footage to demonstrate to someone who knows nothing of cricket what constitutes an lbw Bess’ dismissal of Trott would be perfect for the job. Even Trott thought so. He walked. His trudge back towards the pavilion tired and deflated as he disappeared off the top of my screen. If Warwickshire still had any hope it left with Trott. Then, two balls later, Bess added insult to injury. He sent the injured Barker back with another lbw. The two stalwarts of Warwickshire’s precarious batting this year gone in an instant.

What a time to have returned. 163 for 6 looked so much better than 142 for 4. Warwickshire still 238 behind with just 4 wickets left. Not an entirely joyous feeling though because I had missed the 60 or so overs of tension it took to work up to that point. In sport you really do need to go through purgatory to get the most out of heaven. 172 for 6 at the close. 229 behind.

No radio silence on the last day just an awful forecast to wake up to and then that dreaded phrase ‘Start delayed rain’. The Somerset website talking of rain and a very wet outfield. Were Somerset to be denied? I clung to two hopes. Why should the forecast be right? It was not its forte. I have been to Edgbaston many times, often in the rain. I have seen rain pouring down, dark cloud enveloping, the grass glistening with a Noah’s ration of water and within an hour and a half we have been playing.

Then, as if by Moses’ rod, the awful forecast cleared for the rest of the day, a 12.30 start was announced, I settled into my chair, laptop on my lap and watched Tim Groenewald and Dom Bess mop up, at least after a few overs at the start when someone at Warwickshire must have forgotten to switch on the feed. Groenewald took five wickets in the second innings. Perhaps he said, “THAT is how you bowl on this pitch.”

What a wonderful feeling a comprehensive victory is, made all the sweeter by the tension infused into a one-sided match by the weather and the serendipity of the forecast. This was the Somerset we had hoped for all season. Runs from most of the batsmen, wickets from all the bowlers. A comprehensive performance.

But we are, as they say, where we are. It was a victory over the one team below Somerset in the table. Somerset are still thirteen points into the relegation zone with only three matches to play. One against an outsider for the Championship, one on a pitch that is likely to give nothing to the bowlers and on which the batsmen will need to extract a proper ration of bonus points, and the last of the season against one of Somerset’s main relegation competitors. If Somerset are to remain in the First Division there is an almighty battle ahead. But as we enter that battle our future is, if only by the thinnest of thin whiskers, in our own hands; or at least in our hands and the weather’s.

And if Somerset succeed I shall take myself off to Exmouth. At last to savour an ice cream without having to wait for the next edition.”
*Warwickshire’s Ryan Sidebottom being an Australian. Yorkshire’s Ryan Sidebottom had been the difference between the sides in Somerset’s 2-run defeat at Taunton earlier in the season.
Result. Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat. Somerset 282 (TB Abell 82, SM Davies 46, EJ Byrom 43, Sukhjit Singh 5-72, JS Patel 4-90) and 265-4dec (ME Trescothick 119*, JC Hildreth 68, TB Abell 51, RN Sidebottom 3-69). Warwickshire 146 (KHD Barker 52, MJ Leach 5-50, C Overton 4-33) and 232 (IJL Trott 74, JS Patel 42, TD Groenewald 5-58, DM Bess 3-61). Somerset won by 169 runs. Somerset 21 points Warwickshire 3 points.

Somerset were still in seventh position but they had closed the gap to Middlesex in sixth position and Yorkshire in fifth position to 13 points with three matches to play. Somerset’s last match would be against Middlesex at Taunton. Warwickshire were now 30 points adrift of Somerset in last place.