County Championship 2017 ~ Surrey ~ First day ~ Swimming against the tide

Specsavers County Championship. First Division. The Oval. 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd September 2017. Surrey v Somerset. 

With one point covering three teams the second relegation slot was most likely to fall to Middlesex, Somerset or Yorkshire. although it was still possible that Hampshire or Surrey, a further 11 and 13 points ahead of Yorkshire, might just come into the frame, especially if Surrey lost to Somerset, Middlesex beat Lancashire at Lord’s and Warwickshire beat Yorkshire at Headingley. 

19th September. First Day – Swimming against the tide

Farmer White (IP Logged) 20 September 2017 8.50 a.m.

“Somerset may just be running out of road in their late season charge to stay in the First Division. After two stunning victories against teams at the bottom and near the top of the table they may find themselves swimming against a powerful tide on the second day at The Oval. At least that is how it was starting to feel at the close of the first day from my perch in the Peter May Stand. I sat for most of the day on a line exactly square of the Pavilion End stumps. Hardly a position from which to judge if the ball was moving but during the eighty or so minutes after lunch Rikki Clarke looked as if he had the ball on a string. Five wickets fell in the space of 35 runs, all to moving ball type dismissals; and there were many more balls which were played at and missed. It was a devastating piece of bowling which left Somerset’s First Division survival hopes hanging by a thread.

So different from the morning. Travelling up from Somerset by coach I reached the vicinity of the ground about an hour and a half after the start. There followed half a circumnavigation of the exterior of the ground to find an entrance. I peeked in trepidation through a locked gate to see 60 for 0 and the name Trescothick on the scoreboard. That spurred me on to find a seat at which point the score moved on to 81 for 0 as a result of Eddie Byrom hooking Stuart Meaker behind square for four. By the time I had organised myself and sat down Marcus Trescothick had driven Meaker, as gloriously as he ever did, off the back foot through the covers for another four. 89 for 0. ‘Too good to be true surely,’ I thought as I looked over my right shoulder at the gasometer, in these days permanently empty, a shadow of its former glory.

It was too good to be true. Just as I was beginning to believe my eyes Trescothick played forward to Gareth Batty and was lbw for 65. “Shame,” said the text from someone who had watched the whole innings online, “he was playing as well as he ever did.” And so the umpires took the players off for lunch.

I meandered off in search of one or two other Somerset supporters to get a view on the morning. Smiles mixed with a wince at the loss of Trescothick and what might have been had he just lasted until lunch. The Oval is one of the few Test grounds where they regularly allow spectators to meander on the outfield at lunch. Edgbaston is another. From the end of the pitch it looked a very long way to the Archbishop Tenison boundary. As to the pitch itself I and about fifty others stared ‘knowingly’ at it. I wonder if they knew as much about judging pitches as I do, which is precisely nothing. I will venture to say no more than that they all had the same look on their faces as I did. Inscrutable incomprehension. That said, the pitch looked flat. They all do to me. And virtually grassless. I pronounced it flat to a Somerset supporter of my acquaintance. Within the hour Clarke had taken five wickets and Somerset were 138 for 6.

Whether it helped Clarke I cannot say but the heavy cloud, broken by a few blue patches, that had held station over Archbishop Tenison’s school when I arrived, and throughout lunch, crept in to cover the whole ground and kept us company for half the afternoon session. It was low enough for the floodlights to come on for a while. Low enough too for the continuous stream of aircraft which descend low over The Oval, as they seek out Heathrow, to pass in and out of it as they roared by. The howl of their engines accompanying Clarke’s appeals like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. Bartlett, half forward as he tends to be when he is out, and Hildreth and Abell all the way forward as the three of them were caught at slip, leg before wicket and bowled in quick succession; only caught behind missing from a complete trick of moving ball dismissals. No matter who bowled at the Pavilion End, it was Clarke who took the wickets from the Vauxhall End. A career best 7 for 55 by the end of the innings.

From 138 for 6 Somerset worked themselves forward as Steven Davies and Craig Overton pushed, turned and guided the ball into the gaps with the sort of care it takes to gather prize pebbles from a beach. Clarke was taken off after an 80-minute spell to warm applause from the crowd. The other bowlers tried their hand but the Somerset pair held the crease, if somewhat creakily at times, with the occasional edge, including two edged fours from Overton, before Sam Curran ended his determined little innings at 24 with the score on 191. Davies played with the sort of skill which has the ball coming off the bat as if it were sheathed in silk. Nothing silken though about the spearing back foot drive which rattled up his fifty.

Cloudy though the afternoon session was, not very many miles to the west I could see the clearest blue sky you could wish for. Although throughout the day we had had the occasional burst of sun we were not to witness a settled spell until the end of Somerset innings and the start of Surrey’s.

Bess joined Davies and, as so often with Bess, he marched straight to the sound of battle. Surrey confronted him with two short covers. He immediately drove Patel straight through them for four then steered him behind square for three. The drive through the short covers reminiscent of a vignette that my memory retains from over a quarter of a century ago at The Oval. Jimmy Cook cut Waqar Younis forward and back of gully for two consecutive fours. Surrey put in second gully. Cook cut between the two gullies for another four. Of such moments as that, and Bess’s drive today, are the jewels that stud our memory made.

Davies and Bess set about gathering runs with circumspect defence and judicious attack as they shepherded Somerset to two bonus points taking the score to 252 for 8. For the moment that put a clear point between Somerset and Middlesex in the table. For Middlesex had been dismissed for 233. They are as close by Somerset in the Championship as Lord’s, just across London’s river, is to The Oval. Lancashire, Somerset’s erstwhile opponents the opposition.

Bess then found himself being caught and bowled for 27 by the return of Clarke. There was not much more to come from Somerset as Leach was lbw to Batty and Davies finally holed out to long leg for 86 trying to squeeze another few runs from the Somerset innings. So 269 it was. Far short of hopes at The Oval I imagine, given some of the gargantuan scores there this season. Warwickshire’s 91 all out to an inspired Footit at the start of the season apart, this was right at the bottom of the scale which runs from 200 all out up into the stratosphere beyond 600.

They say you never know the value of the first total in the match until you have seen the second. We will see that today. Last night we saw 42 runs and no wickets. Overton and Groenewald strained for all they were worth to break through, and were excruciatingly past the bat a number of times, and into the pads for two eruptive appeals but the umpires fingers, so active in the Somerset innings, stayed steadfastly at their sides. Those balls that did penetrate the defence perhaps suggesting this pitch may not be quite as flat as some at The Kia Oval have been. Perhaps, just perhaps, Clarke may not be the only bowler to have a golden spell in this match.

And so to this morning. As I type, the sky, looking in the direction of The Oval and all around, is bright with but the thinnest covering of cloud. The cloud though is far, far too high to trouble the aircraft as they sweep into Heathrow across The Oval today. Any interested passenger will have a wonderful view of the cricket.

It feels like Somerset must swim hard against another strong tide in a season of swimming against strong tides. A tide which has flowed against them at The Oval since 1992 when they last won here when they chased 381, with Peter Bowler and Mark Lathwell to the fore. It was that long ago. They face too that tide of heavy scoring at The Oval running through this season. And perhaps the weight of the tide of the pressure of playing in the First Division which they have withstood, and often ridden for ten years. The nearest to that in the current Division are Warwickshire with nine years and they have already plummeted out. The nearest to Somerset and Warwickshire are Middlesex with six seasons, and Yorkshire with five; the two counties vying with Somerset to avoid the second spot on the trapdoor. The tide of time is a hard one to resist.

And the feeling as I left the ground? “I think we might be in trouble here,” a Somerset supporter said to me as I passed his bus stop just outside the ground. In the season as well as the match he seemed to say. It did feel that way, but a little voice from within reminded me Somerset have been here before in recent seasons and always someone has stood up. Someone have found the energy to swim against the tide and bring the team with them, and at the last the tide has been turned. History tells us one year it may not turn, but as the cloud thickens in the direction of The Oval there may be a counter current or two in this year’s tide yet. In Craig Overton, Dom Bess and Jack Leach Somerset have three of the most exciting bowlers on the county circuit. Never bet too heavily against them, or Tim Groenewald for that matter for it was he who blew Warwickshire away in the second innings at Edgbaston”.

Close. Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat. Somerset 269 (SM Davies 86, ME Trescothick 65, EJ Byrom 42, R Clarke 7-55). Surrey 42-0. Surrey trail by 227 runs with all first innings wickets standing.