Willis Tropy 2020. Northamptonshire v Somerset. First day. A madcap day at the cricket.

All Willis Trophy matches are being played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus restrictions in place. This report was therefore written following a day watching Northamptonshire CCC’s live stream of the match. The stream was watched with the commentary muted and with notes being taken to enable the author to replicate as far as possible his experience of watching matches live.

Bob Willis Trophy. Central Group. Northamptonshire v Somerset. 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th August 2020. Northampton.

Northamptonshire. E.N. Gay, B.J. Curran, R. Vasconcelos, R.I Keogh, C.O. Thurston, L.A Procter, A.M. Rossington (c) (w), G.K. Berg, Blessing Muzarabani, B.D. Glover, B.W. Sanderson.

Somerset. E.J. Byrom, T.A. Lammonby, T.B. Abell (c), J.C. Hildreth, T. Banton, S.M. Davies (w), C. Overton, R.E. van der Merwe, J.Overton, J.H. Davey, J.A. Brooks.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to bat.

First day. 8th August – A madcap day at the cricket

The journey to my armchair is somewhat shorter than the one from home or a hotel to the cricket used to be, but the anticipation builds up just the same as the early part of the morning wears on. There is nothing quite like the first morning of a first-class cricket match. I was once asked if I would be travelling to a particular match. “Yes,” I answered, “but I can only get the time to go to one day. I will probably gauge which day to go to from the score.” The questioner looked at me in horror. “First day!” he said, almost ordering me to comply. He had a point. By the start of the subsequent days the match is part shaped. On the first morning the anticipation is boundless. After that, it is bounded by what has gone before. The only time I have had a feeling quite like the one I have on the morning of a four-day Championship match was on the mornings of those great set-piece battles that were the acutely anticipated quarter and semi-finals of the Gillette Cup in its heyday. The prospect of glory or elimination, so near the prize, concentrated the mind wonderfully.

For all the anticipation, you cannot predict what a day of cricket might hold, and no-one predicted what the first day of this match held. The ball was inclined to move off the pitch all day, but not excessively, and not every ball. Perhaps it was that variability of movement, and some steep lift at times that unsettled the batsmen and resulted in 21 wickets in the day. That, and the paralysing malaise that seemed to afflict the Northamptonshire batsmen after the fall of their second wicket. Until then, at 46 for 1, they, or at least Ben Curran, were beginning to power towards Somerset’s first innings 166 all out which had been completed before tea. Then, a jarring moment of misunderstanding between the batsmen upended the day. Curran pushed a ball half a dozen yards into the on side and stood his ground; Ricardo Vasconcelos, the non-striker, charged halfway up the pitch, shuddered to a halt, turned, and ran for his crease. Jack Brooks closed on the ball from midwicket and threw the stumps down with Vasconcelos still short of his ground.

“That could be a huge turnaround moment,” said the instant incoming text. It felt like it too, although the mind tried to temper the suddenly hopeful beating of the Somerset heart, for wickets are taken by bowlers, not supporters’ hearts. But turn around the day did, from that moment, as if on a sixpence. And, having turned, Somerset never looked back whilst Northamptonshire seemed to spend the rest of their innings looking straight into the headlights of the oncoming Somerset bowling.

The writing for a day of mayhem had been on the wall, or at least on the scoreboard, by the first ball of the sixth over. Somerset were 7 for 3, and Abell had just departed to his trademark caught-down-the-leg-side-by-the-keeper dismissal. I have no statistics on this, but my memory tells me he has been dismissed in this way over the years somewhat more than the average. And although it was not so prevalent in 2019, it still doesn’t come as a surprise when it happens. Eddie Byrom had already departed, caught behind off Glover trying an expansive cut having just clipped the same bowler behind square for four. He was followed by Tom Lammonby who raised his bat to a full ball angled in from around the wicket by Ben Sanderson. It cut in just enough off the pitch to send the off stump cartwheeling.

Familiar Somerset days in these strange times would have been in the conversation had there been any Somerset supporters at the match to converse. Although the bowling of Sanderson, sharp and persistently on the mark, and Glover, trading on sharp lift, would have had much to do with Somerset’s woes. It did not take Tom Banton long to announce himself. He faced just three balls before he drove square through the off side with no apparent effort. Timing was all, so much so that as he ambled to the other end with the online view only three or four pitches wide, my mind, visioning a boundary fielder closing in, added one to the score. The umpire thought otherwise and signalled four in a nonchalant reflection of the stroke. Its smoothness was the antithesis of the power with which Banton’s bat imparted energy into the ball.

It settled the anxious Somerset mind for a moment, but the threat of the Northamptonshire bowling soon reasserted itself and after that stroke Banton never looked secure. An edge just evaded third slip and ran to the boundary for four. An edged pull just evaded the keeper diving down the leg side and also ran away for four, Sanderson and Berg the unlucky bowlers. When Banton, with barely any foot movement, tried to pull Berg, the ball cut in off the pitch, took the inside edge of an already cramped stroke and detached the leg stump from its moorings. Somerset were 36 for 4, Banton 18, and the anticipation of the early morning was turning into apprehension, at least in the pit of Somerset stomachs.

James Hildreth meanwhile had been playing a very un-Hildreth like innings, a sure sign that the ball is inclined to do the bowlers’ bidding. Northamptonshire, deploying four slips as often as not, the fourth being at the outer extremity of the live stream fixed-camera angle, was another indicator. So was Hildreth having taken 37 balls to reach 11 when Steven Davies joined him, although a boundary square of the wicket on the on side taken from the bowling of the six and a half foot tall Blessing Muzarabani was as well timed as Banton’s square drive had been.

Without Gregory Somerset’s tail is longer than is comfortable and so much seemed to depend on Hildreth and Davies if a defensible total was to be approached. A partnership between them can be a magical affair of deft, impossibly easy-looking stroke play. And for three-quarters of an hour, against the run of the bowling, that is what we had. A drive, straight of mid-off for four off Muzarabani, a pull behind square off Berg which had the umpire signalling four before the batsman had left his crease, both from Hildreth; and a cut, square, by Davies which was signalled four almost as the ball left the bat, were perhaps the pick of the offerings laid before us. As the score moved into the 70s the Somerset run rate moved from the barely two an over it had been when Davies came to the wicket to nearly three. Hope of a Somerset recovery began to peek over the parapet.

Then, just as hope raised its head, it was crushed. On the stroke of lunch the left-handed Davies played straight, but around a ball angled in from around the wicket by Sanderson. It perhaps deviated in a shade more and hit the off stump. Lunch eaten, Rossington came up to the stumps to Sanderson, Hildreth, kept to the crease, tried to steer wide of the slips and edged behind. Somerset were 77 for 6 with their lower order exposed to a rampant Northamptonshire attack.

The Somerset lower order is renowned for its ability to fight back from such situations and it set about attempting a recovery here. Craig Overton has often been to the fore of such recoveries. Here he struck three fours in an over from Glover. One came off the edge, but the second was driven with ease through mid-off and the third beautifully clipped off his legs as he leaned over the ball. But the Northamptonshire bowlers kept coming at Somerset and Overton was restricted to a cameo and no more. He was beaten by a straight ball from Sanderson which lifted, hurried his defensive stroke, took the edge and flew straight into the waiting knee-high hands of Berg at fourth slip. Overton, in a stand with Roelof van der Merwe which realised 19 runs, had scored 16 and Somerset were 96 for 7. Jamie Overton’s innings was more quixotic than Craig’s. Twice in succession he drove hard at Sanderson, and twice in succession the ball flew over the slips for four. When he tried to clip Sanderson off his legs a lifting ball forced a leading edge and ballooned to mid-off. 110 for 8. 114 for 9 when Davey drove at Procter and edged to Berg, now at third slip, and was caught in identical fashion to Craig Overton.

Disarray was the word that sprang to mind in relation to the Somerset innings. It was tempered only by the knowledge that this Somerset team, if nothing else, have as part of their DNA fight and an inability to lie down when apparently beaten. Van der Merwe, with not the best of records against the red ball in recent times, was still fighting with eight runs from 12 overs of determined, if occasionally idiosyncratic defence. He was joined by Jack Brooks who had scored 72 helter-skelter runs batting at eleven in the last match. There would have been Somerset supporters the country over willing him to repeat the performance in this match, for a first innings score of 114 might be beyond even this Somerset team to overcome with the ball.

Within three balls of his arrival Brooks had driven Berg through the covers for four as if he had walked straight from his last innings to this. And then he did it again, straight down the ground, off Procter. Singles he swapped with van der Merwe who seemed to feed him the strike, rather as Davies had done in the last match. The Somerset score began to climb at a rate which pressurises the opposition in a low-scoring match. When Muzarabani bounced Brooks hard, Brooks simply, and he did make it look simple, chipped the ball over the slips’ heads for four. A drive through the covers took the score to 153 for 9, which looked, and felt, an awful lot better than 114 for 9. When, finally, Brooks was caught behind, he and van der Merwe, whose hour and a half at the crease was worth a lot more than the 20 not out he scored while he was there, had added 52 for the last wicket in seven overs. Brooks had 36 of those. His innings had set Somerset on a winning course against Glamorgan. Was there enough still in this pitch for him to have given the Somerset bowlers enough leeway to bowl Somerset back into this match? The heart hoped, but the head doubted, for 166 is a long way short of the 296 that sank Glamorgan.

Craig Overton got Somerset off to an excellent start with the ball. In the fifth over he found some of the lift in the pitch which the Northamptonshire bowlers had in part traded on. Emilio Gay attempted to leave the ball by lifting his bat to the horizontal. The ball followed the bat, skimmed the under edge and Davies does not miss balls that come straight to him. 9 for 1. “Yes!” the exclamation that left my lips, for here was hope. “Whip ’em out for 80!” said the incoming text. Could Somerset again carry forward the rushing momentum created by Brooks as they had against Glamorgan? And then, before that question could be answered, a reminder of the times as a mask-wearing drinks-carrier brought refreshment to Ben Curran, the other Northamptonshire opener.

Curran now began to take the game to Somerset, pulling and driving Davey square for fours on either side of the wicket. They were not the best of balls from the normally reliable Davey. Such balls hurt when a side is defending a small total, for the scope for offering leeway to opposition batsmen is minimal. Jamie Overton started with a wide which bounced a long way outside off stump, followed it with a ball which only narrowly missed the same fate and then repeated the ball later in the over, but this time it was pitched wide enough to evade a diving second slip and run down to the boundary for five wides. When Brooks replaced Overton after two overs Somerset were down to two slips at a stage in the innings when Northamptonshire had had four. When Brooks bowled too full and too wide to Ricardo Vasconcelos, Vasconcelos reached and drove backward of point for four. “We won’t bowl them out for 80 bowling dross,” said the text from the bowler watching online. Northamptonshire had reached 44 for 1, scoring at four an over, just 122 behind and the match was fast threatening to slip from Somerset’s grasp.

Two runs later came the fateful run out of Vasconcelos. Until that point Northamptonshire had ridden the tide of the match like a surfer rides the crest of a wave. Now the wave turned and enveloped them. Until then, Craig Overton, beating heart of the Somerset attack this season, alone had stood firm against that Northamptonshire tide. Now, as the tide turned, the others were standing with him. Davey forced an edge from Curran. It went through the empty third slip position for four. Immediately, Abell moved Craig Overton to third slip. Davey repeated the ball, Curran repeated the stroke, Overton dived low to his left and Northamptonshire were 50 for 3. Curran 35.

Two balls later Keogh turned Brooks quietly into the off side and Thurston hurtled halfway up the pitch just as Vasconcelos had done when he was run out. This time the throw missed the stumps, but a thought occurred: are Northamptonshire feeling the pressure, the sort of pressure that first division counties apply as a matter of course? There were four slips now, and even through a computer screen you could feel the confidence oozing back into the Somerset attack. When Keogh middled a straight dive off Davey, Davey dived like a lightning strike to his left and stopped the ball. “Are Somerset clicking?” says my note. Saves like that crank up the pressure another notch. Off the last ball of the over Davey bowled one of the balls of the day. Keogh shaped as if to leave, then tried desperately to get his bat down as the ball jagged in, there is no other word, and clipped the pad en route to the off stump. 53 for 4. Off the first ball of the next over, Thurston was perilously close to being lbw to Brooks. Three balls later Brooks angled a ball in, it swung away very late and sufficiently to straighten onto Thurston’s pad in front of the stumps. Thurston had no chance of getting a bat behind it. It was a ball to match Davey’s. 53 for 5.

The Northamptonshire captain, Rossington, walked into the midst of the mayhem and, with Procter, tried to bring some calm to the Northamptonshire innings. For a moment, as he pulled Brooks for four and Procter drove Davey through the covers for four more, it looked as if they might have some success. Davey, now on fire, bowled around the wicket and put that thought to rest with a ball angled into the left-handed Procter. It cut in further off the pitch to hit the pad. 65 for 6.

Now the turning tide of the match erupted into a flood and swept the remains of the Northamptonshire innings away. The last four wickets fell for no runs when Craig Overton, bowling like the giant of Somerset cricket that he is becoming, returned. He was assisted by a ball from a rejuvenated Jamie Overton from which Berg tried to withdraw his bat. The ball moved away off the seam, bounced and found the edge. It was caught brilliantly by Hildreth at first slip as he swivelled fast to his right like a man catching a passing supersonic missile. Rossington meanwhile had been beaten by some piercing, steep bounce from Craig Overton and was caught behind. Sanderson, rushed into a drive, returned the ball low to Overton’s right. Overton dived to take an excellent catch. And finally, a full ball homed in unrelentingly on leg stump and bowled Glover to end the Northamptonshire innings on 67, 99 runs behind Somerset and 13 short of that prophetic “whip ’em out for 80” text.

Given the nature of the day it was perhaps not a surprise that Somerset lost Lammonby for the second time before the close. He was lbw to Glover without scoring, after which Abell and Byrom guided Somerset to 15 for 1, a lead of 114 runs, while a multitude of breathless screen-watching supporters spread across the country and around the world awaited the morrow.

Close. Somerset 166 (B.W. Sanderson 5-28) and 15 for 1. Northamptonshire 67 (C. Overton 4-12, J.H. Davey 3-23). Somerset lead by 114 runs with nine second innings wickets standing.