Bob Willis Trophy 2020 ~ Northamptonshire v Somerset ~ Final day ~ Making a difference – Craig and Jamie Overton

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 and 9th 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.

Overnight. Somerset 166 and 15 for 1. Northamptonshire 67. Somerset lead by 114 runs with nine second innings wickets standing.

Final day. 9th August – Making a difference – Craig and Jamie Overton

One of the things that is supposed to give most satisfaction in life is to make a difference. There is no doubt about who made the difference in this match. I am sure there would be only one answer from a bruised Northamptonshire. Somerset won by 167 runs. Together Craig and Jamie Overton scored a total of 148 runs over the two innings. Nineteen short to be sure. But perhaps the nine wickets and five catches they took between them might make up for that. Batting and bowling, it was an outstanding performance by all the Somerset bowlers, but the Overton brothers were, as they say, up front and central to it.

The second day started with Somerset, nine wickets still standing, already more than a hundred runs ahead of Northamptonshire. Twenty-one wickets on the first day suggested this match might not be long for this world, but pitches can be fickle bedfellows and so, with three possible days left in the match, Somerset still had work to do.

Those operating the live stream began using some wide camera angles which opened views of the ground beyond the boundary. One thing which was immediately obvious is that Northampton is a ground of two ends. All cricket grounds are of course, but the Wantage Road ground is distinctly so. At one end is the old pavilion, off centre from the wicket, wooden with a small bell tower at the centre of its roof. Next to it, behind the arm, is its successor, still with the character of an earlier age. The old pavilion looked much as I imagine it might have done in the days of Colin Milburn and David Steele. At the other end is the ultra-modern all-white Lynn Wilson End. The contrast is stark. The old and the new.

The day did not start well for Somerset. Before the first over was out, Tom Abell, defending, had edged Sanderson to the keeper. It was like one of a number of balls in this match which took wickets without seeming to do very much. Perhaps as many as did something. Perhaps that variability contributed to the tumble of wickets. The ball that defeated Abell may have lifted a bit more than anticipated but it didn’t appear to deviate off the pitch, or in the air. Whatever the cause, Somerset were 15 for 2 and the carnival of wickets which had paraded through most of the first day appeared to have resumed its progress. If Northamptonshire were to retain a foothold in the match Somerset wickets would need to continue to fall as frequently as they had on the first day.

Hildreth joined Byrom and immediately moved onto the attack. The attempt at careful accumulation of his first innings was no more. In successive balls he drove Glover through the off side for four. All the delicacy of a Hildreth stroke was there, but there was no doubting the force of his intent. A drive with the lightest of touches through point was a perfect example of generating maximum force from minimum effort. A drive from Byrom off Sanderson through cover was in the same class. For six overs their assault continued as they pulled, cut and drove Somerset forward. They took Somerset’s lead close to 150. Then, on the cusp of Somerset building a foundation from which a winning total could be assured, the carnival of wickets resumed its frantic progress.

Hildreth attempted to clip Berg into the on side, but the ball was very full and hit the pad in front of the stumps. Hildreth had made 17 from 16 balls. Byrom tried to steer a ball from Sanderson from about a foot outside off stump only for it to loop, as if guided, into the patiently waiting hands of Vasconcelos at first slip. Byrom 20. Almost immediately Banton, on two, played defensively, half forward to Berg, and was caught behind. There was no apparent lateral deviation of the ball involved in the loss of any of those three wickets. But when Davies was bowled by Berg his tentative defensive push was beaten by a ball that cut in noticeably off the pitch. Somerset had gone from 50 for 2 to 53 for 6 in the course of 13 balls. This was a carnival that kept giving, or taking, depending on your point of view. Somerset’s lead was 152. In a match in which the opposition had been bowled out for 67 in the first innings it was not necessarily a cause for despair; but low-scoring matches have too often been won by a fourth innings batting charge which defies the logic of the previous three innings; and so the fall of those wickets caused me to shift uncomfortably in my chair. Somerset could lose this match.

And then the difference, or at least the next instalment of it. Craig Overton had arrived at the wicket at the loss of Banton. With Davies out he attacked. He edged his front foot forward, swung the bat through the line with absolute perfection and power, and deposited the ball over the straight boundary. You could not see where the six landed from watching the live stream, but there was no doubt from watching the stroke that the umpire would be raising his arms, or that the ball would have cleared the boundary by some distance. There was such certainty in the way the stroke was played, such intent in Overton’s body language, that my discomfort at the fall of the sixth wicket was instantaneously transformed into hope as I sat further forward in my chair. I doubt having my eyes six inches closer to the screen made any difference to my view, any more than it does when people lean forward at a match, but when hope or anxiety is suddenly kindled it is what we do.

The departure of Davies had brought van der Merwe to the crease. Unlike in the first innings when he had concentrated on protecting an end while late-order runs came from the other, in the second he reverted to his more familiar role and attacked the bowling by whatever means he could fashion. It was as if, given the way Hildreth and Byrom had played and how Overton and van der Merwe now proceeded, Somerset had decided to get what runs they could while they were at the crease. Certainly, Northamptonshire’s careworn defence in the first innings had profited them nothing.

The laziest-looking of lifts high over square leg from Overton off Sanderson, the angle of Overton’s head as he followed the flight of the ball and the camera resting on the narrow, deserted stands over which the ball had flown suggested another huge six, even one that might have left the ground. At the very least, play was held up while a new ball was sought. By the end of the over a short ball had Overton moving effortlessly into position, rolling his wrists and pulling another ball, this time for four, to the boundary where the six had gone. This was hope indeed.

Berg and Sanderson may have suffered at the hands of Overton. It was Muzarabani who received the attentions of van der Merwe. An expansive clip off the legs went behind square for four; and a cross between an uppercut and a whiplash-like drive to a short ball outside off stump sent the ball flying clear of the cover boundary just along from where Overton had lost the original ball. Had it not been van der Merwe playing such a stroke I would have denied the evidence of my own eyes. If there are players from outside the county born to play for Somerset, van der Merwe is one of them. It was a gloriously outrageous piece of cricket. Eventually he was brilliantly caught by Vasconcelos, diving back and to his right at first slip, off Glover whilst attempting a thunderous drive to a ball pitched well wide of off stump.

Somerset were 120 for 7, a lead of 219. Overton and van der Merwe, who had made 30 off 32 hectically played balls, had more than doubled Somerset’s score. I was breathing more easily now. 219 might give Somerset a real chance, even some ascendancy, but the hardened supporter always wants more. Always wants some sense of safety, if there is such a thing in a cricket match which is going to have a positive outcome. I did though hope that Somerset had not shown Northamptonshire the way to bat in this match.

I doubt Jamie Overton needs any lessons in batting of the type Craig Overton and van der Merwe had put to use. He certainly showed no sign of it. Within an over or so of his arrival he had pulled Glover through midwicket, edged a drive off Procter through the slips and lofted him over mid-on to the old pavilion, all for four. With two Overtons at the wicket there is no respite for the bowlers. Off the first two balls of the next over, bowled by Berg, Craig lofted a four over mid-on and then a six just short of where the lost ball had gone. A straight drive off the fifth ball brought up his fifty, Somerset’s 150, a lead of 250 and a sigh of relief from this side of the laptop. It didn’t last. Overton attempted to loft Berg over mid-on again, but immediately the ball left the bat his head looked almost straight up and followed the flight of the ball skywards. Curran, at mid-on back-pedalled furiously, caught the plummeting ball and fell, clutching it, to the ground. Overton had made 53. It made a difference.

Now Jamie, first with Davey and then Brooks holding the other end, tore into the Northamptonshire attack as the overall Somerset run rate rose above five and a half an over. He began with a string of fours either side of lunch which developed into a fusillade of sixes in the heat of the early afternoon sun and finally ended with his wicket and a Somerset lead of 321. In the over before lunch he lofted a ball from Berg straight back over the bowler’s head for four. In the over after lunch he pulled Sanderson between midwicket and mid-on just to the side of the old pavilion for four and then stepped across to the line of off stump and pulled through midwicket for six. When Berg dropped short outside off the ball cut in. Overton, almost lazily it looked, swung the bat across the line and the ball landed beyond the midwicket boundary again. Against Sanderson he aimed two swinging lofted drives towards long off. The first did not quite come off the middle, flew wide of extra cover and bounced short of the rope for four. The second went where intended and cleared the long off boundary. Off Berg he attempted to clear the long on boundary, his head jerked to the left as he followed a slight miscue which cleared the midwicket boundary ahead of a forlornly chasing fielder. It is a litany of ferocity worth repeating because it constituted Overton’s highest first-class score, fittingly made in a match in which his brother topped 300 first-class wickets. 68 was Jamie’s final tally when he edged Sanderson to the keeper immediately after a sanitiser break. How much damage will sanitiser breaks do to batsmen’s concentration coming, as they do, about four times a session? Jamie had scored his runs from 43 balls, Craig 53 from 30. Momentum is the modern thing in cricket. That is some momentum.

Northamptonshire’s target was 322, by precisely 100 runs the highest score of the match, always considered to be a tough call. The Northamptonshire batsmen did not seem deterred, at least at the outset. Curran was immediately onto the attack, lofting Craig Overton over wide mid-on for four in the first over. The biter bit. Gay soon clipped him off his toes for another four and Curran drove him straight for four more. In this innings, Overton did not seem to bowl with quite the same edge or with the accuracy he had shown in the first innings when his 11 overs conceded just 12 runs and delivered four wickets. Perhaps there is only so much edge a player can contribute in one match.

Fortunately, in Josh Davey, Somerset have a bowler of quiet efficiency who takes wickets almost invisibly. He took Curran’s. Bowling from wide of the crease around the wicket to the left-hander he angled the ball in on off stump, Curran pushed a defensive bat at it and edged the ball, waist high, straight to Jamie Overton at second slip. As the ball flew to Overton, Davey simply continued his follow-through as if nothing had happened until he reached the slip cordon where he raised his hands a few inches in celebration. 21 for 1. The wicket apart, batting had not looked unduly difficult.

Vasconcelos made it look even easier. He seemed in complete control while he was at the crease, as much as any batsman ever is. He dealt mainly in boundaries, perhaps aided by the attacking fields set by Abell as Somerset tried to press home their advantage. He began by leaning neatly into a ball from Craig Overton and clipping it just behind square for four. A drive through extra cover off Davey skimmed the ground to the boundary. He swivelled to a short ball and pulled it over midwicket for four more. Jamie Overton was driven through mid-off and pulled through square leg. Abell, trying his arm, was driven for four three times in an over, twice emphatically through the covers. Along the way Vasconcelos lost Gay, caught by Hildreth falling neatly to his left at first slip off a lifting ball from Jamie Overton for 16; and Keogh, for 1, when he popped a ball straight back to Brooks who caught it just above his head.

Thurston stayed with Vasconcelos until the score moved into three figures. 104 for 3 at tea. I sent a text, “Batting is looking easier than it has done the whole match.” “Until one of our bowlers makes it look otherwise,” the reply. Tempered by, “Until then it is a little worrying.” That bowler was Davey. He delivered the fourth ball after tea around the wicket from close to the return crease. The ball targeted the left-handed Vasconcelos’ off stump and then cut away off the pitch. It was the perfect delivery for the situation. Vasconcelos had to play it, the away movement took the edge and diverted the ball straight into Jamie Overton’s midriff at second slip. 104 for 4. Vasconcelos 52. “That’s the one we wanted,” said the incoming text. The relief visible on the faces of the Somerset players suggested it was the one they wanted too. Northamptonshire were still over 200 runs adrift of their target. Somerset were homing in on theirs.

Thurston and Procter continued to fight for Northamptonshire. For 15 overs they resisted and at the same time took the score forward at three runs an over. All the Somerset bowlers conceded boundaries against them. But this Somerset bowling attack does not relent. It applies pressure relentlessly when the game is in the balance, and if one does not take wickets, another does. And if the opposition wilts under the pressure the bowlers close in ruthlessly. It was Jamie Overton who broke the partnership just as it was beginning to plant the seeds of anxiety in the Somerset mind, for Procter and Rossington, next in, had batted four hours in the last match to force a draw. The ball from Overton was angled into the right-handed Thurston from over the wicket. It pitched short, Thurston shaped to pull, the ball cut towards leg just enough to for the bat to make only faint contact. Thurston was too far through the stroke to pull out and the inevitable edge was neatly taken down the leg side by Davies. 148 for 5. Thurston 34. Overton ran down the pitch in celebration. He pumped the air with his arm like a five-year-old who had been told there was extra ice cream. And so did I. “That’ll do,” said the incoming text. I think the three of us knew the Northamptonshire dam was breaking under the strain.

It was. The Somerset pressure had forced a terminal breach, Jamie Overton and Jack Brooks rushed through it and the carnival of wickets which had been a feature of this match from the outset resumed in short order. 148 for 4 before the fall of Thurston, and a sliver of hope for Northamptonshire, became 154 all out and a crushing victory for Somerset. By the end Jamie Overton had taken four wickets, including two in an over. Brooks too had taken four, including two in successive balls. I sat back in my chair, looked out of the window at the Blackdown Hills and gave thanks that I had been born in Somerset.

It was another stunning victory and a consummate performance from a pair of cricketing brothers the like of which Somerset has not seen in its 145-year history. They are the sort that can make a difference, and they made a difference in this match. After this strange, truncated season, we will not see Craig and Jamie Overton together in Somerset colours again for at least three years, if at all. But if there has to be a memory of their combined time with Somerset, then this match will do as well as any. And, if they are not to be seen together for Somerset again after this year, what a sight it would be to see them playing together in England colours. Some wishes come true. Some do not. That one just might.

Result. Somerset 166 (B.W. Sanderson 5-28) and 222 (J. Overton 68, C. Overton 53, B.W. Sanderson 4-61, G.K. Berg 4-64). Northamptonshire 67 (C. Overton 4-12, J.H. Davey 3-23) and 154 (R.S. Vasconcelos 52, J. Overton 4 for 26, J.A. Brooks 4-40). Somerset won by 167 runs. Somerset 19 points. Northamptonshire 3 points.