Bob Willis Trophy 2020 ~ Warwickshire v Somerset ~ First day ~ Oh, to be in Birmingham …

All Bob 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 Warwickshire CCC’s live stream of the match without which it would not have been possible. The stream was watched throughout 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; and to enable him to form his own view of the play.

Bob Willis Trophy. Central Group. Warwickshire v Somerset. 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th August 2020. Edgbaston.

Warwickshire. R.M.Yates, R.M.H. Rhodes (c), S.R. Hain, I.R. Bell, M.J. Lamb, M.G.K. Burgess (w), T.T. Bresnan, A.T. Thomson, H.J.H. Brookes, C.N. Miles, O.H. Hannon-Dalby.

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

Toss. Warwickshire. Elected to bat.

First day. 15th August – Oh, to be in Birmingham

The picture on the Somerset CCC website brought an immediate flood of memories. It was taken from the upper reaches of the five-storey Pavilion at Edgbaston. Beyond the far end of the ground can be seen the Birmingham skyline. If you know where to look you can pick out the iconic structure of the ultra-modern library. It is a view I have taken in from the packed members lounge on many an occasion on my annual visits to Edgbaston for Somerset’s Championship match there. I have had many an enjoyable chat in that lounge with Somerset and Warwickshire supporters both. Not today. Today, as the camera scans the empty stands it is another stark cricketing reminder of the times through which we are passing. The sun is shining, and the shadows of the players are clear on the pitch. It looks a perfect day for cricket. A perfect day to sit in my usual haunt at Edgbaston, square of the wicket in the Hollies Stand, where last year I and two or three other Somerset supporters formed an informal Somerset cricket symposium for the day. Not today. As it is, with the sun shining in Birmingham, I am ensconced in an armchair watching the Edgbaston live stream on an elderly laptop with a rain-filled sky obliterating my treasured view of the Blackdowns.

Lewis Gregory has returned to the Somerset side in place of Jack Brooks after his long sojourn in the England coronavirus protective bubble. Craig Overton and Josh Davey opened the bowling, continuing what has been a very successful partnership for Somerset in this competition. The Somerset bowling has been disciplined, accurate and has constantly challenged the batsmen this year. They began the morning here in the vein of form that has run through their performances since the start of the season. Runs there were from the Warwickshire batsmen, but they came in singles, and at barely one an over, mainly turned into the leg side. The singles were matched by an at least equal supply of bowlers’ hands raised in supplication or clasped to heads as the ball went past the edge of defensive bats. Whether the supporter is sat in the Hollies Stand or in an armchair in the lee of the Blackdowns, the expanding feeling of anticipation in the chest at the prospect of a wicket as the bowlers pin the batsmen is impossible to control.

Eventually, as it does, the pressure of intensely accurate and testing bowling told on the batsmen. Craig Overton angled a ball across the left-handed Yates, it perhaps moved away a little more off the pitch. “Yes!” the only sound, as the ball feathered the edge and landed in the gloves of Steven Davies, and the sound came from me for the muted computer held its silence. I tend to make more noise watching cricket at home than I do at a match. That old English reserve applies less when I am on my own. Warwickshire were 12 for 1 in the ninth over. 15 for 2 when Sam Hain tried to clip Overton into the on side and was bowled by a ball which might have moved in off the pitch marginally, but which was essentially a straight ball. Now I was sitting up in my chair, my focus entirely on Edgbaston, the invisible Blackdowns blocked from my mind as much by the intensity of the cricket as by the mist and rain. 15 for 2 became 15 for 3 when Bell pushed into the covers and Rhodes sprinted for a quick single only for the ball to appear like an incoming missile from the edge of the screen, thrown from beyond the camera’s eye by Abell. Abell, that ever-present threat in the covers or at midwicket to the unwary batsman. The unerring ball hit the stumps with Rhodes’ bat still short of its ground. There is something about a run out from a direct hit that sets the blood racing, at least there is if it is not your side that is batting.

An opposition being 15 for 3 was not a score that was out of the ordinary for the Somerset bowlers this season. For Warwickshire not to arrive there until the 13th over had resulted from the usual persistence and forensic accuracy of Craig Overton and Davey. Pressure tells and here it had told spectacularly. But pressure has to be sustained if top-quality batsmen are to be held in check and Ian Bell is a top-quality batsman. When Gregory dropped short, and by not very much, the ball was pulled mercilessly for four. When Jamie Overton dropped shorter the result was the same. Those strokes were indicative of Warwickshire’s intent to progress against the two new bowlers and by the 22nd over Warwickshire were 59 for 3. Lamb had twice driven Jamie Overton straight and once through the covers for four. All three strokes deserved the soubriquet, “Emphatic!” as the batsmen began to assert Warwickshire’s claim to a foothold in the match. A height no ball from Overton to Lamb added to the sense that the pressure the opening bowlers had built up was being released. The Warwickshire scoring rate of five runs an over for those nine overs added to the feeling. The balance of power in a cricket match can be a fragile thing and it was threatening to shift.

The anxiety that starts to grip the watching supporter when runs start to flow from the opposition was beginning to take hold, for since the opening bowlers had retired to the outfield, those three wickets down notwithstanding, the threat from the Somerset bowlers was diminishing. I would have been shifting uneasily in my Hollies Stand seat in another year. And then, as can so often happen, Somerset’s grip was re-established through what might be called an innocuous wicket. Not that Bell is an innocuous batsman, far from it, and he had been, to the Somerset eye, establishing a base for a significant innings. But the way he was out might attract the term innocuous. The ball from Gregory veered so far across Bell from over the wicket that it would have missed his leg stump quite easily. Bell followed it, tried to glance, but only succeeded in getting the lightest of touches. Steven Davies moved smoothly across and took the catch much as he would have taken the ball had Bell left it alone. But 59 for 4 is 59 for 4, Somerset had re-established most of the advantage they had held at 15 for 3, and the wicket would have done Gregory no harm on his return.

As lunch approached, Craig Overton returned at the Birmingham End and immediately his quality showed. The ball was moving off the pitch in areas, as the coaches say these days, which constantly had the batsmen rushing their defensive strokes, looking anxiously for a run if the ball was squeezed into the infield, and I suspect hoping lunch would arrive sooner rather than later. I often say James Hildreth at his best looks as if he is batting on a different pitch to everyone else. Here, Craig Overton looked as if he was bowling on a different pitch. A pitch coated in venom.

Literally on the stroke of lunch, he struck. A full ball pitched outside off brought Lamb forward in defence. The ball cut in mercilessly. It gave the batsman no chance and shaved the off stump as neatly as a barber with a cut throat razor would remove some stubble. I would have been on my feet in the Hollies Stand, along with every other Somerset supporter in the ground, to applaud Overton off. Lunchtime figures of 9-6-5-3 speak for themselves. Of such bowling are great Somerset days made. From such figures might a great Somerset bowler grow. Warwickshire were 65 for 5 at lunch, and Lamb, the pick of the Warwickshire batsman in the morning, had been summarily dismissed for 22. The only pall over that score from a Somerset perspective, apart from the easing of the pressure on the batsmen after the opening bowlers came off, was the threatening-looking cloud hanging low over the Birmingham End. It had all the look, to the experienced cricket-watcher, of rain to come. Dark, grey, smooth and from side to side of the view afforded by the camera. I had seen such cloud at Edgbaston before. It did not bode well for a full day’s play.

The afternoon began just as the morning had, with Craig Overton and Davey keeping the ball on or about off stump and constantly troubling the batsmen. The bowlers’ hands were clasping their heads again as the bat continued to be beaten by lateral movement, bounce and as often as not by the sheer quality of a good straight ball. A well-guided boundary past backward point to the Pavilion end of the Hollies Stand from Bresnan off Overton apart, the batsmen’s immediate post-lunch gruel was mainly served in singles. Meanwhile, the camera occasionally panned the lush green outfield and acres of neat rows of empty white seats, including one of my favourites about halfway up the Hollies Stand. Oh, to be in Birmingham now that summer’s there. That doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as Browning’s original, but when Somerset are playing cricket there it has the same bite.

As the afternoon started to settle, the Warwickshire batsmen began to bring more force to their strokes, but most went scoreless to a fielder in the inner ring or occasionally for a single to a deep fielder. Otherwise, as the ball left the bat, a speculative step or two might be taken up the wicket followed by a raised arm of deterrence to the other batsman as the fielder closed on the ball. Tighter and tighter it felt the Somerset net was drawing. Perhaps the pressure told again. Gregory pitched up and outside off stump at some pace. Burgess drove hard. One of those drives that would have looked glorious had it gone through the covers. I am not sure there was much deviation, but the ball took the inside edge and crashed into the stumps. 88 for 6.

88 for 7 when, off the next ball, Thomson turned Gregory towards square leg, set off for a run whilst closely watching the track of the ball, hesitated slightly as he ran, then accelerated too late as the throw from Banton hit the stumps with him perhaps two feet short of his ground. The Somerset fielders descended on Banton rather as a flock of sparrows might descend on a garden feeder at feeding time. I only saw two throws at the stumps all day from the Somerset fielders. Both hit. Now, that does build pressure. And Banton’s throw warranted the celebration that followed.

Tim Bresnan is a Test player of some experience. He has probably seen it all, or most of it, and set about trying to rescue something from the crumbling wreckage of the Warwickshire innings. He picked the balls to attack and began to forge a partnership with Henry Brookes. As the innings progressed there was just a seed of doubt in this Somerset mind. Regular readers of my reports will know there usually is. It had struck me that there might be something of the same conditions as there had been in the first two matches Somerset had played. Both had been low scoring. The impression had built up through the morning of some balls moving in the air, more moving off the pitch and others going straight through. The overhead conditions had closed in too as the morning had worn on. Somerset, it felt, might have to be on their metal when their turn to wield the bat came.

Bresnan, meanwhile, began to gather runs where he could and to find the boundary too with a pull in front of square to the Hollies Stand. An edged pull which went high over Davies’ head also found the boundary. It brought perhaps a flicker of light to the Warwickshire cause, but it was a light that was quickly snuffed out by the Somerset bowlers. Or more to the point by one of Abell’s periodic forays against opposition tails. In 2018 he ended the Nottinghamshire innings with a hat-trick. There was no hat-trick here, but there were three wickets. They fell in the space of just seven balls from Abell and reduced Warwickshire from 113 for 7 to 121 all out.

Note-taking is a frantic occupation when Somerset are in this form as these extracts from my notebook demonstrate: “Ov. 43.2. Abell to Brookes, just outside off, swinging away, drive, edge, into Hildreth’s hands chest high.” “Ov. 43.4. Abell to Miles, on off, angled in, swinging straight, defensive push, edge, straight to Davies.” “Ov. 45.2. Abell to Hannon-Dalby, across batsman, drive, edge, through to Davies.” The same Hannon-Dalby who has frustrated Somerset with the bat so often in the past from number eleven. It was a stunning overwhelming of the end of the Warwickshire innings by the Somerset captain.

Eddie Byrom and Tom Lammonby have opened for Somerset in all three matches this season. Busier than the Warwickshire openers, after a couple of exploratory overs they began to look for runs. Singles where they could find them but also testing the fielders’ legs by playing through the gaps towards the boundary, although they reached it only twice in the ten overs before tea. Both boundaries came off Bresnan; an off drive from Byrom to the gap between the Pavilion and the Hollies Stand, and an edged drive through backward point to the other end of the Hollies Stand from Lammonby. 24 for 0, 97 behind, at tea under a still-threatening sky represented relief for this Somerset supporter.

After tea Byrom and Lammonby began to attack the ball more purposefully. The overall scoring rate began to climb from the two and a half an over it had been at tea towards three. The relief felt before tea began to grow as the pair started to find the boundary with some precision. They had too some good fortune. Twice in succession Byrom drove at Hannon-Dalby only for the ball to fly through the air wide of third slip, although too wide for the fielder to dive. Twice too he drove perfectly, square of the wicket, and Lammonby drove a ball equally well, square on the on side, all for four.

At 56 for 0 Somerset were just 65 runs behind Warwickshire and thoughts of a sizeable first innings lead refused to lie down in spite of my attempts to suppress them for fear they would provoke a wicket, the eternal anxiety of the lifelong supporter. I could hear the voices of those Somerset supporters with whom I have shared the Hollies Stand in the past saying, “Don’t say it. Don’t say it!” And I didn’t, I promise you. But there can be no denying I thought it. It was enough. Hannon-Dalby, around the wicket, directed a ball just outside off stump. The ball seemed to do little but Byrom had to play it and edged it straight to Bresnan at slip. 56 for 1 and an opportunity for another application of sanitiser at Edgbaston and some penitential beating of the chest in the lee of the Blackdowns.

The Warwickshire bowlers, Hannon-Dalby in particular, were finding their mark, applying some of their own pressure. Once, Abell leaned into an on drive off Brookes which, crisp off the bat, reached the boundary with ease, but Lammonby was less secure with the thickest of edges between backward point and third man for three. Then he drove at a ball from Hannon-Dalby which was bound for off stump and edged it to Hain at second slip. Hannon-Dalby danced a little jig on his way through to celebrate. Somerset 67 for 2. Lammonby 33.

Hannon-Dalby had not looked threatening in the opening overs, but he was looking a real threat now. He and Bresnan, from whom a wicket would not have been a surprise, were asserting a Warwickshire bowling claim for the first time in the match. Abell and Hildreth were having to battle hard just to hold their wickets. In nine overs the partnership yielded 13 runs, of which Hildreth scored only a single from 24 balls. It would be a long search to find a time when Hildreth was 1 not out after 24 balls. It was a measure of the intensity of the Warwickshire bowling and what appeared, from the sky, to be darkening light. A pair of square drives in a Miles over to the Hollies Stand boundary from Abell did lighten the growing anxiety that a wicket was beckoning. Apart from that it was grim defence, and a huge lbw appeal from Miles and the slip cordon against Hildreth would not have surprised had it been successful.

My anxious glances at the score in those overs yielded little respite beyond those two boundaries. The relief for Somerset, when it came, came not from the bat but from the heavens. The dense lowering cloud finally overwhelmed the floodlights and ended play for the day. When the players went off Somerset were 80 for 2, 41 runs behind. I have seen those clouds at Edgbaston more than once in years gone by. The view from the camera at the top of the Hollies Stand was one I know well. You can see a long way. It would have been very dark, and had I been there I would have had no hope of a resumption.

“Quit while you are ahead” is a well-known aphorism, and the weather had allowed Somerset to do just that. Craig Overton had continued his astonishing start to the season. Davey had continued with the persistent quality he has purveyed in every match. Lewis Gregory had taken two wickets after his England absence and perhaps worked through some of the rust. Byrom and Lammonby had succumbed to the increasingly effective Warwickshire bowling but not before they had fashioned their best opening partnership to date. Abell and Hildreth had survived the toughest of examinations in failing light to leave Somerset in as good a position as they could dared have hoped for when they lost the toss. Only Jamie Overton struggled at times, but he will not have lost his ability to deliver a devastating spell. The morrow will bring its own story, but Somerset will start the day with the pen with which it will be written in their hand.

Close. Warwickshire 121 (T.B. Abell 3-4, C. Overton 3-17). Somerset 80 for 2. Somerset trail by 41 runs with eight first innings wickets standing.