Bob Willis Trophy 2020 ~ Warwickshire v Somerset ~ Final day ~ “That was cruel”

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.

A different type of take on a frustrating day:—

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.

Overnight. Warwickshire 121 and 104 for 6. Somerset 413 for 9 dec. Warwickshire trail by 188 runs with four second innings wickets standing.

Final day. 18th August – “That was cruel”

“That was cruel,” said the incoming text seconds after the match was abandoned. And it was, at least in cricketing terms. And long drawn out cruelty at that. So much potentially hung on the outcome of this match. The points position at the top of the three groups was so tight, winning or drawing might make the eventual difference between qualifying for the final and not.

Somerset entered the final day needing four Warwickshire wickets to win the match, perhaps just three because Matt Lamb was unlikely to bat except in extremis. In the end, the 90 possible overs were reduced to less than 16 by a series of heavy showers that played cat and mouse with Somerset supporters’, and no doubt players’, emotions all day long. Those 16 overs took place over six long hours and were spread between four separate forays onto the field. And all the while, until the last, hope gnawed at the soul. The hope was born of the knowledge that there was time, if only the rain would stay away long enough, with time to spare, to finish the match and take a big step towards qualification.

The forecast in the morning, or at least the one I saw, raised no concerns, except that it was a forecast. Forecasts instinctively instil suspicion in the mind of the hardened cricket supporter. There are too many memories of the fickleness of forecasts. And this forecast turned out to have been fickle to a level of perfection even Plato never dreamed of. Worse than being fickle, it bred hope with a simple match-winning weather formula for Somerset. Clear until lunch. Showers until tea. Thunderstorms thereafter. Somerset needed just four wickets. Three from the lower order and one with an excruciatingly painful toe susceptible to a Jamie Overton thunderbolt. If the forecast was right, there should be no need to worry about the thereafter.

It was a prospect to cherish, if only that forecast was right. Looking at the other matches, a victory would take Somerset to the top of their group. Nothing Worcestershire, the only team close, could do could prevent that if Somerset won. Looking at the other groups, no group leader, whatever permutation of possible results transpired, could end the day with more points than Somerset. If Somerset could just find enough time to defeat Warwickshire, they would find themselves with their destiny in their own hands going into the last two rounds of matches.

Through the lens of a camera situated on the Edgbaston Pavilion and transmitted through the screen of my laptop the sky was a subject for a picture that John Constable and J.M.W. Turner would have fought over. Clouds aplenty, large but broken, drifted overhead; at their heart, insubstantial puffs of fluffiness, white on top, light grey underneath and with every shape the artist could hope for and more besides. Deceptively, as it turned out, benign to look at. Patches of blue sky between the clouds came and went, drifted by, or disappeared and re-emerged. The sun from time to time reminded us of its existence. Not quite the picture from the forecast, but not obviously threatening rain either. Perhaps the forecast was right. Perhaps the showers would stay away long enough for Somerset to take those wickets.

The feeling of anticipation was palpable as the players took the field. It always is at the start of a day of cricket. But this was a day of opportunity. A day on which Somerset had an outstanding chance to put themselves not only at the head of their group, but at the head of the leaders of all the groups. They just needed enough time. Cricket is about batting, bowling and fielding, and the balance between them. Add tactics if you like. Add pressure too. But above all, if a match is approaching the end of its allotted span, add time. Who, who watched the Lord’s Test against the West Indies in 1963 as it came to its climax, can ever forget the importance of time in cricket? Or Somerset’s last afternoon of the 2019 County Championship against Essex. Runs and wickets were at the heart of the equation on both of those great days, but time ruled.

As the clock moved past eleven at Edgbaston in 2020, Craig Overton and Gregory ran in to bowl. Runs were irrelevant, wickets were crucial, those four wickets, but time lorded it above all. Time controlled by the weather. There might be perhaps a session and a few scraps if the forecast was right, perhaps a bit more. But the pitch, or the atmosphere, or both seemed more benign than they had been. The bowling did not seem to carry the threat it had. That kept the supporter’s eye anxiously on the sky.

Thomson clipped Overton nicely through square for four. Brookes went onto the back foot and drove Gregory through the covers for four more. Batting really did look easier for Warwickshire than it had throughout the match. Somerset might need more time than the heart had hoped at a minute to eleven. But the head told the heart, it only takes one ball and these are lower order batsmen.

If you are at a match you can see the sky. You can feel the air. When rain is imminent you can feel it on the air. You can look in all directions, look at the movement of the clouds, work out where the weather is coming from. You can go to the top of a stand and see into the distance. When you are watching during a pandemic through a laptop with the sound muted you can only see one part of the sky. You cannot feel the air. You do not know if there is the feel of rain about. The first indication of rain for the helpless watcher came when the players suddenly, for no apparent reason, started to leave the field and the umpires upended the stumps. This rain was not forecast, at least not yet. What price the rest of the forecast? The live stream promptly put up a forecast bedecked in showers and added a twist to anxiety’s dagger.

The rain flattered to deceive. The players were soon back on. Hope leapt to the fore, even if anxiety kept station close by, for the weather it seemed was not to be trusted and the floodlights were on. Then the heavens beyond my laptop, outside my window, emptied. Within seconds the water was cascading along the gutters in the road and bouncing off the garden path. Two minutes before, the road had been dry. Now, everything I could see through my window was soaked and the Blackdowns had disappeared from view. It was a chill reminder of what a summer shower could do. Then the umpires upended the stumps again and the players made their way off the field. In cricket, showers eat time. A short downpour on a cricket field takes a lot of work to clear up. As the clear-up got under way time again started to slip by, and again anxiety began to grip the supporter’s mind.

And yet, when the time was reckoned, only an hour of the day had gone. There was still time for Somerset. When play got under way again, Thomson clipped Craig Overton behind square for four. The stroke was played with ease. Why, when your team is pushing for match-winning wickets and showers threaten does batting suddenly look easy? Luck seems to desert when rain threatens and time matters. Thomson was soon back in defence, the ball took the edge, flew past gully, too wide of the fielder and ran away for four. The runs counted for nothing. Warwickshire were over 150 runs behind. But an edge not going to hand hurts when time might be short, and still those four wickets stood like blocks in Somerset’s road.

Thomson was becoming troublesome, to Somerset at least. But he was fighting Warwickshire’s corner. He drove Gregory through midwicket for four. Batting looked too easy. And it was all taking time. Every over that slipped by took time. And the forecast was now looking full of showers. It looked worse every time it appeared, and showers take time. Clearing up takes time. Anxiety twisted its dagger again, “How much playing time did Somerset have left to take those four wickets?” I tried to be realistic. Take lunch out of the day. Take out tea. How much time would the showers take out? Perhaps a lot, insisted the forecast. The pangs of anxiety were now boring into the pit of the stomach.

And then, a sudden shaft of relief. Brookes tried to leave a ball from Gregory which would have passed harmlessly by the off stump. But Brookes was late withdrawing his bat, the ball followed it, caught the edge and ricocheted into the stumps. A wicket! Gregory! “Yes!” I shouted, not caring who heard me. Three wickets left. Perhaps two. Would things now break Somerset’s way? Hope and relief breathed a little more easily. I put my head back briefly to let the built-up tension escape. When I looked back at the screen, the umpires were upending the stumps, the players were walking off and rain was falling. I thought of that shower outside my window. More time, increasingly precious time would slip away whilst the effects of the rain were cleared. And the forecast still spoke persistently of showers, perhaps persistent showers, each piling its impact on the outfield on top of those that had gone before.

An early lunch was decreed by the umpires. Some of that precious time was being clawed back. Some overs saved from oblivion. But the showers were becoming all too frequent. And the forecast was deteriorating. There were more showers to come. More time to be lost. And endless questions flying through the Somerset mind. Why, oh why, did the rain come just as Somerset had made a crucial breakthrough and deny them even one more ball to push home their advantage? And why when lunch was taken early did the clouds retreat to the far horizon and blue sky appear overhead? Why is serendipity so duplicitous? And why did the rain return immediately the players were due to return?

Eventually, the players, and hope, did return. The ball was given to Jamie Overton. Oh, for a thunderbolt now, the immediate thought. There was no thunderbolt. But a ball did pitch outside Thomson’s off stump and move away just a trace off the pitch. It took the edge of a defensive bat, and Davies took the catch falling neatly to his right. Warwickshire 138 for 8. Thomson had held Somerset up with 26 runs ground out in over two hours of dogged defence which had begun on the third evening. The instantaneous reaction was relief. It was evident in the reaction of the slip fielders, and in Overton as he ran off to his left and punched the air in delight. Eight wickets were down. It left two, perhaps just one more to take.

Except that, in front of my disbelieving eyes, the stumps were soon upended again. It was beyond endurance. Just two wickets still stood. I went to make a cup of tea, the balm for all ills. It did not help in this case. Two wickets! Just two wickets. When I returned to my armchair and laptop the camera was on the Edgbaston scoreboard. 140 for 8 it said, the score burning bright in the gloom. On closer inspection I discovered the scoreboard was not being shown to torment Somerset supporters. It was being shown because torrential rain could be seen falling hard against its black background. It was again doing the same outside my window. The gutters had become small rivers. The rain at Edgbaston must have been having a comparable effect. And the rain there just kept on falling, longer than any of the showers that had gone before. And time passed, ever-faster it seemed. The day was being eaten away, and hope faded with it.

When hope was just about gone, the sun came out, the clouds lifted and turned from grey to white. Stretches of blue sky appeared. Figures emerged and walked onto the outfield. Groundstaff. Activity. “Might there be play?” the unspoken thought. The light looked better. The cloud looked higher. Hope was re-kindled, but the mind saw that near the covers were lakes. The water would have to be disposed of and it would take time. Always time. But, as time passed, the amount of covering diminished. Grass and the square started to see the light of day and the light of day became brighter. “Inspection at 5.00 p.m.” said the caption on the screen. Hope. But there was so little time. Time would run out at six. The umpires inspected, talked to the groundstaff and Tom Abell came out to state Somerset’s case. There were shadows, sharply defined shadows, the sky was blue, and the sun shone bright. But there was still standing water in places, and large damp patches. The realisation sank in. There was not enough time. And then a caption appeared on the screen: “End of Day.”

Result. Warwickshire 121 (T.B. Abell 3-4, C. Overton 3-17) and 140-8 (W.M.H. Rhodes 41, J.H. Davey 3-21, L. Gregory 3-50). Somerset 413 for 9 dec (S.M. Davies 123*, J. Overton 120, T.B. Abell 41, T.T. Bresnan 4-99, O.J. Hannon-Dalby 4-104). Match drawn. Somerset 16 points. Warwickshire 11 points.