Bob Willis Trophy 2020 ~ Somerset v Gloucestershire ~ First day ~ “That’ll do”

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 Somerset CCC’s excellent multi-camera live stream of the match without which the report 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. Somerset v Gloucestershire. 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 25th August 2020. Taunton.

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

Gloucestershire. C.D.J Dent, B.G. Charlesworth, G.L. van Buuren, T.C. Lace, G.T. Hankins, R.F. Higgins, G.H. Roderick, G.F.B. Scott, D.A. Payne, J. Shaw, M.D. Taylor.

Toss. Gloucestershire. Elected to field.

First day. 22nd August – “That’ll do”

In the first match of the Bob Willis Trophy George Bartlett received a sickening blow on the helmet from Marchant de Lange. It stopped play for a considerable amount of time whilst he was ministered to and the required concussion tests were carried out. He carried on, but to my eye showed less fluency after the blow. He did not have quite the same composure he had shown before it. He was checked twice more and doggedly continued for some time before he was out. He has missed the two intervening matches under the ECB concussion regulations. You would not have known it on the first day of this match. He played an innings of sheer joy, at least for the watching Somerset supporter. It was an innings too of crucial importance for his team. He came to the wicket at 44 for 3, was still there at 176 for 9 and left undefeated on 100 after he and Jack Brooks had extended Somerset’s total to 237. Applause would have resounded around the ground in other times. All that could stand would have been on their feet, hands clapping above their heads as he jumped a celebratory jig in the middle of his 100th run. And again, a ball later, as the players walked off. It was a transformation to warm the cockles of a Somerset heart.

After the crushing loss to the weather of an almost-certain victory at Edgbaston, Somerset began this match knowing they probably had to win it to stay in realistic contention for a place in the final. A 40-minute break for rain in the first hour and the forecast for the later parts of the match reminded that it might not run its full course, at least in terms of playing time. Abell lost the toss and Somerset found themselves batting in variable morning weather against a ball moving in the air and off the seam. The Gloucestershire seamers offered the batsmen little leeway and conducted a determined and sustained assault on or outside off stump all morning. Batting looked to be a gruelling experience. Watching was certainly an edge of the seat one. Grim defence and playing and missing became the order of the morning for a series of embattled Somerset batsmen. The match was played out, as are all the matches in this competition, in front of stands filled with rows of stern-looking empty seats. It was as if they had taken on the mood a crowd might have done as Somerset lost the toss, the Gloucestershire bowlers found their mark, the cloud closed in, the ball moved, and wickets began to fall.

The onset of that mood was hastened when Eddie Byrom played back to the first ball of the third over. It was slightly angled into him from around the wicket by the left-arm seamer, Payne. It swung late and just enough to straighten to defeat Byrom’s defensive stroke. The ball rattled the off stump and deposited both bails behind and outside the line of leg stump. Somerset were 4 for 1 and Byrom walked back to the Colin Atkinson Pavilion as the coronavirus-secure policy of the teams using dressing rooms in separate buildings continued.

Byrom was the only recognised batsman not to score, but none looked like achieving security as the morning unfolded and watching from a Somerset perspective became an anxious business. Defensive strokes were played but the ball still deviated and passed the bat too often for comfort. Abell played with his usual correctness. A cut behind square played with the bat over the ball went to the Ondaatje Stand for four and was a perfect example of timing. But when Shaw swung a ball away late, Abell’s feet barely moved, the ball shaved the edge of a peremptory defensive jab and Somerset were 29 for 2. Abell 10. The wicket produced an anxious sigh from the occupant of my armchair which would have resonated with Somerset supporters as the scoreboard descended into familiar territory.

Anxiety was not assuaged by the Gloucestershire bowlers continuing to bowl a testing line and length. It seemed that if the ball was not thudding into the keeper’s gloves it was rapping the batsman’s pads. Against Higgins, Hildreth lifted the mood a little when he cut smoothly and hard to the Somerset Stand for four. It was the sort of stroke that can bring gasps of delight from a crowd. To the next ball he walked just as confidently into an on drive and was rapped on the pads. It was not a start to an innings to settle an anxious watching Somerset soul. Lammonby looked a little more secure and held his ground with some careful defence as he scored mainly in ones and twos. When he attempted a little more adventure with a cover drive, the ball went through the stroke to the keeper. I caught my breath as Lammonby practised the stroke. Such were the woes of the Somerset batsmen, and the helpless watching supporter, on the first morning. A score of 42 for 2 from 20 overs in a morning foreshortened by the rain told a tale that could not be denied. It was an uneasy lunch.

The afternoon weather looked more like summer as the camera focused on the Quantocks with their fields of yellow and maroon now bathed in sunshine. Above them, the sky was a mosaic of interlocking blue and plentiful, high, white lozenges of cloud; and as so often with such skies the sun seemed to shine most of the time. If the feel of the weather in my garden at lunchtime was anything to go by the warmth and brightness of the sun leavened by a strong but pleasant wind might have made it a pleasant enough day to watch cricket. It might too have coaxed more than one or two to queue for an ice cream, scoop vanilla with a flake of course, from the kiosk in the back of the Somerset Stand next to the Garner Gates. It was a virtual pleasure to cherish as I consumed a choc ice from the freezer, which is not quite the same thing.

Hildreth played forward to the fifth ball of the afternoon session from Higgins, it moved in a trace and thudded into the pad. Higgins reacted immediately. His appeal showed there was no doubt in his mind, there was none in mine, nor in the umpire’s, and I suspect not in Hildreth’s. Somerset were 44 for 3 and Bartlett found himself joining Lammonby. Lammonby, who after two boundaries in an over early in his innings, one off the edge, had batted almost invisibly while the wickets fell at the other end, was soon caught at third slip defending a straight ball from Higgins. Somerset were 57 for 4. Lammonby 24.

Steven Davies has been a rock in the middle order this year. On more than one occasion he has shepherded the lower order from the sort of situation in which it found itself here to totals from which Somerset have gone on to dominate the opposition. He looked as if he might do so again, and the certainty and accuracy with which a leg glance was directed towards the Sir Ian Botham Stand added to the feeling. But an attempt to glance Payne, by some way the pick of the Gloucestershire bowlers, as he angled the ball across Davies and down the leg side, ended in the hands of Roderick behind the stumps and Somerset were 89 for 5. It was not the start the sizeable online crowd would have wanted when they switched on their live stream at the start of play; and had they been populating the stands rather than a disparate collection of armchairs and sofas spread around Somerset and beyond, pairs of eyes would have been anxiously looking at each other.

Into the creaking edifice that was Somerset’s innings walked Craig Overton. He too has played a large part in Somerset’s lower order revivals this year. He immediately gave the impression he was intent on doing so again. He began with a crisp swing of the bat. No-one moved except the umpire who signalled four. The ball travelled through the covers to the Somerset Stand as fast as a ball is likely to travel. If the ghosts of supporters past do inhabit the old Stragglers area they would have sat up and taken notice of that stroke. The innings did not develop into quite the rumbustious affair that Overton can play. There were scintillating strokes enough, but they were held together by the glue of measured defence as he and Bartlett worked to build a partnership. There was something about the way they went about it which encouraged confidence. There was a sense of determination, of intent, of selecting the balls to hit. It brought something of an air of calm to what had been a frenetic Somerset innings thus far.

There were strokes to savour. A cut from Bartlett with a slight bend of the knees ran down to the covers store between the Trescothick Pavilion and the Ondaatje Stand. A straight drive from Overton off Taylor to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary matched the one that had gone to the Somerset Stand. From Bartlett there was a drive square to the Caddick Pavilion, and a flowing drive through wide mid-off to the old scoreboard stand area. It took the breath away as it crossed the rope. The pair took Somerset to 138 for 5 at tea, parlous enough seen in isolation, but riches compared with 89 for 5. They re-generated some wisps of hope in this fretting Somerset supporter at least, for the conditions did not seem to lend themselves naturally to batting.

With tea eaten Bartlett brought up his fifty from 109 balls and there would have been cheers, virtual ones at least, from that crowd watching online and wishing themselves at the ground to cheer him on in person. The stroke play, spectacular though some of it was, was put in its proper context by 36 of those runs coming in boundaries from just nine of those 109 balls. Most of Bartlett’s innings had taken place in a partnership forged out of a solid base of studious defence which gave it a sense of permanency. The batsmen though did not have it all their own way. Higgins forced an inside edge from Overton which could as easily have gone into the stumps as to the Trescothick Pavilion boundary. Bartlett edged a drive just over the diagonally outstretched hand of one of the slip fielders, but in these conditions such errors came with the rations.

Eventually Higgins, whose bowling seemed to feature as much in the boundaries as the wickets, pushed Overton hard back on his stumps as the ball swung in late and perhaps moved some more off the pitch to strike his pad in front of the stumps. He had made 32 in a partnership of 75 with Bartlett in 23 overs of probing Gloucestershire bowling. It left Somerset on 164 for 6. Overton’s dismissal brought as much hope as anxiety. For its nature, with the ball moving as much as it had at any time during the day, placed a high value on those 75 runs.

Within three overs, the good that the partnership had achieved for Somerset had been all but undone. The left-arm Payne swung a ball perfectly into van der Merwe from over the wicket, it straightened, tucked him up and he edged to Hankins at slip. Jamie Overton tried to pull Payne from a foot outside off stump to, from the angle of his head as he went through the stroke, somewhere behind square only to edge the ball to the keeper. Josh Davey played a peculiar stroke, neither steer nor drive, at a ball from Higgins. It moved away from him with the result that the edge of the bat sent it to Dent’s right at first slip. Dent caught it as he fell to intercept it. 164 for 5 had become 176 for 9 and Somerset, not for the first time, found themselves, in spite of Bartlett still doggedly fighting at the other end, in danger of falling short of a bonus point that had seemed assured, and perhaps of a par total on this pitch.

Cometh the hour … . Well, cometh 49 minutes to be precise, for that is how long Jack Brooks stayed with Bartlett as they took Somerset to 237, a bonus point and a total that, if their bowlers bowled as well as they have this season, might put Gloucestershire under some pressure. Brooks began with a horizontal swing of the bat which ended as a cut which reached the boundary. By such unorthodox methods does he score his runs. Another huge swing connected with a ball from Taylor and drove it to the Somerset Stand for four. It also took Somerset to 199 for 9. Given Somerset’s propensity to fall just short of bonus points it must have left their online crowd staring at the live stream not knowing whether to watch with their eyes open or closed. Bartlett had his eyes open, for he came down the pitch and spoke to Brooks. Brooks dutifully drove the next ball to cover for a single. Somerset had their bonus point, and the expulsion of relieved breaths from lungs wherever Somerset laptops, smart televisions, tablets and phones held sway must have raised global temperatures by half a degree.

And all the while, from 44 for 3, Bartlett had played with style and purpose. He had kept Somerset secure at one end and kept the score turning over whatever was happening at the other. How crucial might that partnership with Craig Overton turn out to be? Or the one with Brooks on which he was now embarked. 136 of Somerset’s 237 runs those two partnerships garnered, and 193 in total were scored while Bartlett was at the wicket. He is developing quite a record of making scores of substance when Somerset need them most. It is not always the number of runs a batsman makes. The circumstances in which he makes those runs can be as, or more important. Bartlett seems to understand that. He has a cool head too. As his century approached, with only the batting of Jack Brooks remaining at the other end, he showed no inclination to rush his fences. On 98 he took a single off the first ball of an over and trusted Brooks to play out the other five. He is becoming a cornerstone of Somerset’s batting line-up. And then came that final single, that celebratory mid-run jig and the applause from armchairs across Somerset and beyond.

When Brooks was caught at mid-off trying to drive, Gloucestershire found themselves with a difficult 50 minutes to bat in worsening light and, by the end, under lights. The Gloucestershire bowlers had subjected the Somerset batsmen to a severe test at the start of the day. It paled in comparison to the one the Somerset bowlers applied to the Gloucestershire batsmen at the end of the day. Craig Overton and Davey kept Gloucestershire pinned back from the start. Dent’s neatly cut four off a wide ball from Overton was a false dawn. It was immediately followed by three testing balls. One he evaded. Two defeated him. The first went straight through his defence, struck the pads and was perilously close to lbw. The second also hit the pads but this time with an air of finality. Gloucestershire 7 for 1.

Overton and Davey then proceeded to overwhelm the batsmen with some fiendishly accurate, devastating bowling. In two balls Davey first went straight through Charlesworth’s defence, then found the edge and the batsman was caught by Hildreth at slip. 9 for 2. In the next over van Buuren tried to defend against Overton, connected with the inside edge and Davies took a neat catch down the leg side. 9 for 3. Lace came in to four slips. Shaw, who had been sent into the furnace as nightwatchman, was lbw to Davey whilst facing just his third ball. After that devastating start, Gloucestershire were 9 for 4 and that online crowd would have been cheering as one. Gloucestershire survived until the close and ended on 13 for 4. The value of those two lower order partnerships and Bartlett’s century now shone like a beacon. “That’ll do,” said the instantaneous incoming text from one of the crowd. Indeed.

Close. Somerset 237 (G.A. Bartlett 100*, D.A. Payne 4-44, R.F. Higgins 4-72). Gloucestershire 13 for 4. Gloucestershire trail by 224 runs with six first innings wickets standing.