Bob Willis Trophy 2020 ~ Somerset v Gloucestershire ~ Third day ~ Deja vu

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.

Overnight. Somerset 237 and 223 for 1 dec. Gloucestershire 76 and 14 for 3. Gloucestershire need another 371 runs to win with seven second innings wickets standing.

Third day. 24th August – In the hands of Damocles

“Only Somerset could declare their second innings on 223 for 1 on the second day and then draw the match with the opposition on 97 for 9,” said the incoming text an hour into what would have been the afternoon session of the third day. It is to be hoped that the person who sent the text is not a prophet, for of the still possible results that is one of them. It was a curious sight, watching the covers on the live stream. Curious because the stands beyond them were devoid of people. Not that stands devoid of people are in any way out of the ordinary in these strange times. It was more that, in the past, if you were at a match when it rained heavily, most people headed for the nearest cover, or bar. But not everyone. There were always one or two people who sat it out in the stands, waterproofs on and umbrella up, if only to keep their seats dry. It was the absence of those people, who always seemed to be there, that struck home. Strange times indeed.

Heavy overnight rain had left a very wet outfield which meant there was no prospect of a start before lunch, and further bursts of rain pushed the prospect of play back further still. As expanses of heavy cloud and the forecast roused the not yet cold ghost of Edgbaston, the seagulls voted with their feet. Seagulls used to know the patterns of a day of cricket at Taunton, as anyone who has sat in the old Trescothick Stand, now the River Stand, in times gone by will know. They would start circling outside the ground about half an hour or so before the close, then enter through the gap between the flats and the Sir Ian Botham Stand that the River Stand provides. Cautious occupants would wear a hat. The gulls came at half past two on the third day of this match and immediately set about inspecting the plastic sheeting covers. For those who believe in omens it could have spelt an end to the day within the hour.

But the weather this summer knows no ruler, or rule. Even the gulls may have lost their bearings, for within the hour the clouds rose, the rain stopped, the umpires inspected and, with the sun in attendance, a start was announced with 42 overs to be bowled, reduced to 38 by a final reminder of the rain’s powers. The players emerged from their respective pavilions one minute later than they would have expected to emerge from the tea interval on a full day’s play. In other times two questions would have been on the lips of those who had braved the weather to sit on seats still carrying evidence of the rain that had fallen. Firstly, should Somerset have declared earlier on the second day given the forecast and their crushing dominance over Gloucestershire? Secondly, could the team now exorcise that Edgbaston ghost in the time left to the match by the weather? Or, the second question put another way, could seven wickets be taken during the length of a piece of string?

Craig Overton has been Somerset’s most consistent bowler over the last seven seasons. That is some record for someone who is only 26 years old. He is at his best this season, although perhaps not yet at his peak. He has greater pace. It was demonstrated in the second over of the day. The ball with which he removed Hankins might have immediately been named the ball of the match were there not so many contenders from the Somerset bowlers. “Do you think Craig Overton has begun beating batsmen for pace?” asked the text. The ball was straight, full and fast. It was directed at, and hit, middle and off. As far as I could see, the bat came straight down the line of the ball. There was nothing obviously wrong with the stroke, other than that the bat came down the line after the ball had gone through. That is not a bad method for exorcising cricketing ghosts.

“Batsmen are struggling to cope with him this year,” the text went on. That was demonstrated by, among others, a ball to Higgins. The ball was pitched short, Higgins attempted to pull it to somewhere in the vicinity of the old Stragglers bar but the lift Overton generated caused the ball to fly off the top edge and over the keeper’s head for six. His operating with the new ball has been a long time coming and increasingly he looks the part. He has not been found wanting.

And yet, the strength of Somerset’s bowling attack, if it needed demonstrating, was demonstrated too by another bowler. A bowler for whom demonstrative seems an alien word, for he is altogether less demonstrative than Overton, and almost invisibly effective. He celebrates a wicket with no more than a smile, perhaps occasionally he permits himself a slight jerk of the arm, although you have to watch closely if you wish to see it. In demeanour, Davey is everything an opening bowler is not. In what he is achieving this season he is increasingly everything you want. He removes opposition top order batsmen.

In the 24 overs the weather permitted Somerset, Overton removed three, and Davey, two batsmen. Van Buuren swung an expansive drive at a ball from Davey too wide to be a threat and which perhaps moved away from him a trace. The result was an edge which produced what used to be known as a regulation catch for Davies behind the stumps. Gloucestershire were 49 for 5, although runs had long since ceased to be of relevance to the outcome of the match. That, given the glowering skies and the forecast, would be determined by a race between the Somerset bowlers and the rain. Edgbaston déjà vu.

In his next over Davey took Somerset another stride forward in that race with the rain. He angled a ball into, and across Roderick. It would have missed leg stump. Roderick reached to clip it square, rather as van Buuren had reached the other way to drive in Davey’s previous over. He found the middle of the bat but lifted the ball to Byrom at square leg. 49 for 6. As if it were needed, the camera constantly reminded of the threat from the rain by showing those glowering clouds as they looked down from above the Quantocks, clouds that I could see in the distance from a back window of my house. A window through which I could not prevent myself from looking from time to time. When rain threatens, the cricket supporter cannot avoid looking for any available reassurance. It was not just the rain. The clouds were an ever-present threat to the light as the floodlights testified, for they shone in aid of the Somerset cause.

Perhaps emboldened by the threats from the weather, the Gloucestershire batsmen began to dig in. With a potentially terminal forecast for the last day and those ever-present clouds threatening what remained of the third day, overs were a precious commodity and Higgins and Scott began to consume them with some dogged resistance. They scored at barely a now meaningless run an over. Overs, wickets and the weather, not runs, would decide the outcome of this match.

As Gloucestershire consumed the overs the watching Somerset supporter was subjected to all the tortures which go with such passages of play. The ball thudding into pads. The appeals that go with the thuds: confident, certain, desperate or forlorn. A ball from Brooks hit Scott’s bat, ran under it, wincingly close to the stumps. Another from Jamie Overton went straight through him but, excruciatingly, missed the stumps too. “Come on! Come on!” I heard myself shouting as my hands clenched in exasperation. And all the while those Damoclesian clouds hovered, quietly threatening. Jamie Overton forced Higgins right back and up on his toes, but the ball dropped harmlessly. Overton just could not force a way through even though he was in his fifth over and had conceded only two runs. And then insult was added to injury as Higgins glanced him for four to Gimblett’s Hill.

Then, as I tried to convince myself that under such pressure Gloucestershire must lose a wicket, the rain of Damocles fell. The batsmen left the field as if they had a train to catch. The Somerset players were frozen in tableau in the positions they had held when the rain came. Three slips and no batsmen is an odd sight. They stood there long enough for an artist to have painted the scene. But at least it suggested the rain was not heavy, perhaps not an end to the day.

And it wasn’t. When the rain relented, eight overs remained. It took Craig Overton five balls to spear a ball in on Higgins’ pad in front of leg stump and force the umpire’s finger to point to the heavens as if in admonition of those ever-threatening clouds. “Yes!” the cry from my armchair. Within an over Overton was homing in on Payne’s middle stump with a full ball which Payne attempted to drive. The edge flew to Hildreth’s ever-waiting hands at first slip and Gloucestershire were 63 for 8. No words, just a look at the sky. As at Edgbaston, time was the only factor which now mattered. Would the sky give Somerset enough time? Not on the third evening, for within an over the umpires took the players off for the last time as the light deteriorated without hope of recovery. With just two Gloucestershire wickets remaining and over 300 runs needed the outcome of this match lay in the hands of Damocles’ clouds.

Close. Somerset 237 and 223 for 1 dec. Gloucestershire 76 and 63 for 8. Gloucestershire need another 322 runs to win with two second innings wickets standing.