Vitality Blast 2020 ~ Northamptonshire v Somerset ~ Northampton ~ 30th August ~ Not enough firepower

All Vitality Blast T20 matches are being played behind closed doors due to the coronavirus restrictions in place. This report was therefore written through watching the match on Northamptonshire CCC’s live stream without access to which this 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.

Vitality Blast T20. Central Group. Northamptonshire v Somerset. 30th August 2020. Northampton.

Northamptonshire. R.E. Levi, P.R. Stirling, J.J. Cobb (c), A.M. Rossington (w), A.G. Wakely, Z.A. Zaib, G.K. Berg, G.G. White, N.L. Buck, B.W. Sanderson, B.D. Glover.

Somerset. G.A. Bartlett, S.M.Davies (w), J.C. Hildreth, T.B. Abell (c), E.J. Byrom, B.G.F. Green, C. Overton, R.E. van der Merwe, J. Overton, O.R.T Sale, M.T.C. Waller.

Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.

Not enough fire power

“It is difficult to win T20 matches without hitting sixes,” said the incoming text as the Somerset batsmen left the field at the end of the match still nine runs short of Northamptonshire’s 171 for 6. In this match Northamptonshire hit five sixes to Ollie Sale’s one for Somerset. The Somerset batsmen made a spirited assault on the Northamptonshire total, particularly at the beginning and the end of their innings. Northamptonshire kept their nerve under the pressure of the Somerset batsmen’s initial assault, applied pressure when Somerset needed to regroup in the middle of their innings, and resisted Roelof van der Merwe’s charge at the end. As the text implied, Somerset missed the firepower of Banton and Gregory and the commanding hand of Babar Azam’s batting.

Setting up to watch this match was rather like being caught in a traffic jam on the way to the ground and finding yourself still trying to get into the car park as the match starts. There was a delayed start to the live stream. Messages started being exchanged online and by text trying to find out if anyone knew a way to access it. It was rather like getting to the car park ticket machine and finding you did not have the right change, and neither did anyone else. It is a calm process for a Championship match, but ticking time eats a T20 match, or its overs, and the search for the right coins, or the stream becomes ever more desperate.

Suddenly, the match was there, the screen was full of cricket, and I could make for my seat, or rather, my armchair. Northamptonshire were 30 for 0 at the end of the third over and my doubts about insertions were beginning to rear their heads, for Stirling and Levi must have been in full flow. As I arrived, as it were, Craig Overton struck. Twice. The first ball I saw was short, angled into the right-handed Stirling who stepped away to uppercut, the ball followed him like a wasp after an ice-cream and Stirling edged it to a perfectly positioned Davies as he followed the wasp across to the leg side. Then, with Levi backing up, Cobb drove Overton straight back at the bowler’s stumps, Overton dropped to his knees, touched the ball onto the stumps and Northamptonshire were 34 for 2. The live stream gives a perfect view of such things and it draws you into the cricket. Indeed, I found myself sitting up in my armchair before I had had the chance to sit back in it, the missed start forgotten. I had barely settled when Ollie Sale got a ball to lift nastily into Rossington. It caught him a vicious blow on the hand which had him shaking it violently as he took a single from the deflection. The blow necessitated extended ministrations from a masked, gloved and aproned physio, whose COVID-garbed appearance was an unnecessary reminder of why I was watching cricket through a laptop screen.

Unbeknownst to the watching Somerset supporter, Somerset had already reached their apogee in the match, for from that position the injured Rossington, supported by Cobb, systematically, sometimes brutally, built a position of strength for Northamptonshire. It was an ascendancy which sometimes came under spirited challenge from Somerset but was never breached. Rossington’s assault was determined and incisive, but not reckless. In an over in which he was dropped at cover by Abell off van der Merwe he responded by driving the bowler over the covers for four. In the next over, from Craig Overton, he stepped away from a full ball and still managed to drive it over long on, just wide of the Pavilion, for six. Two balls later a short ball was pulled just behind square for four, well before the long leg fielder arrived to collect it. Off the last ball of the over, Overton pitched a foot outside off stump, Rossington stepped a foot outside leg, reached long, and just connected with the ball. His hand flew off the bat as if he had touched a real wasp and the ball flew to third man for another four.

The Northamptonshire crowd would have been cheering now, and perhaps were as they sat in their armchairs across their county just as Somerset supporters would have been tightening their lips in theirs. The music which would have rung out from loudspeakers around the ground in other times was now heard only in the imagination, but it still sounded ominous enough in my Somerset ears. 73 for 2, at the end of the ninth over is far from insurmountable for the fielding side in T20, but Rossington’s assault had looked calculated and controlled; and it had given Northamptonshire impetus, and impetus can be crucial in cricket.

Somerset’s answer to opposition batting impetus in T20 is Max Waller and he immediately applied himself here. Six singles brought relief to the Somerset mind. Waller has a technique which leaves the watcher wandering if he has any control over the ball at all. I sent a text, “Waller is bowling a mixture of variable line full balls and variable line and height full tosses.” “Yes,” came the reply, “and variable pace too. The batsman just doesn’t know what is coming next.” But six ambled singles suggested batsmen, having set Northamptonshire on course, had settled for a risk-free over against Waller, saving their ambition for better opportunities.

Indeed, it was impetus interrupted, not impetus terminated. Rossington immediately resumed his assault against Jamie Overton. In another year, music would have been pummelling eardrums as Overton’s first ball was driven ferociously and low over his back for four, another perfect view on a live stream, as he began his follow-through. His second ball, short, was pulled between midwicket and mid-on to the boundary just to the side of the Northampton Pavilion. His fourth was a full toss which was dispatched, as the old commentators used to say, to the square boundary. By now, I suspect, the Northamptonshire applause would have melded into singing along with music blasting its way out of loudspeakers all around the ground, and deafened Somerset minds would have been calculating how many their batsmen might be able to chase.

Now Somerset turned to van der Merwe with his own brand of slow left arm teasers. He kept Northamptonshire to seven and held the calculations, and perhaps might have done the music, in check. It permitted too, a bubbling of Somerset hope. But when Ben Green began with five wides down the leg side, was driven straight back for six by Cobb and conceded 15 in his solitary over, Northamptonshire were 114 for 2 with seven overs still to come. The ground would have been engulfed in music and the crowd would have been buzzing. In the armchairs, a score upwards of 180 must have been exciting the calculations of the Northamptonshire armchair crowd; and troubling the minds of the Somerset one, as would the apparent lack of proven heavy firepower in the Somerset top order.

“One over like that from Waller makes a huge difference,” said the incoming text. That “one over” from Waller had cost Somerset just three runs as his constantly varying line, length, flight and pace wove a tangled web around the Northamptonshire batsmen. Rossington, trying to cut through it, was well caught, low down, on the midwicket boundary by Sale. And, as they so often do in these days, a wicket after a long stand brought hand sanitiser alongside the drinks. Rossington, injured hand notwithstanding, had made 51 from 31 balls. With six overs remaining Northamptonshire were 116 for 3. Rossington’s turned out to be the pivotal performance of the match and it had provided an excellent platform for a final six overs batting assault. In other tines he would have been applauded off the field, the music would have blasted, and the ground would have been buzzed with chatter.

Northamptonshire made 55 runs from those final six overs. That it was not more was in part due to Waller spinning another web in the 16th over from which the batsmen managed to untangle just four singles. The pressure Waller had exerted could not be sustained. Cobb, who had held an end secure when Rossington was in full flow, picked up the Northamptonshire baton against Somerset’s other T20 spinning talisman, van der Merwe. A full toss, drifting outside leg stump, was deposited over the wide long on boundary and a ball wide of off stump was steered to the third man boundary. Sale did respond for Somerset with two spicy late overs in which he demonstrated a capacity to bowl under the pressure of a situation ripe for batsmen to plunder. Cobb drove him shoulder high towards the straight boundary, but Sale caught the ball at his left shoulder in mid-follow through as if he was picking an apple two-handed from a passing tree. He followed up in his final over by having Wakely caught at long on by Craig Overton. Sale finished with the impressive debut figures of 2 for 28 from four overs.

But, despite the efforts of Sale and Waller, Zaib took Northamptonshire to a total perhaps ten runs higher than par with 28 runs from 13 balls. He struck both van der Merwe and Sale for four. At the last, he made the 20th over, from Craig Overton, Northamptonshire’s despite Overton taking the wicket of Berg, caught by van der Merwe. Zaib scooped the fifth ball over Davies head for four and the sixth, picked up beautifully by the camera, was driven flat over cover for six. That is an astonishing stroke in any form of cricket, and the music, the singing and the cheers would have rocked from one end of the ground to the other; and doubtless did, the cheers at least, in armchairs from one end of Northamptonshire to the other. The Somerset mind, meanwhile, was calculating the prospects of that total being overhauled. As the incoming text said, “This may be difficult without Babar and Banton.”

 

It is a cliché in cricket that chasing a large total needs a good start. Too soon my ears were imagining that blast of Northamptonshire music again. Davies tried to lift a ball from Sanderson over the square leg boundary, fell well short and was caught by Zaib. I have seen Davies out more than once in that way in white-ball cricket. I have also seen him play some destructive white-ball innings with it when he gets it right, but I do wonder what the percentages are, especially against a bowler of the quality Sanderson showed in Northamptonshire’s Bob Willis Trophy match against Somerset. 9 for 1 in the second over was not the start Somerset needed.

And now came a piece of spirited Somerset play, as Hildreth and Bartlett stayed Northamptonshire’s momentum and threatened to turn the tide of the match Somerset’s way. Hildreth set the tone for the partnership off its first ball with two lightning runs into the offside which ended with Bartlett’s bat sliding through the crease as the ball came in. Now Somerset supporters would be sitting up in their chairs, at least this one was. Cheering too in the next over from Glover. Hildreth stroked Glover’s first ball straight back along the ground for four as if the flow of his bat was putting the final touch to a da Vinci masterpiece. The second was driven through the covers for three with as much majesty as balls have been driven through there since the dawn of cricket. Back on strike Hildreth showed he can use the broadsword as well as the rapier with a lofted drive clubbed to the on side straight boundary. And then back to the rapier as he stepped away from a short ball and caressed it, no more, over extra cover for another boundary. Sixteen runs from the over. Now the music would have been for Somerset ears.

It was not all boundaries from Hildreth. When he cannot reach the boundary his placement is such that twos and threes are at least as likely to result as singles. As the Northamptonshire fielder found themselves sprinting hither and thither chasing down Hildreth strokes, Bartlett, eschewed artistry to twice loft Sanderson over long off for four. He also drove Buck furiously over long off for four and drove Berg straight back over his head for another. Somerset were 54 for 1 at the end of the powerplay, turning the match and raising their watching supporters’ hopes.

As Somerset hopes rose, Northamptonshire struck. Bartlett stepped back to cut Berg behind point and was bowled. On came the drinks and the sanitiser, the old and new on-field markers of the fall of a wicket. Before Somerset could get going again Hildreth slightly miscued a pull off Berg and Zaib, running in hard from the midwicket boundary dived for the catch and Somerset had gone from 59 for 1 to 66 for 3. Those two wickets of Berg’s were every bit as important to Northamptonshire as Rossington’s or Zaib’s sprinting innings had been, for they stopped Somerset’s most dangerous partnership in its tracks. Wickets slow the run rate and Somerset’s required one immediately started to rise. In fact, the match may have been decided by those two wickets, for the Somerset innings never properly recovered. Five more wickets fell for 50 runs in the course of the next seven overs leaving Somerset needing 56 runs from 25 balls with two wickets remaining.

As to those five wickets, after Hildreth’s departure the net quickly tightened around Somerset. With the required rate rising above nine Abell, usually so certain on the sweep, swept at White and top-edged the simplest of catches to Levi fielding behind square in the T20 leg trap. Byrom was caught behind by the substitute keeper, Vasconcelos, off Glover, and Green, charging White, was stumped by him. Suddenly, Somerset were 97 for 6 and the required rate was approaching 12. Craig Overton fared no better. He scored but one boundary in a 13-ball nine when he drove Glover off what would have been a wide through extra cover. He and Jamie Overton were out within four balls, both off Sanderson. Craig caught on the deep square leg boundary and Jamie, tucked up as he attempted to pull, caught off a top edge by Levi travelling backwards from the leg trap. And so, Somerset arrived at 116 for 8 with those 56 runs needed from 26 balls and the Northamptonshire music would have been numbing their supporters’ ears.

When in a hole, at least with the bat in a white ball match, send for Roelof van der Merwe. Ask Surrey. But this was an ask too far. Even so, launched a fusillade of characteristically idiosyncratic runs in pursuit of victory. Not least was a spectacular scoop for four from outside off stump. It cleared Levi in the leg trap and left van der Merwe completing a backward roll in the direction of point, the widening angle of the camera capturing the stroke, the backward roll and the ball clearing Levi and running down to the boundary. Cricket is never boring when van der Merwe has a bat in his hand. Sale stuck hard to the task too, striking his second ball for six in the process. But Northamptonshire kept their cool and the net they had thrown around the Somerset batting could not be sufficiently unravelled. Twelve runs were taken off the 17th over and 11 off the 18th, but by then the required rate was approaching 15. By the start of the final over Somerset needed 21 to win. Too many, on this occasion at least, even for van der Merwe.

It had, in the end, been a spirited Somerset performance against a strong, well-constructed and determined Northamptonshire T20 side. Waller had shown he has lost none of his T20 acumen and Sale had made an impressive start. The Northamptonshire bowling in the middle of the Somerset innings, those two wickets by Berg in particular, had perhaps been the nine-run difference between the sides in the end. Or perhaps it was the lack of Somerset sixes. Either way, Babar Azam, and probably Gregory, will be back for the return match to strengthen Somerset’s batting firepower in both regards. It has all the makings of an interesting contest.

Result. Northamptonshire. 171 for 6 (20 overs) A.M. Rossington 51 (31 balls), J.J. Cobb 42 (41), O.R.T. Sale 2-28 (econ 7.00), C. Overton 2-49 (12.25). Somerset. 162 for 8 (20 overs) R.E. van der Merwe 41* (25), J.C. Hildreth 34 (21), B.W. Sanderson 3-36 (9.00), G.G. White 2-24 (6.00), G.K. Berg 2-31 (7.75). Northamptonshire won by nine runs. Northamptonshire 2 points. Somerset 0 points.