Bob Willis Trophy 2020 ~ Worcestershire v Somerset ~ 8th September ~ Second day ~ Irresistable

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 Worcestershire CCC’s 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. Worcestershire v Somerset 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th September 2020. Worcester.

Somerset. B.G.F. Green, T.A. Lammonby, T.B. Abell (c), G.A. Bartlett, E.J. Byrom, S.M. Davies (w), C. Overton, L. Gregory, J.H. Davey. M.J. Leach, J.A. Brooks.

Worcestershire. D.H.K. Mitchell, J.D. Libby, T.C Fell, J.A. Haynes, B.L. D`Oliveira, M.H. Wessels, O.B. Cox (w), E.G. Barnard, J. Leach (c), J.C. Tongue, D.Y. Pennington.

Overnight. Somerset 251. Worcestershire 14 for 0. Worcestershire trail by 237 runs.

Second day. 7th September – Irresistible

The first hour looked like it might put Somerset’s first innings total into a worrying perspective, at least from a Somerset point of view. Somerset resumed with Davey and Overton beneath an autumnal sky. The distant, narrow bands of cloud which lined the horizon beyond the Basil D’Oliveira Stand were marble smooth and white with a tinge of grey. Across the sky, between the bands, were the narrowest strips of blue. It set a relaxed mood which the Worcestershire batting seemed to pick up as it faced Somerset bowling unable to derive much by way of help from the pitch or the overhead conditions.

It was a morning that mirrored that of the first day, except that Leach was introduced not long into the second half of it, whereas D’Oliveira had not bowled until after lunch. It was perhaps a recognition that the Somerset seamers were making little headway. The first twenty minutes, a glance from Mitchell and a cover drive from Libby apart, were much the same as the sky, uneventful. The first sign of life from the ball came from Overton in the sixth over when he persuaded a delivery to rear at Mitchell immediately after he had been driven through the covers for four. It was the first ball of the morning that might have had the Somerset armchair crowd sitting upright and peering at their laptops or smart televisions in hope. Worcestershire followers might have passed it off as one of those things, for increasingly, as the batsmen settled, the pressure was on Somerset.

The end of that over brought an invasion of the pitch. Drinks and hand sanitiser, bearers wearing masks, from one direction. Groundstaff, mask free, pushing a barrow and bearing tools from the other, social distancing from the players and umpires their main weapon against the virus. Overton had been having persistent problems with the footholds at the New Road End and such major works were now begun it would not have been a surprise if red and white cones had been deployed.

On the resumption, Libby drove Davey through midwicket and turned him behind square, both for four. In response Davey delivered a huge lbw appeal which was declined. Off the first ball of Overton’s next over, Mitchell squeezed a yorker to wide third man for two and Overton called for more construction work on the footholds. To this watching Somerset supporter, the appeal and the yorker felt like those occasional rays of hope you see on a day when the ball does nothing and the opposition batsmen build towards a score from where they and their bowlers can dominate the match. It was an uneasy, deadening feeling, especially in a match on which so much depended.

Gregory and Leach replaced Overton and Davey which brought the hope that Leach might find some turn. He did, but it was slow, uniform, and from the vantage point of my armchair, predictable. The batsmen nonetheless treated Leach with caution, just as the Somerset batsmen had D’Oliveira, there being just one scoring stroke in his first four overs, and that an inside edge from Libby that ran past the stumps for four. Mitchell was less tolerant of Gregory, a late cut through backward point and an orthodox cut through point in the same over both reaching the boundary.

With Worcestershire less than 200 behind and settling to their task, Gregory struck. The ball cut in and struck Mitchell on the pad. Gregory raised his arms in supplication to the heavens, swivelled, sank to one knee from where he appealed to the only authority which could answer his pleas. The umpire raised his finger, the prayers of Somerset supporters with eyes glued to screens from Bathealton to Bath and beyond were answered and your correspondent cheered to the echo, although as much in relief as joy.

It was a false dawn. Fell joined Libby and Worcestershire resumed their careful progress interspersed with more boundaries than was good for the watching Somerset supporter’s comfort. It was as if the fall of the wicket had been but an unfortunate interruption to Worcestershire’s progress. As lunch approached, Libby began to press Worcestershire’s case. He drove Leach square for two towards the gap between the Ladies and the Hick Pavilions. In Leach’s next over he drove him back over his head for six and four, and through the covers for another four in the over after that. The rising Worcestershire score began to bite at the pit of the Somerset stomach.

There were chances for Somerset. Libby drove furiously and straight back at Leach, just above his head. Leach reached, got a hand to the ball but only succeeded in slowing its progress. Brooks took his time over the last ball before lunch. He rubbed the ball on his trousers incessantly. Then, having kept the batsman, Fell, waiting, he ran in hard and rapped him on the pads. “Out!” the immediate thought. But there was no appeal. Just Brooks stood mid-pitch, motionless with his head bowed, and the umpire with his arm outstretched by his side. The Somerset heart sank. The bowlers had worked so hard for that moment and chances, even hopes, had been few and far between.

Brooks tried again but, the cricket-watching brain concluded, the moment had passed, the opportunity gone. The re-bowled ball was directed along a line just outside off stump, Fell jabbed at it, edged and the ball flew fast and a few inches to the right of Leach’s neck at first slip. Leach, fielding there in the absence of the injured Hildreth, snatched at the ball, failed to take it and it ran down to third man for four. It was a heart-sinking moment for the Somerset supporter to take to lunch. Worcestershire were 98 for 1, just 153 runs behind and Lord’s was beginning to look some way off.

The pattern of the morning continued into the afternoon as if lunch had not happened. Twice in an over Fell reached the boundary off Gregory. Once with an edge past second slip, too wide for the catch, and once with an imperious pull through midwicket. The edge leaving that feeling, after the despair at Brooks’ no ball and Leach’s drop immediately before lunch, that this was not to be Somerset’s day. And then, out of the blue as it were, with the score at 121 for 1 and Worcestershire within 130 runs of Somerset’s score, the players left the field and the covers came on. Only the wicket covers at first, and then after a while the run up covers. Light rain only, but enough for tea to be taken early.

The players returned after tea for a three-hour session. There would be no break, no opportunity if either side was under pressure to regroup. It was enough for the match to be transformed. Worcestershire’s increasingly confident procession of runs was reversed, as if miraculously, by a cavalcade of wickets which began its progress within four overs of the restart. Whether the light rain had changed the humidity, or whether the volte face in fortunes was a result of one of those miracles the Somerset bowlers have been producing throughout this competition is impossible to know. What is certain, after the rain break it was as if we were watching a different match.

It began with Fell leaving a ball from Brooks, angled in slightly on off stump, and the off bail, and only the off bail, tumbling to the ground. It could only have been millimetres, and single figure millimetres at that, between success and failure for the bowler. What a difference to the course of this match those millimetres might have made. Oh, how the cheer rang out from my armchair. Had the window been open it might have echoed back from the Blackdowns. It was a cheer of unbounded relief as much as anything, for I was beginning to wonder if a wicket would ever come, worse, whether Somerset might find themselves facing a huge deficit in a match which they needed to win to have a chance of qualification for the final. I doubt my laptop was the only one in Somerset to have created such a commotion at that moment. 123 for 2. Fell 26.

In the next over, after he had just driven Gregory through the off side for four, Haynes shaped to leave, then jabbed down urgently on the ball. Too late, “Yes!” my reaction as my arm punched the air and Haynes’ off stump cartwheeled. 128 for 3. Haynes 4. “Yes!” again, and doubly so, when Libby, who had driven Worcestershire’s pre-rain progress, tried to drive Brooks through the covers. The ball was outside off stump and, crucially, swung away late and markedly. Just enough for the ball to be edged to Davies. You could almost sense the waves of relief rolling across Somerset and wherever Somerset supporters were transfixed by the live stream from Worcester. Relief and anticipation as Libby departed the field for 58, for Somerset had not just halted Worcestershire’s progress, they had created an opportunity to reverse the flow of the match. Worcestershire were 128 for 4, still 123 behind.

Somerset anticipation was blunted for a while by a stand of 36 between Wessels and D’Oliveira. It was driven by Wessels’ runs and by D’Oliveira’s defiance of what had developed into a Somerset onslaught. Brooks suffered heavily in one over which conceded 16 runs, including a no ball, and in which Wessels found the boundary three times. But Overton was moving the ball away from the bat and beating it again after a morning in which few balls, from any bowler, had discomfited the batsmen. The three wickets since the rain break, and the threat which Overton was posing kept Somerset hopes pumping.

Then Overton struck. D’Oliveira inched forward in defence to a full ball which was homing in on off stump. It struck the pad, the appeal was instantaneous and the raising of the umpire’s finger immediate. Worcestershire were 164 for 5. D’Oliveira had batted half an hour for eight runs. At 181 Wessels followed. He pulled Overton square but only as far as Byrom at square leg, at least as far as could be determined from the direction in which the players around the bat looked, for Byrom stood beyond the range of the camera. That was relief indeed. I remembered, in the Royal London One-Day Cup in 2019, when Wessels was out, a Worcestershire supporter saying to me, “That is the match in one ball.” That would have been an overstatement here, but Wessels’ wicket opened up the Worcestershire lower order.

The lower order did not long survive what was becoming a typically irresistible Somerset bowling performance, and the cheers must have sounded out far and wide among the far-flung Somerset digital crowd. Barnard tried to pull Davey and chopped the ball onto his stumps, one of several batsmen out in this way in this match, a cause of dismissal which might have engendered some doubt in batsmen’s minds about the bounce in the wicket. Cox, playing defensively to Overton, edged a ball, in which Overton generated some lift, to Abell at third slip. Leach edged Davey low to his Somerset namesake at first slip. Somerset’s Leach took the catch at ankle height as the unfamiliar Somerset slip cordon completed its contribution. Finally, Tongue was bowled by a ball from Davey which swung in late to hit his off stump.

Worcestershire had just reached 200, the first team to do so against the Somerset attack in this competition in either a first or a second innings. It was also the first batting bonus point the Somerset attack had conceded. That is an astonishing performance on pitches on which Somerset’s batsmen have taken eight batting points, reinforced by the fact that in their other four matches Worcestershire had taken 13 batting points. Not for the first time this season the Somerset bowlers had turned a match on its head. Worcestershire had sunk from 123 for 1, and the prospect of a match-winning lead, to 200 all out and a deficit of 51 runs. Cricket is a wonderful game. At least, it is if you support Somerset at the moment.

In reply, Somerset faced a difficult three-quarters of an hour under cloudy skies and fading light, there being no floodlights at Worcester to ward off the gloaming. Green was bowled by a ball from Leach which cut in hard off the pitch, but Lammonby impressed with a gritty defensive innings. Before the light finally faded Abell clipped Leach neatly to the square boundary. As the players left the field with Somerset on 16 for 1 the incoming text summed up the position, “I’ll settle for bad light now. Couldn’t afford to lose Abell tonight.” Indeed.

Close. Somerset 251 and 16 for 1. Worcestershire 200 (J.D. Libby 58, J.H. Davey 3-32, C. Overton 3-40). Somerset lead by 67 runs with nine second innings wickets standing.