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 and 193. Worcestershire 200 and 58 for 2. Worcestershire need 187 runs to win with eight wickets standing.
Final day. 9th September – Through to the final
In the end Somerset pushed over their wall. Worcestershire resisted in phases, and at times raised the level of anxiety in Somerset supporters’ minds to a higher level than is comfortable. At one point the Worcestershire batsmen made a dash for the line, but throughout the innings no partnership lasted long enough to apply the persistent pressure to Somerset necessary to force a win. In the end, the Somerset bowling proved too strong for the Worcestershire batsmen on a pitch on which each innings total was lower than the one before. It was a day of greater tension than the end result or the cold facts of the result portray. Throughout the final day Worcestershire were under greater pressure than Somerset, but only at the very end was the task beyond them. Until then, however regularly Somerset took wickets, Worcestershire’s target was never beyond the range of an exceptional innings or a determined partnership.
In modern terms this was a low-scoring match. Only Somerset’s first innings 251 exceeded 200. Unusually, in a time when Championship innings are often played at between three and a half and four runs an over this match was played out at under three. For long stretches of play, particularly at the start of an innings, the scoring rate was below two. In Somerset’s second innings, Worcestershire’s Ed Barnard bowled 17 overs for 25 runs. In Worcestershire’s second innings, Somerset’s Josh Davey bowled 14 overs and two balls for 16 runs. In such a match tension is long drawn out. It builds slowly and gradually increases in intensity. For Somerset supporters on the final day the fall of a wicket would bring some relief, but each time a new partnership formed the tension would grow again as the seeds of a potential Worcestershire victory were sown and re-sown. The cricket was over in half a day. It seemed so much longer than that. Cricket of this ilk elongates time, doubly so when on the outcome of the match depends qualification for a Lord’s final which will determine the eventual outcome of the competition.
The match was close enough for there to be hope for the supporters of both sides when the day began. Haynes steered Overton confidently behind square on the off side for four in the first over of the day and cut Gregory square for another four. Against that the bowling continually tested the batsmen, kept them on the defensive, kept runs at a premium and appeals and gasps from the slip cordon were in plentiful supply. The slips repeatedly applauded with more enthusiasm than is the case on days when the ball does little. A maiden from Overton to Fell was particularly problematic for the batsman, there were two huge lbw appeals, and an edge off Gregory did not defeat third slip by much. Then, with the day setting itself up nicely, the umpires took the players off for bad light, rather as if a theatre director had suddenly decided to remove the actors from the stage just as the main plot line had been established. Fortunately for the players and supporters of both sides the delay was short, for an impending victory for Yorkshire in their group would mean neither county reached Lord’s if the match ended in a draw.
The break seemed to do Somerset more good than Worcestershire. With the first ball after the resumption Gregory defeated Haynes’ defensive stroke, the second took the edge but the ball ran safely to the third man boundary for four. I sent a text to someone unable to follow the score. “71 for 2. 174 more to win.” Back came the response, “Moment of truth.” In his next over Gregory rose to the moment. He angled a ball in towards Fell’s off stump. Fell, who had not looked confident since the outset, played a hesitant defensive stroke and was hit squarely on the pad. This time there was no gainsaying the appeal and Worcestershire were 72 for 3. Fell 20. Gregory had taken the first three wickets of the innings. The sigh of relief from the occupant of the author’s armchair in the lee of the Blackdowns was audible.
And then the pattern repeated itself. Miserly bowling, intense batting, overs passing, total growing slowly, tension rising. D’Oliveira though began positively enough, which did not help the Somerset nerves, for all the while the thought of what one substantial innings could do to the Worcestershire target worried away at the back of the mind. A pair of on drives off Gregory were both pulled back inside the boundary, but four more runs had been added to the total. Four more when Haynes drove Overton through extra cover. When Gregory bowled a piercing yorker to Haynes he dug it out perfectly and it ran away to third man for a single. Off the next ball D’Oliveira cut to wide third man, third man ran to intercept, dived but could not prevent the camera capturing the ball crossing the rope just ahead of his hands. 90 for 3 the score. Just 18 runs since the fall of the third wicket and the batsmen were struggling as much as they were scoring, but a calculation revealed the runs to win number had fallen to 155. 155 with seven wickets standing does not sound very many if you support the fielding side and the pit of the stomach reacted accordingly. I imagine to Worcestershire supporters, 155 seemed a somewhat larger number with similar consequences for the pits of their stomachs.
Over the next five overs, six runs were scored, four of which were leg byes which ran down to fine leg off the pad of D’Oliveira when Davey, in the rarest of rare directional errors from him in this innings, strayed marginally to leg. It was gritty, nerve-jangling cricket from both sides. When a ball badly defeated a defensive stroke from D’Oliveira a pang of anguish at the lost opportunity ran through the Somerset nerve ends. As time ticked by, although time was not an issue on this day, Worcestershire supporters must have tensed at the lack of runs, for in cricket a lack of runs as overs slip by has a tendency to bring wickets. And so, it came to pass. Haynes, who had looked as confident as any Worcestershire batsman in this innings, apart from perhaps Libby briefly on the previous afternoon, declined to play a stroke to the stiflingly accurate Davey. The ball brushed the pads and diverted past the off stump into the gloves of Davies. The slip cordon’s appeal must have rattled the windows in front of supporters watching from the hotel attached to the ground. Davey does not fit the mould of the archetypical pace bowler. His appeals are diffident at best, but the smile with which he greeted the raising of the umpire’s finger against Haynes would have outshone the sun had it been shining. 96 for 4. Haynes 30. 149 to win. Better. If you were a Somerset supporter. Wincing anxiety if you were a Worcestershire one.
Wessels joined D’Oliveira and the gruelling struggle for supremacy contiued. D’Oliveira’s innings, after his bright start, exemplified the nature of the cricket. After 16 balls his score stood at 13. After 42 balls it stood at 16. At the end of the 49th over eight runs had been scored since the fall of the fourth wicket at the end of the 43rd. At the start of the 50th over, with the score on 104 for 4, Wessels targeted the serially accurate Davey. Davey’s first ball he drove straight for four. The second was short, straight, just outside off stump. Wessels, out of position, with the ball lifting towards his armpit, pulled, tightened in the stroke and the ball flew to Byrom at square leg. I sent a score update by text, “Worcestershire 108 for 5. Wessels gone. 137 needed.” “Still feels uncomfortable when you say 137 needed,” the reply. And it did, although a cold, hard look at the scores in retrospect suggests that the feeling defied logic. But where cricket is concerned, when the game is in the balance, and so much hangs on it, supporter’s feelings take no account of logic.
Worcestershire supporters’ hearts must have been beginning to sag, for the Somerset fear that an exceptional innings or a determined partnership might materialise and win the game was one thing, Worcestershire needing such an intervention was another, and the number of possible partnerships was diminishing with each falling wicket. Now, D’Oliveira, with Cox in support, began to pick up the scoring rate, as perhaps Wessels had been attempting. He began to find the boundary. A pull off Brooks and a cover drive off Overton smacked of intent. But when Overton persuaded a ball to cut in marginally, D’Oliveira’s straight drive was played around the ball and the umpire’s finger was raised in response to Overton’s thunderous lbw appeal. Worcestershire 126 for 6. D’Oliveira 28. When Overton swung a ball away from Barnard just enough to find the edge, the ball flew low and just wide of Abell at third slip. Abell’s hands moved smoothly across and down. He took the catch as if he had been fielding at slip his whole career. Worcestershire 132 for 7. Barnard 0. 113 needed.
Victory for Somerset, it felt, was in sight. Nothing is certain in cricket but 113 runs with three wickets standing on a wicket which had barely averaged 20 runs a wicket must have been beyond Worcestershire supporters’ dreams. But this match, which had oozed tension from the start, would not lie down. Or, more to the point, Worcestershire would not lie down. Their captain, Leach, joined Cox. From Worcestershire’s position of near hopelessness they made a break for victory.
Four byes from each of Overton and Gregory in the space of two overs got them underway. From there the batsmen took the strain. In an over from Gregory, Cox glanced to fine leg and ran two. Later in the over he cut through backward point for four. It took Worcestershire to 148 for 7 and reduced the target to 97. Only three wickets remained but as the target fell below 100 it brought a pang of anxiety. When Leach took two fours and ran two in an over from Gregory it brought the target down to 84. When Cox edged Gregory just short of Davies, Somerset hearts leapt and fell, while Worcestershire ones must have missed a beat. When the next ball was driven through the covers for four, the one after that glanced to the fine leg boundary and the over finished with two singles Worcestershire supports must have begun wondering, was this possible? Could Worcestershire still win?
Now 74 were needed and suddenly batting did not look the careworn occupation it had looked all day. “I was worried they might start playing positively,” said the anxious text from deep within the West Country. That worry must have been growing deep within many West Country hearts. A match that had been all but won half an hour before was, if not back in the balance, beginning to offer Worcestershire a chance. “If only these two could stay together,” must have been the wish filling Worcestershire supporters’ minds as they sat, spread far and wide, in their armchairs. As to Somerset’s armchair crowd, it just felt the pangs in the pit of the stomach sharpening by the run as it wished fervently for a wicket.
And then Brooks. He is a jack in the box of a player. You never know what to expect next, with the ball or with the bat. With the ball he is liable to leak runs as he searches for the ball that will take the next wicket. Or he might take the next wicket. Here, Leach drove him through midwicket for four. 69 needed. Three wickets standing and two batsmen in full flow. This really was becoming uncomfortable. Another 20 runs and it would become unbearable, for both sets of supporters. And then Brooks found the ball he had been searching for. Leach, back on his stumps, was rushed into a defensive stroke by a ball which would have struck middle and leg. Worcestershire were 176 for 8. Leach 17. He and Cox had added 44 runs in nine overs. It seemed more, for every change in fortune is magnified when tension rises.
And then, when the tension is punctured, time flies. The edge had gone out of the match, and the fire from the batting. Worcestershire’s race was run. Pennington drove Davey through the covers to leave the bowler with more runs in his analysis than overs, but then was lbw trying to drive Brooks into the on side. Cox, who at the end had batted as confidently and as purposively as any of the Worcestershire batsmen, was the last to be out, edging the ever-persevering Davey to Davies off a ball which gave him no option but to play.
Fifty runs the eventual margin. Greater than it felt at the end of a gruelling day. It had been a colossal team effort from Somerset, and one not far behind from Worcestershire. It had been a match of the old sort, it had gripped throughout, as the two sides grappled with each other, neither giving an inch until Worcestershire were finally overcome at the last. The tension had been given an extra twist by the knowledge that, once bonus points had been settled, the winner would qualify for the competition final at Lord’s, and that the competition is, for this coronavirus year, the replacement for the County Championship. If the final is of a similar marque to this match, the tension will be beyond endurance.
Result. Somerset 251 (T.B. Abell 59, D.Y. Pennington 3-49, E.G. Barnard 3-53) and 193 (T.A. Lammonby 107*, E.G. Barnard 4-25). Worcestershire 200 (J.D. Libby 58, J.H. Davey 3-32, C. Overton 3-40) and 184 (J.H. Davey 3-16, L. Gregory 3-65). Somerset won by 50 runs. Somerset 21 points. Worcestershire 4 points.