Bob Willis Trophy Final 2020 ~ Somerset v Essex ~ First day ~ A dimpsy day

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 the ECB’s enhanced live stream of the match, without which this report would not have been possible. The stream was watched 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.

Bob Willis Trophy Final. Somerset v Essex. 23rd, 24th, 25th, 26th and 27th September 2020. Lord’s.

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

Essex. N.L.J. Browne, Sir Alistair Cook, T. Westley (c), D.W. Lawrence, P.I. Walter, R.N. ten Doeschate, A.J.A. Wheater, S.R. Harmer, A.P.Beard, S.J. Cook, J.A. Porter.

Toss. Essex. Elected to field.

First day. 23rd September – A dimpsy day

Somerset have been here before. In 2008, 2010, 2016 and again in 2019 they began the final match of the season with the possibility of winning their first County Championship. In the end of course, the trophy went elsewhere. 2020 is different. This is not the County Championship. The Bob Willis Trophy is a much-truncated affair in comparison with the County Championship. Six matches instead of fourteen. Not all the stronger teams have played each other, and no team has played another on a home and away basis. And so, instead of in a league of the strongest teams, the domestic first-class trophy is to be decided in a five-day grand final played at Lord’s.

And yet, in a year in which sport has been decimated as part of the attempts to control the coronavirus pandemic, it is a wonder that a national competition of four-day cricket has taken place at all, let alone been pursued to a conclusion. And, in spite of all, the two strongest four-day teams in the land, and the ones who contested the 2019 County Championship so closely are the ones to have progressed to Lord’s. This is a match, and a trophy, worth the winning.

Essex drew first blood by winning the toss on what appeared to be, to use a West Country term, a dimpsy day. Lord’s. Post-equinoctial September. Low cloud. Dimpsy light. 10.30 start. The more fatalistic among Somerset supporters would have expected no more than to lose the toss on such a day. And none would have expected Essex to do other than ask Somerset to bat. The more optimistic would remember that every day of this match will start at 10.30, be played in late September and that Somerset have the pace attack to take advantage of the conditions.

The cricket, for the most part, reflected the conditions: intense, often grim defence against persistently accurate bowling. On one occasion six overs passed without a run being scored. At times it seemed the batsmen’s stroke of choice was the thick edge. Essex employed a third man, and he was gainfully employed converting boundaries into singles the day long. There seemed to be more often four slips than three as Essex searched for wickets. “This has the feel of a 50 for 5 sort of morning,” said the incoming text early in the proceedings. It was difficult to mount a convincing argument against it, for Somerset started this match in those dimpsy conditions with the most inexperienced top five they have had for some years. The opening batsmen have nine first-class matches between them. The Essex opening pair have 403. With James Hildreth absent with a hamstring injury, Alistair Cook has more than twice as many first-class matches to his credit than the entire Somerset top five.

As the legion of Somerset supporters gathered in front of their screens such thoughts, especially after Essex had won the toss, would have twirled around in their minds and the anticipation which the approach of this match had generated would have been tinged with apprehension. More than tinged when, with his third ball, Sam Cook hit Tom Lammonby, Somerset’s youngest but most in-form batsman, on the pad. It was a quick, full delivery which struck Lammonby directly in front of the stumps. There was not a run on the board. The Somerset heart sank even before the umpire’s finger was raised and the Essex players celebrated with those signs of these coronavirus times: touched fists, elbows and heels.

Tom Abell, the only remotely experienced batsman in Somerset’s top five, joined Ben Green. Somerset’s first runs came when Abell played straight to Cook. A thick edge the result. Abell’s head flicked around towards backward point to locate the ball as it rolled over the boundary. In the same over Abell played a beautifully classical cut shot. This time the batsman’s eyes and the camera anticipated the direction of the ball as it sped towards the point boundary. Those two strokes were harbingers of much of what was to follow. The conditions would be a challenge to the batsman, and an opportunity to the bowler if the discipline of maintaining a line and length which continually threatened the top of the off stump could be sustained. For the online Somerset crowd, and no doubt the Essex one, it was unlikely to be a restful day ‘at’ the cricket.

Green responded to the bowling and the conditions with dogged defence and the occasional pushed single. Gradually, he began to settle the Somerset watcher’s anxieties as, the inevitable thick edge apart, he kept the bowlers out. At the other end Abell began to score. He leaned confidently into an on drive off Porter which did not leave the ground on its way to the midwicket boundary. Green responded with an equally classical on drive to the long on boundary. But neither batsman looked secure for long. An edge short of slip off Cook from Abell and a yorker from Porter, only just dug out by Green but which netted a fortuitous run for Somerset, must have caused sharp intakes of breath from both sets of supporters.

By the time Green turned Beard square to the boundary in front of the vast, empty Grandstand the Somerset mind was beginning to settle. The bowling though was still testing the batsmen, and the score had only reached 29, but crucially just one wicket had fallen. A base was beginning to be established. The ball too was being more firmly struck, although often straight to the fielder. Then, a cut, with arms held high, to the Tavern Stand by Abell off Beard left no doubt as to its provenance. It was, as they say, four the moment it left the bat. The classical stroke, peremptorily played, is Abell’s forte. The leg glance is not. He has been caught down the leg side playing it more times than a loyal supporter should have to bear. On this occasion it was to an exceptional catch by Wheater, but the gasps of infuriation must have been audible in front of Somerset screens far and wide with Somerset now 34 for 2 in the 16th over. “The problem with scoring slowly is that if you make a mistake there are no runs on the board,” said the incoming text.

As if in response, Green and Byrom began to attack the bowling, Beard in particular, as the mixture of middled and edged strokes continued. Byrom drove him through midwicket for four, Green hooked him for three, Byrom was surprised by some lift and edged him for two. Green edged Cook wide of fourth slip and the ball ran to the boundary. When Harmer joined the attack the two young batsmen immediately fell back on defence and played the ball back down the pitch. They were just beginning to generate some confidence in the watching Somerset crowd, at least in this member of it, when Cook bowled perhaps the ball of the day. It pitched outside Green’s off stump, his bat came forward to defend against it, the ball cut in, perhaps shaved the inside edge and hit the off stump. “That’s the Lord’s hill,” said the incoming text, renaming the Lord’s slope in the process. Green had batted for an hour and a half for 24 runs in difficult conditions and it had taken a ball of that calibre to dismiss him. Somerset’s young men were showing some fight, but Essex’s bowlers were demonstrating skill, persistence and discipline and they were edging the contest.

The pressure Somerset were under and the gathering clouds picked out above the Pavilion by the camera added to the mood. Byrom responded in the traditional Somerset way. Supported by Bartlett, he attacked the bowling, and he attacked it with effect. He steered Cook wide of fourth slip for four and drove Beard through square leg to the Grandstand boundary with perfect timing for another four. In one over, he drove Beard three times with beautifully flowing strokes which had the ball hugging the grass all the way to the boundary. The first was an off drive to the Pavilion, the second was driven through the on side to the Warner Stand, and the third majestically through extra cover to the Tavern Stand, perhaps the most unlikely of silent stands in the country. In pre-coronavirus times those three strokes would have identified every Somerset supporter in the ground as they applauded and cheered Byrom on. As it was, those supporters would have been cheering from afar. A drive through midwicket off Harmer took Somerset to lunch on 90 for 3.

Byrom had perhaps restored parity, or something close to it. And then came the rain that those gathering clouds and dimpsy light had been threatening. It delayed the restart. When the players eventually emerged Byrom and Bartlett entered a tunnel of maidens from which only Byrom emerged. Against Cook and Porter, ball after ball was played back to the bowler or to a fielder. Once, Bartlett attempted to cut Porter, the ball took the under edge and bounced halfway to the slips. When he attempted to drive he was caught by Alistair Cook at slip. Somerset were 94 for 4 and in some jeopardy.

Steven Davies joined Byrom and again Somerset set about rebuilding their position. Either side of another rain break they negotiated their way to 119 for 4 before the rain came for a third time and ended play for the day. It did not make for restful watching. In getting to the close both batsmen played and missed, both edged a boundary to third man, and both played some exquisite strokes. Davies played the deftest of steers to the third man boundary and a square drive for two while Byrom played a square drive off Porter for two and a straight drive off Cook to the Nursery End boundary.

Byrom’s assault on Beard apart it had been a grimly fought half-day of cricket. In one sense, cricket as dimpsy as the light. But if you were a supporter of either side it would have gripped your attention like a vice. In terms of the balance of the match at the close, that might best be summed up by the fact that Somerset were in more urgent need of runs than Essex were of wickets, or perhaps by the text that read, “Essex think they are on top. They didn’t want to go off when it rained.”

Close. Somerset 119 for 4.