Bob Willis Trophy Final 2020 ~ Somerset v Essex ~ Second Day ~ “Come on! Run, the ball!”

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.

Overnight. Somerset 119 for 4.

Second day. 24th September – “Come on! Run, the ball!”

“Come on! Run, the ball!” I heard myself shouting at my laptop. I am not normally inclined to shout at my laptop, except perhaps after the latest update designed to ‘improve’ something that had worked perfectly well up to that point. Craig Overton had just driven Aaron Beard straight along the ground towards the Pavilion boundary. An Essex fielder was in hot pursuit and the ball was running a little more slowly than the fielder. Somerset were 184 for 5 and Overton and Byrom were building a partnership that was pulling Somerset out of the indeterminate first innings marshlands of 139 for 5 towards the more solid ground beyond 200. The involuntary shout was indicative of the gnawing tension inherent in a closely fought match on which hangs a trophy.

Somerset had started a sunlit morning on 119 for 4, with Essex just ahead in the match, perhaps. It might have depended on which set of supporters you asked, although the body language of the Essex players as they reluctantly left the field in the face of light rain the previous evening suggested they thought they had the edge. Somerset started the morning as they had ended the previous day, variously using the middle and the edge of the bat to make progress. Steven Davies began with a thick edge off Porter which went to the boundary in front of the towering form that is the newly developed Edrich Stand. In Porter’s next over Davies steered him, perhaps with some more help from the edge, again to the Edrich Stand. Off the next ball he found the middle and played the most elegant of cover drives to the Tavern Stand. Somerset were under way.

Byrom announced his intent for the day with a drive through the on side for four off Cook. It had every bit as much pedigree as Davies’ cover drive. Then, just as the anxiety in the Somerset mind carried over from the night before began to ease, Davies attempted to steer a ball outside off stump and edged it to the keeper. He had made 27. It was his second or third attempted steer of the morning, and the pattern which had established itself the day before of Somerset beginning to make progress and then falling back under the persistence of the bowling of Porter and Cook had repeated itself. There is rarely any refuge from rapidly rising and falling blood pressure if you are a Somerset supporter.

Craig Overton could hardly have joined Byrom at a more crucial moment. Somerset needed a partnership of some substance and the realistic options for its achievement were diminishing by the wicket. Overton came forward in solemn defence to his first ball, from Cook. In the next over, from Porter, he dispensed with solemnity and drove emphatically through midwicket to the Tavern Stand boundary. Against Beard he edged, just as emphatically, straight through second slip for four more. The roller coaster on which the emotions of Somerset supporters traditionally ride was not, it seemed, to be spared. By Overton at least, for Byrom was more in control of his stroke play. A drive off Porter, now bowling from the Nursery End, towards the Edrich Stand was so understated the bat barely moved. A short, gentle arc the limit of its endeavours. It was enough, for the power in the stroke came from the timing. The ball raced away, and the Somerset score rose by another four runs to 154 for 5. It was being driven up too by singles pushed, guided, or driven neatly to a deep fielder. With each run, the hope that was beginning to grow in Somerset hearts increased by a notch.

When Overton aimed a drive at the covers and the ball flew off a thick edge through backward point for four the bowler, Beard, flicked his arms upwards and his head back in frustration and Somerset supporters breathed a sigh of relief. It was not the first time, for it was difficult to remember a match in which the thick edge had been employed with such frequency. This one took Somerset to 160 for 5 and the anxiety of 139 for 5 began to turn into hope of better numbers to come. It is curious how much better your side’s score looks in a tight match every time the tens column on the scoreboard increases by one, provided of course the number in the wicket column remains unchanged.

It wasn’t just the rising score. The batsmen began to develop an assurance about the way they played. An Overton drive through wide long on to the Allen Stand off Beard had a feel of clinical application to it that caused another wave of hope to well up. Hope tempered by the ever-present knowledge that the great uncertainty that lies in wait for supporters in every cricket match could deliver the crushing blow of another wicket at any moment. I imagined similar feelings welling up in the hearts of every member of Somerset’s coronavirus-constrained crowd. Eyes would have been glued ever harder to screens. Those, that is, that could bear to watch, for the future of the Somerset innings, perhaps of the match, was in the balance. ’Twas ever thus for those of us condemned at birth to a lifetime of following Somerset.

If one player has had more influence than any other on Essex’s two recent Championships, it is Simon Harmer. He has been an ever-present bowling ogre who has destroyed the hopes of opposing sides, and their supporters, time and again, especially at Chelmsford; and he may yet have an influence in the second innings of this match. But, in this innings, it was one Harmer over above any other which helped turn the sense of hope for a competitive Somerset total into one of anticipation. Overton pulled him calmly to the midwicket boundary fielder for a single. And then Byrom put his threat into perspective. Until that point the Somerset batsmen had been circumspect, although apparently confident, in the way they had defended against Harmer. Now, Byrom attacked him. He pulled, then swept to the Tavern Stand boundary. The sweep, not the most secure of attacking strokes to be sure but this was a sweep played with such assurance it said to this wide-eyed Somerset supporter that, on this day, Byrom had Harmer’s measure.

There was something too about the way Byrom was playing which added to the growing sense of anticipation. Those two boundaries took his score to 77, by more than 20 runs his top score for Somerset. He has played a number of first-class innings of dogged defence, keeping the opposition out. But here, perhaps for the first time, he was shaping a Somerset innings, and doing it in a situation in which the pressure was intense, for the winning, or losing, of a trophy might depend upon his efforts.

Upon the efforts of Overton too, because large totals are formed of partnerships and the partnership between Overton and Byrom was developing into the first of substance in the Somerset innings. It was particularly important because the conditions were such that balls that trouble batsmen were a regular feature of the Somerset innings. In such circumstances batsmen who establish themselves need to make their innings count. Three balls from Beard illustrated the challenge the batsmen still faced. The first drifted onto Overton’s legs and he clipped it square to the boundary where the Mound and Tavern Stands meet. The next was a yorker which resulted in a huge lbw appeal, and the last went straight through Overton’s defence resulting in another shrug of frustration from the bowler.

Overton continued to ride his luck as a boundary off Harmer flew past slip to the third man boundary which, unlike on the first day, Essex had left unpoliced in spite of the number of edges that ran that way. Another boundary off Walter was the result of an inside edge which would have hit a fourth stump. On the other side of the scales, a huge swing of the bat ended with a cut which flew off the middle to the Mound Stand. A leg glance off Cook, which was perfectly played and placed, added four more. In short, in terms of the boundaries, it was a typically Overtonian medley of forceful strokes and furious edges. But this innings was more than that. It was a key part of the partnership with Byrom. Overton batted over two and a half hours for his 66 runs and his innings consisted as much of determined defence and accumulated singles as it did of fizzing boundaries. If Somerset win this match, and that is still an if as big as that gargantuan Compton and Edrich Stand, then this will rank as one of Overton’s most valuable innings for Somerset. It certainly lifted Somerset spirits, and that is often as good an indicator as any of the value of a performance on a cricket field.

Byrom’s innings was his most important contribution to Somerset to date. As important to Somerset was the signal that it gave that he may be crossing the threshold from promising to established player. He does not yet have as imposing a presence at the crease as some, but as his innings progressed, he exuded a sense of quiet permanence from where periodic, resounding boundaries reminded of his power. The on drive off Cook to the Edrich boundary with which he brought up his century epitomised his stroke play. It was played with minimal bat movement, and with such smoothness and economy of effort that it was difficult to believe that it defeated two chasing fielders. Byrom danced down the pitch, swung his bat over his head towards the Somerset dressing room, and was a picture of sheer joy. The boundary took Somerset to 238 for 5. It was not yet a commanding total, but the resolute nature of the partnership, 99 runs to the good, in conditions that were not entirely conducive to batting, was such that the Somerset crowd having, metaphorically at least, applauded the century, could sit rather more lightly in front of their screens.

Byrom’s century came just after lunch under darkening skies, very apparent over St John’s Wood whenever the camera picked out the Pavilion. It seemed colder too, an umpire was seen buttoning his shirt to his neck and players stood with their hands stuffed deep in their pockets. It all presaged an extended break for rain. The stumps were upended about 20 minutes after lunch with the score on 255 for 5 and the players did not return until an hour and a half before the scheduled close. The decision to schedule the final as a five-day match was being justified before the second day was out.

When play resumed, the boundaries that had regularly punctuated the partnership in the morning disappeared from the scene. Essex awaited the new ball with some defensive bowling from Harmer and from Walter’s left arm medium pace. Byrom and Overton pushed or steered singles, and occasionally pulled a ball gently to deep midwicket. There was no great sense of intent apparent from either side. It was as if both knew the real contest would come with the new ball. Scoreless balls proliferated and Harmer, never looking threatening, bowled a maiden. Somerset reached the end of the 90th over on 266 for 5, with Byrom on 113 and Overton on 66. 127 runs had been added since the fall of the fifth wicket and Overton and Byrom had transformed the Somerset innings.

The new ball, and perhaps thickening cloud, transformed the Essex bowling. Within an over Porter was going through a relieved celebration having trapped Overton lbw. Within another over, after a valedictory if spectacular cut for four, Byrom was lbw for 117 trying to turn a ball from Cook to leg and Somerset were 270 for 7. Essex had halted Somerset’s great drive forward in its tracks. After a brief look at the bowling, Gregory launched an attempt to get Somerset moving again by driving Cook over wide long on for six. The next ball, he drove to deep midwicket for two. When he tried to drive again the ball struck his pads, the appeal was instantaneous, and he departed for nine. 279 for 8 the score. “Declare!” demanded the incoming text. The intent was clear. Get Essex in against a new ball while the threatening conditions were still there. It would not have been the only such demand from among Somerset’s online crowd. But the age of the tactical declaration probably died with the end of three-day cricket and Somerset soldiered on.

Davey, with some solid support from Leach, did most of the soldiering. For the most part he and Leach worked to eke every run out of the innings with defence and occasional pushed singles. Once, Davey erupted from the measured pace of the partnership with a four driven searingly through long off to the Pavilion boundary, and another dispatched with a short-arm pull to the Tavern Stand rope, both off Porter. A four clipped off his legs, again to the Tavern Stand, again off Porter, was his final contribution to the Somerset innings. Before he could resume, Harmer reminded of the threat he might pose in Somerset’s second innings by removing Leach and Brooks in the space of two balls. For the watching Somerset supporter, it was something of a deflating end after the efforts of Byrom and Overton had lifted spirits with a partnership which had lasted two and a half hours.

And yet, Somerset had pitched camp at 301. It was not a bad score in the prevailing conditions. It would now be for Essex to see if they could pitch their camp higher up the slope. Three overs remained for Somerset to see if they could hamper their progress by taking a wicket before the close. But the clouds, which had provided Essex with some aid for good parts of the Somerset innings, finally closed in and aided them again by persuading the umpires to take the players off for bad light just as they reached the middle. This has been an excellent contest. Which side has had the better of it may, as always, be revealed on the morrow.

Close. Somerset 301 (E.J. Byrom 117, C. Overton 66, S.J. Cook 5-76).